Leading Article: Wronged people still in the dock

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THE PEOPLE of Birmingham have a right to be indignant. Yesterday, almost 20 years after IRA bombs killed 21 citizens and maimed 160 others, it was announced that the police investigation is to be closed. There are to be no fresh prosecutions. Relatives of the dead have little choice but to accept that the murderers will probably never be tried. The bombers can relax.

For this failure, the West Midlands police should take the blame. In two decades, they have achieved nothing beyond bringing the wrong people to court. They were so preoccupied with maintaining the convictions that a search for the real culprits did not even begin until three years ago. By then it was too late. Their obsession with keeping the Birmingham Six in jail bred incompetence.

Yet the police are unrepentant. 'We have done everything we could possibly have done to bring the perpetrators to justice,' Ron Hadfield, West Midlands Chief Constable, said confidently yesterday. There was no apology from him for the 17 years his force wasted before trying to catch the true bombers.

But Mr Hadfield's omission should come as no surprise. This whole disgraceful episode in the history of British criminal justice is characterised by the authorities refusing to accept responsibility. Judges who stubbornly failed to countenance the possibility of a mistake subsequently blamed the police when injustice was exposed. These officers, in turn, have been spared from facing trial. The authorities behave as if releasing the innocent should be enough.

But it will not satisfy those who lost friends and relatives in the

Birmingham and Guildford bombings. Nor can it placate those who served 16 years in jail for crimes they did not commit. In the absence of justice being done, there is a risk that aspersions will be cast in private on their good characters.

The authorities collude in this whispering campaign, however unwittingly, by issuing only grudging acknowledgements that the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four were innocent. Yesterday, in Northern Ireland's Court of Appeal, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Brian Hutton, could hardly have quashed Paul Hill's murder conviction with less grace. Likewise, Mr Hadfield, commenting on the Birmingham Six, said: 'They were innocent so far as the courts are concerned, and I stand by that statement.' Less than a wholehearted endorsement, his comment would not end speculation.

As a consequence, the wrong people still seem to be in the dock. The police, the judges and the bombers - the people responsible for the Birmingham Six ending up in prison - have not had to answer for their actions. And those who still grieve have only the innocent on whom to focus their anger. Twenty years on, justice has yet to be done.