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'Putting jam on the cake': Authorities knew Birmingham Six evidence 'enhanced' years before release

Newly released state papers have shed light on the behind the scenes interactions between the British and Irish governments during the Birmingham Sixes’ first appeal.

The Birmingham Six outside the Old bailey in London, after their convictions were quashed.
The Birmingham Six outside the Old bailey in London, after their convictions were quashed.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

POLITICIANS AND HIGH-ranking police officials knew that West Midlands Police enhanced the evidence against the Birmingham Six at least four years before the men were released from prison, freshly released government documents have revealed.

The information is contained in a report from Richard Ryan of the Irish Embassy in London to the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1987.

In a letter to Eamon O’Tuathail, the Assistant Secretary of the Anglo-Irish Section of the department, Ryan recounts a conversation he had with Conservative MP Barry Porter.

Porter tells Ryan under the ”strictest personal confidence” that he was told by the Chief Constable of Merseyside, Kenneth Oxford, that he knew that the police enhanced the evidence against the six men because investigators were convinced they were guilty and “wanted to ensure that the confession evidence would stick”.

“With this target in mind they set about making sure that the confession evidence was overwhelming and ‘went about’ the six in such a way as to ensure that,” Ryan writes.

I asked Porter to clarify this and he confirmed that the Chief Constable was talking about frightening the prisoners sufficiently to get satisfactory confessions out of them.

Chief Constable Oxford described this practice as “putting jam on the cake”.

The men were arrested in November 1974 in the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings that killed 21 people. They were sentenced to life imprisonment the following year.

mulberry The damage inside the Mulberry Bush pub. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

In a different report Ryan recounts a meeting with the Sixes’ legal counsel in which one of the lawyers, Lord Gifford, alleges that the judges are deliberately trying to discredit and unsettle witnesses so the appeal fails and the legal establishment isn’t discredited.

Lord Gifford’s suitability as legal counsel was the subject of another note from Ryan. Conservative MP Tony Baldry, who was a successful barrister and ended up having a long career in House of Commons, told Ryan that the Sixes’ solicitors took “a fundamentally wrong approach to the Court of Appeal”.

He said the men should have hired a “pillar of establishment” to argue their case “as such a figure could have sorted it all out with the judges beforehand on the basis that there could be implications for ‘British justice’”.

In this case… the pragmatic thing would be to find that there were just enough grounds for acquittal.

Baldry claimed that Lord Gifford was a poor choice as he “stinks with the establishment”.

“Putting Gifford in front of (Judge) Lane is like putting a CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) activist in front of the SOS (Secretary of State) for Defence,” Baldry concluded.

Crime - Birmingham Six Mugshots of the Birmingham Six, from left, top; Patrick Hill, Hugh Callaghan and John Walker. Bottom; Richard McIlkenny, Gerard Hunter and William Power. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

In another note Ryan shares worrying news about the prisoners’ health and morale as the appeal slowly works its way through the courts.

Hugh Callaghan was bleeding from his lungs and was in a nervous state while Patrick Hill and Gerard Hunter, whom Ryan credits with being the strongest during the campaign for an appeal, were “becoming unstable as the harsh possibility of failure seems to grow”.

“What this amounts to, in a word, is the possibility of one or even more of them not being able to live with the rejection of an appeal,” the counsellor ominously concludes.

The process did, indeed, turn out to be unsuccessful as the prisoners’ convictions were ruled to be safe and satisfactory in January 1988 and their appeals were dismissed.

The six men weren’t granted their freedom for another three years after further evidence of police fabrication emerged and as campaign groups calling for their release sprang up in Ireland, Britain and in the US.

READ: Charles Haughey asked Britain not to fly three IRA bodies through Dublin in 1988>

READ: IRA bomb-maker apologises for his part in Birmingham bombings>

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Ceimin Burke

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