The families of the 21 people killed in the Birmingham pub bombings have been told a police reinvestigation of the 1974 atrocities has failed and will lead to no criminal charges, the Guardian has learned.

The fresh disappointment led the bereaved families to accuse the authorities of a continuing cover-up and the government of disrespecting their suffering.

West Midlands police submitted a file of evidence in 2022 to the Crown Prosecution Service about a single suspect allegedly involved in the attacks carried out in the name of the Provisional IRA.

The CPS has decided there is insufficient evidence to prosecute, despite various suspects being named, and one confessing on television to involvement to the plot.

The bombings of two Birmingham city centre pubs is the worst unsolved terrorist atrocity in Great Britain and next year is its 50th anniversary.

The families fear they may never see justice done in the criminal courts.

Six men were wrongly convicted of the bombings after abuses by police and their names were only finally cleared in 1991.

Central to that injustice being exposed was the work of journalists, including Chris Mullin.

He gained a confession from an IRA activist, known publicly only as the “young planter”.

It was this man the West Midlands police reinvestigation focused on, an official legal letter seen by the Guardian reveals.

A CPS letter to the families explaining its decision not to prosecute says: “There is evidence that a confession was made to Mr Mullin but we do not have sufficient evidence to enable the prosecution to positively identify who made the confession to him.”

Prosecutors considered forcing Mullin to name his source, the letter reveals: “It is highly likely that a court would refuse to order that Mr Mullin provide answers to any questions asked that might lead to him disclosing the identity of one of his sources.”

Police also gained two accounts from witnesses “regarding the movements of the suspect at the time of the pub bombings”.

One witness provided three accounts between 1992 and 2018, which varied, and then refused to cooperate further. Both this person and the other witness could potentially testify that the “young planter” had involvement in the attack.

The CPS letter says: “We have concluded that their evidence is likely to be considered insufficiently credible to prove that the suspect was involved in the bombings.

“The witness evidence is weak and subject to significant discrepancies …”

Julie Hambleton, who lost her sister Maxine in the blasts, said: “It confirms everything we have thought, which is it is one mass cover-up.

“Losing Maxine left its mark in ways people cannot imagine. It is indelibly marked in my brain and DNA.”

A witness at the 2019 inquest into the bombings claimed to be speaking with IRA permission and named four men responsible as Seamus McLoughlin, James Gavin and Mick Murray, all now deceased, and Michael Hayes, who in 2017 confessed on television to involvement in the plot to bomb Birmingham. A fifth man is being sued by Julie Hambleton’s mother in the civil courts for damages.

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In a statement, the CPS said: “West Midlands police requested that the CPS review a file of evidence with a view to determining whether an individual should be charged in connection with planting the bombs in the public houses.

“We … concluded that there was insufficient evidence of identification to establish whether the individual was involved in planting the bombs.

“We will continue to support police should there be further lines of inquiry …”

West Midlands police assistant chief constable Jayne Meir said: “We submitted all the evidence available to the Crown Prosecution Service for their consideration and we note their decision.

“Our thoughts remain with the families and victims of this terrible atrocity. We remain committed to bringing to justice those responsible for the Birmingham pub bombings.”

The families want a full public inquiry into the case and formally asked the government in writing in 2021.

They have still have not had an answer and their sense of being disrespected was heightened when a meeting with a government minister was cancelled.

Hambleton said: “They have treated us with more contempt than if we had committed the crimes ourselves. It makes you feel sick.”

She said the government strategy to deal with the families was based on the three Ds: deny, delay and death. “They want to drag it out until we die,” she said. “The government has no interest in looking for the murderers. What are they hiding? The names are known.”

A Home Office spokesperson failed to say when the families would be given an answer about their call for a public inquiry, but said: “Our deepest sympathies remain with all those who continue to be affected by the horrific pub bombings in Birmingham in 1974.

“We will continue to listen to the families of the victims and their representatives, and the security minister intends to meet with them soon.”

Hambleton said a bill to stop prosecutions from the times of the Troubles could thwart the families getting justice. She said: “This government has been lying and deceitful.

“We believe it could stop us getting justice. We are very, very concerned.”

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