Monday 23 April 2018

'There were times I just wanted to be back in prison' - Paddy Armstrong

Guildford Four member Paddy Armstrong tells our reporter about how, with the help of his wife Caroline, he rebuilt his life after spending 15 years locked up for a crime he didn't commit
Family man: Paddy Armstrong with his wife Caroline. Photo: David Conachy
Family man: Paddy Armstrong with his wife Caroline. Photo: David Conachy
Paddy Armstrong in 1996. Photo: Steve Humphreys
John Meagher

John Meagher

Paddy Armstrong may have been out of prison for the best part of three decades, but his life still bears the hallmarks of being locked up for 15 years for a crime he did not commit.

He still wakes exceptionally early and likes to have a rigid structure in his daily routine, and he admits to feeling very jittery whenever he has to go through airport security. But in every other aspect, his life now could hardly be more different than it was when he was incarcerated for the second half of his 20s and virtually all of his 30s.

"I never thought I'd be a father," he says of those dark days behind bars, "and I am, and it means so much to me."

Spend even a short time in his company, and one senses how much Paddy values the life he leads with wife Caroline and their two children, JP and Sophie.

They live in Clontarf, that bastion of Dublin middle-class gentility, and one of his favourite pursuits is having a quiet pint in his local pub, Connolly's - The Sheds. And it's here where we meet to talk about his newly published memoir, Life After Life, which adds to the rich canon of books about Irish people who were victims of British miscarriages of justice.

In 1974, the then 24-year-old was wrongly imprisoned for two pub bombings in Guildford, a town south of London, which claimed the lives of five people.

He would immediately become known as one of the Guildford Four - a title that is likely to follow him to the grave.

"I didn't just want the book to be about my time in prison," he says, "but also about what my life has been like since I got out, and how difficult it was in the early days of freedom. It was very hard to get used to life on the outside, and there were times where I wanted to be back in prison because at least I knew the structure there."

Armstrong was heading for a post-prison life ruined by alcohol and drugs, until he met Caroline in a Dublin bar and saw the light, so to speak.

Caroline, a teacher in a local secondary school, is by his side today - for moral support, and more. There's a fragility to Armstrong, a softness that makes a mockery out of the idea he could have been a hardened killer in his 20s.

"He wouldn't hurt a fly," Caroline says, and you believe her.

In the early 1970s London he found himself in, he enjoyed something of a nomadic existence, living in squats and smoking cannabis with his English girlfriend, Carole Richardson, who would also be wrongly locked up for the Guildford bombing. He had been glad to escape the tensions of Belfast, then fully descended into the Troubles, for "life as a hippie" in London.

But that seemingly idyllic life would be turned on its head thanks to the IRA's campaign to take the 'war' to Britain - which resulted in an environment where being Irish and Catholic could be enough to see you go down for someone else's crime.

Ghostwritten by the journalist Mary-Elaine Tynan, Life After Life is, at times, a harrowing read, especially in the pages that detail the events surrounding Armstrong's wrongful arrest, his exposure to police brutality and a court case that wouldn't have been out of place in a banana republic.

"They were baying for blood at the time," he says. "They wanted to get results quickly and tell the public they were beating the IRA. It didn't matter to them that they had the wrong people. They had someone. That was enough."

As you read the book, and the sentences become more urgent and tense, it's hard not to feel as though you are being sucked into a Kafkaesque nightmare about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"I didn't want to leave anything out," Armstrong tells me, "hard as it was to go back over it, and Mary-Elaine said it was important that if we were going to do a book, nothing would be left out."

For Caroline, much of the detail was new to her.

"It was the sort of stuff Paddy didn't want to talk about or upset me with, but for a book like this, it needed to be said. And it really is hard to read about what he went through."

Passages about the torture he and his co-accused experience at the hands of the police will make any reader ask what would they have done? Would they, like Armstrong and the others, have reached a point where they could not take any more and have falsely confessed to a crime they had not committed simply to make the beatings stop?

Today, Armstrong is acutely aware that if he had been caught 10 years previously, he would have received the death penalty. "The judge [Justice John Donaldson] said he would have hanged us if he'd had the chance."

And yet, the very year they were imprisoned, IRA paramilitaries, who had been arrested in London after the so-called Balcombe Street Siege, confessed to having carried out the Guildford bombings. The authorities didn't care - they were content to let Armstrong, Richardson, Paul Hill and Gerry Conlon languish in cells.

But there were times in prison where Armstrong might have imagined execution to have been more tolerable.

"We were given 35-year sentences, but were told by many that we would never get out, and part of me thought I would never see the outside world again." Suicide was something he says he considered many times.

The early years of prison were hellish, especially when he found himself bullied by other inmates. Being seen as an Irish terrorist made him a sitting duck for those who wanted to exact vengeance. Sometimes it got so bad he would agitate to be put into solitary confinement - at least nobody could get to him there.

And this gentle man was pushed to the brink by one bully on the wing, resorting to attacking him with boiling water laced with sugar. Armstrong still feels great remorse about the injuries he inflicted on this tormentor. It's to his credit that such unsavoury detail has not been neglected.

"I never wanted to write a book that was just one version of who I was or what I experienced," he says. "It had to be all or nothing."

But by the mid-1980s, thanks to much investigative journalism and the painstaking efforts of people like Alastair Logan - Armstrong's lawyer - it was becoming increasingly clear that the Guildford Four and, indeed, the Birmingham Six, had been victims of grave injustices.

In October 1989, Armstrong and his three co-accused walked free.

"When they told me we were going to be let out, I couldn't believe it," he says. "I thought it was a joke, but then we were being told to pack and it was really happening."

The four, united by a moniker none of them wanted, had to negotiate the world as best they could. Jim Sheridan would base his 1993 movie In the Name of the Father on Conlon's memoir, while Hill also published a book. For her part, Richardson eschewed the limelight and died of cancer aged just 55.

"She was the loveliest person," Armstrong says, with a great sadness in his voice. "Gentle and kind."

Unlike today, there were few contingencies about readying the prisoners for the outside world.

"When you get freedom after so long, it's hard not to go a bit wild," he says, with a rueful grin. "But I'm just glad I was able to stop drinking that heavily. I came to see that I was ruining my life and I took the chance to make it right."

Remarkably, there's little rancour about all those lost years and he says carrying hatred around in his heart would change nothing and just hurt the people he loves.

"You have to make peace with it," he says, "and live your life for the moment. What happened happened, and it was awful, but I don't want to let it take over my life - and I won't let it."

Being around his children gives him great pleasure, he says, especially as his youngest, Sophie, seems to have adopted his love of Arsenal Football Club.

He is happy to talk of his experiences at schools - and Caroline's was one of the first he gave a talk to after they married. "He's very much himself when he does them," she says. "And I was mortified to hear that when he spoke at the school and was asked what he missed most when he was in prison, he said 'sex'.

"That's Paddy through and through - honest and direct."

Life After Life: A Guildford Four Memoir is published by Gill Books

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