White House-bound Joe Biden urged release of Birmingham Six in 1990

State Papers: Irish men held for 16 years in British prison for crime they did not commit

US president-elect Joe Biden argued in the Senate 30 years ago for the release of the Birmingham Six.

Government files newly released into the National Archives include a Department of Foreign Affairs briefing about the White House incumbent’s political manoeuvring on Capitol Hill in support of the jailed Irish men.

A year before they were eventually freed, after 16 years in prison for a crime they did not commit, Massachusetts representative Brian Donnelly – synonymous with the so-called “Donnelly Visa” – tabled a motion in Congress demanding their release.

The January 1990 motion called for quashing of convictions of the six: Paddy Joe Hill, Hugh Callaghan, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker and for then US president George Bush snr to raise the case with then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.


The motion, tabled days after Donnelly visited Hill in prison, had 109 co-sponsors, the Department of Foreign Affairs memo notes.

“It is understood the British embassy has actively lobbied against the motion,” it adds.

Biden acts

The newly declassified file (2020/17/52), written up by the department’s Anglo-Irish division, states that then senator Joseph Biden, as second ranking Democrat in the Senate Foreign Relations committee, “introduced a broadly similar motion in the Senate on March 9”.

“The 13 co-sponsors include Senators Edward Kennedy and Patrick Moynihan,” it adds.

The Birmingham Six were jailed for life in 1975 after being wrongfully convicted of the murders of 21 people in IRA bomb attacks on two pubs in Birmingham the previous year.

Biden has spoken on numerous occasions about his Irish heritage, tracing his roots to the Blewitts in Co Mayo and the Finnegans in Co Louth.

Asked on the presidential election campaign trail by the BBC for a quick word, Biden replied: “The BBC? I’m Irish.”