RIP Gerry Conlon -- wrongfully jailed for 'being Irish in the wrong place'

June 22, 2014
Gerry Conlon outside the Old Bailey in London after his conviction was quashed in 1989.

“When Gerry Conlon, who has died aged 60 of lung cancer, met survivors of the US's Guantánamo Bay detention camp, he found that their 21st-century experiences mirrored his in the 1970s,” The Guardian wrote about the Belfast-born Conlon who passed away on June 21.

He spent more than 14 years in jail from 1974-1989 after being found guilty by British authorities for pub bombings in Guilford that he did not commit.

“He too had been hooded, shackled and subjected to rendition -- from his home in Northern Ireland to a police station in Surrey -- threatened, brutalised and tortured until he confessed to the IRA bombings in 1974 of pubs in the garrison towns of Guildford and Woolwich.”

Conlon, along with three other Irish people known as the “Guildford Four”, was jailed in 1974 after being tortured into making false confessions about their role in the bombings, for which some had strong alibis.

Their convictions were finally overturned in 1989, despite the fact that, just months after they were sentenced, the Irish Republican Army members who had actually carried out the bombing insisted to British police that the wrong people had been jailed.

When Conlon was arrested, his father Giuseppe, despite poor health, travelled to England to help his son -- only to be wrongly jailed himself as part of the Maguire Seven. Guiseppe died in jail.

When his conviction was overturned, Conlon gave an emotional speech to the media outside the courtroom, in which he called for freedom for the Birmingham Six, who were also wrongfully jailed for a bombing they did not commit. Their convictions were finally overturned, and the six released, in 1991.

Conlon's story was famously depicted in the Oscar-nominated film In The Name of the Father. Based on Conlon's 1991 memoir Proved Innocent, Conlon was played by Daniel Day Lewis.

Speaking at a meeting organised by the Maritime Union of Australia in 2010 captured on video (below), Conlon explained his story.

Paul Hill, one of the Guildford Four, said after Conlon died that he was “finally released”.

Criticising the role of the media and Irish government for failing to assist them, Hill said: “People in positions of power did very little for Gerry Conlon, for myself, the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward [wrongfully convicted for a 1973 bombing] and the Maguire Seven,” he said. “We felt abandoned for many, many years.

“People knew we were completely and absolutely innocent. They should look in the mirror today and ask themselves ‘what did I do for these individuals?’”

Paddy Hill, who was one of the Birmingham Six, blamed prison conditions for Conlon's early death.

Having spent 17 years in jail himself, the reported Paddy Hill said the experience of living in a cold, damp cell and solitary confinement for years had taken its toll on Conlon.

He said the strain of being in jail for so long was compounded by the lack of help given to them by authorities when they were finally released.

With Paddy Hill, Conlon travelled the world to speak out against injustice. The Guardian noted: “He travelled all over Australia to challenge injustices there, most emphatically those to the indigenous Australian population.”

In Australia, Conlon and Hill spoke out for Ark Tribe, a South Australian building worker who faced jail for refusing to cooperate with the Australian government's anti-union ABCC secret police.

The case of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six became emblematic cases that exposed the brutality of British justice system.

During “the Troubles”, with British military occupation of Northern Ireland and an armed campaign by republicans against it (that included methods such as the bombings in England for which Conlon was framed), the British were responsible widespread attacks on civil liberties.

These ranged from methods such as internment (jailing without trial) to special jury-less trials, to holding suspects for up to seven days without charge. Torture was widespread.

The comparison with the treatment of Muslims by authorities in the recent “war on terror” is clear. Being Irish in England made you suspect and subject to harrassment and, as Conlon's case shows, at risk of torture and wrongful imprisonment.

Conlon understood this was not just an issue affecting him, or even the Irish, but an example of the crimes of the powerful against the powerless that occur globally.

Speaking the MUA meeting in Melbourne, at which he noted how crucial trade unions were for protecting ordinary people's rights and promoting solidarity, Conlon said: “Make no mistake, governments think well ahead in their strategy.

“And when they designed the Prevention of Terrorism Act and implemented it -- and I was the second person arrested under it in November 1974 -- within 10 years they had targetted, through the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Black community. Then Thatcher, when she got to power, targetted the unions with it ...

“When they [pass such a law], they have people in mind of who they are going to use it against. And as Paddy Joe Hill [of the Birmingham Six] says so eloquently, 'there is one rule for them, and another for us'. Fuck that! There's a lot more of us than there is of them!”

When Irish folk punk The Pogues released “Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” song in 1988, it was banned by Britain's Independent Broadcasting Authority. The song details the dangers of “being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time” during the Troubles.

There were six men in Birmingham
In Guildford there's four
That were picked up and tortured
And framed by the law
And the filth got promotion
But they're still doing time
For being Irish in the wrong place
And at the wrong time

In Ireland they'll put you away in the Maze
In England they'll keep you for several long days
God help you if ever you're caught on these shores
And the coppers need someone
And they walk through that door

You'll be counting years
First five, then ten
Growing old in a lonely hell
Round the yard and the stinking cell
From wall to wall, and back again

A curse on the judges, the coppers and screws
Who tortured the innocent, wrongly accused,
For the price of promotion
And justice to sell
May the judged be their judges when they rot down in hell

May the whores of the empire lie awake in their beds
And sweat as they count out the sins on their heads
While over in Ireland eight more men lie dead
Kicked down and shot in the back of the head

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