In 1974, knowing that he was, as he puts it, “a nervous individual” and afraid of dogs, the police put alsatians into Hugh Callaghan’s cell. They ordered them to attack him, before restraining them at the last minute. “I still have nightmares about it,” he says, now 92, sitting in the peaceful London home he shares with his partner, Adeline. There have been times, she says, when he has woken up three times a night, screaming. If he sees someone with an alsatian, he crosses the road to avoid it.
This is not a tale from Lukashenko’s Belarus, but from Birmingham, England, and is one of many gruesome details of the case of the Birmingham Six, in which six men spent 16 years in prison for a crime of which they were entirely innocent. It is shocking not only for this fact, but also for the brutal methods of the police, and their decades-long efforts, with the help of some judges and sections of the media, to insist – in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary – on the men’s guilt.
If you are British, it shakes any faith you might have in the country’s institutions of law and order, in which you might well have been brought up to believe. If you are under 45, you may know little of one of the worst miscarriages of justice of modern times. If you are older you may remember footage of their release, and media coverage of the case, but your grasp of the details might be hazy. You might, thanks to the misinformation of the police and some of the press, harbour some vague suspicion that they were after all a little bit guilty.
For these reasons, it is important that the testimonies of Callaghan and the other victims continue to be heard. And, lest the story seemed to be over, the police recently applied for a court order against Chris Mullin, the journalist and later MP whose investigations eventually led to the acquittal of the six. The order was intended to force him to reveal the identity of one of the actual bombers, whom Mullin had interviewed on the promise of anonymity.
He refused, arguing that protection of sources was essential to journalism, and without which he could not have uncovered the truth about the six. The court found in his favour last week.
In 1974, Callaghan was one of many who had moved from his native Belfast to the British mainland, in search of better prospects of work. He led an ordinary life, working as a welder in a factory that made lighting. He liked going to the pub and watching Aston Villa. He lived with his wife and daughter in a small terraced council house.
On 21 November, two bombs went off in the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town, two pubs in the centre of Birmingham, killing 21 people and injuring 182, the worst of many attacks in England in a sustained campaign by the IRA.
Callaghan, who had been drinking in another bar nearby, was arrested at the front door of his house on the following evening and, like the rest of the six, was beaten, threatened and terrified by the police, and deprived of sleep and food until he agreed to sign a false confession. The following year he was tried along with the others, still expecting to be acquitted.
“I couldn’t believe what the police did. They lied. They told things that I didn’t say.” He thought the court would believe his truth over their lies, but it didn’t.
He was sent first to Winson Green prison, by chance a short distance from the factory where he used to work. “It was a hard-nut prison. I got some beatings in there from the screws. The other prisoners didn’t like you because they knew what you were in for.” He had hot tea and cans of food thrown in his face. The six were segregated from the others for their own protection. Later, though “word got around that we were innocent, then they were very nice”.
What kept Callaghan going “was the music”. There “was nothing to sing about in prison but I couldn’t help it. I sang in the shower. A warden heard me and asked ‘would you join the choir?’ All the inmates took to me after that.” He sang Sweet Sixteen and White Christmas to them. Up on a charge in front of the governor, she asked him to sing Danny Boy, and he brought tears to her eyes.
The Birmingham Six story was not only one of extreme police misconduct. What took it to an additional level of monstrosity were the actions of some of the judiciary, who seemed more concerned with upholding the reputation of the criminal justice system than seeking the truth. In 1980, the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, threw out a civil action that the six had brought against West Midlands Police. He described the possible revelation of police perjury and violence as “such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further.’” If the six had been hanged, he later said, “we shouldn’t have all these campaigns to get them released”.
In 1987, after Mullin had produced mounting confirmation of the innocence of the six in a series of documentaries for Granada TV’s World in Action series, their case at last went back to the court of appeal. New witnesses spoke of police malpractice and the forensic scientist, whose evidence had helped convict the men, Frank Skuse, had been discredited. This wasn’t enough for the lord chief justice Lord Lane, who presided over the case: “The longer this case has gone on,” he said, “the more convinced this court has become that the verdict of the jury was correct.” The Sun crowed in support: “We would have been tempted to string ’em up years ago.”
It took another appeal, after yet more evidence of their innocence had been found, finally to exonerate them. In March 1991 they walked out of the Old Bailey, Mullin in their centre, their hands aloft. “It was the best thing,” says Callaghan, “to hear that.” “That was a terrible ordeal,’’ strangers would tell Callaghan in the street, “I was sorry to hear about that.”
Even then, the aspersions didn’t go away. A 1992 Sunday Telegraph headline reported “Sensational new evidence against the Six” which turned out to be valueless. In 1993, a criminal case against three of the police who investigated them was controversially dropped, on the basis that adverse publicity made a fair hearing impossible. Their leader, Det Supt George Reade, then told the Sunday Telegraph that “in our eyes their guilt is beyond doubt”, and expressed similar views in the Sun. Both newspapers, after lawyers for the six took action against them, printed apologies, although the Sun chose to run its on page three, below the daily photo of a topless model.
Even years later, some mud continued to stick. “You’re one of the bad boys,” said a neighbour, when Callaghan moved into his current house a few years ago. To which it has to be said as clearly as possible: he was not and never has been a bad boy. Neither he nor any of the six had had anything to do with the crimes of which he was accused, as was proved as comprehensively and exhaustively as can be.
Meanwhile, the police failed to make any progress finding the real culprits, which makes their recent court action smack of bad faith and perhaps vindictiveness. They were pursuing the 74-year-old Mullin for refusing to give them information which, if they had done their job nearly 50 years ago, or since, they could have found for themselves.
The victims of their failures are not only the six but also survivors of the bombs and relatives of those killed, who have not seen the perpetrators brought to justice.
It’s hard to be sure something similar couldn’t happen now. The case led to the overturning of several other miscarriage of justice cases, and significant changes to law and procedure. But the recent cases of the 700-plus post office workers wrongly prosecuted for theft, and of the police strip search of child Q, don’t inspire confidence.
As for Callaghan, he’s remarkably calm after everything he has lived through, but he doesn’t forget. Recently, singing with the Irish Pensioners Choir at a St Patrick’s Day event in Trafalgar Square, he found himself flanked by policemen. He didn’t feel comfortable. “They can be so nice and pally,” he says, “but they can turn so quickly.”