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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