News Comment

Saturday 30 August 2014

Eoghan Corry: 'The miracle of Gerry Conlon was he prevailed against a monstrous system'

Eoghan Corry

Published 21/06/2014 | 18:47

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File photo dated 12/02/05 of Gerry Conlon speaking at the SDLP party conference in Londonderry, the Guilford Four member has died at the age of 60
File photo dated 12/02/05 of Gerry Conlon speaking at the SDLP party conference in Londonderry, the Guilford Four member has died at the age of 60

When the news came that the Guildford Four were to be released, we expected a catch.

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Such was the paranoia that accompanied miscarriage of justice campaigns in the 1980s.

I remember being struck by how cowed he was, how frightened he was, when he came to Dublin in October 1989, feted by a Taoiseach who had avoided campaigning openly for his release, he had a haunted look.

Gerry was ever an unlikely warrior, at 20 when he was convicted, at 35 when he was released.

Gerry’s own biography, which appeared in 1994, presents the wounded figure, haunted by conflicted relationship and the notion that he had caused the death of his father Guiseppe in prison.

Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of Conlon in Jim Sheridan’s movie, 'In the Name of the Father', completed the myth: the flawed hero of the type the silver screen loves - a long-haired wiseacre and petty thief with a mouth that wouldn't stay shut.

We all knew those guys, so we thought we knew Gerry.

Gerry was the one of the four who seemed feisty.

The picture of him punching the air in defiance was the defining image of the release of the Guildford Four. The others - Paul Hill, Carole Richardson and Paddy Armstrong - just wanted to hide.

We wanted Gerry Conlon to be defiant, not wounded, and he played that role. But he, too, really wanted to hide.

He was approachable, but unpredictable.

Those who came looking for the mythologised Daniel Day Lewis figure went away disappointed.

He had started out life as a "hood", the bad boy which, ironically, the Provos disapproved of and would not have touched with a barge pole. 

He was very open to people who sought his help. In later life he was consumed with anger at any injustice and supported many good causes. His incarceration gave him credibility he would never have achieved otherwise. But the struggle to overcome his past affected his demeanour.

The real Gerry seemed always hidden away, removed from those of us who never believed he was guilty.

Such was the legacy of conflict in the 1980s that when he was fighting to clear his name, anyone who joined the campaign was a suspect.

The miracle was that he prevailed at all against a monstrous system.

The margin between success and failure was very tight. The Guildford non-bombers were cleared because a doctored notebook, which was found by an investigating team, as well as whole sheaves of documents marked "not to be released to the defence". What would have happened if they had been destroyed?

In all 18 Irish people were wrongfully convicted in the near-hysteria of the mid 1970s. Gerry was different because of his rock-star looks and his fortitude. He not only spent 15 years in prison for something he did not do, but he spent 800 days in solitary.

We know more now than we did then. State papers that were subsequently released  revealed that the Irish government noted: “There is a large question mark over the guilt of Conlon and other prisoners convicted at the time of the Guildford, Woolwich, and Birmingham bombings" but “this is an extremely difficult area and one in which we would be very slow to step.”

The release, when it came, did not feel like a victory.

Even after the release the British said they will not reopen the Birmingham Six case, even though some of the same cops were involved and one of them had changed his mind since the Guildford Four were released, pleading that he cannot live with it on his conscience any more. The Birmingham Six were eventually released in March 1991, after a court of appeal found their convictions unsafe and quashed them.

When Jim Sheridan’s movie 'In The Name of the Father' came out in 1993, one conservative newspaper went so far as to say that actress Emma Thompson's decision to take the role of the Guildford Four's lawyer Gareth Pierce was “not perhaps the wisest decision a British actress could make".

As for the real Gerry Conlon, he closed his book with the hope that he wouldn't “spend the rest of my life being known only as one of the Guildford Four.”

That was a lot to expect. Perhaps he under-estimated the scale of his own achievement.

Sadly, while Gerry won his small victory, the system meant his freedom was a nightmare. The same legislation is being used today.

Irish Independent

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