Birmingham bomb inquests: Attack ‘not murder, but IRA operation that went badly wrong’

The 1974 Birmingham pub bombings were not murder but “an IRA operation that went badly wrong”, its former intelligence chief has told an inquest.

Thursday, 21st March 2019, 3:08 pm
Updated Thursday, 21st March 2019, 3:11 pm

Kieran Conway said the attacks were “not sanctioned” by the IRA and public outrage at the attacks “nearly destroyed” the group.

Following what he called the “disaster in Birmingham” on the night of November 21 by a Provisional IRA active service unit, “the dip in public support was extraordinary”.

He added: “The IRA was only saved by the subsequent talks with the British government.”

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An official ceasefire was agreed in 1975 but did not hold.

The blasts at the Mulberry Bush in the base of the city’s iconic Rotunda and the basement Tavern in the Town in nearby New Street killed 21 people and injured 220 more.

Bereaved families have waited 44 years for fresh inquests, which are now in their fourth week.

Barrister Kevin Morgan, asking questions on behalf of the relatives, asked: “Would you agree that the killings in Birmingham on November 21 1974 constituted murder?”

Mr Conway, speaking over a video link from Dublin, replied: “No I don’t agree. I believe it was an IRA operation that went wrong.

“Had the IRA deliberately targeted that pub with the intention of killing civilians then that would have been murder, yes.

“But in the circumstances, as I have been told, I don’t accept that it was murder.

“I say that it was an IRA operation that went badly wrong.”

A formal IRA court of inquiry, convened in Ireland in the days and weeks after the bombings, cleared those involved in the bombings, Mr Conway added.

He said the court agreed with the “initial explanation” the “atrocity” was down to the phone box, selected to call in the advance coded warning, being out of order, which delayed the call.

“No court martial ever took place,” he added, and no IRA members were internally disciplined over the attacks.

Mr Conway said, at the time of the bombings, IRA operations in England were “autonomous” of the organisation’s command in Ireland and were picking bombing targets themselves.

More than 50 devices went off in and around the Midlands in the run-up to the pub bombings, the inquests have already heard.

Operations covering IRA active service units in Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and London all came under an “OC”, or officer commanding.

The OC and his adjutant – the second-in-command – were both based in London, Mr Conway said.

Both senior IRA men in England were called back to Ireland within four days of the bombings to account for what happened but Mr Conway said he was not present for the discussion.

He said: “I’m not sure either of the two (England IRA) men knew anything about it (the bombings) either.

“I believe it was carried out by the IRA in Birmingham, who would have had wide autonomy to carry out operations at the time without referring to London.”

He said nobody in the IRA’s ruling Army Council had any idea the pubs were to be targeted.

Mr Conway said: “I told them if it turned out that it was deliberate and sanctioned then I would leave the IRA immediately.”

He added: “The bombings had been careless if not downright incompetent.”

Mr Conway also spoke to David O’Connell, chairman of the IRA Army Council – which ran the organisation’s military operations – and another member immediately after the bombing.

He said: “They certainly said that it was not sanctioned by them.”

Mr Conway said the policy of the IRA at the time was civilian targets were “strictly and loudly forbidden”.

He added: “Those targets ought never to have happened. I have said that many times.

“The volunteers who carried it out, the person who commanded them, either didn’t know that or ignored it. They were not legitimate targets.”

Asked if the IRA had taken responsibility for the pub bombings, he replied: “Yes. I mean they didn’t deliberately fail to get a warning to the authorities in time.

“But if you plant bombs you must take the consequences, including the consequences of what happened in Birmingham.”

The inquests continue.