I was still a priest and I was giving a parish mission in Leytonstone, north London, around 1995. We would spend the first week knocking on doors, visiting people. One day I knocked on a door and a handsome man answered it. Immediately I sensed that I knew him but I could not place him. Where had I seen this man before? I know you from somewhere, I told him. He smiled a slow smile and then he said to me, you probably saw my face on television. The man in front of me was Billy Power and he was one of the Birmingham Six – the six men arrested and falsely convicted of the terrible pub bombing in Birmingham in 1974.
I felt privileged to meet him and I spent a short time in his house talking with him. I asked him one question. What was your over riding emotion in prison? Was it anger? After all, how do you survive for 17 years in prison for something you did not do! Billy told me no, it was not anger. It was frustration: The frustration of telling the truth repeatedly to people and being repeatedly disbelieved.
When the Birmingham Six were finally released and exonerated we began to hear the true story of how they had been abused in custody and forced to make confessions. The police had decided that these guys were the guilty ones and they would make it stick.
When atrocities occur people give vent to their prejudices and their angers and fair play goes out the window. In this case the old English/Irish hatred was reignited.
My mother, who had lived in England for forty years by this time, was verbally abused in the local shops when people heard her Irish accent.
Today, in the Guardian, Chris Mullin gives a clear account of the story of the Birmingham Six, and of the scandalous behaviour of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad. Today in the Gospel, (Luke 11:14-23) we hear how Jesus is falsely accused of doing the devil’s work. The police continued to behave like this even after the Six were released, accusing them of being terrorists even if they did not do the pubs job. Telling lies.
Today I see myself again sitting by the fireside with Billy Power. Frustration is the great suffering. When you are telling the truth and nobody will believe you.
24 March 2022