Don't let the guilty get away with it
We need to remember that it's the criminals who bear responsibility for their crimes, not the police, says Ruth Dudley Edwards
HORROR: The wreckage at the Mulberry Bush pub in Birmingham in 1974; isnít it time Daithi O Conaillís inquiry into the bombing was released? Photo: PA Wire
'I've been reading all about the Birmingham pub bombings," wrote a commentator last week on that invaluable blogsite, www.sluggerotoole.com, "and it seems they were entirely the police's fault. Funny old world, innit." "Most IRA crimes are the fault of the police," responded another mordantly. "The remainder are the fault of the victims."
Plenty of arguments in this particular punch-up were summarised trenchantly by a contributor called MainlandUlsterman: "My observation is that there seems to be an agenda-owning process around terrorist crimes where people sympathetic to the terrorists seek to get as many column inches as possible on the policing operation, whatever the terrorist crime, and as few as possible on dissecting the terrorism itself. They do that by a relentless focus on policing while maintaining a relative silence on the terrorism. The most recent Birmingham pub bombings coverage is a case in point."
So is that on the inquest into the Kingsmill massacre.
Birmingham first. The bald terrible facts are that on a busy Thursday evening, November 21, 1974, three bombs were planted in Birmingham. Two went off in pubs, killing 21 and injuring more than 180, many very seriously. Most victims were young, and many were Irish.
On the BBC's Today programme last week, Dublin solicitor Kieran Conway, who claims to have been then the IRA's director of intelligence, said that while the carnage was "appalling", the fact that warnings had been stymied by vandalised phone boxes meant that although "the volunteers" should have checked them out in advance, they "were relatively blameless".
Julie Hambleton, sister of the murdered 18-year-old Maxine and a founder and lead campaigner for Justice4the21, angrily flouted the convention that you shouldn't upset people with too much graphic detail. "Men and women, we don't know, planned, prepped, put together bombs, walked into two pubs and then claim that it was an accident?... I wonder if one of his kids was killed beyond description - when all their skin has literally been stripped off their body, they've got no legs, they've got no arms, you can't recognise them by their face because their injuries are such that they've already been partially cremated."
The IRA denied they had anything to do with the bombs, indeed Daithi O Conaill, then a member of the Provisional IRA Army Council, said it was contrary to IRA guidelines and if IRA members had carried out such attacks they would be court-martialed and possibly executed. He promised a full inquiry and that the results would be published. They never were: it would take the IRA 11 years to admit responsibility.
It was 1990 before the convictions of the Birmingham Six were quashed on the basis of fabrication, suppression and unreliability of evidence: the police became the villains. There is no doubt that the West Midland police, who had neither the training nor experience to deal competently with the new wave of terrorist attacks, had played fast and loose with the rules and told lies. Although they genuinely believed they had the right men (not least because five of them were arrested on their way to Belfast to attend the funeral of a friend who had blown himself up when placing a bomb in Birmingham), that is no excuse. They helped create a shocking miscarriage of justice.
Knowing that it was common knowledge who the real bombers were, the victims wanted "truth, justice and accountability." However, years of relentless and clever republican rumour-mongering and general demonisation have placed police and security services in the dock of public opinion.
The Birmingham coroner rejected rumours that the police had been trying to protect an informant or that there had been a significant delay in the arrival of police and ambulance services. But she ordered the reopening of the inquest because she thinks the West Midlands police may have ignored two warnings. My guess is that this is a non-starter: during bombing campaigns, warnings and hoaxes are rife. But Provo apologists will be pleased that the focus is now on police rather than bombers.
Similarly, the responsibility of IRA members for the sectarian massacre at Kingsmill in 1976 is being blurred by cynical allegations about the members of the security services like Captain Robert Nairac. Not content that the IRA tortured and murdered Nairac, apologists are claiming he was involved in the very kind of murders he spent his short life trying to prevent.
We are fortunate enough in these islands to have free speech and the right to scrutinise those who in earlier days would have been treated with unquestioning deference. We should all want the truth, however uncomfortable it is. But fuelled by social media and widespread disillusion with the established order, there is an appetite for conspiracy theories, and an automatic assumption that those in positions of power are the bad guys. Not all of us are so brainwashed we blame everyone but the perpetrators. It was the IRA who murdered the innocents in Birmingham and Kingsmill and it is on them that the spotlight should be shone. The media and politicians could start by asking Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and other colleagues of Daithi O Conaill's what happened to his report and what was in it.
Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22