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THE FAMILIES OF J4T21 AND THE CAUSE IT FIGHTS FOR
THE FAMILIES OF J4T21 AND THE CAUSE IT FIGHTS FOR
On 21 November 1974, there were two Bomb explosions in the City Centre of Birmingham Killing 21 innocent people and injuring over 180 others. It is the Biggest Mass Murder on the British mainland and NOBODY has been brought to justice and made accountable for it.
Julie Hambleton whose sister Maxine, was one of the 21 victims on this awful night spearheads the campaign for the families for justice. Julie has said, "All we want is to be heard - truth, justice, and accountability."
It's been 42 years since this awful atrocity and Julie can still recall the night of the bombs...
I remember 21 November 1974 as one of the before and afters of my childhood. It was the night before my ninth birthday and my mum was out with some friends in Birmingham where we lived. The news came through of a devastating bomb attack in two city-center pubs – the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town near New Street station.
My dad was never a worrier, but that night he obviously became desperate for news – long before mobile phones – that my mum was safe. We sat up waiting to hear. In the event, she returned home in the early hours having been stuck in traffic while the city was shut down. It was the first time I remember really imagining the worst.
My birthday was all about relief and might have been as the awful news of what had happened came through. For 21 families in Birmingham though, that sense of relief never arrived.
Visit J4T21 Facebook page to see more about how all the fantastic supporters for this cause which stretches UK WIDE, will NEVER give up until Justice has been served.
The Story of Justice for the 21
The Story of Justice for the 21
Julie Hambleton’s family was one of those 21. Julie was 11 at the time. Her elder sister Maxine was in the Tavern in the Town and died at the scene from horrific injuries. The convictions of the men who became known as the Birmingham Six seemed to have offered a semblance of justice – but when those men were released in 1991 after Chris Mullin’s long campaign to prove the convictions unsafe, that sense was denied again. Julie’s brother Brian, who was a year older than Maxine, started a lone effort to have the case reinvestigated, and though the rest of the family – their mum and two more brothers and a sister – were sympathetic, they couldn’t face the anguish that a campaign might bring. “We don’t use the word closure,” Julie says now, “But when they were released it certainly split the wounds open again. If they didn’t do it who did? And why is nobody looking for them?”
Something changed for Julie in 2009. She can date the moment precisely. “I was watching the TV and there was news of all these public inquiries going on, one after the other. I’m thinking – excuse my language – but there is no other way of saying it: ‘What the ***?’ Twenty-one people were murdered in Birmingham and no one seems interested. My sister didn’t hurt anyone, never did anyone any harm. I felt angry to the extent that I nearly put my boot through the telly. So I sat down and wrote a letter to the chief constable of West Midlands Police, Chris Sims. I had a response six weeks later from his chief inspector basically saying he was too busy to talk to me.”
And so it began.
Though she works at the university, Julie’s life has also been devoted to making people talk to her. She is a vivid and friendly presence – not a natural troublemaker, – but the more she got told no, the more her determination grew. She got passed down through the ranks of the West Midlands Police, and for months and years, no one seemed willing to even give her a meeting. An intervention by her MP, Khalid Mahmood, didn’t help. After the Birmingham Six were released the murder case was declared open, but there was apparently no appetite to get to the truth. “The contempt with which we have been treated by West Midland police is palpably disgusting,” Hambleton says. “We are talking about what was the biggest mass murder on the British mainland in the 20th century. The police were, like, just shut up and go away. Not on my shift.”
In 2011 she started a couple of e-petitions with a view to getting a parliamentary debate on the issue; that was unsuccessful but the petitions led to a BBC documentary, Who Murdered Maxine? (which you can watch on our HOME page) and a meeting that proved cathartic for Julie. The documentary-makers persuaded her family to meet Paddy Hill [the highest-profile face of the Birmingham Six]. “I really didn’t want to do it,” she says, “because at that time, despite everything, we were still half-convinced he was one of the bombers. That was the hardest thing we’ve ever done. As we walked into the room I was inconsolable. I couldn’t breathe for crying. I thought I was being a traitor to my sister and to my mum.”
As it has turned out, Hill has become a close friend and a keen supporter in the fight for justice, which now involves 10 of the families.
Julie continued her letter-writing campaign; lords, MPs, the prime minister. “David Cameron responded last January,” she says. “He wrote me the usual letter saying his diary was too full – a few days later he flew to Paris to show solidarity for the victims of terrorism. You couldn’t make it up.”
The long campaign of Justice4the21 finally started to gain some traction 2016, in part because of the long hard fight for truth by the Hillsborough campaigners, in part because it was picked up by Jess Phillips, the straight-talking MP for Birmingham Yardley, “the first real person who is also a politician that we have come across,” Julie says. After new evidence emerged, Phillips has been helpful in pushing their case for reopening the inquest. Two witnesses, in particular, have come forward to say that they warned the Birmingham police that there would be an IRA attack in the city that day; but not only did their warnings go unheeded, but no record of them also appears to exist.
Julie has also appeared on the BBC’s Today programme in one of the most memorable and heartfelt pieces of live radio. Her fellow guest was the former IRA intelligence coordinator Kieran Conway, who now practices as a barrister. Conway quite blithely admitted that he believed he knew some of those responsible for the Birmingham bombs – and that he had committed terrorist acts himself.
The plot leader, Mick Murray, was dead, he said, but others are “walking free” and living in and around Dublin. ”Everybody knows who they are,” he claimed. “But there is no evidence. The only way that there could be convictions would be if one or more of the bombers were to present themselves to the UK police station and make full confessions. I don’t believe that will happen.” In any case, he didn’t see the bombers as murderers. “I take the view that appalling and all as the bombs were, the volunteers who carried them out were relatively blameless in that their only fault was that they carried out the instructions of their commander,” he told the programme. “Their only fault was that they didn’t – and this would have been elementary, I was trained in bomb-planting myself and planted a few in my time – in advance check that they had working phone boxes [to send warnings] in case of difficulty.”
Julie Hambleton was speaking to the BBC studio from her kitchen at home. “I was so, so angry listening to this,” she says. “I’ve got a zillion things running through my head that I want to say. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, what would my sister Jane want me to say? What would Brian want me to say?’”
What she said was this, her voice steely with outrage: “Men – or women, we don’t know – planned, prepped, put together bombs, walked into two pubs and he claims it was an accident? How dare he be on the other end of the line and make such claims? I wonder if one of his kids was killed beyond description – when all their skin has literally been stripped of their body, they’ve got no legs, they’ve got no arms, you can’t recognize them by their face because their injuries are such that they’ve already been partially cremated – how dare he make such harrowing and horrendous statements over the airwaves.”
She went on to challenge Conway on the bombs he had planted, called him, and the other bombers “gutless cowards” and left him rattled and grasping for platitudes.
She recalls that moment with incredulity. “He’s admitted on radio that he has planted bombs himself. And then after the interview, he gets up and walks away. Where else in the world would it be possible to do that?”
Later that day, the Hambletons and the other families received the best news they’d yet received when the coroner, Louise Hunt, granted the reopening of the inquest, saying: “I am satisfied that the inquest should be resumed. I have serious concerns that advanced notice of the bombs may have been available to the police and that they failed to take the necessary steps to protect life.”
The families had a meeting with Amber Rudd, a newly installed home secretary, to make their case. “I don’t think it went as she imagined at all,” Julie says. “She didn’t seem to have been briefed. I said, ‘It’s just as well my mother’s not here because by now she would have turned the tables over’. She is 82, only a dot but she has the fire in her. Amber Rudd was saying ‘I’m here and I’m listening’ but she clearly wasn’t. I was sitting closest to her. I had a picture in my bag of Maxine. I was so aggravated I jumped up and went searching in my bag. The others told me later they thought I was going to take a swing at her because I was that mad. I got the picture and I shoved it under the home secretary’s nose. ‘That’s my sister: she was 18. What were you doing when you were 18? You were at university in Edinburgh, weren’t you? My sister didn’t have that opportunity…’”
Rudd promised to write to the justice secretary, Liz Truss, to set out their case. Unable to find out whether that had happened, Julie spotted Truss as she stood in line to get into the Tory conference in Birmingham a week later. She set out her case and gave Truss one of her business cards which has the 21 names of victims on the back and on the front a heart that her niece designed with 21 cracks of heartbreaks on it.
“She just looked straight through me,” Julie recalls. “She knew nothing about us at all. She turned her back and introduced me to her special adviser.”
Rudd called her later that week to say that the families were not to be granted legal aid according to the precedent set by the Hillsborough campaigners, without giving a reason. The families’ lawyers are appealing against that decision. Without that provision being granted, they argue that a further delay in the inquest will be necessary.
“What they are trying to do is do it on the cheap,” Hambleton says. “We have got the inquest itself to be resumed. That in itself is a huge feat. But the government, it appears, are constantly trying to create delaying tactics. To stop us getting to the truth.”
She says she believes that “they know their predecessors’ hands were dipped in blood. That they were aware that these bombings were going to happen. Our loved ones were cannon fodder. Imagine if people got to know that the government knew there were going to be terrorist attacks and didn’t step in to stop it…”
Officially there are no files about the case to reopen; unofficially Julie has been made aware that they are under embargo for 75 years. Thirty-five pieces of evidence have been lost, the police have admitted, including a third bomb, which was discovered unexploded.
In some minds, the case raises questions of statutes of limitations; that the inquest is a costly exercise that may lead no closer to the truth. Julie has often heard the argument that they should not rake over what is now the distant past, that it will only cause more heartbreak. Chris Mullin, who does not support their campaign, is among those who have expressed reservations. She believes that his own campaign for the Birmingham Six uncovered a great deal of evidence about the facts of the case, which has never been tested in court.
She and some of the other families eventually got their meeting with chief constable Sims in 2014, five years after her original letter. One of the questions she asked was why the police had never interviewed Mullin about some of that evidence that he had uncovered, and anything else that he knew. She says Sims suggested that he had five names of suspects for the bombing in his drawer but no evidence with which to advance a case against them. At which point, Julie heard herself saying: “Excuse me, but you are the police aren’t you?” Lawyers for the West Midlands police argued that the inquest should not go ahead and that the coroner did not have the authority to reopen it. The coroner disagreed.
One of the best things about the campaign, Julie says, is how it has brought the families of the victims closer together. “We get on really well. I lost my sister, they lost their brother or father or mother but we now have an extended family. We would prefer not to for obvious reasons but we are a community now for each other.” It has also, she believes, helped the city to heal from the darkest chapter in its recent history, which led to mistrust not only of the police but also anger against the large Irish population of Birmingham. “We are up against every agency of the state. Article six of the Human Rights Act says we should be able to pursue our case fairly. The Hillsborough families got parity of funding with the police. We believe we should have that too.”
There has been a memorial service every year for the 21 victims of the bombings in Birmingham Cathedral. The Hambletons didn’t always go because it was just too painful. “You might think I’m pretty together, just talking like this, but I’m not,” Julie says. “You just become anesthetized to it a bit. Two weeks ago we won an award in London, the Liberty award for ‘the long walk’. I don’t like getting awards but people said I should go because it was a good platform to talk about the issues. And on the day I just fell apart, was inconsolable again at home. You know, who wants an award? You just want your sister.” “I was only 11 but she really was a force of nature, Mackie, she was clever, she wanted to be a lawyer,” she says. “My mum always said don’t put her on a pedestal, but I always say that’s quite hard to do. She was our big sister and she was very special. She used to make us our own clothes. In the picture you see of her with her white dress and the hat – she had made that, and she used to make us flared jeans, really good ones that made all my friends jealous. The only reason she went to town that night was to hand out some housewarming invitations she had made. She had just come back from grape-picking in France, in the champagne vineyards to improve her French for her A-levels. It’s funny Jess Phillips’s dad used to teach her at the grammar school.”
“Mum ID’d her, but she didn’t tell us until four or five years ago to protect us. We know what her injuries were. The police gave us a synopsis. What’s still hard is: did she die instantaneously? She would have been in so much pain. That’s something that haunts me. And little things make me sad. My mum told me recently she used to go up to town just to talk to people about Maxine when we were at school, because she felt so alone, and she didn’t want to upset us. We still don’t talk about her much as a family. It’s just too sad. But I have pictures of her all over the place now. That’s a new thing. I hit a mental brick wall about 16 years ago. I went to my doctor and he was fabulous. He said, ‘It’s because you never mourned her properly as a child’.”
Does the campaign help in that way, or does she feel she has no option?
“Mackie had been staying with us two days before it happened,” she says, by way of an answer. She had just moved into this house she was sharing with my brothers. I was running around because I was always late for school. Mum said to me, aren’t you going to give Mackie a kiss? So I went running upstairs and give her a hug and a kiss, and I said: ‘I love you Mackie, see you Friday at the party!’ She said: ‘Yes, see you Friday.’ That was the last time I saw her alive. That’s why I fight. Because if it was her she would have been screaming from the rooftops. That’s the girl she was. I just feel I owe it to her to do the same.”