“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.