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Friday 22 August 2014

From the Archives: Tony Blair makes apology to those wrongly jailed over IRA bombings

*Published in February 2005

David McKittrick in London

Published 21/06/2014 | 12:22

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THIRTY years after they were jailed, two Irish families yesterday finally received a public apology for their wrongful jailing over IRA bombings.

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British Premier Tony Blair's apology and declaration that those jailed for the 1974 Guildford and Woolwich bombings deserved to be "completely and publicly exonerated" was what the families had sought for years.

The prime minister was attempting to bring closure in the cases of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, which are regarded as among the most conspicuous miscarriages of justice in recent times.

Eleven people spent up to 15 years behind bars before being cleared while one man, Guiseppe Conlon, died in prison.

They were jailed in relation to the 1974 Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings in which the IRA killed seven people.

Mr Blair's apology was delivered in a TV statement in his office in the House of Commons and then in private to those wronged by the British legal system. He then shook them by the hands.

Mr Blair said: "I'm very sorry that they were subject to such an ordeal and such an injustice. That's why I'm making this apology today - they deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated."

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "It was a meeting which nobody who was present will ever forget."

Several years ago, Mr Blair delivered a private apology to the Conlon family, but the Irish Government and others have for many months continued to press for a more public statement.

Some time ago the British government accepted the case for this. The timing of yesterday's announcement is thought to be related to a recent meeting between Mr Blair and Bertie Ahern, when the Taoiseach asked for a speedy announcement.

In yesterday's case, the British government took the view that it was responding to a specific request from the Dublin authorities and from the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour party for movement.

However, the manner of his apology immediately came under fire from across the political spectrum. Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said if the statement had been made in the Commons, Mr Blair could have been questioned about other cases and "why he's being so selective in his recollection of matters".

Democratic Unionist party MP Nigel Dodds said there were "thousands of victims of IRA terrorism and other terrorism" who had not received such apologies.

Yesterday's statement follows a series of apologies, some of them delivered by the IRA, about controversial episodes and killings during the troubles.

Mr Blair's apology delighted the Maguire family and Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He said after meeting the prime minister: "He went beyond what we thought he would, he took time to listen to everyone.

"His sincerity shone through - you could see he was physically taken aback when he saw the trauma and knew of the suffering. Tony Blair has healed rifts."   

Annie Maguire, who was jailed along with members of her family, said: "This is a great day for us. It will help our children and their children. The people who were still doubting us should now believe that we were totally innocent."

Six of the Maguire Seven were released from prison after serving their sentences and were later cleared by the Court of Appeal.

Guiseppe Conlon, the subject of the film `In the Name of the Father', was posthumously cleared. His wife Sarah is believed to be in ill-health.

After a lengthy campaign, the court overturned the convictions of the Guildford Four and they were released.

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said last night he hoped the apology issued by Blair would make up for many years of suffering for the Conlon family.

"I know that the years of lost time that the Conlon family has suffered cannot be recovered. My hope for them is that they can move on with their lives," Mr Ahern added.   Meanwhile, Mr Blair was yesterday urged to make a similar apology to the Birmingham Six as he did to the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven. Paddy Hill, who since his release in 1991 has campaigned for other wrongly convicted people, called on Mr Blair to make the apology and end the "whispering campaign" that had persisted against them.

"Since we came out the only recognition we've had from people in government is a whispering campaign, things like we were only let out on a technicality to help the peace process along - all rubbish," Mr Hill told a BBC radio phone-in.

"The forensics evidence against us turned out to be nothing but a figment of (Home Office scientist Frank) Skuse's imagination. The police falsified accounts of interviews," said Mr Hill.

If Mr Blair did not apologise, said Mr Hill, he could only assume that he was saying "by implication the Birmingham Six are guilty".

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