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The 1989 letters exchanged between a Birmingham Six prisoner and Charlie Haughey

“This is the first positive thing you have done for us,” Paddy Joe Hill said in a handwritten letter to the Fianna Fáil Taoiseach.

Image: The National Archives/State Papers

IN JULY 1989, one of The Birmingham Six wrote a handwritten letter from his prison cell to Taoiseach Charles Haughey, reminding him to support their case for a retrial.

“I would like to take this opportunity in thanking the Irish government in asking for an investigation into the West Midlands Police. This is the first positive thing you have done for us, the B’ham Six,” Paddy Joe Hill wrote from Gartree Prison. 

Documentation released to the National Archives under the 30-year rule reveals letters sent to the Irish government following allegations of misconduct among the West Midlands Police, which call for the release of the Birmingham Six.

The Birmingham Six were wrongly accused of carrying out the Birmingham pub bombings in which 21 people were killed.

After spending 16 and a half years in prison, in March 1991 the men won a court appeal and were released and financially compensated. It’s considered one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history.

Correspondence from the Taoiseach Charles Haughey asking various public figures to support the cause (such as the Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York), as well as thanking those who had (including Labour MEPs), were also released in this tranche of documents. 

Hill’s letter refers to another member of the Birmingham Six, Richard McIlkenny, who wrote to Haughey earlier in the year to ask if he would raise their case in the European Court of Human Rights:

“This you have refused to do – stating that under Article 25 of the convention, you could not HELP us! I would like to remind you of what you said about us in opposition. I now ask you to take the case of the Birmingham Six to the European Court of Human Rights.

There is absolutely NOTHING preventing the Irish government from doing this and I ask you that you do this as soon as possible.

Response from Haughey

A private secretary for the Taoiseach responded to Hill in November to thank him for his letter and to insist: “The government have consistently expressed the deepest concern about your case.”

“This concern has been raised directly with the British authorities on numerous occasions… The Taoiseach has urged the British authorities to undertake a complete review of your case following the disclosures relating to the Guilford Four.”

The letter continues: “The government fully understand your decision to petition the European Commission of Human Rights.

However, as far as a possible Government initiative in this area is concerned, they believe that the best route forward, at least at present, is for them to continue to press for the reopening of the case by the Home Secretary, as happened in the Guilford Four case.

“The Taoiseach has asked me to assure you that every possible appropriate opportunity will be availed of to underline the Government’s continuing and deep concern about your case,” it concluded. 

Background information

In 1975, five Catholic men from Belfast and one Derryman were sentenced to life imprisonment for the IRA Birmingham pub bombings, in which 21 people died and 182 were injured. Those men were Patrick Joseph Hill, Richard McIlkenny, Gerard Hunter, William Power, Hugh Callaghan and John Walker.

In August 1989, after the men had been in prison for 15 years, the Chief Constable of the West Midlands Constabulary announced that he had suspended two officers and dismantled the entire CID operational structure of the force and moved all officers with responsibility for the Serious Crimes Squad. 

In March 1991, the men won a court appeal after initial forensic evidence that had indicated two of the six men had handled explosives was discounted.

The judge called the convictions “unsafe and unsatisfactory”, and all six men were released and financially compensated. In total, the men cumulatively spent 96 years in prison.

More information from 1989 State Papers

As information about allegations of misconduct at the hands of the West Midlands Police came forward, internal government documents show how Irish officials sought to brief the government and gain a handle on what the next steps should be. 

In a document dated 31 July, a letter from press officer David Donoghue addressed to the Anglo-Irish Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs said he’d met with British solicitor for the Birmingham Six and human rights activist, Gareth Pierce.

Pierce had made the point, according to Donoghue’s letter, that “it has been known for years” that “a certain group of officers within the WMSCQ was corrupt and regularly faked confessions”. 

“As other sections of the West Midlands police force viewed them with suspicion and would not accept them on transfer, they remained a remarkably homogeneous group within the Serious Crimes Squad over many years, a factor which of course helped to perpetuate the mispractice.” 

It was discussed that ‘the Six’ would mount an appeal because “the credibility of the police is central to the case and the new allegations raise very serious questions in this regard”. 

A briefing note from the UK ambassador Andrew O’Rourke to the Department of Foreign Affairs said that “of 15 identifiable West Midland officers who questioned the Birmingham Six, 10 served in the SCS at some time”.

It continued: “The original trial in 1975 considered defence allegations of police misconduct. The jury did not accept these submissions.”

The judge at the time said he was “entirely satisfied” that the investigations were carried out “with scrupulous propriety by all your officers”, and that if the Birmingham Six were telling the truth, it would mean “a team of some 15 officers had conspired among themselves to use violence on the prisoners and to fabricate evidence”.  

The briefing from the ambassador concluded that “the credibility of the misconduct allegations made by the Birmingham Six is enhanced and that the successive judgements dismissing the possibility of police misconduct are correspondingly discredited”.

… It would be appropriate in our view to continue and indeed to increase our representations in the case.

About 1989

The year 1989 was an unstable one in Irish politics: efforts were being made by the UK and Irish authorities to stabilise Northern Ireland, which was still almost decade away from the Good Friday Agreement.

There was a spike in violent incidents against UK forces in Northern Ireland in the previous year – meaning the total of British Army deaths in 1988 was the highest since 1974.

In 1989, ten thousand people marched in Dublin calling for British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

In June, Charles Haughey resigned as Taoiseach, but remained in the role as a caretaker pending elections.

Margaret Thatcher was in her second last year of an 11-year tenure as British Prime Minister, and Ronald Reagan left the White House in January 1989 to make way for George Bush as US President. 

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