Birmingham bombings: inquest to examine protection of victims

Sufficient evidence exists to investigate if state had advance warning, says coroner

The Birmingham Six outside the Old Bailey in London in 1991, after their convictions were quashed (from left): John Walker, Paddy Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Chris Mullen MP, Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter and William Power.  Photograph: Sean Dempsey/PA

The Birmingham Six outside the Old Bailey in London in 1991, after their convictions were quashed (from left): John Walker, Paddy Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Chris Mullen MP, Richard McIlkenny, Gerry Hunter and William Power. Photograph: Sean Dempsey/PA

 

Coroner Louise Hunt agreed to reopen the Birmingham bombings inquest on narrow grounds, rejecting two of the three main arguments made on behalf of the victims’ families. But the fresh inquest will be an enhanced one, which will go beyond a simple finding about how and when the 21 victims died to include an investigation into the state’s alleged failure to protect them.

Hunt found no evidence to support the theory police withheld evidence to protect an informant after the bombings took place. She was not persuaded any delay in the response of emergency services to the bombings contributed in any way to the deaths.

New evidence

She reopened the inquest because of new evidence that the police may have received advance notice the bombings were going to take place.

“I have identified two occasions in respect of which there is evidence that supports the argument that the state did have advanced warning of the attacks and may not have taken all reasonable steps in response. I must emphasise that the evidence I have seen is not conclusive on those matters. But it is, in my view, of sufficient weight and concern to warrant further investigation.”

Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life, not only forbids the state from unlawfully killing people but obliges the state to take appropriate steps to safeguard life. If the authorities had advance warning of the bombings and failed to take action to prevent them, they could have failed in their duty under the article.

In deciding that the fresh inquest should be “article 2-compliant”, the coroner has opened the way for an inquiry not just into how the victims met their deaths but the circumstances surrounding their death.

Hunt said that, in the course of the hearings before yesterday’s decision, she sent further requests for evidence to the home office, the foreign office and the ministry of defence. The ministries said they would need at least three months to find the requested information on any advance warning of the bombings and on alleged police informants who had prior knowledge of the attacks.

The coroner decided to proceed with her decision without the documents but she made clear in her statement that she expects to receive them when the inquest reopens.

Intriguing

Among the intriguing elements of the coroner’s statement was a reference to claims Barbara Mills, the director of public prosecutions (DPP) when the Birmingham Six were released in 1991, had imposed an embargo on the release of sensitive documents relating to the case. Persistent reports since then have claimed Mills issued a 75-year public interest immunity certificate preventing the release of some documents.

Home secretary Theresa May last year said that no such certificate was issued and the coroner said yesterday that she received a letter from the current DPP saying she was unaware of any order restricting the release of documents. The coroner referred, however, to a 30-year embargo, and some close to the families believe the issue of the 75-year order has not been put to rest.

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