Belfast Telegraph

Friday 21 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Gerry Conlon: A victim of the state wrongfully jailed for Guildford bombings - granted his freedom, but not his state of mind

Released in 1989, Gerry Conlon still suffered until his death from trauma of his wrongful jailing for Guildford bombing, says David McKittrick

Gerry walks out of the Old Bailey in London in 1989 after his conviction was finally quashed
Gerry walks out of the Old Bailey in London in 1989 after his conviction was finally quashed

Gerry Conlon was one of a number of Irish men and women who, in the midst of an IRA bombing campaign in Britain, became victims of what was described as some of the most serious miscarriages of justice in the British legal system.

The Belfast man was one of the Guildford Four, who after being wrongly convicted of IRA murders, spent more than a dozen years behind bars. Only after lengthy campaigns were they cleared, released, and given a Prime Ministerial apology.

They had been given sentences of up to 35 years, the longest term of incarceration in British penal history. A judge told some of them that if capital punishment had still been in force "you would have been executed".

Their convictions were eventually overturned in what was regarded as a body blow to the justice system, after a series of rejected appeals. Serious flaws were said to have been uncovered in police handling of the case; a senior judge accepting that police had lied.

Freed Conlon, surrounded by jubilant supporters in a London street, punched the air and declared: "I've been in prison for 15 years for something I didn't do. I am totally innocent."

His story was depicted in the 1993 Oscar-nominated film In The Name Of The Father, featuring Daniel Day-Lewis.

Conlon, who died after a long illness at the age of 60, was born in the Falls Road area of Belfast where, as he detailed in his memoirs, he was a teenage shoplifter and petty thief.

He moved to London to escape the hazards of the war zone, which the district became as the IRA and Army engaged in daily violent clashes.

This proved to be a huge mistake, for he and others came to be wrongly suspected of involvement in the fierce IRA offensive which killed more than 50 people in London and the Midlands in the mid-70s.

Pub bombings in Birmingham claimed 21 lives, while the IRA carried out up to 50 bombings and shootings in the London area.

Among these were the bombings of bars in Guildford and Woolwich, the Guildford attack killing a civilian and four soldiers, two of them women, as well as injuring more than 50 people.

The authorities responded with toughened security, eventually cornering, in what was known as the Balcombe Street siege, a group of republicans who in court freely acknowledged their IRA membership.

But other police swoops netted uninvolved Irish people living in Britain who were consigned to prison for lengthy periods. These became known as the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six and the Maguire family.

Conlon himself was convicted largely on the basis of confessions he made in custody, implicating himself and the innocent Maguire family. He admitted signing these, but maintained they were untrue and had been extracted from him by police brutality and threats.

His father Guiseppe, a semi-invalid with emphysema, had travelled to London after his son's arrest.

He, too, became caught up in the swoops and was jailed, convicted – as were some the others – on the basis of controversial forensic tests.

He died in prison.

The Guildford and Maguire cases gave rise to unease in some circles as early as the 1970s, not least because those convicted made such unlikely terrorists.

For example, three weeks after the Guildford bombing one of the four, Carole Richardson, was assaulted in the street in Folkestone.

Her reaction – incredibly for an alleged member of the IRA – was to call the police and drive round the streets in a squad car, looking for the man who had attacked her.

It was argued that the convictions were unsafe and could have resulted from the political and social pressures on police to secure convictions in the face of widespread public pressure to catch IRA bombers in Britain.

The campaign developed over years, receiving impetus in the mid-80s from a series of three Yorkshire Television programmes produced by journalists Garth McKee and Ros Franey, who also wrote the book Time Bomb: Irish Bombers, English Justice And The Guildford Four.

Other programmes and books also highlighted the cases.

Eventually a number of influential political, legal and church figures voiced doubts on the cases.

These included the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Robert Runcie, former Home Secretary Roy Jenkins and several former law lords.

After a series of unsuccessful appeals, in 1989 the Court of Appeal quashed the sentences on the four, Lord Chief Justice Lord Lane saying that officers "must have lied".

Conlon exulted in his memoirs that, when giving judgment, Lord Lane "looked like he was eating a scalded cat".

There was much heart-searching debate on whether those in authority realised the wrong people had been convicted, cynically going along with miscarriages of justice in order to protect the system and deny the IRA a propaganda victory.

An alternative explanation advanced was that police in Britain, unlike those in Northern Ireland, were unused to coping with the IRA.

It was also argued that juries in Britain proved much more ready to convict in terrorist trials.

The pain felt within officialdom was matched by the painful world Conlon entered after being freed.

After his release he led an unsettled life, suffering two breakdowns and attempting suicide, developing addictions to both alcohol and drugs and experiencing recurring nightmares.

Although he received substantial compensation, he complained that "the money went quickly as a lot of hangers-on arrived on the scene".

In recent years he said: "The ordeal has never left me."

In 2005 Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered an apology to those imprisoned, saying they deserved to be completely and publicly exonerated, adding: "I am very sorry that they were subject to such an ordeal and injustice."

In the end the saga had many casualties.

In the first instance there were the many people killed by the IRA, then there were the dislocated lives of those who spent many years in prison.

Finally, there was the justice system itself, which was seen to function badly and then to display reluctance to admit serious failings.

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