March 14

This Day in History

General Interest

Mar 14, 1991:

Birmingham Six released

In the face of widespread questioning of their guilt, British authorities release the so-called "Birmingham Six," six Irish men who had been sent to prison 16 years earlier for the 1974 terrorist bombings of two Birmingham, England, pubs.

On November 21, 1974, two Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombs exploded in two separate Birmingham pubs, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds. The bombing attacks were part of the ongoing conflict between the British government and the IRA over the status of Northern Ireland. Days after the Birmingham bombings, the British government outlawed the IRA in all the United Kingdom, and authorities rushed to arrest and convict the IRA members responsible. Six Irish suspects were arrested and sent to interrogation, where four of them signed confessions. The IRA, which claimed responsibility for the Birmingham bombings, declared that the six were not members of its organization.

During the subsequent trial, the defendants maintained their innocence, claiming that police had beaten the confessions out of them. Prosecutors denied this and also came up with forensic evidence that apparently proved that the Birmingham Six had handled explosives shortly before their arrest. They were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

In 1985, the forensic evidence was exposed by scientists as unreliable at best, and in 1987 an appeals judge conceded that the same results could be obtained from testing people who recently touched playing cards or cigarette paper. However, it was not until March 1991, with people across Britain and Ireland calling for their release, that the Birmingham Six were freed after years in prison. Seven years later, a British court of appeals formally overturned their sentences, citing serious doubts about the legitimacy of the police evidence and the treatment of the suspects during their interrogation.

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