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.

All this was trivial compared to the case against the six men, which seemed impregnable. Were not the contradictions in the men’s confessions to be expected in the circumstances – indeed, might they not have been deliberately devised to throw their interrogators off the scent? Didn’t people who gave confessions always pretend that they had been beaten up? And who was to say no to the Home Office forensic scientist, Dr Frank Skuse, who told the court he was ‘99 per cent certain’ that the three men whose hands turned positive in the Greiss test had been handling nitroglycerine? When the unanimous guilty verdict came, it was fully expected, and greeted with widespread relief. The bombers were behind bars for life. Their families had suffered the humiliation due to people responsible for an atrocity of this kind. The West Midlands police had a jolly party and basked in the congratulations of the judge. It seemed plain that those responsible for a vile crime had been promptly and properly punished.

There appears to be a link between the enormity of a crime and the ignominy which attaches to any journalist or investigator who publicly questions the guilt of those convicted for it. This has been especially true in the case of Irish people convicted of bombings in Britain. Anyone who questions the verdict against an Irish bomber is assumed to be a bomber himself. As a result of this extraordinary logic, the authorities have been able to get away with mistakes, inconsistencies and far worse. No praise is too high, then, for Chris Mullin and the way he has pursued the Birmingham bombings case over the past eight years. He has tried to influence other journalists with access to larger circulations than he had when he was editor of Tribune. From most of them (including me) he got every encouragement short of help. Most of us felt that there was so much injustice in the world that to concentrate on the Birmingham bombings case was eccentric to the point of perversity. There was one exception. Granada Television’s World in Action gave Chris Mullin the resources he needed. They furnished him with forensic experts who alone could tackle the complicated evidence about nitroglycerine. With the help of World in Action and Chatto and Windus, Mullin has destroyed the case against the six men which seemed so powerful in 1974 and 1975.

What has happened to the Greiss tests for explosives on three of the men which was so important to the prosecution case at Lancaster? Dr Skuse told the court that a positive Greiss test had only one meaning: contact with nitroglycerine. Since the trial, Mr David Bal-dock, former head of the Home Office forensic laboratories at Nottingham, carried out exactly the same test on a series of quite different substances – on nitrocellulose lacquer, for instance, on nitrocellulose chips and nitrocellulose aerosol spray. Tests on all three proved positive. Dr Brian Caddy, head of the Forensic Science Unit at Strathclyde University, carried out exactly the same tests and found positive readings on a varnished wooden surface, a cigarette packet, a picture postcard, and two packs of old playing-cards. The convicted Irishmen had been playing cards in the train just before their arrest. Mr Caddy gave the cards to a World in Action producer, who shuffled them for a few minutes. Then Mr Caddy did the Greiss test on the producer’s hands. The test proved positive. If the World in Action producer had been at Lancaster Crown Court, a Home Office scientist would have said it was 99 per cent certain he had been handling nitroglycerine.

Every single one of the positive tests which played such a crucial part in the trial has been utterly discredited by subsequent research, and there is now no evidence whatever that any of the men had ever handled an explosive. ‘I’ve never touched a bomb in my life,’ one of them, Paddy Hill, has said. There is now nothing to contradict him. There are signs that the authorities have since recognised the weakness of the Greiss tests. Poor Dr Skuse, the Home Office scientist who carried out the tests, was retired early, at the age of 50, only three weeks after the World in Action programme discredited his efforts. No one in authority, certainly not Dr Skuse himself, has explained why. At the Court of Appeal, the Lord Chief Justice – Widgery – made light of the forensic evidence, asserting that ‘this was not a point of great importance.’ It was, of course, as the trial judge put it, ‘absolutely critical’ to the prosecution case. If the Greiss tests had not proved positive, the five men would, almost certainly, have been allowed to continue their journey to Belfast. Before the Greiss tests, they were treated courteously by their arresting officers. After the tests the whole atmosphere changed.

What happened to the five men at Morecambe police station on the morning the tests proved positive – the morning after the bombings – and at Queen’s Road police station, Birmingham, where they were taken the next day and joined by their mate Hughie Callaghan? That is the most important question in this important book. The men have alleged throughout that they were savagely beaten. Billy Power says he was led into a darkened room where he reckons about half a dozen policemen waited for him. They systematically beat his body – his testicles, especially – until he agreed to sign a confession. His screams were heard by the others, who were then taken in turn for their beatings. Special savagery was reserved for Paddy Hill, who refused, then or ever, to make a statement implicating himself in the bombings. Johnny Walker said he had a lighted cigarette pushed into a blister in his foot; Richard McIlkenny said that he was suffocated under a blanket. The brutality, the men alleged, continued as they were driven, barefoot and terrified, to Birmingham on the day after the bombings. At Queen’s Road station, they all said, the violence continued. The men were kept awake all that night, and given next to nothing to eat and drink. All except Power, who had already confessed, were beaten up again and again. More sophisticated methods were brought into play. The men were threatened with guns. A gun was fired at Richard Mcllkenny, and he thought he was dead. When he opened his eyes he saw threads of black material coming out of the barrel and floating down to the floor. Again and again the men were told that they would be killed if they did not confess: they had ‘gelly on their hands’ and no one could care less if they were found dead. McIlkenny, Walker and Callaghan signed confessions though Hill and Hunter did not.

There is a word for all this: torture. The allegations of each of the six men, though they were made quite separately when the men were not in contact with one another, read like a training manual in deep interrogation techniques for use in time of war. The systematic ‘breaking down’ of a suspect depends, above all, on terror, and fear of pain. A common myth is that ‘beating up’ is old-fashioned and counter-productive. It is not. Violence and pain are crucial to such techniques. It is only when the violence fails, as it did in the first instance with four of the five men at More-cambe, that more ‘subtle’ methods, such as shooting with wax bullets, taking suspects to open windows and starting to throw them out, threats to the suspects’ families, enforced sleeplessness and so on are introduced. When Gerry Hunter admitted that he did not like dogs, he said, a snarling Alsatian was brought into the room and told to ‘get him, get him’. They let it come within six inches of Hunter, and then took it away. This was the torture immortalised in George Orwell’s 1984, after Winston Smith admitted he didn’t like rats. Indeed, there is nothing in the allegations which could not have fitted neatly into the two great British novels about torture in a totalitarian state – Orwell’s 1984 and Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, both of which have been used ever since they were written as justifications for the ‘Western way of life’.

Did all this happen? The Police vigorously denied that there was any violence at all, either at Morecambe, or in the journey to Birmingham or at Queen’s Road. Their denials were at once accepted by judge and jury at the Lancaster trial. Since then, not one policeman has told a different story, though Chris Mullin and Charles Tremayne of World in Action appear to have tracked down every policeman who was involved, even those who have since retired. It would indeed be comforting if we could dismiss the allegations of violence as the fantasies of desperate men who had committed foul murders, confessed to them, and had somehow to explain their confessions in court.

What has happened since the trial, however, suggests that this isn’t possible. There can now be no doubt that all six men were savagely beaten in the week after their arrest. The evidence of their bodies proved that incontestably. The West Midlands Police have an explanation for it. They say that the men were beaten up at Winson Green prison on their arrival there. Accordingly, in 1976, 14 prison officers from Winson Green were charged with assaulting the Irish prisoners. They did not give evidence at their trial. Their defence relied on attacking the prosecution witnesses, who were, in the main, the six convicted men. The jury found all the officers not guilty. The result is that although everyone agrees the men were beaten up, no one has yet been punished.

In the course of the case, the accused prison officers were persuaded to make secret statements to their solicitors about what happened in the prison. Chris Mullin has had access to them, and the result is the two most chilling chapters in his book. The statements describe the most awful assaults on the men in the prison corridors and bathrooms. On occasion the accounts read like records from the torture chambers of the secret police in Russia or in Chile. But the statements also allege that the men were beaten before they got to Winson Green. Prison Officer Brian Sharpe declared, for instance: ‘I saw bruises on many parts of Walker’s body. His torso was more or less covered. They were all colours: black, blue, yellow, purple, and most of them looked oldish.’ There was only one credible source for such injuries: the interrogating police officers.

There is other recent evidence that some of the men’s stories might not be as far-fetched as had been assumed at the trial. There is, for instance, a firing range at Queen’s Road police station where guns are used with wax bullets: bullets which leave precisely the residue which Richard McIlkenny describes. He could not possibly ever have seen a wax bullet fired elsewhere. This evidence enabled the six men to get legal aid to sue the West Midlands Police for assaulting them at Morecambe and at Queen’s Road. The Police applied for the action to be struck out. Mr Justice Cantley turned them down. The Police appealed, and the Court of Appeal obligingly struck the action out. The judgment of Lord Denning in that hearing needs to be read carefully by anyone who still believes that the judiciary is ‘independent’. He spoke as follows:

If the six men win, it will mean that the police were guilty of perjury, that they were guilty of violence and threats, that the confessions were involuntary and were improperly admitted in evidence and that the convictions were erroneous. That would mean the Home Secretary would either have to recommend they be pardoned or he would have to remit the case to the Court of Appeal. This is such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say: ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.’

If the six men won, in other words, it would be clear that the fantasy world of 1984 and Darkness at Noon had emerged in the real world, at Morecambe and at Queen’s Road police stations. In a free society, such a possibility could best be avoided by not allowing the legal action to proceed.

There is a lot to criticise in Chris Mullin’s book. His story is a complicated one. He has to introduce six defendants, their families and their movements on the day of the bombings. Much of this introduction is hard to follow, and the division of the story into 40 untitled chapters without explanations or sub-heads does not help. Chris Mullin reports at the end that he has met the men who organised the bombings, including one man who planted the bombs and is now living in Dublin. I believe this, because I know Chris Mullin is a diligent and honest journalist. But it is no use at all to assert who the guilty people are without proving it, and Mullin cannot do that because he has agreed to his suspects’ anonymity.

Radical and challenging journalism requires a higher burden of proof than allegations which run in tandem with received opinion. Chris Mullin claims too much for his anonymous bombers. He would have been better advised to claim less, and to fasten on the fact that one of his informers told him the codeword used by the bombers when, too late, they phoned in a warning. No one except the Police and the man who took the call know this codeword. Will the Police, after all these years, confirm or deny that the codeword was Double X? If it was, then there is proof that Chris Mullin’s informers are substantial ones.

These criticisms are minor ones, however. Some right-wing newspapers started a witch-hunt on Chris Mullin when the book was published, claiming that he knew who the bombers were and should be prosecuted for withholding information. This silly campaign soon stopped. Its implications no doubt became obvious to the dumbest editor. For if Chris Mullin does know the bombers, then the six men who have now been in prison for nearly twelve years are not the bombers and the most terrible crimes have been committed against them, in the names of all of us. We should not have to wait until Chris Mullin becomes MP for Sunderland South before a campaign is launched to discover the truth, and if the truth is half as bad as he suggests, to punish those responsible.