Conlon, Gerard (‘Gerry’) (1954–2014), victim of a miscarriage of justice and human rights campaigner, was born in Cyprus Street in the Lower Falls area of Belfast on 1 March 1954, the only surviving son of Guiseppe Conlon (qv), a labourer, and Sarah Conlon (qv) (née Maguire), a cleaner; he had two younger sisters. His parents previously experienced a miscarriage, a stillbirth, and the death of a two-year-old son. Gerard was a delicate child and his parents were protective and affectionate towards him. Attending St Peter’s primary and secondary schools on the Lower Falls, he was an inattentive pupil who later attributed his lack of political consciousness to his (self-willed) relegation from the higher streams, where Irish history and the Irish language were taught. (His parents were nationalists, but their identity centred primarily on religion.)
From the age of fourteen he increasingly skipped classes and engaged in petty crime; he left school aged sixteen and moved between casual employment, gregarious hedonism and systematic shoplifting. He made brief visits to Britain to escape trouble, once staying with his maternal uncle Patrick Maguire and his wife Annie in north London, but was ejected for stealing their children’s money box. In summer 1974 Conlon went to England again and during a short period in Southampton met Paul Hill, a school acquaintance. The two went to London where they laboured on building sites, practised theft, and moved between a hostel in North London and a ‘hippy’ ‘squatter’ milieu. Their behaviour, including drug use, did not resemble disciplined IRA ‘sleepers’, who kept a low profile. Casual acquaintances included Patrick Armstrong, another Belfast acquaintance, and his English girlfriend Carole Richardson (d. 2013). On 19 October 1974 Conlon returned to Belfast.
On 5 October 1975 the IRA left no-warning bombs at two pubs frequented by military personnel in Guildford, Surrey; five people were killed and sixty-five injured. Emergency legislation was rushed through parliament allowing suspects to be held for seven days without legal assistance. The police arrested members of the London Irish community, including Hill (on 28 November). After ill-treatment he confessed to the Guildford bombings.
On 30 November 1975 Conlon was arrested in Belfast and beaten by members of the RUC and British detectives. He was brought to England in the custody of Surrey police, whose three-day interrogation of him included beatings, forced nudity and sleep deprivation. After threats against his mother and sister, Conlon also confessed to the Guildford bombings. His and Hill’s confessions were repeatedly edited and resubmitted to them to minimise contradictions; they named Armstrong and Richardson (who were also pressurised into signing confessions) and other acquaintances who had been released after refusing to confess. Conlon, Hill, Armstrong and Richardson became known as the ‘Guildford Four’.
On gaining access to lawyers, all four repudiated their confessions and protested their innocence. Alibi witnesses were pressurised by the police to withdraw, while police witnesses denied under oath that they ill-treated the defendants. Meanwhile, IRA attacks using the same modus operandi continued. The trial of the Guildford Four opened on 16 September 1975. They were convicted on 22 October with the judge regretting he could not impose death sentences. Conlon was sentenced to life imprisonment, thirty years minimum.
Conlon and Hill named Anne ‘Annie’ Maguire as the bombmaker, possibly hoping this would discredit their confessions. (Maguire was extremely short-sighted and her husband was a British army veteran who admired British justice.) Maguire was arrested on 3 December with friends and family members including Guiseppe Conlon who had come to London to secure legal representation for his son. The ‘Maguire Seven’ were convicted on 4 March 1976 for possession of explosives, mainly through later-discredited forensic evidence. Their convictions were quashed in 1991, after they had all served their sentences, except for Guiseppe who died in prison. After his conviction Gerard Conlon made further ‘confessions’ of IRA activity to Metropolitan Police detectives, in the irrational hope of securing leniency for Guiseppe; these showed minimal knowledge and proved legally valueless but were used against him after his release.
In December 1975 four IRA members, known as the Balcombe Street gang, were arrested and admitted responsibility for the Guildford bombings. Hill’s solicitor Alistair Logan secured statements from them that led to an Appeal Court hearing in December 1977, when the Balcombe Street men recounted details available only to the perpetrators. Instead of ordering a retrial, however, the court speculated that allegations against other named unconvicted persons in the Four’s confessions described Balcombe Street gang members, and the latter’s admissions were concerted to discredit the judicial system.
For almost fourteen years Conlon was moved around the British prison system, experiencing periods of solitary confinement. At first support for the Four and Seven was limited to a few individuals, but a letter-writing campaign begun by Sarah and Guiseppe Conlon gained prominent supporters, some impressed by meeting the dying and transparently sincere Guiseppe. Shortly before Guiseppe’s death on 23 January 1980, he adjured his son to keep campaigning to clear their names. For decades Gerard was haunted by his father’s fate.
The campaign continued through the 1980s, with Conlon and others sometimes spending £30 a week on stamps and stationery. Interest was maintained by the work of British investigative journalists, statements by the released Maguires, and support for a retrial by senior legal and political figures. Although the Irish government suspected as early as 1980 that those convicted were innocent, they avoided raising the issue until the late 1980s, fearing the British government might criticise rulings by Irish courts. Subsequently Conlon and other victims of miscarriage of justice complained that, apart from a few individual journalists and campaigners, the Irish public did little to support their cause. This was attributed by some to fear of implying support for the IRA.
In 1987 the British government agreed to have the case reviewed by Avon and Somerset police, and in 1988 ordered a new Court of Appeal hearing. During document discovery, Conlon’s solicitor Gareth Peirce found that a witness statement supporting Conlon’s alibi had been withheld from the defence at the behest of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Meanwhile, Avon and Somerset police discovered Armstrong’s ‘confession’ had been rewritten by police, despite their sworn testimony that it was spontaneous. On 19 October 1989 the Appeal Court overturned the Guildford convictions. Conlon walked out the front door of the Old Bailey, accompanied by his sisters and supporters. He emotional insistence that the Guildford Four, Maguire Seven and Birmingham Six were all innocent became one of the most powerful and oft-repeated media images of the decade. This triumph obscured the extent to which he and other victims of false convictions had been traumatised and institutionalised; Conlon spoke to an Irish Times interviewer of a few weeks’ therapy and speedy return to Belfast. Peirce later described the victims as ‘guinea-pigs’ discovering the long-term effects of false imprisonment (Irish Examiner, 19 Sept. 1997).
Conlon threw himself into campaigning to free the Birmingham Six, expecting this might take years, but they were cleared on 14 March 1991. He then attempted to recover his lost youth in the London dance and drugs scene, and by sexual liaisons of varying depth. Sometimes he spoke of marriage and children, but concluded that he was too damaged for a lasting relationship. After receiving down-payments on his compensation he spent frenetically on gambling, drinks and entertainment for himself and casual acquaintances – haunted by feelings that he did not deserve the money and by flashbacks and recurring nightmares of prison experiences. Conlon, who saw relationships in terms of personal loyalty rather than abstract ethics (while he opposed the IRA, he felt gratitude to the bombers for their attempts to help the Four), socialised with ex-convicts – who could understand his prison experiences – and became addicted to crack cocaine. He mixed with celebrities, spoke of his experiences in Britain, Ireland and America, and acquired a few friends and many admirers and hangers-on through his gifts as a raconteur. Meanwhile a whisper campaign suggesting that the Four were guilty and only released on a technicality continued in journalistic and political circles. In the early 1990s Conlon twice sued the tabloid newspaper the Sun for libel (both cases were settled out of court). Twice he was chased through Camden Town by violent thugs, and he feared loyalists would kill him if he returned to Belfast. He revisited the city more frequently after the mid-1990s ceasefires, but his relationships with his mother and sisters were severely damaged by their experiences. For years Conlon experienced suicidal ideation; he often paused at his bedroom door, waiting for a warder to open it; his bedroom was sparsely furnished, like a cell.
In June 1991 Conlon produced a memoir, Proved innocent, praised for its criticism of prison conditions and account of his Belfast upbringing. He later believed, however, that it was damaged by haste and fear of libel action. The memoir was filmed as In the name of the father (1993; dir. Jim Sheridan) with Daniel Day-Lewis as Conlon and Pete Postlethwaite as Guiseppe. Conlon apparently never watched the whole film because Postlethwaite’s performance made him feel his father was looking into his soul. Conlon supported the film to publicise the miscarriage of justice but disliked its portrayal of his relationship with Guiseppe and felt it underplayed the official conspiracy. The film’s dramatic stylisation of events drew criticism from some supporters who worried that its inaccuracies would confuse the public. The Maguires took particular exception to its portrayal of Anne Maguire as a socially aspiring snob, and publicly denounced Conlon, who suggested the Maguires were trying to ingratiate themselves with the establishment. Privately he agreed to some extent with their accusations that he had contributed to their fate.
The film was nominated for several Academy awards. Although Conlon retained some artistic and musical friends, such as the American actor Johnny Depp, the awards ceremony marked a waning of public attention. Frustrated by the failure of an official inquiry to probe the full extent of official complicity in the wrongful convictions, Conlon remained active in publicising cases such as the men convicted in 1979 of murdering the newsboy Carl Bridgewater (released in 1997 after evidence was found to have been fabricated). He believed his experiences were not simply the result of anti-Irish prejudice but reflected deeper flaws in the criminal justice system.
By 1998 Conlon had squandered most of the money he had received from the book and film and his compensation, and in 1998 moved to Plymouth, seeking to come off cocaine. He underwent intermittent therapy (2000–03) and gave several media interviews, continuing his attempts to expose the continuing harm inflicted on victims of miscarriage of justice. On 9 February 2005 Prime Minister Tony Blair made a formal public apology to the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven victims and admitted their innocence. Although Conlon was later somewhat cynical about Blair’s apology, it brought reconciliation with the Maguires and strengthened his relationship with his mother. After receiving further counselling, Conlon moved back to Belfast at the end of 2006 to be close to Sarah. He settled into social housing at Lisfadden Way off the Falls Road and was increasingly active as an international campaigner against capital punishment and miscarriages of justice and in favour of prison reform, particularly associated with the Glasgow-based Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (MOJO).
A staunch supporter of the SDLP, Conlon spoke at several events held in tandem with party conferences and appeared in a party-political broadcast. He also campaigned for persons whom he believed detained unjustly even when he disagreed with their views. These include Brian Shivers (convicted in January 2012 of complicity in the murders of two soldiers but acquitted on appeal a year later), other accused dissident republicans and at least one loyalist. He also visited Australia, where he spoke against mistreatment of Aboriginal Australians in custody, and addressed university and human rights venues in Ireland and America. He saw affinities between the suspicion surrounding Muslim communities after jihadist suicide attacks in the US on 11 September 2001 and the position of the Irish community in Britain during the 1970s, and between the interrogation techniques he experienced and those inflicted extra-judicially on Islamist suspects after 2001.
Shortly after his mother’s death in 2008 Conlon renewed relations with a former girlfriend who told him he was the father of her teenage daughter. This discovery, and the girl’s subsequent qualification as a solicitor working on human rights, brought him great joy. He increasingly suffered from respiratory ailments, and while undergoing treatment for a blood clot on his lung at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer which caused his death three weeks later on 21 June 2014. After funeral mass in St Peter’s cathedral in west Belfast, he was buried in Milltown cemetery.
His unjust conviction probably reflected a combination of prejudice leading to assumption of guilt, hence to ‘noble cause corruption’ – the tacit belief, shared by police, prosecutors and judges, that it was necessary to obtain convictions by methods whose legality should not be examined too closely. This was followed by official willingness to leave the innocent in prison rather than admit error. In later years, some commentators and victims’ relatives thought Conlon excessively inclined to accept claims that some of those for whom he campaigned were victims of elaborate official conspiracies, but his experiences and campaigns made it difficult to dismiss such claims as unthinkable. This, as much as his personal fulfilment in his last years, underlay Gareth Peirce’s tribute at his funeral: ‘In the end Gerry Conlon won – the victory was his’ (Irish Times, 30 June 2014).