No happy ending for a man who fought for justice
Young Gerry Conlon’s friends thought of him as a lucky person. Growing up in Belfast, he was always able to beg, borrow or steal a few quid and often spent it on drink for others.
Sadly, Gerry’s luck ran out for good at the age of 20 - but his generosity and compassion lasted right up until cancer claimed him last Saturday morning.
When most people think of Gerry Conlon (below) today, they see Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father. The most famous member of the Guildford Four has been immortalised as a charismatic, long-haired Irish hero, clenching his fist outside London’s Court of Appeal.
“I’m an innocent man,” he declares. “I spent 15 years in prison for something I didn’t do. I watched my father die in a British prison for something he didn’t do.”
This image of Conlon was true, but it was not the whole truth. In real life there would be no happy ending for a man who had suffered horrors that most of us can barely imagine.
He attempted suicide, suffered two breakdowns and became addicted to drugs and alcohol -all because of the film inside his head that could never be switched off.
Above all, Conlon’s story showed how the Troubles could destroy lives in many different ways. Some people were blown to pieces, some were left with mental scars too ingrained to heal.
And some were victims of a miscarriage of justice, thanks to a toxic relationship between Britain and Ireland.
Ironically, Conlon was one of the last people who should have been suspected of planting an IRA bomb in Guildford that killed five people in 1974.
Back in Belfast, a republican group had thrown the young tearaway out because he did not seem serious enough.
By his own admission, he was an immature character who got involved in all sorts of petty crime - but committing mass murder was not in his character.
Conlon was arrested by a corrupt police force that seemed to think one Irishman would do as well as any other. A confession was beaten out of him and he could barely defend himself in court.
The nightmare was complete when his father Giuseppe, a mild-mannered and thoroughly decent man, was also convicted of trumped-up bomb charges and died behind bars five years later.
Inside prison, the Conlons were regarded by many as the moral equivalent of rapists and paedophiles. “They would urinate in our food, defecate in it, put glass in it,” Gerry later recalled.
“Our cell doors would be left open for us to be beaten and they would come in with batteries in socks to beat us over the head. I saw two people murdered. I saw suicides. I saw somebody set fire to himself.”
When the Guildford Four finally secured an appeal, the case against them collapsed.
Police statements had been doctored, the forensics evidence was discredited and it emerged that a cast-iron alibi for Conlon had never been shown to his lawyers.
To this day, however, nobody else has ever been convicted - not the IRA murderers who actually planted those bombs or the British detectives who disgraced their uniforms.
Conlon was free, but he later reflected that somebody leaving the Big Brother house would be offered more counselling than he ever received.
He got half a million pounds in compensation, which he felt was like being given “a bottle of whiskey and a revolver”. While attending the Oscars for In the Name of the Father was a thrill, afterwards he felt even lonelier than he had in jail.
To his credit, however, Conlon refused to spend the rest of his life wallowing in self-pity.
Instead he became a passionate campaigner for other people who claimed to have been wrongly imprisoned.
He even spoke up for convicted republicans, while always insisting, “I don’t support the IRA and I don’t support violence.”
As Gerry Conlon often reminded people, the Guildford Four case files remain closed under Britain’s Official Secret Act.
The best way to honour his premature death would be to open them up - in the name of justice.