By Ryan Hooper, Press Association
The inquests into the 1974 Guildford pub bombings are to resume more than 40 years since they were suspended, after a coroner ruled that the public were “entitled” to have the incident explored “untainted”.
Surrey Coroner Richard Travers said he felt the core issues of how, when and where the four young soldiers and one civilian died had not been sufficiently established in public proceedings, following a campaign from the families of victims, survivors, and those wrongfully imprisoned to complete the hearings.
Soldiers Caroline Slater, 18, William Forsyth, 18, John Hunter, 17, and Ann Hamilton, 19, and civilian Paul Craig, 22, died in the blast – carried out by the IRA at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles – at the Horse and Groom pub, which was popular with soldiers, in the town on October 5 1974.
Original inquest proceedings were opened and suspended after the Guildford Four – Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong and Carole Richardson – were convicted over the bombings in 1975.
They were handed life sentences but had their convictions overturned in 1989 – the case becoming one of the best-known miscarriages of justice in British legal history.
Reading out his ruling during a 25-minute hearing at Woking Coroner’s Court, Mr Travers said: “It is not in doubt that the deceased were unlawfully killed by a team of Provisional IRA terrorists, probably comprised of eight people in two cars.
“What the resumed inquests can and will investigate are issues such as the time of the blast, the respective locations of the bomb and its victims, who was with the victims at the time of the blast, whether each of the deceased died immediately and, if not, how long they survived for, whether they said anything to anybody prior to their deaths and the response of first aiders and emergency services.”
But he said the resumed inquest would not have the scope to explore who was responsible for the bomb, the composition of the explosive device or any claims that police lied during the trial of the Guildford Four.
He said that, while there might be some evidential difficulties due to the fact that many witnesses may have died in the years since the blast, others would only be in their 60s or 70s, and should therefore be available to be called as witnesses if necessary.
Mr Travers added: “I take the view that the deceased, their families and the public are entitled to have these matters formally explored in open court and in proceedings which are untainted by allegations of impropriety or misconduct.
“Doing this will establish and record a credible and reliable account of what happened to the victims in a way that respects and honours their memory, and I believe this would represent an important and worthwhile exercise.
“The deaths in question and the occurrence of a terrorist atrocity in Guildford town centre still matter to the families of those who died, the people of Surrey, and the wider public notwithstanding the lapse of time.
“This case is not of such antiquity that it should be considered ancient history.”
He added that the inquests would not make determinations which are inconsistent with the Guildford Four’s overturned convictions.
The incident and its aftermath became so notorious that it inspired the 1993 film In The Name Of The Father, which saw Mr Conlon played by Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
Coroner Mr Travers said a pre-inquest review would be held at a later date before the resumption of the inquests.
In a statement on behalf of the family of Pte Hamilton and survivor Yvonne Tagg, lawyers KRW said: “KRW welcome the ruling on behalf of our clients and welcome the opportunity for an effective investigation into the Guildford pub bombings.”
Surrey Police said in a statement following the coroner’s ruling that they have already begun cataloguing all material held in relation to the bombings, but that it would take up to further 18 months to complete.