Guildford Four accused bears no grudges as he pays tribute to Gerry
In a rare interview, Paddy Armstrong tells Mary Elaine Tynan of his heartbreak at the death of his childhood friend
Last Sunday, Paddy Armstrong, a man in his 60s, was standing in his local shop scanning newspaper headlines about the death of Gerry Conlon. A woman stood beside him and they chatted when somebody came to offer Paddy his condolences on Gerry's death. The woman looked on, surprised, and asked Paddy how he knew Gerry. "I was in prison with him," he told her.
Upon realising she was speaking to Paddy Armstrong, she told him she'd followed his case, offered her condolences and hugged him. She then asked him to wait and ran outside. Minutes later, as Paddy was paying for a newspaper, the same woman rushed back in and pressed a small, velvet bag into his hand. "These are from Mexico. I want you to have them." She turned and disappeared. When Paddy opened the bag at home he found a set of heavy, ornate, silver rosary beads inside. "It brought a tear to my eye," he admits.
Paddy and his wife Caroline have shed many tears since hearing of the death of Gerry Conlon, the man Paddy grew up with on Belfast's Falls Road in the 1950s. I meet them just days after they received a phone call from Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six with the news of Gerry's death. "I didn't even know he was sick… [after I heard] I was walking around in a trance… It broke my heart…It's very hard to believe."
Young Paddy Armstrong and Gerry played football together on the Falls Road, "20 a side, all in," he tells me with an easy grin. Paddy was around nine and Gerry was five. The pair would spend their teens behind the barricades of the Troubles before going to London separately in the 1970s, Paddy on the advice of a local priest, a decision that would have unimaginable consequences.
In 1974, at the age of 24, Paddy described himself as "a hippie [who took] acid and hash". He was living in a squat and going out with 17-year-old Carole Richardson, an English girl, when two pubs were bombed on October 5. Shortly afterwards, Paddy and Carole were arrested separately, as were Gerry Conlon and Paul Hill. They would become known as the Guildford Four and while most know Conlon's story intimately from his portrayal in In the Name of the Father and the very public life he led until his death last Saturday, little is known about the peaceable Armstrong, who has chosen to live quietly with his wife and two children, John and Sophie, in Dublin.
In this rare interview during which he shows almost no signs of anger or resentment, the man who spent almost a quarter of his life in prison tells me that although his arrest was so unexpected, he wondered if he was on Candid Camera. However, after the first day in court he knew he would be there for a long time. "They had to get somebody for it and we were the ones."
In fact, when they were sentenced (for 35 years in Paddy's case), Mr Justice Donaldson expressed regret that the four had not been charged with treason, which still had a mandatory death penalty at the time.
The first night of Paddy's incarceration was the longest of his life, he tells me, but the isolation and violence quickly became the norm. The young Paddy, who had always been sheltered by his older sisters, quickly learned to stand up for himself or face the consequences. "Over the years you just get hardened to it… you're either a softie or you stand up for what you believe in. That's what you had to do in prison. You can't run anywhere."
He later describes pouring hot water over another inmate and hitting him with a sock full of batteries after the other man tried to intimidate him, an act that left him in solitary confinement for three months. I find myself looking at the 64-year-old man recounting this story in such a calm, detached manner and wondering whether there could be an aggressive, violent character lurking below this stoic surface. When I ask him if he could have committed such a violent act in his youth, or whether he could do it now, he says no.
"Prison is totally different… you're surviving… and if you let somebody push you over, there'll be another one and another one and another one… [I knew] If I do this now, that's it finished, no more trouble." I believe him.
In fact, I'm more surprised about Paddy's lack of anger and resentment now than any acts of aggression he might have committed during those 15 years. It's hard to reconcile his calm exterior with the stories of the inhumane treatment in prison; of being threatened with dogs; given food laced with glass, urine and faeces; of the beatings he endured; witnessing other inmates being stabbed and indeed resorting to violence to protect himself. How can he remain so passive and forgiving?
He shrugs, explaining that he doesn't blame English people, just the system, and insists that after intense psychotherapy on his release, arranged by his solicitor, Alistair Logan, he felt much better.
Fifteen years after they were sentenced and following a lengthy campaign by family and their legal teams, the Guildford Four were freed in October 1989. And while most will remember Conlon's speech on the steps of the Old Bailey, few know that the 39-year-old Paddy Armstrong chose to leave by the back door to support Carole Richardson. He would later admit to his wife that while he would have loved to have gone out the front with Gerry, he couldn't leave Richardson to go out the back alone. Richardson would spend the rest of her life in obscurity and died of cancer last year, aged 51.
She was buried in a private ceremony which Paddy didn't hear about until afterwards. There is a moment of anguish in his eyes as he tells me about the guilt he feels for the years the young English girl spent in prison because of her association with him.
I ask Paddy what he remembers about being released, he laughs and tells me: "Everything was totally different after 15 years…the price of jeans and the new chocolate bars in the shops." He laughs again as he remembers going into a shop shortly afterwards and spending £20 on chocolate. He also recalls being overwhelmed by unfamiliar gadgets and laughs quietly when he tells me about one of them putting an ice cream in a microwave, thinking it was a fridge.
And yet in spite of the quashed conviction, Armstrong would experience difficulties surmounting red tape for a long time; he was questioned about his movements for several years and in 1994 he was denied a US visa to take a group of inner-city children to the World Cup. The visa was granted later, following intervention by a friend of Paddy's with contacts in the embassy and threats of going to the press. Not long after their release, Paddy tells me that he went to see Gerry for a weekend and ended up staying with him for a year. The pair later travelled around the world, making up for lost time and "getting the prison out of [them]".
When I ask him where he thinks he might be now had he not been imprisoned, he grimaces and replies: "Dead, maybe. I was taking drugs before I went in, acid and everything… and I probably would never have gotten married." And while he doesn't say it, one can't help thinking that he is grateful for this, something I certainly never expected. Caroline echoes this sentiment: "He's never told me the bad stories, he doesn't dwell on them. He's always thankful for what good has come out of this."
I ask Caroline, a schoolteacher, about the man who has still yet to convince me that he is not angry, but she assures me that he has been like this since the time they met, around six years after his release. "The first thing that struck me about him was the warmth and kindness. The beautiful, calm person… I was a bit fearful, as I didn't know what was underneath. To this day, 18 years later, he is the same."
Caroline is almost as placid as Paddy. She speaks about Tony Blair's apology in February 2005 and only becomes indignant when she explains how the Taoiseach at the time omitted to mention Paddy's name in his own acknowledgement of the apology. "Just because he hasn't led a public life doesn't mean he hasn't suffered and [I wrote in my letters to Bertie Ahern] that he at least deserved to be mentioned."
When I ask her how Paddy's time in prison has affected their family, she pauses and then tells me how proud they are of Paddy, that he is the rock of the family. While she was initially loath to tell their children, Paddy had other plans. "I found him telling [four-year-old] John about his past. I overheard him and I said 'Oh my God, Paddy, you've just told the child you were in prison. He'll have no friends and nobody will want to play with him."
Before I leave the man who bears no grudges at the loss of a quarter of his life in prison, who afterwards sat in pubs facing the door while drinking "so I could see where everybody was" and the same man who manages to put a positive spin on his incarceration, I ask him what he would have said to Gerry, given the opportunity. He pauses and then looks upward: "Gerry, if you're listening, goodbye son."
We look at the rosary beads again and I ask him what he will do with them. He thinks for a minute. "I was thinking of putting them around Gerry's neck, but she gave them to me so I think she wants me to have them. So I'll keep them."
Then he nods and smiles, more to himself.