Terry Prone: 'Gerry Conlon's death is a double tragedy - the early ending of half a life'
We never met him. Never shook his hand or got to know him. Not really. But still, in the moment we learned of his death, we lined up in agreement as to the exceptional sadness of it.
Here was a man imprisoned without cause by an unstoppable system, a big chunk of his life stolen from him before heroic legal and lobbying campaigns stopped the system and forced it to extrude him and others back into a freedom they had almost forgotten, almost learned to fear.
To learn that this man, having suffered so much, had died at 60 years of age, was to learn of a double tragedy: the early ending of half a life. If Gerry Conlon even got as much as half a life.
It wasn't as if he had set himself up in his teens as a young Gerry Adams. Rather the reverse. As a teenager, he had been turfed out of a young people's Republican organisation for petty thieving. The Republican movement - back then - clearly didn't see him as overflowing with potential. But when the Guildford bombings happened, the Surrey police saw him as overflowing with potential guilt, and stitched him up as neatly as if they'd machine-gunned a line across his narrow chest.
He and three others went to prison for what was expected to mean the rest of their lives. His father, Guiseppe, only one lung left in him and that one lung crusty with emphysema, was one of the group who never saw the outside world again.
The Guildford Four were a paradox. They were the most fortunate unfortunates of their time. They became a dissident brand around which a motley crew of the passionate gathered. They convinced a human rights lawyer named Gareth Peirce of their innocence. Something about their collective helplessness, something particularly about the deer-eyed terror that came across from the black and white photograph of Gerry Conlon we all got used to, brought about a relentless determination that this would be the test case of all test cases to prove that sometimes British justice was not worthy of the name. It worked.
He was still young when he got out of prison. That was the marvellous thing. Still young, holding his mother's hand in confused semi-triumph.
"I have been in prison for something I did not do," he told everybody who wanted to listen. "I am totally innocent."
His release made us all feel good, just as him writing a startlingly readable book about what had happened to us made us feel good, by convincing us that a miscarriage of justice can be rectified, that it can lead to fame, to a great movie, (in this case "In the Name of the Father"), to fortune, a new life and may be even a dose of happy-ever-after.
Everybody wished the man well and felt good for him. Never mind that it took so long to free him. Never mind that it took another sixteen years before then British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote to him apologising on behalf of the British Government for what it had done to him. Times had moved on. Former gunmen were in Government, at least in the North, and, since compensation money had been paid, wasn't he only grand, that poor unfortunate man?
He was far from grand. He was sick, addicted and abandoned by public opinion. His death rattled the shards of his unsought notoriety and confused by the fictions of a half-remembered movie.
Gerry Conlon's death may have been a welcome departure from a world that could never have made sense to him, where his life was a cocktail of miseries over which he had little control: world fame stirred into a continuum of hopelessness.