14 March 2006

Today in history: Birmingham Six freed after 16 years


14 March 1991

Birmingham Six celebrate their freedom outside the Old Bailey

The Birmingham Six have walked free from jail after their convictions for the murder of 21 people in two pubs were quashed by the Court of Appeal.

Paddy Joe Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter, Billy Power and Johnny Walker, who between them have served 96 years for a crime they did not commit, were released onto the streets outside the Old Bailey in London at 1605 GMT.

"The police told us from the start they knew we hadn't done it".
--Paddy Hill

They were greeted by cheering crowds, as they punched their fists in the air and waved celebrating their first taste of freedom.

Richard McIlkenny was first to speak. "It's good to see you all," he said. "We've waited a long time for this - 16 years because of hypocrisy and brutality. But every dog has its day and we're going to have ours."

Paddy Hill was next to step up to the microphone. "For 16 and a half years we have been used as political scapegoats," he said. "The police told us from the start they knew we hadn't done it. They didn't care who had done it."

The six were arrested in 1974. They had left Birmingham shortly before the bombs exploded in two city centre pubs in the bloodiest ever IRA attack.

The Mulberry Bush pub and the Tavern were both destroyed in the blasts. Twenty-one people were killed, more than 160 injured.

The men claimed in court they had confessed only after being beaten by police.

But the court did not believe them and so began their long battle for justice. In January 1987, their first appeal was rejected.

But the campaign for their release gathered pace headed by the Labour MP Chris Mullin.

A new inquiry by Devon and Cornwall Police into the original inquiry uncovered irregularities in the police case against the Six. It paved the way for today's appeal.

New scientific tests show statements made by the Birmingham Six were altered at a later date.

Scientists also admitted in court that forensic tests which were originally said to confirm two of the six had been handling explosives could have produced the same results from handling cigarettes.

The Roman Catholic Bishop of Derry, Edward Daly, has been one of the men's supporters. He said: "It was a moment so many of us have waited so long for and I think generated in all of us a tremendous sense of excitement, relief and joy."

A Royal Commission has been set up to investigate this and other recent miscarriages of justice. It is expected to report within two years.

In Context

The key recommendation of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice was the setting up of a criminal cases review commission, which has since sent many cases back to the appeal court.

The six men have struggled to cope with freedom since their release. Several have turned to drink and most of their marriages have suffered.

Their fight for what they consider adequate compensation for one of Britain's most notorious miscarriages of justice continues.

Patrick Hill set up his own pressure group - Miscarriages of Justice Organisation. In 2002, it claimed there were up to 4,000 people wrongfully imprisoned in the UK.

The real Birmingham pub bombers have not been prosecuted.

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