Today will see the reopening of the inquests into the deaths of 21 people in the Birmingham pub bombings on November 21st, 1974. The campaign has been led, among other, by Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was one of those killed on that day. She has said that "all we want is truth, justice and accountability".
On June 1st, the coroner for Birmingham and Solihull ruled that inquests in the case are to be reopened because she had serious concerns that the police may have failed to act on advance warnings about the attacks. Despite the pre-inquest hearing opening today, the victims' families have been forced to jump through hoops in order to secure legal aid to allow them to fully participate in the process.
Unlike victims of the Troubles in the North, the Birmingham families could not access a review of their case by the Historical Enquiries Team, whose remit only extended to events that took place within Northern Ireland. While we can debate the efficacy and effectiveness of the team, its reviews did provide a measure of comfort and information to some victim families. But only if their loved ones died in the right place at the wrong time.
The conviction of the Birmingham Six was one of the greatest miscarriages of justice within the British legal system. For almost 17 years, the Birmingham families believed that the killers had been brought to justice. While those convictions could never change what had happened to them, it was at least an acknowledgement of their loss and a measure of reparation for the harm done.
Then, in 1991, the families had to face the reality that agencies of the British state had lied, fabricated evidence and sent innocent men to prison because of a political and policing desire to clear the case. One can only imagine the newly traumatising effect that betrayal had, not to mention realising that those responsible were yet to be held to account.
EU legal protections
Seeking a new inquest became the only avenue left to the Birmingham families. This entitles them to a number of protections, as set out under EU law. The investigations must be effective and capable both of determining the legality of the state’s acts or omissions, and of leading to the accountability of those responsible. The investigations must also have sufficient involvement of the next of kin to allow them to secure their legitimate interests.
For next of kin to properly scrutinise evidence and be sufficiently involved in inquest proceedings, they require legal representation. Given that this inquest has been reopened because the coroner believes agencies of the state may have failed to act on prior intelligence, it is reasonable to assume legal aid to families would be automatic.
Instead, what has happened is that the UK Home Office has refused legal funding to the families, who have been forced to seek funding from the Legal Aid Agency in London – which has, to date, refused to grant this funding for all the families .
On a matter of such national importance – this was deadliest attack to have taken place in mainland Britain as a result of the Troubles – it beggars belief that the UK Home Office or justice department have not stepped in and said to the families that, yes, we will ensure you have the representation you need to allow you to fully participate in the process.
As Julie Hambleton has said in interviews: “If we don’t get legal funding, then how can we participate effectively? This is the latest attempt to stop us getting at the truth.”
British deaths on British soil
Beyond Hambleton and the families of the other 20 who died and the 182 who were injured, what does it say to other victims and survivors of the conflict? The British government is actively undermining an effective investigation into the deaths of its own citizens on British soil.
How, therefore, can Irish citizens and those living with the legacy of their loss in the North ever have any confidence that the British have any interest in dealing with the past?
The inquests into the Birmingham pub bombings will set the tone for further Troubles investigations. The recent statement by secretary of state James Brokenshire that "significant progress" has been made rings all the more hollow when the government's treatment of these families is considered.
Patricia Mac Bride is a legal and public affairs consultant and media commentator. She served as a victims commissioner in Northern Ireland from 2008-2012.