Freed from injustice but still imprisoned in their own tragedy

As another high-profile case is sent back to the Appeal Court, members of the Birmingham Six find their nighmare lives on
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The Independent Online
First the state took away their liberty and now it seems intent on stripping the Birmingham Six of their dignity. It is six years since the men were cleared of the Birmingham pub bombings, but their nightmares continue. Psychologically, they are still not free.

Depression, anxiety and failed relationships have littered their paths since they were released after 16 years in prison. Yesterday, money was added to the list of problems when Paddy Hill appeared before magistrates to explain why he was in arrears with his council tax.

It was a bizarre, almost surreal occasion. Mr Hill, a diminutive, hyperactive 52-year-old, was once more in the dock but this time the court and its officers seemed deeply embarrassed by his very presence.

"This isn't a protest," he told the bench at Haringey Magistrates Court in north London. "I simply don't have any money. Since I got out of prison I have received an interim [compensation] payment and I have paid all my bills every year. But now I have run out of money.

"In January, I made an application for sickness benefit, but I was told I wasn't eligible because no contributions were paid during the 16 years I was in prison. I am still being treated as though I am guilty even though I have been exonerated. I have since found out that I am barred from all benefits."

Mr Hill was summonsed after missing just two payments of pounds 80 towards his council tax. Robert Allan, the clerk to the court, explained that the magistrates had no choice but to issue a liability order against Mr Hill, but he hoped the council would be sympathetic towards his case before enforcing it.

Dorothy Wilkinson, chair of the bench, appeared concerned at Mr Hill's plight. "Keep in touch with the local authority and let them know how your compensation case is coming," she suggested. I am sure they will be sympathetic."

Paul Rudd, representing the local authority, seemed slightly uncomfortable. "We will do everything we can to assist him," he said.

"Bloody hell," said Mr Hill afterwards. "I wish it had been like that in 1974."

His problems, and those of the other five - Gerry Hunter, Hugh Callaghan, Richard McIlkenny, Billy Power and Johnny Walker - stem largely from an apparent reluctance on the part of the Home Office to adequately compensate them for the years they wasted in prison. They have had two interim payments totalling pounds 200,000 but they believe they are entitled to much more - and to an apology. In spite of their increasingly desperate circumstances, wrangling over the compensation drags on.

"The interim payments sound like a lot of money but not when you consider that we couldn't go back and live in Birmingham so we had to re-settle," said Mr Hill. "I had to buy a place to live in London, so that was more than pounds 100,000 gone immediately.

"I squandered much of the rest on my children and grandchildren. I had terrible feelings of guilt for not being there for them and, I suppose, I tried to buy their love. What else do you do when your own grandchildren run away because they don't recognise you?"

After their release, none of the men was offered counselling or help of any other kind. All six suffer anxiety attacks and depression to various degrees. All have had relationship problems, some of which have resulted in splits or divorce, although one, happily, has been reconciled with his wife.

The men hope that their compensation log-jam might be freed by the new Government. Sally Mulready, the secretary of the campaign to free them, said they had asked Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, for a meeting.

"What has happened to these men is a national disgrace," she said. "It's now time to compensate them for losing so much of their lives. But it isn't just the money. They want the apology they never had from the last government. All it would take for them all to feel much better is for someone to simply stand up and say: `Sorry'."