By Michael Holden
LONDON (Reuters) - Inquests into the deaths of 21 people killed in 1974 when bombs exploded in two Birmingham pubs, the deadliest attack on the British mainland in 30 years of Northern Irish violence, will be reopened to examine new evidence, a coroner ruled on Wednesday.
The new inquiries will consider whether the authorities ignored warnings before the bombings in the crowded Mulberry Bush pub and The Tavern in Birmingham, central England, on Nov. 21, 1974. Although the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was believed to have planted the explosives, it never claimed responsibility.
Senior coroner Louise Hunt, who has reviewed the case, said there was information which suggested the local West Midlands police force had failed to act on two tip-offs, including a comment made by men with IRA links that Birmingham "would be hit next week".
"There is a wealth of evidence that still has not been heard," Hunt said according to the BBC. "I have serious concerns that advance notice of the bombs may have been available to the police and that they failed to take the necessary steps to protect life."
The bombings, in which over 180 people were also wounded, caused the biggest loss of life on the British mainland during the 30 years of conflict between mostly Catholic nationalists, who favored Northern Ireland's unification with the Republic of Ireland, and Protestants wanting to stay in the United Kingdom.
The violence, known as "The Troubles" in which 3,600 people died, was largely brought to an end with the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
Inquests were opened soon after the attacks but were adjourned to allow criminal investigations to take place.
In one of Britain's most notorious miscarriages of justice, six Irish men were later wrongly convicted and spent 16 years in jail until they were exonerated and released in 1991.
"Today is the most seismic day for all of us," said Julie Hambleton, whose 18-year-old sister Maxine was among those killed. She said they hoped the inquests would provide the truth and potentially help lead to new convictions.
Hunt, however, did reject the suggestion that police had been protecting an IRA informant.
Paddy Hill, one of the men wrongly jailed for the attack, said: "They (the police) had advance warning ... and they didn't take any steps to prevent it. If they had done, the people that planted the bombs would have been caught and convicted. Instead they let it happen."
The force's chief constable Dave Thompson said he welcomed the coroner's decision.
"West Midlands Police not only failed to catch those responsible but caused a miscarriage of justice," he said. "I have said and reiterate again, it is the most serious failing in this force's history."
(editing by Stephen Addison)