Gerry Conlon’s death in Belfast last week highlights the disgraceful story of perhaps the worst case of injustice in British history, writes PETER FROST
Gerry Conlon, who died last Saturday in Belfast aged just 60, spent 15 years — a quarter of his entire life — in prison in one of the most outrageous abuses of the criminal and judicial process seen in Britain.
Conlon was convicted of carrying out an IRA bombing on a Surrey pub. He and three others were beaten and tortured by police until they finally confessed. In reality, after the treatment they received, they would have confessed to anything.
As part of that confession Conlon blurted out that he had learnt bomb-making from his aunt Annie.
That offhand and rather imprudent aside led to his aunt Anne Maguire and six others — who became known as the Maguire Seven — also spending long terms in prison on equally trumped-up charges.
Conlon and his three co-defendants soon withdrew the confessions and from then on consistently protested their innocence. But it was too late. They went to jail and the real bombers were never apprehended.
Conlon’s convictions were finally overturned in 1989 and he was freed, but his long incarceration made him a broken man. He struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and even tried to end his life.
Conlon described life as a waking nightmare. He had been in therapy for many years, trying to come to terms with the years of false imprisonment.
“For the first few years all I did was cry. I wanted to kill myself,” he said.
In the last years of his life he finally found some peace and a new purpose as an effective campaigner against his own and other abuses of justice.
A huge part of his tragedy was that his father Patrick Conlon, also known as Giuseppe, (below) was arrested just weeks after his son and died in prison in 1980.
Totally innocent, Conlon Snr had been swept up in the desperate police actions to fit up anyone for the bombings.
He had been arrested as part of Maguire Seven. Gerry Conlon never forgot the pain of watching his father die in a British prison for something he didn’t do.
When finally free, Gerry Conlon became an effective and vociferous campaigner on behalf of the wrongfully imprisoned and in 2005 he even secured a historic public apology from prime minister Tony Blair for the government’s handling of the Guildford Four case.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams spoke for so many Irish people north and south of the border directly after Conlon’s death.
“Gerry and his father Giuseppe were two of the most infamous examples of miscarriages of justice by the British political and judicial system.”
Many on this side of the Irish Sea echo Adams’s view.
Conlon was accused of taking part in the IRA bombing of the Horse and Groom pub in Guildford on October 5 1974. The pub was popular with the military and the explosion killed four soldiers and a civilian, and injured 65 others.
Despite an almost complete lack of evidence, Conlon, Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill — all in their twenties — and Armstrong’s girlfriend Carole Richardson, aged 17, were soon arrested for the bombing.
The lack of evidence was soon dealt with by beating and torturing the four, threatening family members and, in some cases, the effects of drug withdrawal.
They all quickly retracted their confessions, but their words still formed the main part of the police case against each of them.
The group, soon known as the Guildford Four, were sentenced to life in prison in October 1975.
Judge Donaldson, who tried the case, remarked that he wished they had been charged with treason as he could then have sentenced them all to hang.
The four were convicted for murder, conspiracy and other charges. Donaldson recommended 30 years for Conlon, 35 for Armstrong and until “great age” for Hill.
There was never any real evidence that any of the Guildford Four had been involved with the Provisional IRA.
In reality they were unlikely terrorists. Armstrong and Richardson, an Englishwoman, were involved with drugs and petty crime.
Richardson could remember nothing of the evening of the crime. In fact she had been out of her head miles away in a London club at the time she was supposed to be planting the Guildford bomb. She had an Irish boyfriend and that was enough to send her down.
Conlon tells us in his autobiography that the Provisional IRA would not have had him as a member due to his record for shoplifting and petty crimes.
He had been expelled from Fianna Eireann, the nearest thing the Provisional IRA had to a youth organisation.
Perhaps the wits in the Irish pubs around Paddington — the very pubs where legendary Irish leader Michael Collins (below) had learned his republican politics when he lived in these streets 60-odd years before — came closest to the mark.
“All you need to fall foul of the police round here was to look a little bit Irish.”
The police scented a chance to enhance their public reputation as doing something to stop the IRA and soon rounded up a second group including Gerry Conlon’s father and aunt.
They were convicted of running an IRA bomb factory. Conlon’s aunt Annie Maguire and her husband Patrick Maguire were sentenced to 14 years each.
Their 14-year-old son son Patrick was sentenced to four years. Vincent Maguire, another son, aged just 17, was sentenced to five years.
Annie Maguire was well known on the Queen’s Park estate on the borders of Willesden and Paddington.
She had a large family and held down five cleaning jobs to support them. Everybody on the estate knew and liked her and she was no republican.
She spoke out against the bombings, including at her trial. One of her five cleaning jobs was even at the local Conservative Club.
Coincidentally, I knew the Queen’s Park estate well, having lived on it for a while. My mother had been born and brought up on these streets of pretty Victorian working-class houses bordered by the railway, the canal and the busy Harrow Road.
My wife Ann and her family too came from the next street to the Maguires and Annie cleaned at the care home where my late mother-in-law Gladys worked. My wife and Annie Maguire worshipped in the same Catholic church.
Nobody on the estate could believe that the Annie they all knew, the Annie who looked after their young children, was a bomb-making terrorist — and of course they were right.
However the over-enthusiastic police and a 17-year-old Home Office laboratory trainee just seven weeks into his job would soon concoct enough evidence to put Annie and her family behind bars for a very long time.
Gerry’s Conlon’s mother, and Giuseppe’s wife, Sarah Conlon, became a high-profile figure as she campaigned to free her son and husband.
She wrote thousands of letters to anyone she thought might listen — even the Queen.
A devoted Catholic, she told her imprisoned family: “Pray for the ones who told lies against you. It’s them who needs help as well as yourself.”
At last, after some 14 years of public campaigns, the police were the subject of an inquiry. Nobody was surprised when it proved Surrey detectives had doctored or invented the evidence.
In 1989 the Guildford Four were freed. Conlon, still only 35, burst out of the Old Bailey shouting: “I have been in prison for something I did not do. I am totally innocent.”
Back in Belfast he wrote his autobiography. It would be the inspiration for the award-winning 1993 film In The Name Of The Father.
Maggie Thatcher’s favourite Judge
The cases of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven were presided over by Judge Donaldson. He demanded to try both cases and the authorities enthusiastically agreed.
Donaldson (pictured above) was a Tory with a poor law degree who would go on to be Maggie Thatcher’s darling in a judge’s wig.
In his youth Donaldson was chair of the Federation of University Conservative and Unionist Associations. He never achieved his ambition of becoming a Tory MP but served his party well in other ways all his life.
When prime minister Edward Heath needed a good loyal Tory to head his National Industrial Relations Court in 1971 to enforce his notorious Industrial Relations Act and bash the unions, Donaldson got the job.
Trade unionists loathed Donaldson and no less than 181 MPs signed a motion calling for his dismissal. The court was finally killed off in 1974.
Thatcher loved Donaldson. She made him lord justice of appeal and appointed him to the Privy Council. He replaced Lord Denning as her master of the rolls from 1982 to 1992, giving him enormous powers to help Thatcher with her attacks on the working class. In 1988 Donaldson got his payback and was made a lord. He died in 2005.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 24 June 2014 shortly after the death of Gerry Conlon.