There are many questionable convictions and murky instances of enhanced interrogation techniques throughout British and Irish history. Few are better known than those of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven. Many members of these groups have written books and papers regarding their long imprisonment for crimes they never committed and the Hollywood film “In the Name of the Father” was based on their plight. Today marks the death of that innocent and determined father, Giuseppe Conlon.
“Who will you believe, the police or the suspects?” Justice John Donaldson is not the first judge to undermine defense lawyers with a question like that but he made this biased statement and others while he was presiding over the trial of Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, Carole Richardson, and Gerry Conlon – a group of Irish suspects who were also known as the Guildford Four. The highly publicized case was covered widely and all of the judge’s snide remarks and opinions were too. This pointed question for the jury was the last nail in the coffin for the Guildford Four. When their guilty verdicts came back, Donaldson wished that he could hang the suspects and went on the record saying so during sentencing. The bully judge imposed the longest sentence in the history of English law (at the time) against Paul Hill saying, “Your crime is such that life must mean life, and if the death penalty had not been abolished, you would have been executed.” The other members of the Guildford Four didn’t fare much better when the sentencing came down and in the subsequent case where many of their friends and family members were accused of bomb making (known as the Maguire Seven) similarly harsh and opinionated sentences were handed down. Donaldson had no pity for one suspect’s serious illness and another being only fourteen years of age. He just handed out lengthy sentences and cruel comments to everyone. He never backtracked from his dubious remarks even after he was heavily criticized for them. In fact, the only times he was silent during this entire ordeal were when the IRA claimed responsibility for the bombs years later, when it was proven that the police had suppressed evidence and lied throughout the trials, and when those he had so gravely threatened were declared innocent fifteen and sixteen years later, respectively. Continue reading
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.
Here, Paul Hill, a fellow Guildford Four member and a leading human rights campaigner based in the US, remembers his friend Gerry Conlon.
I was awoken this grey morning (rather fitting) by the constant ringing of my phone to be informed of the death of Gerry Conlon my fellow member of the Guildford Four.
Doors I had hoped would remain closed began to open in my memory.
It’s incredibly difficult to try to explain to someone exactly what the loss of 15 years of one’s life is like.
Or indeed to ask someone to comprehend having to endure those years as an innocent person, in the hostile environment that was the English prison system.
The simplest way is to think of everything one has achieved in the years between 20 and 35. A career, a home, a marriage, children. We had none of those.
Gerry was a young man who loved life ,music, football. He would have been the first to tell you he had no interest whatsoever in politics.
The background of what he went to prison for is well documented, as is the injustice he suffered,
But the baggage he carried from that is often overlooked, baggage that one can never check.
The mental scars, not visible, remained unhealed. They eat away at one’s being and reopen constantly.
Gerry fought the demons that an injustice unleashes, but I know that he mostly fought those alone and in the dead of night.
People have expressed the opinion that Gerry must have been an incredible man. No, he was not. He was an ordinary man who suffered an incredible injustice.
No doubt we shall have those who (just like after his release) will extol his virtues, whilst having done nothing themselves whilst he was incarcerated,
If I could be so bold, and on behalf of Gerry, I would like to thank all those very ordinary people who believed in him when (unlike today) it was not politically hip to do so. Irish America always stood with us — thank you. Irish governments and Irish embassies did not.
I want to thank the folks who stood in the rain outside the British Embassy, who were accused of being the fellow travelers of terrorists,
The ordinary folk in Ireland who were harassed and photographed by the special branch for having the courage to attempt to right a grievous injustice.
We have come a long way along a harsh, painful road.
Gerry helped us all along that journey.
He was a man of immense humor and a big football fan, no doubt glued to the World Cup.
I know he would give a wry smile knowing England went out before him.
Here is his family’s statement. It captures far more eloquently that I can what Gerry represented.
“He brought life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours. He helped us to survive what we were not meant to survive. We recognise that what he achieved by fighting for justice for us had a far, far greater importance – it forced the world’s closed eyes to be opened to injustice; it forced unimaginable wickedness to be acknowledged; we believe it changed the course of history.
Gerry Conlon may be the single most influential person when it comes to who got me into studying Irish politics. The Guildford Four case was riveting for me and it showed just how cruel and scared absolutely everyone was in the heart of the conflict known colloquially as the Troubles. His case was a close second to the Easter Rising of 1916 in my favorite stories of tragic Irish triumph.
On June 21st, 2014 at 4AM California time, I found out that Gerry Conlon had passed away and I actually shed a tear. This marked the first time I cried over a celebrity passing away since Johnny Cash, and I am pretty sure that it only happened those two times. I was heartbroken and I almost got up then to write about it but I wasn’t awake enough to articulate the utter sadness of this news.
For those that may not know his story, early in 1975, Gerry Conlon and three other young adults were arrested in connection to the IRA bombing of the Guildford Pub. Despite having nothing to do with the IRA or the bombings, they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison…thankfully, since if they’d been sentenced to death, they all would have been dead before their convictions were quashed. Before they were eventually released, another seven innocent people were convicted of aiding them in this incident – including many of Conlon’s family members and his father, Giuseppe Conlon. Guiseppe never strayed from proclaiming his innocence and he remained hopeful that the miscarriage of justice would be overturned, but Gerry did not. Gerry did not have the fortitude of belief of his father.
Guiseppe Conlon died in prison an innocent man. Years and years later, his son – who found the fighter in himself shortly after the tragic death of his dad, eventually walked out of the courthouse through the front door over fifteen years later when his conviction was quashed, proving to the world that the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven had been wrongly convicted. The blockbuster movie “In the Name of the Father” was based on these real life events and is an amazing film. If you haven’t seen it, go find it now. Seriously. It took over fifteen years for the police to admit they had made mistakes and purposefully suppressed evidence in order to convict these men and women…none of whom fit any profile or had any paramilitary or political ties.
I was sixteen when they released Gerry and I remember seeing the footage of him leaving the courthouse. It was one of my first forays into Irish politics – and it was a story that led to another, to another, and to another. More than twenty-five years later, I can point to Gerry Conlon as one of the reasons that I fell in love with Irish history. His story had a profound effect on my psyche. Unfortunately his story does not have the Hollywood ending that he so deserved. He struggled with depression, suicide, and addiction since the day he was finally released – and really, who wouldn’t? I cannot find fault in the need to try to erase what has happened to you and your family in whatever way you can. Still, Conlon made it to sixty years of age and was a published author and an activist in other cases that he felt were rigged or unfair. He died on this day in 2014 in Belfast and even now I am still a little teary as I write those words. I wish I had met him – it actually was a thing I had hoped to do someday – just to tell him what a profound impact his story had on shaping who I am and what my interests are. Sixty is too young for many but for Gerry Conlon it was a pretty amazing feat, given that he spent over 15 of them wrongly convicted in the harshest prisons.
His family says it better than anyone else could. In a statement issued through his lawyer Gareth Peirce, they said: “He brought life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours. He helped us to survive what we were not meant to survive. We thank him for his life and we thank all his many friends for their love.”
Rest in Peace Mr. Conlon. Your story and your fight will forever be inspiring and triumphant. I am sorry you lived it and I am thankful for the impact it had on me. I hope you see your father again.