Gerry Conlon was 20 years old, just back home in West Belfast after a visit to England where he’d hung out with his friend Paul Hill. The year was 1974, but when Gerry told me the story a few months ago, the description, and the disbelief, were as vivid as if it were yesterday.
“I’m down at my local bakery, and I meet Paul’s ma. She’s very upset, she says to me that Paul’s been arrested in England, and they’re saying he was involved with something in the last few days. So I say to her, ‘No way! I was with Paul – you tell his lawyer to get in touch with me, I can tell them where he was, with me in Southampton!’ You know, if I thought they suspected me of anything, I could have been safe across the border in a hour!”
It wasn’t until the next morning that Gerry was torn from his bed and dragged back to England – where he, Paul, Paddy Armstrong and a 17-year-old English girl, Carole Richardson, were tortured by police until they ‘confessed’, in doctored statements, to being the IRA gang behind the deadly bombing of a pub frequented by British servicemen in the small town of Guildford.
They were tortured, Gerry said, with what he believed to have been expressed, but secret, British-government immunity granted to the police. “And I mean tortured. To be held naked. To have Alsatian dogs set upon you. To be taken naked to country lanes, hooded, handcuffed. To have the hood taken off and told to open your mouth. And when I shook my head, they hit me in the head with a revolver. And when I went ‘Oh’, they stuck the gun in my mouth, put the hammer back and pulled the trigger. This is what they did. This is what they were allowed to do.”
Gerry flushed in fresh anger as he told an audience in Dublin how from his police cell he could hear Carole Richardson being kicked down a flight of stairs. The so-called Guildford Four were finally freed after 15 years, and got an apology from Tony Blair 16 years later (the files on the case remain unopened), but Carole in particular never came to terms with how their lives had been destroyed, and she died last year.
Early Saturday morning, Gerry Conlon passed away too. By coincidence, I was in Belfast when the news came through, attending a conference about the Clash. The gathering included a lot of middle-aged people reminiscing about the great Belfast punk scene of the Seventies, a scene captured (and romanticised) in the recent film Good Vibrations. Punk in Northern Ireland was a determinedly non-sectarian space; it still is – just a few weeks ago Gerry was in the crowd at a punky gig to raise funds for inter-denominational education. But as the ageing punks celebrated their misspent youths, their pogoing escape from the city’s grim reality, it was impossible not to think of Gerry and the other young people who had their best years ripped from their grasps by the Troubles and the British state apparatus that spawned them.
You couldn’t look at or listen to Gerry Conlon over the last quarter-century and conclude with any confidence that he had recovered from this crime. Nonetheless, when they were freed in 1989, he and Paul Hill were still attractive, articulate, reassuringly wtty and youngish, and around Dublin you could see them frenetically enjoying their new freedom and their odd celebrity. Wine, women and song loomed large, but so did campaigning for the freedom of the Birmingham Six, framed by British police around the same time, and equally innocent. In the course of campaigning, Paul fell in love with Bobby Kennedy’s daughter Courtney, and was soon married into Irish-America’s First Family. Gerry achieved Hollywood’s version of immortality when he was portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis in In the Name of the Father (1993), which poignantly recounted the death in prison of Gerry’s father, Giuseppe. Gerry’s Aunt Annie Maguire was jailed too, along with other members of her family.
Gerry had every reason to be angry, and he was. But his anger fed his activism on miscarriages of justice. After the Birmingham Six were freed in 1991, he turned to other cases, eventually setting up an organisation to carry on the work. On Saturday a Belfast journalist told me that Gerry was always bursting to tell him about some case he should write about. And the great English lawyer Gareth Peirce, who fought so hard for Gerry’s freedom, cited in particular his work on behalf of Muslims, the latest community to be treated by British police, like the Irish in the late 20th century, as terrorist suspects by default. When Paul Hill went on Irish radio Sunday, he remembered Gerry by talking about their shared hatred for Guantanamo.
When I met Gerry Conlon in Dublin, he was speaking on behalf of Chelsea Manning. The connection between him and her might seem tenuous – after all, no one says Chelsea Manning didn’t actually do what she was accused of doing; she didn’t have to be tortured to confess, though she was tortured anyway. But Gerry understood that there are different kinds of innocence, and different forms of injustice. He met Chelsea’s mother Susan Fox and other family members, who were doing their first public appearances in solidarity with Chelsea, and his support was hugely encouraging to them and to other supporters.
“I’ll tell you what,” Gerry said, his voice shaking with emotion. “I wish there had been a Julian Assange, an Edward Snowden, a Bradley Manning around when we were in jail, to get unearthed the papers that the government are holding, refusing to let the people see. I wish there was a Bradley Manning around then!”
Gerry’s passion helped to inspire the first Manning Truthfest, held in Wales in January, covered in Counterpunch’s February print edition.
Gerry’s relationship with militant Irish republicanism was fraught. He grew up in its Falls Road stronghold, but by his own account he was more interested in shoplifting than taking up the gun. The IRA said in 1977 that Conlon, Hill, Armstrong and Richardson were innocent, but some people have suggested the IRA should have given up the real Guildford bombers in order to support the Four’s fight for freedom. But Conlon, while opposing terrorist violence, talked to me warmly about IRA prisoner Ray McLaughlin, who helped ensure the innocent men were as protected as possible from the violence of guards and British inmates, and became a close friend.
Like anyone who does real activism for longer than a week, Gerry had no great affection for the media. As he pointed out in a recent interview, Irish journalists, with very few honourable exceptions, stayed away from the Guildford and Birmingham injustices until the late 1980s, after British media had finally responded to activists’ campaigning. His decades-long fight against miscarriages of justice was no mere PR operation: writing letters, lobbying, taking up legal cases, doing family support – all these threads of activity were at least as important as media visibility. So it was oddly appropriate that his cancer, described in reports over the weekend as a long illness, escaped public notice.
In Belfast the news that Gerry was seriously ill got around town only in the last couple of weeks. The rumour that the illness appeared to be terminal preceded Saturday’s shocking, awful tidings by just a day or two.
The injunction to Rest in Peace is rarely more appropriate than it is for Gerry Conlon, but the restless, righteous anger of this good, gentle man will be terribly missed.