Thatcher ‘convinced’ Birmingham Six had no grounds for appeal

Haughey’s request for clemency for the six men in 1988 was rebuffed by Thatcher

A request by taoiseach Charles Haughey in 1988 for clemency for the Birmingham Six was rebuffed immediately by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Three years before the convictions were quashed, leading to compensation for the six men, Thatcher told Haughey she was “totally convinced” by a 1988 court ruling rejecting their grounds for appeal.

The two leaders met in February of that year at an EU Council meeting in Brussels. The meeting occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Enniskillen bombing, a continuing extradition crisis, and two significant events. The first was the dismissal of the appeal taken by the Birmingham Six to the British appeal court over their conviction for the pub bombings of 1974, which killed 21 people. The second was the abrupt termination of the Stalker inquiry into an alleged shoot-to-kill policy by the security forces in the North.

Haughey said that relations between both governments had been going well until these events happened.


“We were upset by a bolt from the blue,” he said, according to a record of the Haughey-Thatcher meeting declassified this week under the 30-year rule.

“I refer to the Stalker decision. It was given without notice. It upset public opinion among the rank and file of the people and the political opinion in Ireland. No sooner did it happen that we were given the decision on the Birmingham Six.”

The taoiseach told the British prime minister it had thrown a question mark over the future of extradition.

Fair trials

“You must know the views of the Irish people. They feel that in a British court an Irish person doesn’t get the sort of reasonable and fair trial that a British subject would get.”

Thatcher said she was aware how strong the emotions were but said she dealt with facts.

“When it comes to the Birmingham Six their case was heard by an appeal court made up of most distinguished people.

“The Stalker report was not to any politician. It was to the public prosecutor. It is not the sort of report which could ever be published. Some of the RUC [personnel involved in the shootings] have been charged with murder. Two were acquitted.”

Haughey said there was a very keen sense of injustice rampant in Ireland at that moment. He said both developments had happened in a week. He then asked: “Is there any possible movement or a gesture you can make? A small move would go a long way.”

“How long do those emotions last?” she asked.

“Seven hundred years in our country,” replied Haughey.

He added: “You have read the judgment and have been convinced. Without going into it could I ask you to look at the question of clemency?”


“Not only have I read it but I am convinced by it,” she responded. “I am totally convinced. Every argument is dealt with.”

He responded: “What I am concerned with is clemency: not pardon but clemency.”

She argued her legal system was completely separate from the political system and that was not possible.

“I am afraid that I will have to say that I am not satisfied with this response,” responded Haughey.

Senior Irish diplomats also took up the case through the Anglo-Irish conference. However, in a letter then home secretary Douglas Hurd informed the Irish government there were "no grounds for the royal prerogative of mercy in the absence of any indication from the court to this effect".

Northern secretary Tom King told the officials it was hard to make a a claim for clemency in such circumstances and the verdict in effect "boxes him in for now" – the latter being a reference to Hurd.

The Irish officials asked was this a signal that something might be possible at a later stage. “[King] backed away and said he could go no further than what was said in the Hurd letter,” noted an official.

While the court of appeal ruled the convictions safe and satisfactory in January 1988, a second appeal in 1991 – bolstered by new evidence of police misconduct – proved successful. The six, Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker, were released from prison on March 14th, 1991.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times