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As a member of the Guildford Four, a victim of one of Britain’s worst miscarriages of justice
Sunday 22 June 2014
Gerry Conlon outside the Old Bailey, central London, after his conviction was quashed in 1989. (Photograph: Photopress Belfast)
When Gerry Conlon, who has died aged 60 of lung cancer, met survivors of the US’s Guantánamo Bay detention camp, he found that their 21st-century experiences mirrored his in the 1970s. He too had been hooded, shackled and subjected to rendition – from his home in Northern Ireland to a police station in Surrey – threatened, brutalised and tortured until he confessed to the IRA bombings in 1974 of pubs in the garrison towns of Guildford and Woolwich. Yet the claim that four innocent and improbable young people were responsible should have been immediately derailed by the cast-iron alibis of two. Instead, the intimidation of alibi witnesses, or in the case of Gerry, the burial of a statement that proved he could not have been anywhere but at a hostel in Kilburn, north-west London, for young Irish men, overcame that obstacle.
Even more inconveniently, the IRA unit that had carried out some 60 other attacks to which Guildford and Woolwich were identical was captured. Three years later, in 1977, the court of appeal heard first hand the testimony of the IRA unit – they were responsible and no one else. Nonetheless, the four appellants were sent back to prison for another 12 years.
In 1980, Gerry’s father Guiseppe died in an English prison. He had travelled from Belfast to rescue his son, only to be charged together with Gerry’s aunt, uncle, cousins and a family friend, with possession of explosives. This time it was the turn of the scientists, who asserted falsely that the hands of each tested positive for nitro-glycerine.
Born in Belfast, growing up in the impoverished, warm and close-knit community of the Lower Falls Road, Gerry was the much-loved son of Guiseppe and Sarah. Guiseppe’s death from emphysema was exacerbated by working in a lead factory; Sarah, a cleaner in the kitchens at the Royal Victoria Hospital, lived to see Tony Blair’s apology in 2005 for Guiseppe’s imprisonment, three years before her own death.
Gerry’s childhood was one he described as happy. He scraped through primary school at Raglan Street, and at St Peter’s secondary school engineered his demotion to class 1D from class 1C, where many of the boys were too studious for his liking. Class 1C learned Gaelic and the orientation of the history that was taught was Irish; had he stayed in that class he considered later he might have possessed a greater awareness of the history of Ireland and a more defined Republican point of view. Instead, he clattered through life in Belfast as a minor delinquent, scuttling back and forth to London.
In no way equipped with self-discipline or even physical stamina or fortified with any political rationale for his fate, he entered the hell of the English prisons of the 1970s, when to be Irish – and even more, IRA – was to be in danger. Year after year of solitary confinement, punishment imposed for endlessly angrily asserting his innocence, movement without notice from prison to prison, often just when his mother was using her one week’s holiday to visit her husband and her son at different ends of England, humiliation, degradation and fear nevertheless fuelled an insistence that he could and would take charge of his own fate.
He clamoured and shouted and wrote and in the later years telephoned and besieged the great and the good until gradually there was movement, by the slowest of degrees. The release when it came, came with the sudden falling of the citadel; all of the evidence had been fabricated. Everyone had been wrong and he had been right.
The euphoria of release almost immediately evaporated in the pandemonium of public attention; the longed for reunion was with a family too damaged to accommodate the ways in which he was haunted by demons. He had nevertheless an acute, intelligent and articulate raw voice which vividly communicated his experience of injustice. From his book Proved Innocent (1991) there followed a film, In the Name of the Father (1993).
However, for many years he fell into an abyss from which he could not climb out, hiding like a recluse in a tiny apartment in Plymouth, Devon, knowing no one, physically and mentally broken. Unable to find joy, he resorted to drugs, attempting to experience what was otherwise inaccessible. Finally, a psychologist in Plymouth and a psychiatrist in Belfast began to identify, if not to fix, some of the broken pieces; Gerry’s persistent reactivation of trauma was as bad as any observed throughout the conflict in Northern Ireland; he exhibited extraordinary recall, remembering the pattern of the policeman’s tie in the Surrey police station, the tic of the prosecutor’s face, the horror of his father’s last days. Every night was a torment.
But despite these struggles, this brave and endearing human being made an enormous mark. He travelled all over Australia to challenge injustices there, most emphatically those to the indigenous Australian population; he spoke at every prestigious university in the US about innocent prisoners; he proffered himself as the best evidence of why the death penalty should be abolished, he visited the family of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, and campaigned for his release, berating Irish Americans for their instinctive failure to extend their support to a new suspect community, the Muslims, in the same way they had to him when he was wrongly detained.
The diagnosis of his cancer came three weeks before his death, and in that time he came to understand the volume of affection for him across the world.
He is survived by his partner, his daughter and two sisters.
• Gerard Conlon, born 1 March 1954; died 21 June 2014
Restrictions may hide details of former IRA members Freddie Scappaticci, known as Stakeknife, and Martin McGartland
Owen Bowcott and Henry McDonald
15 June 2014
Two partially secret court hearings involving Northern Ireland informers are due to take place in London and Belfast this week, as the government deploys fresh legal powers.
The applications for closed material procedures (CMPs) appear designed to prevent details emerging about the controversial roles of Freddie Scappaticci, the west Belfast man alleged to be the military informer codenamed Stakeknife, who ran the IRA’s internal security unit in the 1990s; and Martin McGartland, a former RUC agent who infiltrated the IRA. Lawyers allege the cloak of national security is being used to resist legitimate claims.
The coincidence of restrictions being imposed on both historic intelligence cases suggests Whitehall departments and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) are determined to exploit the controversial procedure in domestic as well as international cases. Earlier this year, the Northern Ireland Office indicated it would also apply for a secret hearing in a third case involving a former dissident republican who was reimprisoned after his release on licence was revoked without the full reason being given.
CMPs allow the judge and one party to a civil dispute to see sensitive evidence but prevent claimants and the public from knowing precisely what is being alleged. They were introduced by the Justice and Security Act, which came into force late last year. Most of the arguments during the legislation’s passage through parliament focused on operations of the intelligence services in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The more commonly used public interest immunity (PII) certificates prevent evidence being used by either side in a court case. CMPs add a new legal weapon to the government’s armoury, permitting intelligence to be introduced into a case but withheld in full from a claimant. Supporters, including the cabinet minister Ken Clarke, who ushered the act through parliament, argue it enables the government to resist ill-founded claims. Critics say courtroom battles are no longer fought on a level playing field.
The Belfast case has been brought by Margaret Keeley – whose husband was the MI5 informer known by the pseudonym Kevin Fulton – against the Ministry of Defence, the PSNI and Scappaticci. She alleges she was wrongly arrested and falsely detained in 1994 to protect her husband.
Her solicitor, Kevin Winters of KRW Law, Belfast, told the Guardian: “In order to proceed with her claim against the British government for the violation of her human rights, Mrs Keeley requires disclosure of documents relating to her arrest and interrogation and the collusive role of the state in this.
“Both the MoD and PSNI have applied for such information only to be disclosed to the judge and a special advocate in a closed material hearing. This is a controversial procedure under the recent Justice and Security Act 2013, which means that Mrs Keeley will be excluded from the assessment of the material.
“[We] oppose these applications for CMPs. This procedure is not applicable to historical intelligence material which is no longer live and was never intended for use in proceedings relating to the conflict-related cases. The procedure is an offence to the principle of open justice.”
Scappaticci rose through the republican movement to head its internal security unit or “headhunters”. Their task was to unmask, interrogate and kill informers working inside the IRA. But at the same time as Scappaticci was overseeing the murder of state agents, he was providing RUC special branch and MI5 with high-grade intelligence on senior IRA figures and operations. At first he and Sinn Féin denied he was working as an informer but the republican leadership has since admitted Scappaticci was Stakeknife, although Scappaticci has always denied it.
Nogah Ofer, of Bhatt Murphy solicitors, who represents McGartland, said: “The claim is only to do with resettlement. There’s nothing in it that requires exploration of his work as an IRA informant.
“It’s purely that they failed to provide for psychiatric help for his injuries and failed to pay the disability benefits they had promised. He was shot by the IRA in 1999. There have been public statements by state bodies about him confirming his former role, including that he has given valuable service to the state.
“He was named in the Bloody Sunday inquiry so the government cannot rely on saying they ‘neither confirm nor deny’ his role when it[The government] has already confirmed publicly that he has been an agent. There’s no need for closed hearings. It’s part of a pattern of creeping secrecy.”
McGartland worked for the security services in Northern Ireland between 1987 and 1991 when his cover was blown. He was kidnapped by the IRA but managed to escape by jumping from a third-floor window.
He was moved to north-east England but was tracked down after his address was released during a trial. He was shot seven times but survived and now suffers from post-traumatic stress.