Forty years ago tonight, two bombs exploded inside busy pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people and injuring another 182. In the light of atrocities that have happened since, this may not seem such a shocking incident, but at the time it was traumatic – we in mainland Britain had not experienced such an attack upon civilians since the Second World War. There never was any serious doubt that (with or without the knowledge of the Army Council) members of the Provisional IRA were responsible, though to this day Sinn Fein and their now-mainstream representatives have failed to acknowledge it.
An additional six people can be added to the tally of victims: the innocent men who were each deprived of 16 years of their liberty 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 in fear of their life. A worker who was known to have played the pipes at an IRA funeral was strung up at Rover Solihull (he survived, but only by luck). Johnny Bryant, a member of ‘Workers Fight’ (forerunner of the AWL) was driven out of his job at Lucas, never able to return. In shops, offices and factories throughout Birmingham, people of Irish extraction or with Irish names were terrified and quite a few went into hiding. 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 leafleting 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 the Birmingham Mail five years ago) 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.”