Diarmuid Breatnach, Feabhra 2014.
When the civil rights movement began in 1968 in the Six Counties, the general attitude in Britain, on the street and even in much of the media, was supportive of the campaigners. This was reinforced by the majority of the Irish community there, an estimated average of 10% of the population of most British main cities. The Irish were the largest ethnic minority in Britain and the longest-established, constantly renewed by high emigration since the Great Hunger of 1845-1849 (although seasonal and other migration had been a pattern long before that).
In the Six Counties, the sectarian police force were unable to vanquish the resistance and “liberated areas” emerged. The British imperialist ruling class could no longer tolerate this state of affairs and sent in its Army to “restore order” and also to “clear the no-go areas”. As the Provisional IRA (mostly), later also the INLA, entered the struggle against the British Army in the Six Counties, the mood in Britain began to shift somewhat. After all, a British soldier dead meant a British family mourning, whilst the same did not apply at all with an RUC or B-Special killed (however they might think of themselves as “British”). But still the Irish community in Britain held the line in solidarity with the support of large sections of the British Left (many of whom happened to be Irish or of Irish descent as well). Regular demonstrations were held, as well as pickets and public meetings. People wrote leaflets and letters. Solidarity delegations were sent. MPs were lobbied to ask questions in the House of Commons, which some did.
The introduction of Internment without trial in the Six Counties in 1971 was strongly protested, as was the Ballymurphy Massacre by the Paras that same year. The Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972 led to protests in many areas of Britain, including solidarity strikes on building sites and a huge demonstration in London — as the head of the wide packed march passed Trafalgar Square on its way to Downing Street, the end of it was still leaving Hyde Park Corner, where it had begun some time earlier, about 3 kilometres away. When the lines of police in Whitheall stopped those leading the march from presenting thirteen “coffins” to No.10 Downing Street, the residence of the Prime Minister, some of the “coffins” were thrown at the police and a riot began. Nor was it the only riot — an earlier march had tried to break through the heavy police cordon in front of Northern Ireland House at Green Park, a couple of mounted police had been knocked off their horses and the demonstration had ended with protesters being chased through Green Park by police on foot and in vehicles.
Protests even made it into the House of Commons as in 1970 when an Irishman called Roche threw a tear gas cannister in among MPs to make them aware of the tons of CS gas being pumped into the Bogside and other areas by the RUC (later by the British Army too), while in 1972, after Bloody Sunday, then People’s Democracy MP Bernadette Devlin (now McAlliskey and no longer an MP) walked up to the Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, and slapped him in the face.
The IRA bombing campaign in Britain in particular impacted negatively to some extent on sympathy for the Irish struggle but solidarity from the Irish community, along with large elements in the British Left was still strong, despite some potentially lethal explosions such as postal pillar box bombs and the Post Office Tower bombing in 1971, which luckily did not cause any injuries. All that was to change in 1974.
The Birmingham Pub Bombing
In October and November 1974, the Guildford and Woolwich Pub Bombings killed six soldiers and two civilians whilst a further sixty-five people were injured (mostly in the Guildford explosion, where five of the dead had been). The pubs had been in regular use by personnel of the British Army but were also used by a number of civilians.
In between those two bombings, another two bombs exploded in completely civilian bars in Birmingham, killing 21 and injuring 182. It stunned the Irish community and the friendly British Left. The media of course went to town with “Bastards!” being used as a headline for the first time by a British tabloid, over a photograph of the atrocity. At first no-one claimed the Birmingham bombing and then it was denied by the IRA, who up to then had a very reliable record with regard to taking ownership of events (which could not be said of the Royal Ulster Constabulary or of the British Army). Some kind of “black operation” was the suspicion of many. As we know now and as some in the IRA admitted quite some time later, it had been an IRA bomb and the person whose responsibility it had been to telephone the warning, in a time long before mobile phones, had found a number of out-of-order public telephone kiosks and the warning had been too late.
Up to then, the Midlands IRA unit or units had been exploding bombs at targets without injury to civilians when one of their volunteers, James McDade, was killed in a premature explosion while planting a bomb at a telephone exchange in Coventry. His remains were prepared for return to Ireland and burial in his native Belfast. McDade had been well known in the Birmingham Irish community and through much of the Midlands as a talented GAA (Gaelic sports) player and was popular as a singer with a tenor voice. Eddie Caughey, of the Birmingham branch of Provisional Sinn Féin (later the party closed down all branches outside Ireland), was among others accompanying the coffin on McDade’s last journey. Another group of people set off from Britain to attend the funeral, including five Irishmen from the Six Counties resident in Birmingham, catching a train to connect with the ferry at Heysham.
Coincidentally, the Birmingham group arrived for the Heysham ferry the same evening as the Birmingham bombs exploded, although they were unaware of this. The five men were taken from the ferry at Heysham by police and interrogated, later beaten up by the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad and threatened with guns and dogs, four of them forced to confess to things they had not done; they were then were charged with multiple murder along with another Irishman from the Six Counties who had seen them off at the New Street Birmingham train station. They six men were taken to Winson Green prison where they received another savage beating from screws so that when they turned up in court all were bruised and battered. One screw witness many years later was reported to have said that he had not participated and found the brutality sickening (he may have been the inspiration for the scene in the H-Blocks 2008 film “Hunger” directed by McQueen, where a screw hides away from the other screws in riot gear as they go in to beat the “blanket men”).
The six Birmingham Irish were found guilty in a travesty of a trial and became “the Birmingham Six”. Another three, at least one of whom was an IRA volunteer and probably the organiser of the bombings, were convicted on charges relating to explosives and received nine years’ jail.
Subsequent appeals and prosecutions by the Birmingham Six of officers for assault etc. were all dismissed or ruled out of order by the state judicial system. Individuals in the Irish community, such as Sr. Sarah Clarke, began to campaign for them. In 1976, Fr.s Raymond Murray and Denis Faul in the Six Counties published their booklet The Birmingham Framework: Six innocent men framed for the Birmingham Bombings. In 1981 the newly-formed Irish in Britain Representation Group became the first wide Irish community organisation in Britain to take up their case and made representations on behalf of the Six, including to the Irish Embassy in London (“The Birmingham who?” asked the Ambassador at the time, according to some IBRG who participated in the delegation).
In 1985 after repeated lobbying by the Birmingham Six Campaign, the IBRG and individuals, World In Action (Granada, ITV) made the first programme throwing doubt on the guilt of the Six. A year later, Chris Mullins (a researcher for the World in Action programme and later an MP and a Government Minister) published his book declaring their innocence. Campaigning continued in Britain and in Ireland.
But it was not until 1991, SIXTEEN YEARS after their unjust conviction, that they were finally released, their convictions quashed. The lives of many of them were ruined — marriages had broken up, livelihoods were gone, some never recovered from the trauma. It was not until ANOTHER TEN YEARS before they were awarded financial compensation.
Not one judge, one police officer or one prison officer was ever convicted of assault or perversion of the cause of justice. The British forensic scientist whose “evidence” and “expertise” were used to sway the jury to convict the Birmingham Six, Frank Skuse, suffered a blow to his professional reputation but that was all.
The impression is often given that the Birmingham Six jury was blinded by expert forensic evidence and/or that it could not be known then that the evidence was wrong. But it is also often forgotten that Skuse’s “evidence” contained contradictions suggesting interference and that his forensic conclusions were contested at the trial by those of another forensic practitioner, Dr Hugh Kenneth Black FRIC, the former HM Chief Inspector of Explosives, Home Office. The judge chose to believe Skuse and to sway the jury in that direction. Part of the judgement of the Court of Appeal that freed them in 1991 was that “Dr. Skuse’s conclusion was wrong, and demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974.”
The Guildford and Woolwich Pub Bombings
In 1977, the “Balcolme Street” IRA unit (so named because of the address where they were trapped and besieged before capture) informed the authorities through their trial lawyers that they were responsible for the Guildford and Woolwich bombings. This was an unprecedented step for the IRA but their claim was denied by the State. The Home Office accepted in a memorandum at some point later that the Guildford Four were “probably not terrorists” but thought there was not enough to justify their release. Eventually falsified police notes were found by an investigating police detective and they were used as a reason to throw doubt on the whole case against the Four and they walked free in 1989. They had spent fifteen years in British jails and the father of one, Gerry Conlon, had died in prison.
The Maguire Seven had to wait another two years before their convictions were quashed in 1991, so that they spent 17 years in British jails. The court accepted that members of the London Metropolitan Police beat some of them into confessing to the crimes as well as withholding information that would have cleared them (this last was also a feature of the Guildford Four case).
In 2005, Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, apologised to the surviving ten and to relatives of all the eleven for their “ordeal and injustice”. The British media, which had played a key role in creating the public atmosphere in which huge injustices could be and were done, never apologised nor even reviewed their procedures and guidelines and in fact even after their release, one British tabloid had to pay out libel compensation for suggesting that some of the framed prisoners were guilty but had got off on some kind of technicality. And again, not one forensic expert, not one Judge or state Minister was ever charged; some detectives were eventually charged with perjury but were never tried, nor were they ever charged with assault — not to mention torture.
The Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act 1974
Back at the time when those bombings occurred, a legal measure of huge importance was being planned: at the end of November 1974, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was rushed through British Parliament. The PTA superseded the regulations requiring the police to charge a suspect within 48 hours and to bring them before a judge as early as possible or to release them on bail. The PTA legislation permitted holding of “suspects” for 5 days without charge and without access to lawyers, visitors or their own doctor; it also permitted stopping and questioning and searching without need to establish a reason and house raids and searches. Later this power was extended to seven days.
Finally, it permitted exclusion from Britain and deportation to the Six Counties (even though that was classed as part of the United Kingdom and therefore constituted internal exile), without any need to charge or show evidence of wrongdoing. One victim of such banning for a number of years was Brendan McGill, Provisional Sinn Féin organiser in Britain at the time (but who joined Republican Sinn Féin in 1986; deceased in 2011); he was banned from Britain despite having been a resident for 21 years and had his home, family and a shop in London.
It was clear to observers that the Act had been already in preparation; the shocking Birmingham explosion a few weeks earlier provided the right atmosphere for its introduction. Eddie Caughey, the Birmingham-based Irish Republican who had accompanied the remains of IRA volunteer James Mc Dade to Belfast, became the first person to be detained and questioned under the PTA but that was to happen to thousands in the decades to follow, nearly every one of them Irish. According to the West Midlands PTA Research & Welfare Association (set up by Midlands activists of the IBRG), 7,192 people were detained under the PTA between 1974 and 1992. Only 629 of these (8.7%) were subsequently charged with any offence and most of those were totally unrelated to any “terrorist” acts. Even when charges came under the Act they were only such charges as being a member of a proscribed organisation, assisting a proscribed organisation etc; one such conviction was of a young man for having pro-IRA posters and a badge in his possession.
Again according to the West Midlands organisation, 86,000 people each year between 1987 and 1990 were ‘examined’ for more than an hour at British ports and airports under the PTA. The watchdog organisation admits that these are only recorded stops and also did not include anyone stopped at a port or airport for less than an hour.
It only happened to me once: travelling alone from London home to Dublin on holiday with my daughter of seven years, I was taken aside by Special Branch at Heathrow and questioned as to my London address, occupation, destination in Ireland, length of stay and purpose in travelling to Dublin. The questioning was not heavy and probably lasted less than ten or fifteen minutes and, unlike many others, I was not made to miss my plane. But it was really frightening to know that I could be taken in for up to seven days and the overarching apprehension was about what would happen to my daughter. Those days it was not unusual for people, as did I, to make arrangements if they were not going to be met upon arrival, to telephone a friend or family each side, so that in the absence of such, enquiries could be initiated with the police.
“PTA Telephone Trees” were established and those who volunteered for service on them might receive a phone call in the early hours of the morning to say that this or that person had been arrested, or was missing, and to begin making phone calls to other people on the “tree” and/or to a named police station. The purpose of the calls was not only to gather possible information (the police often denied the presence of someone known to be in their cells) but also to make the police aware that their detainees had friends outside who were making enquiries.
It was a testament perhaps to the level of fear engendered that although Irish solidarity pickets were taking place in various places, including of course London, it was not until the early 1990s that a picket was first placed on Paddington Green Police station, the usual destination of people detained under the PTA in London. “The Lubyanka of the Irish Community”, with its sixteen windowless underground cells, too hot in summer and too cold in winter, with a 7-day incommunicado detention period, was frightening enough but had developed a terror mystique.
It was a Kilburn-based British Left group (but with high Irish membership and which had been expelled from the Troops Out Movement) which placed the first pickets on Paddington Green and some time later the Saoirse campaign and the Wolfe Tone Society (Provisional SF support group in London) did so too. These symbolic acts helped to somewhat erode the terror of the place but the overall atmosphere had been dispelled by the mobilisations in solidarity with the Hunger Strikers a decade earlier.
Spokespersons of the Irish community and some others repeatedly warned the British Left, social-democratic and liberal sections of society that if they allowed the PTA to be used temporarily against the Irish community, it would become permanent; and if they allowed it against the Irish community it would be used against others later. In 1991, an article published by conservative British newspaper The Telegraph complained that the police were using “anti-terror” legislation against people who were clearly political protesters; the article cited 1,000 anti-war demonstrators including an 11-year-old child at Aldermaston and 600 protesters at a Labour Party Conference, including an 84-year-old man, all of whom had been questioned under “anti-terror” legislation (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3620110/The-police-must-end-their-abuse-of-anti-terror-legislation.html?fb). Since then, Muslim communities have also complained about the way in which “anti-terror” is used against them, in violation of their civil and human rights.
Repressive legislation labelled “anti-terror” in Britain since the 1970s began with the PTA and detention for five days, then for seven; subsequent legislation authorised it for 14 days; an attempt was made to extend it to three months on police recommendation but failed in Parliament; however the Terrorism Act 2006 authorises 28 days detention without charge.
Not “miscarriages of justice” but exercise in mass intimidation
The convictions and jailing of innocent Irish people were not “miscarriages of justice” but rather an exercise in the mass intimidation and coercion of the Irish community in Britain by the British state. The jailing of six innocent men for murder in 1975, who would have been hung were the death sentence for murder still on the statutes, was part of a campaign of terror against the Irish community in Britain which included the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act in 1974 and the convictions of Judith Ward (1974), the Maguire Seven (1975) and Guildford Four (1975).
As remarked earlier, the Irish community in Britain was the largest and longest-established ethnic minority in Britain; it was and had long been a source of solidarity to the struggle in Ireland. It had also contributed significantly to the British Left and the struggle for socialism in the past: Bronterre O’Brien and Feargus O’Connor were renowned leaders of the Chartists in the 1840s and 1850s, The Red Flag was written by Jim Connell in 1889, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists was written by Robert Tressell (real name Noonan) in 1914, the Irish were to the fore in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and so on.
The British police had a long hostile relationship with the Irish diaspora, both because of the social position and conditions of the majority of the Irish community but also due to the Irish diaspora’s support for the struggle “back home”. Scotland Yard set up “The Irish Special Branch” to gather intelligence on pro-Fenian activity in the Irish communities in the cities in British cities during the later 19th Century — it was later renamed simply “the Special Branch”, as they are (politely) known today in Britain, the Six Counties and in the Twenty-Six.
Irish communities could be insular in some places and Irish “ghettos” existed: among “The Rookeries” in London (several areas around the city centre) and Wapping, “Little Ireland” in Manchester and so on. But the community also had a high impact on the British working class, particularly in England and in Scotland but also in Wales (the SW Miners’ Federation originally featured Connolly’s image on their banner, alongside those of Lenin and Kier Hardie). The Irish community were ideally placed to call for solidarity for the anti-imperialist struggle in the Six Counties and to counter British media disinformation and censorship. In most places, Irish worked alongside British workers, married among them, followed sports teams and also played sports with them. In many places they also lived in the same streets or housing blocks.
The British ruling class realised the potential of the Irish diaspora in Britain even if the Provisionals seemed not to. When ordinary repression — surveillance, questioning, agents provocateurs, spies and informers, arrests and occasional police charges into demonstrations, along with a hostile media campaign — did not work, something stronger was needed. Very repressive legislation, a high level of arrests, thousands of detentions and jailing of 18 (there were a few other cases too) innocent people in four different high-visibility trials might work instead. Especially if allied to some atrocity with which most Irish people could not agree, so that they felt morally undermined too. For a while, with the combination of the Birmingham Pub Bombing, the framing for murder of innocents and the Prevention of Terrorism, largely this approach did work, with most of the Left running for cover and most of the Irish community keeping their heads down.
Many, many people in the Irish community in Britain knew for certain that the Maguire Seven, Guildford Four and Judith Ward were not IRA and could not be: the Guildford Four were living in a squat, taking drugs and engaging in petty crime and Judith Ward had been mentally ill and had accosted police to claim responsibility for a bombing. The Maguire Seven were a family including two minors, a family friend and a relative, Giuseppe, who had travelled over from the Six Counties to support his son Gerry of the Guildford Four. The feeling that the Birmingham Six were innocent too quickly gained momentum. But for the British authorities, it was actually GOOD that the Irish community knew they were innocent because, if innocent people can go to jail for murder, everyone is vulnerable and the only possible way to safety would be to keep one’s head down and one’s mouth shut.
This was the period in which the Troops Out Movement (TOM), initially founded to bring Irish solidarity into the broad British society, the Left and trade unions, largely abandoned that task and began instead to concentrate on the Irish community. In that pool were now swimming Irish Republican political activists, the IBRG, TOM, some British Left and, in some places the Connolly Association.
It was the Hunger Strikes of 1981 that broke the stranglehold of repression and fear on the Irish community and brought them out on to the streets again, in solidarity with prisoners and trying to save the Hunger Strikers’ lives. And after a columnist in The Irish Post noted that Bobby Sands had died during the AGM of the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain and not one word from the top table had marked his passing, not even in condolences to Sands’ family, it also led to the founding of the Irish in Britain Representation Group, a broad organisation campaigning on a wide range of issues, from anti-Irish racism in the media to framed Irish prisoners, from a fair share of resources from local authorities to self-determination for the Irish people in Ireland.
Irish solidarity work enjoyed a resurgence for the next decade and longer but external influences began to affect the work and divisions arose as the long road to the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland began to pull and push against different elements in the solidarity movement in Britain. But that’s another story.