Belfast Telegraph

Chris Ryder: An era of deep unrest, secret talks and public clamour for action against IRA

Birmingham Six: (from left) John Walker, Paddy Hill, Hugh Callaghan (with Chris Mullin MP), Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter and William Power
Birmingham Six: (from left) John Walker, Paddy Hill, Hugh Callaghan (with Chris Mullin MP), Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter and William Power
In 1974 Daithi O’Connell was leader of IRA

By Chris Ryder

As instructed by the coroner, the jury found that the 21 victims of the Birmingham pub bombings in November 1974 had been unlawfully killed.

During the six week long inquest, which was held to placate the families of the victims and the 220 survivors, two very questionable witnesses - said to be IRA veterans - provided apparent first-hand testimony perpetuating the myth that the bombings had been a dreadful mistake.

To put the attacks in an accurate context, it is necessary to recall that in July 1972, in an effort to broker a ceasefire Secretary-of-State William Whitelaw secretly flew an IRA delegation to London, but the process instantly floundered because of unrealistic IRA demands for a complete British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

Soon afterwards Prime Minister Edward Heath, in an off-the-record briefing, said that because the Provos had revealed the secret talks, it would be impossible for any British government to have any further dialogue with them.

By March 1973 Northern Ireland was in the grip of violent conflict and on the day that a poll was being held to judge what support there was for a united Ireland, the IRA extended its violence to Britain. There were car bomb attacks at several locations in London, including Scotland Yard and the Old Bailey.

At that time, to combat mainland terrorism, there was an instant closure of all ports and airports. In follow-up searches the bombers were arrested at Heathrow while waiting for flights to Dublin.

From 1973 onwards there were what Scotland Yard described as mainly "nuisance bombs" nationwide, mostly in Manchester and Birmingham.

But, almost inevitably, some major bombing attacks followed.

On February 4, 1974, on the M62 motorway in northern England a bomb exploded in a coach carrying off-duty British Armed Forces personnel and their family members from Manchester to Catterick. Twelve people - nine soldiers, three civilians - were killed by the bomb, which consisted of 25 pounds (11kg) of high explosive hidden in a luggage locker on the coach.

Several further attacks were thwarted by mistakes on behalf of the bombers - in one, on a Friday afternoon in Manchester, a bomber who was smoking while making up incendiary mix created a fire. Days later he and others were arrested.

Scotland Yard detectives patronisingly dubbed a series of mishaps by the bombers as being due to "the Paddy factor".

But later that year, on October 5, five people died and 65 were injured in similar no-warning attacks, this time on two pubs popular with off-duty soldiers in Guildford, Surrey.

The incident took place on a Saturday evening as then Prime Minister Harold Wilson was speaking at a general election hustings in Newcastle in the north of England. As he came off the platform I noticed one of his protection officers move swiftly beside him. They had a lengthy whisper as the pressure of the crowd pushed them out of the hall. At this point I was standing just a few feet from Wilson and I heard him say: "Bastards, bastards'. He had obviously just been told of the Surrey bombings.

Wilson's government and the anti-terrorist squads at Scotland Yard, crippled by a lack of accurate intelligence and subject to public clamour to halt the carnage, struck out.

In Liverpool a homeless ex-soldier, Judith Ward, was rounded up and linked to the M62 coach bomb. Gerard Conlon and three associates were similarly identified and charged with the Guildford attacks. He was arrested by soldiers in Belfast and handed over to the Surrey police. When his ailing father Guiseppe struggled over to London to support his son he too was arrested along with several close relatives - his aunt, uncle, cousins and a friend, subsequently tagged the Maguire Seven - for their role in the bombing campaign.

In tandem with these events, the IRA was seeking renewed talks with the British Government via a series of intermediaries, but the overtures were firmly rejected in private and public.

As a result, on November 17, 1974, Daithi O'Connell, the reputed leader of the IRA, interviewed by Mary Holland on the ITV Weekend World programme, said the IRA was "at war with the British people" and for the first time acknowledged the IRA was responsible for all earlier bomb attacks.

A couple of days later a Belfast man died in a premature explosion while planting a bomb at the Coventry Telephone Exchange.

Five days after O'Connell's warning, two bombs exploded 10 minutes apart - 8.15pm and 8.27pm - at two busy pubs in the centre of Birmingham. Although a warning had been phoned to the Birmingham Post and Mail switchboard, recorded at 8.11pm, it was far too vague and too late to prevent the great loss of life. There was fanciful talk that the telephone caller had not been able to find a working public telephone, but giving a coded warning far too late was a frequently-used ploy by the IRA, which allowed it to claim it had given adequate warning and the emergency forces had not acted in time.

Overnight, as all ports and airports were again closed, Lancashire Police arrested six men on a ferry due to leave Heysham for Belfast. The detainees said they were heading to Belfast for the funeral of the telephone exchange bomber.

The men from Northern Ireland, who had lived in Birmingham for years, were later handed over to the West Midlands Police and taken to Birmingham, where they were brutally assaulted while in custody. In follow-up operations the police arrested Michael Murray, a crane driver. Later they were able to match his palm print to one burned into the glass of an alarm clock retrieved from an earlier attack.

Murray was hitherto unknown to police, but later they uncovered forensic links between him and bombers in Manchester.

In the aftermath of the bombings, the following Thursday morning the Cabinet held its routine meeting in London.

Scotland Yard officers had been pressing the Government to update and introduce the 1939 Prevention of Violence Act, empowering them to take tougher action against terrorist suspects. The demand was agreed and was rushed into legislation.

Next day, Friday, I met a Birmingham MP, who was also a senior Cabinet Minister, at the Royal Angus Hotel in the city.

He told me that the Cabinet also decided they should now talk to the Provos in secret.

About this time Frank Cooper, who was the permanent under-secretary at the NIO, was seated beside Stanley Worrall, then headmaster of Methodist College, at a dinner for education leaders in the Culloden Hotel. The seating plan was not accidental.

During the meal Worrall confided in Cooper that a delegation from the Irish Council of Churches - but not the Catholic Church - was shortly to meet Sinn Fein to urge it to halt the campaign of violence.

He urged Cooper to send one of his people with them incognito to assess at first-hand the prospects for a ceasefire.

Cooper formally dismissed the suggestion as being too dangerous but, being privy to and primarily responsible for implementing the Cabinet talks decision, he was interested that the coming contact might be a defensible way to create some movement and ultimate negotiation with the IRA. The initiative was all the more urgent because the IRA was now threatening more chaos by exploding no-warning devices on the London Underground.

Ever since direct rule in 1972 the NIO had maintained Laneside, near Holywood, as a secret listening post well away from the scrutiny of visitors to Stormont.

At the time the diplomat James Allan was in charge. There the NIO suggested through intermediaries that the ICC might be a useful conduit for the talks the Provos were seeking.

Accordingly, the IRA fielded its first team, not just the political frontmen, when the planned meeting took place at Feakle, Co Clare, on December 10, 1974.

For its part, the Irish Government was rigorously opposed to anything that would legitimise the Provos. They got wind of the meeting, which broke up in disarray when the IRA leaders were warned a Garda raid was imminent. None were apprehended.

Despite this, sufficient ground was broken for the Rev William Arlow to became a semi-public intermediary in succeeding weeks as a series of ceasefires and then face-to-face talks with the IRA took place. The strength of the cessation was sufficient for six British officers to attend Mass in west Belfast at Christmas.

However, the IRA's unyielding political demands were still unacceptable to the British Government, though the short ceasefires and fruitless dialogue continued well into 1975, before fizzling out because of the IRA's unyielding insistence on British withdrawal.

By then two sets of 'bombers' had been convicted by British courts and sentenced to lengthy terms in prison.

Judith Ward, the homeless ex-soldier who had been arrested in Liverpool, was tried in Wakefield and convicted in 1974 of the coach bomb and other attacks. The IRA issued a statement claiming she had not been involved, but it was 18 years before she was acquitted.

Anyone who saw the frail young woman in the witness box at Wakefield being tried by the might of the state could only have scorned the threadbare evidence and the safety of her conviction.

After a 10-week trial in 1975, the Birmingham Six were convicted of murder and three others were convicted of conspiracy and possessing explosives.

But it is Murray who remains the most intriguing figure. He sat in the dock at Lancaster with an air of utter disdain. He refused to plead or engage in any way. He was not convicted of murder, although he did serve a lengthy prison term for other attacks. He has since died. In the Conlon case, newspapers published lurid accounts of what they described as 'Auntie Annie's (Maguire) bomb factory' in her north London council flat. In his case, the judge, who sentenced Conlon to life imprisonment, remarked that if hanging had been an option, he would have been executed.

Although public outrage in Britain had been assuaged, the convictions prompted widespread concern in Ireland, notably among factions who could not readily be denounced as IRA sympathisers.

Even before the trials, 'justice' campaigners in Northern Ireland, prominent among them Fr Denis Faul, had raised doubts about the guilt of the six. He published a pamphlet entitled 'The Birmingham Framework'.

In 1991, the Birmingham Six were acquitted and released after procrastinated legal proceedings which ended up in the House of Lords, where their convictions were finally judged unsound.

The arm's-length and then direct talks with the IRA, which began in early 1975, were accompanied by two parallel initiatives within the NIO.

In an effort to extricate the British Army from Northern Ireland and restore police primacy, a process of 'Ulsterisation' began. This resulted in police adopting a 'high-risk profile' in combating public disorder and terrorism, with the Army increasingly adopting a support role in all but the hardest areas, especially south Armagh.

The other major development was the creation of a ministerial task force, with officials led by Cooper and Secretary of State Merlyn Rees. They produced a whole series of detailed option papers about every conceivable constitutional outcome to permanently stabilise British-Irish relations and establish durable and acceptable governance in Northern Ireland.

The most significant among them, and a sign of how radical British thinking had become, was a rigorous study of the implications of independence for Northern Ireland.

The chain of events outlined above resulted in an historic sea-change in British policy, but it was still not attractive enough for the IRA. Towards the end of 1975, I was talking to Cooper about events. He seemed depressed.

Asked if there was a solution to the Northern Ireland problem, he drew open the drawer on his desk and said: "Solution. I've got a drawerful of them. The only problem is getting one accepted."

Chris Ryder was Sunday Times bureau chief in Belfast during the Troubles

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