Gerard Conlon: fighter for justice 1954 - 2014

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Gerry Conlon, one of the four innocent people sentenced to life imprisonment in 1974 for the Guildford pub bombings, died on 21 June 2014 aged 60. The Guildford Four - Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson - spent 15 years in British prisons and were finally released on appeal in 1989. Gerry will be remembered both as one of the most prominent victims of British judicial abuse of Irish people and as someone who went on to spend the rest of his life tirelessly campaigning on behalf of others wrongly imprisoned.

Also imprisoned, following the arrests of the Guildford Four, were the Maguire Seven, including Giuseppe Conlon, Gerry’s father, who died in prison on 23 January 1980 – another victim of British imperialism.

The trial judge, Mr Justice Donaldson, in sentencing the Guildford Four to life imprisonment remarked that he would have no hesitation in hanging them had he been given the option. The Four’s release in 1989 led to memorable, jubilant scenes outside the Old Bailey, London and brought to world attention the reality of British justice. Conlon understood the class nature of justice in Britain. He was a director of Miscarriage of Justice Organisation and chairperson of the Craigavon Two justice campaign. He understood that injustice and abuse of power were not historical matters. He spoke widely, reducing his audiences to tears with accounts of the devastation he endured. We are thankful that footage of these lectures exists for posterity.

We commemorate the life of Gerry Conlon; his absence will leave a void in the struggle for justice and for the dignity of those wrongly incarcerated. Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! is proud of our role in campaigning and giving support to Gerry Conlon and will continue to fight for other victims of British imperialism’s judicial system.

Today we have reissued two articles from the FRFI archive, printed in 1989 at the time of the release of the Guildford 4, when the Birmingham Six were still imprisoned and the Maguire Seven, who had served their sentences, were still to be cleared. In the coming weeks we will reissue the archive of articles we wrote about the Guildford 4 and the vicious treatment of Irish prisoners.

27 June 2014


Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 91, November/December 1989

The Guildford Four are innocent
Stop the frame-ups

There was at least some poetic justice in Lord Lane, who turned down the appeal of the Birmingham 6 last year, having to set the Guildford 4 free. He gave no apology to the Four who had spent fifteen years, all of their adult lives so far, in Britain’s foul prisons. A renowned opponent of ever admitting that injustices occur, Lane must have been sweating with rage under his judicial wig. Very different emotions from those of the Four, their families and those who, over the years, have supported them in their grim struggle for truth and freedom.

Poetic justice is about the only kind that can be expected from the British system. The Four were not released because British justice suddenly awoke to the obvious fact that four innocent people had been gaoled. On the contrary. successive governments. Home Secretaries. Judges, lawyers and police, have been presented with a massive amount of proof of the Four’s innocence. Political pressure, a few timely retirements and deaths of some of the key actors in the frame-ups have, however, now combined to make it possible to free the Four.

It is therefore perverse for Lord Scarman to proclaim that the decision would ‘restore ... faith ... in the British system’. Perhaps only a Law Lord could still have any faith in a system which can systematically manufacture evidence against four people, suppress defence evidence, brutalise the four and lock them up for life, deny their appeals. imprison and kill Gerard Conlon’s father ... and then fifteen years later discover that something was wrong.

Of course, those with a vested interest in limiting the damage to the police and judicial system will join Lord Scarman in his restored faith. Those, like the Birmingham 6, Winston Silcott and countless others framed, will not be fooled. What happened to the Guildford 4 was not a miscarriage of justice. No Irish person facing political charges gets a fair trial. And not only the Irish. The activities of the West Midlands Crime Squad over many years have, it has now been shown, been based on systematically framing all sorts of people.

The fall guys
The release of the Guildford 4 has taken a very long time because it opens a very large can of worms. No wonder Douglas Hurd, as pressure mounted, sat very still on the case for two years. No doubt since the Somerset and Avon police found the crucial evidence of manufactured statements, he has been discussing how to release the Four and quickly limit the damage. The chosen strategy appears to be this: find the least important fall guys and set up a judicial inquiry under a judge, Lord Justice May, who can be relied on not to rock the boat too much.

The first chosen fall guys are some very low-ranking Surrey policemen. The Crown lawyer went out of his way to exonerate the DPP, Crown lawyers and the Metropolitan police of complicity in the frame-up. Of all the evidence they could have chosen as grounds for declaring the convictions unsafe it is surely significant that they have homed in on a few statements altered by low-ranking officers. However, already it is also coming out, as it was bound to, that Sir Norman Skelhorn, as Director of Public Prosecutions, suppressed alibi statements for Conlon and, it is said, was responsible for the suppresssion of evidence linking the Balcombe Street IRA men to the Guildford and Woolwich bombings.

So these are the people who, so far, we are being led to as the culprits. Three officers have been suspended: Sgt John Donaldson, Detective Constable Peter Lewis, PC Vernon Attwell. (Two others are implicated but one is dead and the other retired.) No doubt if they could have said it was the police station cleaner or dinner lady they would have. But some altered statements by three (or five) police officers are simply the tip of the iceberg in this case. Those who have been involved with it read like a Who’s Who of the British establishment since 1974.

The guilty men
Peter Imbert, now Commissioner of Metropolitlan police, travelled to Guildford police station to interview the Four. The Four maintain that they were brutalised and beaten in custody. There is now no other explanation for their statements. Did Imbert not notice? As an experienced officer in the Bomb Squad did he not notice the discrepancies in their statements and the fact that they were highly unlikely IRA activists?

Later, in 1975, he questioned the Balcombe Street men who admitted to having planted the Guildford and Woolwich bombs. He was in a unique position to compare the confessions. It is said that the Bomb Squad saw enough evidence to charge Eddie Butler with the Woolwich bomb but that this was subsequently removed from the charges by the DPP. The forensic expert was told by the Bomb Squad to alter his evidence so that links between the Balcombe Street unit bombings and the Woolwich bomb did not come to light. (This was especially important as some of the explosions took place whilst the Four were in custody).

The defence lawyers for the then-convicted Guildford 4 were not told of the Balcombe Street unit’s admissions, either by the police or the DPP. They learned of them from a member of the Prisoners Aid Committee some five months later. Is it good enough for Imbert to now say that he believed both Guildford and Balcombe Street units were involved in the Guildford and Woolwich bombings? An elementary reading of the various statements shows the Guildford 4 admissions to be wrong on most details and the Balcombe Street men to be right. At the very least, why did he not insist that the Balcombe Street unit were charged with Woolwich?

The only reason for not doing so must have been to continue to uphold the fiction that the Guildford 4 were guilty. Moreover, he and the Bomb Squad showed little interest in questioning the Guildford 4 about the other wave of bombings which had taken place in London.

The Surrey police
Each of the Four had a team of officers assigned to them. For Armstrong this was: Det Chief lnsp Thomas Style (retired). Det Sgt John Donaldson (suspended). Det Con Vernon Attwell (suspended). For Hill: Det Chief Superintendent Walter Simmons. Assistant Chief Constable Christopher Rowe. Det Sgt Anthony Jermey. The second team which has been accused of manufacturing the suspect statements was: Det Imp Tim Blake (deceased). Det Con Peter Lewis (supended). Is it possible to believe that the second team fabricated evidence without the knowledge of the first team?

Assistant Chief Constable Christopher Rowe was in charge of the inquiry. Does the responsibility for what happened to the Four not lie with him primarily? Is it conceivable that he would have failed to notice the state of fear, exhaustion and mental confusion of the Four? Or the methods being used to deal with them? Some of the Four accuse him of using brutal methods against them.

Lord Havers – a Conservative MP – prosecuted the Four both at their trial, and the subsequent appeal. He also prosecuted the Maguire 7. He glossed over the discrepancies in the Four’s statements by saying that the confusion was a deliberate IRA plot. Subsequently at Appeal he claimed that both the Balcombe Street unit and the Four had been involved. This, despite the wealth of detail the Balcombe Street unit were able to give about the bombings and the manifestly unlikely event of a highly professional IRA unit collaborating with four young people, some on drugs etc.

To the allegations by the Four that they had been terrorised into making admissions he said (and perhaps should be reminded) that if the allegations were true there must have been ‘a really gigantic conspiracy’ between two police forces - Surrey and the Bomb Squad - involving officers of all ranks. including Commander Huntley of the Bomb Squad, Detective Chief Superintendent Walter Simmons, Surrey Assistant Chief Constable Christopher Rowe, which had culminated in ‘a most appalling perversion of justice’. He made his career on this case and went on to become Lord Chancellor and Attorney General.

Lord Donaldson, former Tory councillor, was the Guildford trial judge and amazingly also the judge in the Maguire case. He gave the four massive sentences of life, 30 years, 35 years and in Hill’s case the term of his natural life. He is now Master of the Rolls (senior judge in the Court of Appeal).

Lord Roskill presided over the Guildford 4 appeal and decided their convictions were satisfactory. He took the unprecedented decision to hear completely now evidence (that of the Balcombe Street men admitting that they and not the Four did the bombings) without rehearing the evidence of the original trial and without a jury. He said: ‘So far as the new evidence is concerned we reject it in all relevant respects. That evidence therefore gives rise to no lurking doubts whatever in our minds. We are sure that there has been a cunning and skilful attempt to deceive the Court by putting forward false evidence.’ To explain the detailed knowledge of the Balcombe Street men he accepted the scenario which had the Guildford 4 and Balcombe Street men involved in the bombings. To explain vast discrepancies in their evidence he said that ‘the partially true is intermingled with the deliberately false so that false trails may be followed and the ascertainment of the real truth certainly delayed and hopefully made impossible of achievement.’ Thus Roskill ensured that no jury was ever able to judge this new evidence and that the Four were to spend a further 12 years in prison. Roskill also refused the Maguire family leave to appeal in 1977.

Roy Jenkins - Labour Home Secretary at the time of the Guildford Four arrests - introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) under which the Four were arrested. The Labour Party was also in government when the Appeal was rejected. The Labour Party consistently refused to take up the case when in opposition. In 1988 the NEC (National Executive) refused to add its support to claims that the Four were innocent.

Terrorising the Irish
But it is not only a matter of the Establishment covering up for its own. There is even more at stake with both the Guildford and the Birmingham cases. On his release Paul Hill went straight to the heart of things: ‘I believe that in this case, as in the Birmingham case, it was an example to the Irish community and a method of terrorising the Irish community.’ In the early 1970s, before the introduction of the PTA, the large Irish community in Britain was active politically and organising in support of the Irish struggle for self-determination. The knowledge of the Birmingham and Guildford frame-ups, along with the draconian PTA, sent shock waves through the Irish community in Britain and has played no small part in demobilising solidarity work in Britain.

The Irish people recognise, because they suffer it directly, that the police and judicial process in Britain is weighted against them. They can be, and still are, convicted on the flimsiest of evidence. Major General Sir Frank Kitson explained the process in his counter-insurgent manual:

‘The Law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal and in this case becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public ... The activities of the legal services have to be tied in to the war effort in as discreet a way as possible...’

It would therefore be an enormous mistake to regard the Guildford 4 case as a miscarriage of justice, now righted. The denial of the right of self-determination to the Irish people has led to a systematic erosion of civil liberties in Ireland and Britain. In Ireland, every method, from torture to murder, from internment to frame-ups, has been used. The much vaunted processes of British democracy and justice quite simply do not exist for those who the British ruling class regards as enemies. That applies to the Irish, to many black people, to striking miners in 1984. That is what the case of the Guildford 4 really exposes.

It has taken fifteen years of campaigning to free these four people. And the fight is not over yet. The Maguires must be cleared, the Birmingham 6 must be released. The pressure must be kept on to ensure that this government does not get away with a whitewash. If they do get away with it, it will be an insult to those who have suffered and still suffer at the hands of British justice.

Maxine Williams


Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 91, November/December 1989

More victims – the Maguires and Giuseppe Conlon

The Maguire family was arrested in December 1974 solely because they had been named in statements forcibly extracted from the Guildford 4. No explosives were found in their home, no admissions were made by them.

Those arrested were: Ann and Patrick Maguire, their sons Vincent and Patrick, two friends Sean Smyth and Pat O’Neill. With them was arrested Giuseppe Conlon, father of Gerard Conlon, who was in England to try to get legal assistance for his son. Disputed and now discredited forensic evidence formed the only evidence against them. Nevertheless they were sentenced to 12-14 years for the adults and five and four years for the Maguire sons.

Giuseppe Conlon, sick with TB, died in prison protesting his innocence. We reprint an article, first published in FRFI March/April 1980, by TERRY O’HALLORAN who spent all his political life campaigning for Irish prisoners, and who died in January 1989. The Maguires have still not been cleared and their case is to be included in the forthcoming inquiry by Justice May.

Up to Wednesday 23 January 1980, four Irish prisoners had been murdered in English jails. On 23 January 1980 Giuseppe Conlon became the fifth Irish prisoner to be murdered.

He died in Hammersmith Hospital as a result of the chronic lung disease which he had suffered from throughout his five years’ imprisonment. His death certificate will not record ‘Murdered by British imperialism’ but he was murdered just as surely as if he had been hanged, shot, electrocuted or beaten to death. His arrest, conviction, imprisonment and treatment in jail was one long slow act of murder.

He was arrested at the end of 1975 whilst visiting his son Gerry who is serving at least 30 years also on a trumped up charge. Giuseppe Conlon was charged with possession of explosives. The sole evidence produced against him consisted of the ‘discovery’ of a 1000th part of a grain of ‘nitroglycerine’ under his fingernails. He denied the charge from that day right up to the day of his death. This ‘evidence’ however was sufficient for him to be sentenced to twelve years in prison. At no time, either during or after his trial, was his home in Cyprus Street Belfast searched! Yet this man was supposed to be part of a bombing team!

Giuseppe Conlon entered prisonseriously ill and never received proper medical treatment for his illness. Throughout his imprisonment he fought to establish his innocence. He went on a five-week hunger strike in 1979. He was refused parole in November 1979. Then he contracted pneumonia and was rushed, in a coma, to Hammersmith Hospital on 31 December 1979 to die. But even this was not the end of the story.

In a perverse display of imperialist brutality, Giuseppe Conlon was actually taken back to Wormwood Scrubs prison on 11 January. He was in an oxygen tent being fed on drips when he was snatched from his bed, wrapped in a single sheet, bundled into a taxi and taken back to Wormwood Scrubs. After a week of agony he was returned to Hammersmith Hospital at 10pm on 18 January. He finally died on Wednesday 23 January 1980.

Ireland: the key to the British revolution by David Reed

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