Books / Political: Principals of British justice

FOREVER LOST, FOREVER GONE by Paddy Joe Hill and Gerard Hunt, Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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JUST before 8.30 on Thursday 21 November 1974 a couple of large bombs went off in two Birming-ham pubs, the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town. Together they resulted in what was then the biggest mass murder ever on the British mainland: 21 people died, 160 were injured.

At the time Paddy Joe Hill and four friends were playing cards on the boat-train that runs from Birmingham to Belfast via the port of Heysham. They were returning to the city of their childhood, to see their families and friends, and to attend the funeral of James McDade, an IRA man who had just blown himself up planting a bomb in Coventry. Although Paddy and his mates were committed republicans, none had known McDade was a member of the IRA, let alone a bomber.

At Heysham, the five men were stopped for routine questioning and taken to Morecambe police station. There Dr Skuse, a Home Office scientist, ran some tests on their hands which he claimed showed that some of them, including Hill, had been handling explosives.

The police were convinced they had the bombers. That night and for the next two days, Paddy, his four friends, and Hugh Callaghan, who had had the misfortune to see the others off from Birmingham station, were subject to a brutal and sometimes violent interrogation - or so the defence claimed. The police have always denied it. Hill never "confessed", but some of the others did.

There was a great deal of evidence in the Six's favour. Their statements were contradictory; witnesses confirmed the Six's accounts of their activities on the day of the explosions; IRA bombers would not have timed bombs to go off hours before they were due to leave the mainland; Hill himself was separated from his four friends when the latter were picked up but they had the innocence to say, as they were being taken to the police station, "Where's Hilly?", thus implicating him. But the Six's "confessions" and the results of the explosive tests weighed against them. They were poorly served by their legal teams, they were ill-educated and inarticulate, and they were Irish. Mr Justice Bridge cracked some fine jokes and made it clear to the jury that on the evidence he believed the Six to be guilty.

As Hill writes, from the very first day of their sentences both convicts and prison guards treated the Birmingham Six quite differently from other terrorists; the word was out that they were innocent. The judges, however, were slower to get the message. It took 12 years before the Home Secretary agreed to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. By this time a number of witnesses had been found willing to provide evidence that the Six had been beaten by the police, and Dr Skuse's explosives test had been discredited - it had been shown that the positive results could have been caused by the polish on a pub bar (something with which Hill was only too familiar), a meat pie he had eaten, or the cards with which he and the others were playing when the bombs went off. But none of this weighed with the appeal judges, lead by Lord Lane. They found the convictions "safe and satisfactory", and the Six had to wait another four years before they were freed - it had been 16 years, 3 months and 21 days.

Much of this story will be familiar to anyone who has read Chris Mullin's pioneering book Error of Judgement, or seen the various documentaries on the Six. But Hill, of course, can speak with special authority about this outrageous injustice, and his book is uniquely vivid and intense. It succeeds in its aim of making the reader angry.

Hill was born in Belfast in 1944 into a large Catholic family. His father moved to Birmingham to find work, and his family followed. Hill worked as a casual labourer and petty villain, collecting 17 convictions and two prison sentences, mainly for brawling and burglary. When Hill was arrested for the bombings he was 29; married with five young children, he had been out of trouble for over three years. Chris Mullin described him as "short, stocky and tough. He has a deep scar leading down from the left-hand side of his mouth, a memento of his turbulent early years... His appearance might have been considered menacing, but for a ready smile and a devilish sense of humour."

This is important: Hill was a very frustrated and angry person even before he was wrongly imprisoned; it is not surprising that he became more so afterwards. He frequently resorted to violence, smashing up his cell and anything else he could lay his hands on, and as a consequence spent a large part of his sentence in solitary confinement. But he was also perhaps the most determined, street-wise and articulate of the Six, and he played a leading part in the campaign that eventually achieved their release. The anger that had got him into so much trouble in the past served him well this time.

Hill writes eloquently and magnanimously about the history of his case. He dwells with excruciating irony on the days leading up to the bombings, savouring the timbre of his pub-centred life. His account of his interrogation, his trials, and his prison years are matter-of-fact but devastating; if one group comes off worse than the West Midland's Serious Crime Squad it is the judges - remote and without understanding. This story alone would make Forever Lost a remarkable document, but Hill also writes movingly about the rage and frustration he felt in prison, and his attempts to come to terms with it since his return. His eloquence is a reminder, if a reminder is needed, of how much easier it is to cut your way through the jungle of language if you have an axe to grind.