His long struggle against false imprisonment transformed attitudes towards the British state, writes Shaun Doherty
Gerry Conlon speaking at a rally to defend Legal Aid outside parliament last year (Pic: Guy Smallman)
Gerry Conlon, who spent 15 years in prison after being falsely accused of the Guilford pub bombings in 1975, has died of cancer aged 60 in west Belfast.
Along with Paul Hill, Carole Richardson and Paddy Armstrong he was one of the Guilford Four—victims of one of Britain’s most infamous miscarriages of justice.
His personal tragedy was compounded by the death in prison in 1980 of his father Guiseppe, who was also falsely accused of being part of a bomb making team known as the Maguire Seven.
They were portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite in the film In the Name of the Father.
In 1989 the Court of Appeal quashed the Guildford Four’s sentences. In what would become an iconic image, Gerry Conlon emerged from the Old Bailey with his two sisters. He was defiant with a raised fist, after refusing to be bundled out of the back door.
He vowed to fight for others still in prison for crimes they had nothing to do with, such as the Birmingham Six.
In prison Gerry had formed a strong friendship with Paddy Hill, one of the Six, and was amazed at his “in-your-face” approach to injustice. Gerry’s own personality might have appeared less assertive, but he was no less determined. And he was true to his word.
He wrote movingly in support of Binyam Mohamed held in Guantanamo Bay and other Muslim victims of the “war on terror”.
In his book, Proved Innocent, Gerry details the torture and sustained brutality he suffered at the hands of the police and the prison system—and the judiciary.
As his solicitor Gareth Pierce said last weekend, “Once a community has been made suspect en masse every organ of the state will feel entitled, in fact obliged, to discover proof of their suspicions.
“The example of what happened to Gerry and his entire family should haunt us forever. Sadly these lessons are jettisoned when the next suspected community is constructed.”
The British state whipped up an atmosphere of anti-Irish racism and scapegoating during the 1970s, in response to the war in Northern Ireland and IRA bombings in England.
Master of the Rolls Lord Denning infamously said when pronouncing on the Birmingham Six that it would open up an “appalling vista” to admit the police had perjured themselves and falsified evidence.
He even said it would be preferable for innocent victims to remain in prison than for the judicial process to be compromised.
Even more chillingly, when the Guildford Four were sentenced judge Mr Justice Donaldson said, “If hanging were an option you would have been executed.”
When we campaigned for their release, I remember vividly how these attitudes poisoned public opinion towards “Irish scum”.
But the campaign helped to transform attitudes towards the police. It made it easier to argue that they were capable of fitting people up in future. Gerry understood this, and it gave him a strong motivation.
But his life remained difficult. In 2009 he wrote honestly of how the years of imprisonment had taken their toll. Breakdowns, depression and addictions—“the ordeal never left me”.
It is a testimony to his courage that despite these scars he continued to campaign tirelessly for others until his death.
He ends his book hoping not to be known “only as one of the Guildford Four”, and he won’t be.
But that experience shaped his life, and forged his determination to struggle for all those enduring injustice at the hands of the state.