The case of the missing thumbprint

The "Hyde Park bomber" has become a landmark for British justice, reports Bob Woffinden

Scant attention was devoted last month to the successful outcome of the appeal of Danny McNamee, known as the "Hyde Park bomber". In publicity terms, McNamee was doubly disadvantaged: not only was the judgment overshadowed by pre-Christmas festivities, it was also given on a day when the news agenda was focused on Baghdad. With Britain and the US dropping so many bombs on Iraq, who was interested in a man who, we belatedly learnt, hadn't bombed anyone at all?

Yet the judgment was of immense importance, for it offered yet another proof of how catastrophically flawed the British justice can be; and because the appeal judges fundamentally restated the legal position with regard to appeals.

McNamee had supposedly manufactured the bomb that exploded in July 1982, killing four soldiers and seven horses.

The Crown's case rested on three fingerprints: one each on short lengths of insulating tape in two caches of explosives-making equipment discovered in Pangbourne and Salcey forests, and a thumbprint on a Duracell battery recovered from the debris after a controlled explosion in Kensington.

As a result, the Crown argued that the "artwork" used in the manufacture of circuit boards found in these locations was so similar that they were all made by "the same original master". This, they asserted, was McNamee. This evidence, together with all the emotive associations of the Hyde Park bombing, added up to a formidable case.

From the outset, McNamee's defence was that, although he was at a loss to explain the thumbprint, there was an innocent explanation for the first two fingerprints. After graduating from Queen's University, Belfast, he was employed by Kimballs in Dundalk, making circuits for gaming machines. If bomb-making had been going on, he was unaware of it. The judge, however, claimed that "two prints . . . could have an innocent explanation; but three prints is beyond coincidence."

The appeal judges noted that the case which they heard in 1998 was very different to that presented to the jury in 1987. It certainly was. The Crown now had to concede that they were unable to say that McNamee was "the Hyde Park bomber" or that he was responsible for the manufacture of the circuit boards. The critical thumbprint, found on the Kensington bomb, also disappeared. A print is supposed to have 16 identifying features, yet of the 14 fingerprint experts called to this appeal, none could now find more than 11 characteristics.

The judges further remarked on the extraordinary amount of relevant material that was not disclosed in 1987. They referred to two "detailed and impressive" reports on the caches of explosives prepared by the anti-terrorist branch of New Scotland Yard. They wrote that, with regard to the cache of explosives found in Pangbourne forest, "the evidence against the bomb-making team of Hughes, Ellis, Leonard and McGuire is overwhelming". The second report said that "Moyna and Harford [are] clearly . . . responsible for the production of the majority of the bomb components found in Salcey forest".

The names are all those of known terrorists. While they were in top-secret reports, McNamee's name was conspicuous by its absence. The defence didn't realise this, however, as no one was thoughtful enough to pass on such vital information. Nor had anyone from the prosecution side bothered to inform them that, although they had found a solitary fingerprint of McNamee's in the Pangbourne forest cache, they had found 24 identified as those of Desmond Ellis, a leading bomb-maker.

Despite all this, the judges still held to the view that McNamee might be guilty. They may have been influenced by a public interest immunity (PII) hearing at the very start of the appeal. One member of McNamee's team explained that the material appeared to consist of "really objectionable low-grade gossip, with the RUC saying they had sightings of McNamee on dates when he was actually in prison". This "evidence" was unchallenged and unchallengeable. (The use in British courts of PII hearings is on the agenda for the European Court, on the grounds that it breaches the right to a fair and public hearing.)

The judges' perspective could have presented serious difficulties for McNamee. One of the provisions of the 1995 Criminal Appeal Act was to change the grounds on which appeals would be allowed from "unsafe and unsatisfactory" simply to "unsafe". Had parliament, in introducing the change, intended a fundamental shift in the court's approach?

The answer, initially determined in the appeal of R v Chalkley and Jeffries, was the latter: appeals were allowed only if judges were convinced the whole case was "unsafe".

Yet McNamee's defence team (headed by the solicitor Gareth Pierce and the QC Michael Mansfield) succeeded in persuading the judges that, for the previous two years, the appeal court had been frustrating the wishes of parliament. The judges conceded, in effect, that the Chalkley and Jeffries judgment was too sweeping and that a real test for an appeal should be "[where] the impact of the fresh evidence on a case is not conclusive, but is such as to render the verdict of the jury unsafe because a tribunal of fact might . . . be left with a reasonable doubt as to guilt".

The appeal means a big step forward for all future appellants. Immediate beneficiaries were Michael O'Brien, Ellis Sherwood and Darren Hall, convicted in the so-called Cardiff newsagent case. Their case was referred to appeal, and the three were released on bail in time for Christmas.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood