Thirty five years ago, six Irishmen were jailed for crimes they did not commit, and spent 16 years in jail before their convictions were quashed.
As blows rained down on Johnny Walker’s stomach during a brutal beating at the hands of the police, he realised that in saying almost nothing, he had still said too much. “They were beating me up and my shirt came open and I told them I had stomach ulcers, so all the punches went down there... I should have shut my big mouth,” he says, his voice quavering.
Even now - 35 years after he was wrongly convicted of the Birmingham pub bombings - the trauma he endured has left raw mental scars to go with the physical marks left by torture and beatings at the hands of the police and prison officers. “I still got parts of my body that is not right... they knocked all my teeth out... I’ll carry these scars to my grave.”
Walker was one of six men - with Richard McIlkenny, Paddy Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Billy Power and Gerry Hunter - wrongly jailed for killing 21 people and injuring 182 others 35 years ago on 21 November 1974. Once the police and prison guards got their hands on him, they inflicted violent vengeance before the courts could even begin to consider justice.
He shakes at the memory of what happened to him: “I’m paying the price now [for] what they done to me...” According to the doctor who visited him all those years ago, his body was covered in cuts and bruises. But physical trauma paled compared to the mental assault. In a statement made to his solicitors at the time, he told of becoming “completely deranged” as a result of the repeated beatings and psychological torture of mock executions, where he was made to believe he would be shot in the head.
Then he spent more than 16 years in prison in what was later described as one of “the greatest disasters to have shaken British justice in my time” by the late Lord Devlin, a former law lord and Lord Justice of the Court of Appeal. It cost Walker his wife, children, home, health, almost his sanity.
Speaking at his home in a remote corner of Donegal, where the 74-year-old lives with his second wife, Paivi, 50, and son Martti, 15, he said: “I can remember it all from yesterday. I can tell you, from the day it happened, what happened that day, to the day I die. It’s planted in your mind - you never forget that.”
He added: “I’m standing here shaking like a leaf, so I am, oh aye, yes... it brings it all back. That’s why I try and keep it out. I don’t like talking about it too much, it all comes back to you... “ He slumps, bowed under the weight of every one of his 74 years. “... just like yesterday.”
When, finally, he was freed, he withdrew from mankind and stayed withdrawn. He lives a quiet life in a tiny village on the north-west coast of Ireland. “I don’t trust anybody any more. It’s a sad thing to say. When you meet people for the first time, you’re always a wee bit wary about them.”
The inside of his immaculate three-bed house - down the end of a dirt track overlooking the sea - gives no clue to his past. The nearest neighbour is a couple of minutes’ walk away. It is an isolated but beautiful setting, underpinned by calm and routine. Every morning, he takes his labrador cross, Mukka, for a walk along the beach before returning to his home.
But its walls and the idyllic surroundings are not enough to keep out savage, marauding memories. Terrifying flashbacks come regularly. He doesn’t want to give details: “You go to bed, you have these dreams. You wake up and you’re covered in sweat.”
Recalling this prompts bitterness at what was done to him and the insult added to injury when not a single police or prison officer was punished.
He has spent years escaping the notoriety of being one of the Birmingham Six. The only other member of the six he keeps in touch with is Gerry Hunter, and it has been 18 years since he last gave an interview to a national newspaper. “I haven’t spoken to anybody for years. This is my last interview... as we say, enough is enough. I’ve got to get on with life. I’m getting old now.
“I just want to walk into the pub, just be an individual. Go and have a drink with me friends and not people pointing you out and talking about you... I mean I think it would have stopped after all these years, but it’s still there.”
He was 39 and married with seven children when he was arrested on his way to the funeral of an IRA member, James McDade, on the night of the bombings. That the six were Irish and also knew McDade seemed to be all the evidence the police and courts needed. They were convicted in 1975 and sentenced to life.
By the time he finally got out, his family were strangers to him: he was divorced from his wife, Theresa, less than a year after being freed. “It was sad; two strangers living under the same roof.” He lost contact with most of his children - the worst thing of all, he says. His youngest daughter, Joanna, was two when he went to jail. He emerged to find her a grown woman: “I had seven children, but I didn’t know them.”
It was hard to adjust: “You would sit in a conversation where everybody’s laughing and joking, and you wouldn’t know what they were talking about... you’re not involved in it, you’re not a part of the family.”
He spent a year and a half drinking: at one point getting through two bottles of vodka a day. “If I was drunk, the whole world passed me by. I couldn’t handle life as I wasn’t part of that life.” Things began spiralling out of control. He told his sister he needed help. “They brought me down here to Donegal, in a wee house by the beach, kept me out of the pubs. Then, after six months, I met this second lady of mine, my wife now. She come over from Finland and looked after me.” That was 16 years ago.
These days “it all depends how you wake up in the morning... I’m like an Aborigine, I go walkabout for a couple of days in a world of my own sometimes... I’m not the nicest person sometimes to live with, but that’s not my fault; I can’t help it.
“Even now, talking about it, I do get a wee bit wired up... but I have got to bring it out now and again to get it out of my system.
“We’re getting older now and we’re getting sentimental. We look back at life and what we’ve lost... It’s hard enough to be locked away when you’ve done something... but if you’ve done nothing it’s very, very hard.”
The case is an indelible black mark on the British judicial system: confessions obtained by systematic beatings; statements doctored. The convictions were finally quashed on appeal in 1991, but they had to wait another decade before getting compensation. Incredibly, money was deducted for their stay in prison.
No one has been brought to justice for the bombings and case will not be reopened “in a million years”, he says: “There’s too much scandal. All I can say is that we never done it, the police know who done it - they knew from day one who done it, and still they put me in prison.”
He admits “hatred” for the British authorities: “Everybody’s a terrorist as far as they’re concerned now,” he adds, referring to the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. “If you’re a coloured chap and you’re on a train and you’re carrying a bag, it’s ‘oh, like watch him, he’s a terrorist’... it’s awful.
“They all said what happened to us would never happen again... but the Pakistanis, the Indians, these different nationalities, they’re getting the backlash now. I don’t think there’s been much change, to be honest.”
The very notion of an apology from the Government fires him up further: “There’s no chance the British government is going to apologise to six Irish men, no chance! The justice we got was: after 16 and a half years they let us out of prison. They thought they were doing us a good turn. I don’t want their apology. I know I was right and they were wrong... that does me. We’ve got to bury the hatchet one day, and I think it is buried after tonight.”
His voice is quiet: “What happened to us should never happen again. We pray it never happens to anybody.”