Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
Recently a service took place on the 45th anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings. Twenty-one people died and 220 were injured in the blasts at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town pubs on 21st November 1974. A third bomb near a bank failed to properly detonate.
Held in the shadow of three steel memorial trees outside New Street station, the service was a poignant moment for the city, as we gathered to remember those who lost their lives 45 years ago, within walking distance of the site of the bombings.
Our city remains wounded by what happened on that fateful night. I know that’s still the case as, since I’ve been Mayor of the West Midlands, I have joined the families on this day every year – and each year the sadness and anger grows that justice has still not yet been served.
After so many decades, it is hard to explain just how profoundly the bombings affected the city at the time. In the direct aftermath of the bombings, Brummies pulled together in the same heroic way we have seen after recent atrocities in Manchester, London and elsewhere. People rushed to help. Black cab drivers loaded the injured and drove them free of charge to the local hospital. I remember well, as a youngster in Birmingham in 1974, that my mum was called into work that evening at East Birmingham Hospital. Weeks later, the annual ‘Midland man of the year award’ was awarded to the citizens of Birmingham for their ‘steadfastness’ after the bombings.
Then, over the following months there were palpable community tensions and a feeling of unease, sadness and horror that this could possibly have happened here. In the years since, while that initial feeling of horror may have been dissipated by the passage of time, it has been replaced by a deep-seated sense of injustice. For the families, that has been matched by a determination to see those responsible for carrying out the bombings held accountable.
This year saw a major step forward, with new inquests finally held into the deaths. These came about after years of pressure for a full account of what happened that night by campaign group Justice4the21. The inquests served an important purpose in properly re-examining the events of 1974. In April, the jury found that an “inadequate” IRA warning call caused or contributed to the deaths. Jurors concluded there were no errors in the way police responded to the warning call and their actions did not contribute to the loss of life.
Yet these often harrowing and emotional hearings, while providing an important platform for families to speak about the loss of their loved ones, have not provided closure, and have only heightened calls to bring the killers to justice. Despite ruling that the 21 were killed unlawfully, the inquest was unable to provide answers as to who the perpetrators were. An active police investigation remains open.
This remains the largest unsolved murder in the United Kingdom’s recent history. As far as we know, the perpetrators of this heinous crime are left free to live their lives. The 21 killed when the bombs went off at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town are not.
Those who lost their lives were all younger than I am now. With so much to look forward to, their dreams and aspirations were snatched away in an instant. Nothing we say or do can bring those innocent victims back, but we can still try to achieve justice for their families, and for a city that has many unanswered questions.
This is a situation I have discussed with the last three Home Secretaries. Now, I think it’s time for answers. I have come to the conclusion that the time is right for a panel-led, open public inquiry into the pub bombings.
I am determined that, after the General Election, I will resume the conversation with whoever becomes the Home Secretary.
I have already explained this to Priti Patel. As with the Hillsborough tragedy, it looks likely that only a public inquiry will provide the answers that the families deserve. The pub bombings remain the darkest night in Birmingham’s recent history, and, despite a huge reconciliation effort, we now need full closure, especially for the bereaved families and everyone affected.
The need for closure was tangible as we stood in the shadow of those memorial trees last week. Created by local artist Andhura Patel and bearing leaves that feature the names of the 21 victims, the memorial is also a testament to reconciliation. It was unveiled in a multi-faith event last year on the 44th anniversary – and was commissioned by Birmingham Irish Association.
Beneath the trees lies a plaque. It reads: “This memorial stands as a testament to our grief, in the hope that the 21 will be ever rooted in this place; and as a symbol of peace and unity at the gateway of our city.”
Birmingham will never forget those killed in the pub bombings, and we will never allow terrorism to disrupt the unity of the UK’s most diverse city.
But there is more at stake here, a principle of natural justice. After 45 years, the people of Birmingham need to see action that will enable conclusions to be drawn over these atrocities. It is time for closure. It is time for answers.