On October 5th in 1974, two bombs rocked Guildford, an area south of London. The Provisional Irish Republican Army’s bombing campaign had begun in England and it was brutal and effective. The Guildford pubs were targeted because they were popular with the British Army and the explosions injured about 75 people and killed a handful more. This highly publicized incident aided in the passage of the far-reaching Prevention of Terrorism Act in the United Kingdom shortly thereafter.
Some of the most widely abused provisions under this act were that anyone could be stopped and searched and those arrested could be detained for up to 7 days, rather than the original limit of 48 hours. During that detention, many rights were misplaced and extensive and brutal methods of interrogation were used in an attempt to get confessions from prisoners. As the bombing campaign continued, it led to suspicion, violence and racism within the communities, whether the authorities were involved or not. It was not a good or safe time to be Irish in Britain.
The police force was under tremendous pressure to bring the bombers to justice. They used this Act to detain four people in connection with the Guildford explosions. Paul Hill, Carole Richardson, Gerry Conlon, and Patrick Armstrong were kids when they were picked up for questioning. None had any ties to the Provisional IRA and they were simply enjoying the freedoms of their misspent youth. Carole Richardson and Paddy Armstrong lived in a squat, known for drug dealing and petty crimes. Gerry Conlon was more transient and bounced around London, occasionally staying with his aunt or at hostels. He too was involved in petty crime. None had a lifestyle that would have allowed them to be part of any paramilitary group, especially one that planned and carried out strategic and disciplined strikes.
This didn’t matter to the police. Neither did the fact that they all had alibis. The evidence was ignored and altered so that the police could appear to have caught the bombers in a timely fashion. They used torture and threats against all of the young suspects, resulting in wild and half-cocked confessions that should never have held up in court. These ridiculous tales also led to Gerry Conlon’s aunt, father, and other family members to be arrested and charged with bomb-making and conspiracy. While this was sure to cause a bit of a strain on the family relations, no one ever imagined that they were going to be imprisoned for anything.
It came as quite a shock to all involved when their case was not laughed out of court and they were convicted of all charges. The Guildford Four – the name that Hill, Armstrong, Richardson, and Conlon were later known as – were sentenced to life in prison and the biased judge wondered aloud why they had not been charged with treason so that he could have put them to death. Conlon’s farfetched confession that had led to the arrest of his family sent all of them to prison as well. They became known as the Maguire Seven. Both groups lost their immediate appeals and all began a harsh new life in prison.
Meanwhile, the police were busy patting themselves on the back publicly and officially closed the case, refusing to follow up on alibis and other suspects. It didn’t matter to them that their case had as many holes as Swiss cheese, after all they had made most of it up anyway – and 3 years later, when the actual bombers took credit for the Guildford explosions, that didn’t matter either. The four IRA men instructed their lawyers to “draw attention to the fact that totally innocent people were serving massive sentences” for a crime that they did not commit. Still, the police refused to reopen the case or admit that they may have put the wrong people away. They were content to let their secrets rot with Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven in their jail cells.
Gerry Conlon’s father, Giuseppe, never faltered in his attempts to obtain justice and release for his family. He began letter writing campaigns and filed numerous motions and appeals. He died in prison as a convicted criminal but his quest had piqued the interest of a variety of groups who pressed for a reexamination of the case. Fourteen years after the Guildford Four were sent to prison, the outside pressure resulted in a police detective looking over the case once more. He found police notes that were heavily altered, edited, and rearranged. While the notes were consistent with what had been presented in court – they also suggested that police had inserted these altered notes into the file that fit them the best. In this case, that was Patrick Armstrong’s confession. In light of these findings, a new appeal was finally granted.
Immediately, the case against the Guildford Four that never should have held up at all, began to fall apart. Their alibis were vetted and the torture and coercion were exposed. Fifteen long years after they were imprisoned, their convictions were quashed. Their youth was gone, and much of their lives had been ruined but their proclamations of innocence were finally heeded and they walked out the front door of the courthouse free. This justice came too late for the Maguire Seven however, who had already served their full sentences ranging from 4 to 14 years in prison for conspiracy and other crimes they did not commit. They were finally officially declared innocent in 1991, far too late for Giuseppe Conlon.
There were never any other convictions in the case of the Guildford bombs. They were likely the work of the Balcombe Street gang who certainly took credit for them, but no formal charges have been brought against anyone else. There were 3 British policemen who were charged with Conspiracy and an “attempt to pervert the course of justice” but not surprisingly, they too were never convicted. The only people who served any time at all for anything related to the Guildford Pub bombings were innocent.
Conlon suffered his whole life from the ordeal of his captivity but he advocated for others who claimed to be innocent while imprisoned. His memoir was the basis for “In the Name of the Father”, a mostly true and award-winning film. Carole Richardson disappeared from public life soon after her release and Patrick Armstrong has fought many demons of his own. Paul Hill is still eerily intertwined with Conlon, in that both have written books and both books have been turned into films – one a documentary and the other a Hollywood sensation. All of them – the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven – will continue to battle the ghosts of what happened to them for the rest of their lives and I can only hope that they have found some closure and peace in the years since their captivity. When Gerry Conlon passed away earlier this year, I knew I would write this on the anniversary of the bombings so that his story and that of his family and fellow prisoners would be remembered once more. The truth is, everyone involved in this case were victims, from those in the pub to those who were falsely accused of hurting and killing them. That is the ultimate tragedy of Guildford.