A convicted IRA bomber known as Witness O has named four men he says were responsible for the Birmingham pub bombings, telling the inquest he had been given permission to do so by the current head of the IRA in Dublin.
Twenty-one people were killed and more than 200 injured when bombs were detonated in two city centre pubs – the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town – on the evening of 21 November 1974.
Giving evidence in court on Friday, the anonymous former IRA volunteer said he had been told by the head of the IRA six months ago in Dublin that he could name those he knew were involved.
Speaking over a secure videolink, he named the officer commanding the Birmingham IRA at the time as Seamus McLoughlin, who he said was the person responsible for selecting the targets. He said he gave McLoughlin’s name to two police detectives days after the bombings while he was serving time in HMP Winson Green, but heard nothing more.
He said Mick Murray was one of the bombers. Murray, who died in 1999, was one of two men named by the former Labour MP Chris Mullin in an article in the London Review of Books published in February.
Asked about James Gavin, who was also named by Mullin and died in 2002, he replied: “Well, he was [involved], I met him in Dublin and he said he was.”
Witness O was asked if Michael Hayes was in the bombing team. He said he was, but 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.”
He said that two other men he knew as Dublin Dave and Socks had also been involved, but that he did not know either man’s real name.
Witness O was also asked about the role of Michael Patrick Reilly – a man who has previously been alleged to be a perpetrator – but was unable to confirm his identity.
The inquest into the deaths was opened in November 1974, but was adjourned to allow for a criminal investigation. In 1975, six men – who became known as the Birmingham Six – were convicted for the bombings but were acquitted 16 years later in 1991.
Murray was tried alongside the Birmingham Six and convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions. Gavin was also tried alongside the Birmingham Six and convicted of the possession of explosives.
Murray, Gavin, McLoughlin and Hayes were named in 1990 in the Granada Television documentary drama Who Bombed Birmingham?.
Fresh inquests into the deaths were ordered in 2016 but were delayed by disputes over whether the hearings should examine who might be responsible for the bombings.
In January 2018, the high court overturned a ruling by the coroner Sir Peter Thornton that alleged perpetrators would not fall within the framework of the inquest. Thornton appealed against that decision the following July and the court of appeal ruled in his favour in September.
Speaking outside court on Friday, Julie Hambleton, whose sister Maxine was killed in the Tavern in the Town, said: “Witness O has today named the bombers involved in the Birmingham pub bombings.
“I have a letter from David Thompson, chief constable of West Midlands police, that says this is an ongoing live investigation – as such we expect action. [We expect] information as a matter of urgency now as to what is going to happen, what, where and when.”
Speaking via videolink from Dublin on Thursday, the former IRA intelligence chief Kieran Conway said he knew the names of those who were responsible for the bombings but would not name them. He described the attacks as an IRA operation that went badly wrong and said the public outrage caused by the bombings had nearly destroyed the group.
Conway, who is a criminal defence solicitor in Ireland and was convicted of handling explosives in Derry in the 1970s, was asked if he thought the attacks constituted murder. He 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,” he said. “I say that it was an IRA operation that went badly wrong.”
Asked how he would have described the deaths, he said: “I understand perfectly that this is unacceptable to the British people but I would categorise them as accidental.”
After the attacks, an internal IRA court of inquiry, convened in Ireland, cleared those involved in the bombings, Conway said, with IRA chiefs agreeing that the atrocity was down to the delay in calling in the coded warning because the chosen phone box was out of order.
Conway said that at the time of the bombings IRA operations in England were carried out by active service units autonomous of the organisation’s command in Ireland, who were picking bombing targets themselves. Civilian targets were “strictly and loudly forbidden”, he said.