By David Hennessy
A relative of one of the victims of the Birmingham bombings and the founder of a group that has campaigned tirelessly for justice for the 21 people killed in the 1974 blasts says, regardless of what happens in the investigation following an arrest last week, there should be a public inquiry.
Two bombs planted in the Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town pubs killed 21 people when they exploded on 21 November 1974. They also injured up to 220 others.
The bombings were one of the deadliest acts of the Troubles.
On 18 November it was reported that a 65-year-old had been arrested in Belfast by counter-terror officers under the Terrorism Act in connection with the murders. He has since been released and strongly denies any involvement.
The arrest came just a month after Home Secretary Priti Patel said she would look into calls for a public inquiry into the bombings.
Julie Hambleton, who lost her 18-year-old sister Maxine in the bombings, told The Irish World: “We plead with the Home Secretary to give our 21 what they deserve. There is nothing more important to us than getting justice for those who are not here to fight for it themselves.
“If Priti Patel follows through on her consideration there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t have a public inquiry.”
The families have long called for a public inquiry into what happened and Priti Patel said she ‘recognised the desire to see those responsible brought to justice’.
Speaking before news of the man’s release, Julie said: “There have been public inquiries in the past that have run while the criminal investigation is taking place, where the public inquiry has helped to bring new evidence to light that has then further assisted the criminal investigation.
“Whether anything comes of this arrest or not, there is no reason on earth why we should not be given the same rights that other families and other groups have been given.
“What is the difference? If they can have a public inquiry like the Savile Inquiry and the Leveson Inquiry, why can’t our loved ones have exactly the same rights? What is different? Why are we having to fight so hard?
“We’re meant to be in a democratic society and our judiciary system is meant to be the envy of the world. The justice system is the cornerstone of society and yet where we’re concerned, if that’s the case then the United Kingdom has failed miserably. It is fundamentally flawed. If we truly had justice and a judiciary system that worked then our campaign wouldn’t exist.
“If we truly have a judiciary system then we need to have an equality of arms where everybody has the right to truth, justice and accountability.
“Andy Street, our West Midlands Mayor, has kept every single promise and more for us and he will keep pushing until we 1) Get to meet the Home Secretary, and 2) Get a public inquiry.”
Julie, who founded the Justice for the 21 campaign group with her brother Brian, described the news of the arrest as surreal and long overdue.
“It is a bit surreal. I didn’t just think about Maxine when I heard the news, I looked straight at her. I’ve got pictures of her in my house.
“The head of the counter terrorism unit Mr Kenny Bell telephoned me. As he was talking it was sinking in and it wasn’t sinking in and I just burst out crying. I was just inconsolable. I literally couldn’t breathe because I think I was in a state of shock.
“Every emotion you could think of was rushing through me. I looked at the picture of Maxine and I thought, ‘This is about you and the other twenty. Today is your day’.
In one of Britain’s most notorious miscarriages of justice, six Irishmen were arrested within hours of the blasts.
The men- Hugh Callaghan, Paddy Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker- were convicted of the bombings and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The men, who became known as the Birmingham Six, maintained their innocence and, after 16 years in prison, their convictions were deemed unsafe and unsatisfactory and were quashed. They were released.
Each of the men later received substantial compensation from the state.
No one else has ever been charged with the murders.
“It’s something that we’ve been waiting for for years. This is something that should have happened nearly 30 years ago when the Birmingham Six were acquitted but the police just stood there and said, ‘Oh well, we haven’t got any other evidence. There’s nowhere else to go’. For God’s sake.
“We’ve been treated with such contempt by West Midlands Police in the past. No one can believe just how bad they treated us.
“I spoke to Paddy. Paddy Hill rang me yesterday. I love Paddy. He’s such a gentleman. He’s a very angry man and he has every right to be very angry for being put away for something he didn’t do. We talk the same language- and I don’t mean English- and we’re fighting the same battle. He wants to clear his name and we want the real perpetrators brought to justice.
“I was only 11 when Maxine was killed and when they were sentenced, what you have to understand and people in Northern Ireland and Ireland will fully appreciate this- We never, ever spoke about it and we never, ever spoke about Maxine. Never. It’s just too painful.”
Saturday 21 November marked 46 years since the bombings. Julie says the news of the arrest made the occasion no easier.
“It’s never easy. I suppose it will lighten the moment but the grief and pain never diminish.”
It would mean the world to Julie to see people punished for taking her teenage sister and 20 other lives almost half a century ago.
“If we got justice it would be better than winning the lottery. It would be like having all your Christmases and birthdays all together.
“We would then know that everything we’ve been doing and working so hard for has an endgame.
“This arrest that has taken place, which might come to nothing: None of it would have happened without our fantastic supporters.
“I would also like to thank all of our supporters in Ireland and Northern Ireland, from both sides of the troubles I might add. Their grief is equal to ours as our loss is equal to theirs.”
The bombings left a lasting scar on the city with its Irish community being marginalised for years afterwards.
“Something that Brian and I always wanted to do when we started to overtly campaign was to try and bring the Birmingham community back together to what it was pre-21 November 1974. Birmingham has one of the highest concentrations of an Irish community outside of Ireland and after the bombings that was destroyed.
“What we always wanted to do was to try and bring back the Irish community into the Birmingham fold because they did suffer an awful lot of abuse. We felt guilty about that and continue to feel guilty about that.
“Even though we lost our loved ones we feel guilty for these people who did no wrong but took the brunt of the abuse whilst the real murderers ran away like the cowards they are.
“They didn’t have the courage of their convictions to stand their ground. Their own community took the abuse.”
Although the IRA is believed to have planted the explosives, it never claimed responsibility.
“We still don’t know if the IRA did it because they still haven’t bloody admitted it”
Justice for the 21 worked together with the Birmingham Irish Association to unveil a monument to the bombing victims at Birmingham New Street Station two years ago.
“We could not allow a community to be villified all these years on. It’s wrong. We were not comfortable with that. We’ve been working hard to try and change that. I hope and I pray we are on track in doing so.”