Chennai Six's Billy Irving: 'I can never forgive UK government'

Frances Perraudin
Billy Irving: ‘We would have been freed much sooner if [the FCO] had really engaged in our plight and fought for us.’ Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

A former British soldier who spent four years in an Indian prison has said he will never forgive the UK government for failing to do enough to secure his release.

Billy Irving, 37, touched down at Glasgow airport on Wednesday, the first of the so-called Chennai Six to arrive back in the UK after they were jailed in the southern Indian city on weapons charges.

He and five other former British servicemen were working as security guards on the American-owned anti-piracy vessel the MV Seaman Guard Ohio in the Indian Ocean when they were detained in 2013.

They were charged with carrying unlicensed firearms and ammunition. The men insisted they had been granted permits by the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, something the head of export controls eventually confirmed to the Indian authorities.

After years of campaigning, the men won an appeal against their convictions last month and were given permission to leave India, flying back to the UK earlier this week.

Speaking to the Mail on Sunday, Irving said: “I can never forgive the UK government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,” he said. “We would have been freed much sooner if they had really engaged in our plight and fought for us. I feel disgusted and betrayed.”

The six Britons – Irving, Nick Dunn from Ashington, Northumberland, Ray Tindall from Chester, Paul Towers from Pocklington, east Yorkshire, John Armstrong from Wigton, Cumbria, and Nicholas Simpson from Catterick, North Yorkshire – were arrested and detained along with three Ukrainians, 14 Estonians and 12 Indians when customs officials and police searched their ship.

Irving’s fiancee, Yvonne MacHugh, who worked with the other men’s families and friends to campaign for their release, described former foreign secretary Philip Hammond as “next to useless and uninterested at best”.

She accused Boris Johnson, Hammond’s successor, of hypocrisy for saying the Foreign Office (FCO) had worked on the case “unstintingly”. “For Boris Johnson to hint that he had some part in their return is the height of hypocrisy,” she said. “I’ve written to him a number of times asking for a meeting and never had a reply. How dare he.”

“I will never forgive the FCO. At times, their lack of interest just made everything worse. They put business ventures before lives. They complicated situations and moved goalposts. They would offer to help, then didn’t follow up. They’ve never said, ‘Sorry, we messed up’. Billy and the other men would have been free two years ago if the FCO had been truly there for us.”

During his four years in prison, Irving – from Paisley, Renfrewshire – contracted dysentery and lost 19kg (three stones). He described the experience as an “unbelievable nightmare” and spoke of his sorrow over not seeing his young son, William, grow up. He had only seen his son three times before his release this week.

“To finally smell fresh air and feel cold, wet rain on my face is the most fantastic feeling in the world,” he said. “Now I just want to get to know my son, focus on being a proper father and spend time with my family.”

The UK government said the case had been raised more than 50 times at ministerial level and nine times with the Indian PM since October 2013. A FCO spokeswoman said: “The UK government was delighted that the men were released and the foreign secretary also paid tribute to those who campaigned for them.

“The Foreign Office worked tirelessly behind the scenes to reunite these men with their families. This included lobbying on their behalf, visiting them in prison, updating their families and maintaining close contact with their legal team.”