Sunday 23 April 2017

A Guildford Four memoir: Injustice, a lost love and a life back here

Memoir: Life After Life: A Guildford Four Memoir, Paddy Armstrong with Mary-Elaine Tynan, Gill Books, €16.99

Paddy Armstrong was imprisoned for murder in 1975, but walked free from the Old Bailey in London 15 years later, after his conviction was finally quashed. Photo: David Conachy
Paddy Armstrong was imprisoned for murder in 1975, but walked free from the Old Bailey in London 15 years later, after his conviction was finally quashed. Photo: David Conachy

JP O'Malley

Until December 3, 1974, Paddy Armstrong was an anonymous Irishman living in north London. Home was a dingy squat in Kilburn. His afternoons were mostly spent doing small-time shoplifting.

Or it was to the pub or the bookies. Evenings were spent high on drugs, such as acid, speed, hash, or cocaine.

A petty criminal, and a casual-drug-taking-hippy he may have been, but an IRA freedom-fighting-bomber, the 24-year-old from the Falls Road in west Belfast, certainly was not.

Politics and nationalism simply weren't on the agenda of the bohemian subculture that Armstrong mixed with in London at the time.

Still, these facts were of little concern to those in the upper echelons of the British legal system, who needed a fall guy, as a network of IRA bombers were running riot across the British mainland during the most violent years of the Troubles.

On the December evening he was arrested for the Guildford pub bombings - that killed five people and injured scores of others - Armstrong was coming down off a particularly heavy three-day speed-induced-hallucinogenic-sleep-deprived-drug-bender.

He was held under the newly introduced Prevention of Terrorism Act; an emergency law that allowed for the arrest and detention of suspected terrorists - regardless of evidence - for up to one week.

As Armstrong recalls in this extremely moving, honest, and at times, heartbreaking memoir, the British state used this legislation to ruthless levels of excess at the time. And the British police officers that were interrogating him, and his peers, made a mockery of the concept of justice and the rule of law.

Continually beaten by police officers, and threatened with his life, Armstrong, fearing he would lose his mind, or die, signed a document confessing to the bombings.

In October 1975, in the Old Bailey, London, Armstrong was convicted of both the Guildford bombings, and the Woolwich bombings, from November 1974, too.

He was told he would serve 35 years in prison: the longest minimum recommended sentence for any individual in the British state at the time.

And Mr Justice Donaldson, the case's judge, informed Armstrong that it was a pity the death penalty had been abolished, because if it hadn't, he would have no problem in passing down a sentence of hanging.

Most people will be familiar with this story. Especially after Jim Sheridan's 1993 Hollywood film, In the Name of The Father, which depicted, in dramatic fashion, the tragic tale of The Guildford Four - Gerry Conlon, Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill, and Carole Richardson.

All were, eventually, after some legal complications, released, when justice finally prevailed, in October 1989.

Based on Conlon's memoir, Proved Innocent, the film also recalled how Conlon's father Giuseppe, died in prison in 1980, while serving his sentence.

And it made reference to the Maguire family - also wrongly accused and sentenced - who were closely related to Conlon, and became known as the Maguire Seven.

However, what's less known about this shocking tale of injustice, is the tragic lost romance between Armstrong and his then girlfriend, Carole Richardson, who was just 17 years old when arrested for her so-called involvement in the bombings.

Armstrong reproduces here several of the original love letters between himself and Richardson, as he poignantly recalls how the woman he believed he would marry and who would become the mother of his children, was taken away from him by the sinister forces of the British state.

Over time, these letters became less frequent, and the couple - being in different prisons, and separated for years at a time - eventually drifted apart.

Richardson would suffer several nervous breakdowns in prison, and died a shell of her former self, at just 55, from cancer in 2013.

Armstrong is now happily married in Dublin with two children.

Armstrong also recollects here how Joe O'Connell, from the infamous Balcombe Street Gang - a violent, ruthless, and highly-trained military unit sent to Britain by the Provisional IRA - publicly admitted in 1975 to carrying out both the Guildford and Woolwich bombings respectively.

However, fearing the initial lie would be exposed, three Appeal Court judges refused to allow a proper retrial before a jury.

Armstrong's emotional and candid memoir is a collaborative effort with Mary-Elaine Tynan, who acts as ghostwriter bringing great energy into a haunting present-tense-stream-of-consciousness-narrative, where the reader, at times, feels as if they are almost sharing a prison cell with the accused. Life After Life, in parts, also has parallels with Kafka's, The Trial which, similarly, displays how the invisible forces of the state, bureaucratic confusion, and the helpless innocent individual, can all become subsumed into a vortex of chaos, leading to torture, and inexplicable horror.

This memoir is a stark reminder too, of how a manipulative state power can take the law into its own hands, to justify deceitful methods of coercion and subtle games of ideological control.

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