A convicted bomber has named four men he claims carried out the 1974 Birmingham pub attacks after telling inquests he had been given permission to do so by the head of the IRA.
The blasts at the Mulberry Bush at the bottom of the city’s landmark Rotunda, and the basement Tavern in the Town in nearby New Street, killed 21 people and injured 220 others.
Bereaved families have waited 44 years for fresh inquests, which are now in their fourth week.
On Friday, in a dramatic turn, an anonymous ex-IRA volunteer giving evidence at the inquests, said he had been told by the current head of the IRA, six months ago in Dublin, that he could name those he knew were involved.
The man, identified only as Witness O - speaking over a secure video-link - named the officer commanding (OC) the Birmingham IRA at the time, Seamus McLoughlin, as the person responsible for selecting the targets.
He added that Mick Murray was “one of the bombers”, and claimed he recalled Murray telling him there would be “no harm” if similar attacks had been repeated, because of the “chaos” caused.
Pressed by Leslie Thomas QC, the barrister representing nine of the bereaved families, that another member of the bombing team was Michael Hayes, he replied: “Hayes, Hayes - I’ll give it (the name) to you now.”
But he added, in apparent reference to the Good Friday Agreement: “But he can’t be arrested.
“There is nobody going to be charged with this atrocity.
“The British Government have signed an agreement with the IRA.”
Then asked about “James Gavin”, he replied: “Well, he was (involved), I met him in Dublin and he said he was.”
Earlier, the witness had said “I only know about five”, claiming at least one of the men was still alive, before adding: “He’s no harm to anybody now.”
Mr Thomas then asked whether a fifth man, Michael Patrick Reilly, had been involved.
The witness, who earlier told the jury he was a convicted IRA bomber who served a prison sentence in the 1970s, replied: “No, I don’t remember him at all.
“Reilly? I would remember that.”
The barrister then used an alleged reference to Mr Reilly, used in the book Error Of Judgement by former MP and journalist Chris Mullin, when he asked the former IRA man: “Michael Patrick Reilly, sometimes referred to as ‘The Young Planter’?
“You know who he is, don’t you?
“He’s the one you’re protecting, isn’t he?”
The witness replied: “Who? Protecting who? No.
“My situation was I was in Manchester, and I came to Birmingham and I was only in Birmingham a couple of weeks.”
He made reference in his evidence to two others, identified as “Dublin Dave” and “Socks”, who may also have been connected to the bombings.
But it was unclear if either reference was a pseudonym for the other five men named, or were separate individuals.
The witness added of the men he had named: “The police already know who they are, and they haven’t done anything.”
Witness O, who was in jail at the time of the attacks and said he had no knowledge they were being planned, described the bombings as “an atrocity”.
He added that the Birmingham IRA active service unit responsible was “stood down” by the organisation’s Army Council following the blasts.
The witness said he had been given permission to speak to the inquests, including giving the bombers’ names.
When coroner Sir Peter Thornton QC asked him who had given that authorisation, he replied “The head of the IRA”, adding that he had approached the organisation’s chief in Dublin six months ago.
Asked by barrister Mr Thomas who that man was, the witness replied: “Well, I’m not telling you his name.”
Asked why not, the former IRA man said: “Because he’s the head of the IRA. He could be shot dead.”
He also claimed to have given McLoughlin’s name to two detectives while in HMP Winson Green just days after the bombings, but heard nothing more.
Counsel to the coroner Peter Skelton asked: “Was it the OC of Birmingham who would take decisions about which places to target for the bombs?
“Yes,” Witness O replied.
All the men have been named before in connection with the bombings, but never in a formal setting.
Mr Reilly and Mr Hayes have always denied any involvement in the blasts, though Mr Hayes has said he took “collective responsibility” for all IRA attacks in England, including the pub bombings.
Six men, known as the Birmingham Six, were jailed in 1975 for the double bomb attacks, but their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1991.
Their case remains one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in English legal history.
An shocked UUP Justice Spokesman, Doug Beattie, said that the events confirmed that the IRA is still active.
“This is staggering,” he said. “Not only are the IRA still active and giving orders but such is their confidence that they have a deal with the UK Govt they are happy to name names.”
Mr Beattie called on the PSNI, Garda and West Midlands Police to examine claims made by a witness at the inquest into the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings.
“The evidence from ‘Witness O’ was very interesting on a number of fronts,” he said.
“Firstly, he said that the ‘head of the IRA’ in Dublin has given him permission to name names.
“Given that numerous Sinn Fein politicians have claimed that there is no IRA, you wonder just who is in sitting Dublin, claiming to be the head of it? Bobby Storey said it had become a butterfly and flown away. So who exactly is at the head of what some claim is a ‘non-existent’ organisation?
“The PSNI and the Garda need to give an assessment of this claim as a matter of urgency.
“Secondly, if any of these people named are still alive - and I understand at least one is - then they are liable to prosecution. If Soldier F can be lined up for prosecution for alleged offences in Londonderry in 1972 then so can alleged IRA members for alleged offences in Birmingham in 1974. That’s what is meant by equality before the law.”
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson also called for evidence given by ‘Witness O’ to be pursued by police.
He noted that yesterday, former IRA member Kieran Conway stated that the attacks were “not sanctioned” by the IRA but that the deaths were not murder because they were “an IRA operation that went badly wrong”.
Commenting on the evidence the Lagan Valley MP said: “One of the individuals named today has previously admitted involvement in the Birmingham pub bombings. This further evidence demands a proper police investigation into his involvement in the murder of 21 people.
“Questions were previously raised as to whether this person was in receipt of an On The Run letter. Those letters are no barrier to prosecution. He was reported as living in Dublin. There is a clear challenge for the authorities in the Republic of Ireland whether they are prepared to pursue justice for the victims of republican terrorism with the same vigour as they demand the pursuit of those who were acting on behalf of the state in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Donaldson also said that evidence given to the inquest posed major questions for Sinn Fein.
“There are two very clear questions which Mary Lou McDonald and the Sinn Fein leadership need to answer.
“The PSNI have previously indicated that the IRA exists but is not involved in paramilitary activity. That stands in stark contrast to the assertions of Sinn Fein. Mary Lou McDonald needs to explain how the head of the IRA in Dublin can give “permission” for an individual to be named, when she tells us the IRA doesn’t exist.
“Secondly, does Sinn Fein agree with the assessment of Kieran Conway that the Birmingham pub bombings were not murder simply because the IRA were involved. Sinn Fein were very quick to jump on comments made by the Secretary of State that were later clarified.
“Mary Lou McDonald should step forward and state clearly whether she believes the actions of the IRA in Birmingham and elsewhere were criminal.”
TUV leader Jim Allister challenged Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on what he is doing about the terror chief in Dublin who directed the naming of the bombers.
The MLA added: “The naming of the Birmingham bombers today and the compelling claim that the naming was sanctioned by ‘the current head of the IRA in Dublin’, raises critical questions for both the Birmingham police and the Dublin Government and Garda.
“Have the four named persons been investigated fully by the police and what further steps will now be taken?
And, Mr Varadkar, you who likes to mind everyone else’s business, what are you doing about the continuing operation of the IRA in your capital city under a ‘current head’? What actions have you taken, and will take,to address this issue?”