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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times