The Blog

What Happened to Guildford Four's Gerry Conlon 'Should Haunt us Forever'

Hooded and shackled he was unceremoniously plucked from his home in Belfast and taken to a police station in Surrey. It was 1974 and the end of Gerry Conlon's life, as he knew it. He was 20 years old...

Hooded and shackled he was unceremoniously plucked from his home in Belfast and taken to a police station in Surrey. It was 1974 and the end of Gerry Conlon's life, as he knew it. He was 20 years old.

Gerry Conlon, along with Paul Hill, Carole Richardson and Paddy Armstrong became victims of what is described as one of the worst miscarriages of justice at the hands of the British judicial system. The Guildford Four, as they became known, were convicted based on wholly fabricated evidence.

In Gerry Conlon's autobiography, Proved Innocent, he recounted that there were cast iron alibis proving that two of the Four couldn't have been involved, that witnesses were intimidated, confessions were extracted through torture and a statement proving Conlon was in Kilburn and not Guildford at the time, was buried. Even when an IRA unit took responsibility for the Guildford bombings in 1977, Gerry Conlon and the others were sent back to prison until their convictions were overturned in 1989.

Gerry's ailing father, Giuseppe, who came to Britain to rescue his son, was also falsely convicted, as part of the "Maguire Seven" and died in prison a few years later.

My path crossed that of Gerry's on 9 February 2005 en route to a parliamentary committee meeting in the House of Commons. Emerging from Westminster station, the Evening Standard headline caught my eye: "PM to Apologise to Guildford Four and Maguire Seven".

On entering parliament, I saw a camera crew and a crowd of people huddled around someone. It was Ian Paisley. To get in, I had to squeeze past him as he pontificated loquaciously. I resisted the temptation to slice my spiked heel into the ankle of the man who is to Catholics in Northern Ireland what Primark is to ethical trading.

My head still reeling, I entered Westminster hall, to find myself face to face with Gerry Conlon. There was a group of people with him, standing in the centre of the imposing hall. Mr. Conlon was talking on his mobile. The atmosphere was charged but I couldn't discern if it was good or bad energy. Had Blair reneged? Had the irascible Paisley stolen their thunder? I hung around trying to glean what was happening. I wanted to reach out to Conlon and say...what? "Congratulations on your prime ministerial apology after 30 years of living purgatory"? Words escaped me, so I just hovered, and stared. I noticed them looking at me awkwardly then moving on.

I realized later how I must have appeared. Looking down on them, vexed at their raised, Irish voices. No doubt donning my default furrowed brow, dressed in power clothes and brief case, ceremonial armour for my dance with the devil. Being an Irish (ex) catholic myself I was racked with guilt. Not only had I failed to communicate my sorrow and anger at the injustice they endured, I had inadvertently driven them on and made them feel they had no right to be there.

Having endured years of torture and abuse, which included, defecating in his food and having a gun put in his mouth, as well as spending years in solitary confinement for the audacity of protesting his innocence, it's little wonder Gerry Conlon suffered post traumatic stress disorder for the rest of his life.

Yet, far from being incapacitated by it, Gerry Conlon galvanized his incredible energy, humility and compassion into fighting injustice globally. He met with survivors of Guantanamo Bay and berated the phlegmatic Irish American community for failing to support Muslims who had taken over the epithet of "suspect community" from the Irish.

Gareth Peirce was the human rights lawyer responsible for Gerry Conlon's release. She said: "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.

SDLP MP Mark Durkan told the House of Commons last week that Gerry Conlon's dying wish was that secret documents relating to the bombings, which are being held in the national archives for 75 years (there are only two cases in history where the Official Secrets Act has been applied in this way), be made available for public scrutiny.

Durkan said Mr. Conlon had been promised access by the previous Victims' Commissioner for Northern Ireland. He asked David Cameron: "Will you ensure that the dying wish of an innocent man is honoured?" The PM is said to be considering the matter.

Too little, too late for Gerry Conlon who was buried in Belfast on Saturday. He died of a broken heart and cancer, aged 60.