Gerry Conlon: Tormented in life, remembered in death
In life he was famed as one of “the Guilford Four” – immortalised on the silver screen by Sir Daniel Day-Lewis in the Oscar-nominated film In The Name Of The Father.
In death he will be remembered as a tireless campaigner against miscarriages of justice, after his own wrongful conviction for the 1974 bomb plot. It was a conviction he never really recovered from.
Gerry Conlon, who died on Saturday aged 60, spent 15 years in prison, mistakenly convicted of carrying out an IRA bombing on a Surrey pub. Conlon and the three others consistently protested their innocence until their convictions were finally overturned in 1989.
But on his release he struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, attempting suicide several times.
Four years ago he told The Telegraph: "I never had one suicidal thought in prison. Now I have them all the time. I haven't been able to have a relationship, I've turned to alcohol and drugs, it's a constant waking nightmare."
In March he told how every day of his torture and imprisonment was “indelibly stamped on my brain”.
“At the least drop of a hat, memories come flooding back,” he said on Ireland’s RTE television.
He had been in therapy for seven years, struggling to come to terms with the years of incarceration. “For the first few years, all I did was cry. I wanted to kill myself, the trauma was so deep,” he said.
He said being a prison was a form of “suspended animation” where you do not mature as a normal adult. For years, he said, he felt disfranchised from his family.
However, he said the last year of his life had been the best and the therapy he had undergone had finally helped him to cope.
But the tragedy remained that Conlon’s father, Patrick “Giuseppe” Conlon, was arrested weeks after his son and died in prison in 1980 – before he and six others – known as “the Maguire Seven” – had their convictions quashed. Investigations concluded both father and son were victims of police misconduct and their story became a symbol of injustice in Northern Ireland. He later described the pain of watching “my father die in a British prison for something he didn’t do”.
After his release, Conlon became a campaigner on behalf of the wrongfully imprisoned and in 2005 helped secured a historic public apology from Tony Blair for the British government’s handling of the case.
He died on Saturday in the Falls Road area of Belfast after a long illness.
His family announced his death in a statement released through Gareth Pierce, Conlon’s longtime lawyer, who was portrayed by Emma Thompson in In The Name of the Father.
“This morning we lost our Gerry. He brought life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours. He helped us to survive what we were not meant to survive.
“We recognise that what he achieved by fighting for justice for us had a far, far greater importance – it forced the world’s closed eyes to be opened to injustice; it forced unimaginable wickedness to be acknowledged; we believe it changed the course of history.
“We thank him for his life and we thank all his many friends for their love.”
Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, also expressed his sadness at the news.
“Gerry and his father Giuseppe were two of the most infamous examples of miscarriages of justice by the British political and judicial system,” Mr Adams said.
“Their story was told graphically in the film In The Name Of The Father. To his family and friends I want to extend my sincere condolences.”
Conlon was accused of taking part in the IRA bombing of the Horse and Groom in Guilford on October 5, 1974. The pub was targeted for its popularity with British troops and the explosion killed four soldiers and a civilian and wounded another 65.
A second set of bombs went off at the nearby Seven Stars later that night but caused no serious injuries.
Gerry Conlon, Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill and Carole Richardson – all in their early twenties or late teens – were arrested and gave false confessions under what they claim later was police torture.
The group, known as the Guildford Four, were sentenced to life in prison in October 1975. A second group, including Mr Conlon’s father, were convicted of making IRA bombs.
A subsequent investigation into Surrey Police’s handling of the case revealed that detectives had doctored papers to fit their case and in 1989 the Guildford Four were freed.
Mr Conlon, by then 35, burst out of the Old Bailey moments after securing his freedom and declared: “I have been in prison for something I did not do. I am totally innocent.”
Mr Conlon returned to Belfast and wrote an autobiography entitled Proved Innocent: Gerry Conlon and the Guildford Four. The book went on to be the inspiration for the 1993 film.
His fellow prisoner Paul Hill married Courtney Kennedy, the daughter of Robert Kennedy, shortly after being freed and the pair eventually moved to Washington.
Mrs Kennedy-Hill, a friend of Bill Clinton, wrote to Tony Blair about her husband’s ordeal and in 2000 secured a private apology in a letter from the prime minister.
“There were miscarriages of justice in your husband’s case, and the cases of those convicted with him,” Mr Blair wrote. “I am very sorry indeed that this should have happened.”
Five years later, he made a public apology on television to all 11 members of the Guilford Four and the Maguire Seven and met Mr Conlon and the other families.
“He exceeded our expectations in apologising, he said it was long overdue,” Mr Conlon said at the time.
The former prisoner said he never fully recovered from his decade and a half in prison and struggling with alcohol and drug addiction as well as once trying to take his own life.
His mother, Sarah Conlon, became a high profile figure as she campaigned to free her son and husband from prison.
A devoted Catholic, she ended her letters to her imprisoned family with the line: “Pray for the ones who told lies against you. It’s them who needs help as well as yourself.”
Mrs Conlon, who was portrayed by the Northern Irish actress Marie Jones in the film, died in 2008.
Alex Attwood, SDLP Stormont Assembly member for Belfast West, paid tribute to Mr Conlon after his death was announced on Saturday.
“He’d given an awful lot but yet had so much more to give,” Mr Attwood said. “What he learned from his time in prison and campaign for release was the importance of not only raging against his own injustice but fighting for those who had also suffered miscarriages of justice.”
His funeral is expected to be held next week in Belfast.