The Card-Players

Paul Foot

  • Error of Judgment: The Truth about the Birmingham Bombings by Chris Mullin
    Chatto, 270 pp, £10.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 7011 2978 6

For several weeks after 21 November 1974 most Irish people in Birmingham took cover. Even the most respected and entrenched felt unsafe. Outrage and grief overwhelmed the city and spread far beyond its boundaries. Twenty-one people had been done to death. Another 162 had been injured, many of them maimed for life. Most were young and working-class. Many were of Irish origin. Not a single one of them could by any stretch of the imagination be held responsible for or even sympathetic to British government policy in Northern Ireland.

The universal horror at this, the biggest killing of civilians in British post-war history, was to some extent assuaged when the Police announced on 24 November, three days after the bombing, that they were satisfied they had caught the ‘men primarily responsible’. Next day, six Irishmen were charged. They all had some connection with the Republican movement in Birmingham. Five of them had been arrested as they tried to get on a ferry to Belfast to attend the funeral of James McDade, a prominent IRA member who had blown himself to pieces planting a bomb in Coventry. They had left Birmingham by train less than half an hour before the bombs went off, and the bombs were planted within a few hundred yards of Birmingham’s New Street Station. Before long, it leaked out that at least three of the five men had recently handled nitroglycerine: a well-tried Home Office explosives test had proved positive on their hands. Within a day or two of the arrests, four of the men confessed to planting the bombs in one or other of the pubs. When the case finally came to trial at Lancaster in June 1975, it seemed open and shut. There were six Irish Republicans. There was proof that five of them set off to Belfast on the night of the bombings, and that the sixth saw them off. Then there were the positive results of the ‘Greiss’ explosives test. And there were the confessions. Mr Justice (now Lord Justice) Bridge, one of the country’s most austere judges, declared that the evidence against the defendants was ‘the clearest and most overwhelming I have ever heard’.

He weighed in heartily for the Police whenever there appeared to be some discrepancy in the prosecution case. In fact, there were quite a few discrepancies. None of the ‘positive’ results in those early Greiss tests stood up when they were subjected to much more sensitive tests in the laboratory. The confessions looked a bit odd when compared with some of the evidence about the bombs which blew up the pubs: everyone agreed, for instance, that the bombs in the pubs had been placed in a hold-all and a briefcase or a small case with a lock – but three of the four confessions said the bombs were planted in plastic bags. The unchallenged forensic evidence was that the bomb in the Mulberry pub had exploded from inside the pub – while the confessions said it had been left outside. Then there was an awkward doctor from Winson Green who kept insisting that the six defendants had sustained serious injuries before they were admitted to prison. He was sharply put down by Mr Justice Bridge. The injuries, the judge concluded, had probably been ‘self-inflicted’. ‘It is quite apparent,’ he explained, ‘that some scratching type of discolouration upon the chest is a very easy mark for a man to produce on his own body.’ There were also the consistent and passionate denials of all six defendants that they had had anything to do with the bombings, or had been members of the IRA.

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