A self-confessed IRA member who has been named several times publicly as the man who built the Birmingham pub bombs has apologised for the atrocity that killed 21 people.
Michael Christopher Hayes has spoken for the first time about his role in the IRA unit that caused the explosions in the city on 21 November 1974.
Six Irishmen, who later became known as the Birmingham Six, were wrongly convicted of the bombings.
Speaking to the BBC for a special programme on the atrocities, Hayes claimed his unit had not intended to kill civilians. He also alleged there was an eight-minute delay on the explosive devices that went off at the Mulberry Bush and Tavern in the Town pubs in Birmingham city centre.
Asked if he planted the devices, Hayes replied: “No comment. No comment.”
He continued: “I’ve been accused of a lot of things, without one shred of forensic evidence, without one statement made, without one witness coming out against me.”
Hayes revealed that the bombs were made of gelignite explosive and were left by two IRA operatives. Pressed on whether he was one of those individuals, Hayes said: “I’m not telling you.”
He said he defused a third bomb on Birmingham’s Hagley Road when he heard about the carnage in the city centre pubs, saying “we were horrified” because “it was not intended”.
The Dublin-based former IRA man said he took “collective responsibility” for many of the organisation’s activities in England, including the Birmingham bombs.
Firemen inspect the damage after the IRA bomb blast at the Tavern in the Town pub in Birmingham. Photograph: Wesley/Getty Images
Hayes also claimed he thought the IRA had given sufficient time for the police to evacuate the buildings. “We believed that we gave adequate warnings,” he said.
Addressing the families of the 21 victims, Hayes said: “My apologies and my heartfelt sympathy to all of you for a terrible tragic loss that you have been put through.
“In all these years that you have been trying to find closure, I hope at last God will be merciful and bring you closure. I apologise not only for myself, I apologise for all active republicans who had no intention of hurting anybody and sympathise with you.”
Julie Hambleton, whose 18-year-old sister Maxine was killed in the pub bombings, branded Hayes “a coward”.
She said: “He’ll take collective responsibility for those unarmed, innocent people, but won’t say who done it? He’s gutless and spineless. He’s told us nothing, he’s admitted nothing.”
Hambleton is one of the founders of the Justice for the 21 pressure group, which is campaigning for an independent public inquiry into the atrocity.
On the Birmingham Six, who spent 16 years in prison, Hayes defended his decision not to name the real bombers when the innocent men were languishing in jail.
Hayes said he would rather die than become an informer, even if that meant holding back information that could have freed the Birmingham Six earlier. The men were eventually released from jail after their convictions were quashed by the court of appeal in 1991.
A year before the Birmingham Six walked free, ITV’s World in Action named Hayes and three other men they said were responsible for the bombings.
The investigative TV show accused Hayes of being one of those who planted the pub bombs. It also alleged he helped plan other IRA attacks in England including the Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings in 1982, in which 11 people died.
Hayes was also accused of being part of the IRA unit that bombed the Harrods departmentstore in London in 1983, killing six people. He was also, according to World in Action, connected to the bomb at the Grand Hotel in Brighton in 1984, when the IRA tried to kill Margaret Thatcher and murdered five people.
Hayes has not been charged with any offences and no one has been convicted of the Birmingham bombings.
Last year, English detectives investigating the Birmingham bombings interviewed the IRA’s director of intelligence at the time of the atrocity, who admitted he was debriefed after the attack.
Kieran Conway was questioned by officers from the West Midlands police counter-terrorism unit in Dublin in January 2016.
The interview took place at Pearse Street garda station in central Dublin under the terms of the mutual legal assistance treaties, which allow foreign police forces to question Irish citizens in the republic about crimes committed in other countries.
Conway, who wrote about the fallout from the pub bombings in his memoir of life in the IRA, Southside Provisional, said he felt “personal shame and regret over the bombings, which he described as murderous and among the worst atrocities committed by the IRA”.