‘The story of what British justice has done to an entire family’
The shameful story of the Maguire family doesn’t need the hard sell the BBC gives it
56-year-old artist Patrick Maguire: Prison killed the child he once was
If you merely presented the facts behind the interrogation, intimidation and wrongful conviction of the family members and their friend, known together as the Maguire Seven, and set it all out in entirely dispassionate terms, it would still make the world shake with rage.
Stephen Nolan’s new documentary on the subject, A Great British Injustice: The Maguire Story (BBC One, Sunday, 9pm), doesn’t leave anything to chance, though.
“This is the story of what British justice has done to an entire family,” he begins. “And at the heart of this story is what it has done to a 13-year-old-child who, to this very day, is destroyed as a result of it.”
So shameful is this period in British history – when the bogus confessions of Gerard Conlon and Paul Hill, themselves drawn under brutal police duress, implicated and punished an innocent family – that even the stoicism of the BBC will bow to let Nolan describe Patrick Maguire, now a 56-year-old artist wrestling with his childhood torment, as “destroyed”.
Like Nolan’s recent documentary, The Shankill Bomb, which revisited an IRA atrocity and lingered, gratuitously, on its carnage, it can be hard to know what to make of giving such emotive material so hard a sell.
Does our distance from the event require new insistence to move us again? Or does In the Name of the Father’s film treatment, with its own fictitious revisions, demand to be countered with genuine and distraught testimony?
Either way, the facts remain harrowing. Annie Maguire, a religiously devout mother of four, was arrested in 1974 together with her husband, two young sons (a third son was released without charge), her brother, her brother-in-law Guiseppe Conlon, and a friend who just happened to be visiting.
All were eventually sentenced, for up to 14 years in prison, and the judge publicly rued the fact that capital punishment was no longer available. All were demonised. All were innocent.
The documentary is strongest in showing the surreal way in which the public could accept such a blatant lie, featuring a contemporary news report, sensationalist in its own way, that describes the sinister “Aunty Annie”: “a vital cog in the terrorist machine” who supposedly kept bomb-making equipment in her kitchen, “the way you might keep tins of corned beef”.
Forget the Reds under the Bed. In times of fear and paranoia, the Paddies in the Pantry could be an equally fevered and imagined menace.
But it had real and awful consequences. Beaten, intimidated and threatened with a gun by Surrey Police interrogators, its hammer clicking behind her skull, Anne recalls, “I could hear myself saying, ‘Jesus forgive them’.”
Her youngest son Patrick, just 13 at the time of his arrest, and similarly tortured, ultimately sentenced to four years in prison, was worse affected. Today Anne recalls worrying about the height of his apartment some years later, “because of the way his mind was working”.
Patrick, a conspicuously vulnerable figure for whom each recollection is raw and traumatising, is made the focus of the documentary, his jaw quivering and frequently dissolving into tears on the camera as he describes being put under suicide watch, or being beaten as a pariah in the streets.
With an interviewer of clear sensitivity, ethics and tact, you might feel that the programme had done everything to safeguard Patrick’s dignity. (His sister, Anne-Marie, whose childhood was also ruined, is just as wounded, and as frank, but seems in firmer command of how she shares her story.)
When Nolan asks Patrick’s brother Vincent, who never confessed to any wrongdoing, “You never broke?”, the way a gangster might be congratulated for keeping silent, Vincent immediately corrects him: “I had nothing to break for”.
That director Eamonn Devlin includes a post-interview hug between Nolan and Patrick, still brittle from his recollections, may not strike everyone as a very reassuring gesture either.
What prison killed, Patrick says, is the child he once was. But to call him “destroyed” seems both crass and exploitative, particularly when his new exhibition of artworks is called Out From the Darkness.
Patrick credits his survival to his mother, a woman so resilient that we hear her still praying for her tormentors. “I’ve just been lucky to have…” Patrick says, voice halting. “Lucky to have what?” says Nolan. “Her as my mum.”