Liverpool’s Propellor Club held its annual lunch on Friday and guests of honour were two of the ‘Chennai Six’ who had languished in an Indian jail despite being guilty of no crime. Tony McDonough reports
It was a four-year ordeal for six British former soldiers – a saga that shames the UK Government and is a tribute to the determination and resilience of so many people, including Merseyside’s maritime community.
The story began in October 2013 when the so-called ‘Chennai Six’ – Billy Irving, Nick Dunn, Ray Tindall, Paul Towers, John Armstrong and Nicholas Simpson were working as security guards on the US-owned anti-piracy vessel, MV Seaman Guard Ohio in the Indian Ocean.
They were part of a 35-strong security team that also included three Ukrainians, 14 Estonians and 12 Indians. Indian police boarded the vessel and discovered 35 automatic weapons and almost 5,700 rounds of ammunition.
It was later confirmed the men had been granted permits by the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to possess the weapons. However, they were all charged by the Indian authorities with carrying unlicensed firearms and ammunition.
They were initially cleared of any wrongdoing by the Indian High Court but were unable to leave India until the charges were formally dropped, Then, a lower magistrates court did not accept they were on anti-piracy duties and in January 2016 they were sentenced to five years in prison.
And so began a campaign started by their families and supported by people from all walks of life from the UK and around the world. The campaign finally achieved its goal in November 2017 when the conviction was overturned by the Indian High Court and the men were finally able to come home.
It was no thanks to the UK Government whose inertia had left the six languishing without any support. On his arrival back in the UK Billy Irving said he felt “disgusted and betrayed” by the lack of help from Britain.
His then fiancee, Yvonne MacHugh, now his wife who had been at the forefront of the campaign to secure the mens’ freedom, described the former Foreign Secretary and now Chancellor, Phillip Hammond as “next to useless” and said she had written to the now foreign secretary Boris Johnson several times and had not had a reply.
Billy and Yvonne were in Liverpool on Friday along with another of the six, Nick Dunn, and Nick’s sister Lisa Dunn, another leading light in the campaign, to attend the annual lunch of the Liverpool branch of the global maritime network, the Propeller Club.
The club had played an instrumental role in the Chennai Six campaign and, speaking to LBN at the lunch, Billy paid tribute to them and everyone who had given their support. He said: “The top priority when I got home was to spend time with my family (he had missed their birth of his and Yvonne’s son, William, while he was incarcerated).
“Four-and-a-half years is a hell of a long time to be away from your family and I wanted to get used to us being back together again. I did think that might take a long time. But it took about an hour!
“When the extra help starting coming in to the campaign that made a massive difference to our families and took so much pressure off them. The money they raised for us was incredible and people were sending us food parcels.
“There are so many people who helped us immensely and I have not even gone through all the emails yet.”
Billy repeated his sense of being let-down badly by his own Government, adding: “It says on British passports that wherever you go in the world as a British citizen, if you find yourself in trouble then the Government will help you. They were supposed to ensure our welfare – but they did not.
“There is no proper structure or system in place to help people and that has to change.”
People from Merseyside’s maritime community who had supported the campaign packed into Liverpool’s Racquets Club for the lunch.
Addressing those present, Nick Dunn described the support from Propeller Club as “phenomenal”. He added: “At first the British people did not know much about us and thought we were just mercenaries.
“But our job was actually to protect people from pirates and when people realised that they got right behind us. We could not have got through it without all those people who supported us – we needed that support.”
Former serviceman and now maritime security consultant, Jordan Wylie, played a key role in the Chennai Six campaign. He said: “This was a clear miscarriage of justice and in the end justice was served.
“A lot of people at the senior levels of the UK Government simply ignored their plight. These men have spent their whole careers protecting people and they were protecting people against pirates and they were doing an incredible job.”
A diverse range of people had backed the Chennai Six campaign. They had included well known TV actors John Bowe (most recently in Emmerdale) and Charlie Lawson, famous for playing Jim McDonald in Coronation Street. Both men were at the Liverpool lunch.
Nick Dunn’s sister Lisa Dunn made an emotional speech at the event and spoke of her gratitude to all who had supported their battle, paying particular tribute to Canon Ken Peters of the Mission for Seafarers.
She said: “It was so hard for the families to keep it together. We were having so many doors slammed in our faces and at times we were so low. The input, dedication and time put into the campaign by so many people meant the world to us.
“And I would really like to thank the Propellor Club. They hold a special place in my heart and they always will.”