The Birmingham pub bombings, 35 years on

November 21, 2009 at 11:47 pm (Brum, good people, history, Ireland, Jim D, SWP, terror)

Birmingham UK, November 21 1974:

Thirty five years ago tonight,  two bombs exploded inside busy pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people and injuring another 182. It was a traumatic moment – we in mainland Britain had not experienced such an attack upon civilians since the Second World War. There never was any serious doubt that the Provisional IRA were responsible, though to this day they have failed to admit to it.

An additional six people can be added to the tally of victims: the innocent men who were jailed for 16 years for a crime they didn’t commit.

I was living in Birmingham at the time, a young student member of the International Socialists. The bombings made a major and permanent impression upon me, but I’ll come to that later. First, I’ll deal with what happened within the working class in Birmingham, then with the response on the left.

There was a massive and vicious backlash against all Irish people in Birmingham.  Anyone of Irish extraction or with any known Irish connection, was immediately put into fear for their very lives. A worker who was known to have played the pipes at an IRA funeral was strung up at Rover Solihull (he lived, but only by luck). Johnny Bryant, a member of ‘Workers Fight’ (forerunner of the AWL) was chased from his job at Lucas, never able to return. In shops, offices and factories throughout Birmingham, people of Irish extraction or with Irish names were in fear for their very lives. A massive march took place from the Longbridge car plant to the City Centre. Socialist activists at Longbridge had to make a quick decision as to how to react. The Communist Party who dominated the Longbridge Joint Shop Stewards Committee simply went to ground. The International Socialists, who had a few shop stewards and supporters in the plant, decided to join the march in order to argue against any anti-Irish backlash and to prevent the National Front taking the lead. They were surely right to do so. Immediately after the march, IS students (including myself) joined Frank Henderson and others in leafletting the city centre against any backlash.

To the best of my knowledge, no-one actually died as a result of the backlash in Birmingham, but that was purely a matter of luck. The atmosphere was murderous and Irish people, and those of Irish extraction, were living in real fear for their lives.

The left was in a state of shock, just like everyone else. The Communist Party and their Irish-in-Britain front, the ‘Connolly Association’, simply waited for things to blow over. The IS, which had shop stewards in major factories like Longbridge and Lucas, was in political disarray, though individual IS militants (notably Frank Henderson at Longbridge), often played principled and even heroic roles. As stated above, Frank and the other IS shop stewards and activists at Longbridge joined the protest march and argued against the anti-Irish backlash. IS members with Irish names simply went into hiding – and who can blame them?

But despite the brave and principled role of IS industrial militants like Frank, the organisation as a whole was disorientated and incoherent. No-one knew what the “line” was – whether we continued to give “critical but unconditional” support to the Provos or not. The following week’s Socialist Worker didn’t help: the headline was “STOP THE BOMBINGS – troops out now”, which didn’t really clarify matters. Was “STOP THE BOMBINGS” a demand on the Provos? Were we suggesting that the bombings were, in reality, a just and/or inevitable consequence of the presence of the troops? What the hell were we saying?

About a week after the bombings IS held an emergency meeting for all Birmingham members in the upstairs room of a city centre pub. Duncan Hallas did the lead-off, and quoted extensively from the Official IRA paper, denouncing the bombings. Inevitably, several comrades responded by asking why, therefore, we supported the Provos, instead of the Officials, whose ‘line’ on individual terrorism seemed much closer to ours. My recollection is that Hallas didn’t really have an answer to that, and the meeting ended in a sullen and resentful atmosphere of dissatisfaction.  We all knew that Hallas had been talking bollocks, but we didn’t know what the answer was. The reaction of many IS industrial militants was that it was best to steer clear of any involvment with “difficult” issues like Ireland, and to stick to “pure” industrial work.

For myself, the bombing was a sort of political coming of age. It taught me that the IS was incoherent and unprincipled on the question of Ireland, and nationalism more generally. It taught me that international issues cannot be divorced from industrial work. Most importantly, it taught me that politics is not a game or a pass-time: working class people had died and we had to have something to say. Ultimately, it taught me that simplistic “anti-imperialism” that costs working class lives is no way forward. It helped me to grow up politically – but at a terrible price.

PS: an untold story: The role of the firefighters and cabbies.

Fire engine driver Alan Hill was on duty at Birmingham Highgate station that night, and was called to the scene of the first bomb, at the Mulberry Bush pub. He told Birmingham historian Carl Chinn (in today’s Birmingham Mail) the following:

“There was now complete gridlock in the city. The only option I had was to do a reverse run down the full length of Corporation Street against the one way traffic pouring out of the city centre. It was totally against brigade policy but I really had no alternative.

“When I reached the bottom of Corporation Street, I turned left into New Street.

“Talk about out of  the frying pan into the fire. Seconds before, another bomb had expolded at the Tavern in the Town basement pub in New Street..

“The street was a scene of utter devastation.

“We sent a radio message to Fire Control explaining the position and requesting another four fire engines and forty ambulances to assist us. There was only the four of us. There were around 150 casualties. Many were trapped inside the dark basement.

“The officer in charge of the fire engine, John Frayne, who at the age of 28 was the oldest member of the crew realised it would be  ages before assistance arrived.

“John explained our position to the crowd and asked for volunteers. Twelve brave men stepped forward to assist us.

“The other two firemen, Nigel Brown and Martin Checkley, were already down in the basement.

“Although I had requested 40 ambulances I realised we would be lucky to get any. It was a case of first come first served and I knew the firemen at the Mulberry Bush had already requested every available ambulance in the city. My stomach sank to my fire boots.

“With every alarm bell in the street ringing, it was difficult to hear yourself think, but about 12 minutes into the incident someone behind me was clearly shouting ‘Alan.’ I turned around.  It was George Kyte.

“George was a taxi owner driver who lived in Corisande Road, Selly Oak. I knew George well I had worked with him in the past as his night driver.

“With typical understatement George said ‘I know you’re busy. I am on a rank in Stephenson Place. A couple have asked me to take them to hospital. Can I do that and will you need their details?’

“I could have kissed him.

“I told George, ‘Get on your radio. Make an emergency call. I need every available cab in the city here at this address now URGENT.’ Within seconds the message was sent via the TOA radio system.

“Access into New Street had been blocked by a cordon set up in St Martins Circus so the street was claer of passing traffic. Within a matter of moments the glow of an orange taxi sign became clearly visible in the darkness at the end of the street. It looked like a stretch limo. It turned out to be 25 black cabs nose to tail moving slowly towards us.

“It was the start of the ‘scoop and run’ method. As many casualties and carers as possible were packed into each cab and taken immediately to the Accident and General hospitals. Almost 100 casualties were removed from the scene outside the Tavern on the first taxi run.

“Other cabs appeared on the scene soon afterwards and were joined by cabs returning from the first run. Even two ‘black and white’ cars that shared the TOA radio scheme turned up.

“Considering that there would have been no more than 50 black cabs working the entire city at that time of a Thursday night, the reponse was overwhelming… without any shadow of a doubt there would have been far more fatalities that night from trauma and blood loss had the taxi drivers not responded in such a magnificent and selfless manner.” 

21 Comments

  1. Matt said,

    Two questions strike me about the Birmingham bombings:

    1. if it was indeed the Provos who carried them out – rather than rogue Republicans as they claim – why the reluctance to admit to them even now? It’s not as though Adams and McGuinness are going to be held to account for it: as with other horrors the Provos have carried out in the name of Irish Republicanism, such as Enniskillen, admitting their guilt would be treated as part of the ‘peace process’.

    2. I don’t think the Provos had bombed a non-military target in Britain before Birmingham (even the Guildford pub bombing in October ’74 was aimed at off-duty soldiers they claimed). If the Provos were responsible, choosing a city with a large Irish population who would inevitably get the backlash seems a particularly reckless tactic but maybe that’s how the ‘romanticism of the gun’ blurs not only your politics but your basic humanity as well.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    Two very good points, Matt. You may be correct that it wasn’t an action approved by the Army Council. But I don’t think there is any serious doubt that Provos carried it out. Maureen Mitchell (of Irish extraction herself) was very seriously injured (she was actually given the Last Rites), and claims to have met a former IRA bomber at a reconciliation event five years ago, who told her “it was a mistake but we’ll never admit to it publicly.” I can’t think why Maureen would make that up, or why the man would say what he did unless it was true.

  3. Doug said,

    There was a very nasty atmoshere all over the West Midlands – my father-in-law worked at Lockheeds in Leamington and he told us of similar threats to Irish people there. One of the sad things is that up to that point there was quite a lot of sympathy with the Catholics in Northern Ireland in the labour movement and disquiet about the role of British troops.

  4. Pat Markey said,

    My dad, originally from County Monaghan, worked at Longbridge at this time. I’m not 100% sure of the dates, but I think it was some time after the bombings that he was sacked. The sackings were part of some attempt at a clampdown on union organisation I think. My dad’s crime was clocking out one of his work colleagues, a fairly common practice at the time. There were 2 blokes sacked – my dad, and a steward. There was a bit of a fuss made, and the steward was reinstated. I never really figured out why my dad was left in the lurch, and, as I say, maybe I have events out of their proper chronology. Or maybe it was because he was Irish.
    Anyway, my dad never really worked again, became depressed and an alcoholic, and died prematurely.
    I never had much time for those on the left who glorified the IRA, or indeed those who today seek alliances with our class enemies.

  5. ace said,

    the atmosphere was just as bad in Coventry. My father in law, originally from Dublin, was rounded up with some of his mates by the Police.
    He said lots of Irish got banged up and questioned by the Police in the aftermath of it all. He said it was pretty scary getting questioned at the time because although he knew he was innocent he was worried about being fitted up by the Police.
    Really good article.

  6. brendadada said,

    Thanks for writing this: there’s not enough out there. Can you tell me who took the photograph and where it is? Am thinking it’s the Mulberry Bush?

    I was there on the night, lost a flatmate and another friend. Anecdotally, there must be quite a picture of events out there, but where, and who do you think might be assembling anything?

  7. Jim Denham said,

    Hi Brenda<

    Contact me off-line on
    jimcftu@yahoo.com
    or 0121 451 3427

  8. Liz said,

    Hi,

    I am looking to write a dissertation on the Birmingham Bombings, well, to be more accurate the lasting effects that the bombings had on Irish people living in Birmingham. Is anyone aware of interviews or documents containing information on the impact felt by the Birmingham Irish following the events of 21st November 1974?
    Thankyou for any advice given.

  9. Carolyn Bayliss said,

    I have read this article with interest and I am interested in the subtle effects of conflict and how it may affect us psychologically. For instance, I visualised a billboard with lots of passport sized photographs on it regarding this case. I would like to hear from people who may be interested in recording something for video about how they feel about this case or perhaps being involved in theatre or writing.

    Please have a look at my website to see some of my work and visit my youtube page which is called Birminghambillboard.

    Regards,

    Carolyn

  10. Frank Henderson « Shiraz Socialist said,

    […] I wrote about his principled and courageous role at the time of the Birmingham pub bombings…here Possibly related posts: (automatically […]

  11. Laban said,

    You could have given a mention to Chris Mullin, then a Guardian journalist and later a Labour Cabinet Minister, who concealed the identities of the bombers. Even after six other men had been sent down his attitude was ‘better six innocent in prison and the guilty men free than both innocent AND guilty men inside’.

    I often wonder how it would have played out if a young Telegraph journalist had concealed the identities of the Dublin and Monaghan bombers. Do you think he’d have made Tory Cabinet Minister ?

    Like you, I was a young far-leftie who, along with several hundred others in my student union, had passed a resolution some months earlier declaring “unconditional though critical” support for the Provisionals. If they felt the defence of working-class Nationalist communities necessitated the slaughter of totally innocent Brummies, who were we to argue ?

    I’m ashamed now of what I voted for. You seem to still be more worried about the effects of the bombings on pipe-playing Provo supporters. I think now the effects on the dead and injured, and their families, may have been more important.

  12. Jim Denham said,

    Laban: I wrote: ” Most importantly, it taught me that politics is not a game or a pass-time: working class people had died and we had to have something to say. Ultimately, it taught me that simplistic “anti-imperialism” that costs working class lives is no way forward. It helped me to grow up politically – but at a terrible price.”

    So I’m not quite sure what you mean by: “You seem to still be more worried about the effects of the bombings on pipe-playing Provo supporters. I think now the effects on the dead and injured, and their families, may have been more important.”

  13. John Frayne said,

    I was the officer in charge of the first attendance of fire appliances at the Tavern in the town. If you go to the website birmingham 999 or google sub officer john frayne, then you can read the accounr written by my driver for that night (Alan Hill). By emailing the address given, you will reach Alan, and he has my report recently written, giving the sharp end account of the results of the political dissent that ripped the bodies of young innocent people.

  14. shaun the brummie said,

    (stupid, racist abuse)

    • John Frayne said,

      An unfair attitude Shaun. I was there in the front line with my men. I am welsh, one man was jewish and one irish. Other firefighters included scots and a frenchman on secondment. I think an apology is due.

      • shaunthebrummie said,

        when scots vote for independence…we english should have a vote to dump the welsh and mini jocks…making them pay for their free this and free that that us english are denied…and if you think i’m going to apologise to a provo apologist…..you’ve got another think coming….and when are we getting our £4 billion back.and as for the filthy smelly,lying,cheating,thieving travellers….send them back as they are not condusive to the common good….

        [NB: from mediator: this foul pice of racism has been re-instated only because a very effective reply has already been posted – by John Frayne,below]

  15. Fred Coggins said,

    It’s interesting to note that Longbrige is finished with thousands of jobs gone. Yes, your communist buddies shure “made a difference” all right.
    I remember the 70’s and thank God for Thatcher who stopped the communist attempts to distroy this country. As for the murdering PIRA, well you pretty much deserve each other.

  16. John Frayne said,

    Shaun, as an Englishman, you really must learn to write the language properly. Sentences start with capital letters. Welsh and Scots have capitals. It should be WE English not Us English. It is no wonder that with such an obviously low IQ, your insulting rant leaves you open to ridicule.

  17. lee said,

    I was born on the march 29th 1974 and my dad took me to boots to get me some baby food before the booms what off when we came out the booms went off we was very lucky

  18. lee said,

    I would like to meet up with the people who experience the birmingham pub booming like us

  19. lee said,

    why did the irish pick the 2 pubs nont they own

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