Just 15 police on duty in Birmingham on night of IRA pub bombings, inquest told

Police numbers had been cut to just 15 officers across “busy” Birmingham city centre on the night of the 1974 IRA pub bombings, an inquest jury has heard.

Manpower had been “denuded”, according to an official police report from the time, in order to cover funeral transport arrangements for provisional Irish Republican Army bomber James McDade.

The inquest also heard that, when the bomb warnings were phoned in at 8.11pm on the night of November 21, police reinforcements were only called in after the explosions.

It was not until 9.10pm that extra officers started arriving at the scenes.

Inquests at Birmingham Civil Justice Centre into the 21 victims killed in the blasts got under way this week after a 44-year wait for the bereaved families.

Opening the proceedings, coroner Sir Peter Thornton told jurors they would hear evidence of how the two bombs ripped apart two pubs on what was a “perfectly ordinary evening”.

The blasts, detonating in “massive explosions” just minutes apart inside the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town, brought “devastation”, jurors heard.

At the time, the West Midlands was in the grip of an IRA bombing campaign, the jury was told.

There had been 53 separate explosive and incendiary devices used between 1973 and the pub attacks.

Two separate bombs had gone off previously at the Rotunda, where the Mulberry Bush was, in both April and July 1974.

Jurors heard from barrister Lesley Thomas QC, representing several of the bereaved families, that the city would have been “busy” that night.

Thursday was late-night shopping day, and many people had also received their wages, he said.

Seven days before the blasts, McDade had been killed while planting a bomb at the Coventry telephone exchange.

Security arrangements for the cortege taking McDade’s remains to Birmingham Airport for flight back to Ireland had seen police leave and training cancelled, jurors heard.

In all, West Midlands Police had gathered 1,680 uniformed officers for the operation, while 352 officers from Staffordshire, West Mercia and Warwickshire forces were held in reserve.

On Thursday, the inquests heard that 135 of those officers were taken from “A division”, the unit which policed the city centre where both pubs were.

That night, just 10 officers were at the nearest police station in Digbeth, and five more at the division’s other base in Steelhouse Lane.

In an official police report following the pub blasts, a force superintendent said: “The bomb incidents in Birmingham occurred while the city centre was denuded of uniformed police officers who were engaged at Birmingham Airport, but it is felt that this in no way affected the organisation and efficiency of the police at the scenes.

“On receipt of information at the airport that serious incidents had occurred in Birmingham city centre, the A division contingent and special patrol group were immediately directed there, thus providing more officers at short notice than would normally have been available.”

The report and other documents on officer numbers were formally introduced as evidence by Anthony Mole, an ex-police officer with 30 years’ experience – unconnected with events – who is giving professional evidence to the hearings.

Asking questions on behalf of three of the bereaved victims’ families, Heather Williams QC asked Mr Mole about a passage in an official police report regarding A division’s staffing of the funeral, and its impact.

The report stated that officer numbers had been “partly achieved by reducing strength of second day watch and night duty”, leaving the nearest police station with just six constables, not including other ranks, to respond to city centre incidents.

Mrs Williams asked: “So what is being said is not just that these figures were achieved by simply cancelling leave and training but some of the officers due to be on duty that day – either on second day shift or night shift – were deployed in relation to the McDade funeral rather than on the city centre as they normally would be?”

She went on: “What is being said is these were the only officers available on outside duty in the city centre on the early evening of 21 November 1974?”

The jury heard that Digbeth police station alone had sent 60 constables to the funeral.

Mrs Williams asked: “So we can conclude that’s six constables in all, as against 60 constables that were to deploy to the McDade funeral arrangements?”

Mr Mole replied: “Yes, although I don’t know what the normal strength is on a night shift.”

Jurors also heard that both pubs were busy that night, with “about 40-50” in the Mulberry Bush and some 200 in the Tavern in the Town.

A report by a chief superintendent, after the bombings, said the first police officers to be pulled back from the McDade funeral detail only arrived at 9.10pm, 59 minutes after the warning call.

It then emerged that the McDade officers were not called back “until after the explosions”.

Jurors also heard that the warning call code word “XX” or “double X” had been used previously ahead of a bomb attack on the Rotunda in July.

Mrs Williams asked: “So, just to give context, there is no suggestion that any of those officers were available until an hour after that (warning call) was made?”

Mr Mole said: “From what I read, the call for assistance wasn’t made until after the explosions.”

The coroner then added: “It would seem that was after the flight when the coffin actually left on the Aer Lingus flight at 8.30pm.”

Earlier in the day, jurors were taken to visit the former sites of both pubs.

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