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Paul Vallely: Guildford bombings inquest adds to the whitewash

22 July 2022

Victims’ families have still not received answers, reports Paul Vallely


The Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, and the Chief Constable of Surrey Police, Peter Matthews, outside one of the pubs bombed in Guildford, in 1974

The Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, and the Chief Constable of Surrey Police, Peter Matthews, outside one of the pubs bombed in Guildford, in 1974

THE inquest into the deaths of the five people who died in the Guildford pub bombings is due to finish today. The hearing marks an unsatisfactory conclusion to a long and tortuous saga, which features grave miscarriages of justice, police intimidation, bungled forensics, judicial arrogance, and a sequence of political and official obfuscations.

At the inquest, which has taken more than 40 years to hold, the families of the dead were unrepresented, after being denied legal aid. No jury sat. And more than 700 files on the 1974 IRA bombs, which had been scheduled for release in 2020, were reclassified by the Home Office, so that they remain closed for a further 75 years — after an application by the Surrey Police, the force previously found to have acted duplicitously in the affair.

The coroner delegated to Surrey Police the task of deciding which of the 700 files should be disclosed to the inquest (but not to the public). The police selected just two.

No one has ever been convicted of the terrorist outrage in which five people died and dozens were injured. The 11 people — known as the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven — who were wrongly jailed had their convictions overturned after a campaign by Cardinal Basil Hume.

The Avon and Somerset Police later revealed that false confessions had been extorted by Surrey police officers, who then tampered with their notes. The Court of Appeal, which quashed the sentences of the Guildford Four, who had spent 15 years behind bars, declared baldly that the police “must have lied” to gain the wrongful convictions.

The whole affair smacked of an Establishment cover-up. This month’s inquest was the perfect opportunity to lay that bare. Instead, it has added to the whitewash.

There were doubts about the convictions from the outset. The Bomb Squad found the same forensic identifiers on IRA bombs in Ripon, Guildford, Aldershot, and Warminster. But this forensic evidence was later edited to remove all reference to Guildford. Yet the expert from Porton Down who testified at this month’s inquest was not asked about the known forensic links between the Guildford bombs and those that went off all around London until 1975 — long after the Guildford Four were in custody.

Nor did the inquest touch upon the fact that, in 1976, two IRA men, Brendan Dowd and Joe O’Connell, admitted, during their trial over the Balcombe Street siege, that they were also the Guildford bombers. They provided information that only the real bombers could have known. Yet they were never charged.

Most alarmingly, Lord Denning, then Master of the Rolls, made a disturbing remark about another miscarriage of justice. The prospect that the Birmingham Six might be innocent opened “such an appalling vista that every sensible person in the land would say it cannot be right that these actions should go any further”. Better for innocent men to remain in jail than that the system be discredited.

After the arrest of the Balcombe Street IRA unit, senior police officers and lawyers all must have known that there was something wrong with the Guildford convictions. But it was too politically embarrassing for them to admit that.

To coincide with the end of today’s inquest, the victims’ families released a statement that ended: “Many of our questions remain unanswered.” They are, indeed.

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