Twenty years ago today - Thursday 14 March 1991 - I was standing in a crowd outside the Old Bailey in London waiting for the release of the Birmingham 6. It was very moving to see the six finally released from prison after 16 years, three months and 21 days in prison for crimes they hadn't committed, but also sad to see these grey haired men who had spent so much of their lives behind bars.
'The news took a minute or two to reach the street - but when it did there was an explosion of noise that sent the pigeons fluttering away in a panic. Some 500 campaigners and friends were wild with joy; there was dancing in the street. They quickly pushed police barriers aside to swarm the Old Bailey's entrance, hugging any relative of the Six they could spot' (Independent, 15 March 1991).
Their's was just one of a number of high profile 'miscarriage of justice' cases from that era in which Irish (Birmingham 6, Guildford 4, Maguire 7) and black people (Tottenham 3) were framed by police and courts. Sure those were different times - with the Irish conflict leading to terrible events on all sides, not least the IRA bombings of the Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town pubs in Birmingham in November 1974, in which 21 people died (for which the B6 were wrongly convicted). But in the last couple of years we have seen a man killed by the police and nobody charged (Ian Tomlinson on the G20 protests) and today comes news that 'The policing watchdog is investigating claims that officers colluded in the false arrest of a protester during last year's student demonstrations in London. The Independent Police Complaints Commission confirmed today that it is looking into the circumstances in which a man, who has not been named, suffered a facial injury and was arrested last December'. So keep on your guard.
The Pogues famously released a song Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham 6 that was banned from the airwaves in 1988 under the Conservative government's recently introduced Broadcasting Ban. Home secretary Douglas Hurd used powers under the BBC's Licence and Agreement and the 1981 Broadcasting Act which governs ITV companies, to forbid TV and radio from carrying interviews or direct statements from the IRA, Sinn Féin, and those who 'support or invite support for these organisations'. The Pogues were judged to fall into the latter category and the 'Independent Broadcasting Authority' ruled that the song alleged that "convicted terrorists are not guilty, the Irish people were put at a disadvantage in the courts of the United Kingdom and that it may have invited support for a terrorist organisation such as the IRA".
There were six men in Birmingham
In Guildford there's four
That were picked up and tortured
And framed by the law
And the filth got promotion
But they're still doing time
For being Irish in the wrong place
And at the wrong time
In Ireland they'll put you away in the Maze
In England they'll keep you for seven long days
God help you if ever you're caught on these shores
The coppers need someone
And they walk through that door
You'll be counting years
First five, then ten
Growing old in a lonely hell
Round the yard and the stinking cell
From wall to wall, and back again
A curse on the judges, the coppers and screws
Who tortured the innocent, wrongly accused
For the price of promotion
And justice to sell
May the judged by their judges when they rot down in hell
May the whores of the empire lie awake in their beds
And sweat as they count out the sins on their heads
While over in Ireland eight more men lie dead
Kicked down and shot in the back of the head
(the final two lines refer to the Loughall ambush of 1987 in which seven IRA members and a civilian were executed by the SAS)