There were only 15 police officers in Birmingham city centre on the night of the 1974 pub bombings because 135 had been deployed to the funeral of an IRA bomber, an inquest has heard.

The IRA attack in two city centre pubs on 21 November – which killed 21 and injured more than 200 – happened at the same time as a funeral procession for James McDade, who was killed planting a bomb on the Coventry GPO telephone exchange the week before.

The inquest at Birmingham civil justice centre into the bombings heard on Thursday that 135 city centre police officers – from Digbeth and Steelhouse Lane stations – were deployed to police the route as McDade’s remains were moved from Coventry mortuary to Elmdon airport.

In a report from the time by a Supt Jones, read on Wednesday by the former counter-terrorism chief Anthony Mole, he said the lower number of police “in no way affected the organisation and efficiency of the police at the scenes”. Lawyers for the families said on Thursday that they disagreed with that assessment.

The inquest heard that the IRA had carried out a “serious and sustained” campaign of attacks in the West Midlands in the 12 months leading up to the pub bombings, which focused on unguarded, soft targets. There were 53 bombing incidents in the year to 21 November.

Leslie Thomas QC, representing nine of the families, said: “The threat was high. The threat was serious. The threat were obvious.” He said the night of the pub bombings was both a late shopping night and pay day.

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The coroner, Sir Peter Thornton, read the jury a transcript of a police interview with Raymond McLaughlin, 21, who assisted McDade and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. “We don’t have many IRA bombers giving an account of themselves,” said Thornton. “So this is a rarity.”

McLaughlin is recorded as telling the officer interviewing him: “You and the imperialist Americans have got to learn to keep your hands off other people’s countries. They are in south Vietnam and you’re in Ireland. You must want to hang on for some reason.”

He was asked: “Do you agree that if you plant a bomb in a city there’s a fair change of someone getting killed?” He responded: “Yes, but you can’t bother with that.”

The inquest into the Birmingham pub bombing deaths was initially opened in November 1974, but was adjourned to allow for a criminal investigation. In 1975, six men – who became known as the Birmingham Six – were convicted for the bombings, but were acquitted 16 years later.

Fresh inquests into the deaths were ordered in 2016, but were delayed by disputes about whether the hearings should examine who might be responsible for the bombings.

The inquest is expected to last up to six weeks. On Thursday morning, the jury was taken to see the sites of the two pubs – the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern in the Town.

The group of six women and five men were escorted around the site of the old Mulberry Bush pub, at the foot of the city’s Rotunda. They then walked past the Odeon cinema in New Street to what was once the basement pub the Tavern in the Town, in King Edward House. It is now a Chinese buffet restaurant.

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