One of the best-known victims of a miscarriage of British justice, Gerry Conlon of the Guildford 4 has died at home in his native Belfast.
Portrayed on film by Daniel Day-Lewis in the Oscar-nominated In the Name of the Father, Conlon was still campaigning on behalf of those in prison he believed were innocent even in the days before his death from cancer early on Saturday morning. He was 60.
Conlon spent 15 years in prison for an IRA atrocity of which he was entirely innocent: the pub bombings in Guildford, Surrey, in 1974 in which five people were killed.
In a statement issued through Gareth Peirce, the lawyer who helped him and the other members of the Guildford Four – Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong and Carole Richardson – gain their freedom, his family confirmed he passed away in the early hours of Saturday morning.
The family said: “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.”
The Conlons added: “He brought life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours”.
Conlon, who was from the Lower Falls area of Belfast, watched his father Giuseppe die in prison as one of the so-called Maguire Seven, which also included Conlon’s aunt Annie. They were arrested after being falsely accused of taking part in the same IRA bombing campaign in southern England during the mid-1970s. When he entered prison, Conlon’s father was suffering from emphysema and had just undergone chemotherapy. He died in 1980.
Peirce, who was with the Conlon family when Gerry died, added her own tribute. She said: “Once a community has been made suspect en masse every organ of the state will feel entitled, in fact obliged, to discover proof of their suspicions. The example of what happened to Gerry and his entire family should haunt us forever. Sadly these lessons are jettisoned when the next suspect community is constructed.
“Lessons should have been learned. One of the campaigns that Gerry was most strongly articulating at the time of his death was pointing out what is being done to the Muslim community today. He was the bravest of fighters, not just for himself and his family but, by virtue of his victory, he took on the fight for others.”
In October 1989 the court of appeal in London quashed the sentences of the Guildford Four after doubts were raised about the police evidence against them. On his release after a decade and a half in jail, Conlon went outside to face the media, stating: “I’ve been in prison for 15 years for something I didn’t do, for something I knew nothing about.” In an emotional climax to his speech, he added: “I watched my father die in a British prison for something he didn’t do.”
Conlon also vowed in his first minutes of freedom to fight to free the Birmingham Six, convicted of a series of IRA pub bombings in 1974.
The life sentences handed down to the Maguire Seven were later overturned by the court of appeal in June 1991. In 2005, prime minister Tony Blair issued a public apology to the Maguire Seven and the Guildford Four for the miscarriages of justice they had suffered.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said: “Gerry and his father Giuseppe were two of the most infamous examples of miscarriages of justice by the British political and judicial system. To his family and friends I want to extend my sincere condolences.”
Alex Attwood of the SDLP, whose party conferences Conlon had attended in recent years, also paid tribute: “What he learned from his time in prison and campaign for release was the importance of not only raging against his own injustice but fighting for those who had also suffered miscarriages of justice.”
Among others to pay tribute to Conlon, was the band the Pogues, who tweeted: “All the Pogues send sincere condolences to the family of Gerry Conlon today. How lucky we were to know him. RIP.”
In 2009 Conlon wrote in the Guardian about the personal and emotional struggles he suffered as a result of his incarceration and battle for freedom. He endured two breakdowns, attempted suicide and became addicted to drugs and alcohol following his release. Conlon also began suffering nightmares after securing his freedom. “The ordeal has never left me,” he said.
Despite his personal problems, Conlon dedicated the rest of his life to challenging over miscarriages of justice. He campaigned for the release of British prisoners held by the American military in Guantánamo Bay.
One of his last public outings was in a Belfast court just a few weeks ago, where he was supporting an appeal by two men from Craigavon in North Armagh who unsuccessfully tried to overturn a murder conviction over the Continuity IRA killing of a police officer in 2009.
Arguably the most tenacious campaigner for Conlon’s freedom and his three friends was his mother Sarah, who died in 2008. On the living room of her home in Albert Street, west Belfast, there was a framed photograph of a newspaper headline from the week her son was finally freed from jail. The headline quoted the trial judge, Mr Justice Donaldson, who sentenced the Guildford Four to life in prison back in 1975. The judge told Conlon and his friends: “If hanging were still an option you would have been executed.”
Mark Leech, the editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisons in England and Wales said it is a headline we should never forget.
Mr Leech said: “Everyone should remember that headline when the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade argue for a return of the death penalty.
“I knew Gerry, having spent time with him in 1984/85 in Long Lartin Maximum Security Prison in Worcestershire.
“There we played for the same football team, and it was obvious he was innocent because all of the other IRA prisoners who mixed only with each other would not associate with him – he clearly was not one of them.
“His death is a tragedy and a loss to the continuing fight against miscarriages of justice, my thoughts are with his family at this sad time.”