President visits memorial to victims of Birmingham bombings
Three steel trees commemorate the 21 people who died in attacks on two pubs in 1974
President Michael D Higgins lays a wreath at the memorial to the victims of the Birmingham bombings on the first day of an official visit. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA Wire
A handful of onlookers stood outside Birmingham’s New Street Station as President Michael D Higgins laid flowers at the foot of one of three giant, steel trees that commemorate the victims of the 1974 pub bombings.
The sculpture leaves bear the names of each of the 21 people who died in the attacks on two pubs a short walk from one another in the city centre, which left 182 injured.
“The terrible bombing . . . was a dreadful act to inflict on a city and its civilians. I know that it also had a very negative effect on the lives and daily experiences of the Irish community in the city,” the President said.
“I wanted to pay tribute to all of these innocent victims and their families.”
Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was killed in the bombings, was one of a number of victims relatives the President met at the memorial. Ms Hambleton, who led a successful campaign for a fresh inquest into the bombings, described Mr Higgins’s visit as “hugely significant and poignant”, not least because no prominent British political figure has visited the memorial since it was unveiled last November.
“We’re not even on their radar, which is a real sad indictment. But the irony is that the Irish president has not only come and laid flowers but spent an awful lot of time with us to tell us of his great sadness of such loss,” she said.
“He comes across as a real gentleman, not just a diplomat but a gentleman, a kindhearted person who has brought with him the humanity of spirit that the Irish people are renowned for.”
The Birmingham Irish Association initiated the memorial as a symbol of healing for the damage done not only by the bombing but by the miscarriage of justice that saw the Birmingham Six imprisoned for 16 years for a crime they did not commit. Those responsible for the murders have never been brought to justice.
Gavin Shaffer, a history professor at Birmingham University, worked with the association on a witness seminar gathering memories of the bombings and their aftermath.
“What we wanted to do was to establish that the damage done by terrorism like the Birmingham pub bombings doesn’t only affect the victims, although they are the first people you ought to think of. The layers of trauma ripple out across the whole city. It did tremendous damage to the Birmingham Irish community, to Birmingham communities more broadly,” he said.
On the first day of a three-day visit to Britain, the President attended a civic reception hosted by Birmingham’s lord mayor Yvonne Mosquito and later met members of the Irish community at the Birmingham Irish Association.
He said that, regardless of the outcome of the current negotiations over Brexit, the bonds between Ireland and Britain must be protected.
“While respecting of course their right to decide on the matter, in recent times I have spoken frankly of my sadness at the decision of the British people in 2016 to leave the European Union,” he said.
“There was much we shared within the union and it went far beyond our use of the English language. But these connections, these linkages, they will not be broken and they must be strengthened and we must find new ways of continuing and cooperating in new circumstances.”
The President left Birmingham on Monday night for Liverpool, where he will continue his visit on Tuesday and Wednesday.