The admission by self-confessed former IRA man Michael Christopher Hayes that he was involved in the Birmingham bombings of 1974 raises more questions than it answers. His qualified apology showed little evidence of remorse for the appalling atrocity that left 21 people dead and 222 injured. It also resulted in six innocent people, who became known as the Birmingham Six, being wrongly convicted and imprisoned for almost 17 years. The bombings had a devastating impact on the Irish community in Birmingham, generating a wave of hostility that lasted for years.
In an interview with the BBC, Hayes, who lives in south Dublin, declined to reveal his exact role in the bombings or who else was involved. Julie Hambleton, whose 18-year-old sister Maxine was killed in the explosions, dismissed the apology. "He's told us nothing, he's admitted nothing," she said. There was a similar reaction from one of the Birmingham Six, Paddy Hill, who said it was well known that Hayes was implicated in the bombings. "It is an insult to the Birmingham families, and it is 40 years too late," he said.
It is not clear why 69-year-old Hayes has chosen to come forward now, as his admission does not throw much new light on the dreadful events in Birmingham more than 40 years ago.
Despite acknowledging that he was involved with the IRA campaign of violence in Ireland and England for more than 30 years, Hayes appeared indignant when he was asked about his precise involvement in the bombings, saying that he had been accused of a lot of things, without one shred of forensic evidence, without one statement made, without one witness coming out against him. He merely acknowledged "collective responsibility" for the IRA's actions, saying he could sleep at night because he was not a murderer.
Hayes was first named publicly as a suspect in a Granada television documentary in 1990 so his admission comes as no surprise to those who have followed the case. A new inquest into the bombings was ordered last year following a campaign by victims’ families, who feel they have been denied justice and that their loved ones have been forgotten. The relatives have always wanted the names of the suspected IRA bombers to be disclosed at the inquest and were bitterly disappointed when the coroner ruled last week that the identity of suspects would not be discussed at the hearings.
Hayes's admission raises some awkward questions for Sinn Féin, who have been to the forefront in demanding accountability from others, including the Catholic Church, for historical abuse claims. Leading members of Sinn Féin, North and South, stoutly defend the actions of the IRA during the Troubles. Have they anything more convincing than Hayes to say about the activities of the unit that bombed Birmingham?