Irish government refused request to stand bail for Birmingham Six

David Young, PA
·4-min read

The Irish government refused a request from the Birmingham Six to act as bail guarantors amid concerns it could prove embarrassing, state files reveal.

The previously top secret papers outline the deliberations that took place within official circles in Dublin about the ask from the men’s high-profile solicitor Gareth Peirce.

Ms Peirce made the request in late 1990 just months before the men finally walked free from prison after their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal in London.

Bail was an option once the case had been referred to the Court of Appeal.

Gareth Peirce outside Paddington Green Police Station
Solicitor Gareth Peirce represented the Birmingham Six (PA)

Paddy Hill, Gerry Hunter, John Walker, Hugh Callaghan, Richard McIlkenny and Billy Power served 17 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murdering 21 people in the IRA pub bombings in Birmingham in 1974.

The exchanges between Ms Peirce and a senior official in the Irish embassy in London and the official’s subsequent correspondence with high-ranking colleagues in Dublin are outlined in the papers released under the 30-year rule.

On November 21 1990, first secretary at the Irish embassy Paul Murray wrote to Dublin: “On the question of surety her (Ms Peirce) request to the Government is for symbolic rather than practical reasons and I think that she may not push it.”

However, on December 10, Mr Murray communicated that Ms Peirce was seeking an “immediate decision” on the issue as she wanted to lodge bail papers the following day.

The next day, assistant secretary at the Department of Foreign Affairs Dermot Gallagher outlined the pros and cons of providing surety in a document that was stamped as read by taoiseach Charles Haughey.

He said the arguments in favour were “largely political but also some humanitarian”.

“If the Government refused bail, and this became public, there would very likely be severe criticism of the decision, especially by the men themselves,” he wrote.

He noted Ms Peirce’s contention that getting enough people to act as guarantors was difficult.

Major & Haughey
Charles Haughey, pictured with then British prime minister John Major, was told that acting as bail guarantor could embarrass his government (PA)

Setting out the arguments against providing bail, Mr Gallagher wrote: “The Appeal Court, which is extremely sensitive about cases being referred to it by the Home Secretary, might see a decision by the Government to stand bail as an effort to put political pressure on it and might react negatively to the move.”

Outlining a second reason, he continued: “It could be embarrassing for the Government if (a) the Court refused to accept it as bailsperson, on the basis of some technicality or other; (b) the Court, having accepted the Government as bailsperson, refused to grant bail to the men; and (c) the Court, having granted bail with the Government acting as surety, decided to uphold some or all of the convictions.”

Mr Gallagher said while the move would not be without precedent, it would seem “odd”, particularly to “English public opinion”, if the Government was to provide bail in a case of “this gravity” involving six men who had been convicted of the “most serious crimes”.

In another paper written the same day, secretary to the government Dermot Nally stated “the effect of the precedent could be horrendous”.

Ultimately the government decided against standing bail.

A coded, top-secret communique from Mr Gallagher to Irish ambassador in London Andrew O’Rourke told him to inform Ms Peirce of the decision.

“In so doing the embassy will, I know, emphasise that, as always, the Government would wish to be as helpful as possible in every appropriate way with every aspect of the case,” he wrote.

He said Ms Peirce should be told that the government believed it would not be legally allowed to stand bail.

“It would be legally impermissible for the Government to undertake the obligations of a bailsman or surety of an application for the bail before a British court in respect of persons over whom it has no jurisdiction or control,” he wrote.

In guidance to the ambassador, Mr Gallagher explained that the government would be obliged to ensure anyone it provided bail for turned up for trial.

While he said there was no reason to suggest any of the men would not show up, he stated: “The Government would have no effective steps indeed probably no steps as all open to it to satisfy this obligation in this case.”

In the event, no bail application was made on behalf of the men at the December preliminary hearing of the case.

Three months later, the men emerged from the Old Bailey as free men.

The newly published papers are contained in National Archives file reference number 2020/17/52.