Monday 23 April 2018

Gerry Conlon 'brought strength to our family through its darkest hours'

Belfast man was wrongly jailed for IRA's 1974 pub bomb attack

Gerry Conlon following his release in 1989.Photo: Alan Lewis - PhotopressBelfast
Gerry Conlon following his release in 1989.Photo: Alan Lewis - PhotopressBelfast

Daniel McConnell and David Raleigh

"THIS morning we lost our Gerry," read the statement from the Conlon family. Gerry Conlon, wrongly convicted of the 1974 IRA Guildford pub bombing, died yesterday, aged 60, in his home in the Falls Road area of Belfast after a lengthy illness.

One of the most potent symbols of the injustice of the Troubles, immortalised by Daniel Day-Lewis in a Hollywood movie, Mr Conlon and the rest of the Guildford Four served 14 years in jail.

They were all given life sentences for a bomb attack, which killed five people and injured 65, before their convictions were overturned in 1989.

The Conlon family yesterday issued a statement through his lawyer Gareth Peirce. "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."

Right up to his untimely death, Mr Conlon believed nothing in the administration of justice had changed, since his wrongful conviction for murdering five people and injuring 65 in a pub bombing in Guildford, England, in 1974.

In March, speaking in Limerick, he said that the present Irish and British governments had turned their backs on other innocent Irish "rotting" in English jails. Nothing had changed, he said, since the dark days of the 1970s when he and others were thrown into English prisons for no other crime than being Irish.

Mr Conlon's eyes still bore the black nightmares of 30 years ago. But the intensity with which he fought for justice for so-called innocents burned brightly.

On his release Mr Conlon struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, eventually attempting suicide. Four years ago he told one newspaper: "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, on RTE he told how every day of his torture and imprisonment was "stamped on my brain".

"At the least drop of a hat, memories come flooding back," he said. He had been in therapy for seven years, trying to come to terms with his torture. "For the first few years, all I did was cry," he said.

He said being in prison was a form of "suspended animation" where you do not mature as an 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 that therapy had finally helped him to cope.

But the tragedy remained that Mr 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 tortured by police, while the judge at their trial expressed regret that the Four had not been charged with treason, which carried a mandatory death penalty.

Mr Conlon later described the pain of watching "my father die in a British prison for something he didn't do".

After his release, Mr Conlon campaigned on behalf of the wrongfully imprisoned and in 2005 helped secured a public apology from Tony Blair for the British government's handling of the case.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore led tributes from the Irish Government, saying Mr Conlon had "suffered a grave miscarriage of justice".

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams expressed his shock and deep 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.

Mr Conlon's mother, Sarah, died in 2008, aged 82.

Sunday Independent

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