When justice must be done

When justice must be done Julie Hambleton (centre), who lost her sister Maxine in the Birmingham bombing in 1974.

Everything must be experienced – and understood – in context. And the context in which I remember the Birmingham bombings – when 21 mostly young people died in two Birmingham pubs targeted by the Provisional IRA in 1974 – is personal. I had just had a baby who wasn’t, in the first weeks, very well and was being kept in intensive care.

This makes a new mother feel so vulnerable, and, at the same time, so full of awe and wonder at the miracle of new life. I remember looking at the infant in the hospital cot and thinking of Shakespeare’s words: “What a piece of work is man.”

Soon afterwards came the news of the Birmingham atrocity. Almost for the first time, the meaning of human life hit home to me: life is so precious, love and care of life matter so much. So awful that people go off and kill other sons and daughters deliberately.


The political background of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is, as everyone knows, complicated. There were many injustices, a pressing need for change, and atrocities on all sides. Activists can sometimes feel driven to take up arms. All this is factually part of the story: but sometimes one particular event just becomes a kind of epiphany for us, personally, because it occurs within a particular context. One event can turn around our ideas where many previous facts have been viewed with some detachment.

All through these last 44 years I have hoped to see some kind of justice for the families of those 21 Birmingham victims, which included two Irish brothers who had arranged to meet one another for a drink that November evening.

It was, of course, appalling that the ‘Birmingham Six’ were wrongly convicted – due to the incompetence and perhaps prejudices of the West Midlands police – and admirable to campaign for the correction of that miscarriage of justice. But still, the Birmingham families felt, for many years afterwards that their case for justice had been neglected or ignored. Julie Hambleton, who lost her sister Maxine in the blast, has been the most persistent voice in campaigning for a proper investigation and an answer. Her loving dedication to her sister’s memory is deeply affecting.

And now, this week, an official inquest has at last opened which will examine the circumstances of the bombings – and whether opportunities were missed to halt them. The coroner at Birmingham’s Civil Justice Centre, Sir Peter Thornton opened the session by reading out the names of the 21 and asking for a minute’s silence to respect the dead – and the bereaved.

This is, surely, the right thing to do.


The film director Stanley Donen died recently and to mark his passing came a burst of Singin’ in the Rain – from the movie he directed – over the radio waves. Spontaneously, almost involuntarily, I found myself dancing around the kitchen and joining in, karaoke-style.

Gene Kelly’s famous rendering of this wonderful song [pictured] was – and remains – such a pure expression of infectiously musical joie de vivre it would be hard not to sing along.

It is optimism in a nutshell – a tuneful, uplifting affirmation of life. “Let the stormy clouds chase/Everyone from the place/C’mon with the rain/I’ve a smile on my face!”

At a time when gloom looms almost everywhere we look, we need a dose of Singin’ in the Rain every day.


Perhaps Portugal has learned the hard way

It’s unsurprising that Portugal has emerged as the least racist EU society (in a survey about race relations across the EU). Measuring discrimination against immigrants of African heritage, Portugal had a low score of 2%. Finland (14%) and Ireland (13%) regrettably came out with the highest rates.

Portugal has always had a track-record of racial tolerance and integration. Even as colonialists in Mozambique and Brazil the Portuguese inter-married more with host populations than the British, Dutch or Belgians.

History books sometimes castigate Portugal for its period of dictatorship under Salazar, but they seldom praise Portugal for its practice of racial harmony and genuinely Christian attitudes of integration.

Finland has a tradition of ‘Finns first’ and for many years it was closed to incomers. Last time I was in Helsinki, our guide expressed satisfaction that the Finnish language was so linguistically isolated it was especially difficult for foreigners to learn – and that deterred incomers, in the first place!

Perhaps others can elucidate why Ireland was so high on the list of this official EU survey (‘Being Black in the EU’).