President Michael D Higgins this week visited the site of one of the worst IRA atrocities of The Troubles – the 1974 Birmingham Pub Bombings which claimed the lives of 21 people, injured 182 more, and led to the infamous Birmingham Six miscarriage of justice.
Two bombs exploded in the Tavern in the Town and Mulberry Bush pubs in Birmingham city centre on the night of 21 November. At the time it was the worst attack in Britain since the Second World War. A recently reopened coroner’s inquest, by coroner Sir Peter Thornton QC, is still hearing preliminary submissions and applications.
President Higgins, on his first official visit to the city which is home to at least 100,000 people of Irish descent, paid a special visit to the memorial, erected last November by the Birmingham Irish Association beside New Street station in memory of the victims and met some of the victims’ families’ representatives.
He paid tribute and “offered the respect of memory and sympathy to all of the innocent victims and their families”.
But, he stressed, “these dark days are now behind us.”
“The relationship between Ireland and the UK is now one of cooperation, strength and friendship.”
Ireland and Britain must “showcase respect” for one another if their political relationship is to “flourish” in the coming years, Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins said in his speech in Birmingham.
The Irish president spoke at special civic reception after visiting a recently-erected memorial to the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974, which took 21 innocent lives.
Mr Higgins expressed his sadness at the Brexit decision but said, although “political developments “continue to occupy the mind of politicians” in Ireland and Britain, it was important that the countries remembered their “shared history”.
“I wish to reiterate today that however the challenge of Brexit is resolved it will be more important than ever in the years ahead to sustain and build upon the deep friendships which have grown between Britain and Ireland, and within our Island,” the President said.
Birmingham is a place “with a strong identity and a vibrant history” which has “long been synonymous with the industrial revolution,” Higgins said, noting the invention of the industrial steam engine there in 1776.
Higgins, in his speech, said that in making his first trip to Birmingham in an official capacity, he was following, “in the footsteps of generations of Irish emigrants who left our shores and made their way to Birmingham, settling here and becoming part of the very fabric of the city.”
“The Irish population of Birmingham has a proud history. Our people worked in the great factories of this region, becoming part of the history of the industrial revolution and its aftermath,” he added.
“They worked as nurses, tending the sick in the local hospitals. They worked in schools, teaching the young people of Birmingham…they worked in construction, or as they may have put it themselves, they worked ‘on the buildings’.
As well as joining the civic reception and paying his respects at the bombings memorial, Mr Higgins, joined by his wife Sabina, met with Birmingham’s Lord Mayor, Ms. Yvonne Mosquito, and visited the Birmingham Irish Association, which celebrated its 60th-anniversary last year.
Mr Higgins heralded Birmingham’s “dedication to the universality of education”. In 1900, he said, England’s first civic university – Birmingham University – was founded there.
It was a place where “students from all religions and backgrounds were accepted on an equal basis, an aspiration that we should all have for higher education,” he added.
The president spoke of Birmingham’s “proud sporting centre” and the “significant Irish influence in both Birmingham City and Aston Villa football clubs.
“It is a testament to the strength of that link with Ireland that so many fans still make the trip here every weekend to follow both teams in their respective pushes for promotion,” he said.