From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
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The release of the Birmingham Six on 14 March 1991 after over 16 years in prison was one of the biggest nails in the coffin for public confidence in British justice. In Cruel Fate, Hugh Callaghan gives a very personal account of his life up to, during and after his ordeal in British jails.
He was born in 1930 to a working class Catholic family in the Ardoyne, Belfast. Ironically he sought release through emigration to Britain. But the reality of the sectarian state back home continued to make itself felt, with the pogroms by B Specials and Orange thugs against Catholic families, including those in Hugh Callaghan’s home town.
In 1972 he made a brief visit home and, like everyone else, found himself thrown into resistance whether he wanted to be or not. He and his friends were persuaded to man a bus being used to barricade a street into a Catholic estate for a night: ‘It was impressive to see how the Ardoyne people stood up for themselves and their families; I felt a sense of pride and got a great lift out of being part of their efforts to defend themselves, small though my part was.’
Callaghan’s origins would continue to haunt him. In 1974 they were enough for the British state to throw him and five other innocents into jail. Seeing himself as just another working man in Birmingham, Hugh never even imagined that suspicion would fall on him for the pub bombs that killed 21 young people.
Callaghan describes the brutal way in which a confession was extracted from him. This quiet, unassuming man – the most unlikely IRA ‘bomber’, as Chris Mullin describes him – makes no bones of the fact that his confession was the ‘easiest’ to coerce. He was cruelly clutched from his life and family, held incommunicado for over five days, denied food and water, subjected to all manner of mental abuse and then, at his lowest ebb, forced to sign a self-contradictory confession. As soon as he regained his senses he tried to retract it, but to no avail. A gun was pointed at his head and he was told he was going to stick to that confession.
These confessions and the paltriest of ‘scientific’ evidence were enough for the judge, who all but instructed the jury to convict. Behind this was the wave of anti-Irish hysteria which saw attacks on Irish homes and calls for hanging.
One of the most impressive things about this book is the manner in which an ordinary working class man like Callaghan, with no particular interest in politics, could find resources within himself to resist the daily oppressions of the prison system. ‘Slopping out’ is designed to degrade inmates. But when a screw upbraided Callaghan for emptying his contents in the wrong place and asked if his mates hadn’t told him how to do it properly, he just replied, how could they, as he wasn’t allowed to talk to them? ‘“So you can speak up for yourself after all,” the screw commented. He looked surprised. I was too.’
From someone used to obeying his ‘betters’, Hugh soon became the bane of the life of every official who crossed his path (including every prison clergyman who made the mistake of patronising him) whom he would invariably confront with his innocence.
On the Birmingham Six’s first appearance at the Appeal Court just six months after their conviction he says, ‘I was no longer in awe of the courts. The law wasn’t on the side of the innocent working man – but then, was it ever?’
Instructive too is the changing attitude of other prisoners to the ‘bombers’. Initially Callaghan lived in constant fear of physical and verbal abuse from other prisoners but his sheer guts and blatant innocence won at least a grudging sympathy from all around him. After one protest by ‘genuine’ Republican prisoners was put down by the dreaded ‘mufti squad’, there was a night long protest by many ordinary English prisoners at the violence of the riot squad. On another occasion ordinary inmates came to the aid of Callaghan when he was threatened by a screw who had lost relatives in Ulster.
If the first half of this book is an account of the descent into hell the second is marked by his determination to survive and to be freed. He describes the efforts of those outside who fought for their release. These included the families and in Hugh’s case Mike Walsh, a member of Birmingham Labour Party and a trade unionist. He had to secretly help Hugh’s wife Eileen without being able to tell anyone else he knew in Birmingham. And of course there were the efforts of Labour MP Chris Mullin and lawyer Gareth Pierce.
The judges who resisted these efforts receive scorn from Callaghan. He especially criticises Lord Denning who preferred to see the men rot rather than face the ‘appalling vista’ of admitting British justice had got it wrong. The judges had ‘an expression on their faces that appeared to suggest they would have liked to have said, “how dare you approach us?” But even small people have a right to justice.’ And with enough people marching and putting pressure on outside eventually the six got out.
This book is a very personal account. Look elsewhere for a sustained political or legal argument on the case. ‘I wasn’t interested in politics ... I preferred a good chat about football, the films or songs.’ But this man knows more about the reality of the system than any academic Marxist and this book is a brilliant indictment of it.
Last updated: 8 March 2017