Gerry Conlon: ‘Tony Blair lied to us, his apology meant nothing
Richard Holt recalls his meeting with Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four wrongly convicted for terrorism, who has died aged 60 Richard Holt recalls his meeting with Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four wrongly convicted for terrorism, who has died aged 60
Gerry Conlon’s conviction may have been overturned, but he died without ever feeling he got justice for his wrongful imprisonment over the 1974 Guildford pub bombings.
He and the other three members of the Guildford Four spent 15 years in prison. Conlon’s father Guiseppe, imprisoned on related and equally baseless charges as part of a group known as the Maguire Seven, died behind bars. When Conlon emerged from court in 1989, he appeared a triumphant figure, vowing to fight for justice.
And fight on he did, campaigning on behalf of the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six and numerous other wrongly convicted people. But he never escaped the horrors of what had happened to him. “I’d spent months in solitary,” he said. “I’d been beaten, had people defecating in my food, putting glass in my food. I’d seen people murdered.”
The campaigning gave him some purpose, but he felt constantly desperate and terrified. “Something comes into my head and I’m back in prison... Being tortured, hands behind my back, gun in my mouth. It doesn’t go away.”
Eight years after his release, he was given half a million pounds in compensation, but this he likened to being given “a bottle of whisky and a revolver”. What he needed was the professional help that was denied him, leaving Conlon to deal with his problems alone, often self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and being driven to regularly contemplate, and occasionally attempt, suicide.
As well as professional help he needed acknowledgment that people were to blame for his wrongful conviction. The police offers who falsified statements were never brought to justice, and he believes that collusion went far beyond them.
He remained convinced that evidence still exists in classified government documents proving that knowledge of their innocence went right to the top.
"The Government knew, right from the start, that we were innocent. They knew we had nothing to do with the IRA, but they didn't care,” he told me when I interviewed him four years ago. “That's why they have a 75-year immunity order on our case. Because they want all the people involved to be dead before they release our files."
What was remarkable about him was that through all of this, he remained almost entirely without bitterness. In talking about his own case he was always careful to mention those who suffered alongside him, and to thank those that helped him.
His recollection of the names, dates and events in his case was pin-sharp, partly a function of an extremely sharp mind, but also partly because of the painful recollections being constantly revisited upon him in an ongoing loop that he had no means of stopping.
In 2005 the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven got a personal apology from Tony Blair. Conlon told the then-prime minister that the apology would only mean something if it came with more help for the victims.
"Blair turned to [parliamentary private secretary] David Hanson and said: 'David, get on to this right away.' Since then we've had no help. We followed up on Tony Blair's promise and were basically told to get lost. He lied to us - the apology means nothing."
I kept in touch with Conlon after our interview, passing on messages of support from people who read about his case. But it became increasingly clear that the walls were closing in on him. His look during the four hours we had spent together was of a man who was physically free but in his eyes you could tell that he was still being tortured. After a couple of years I no longer heard back from him.
It is terribly sad that he has died without ever feeling he got justice for the way he was treated; yet it’s remarkable that he remained so strong for so long, considering that his life was taken away when he was 20