Earlier this year the British government announced that the inquest into the 1974 IRA pub bombings in Guildford is to be reopened. But why revisit a half forgotten event that occured almost 50 years ago? Martin McNamara, writer of a new short film about Paul Hill, one of the four wrongly convicted of the bombings, says there are still people who deserve to have the truth told.
On November 28th, 1974, a young Belfast lad was arrested in Southampton and brought to Guildford police station for questioning.
Paul Michael Hill didn’t know it at the time, but he was the first person held under the temporary Prevention of Terrorism Act. The legislation had just been rushed through parliament by a Labour government, panicked by the level of public anger over the IRA’s ongoing bombing campaign in mainland Britain.
This new law gave the police unprecedented powers to hold suspects for questioning without charge for seven days. After a week in the cells, Paul had signed confessions to his role in three pub bombings in Guildford and Woolwich, and eight murders.
He also implicated just about every person he knew or had meet in England. This would lead to more arrests and more signed confessions from the other members of the so-called Guildford Four.
It would take 15 years of campaigning for these innocent people to have their convictions pronounced unsafe, and their sentences quashed.
Forensic evidence that could have helped clear them was kept from the jury at their original trial, as were witnesses who came forward to provide them with alibis. Other evidence and information which contradicted the prosecution case was also kept out of the courtroom.
They were convicted because of those signed confessions.
Our new film, Fifteen, is based on the prison letters Paul Hill sent home to his family. I came across them while researching another project in the Irish in Britain archive of the London Metropolitan University. Paul had donated the letters to the archive after his release.
The letters are the work of a natural storyteller; at turns funny, furious, indignant, defiant and philosophical but always articulate, and burning with the righteousness of a man jailed for crimes he did not commit.
I tracked Paul down to his new home in Washington DC to ask for permission to use them.
He generously agreed and he also told that he donated them to the archive in the hope the future generations would learn from what happened to him and the other members of the Guildford Four.
“Upon my release I took some comfort from the thought that at least my misfortune would lessen the possibility of it happening to others. Alas it would appear that nothing has been gleaned from the many miscarriages of justice, especially those with political overtones.
"We now live in an age in which you can disappear into a black hole, be held without charge indefinitely and subject to torture, whilst Ivy League educated politicians play verbal gymnastics, with the meaning of the word.”
Bringing this story to audiences today has been revealing in ways I had not expected. Younger people, most of whom had never heard of the Guildford Four, are shocked that such a miscarriage of justice could have happened in Britain.
But what struck me most is the attitude of many older Britons, those who remember the Guildford Four’s release 30 years ago in 1989, or even further back to their trial and imprisonment in the 1970s.
The first question many of them ask is, “but didn’t they really do it?”
A narrative was already building as the Guildford Four were released from the dock of the Old Bailey and told they could go home. It was a narrative perpetuated by journalists and commentators, and stiffened by the notable absence of anything that could be called an apology from the court that set them free.
It was one that hinted that the four were only let out of prison because of some minor legal technicalities, some clever lawyer tricks. That they were, in fact, guilty.
At the core of this thinking was a simple question. All four signed confessions. Why would innocent people confess to such terrible crimes?
In Guildford police station, Paul says he was denied food, water and sleep for days at a time. In his biography, he describes being beaten, thrown down metal stairs, and made to stand naked, arms extended, for hours. He says he was dangled out of a second storey window and told he would be let fall; his death, they told him, would simply be recorded as a suicide.
He says he was told his family back in Belfast were being surveilled and his grandad or kid brother might be targeted. Not an idle threat in the 1970s when random, senseless killings on the streets of Belfast were a regular occurrence.
His girlfriend was pregnant at the time of his arrest, and Paul describes being told how they would charge her with the bombings and his child would be born in Pentonville Woman’s Prison. He was subjected to mock executions, with real guns.
Paul signed his confessions to make the torturers stop. If any of the people who continue to argue the guilt of the Four had endured such an onslaught of physical and mental abuse, maybe they’d have signed confessions as well.
The Guildford pub bombings left five dead, injured many more and devastated the lives of their families. All these people and their families deserve to finally be told the truth about those terrible events and hopefully, through that, achieve some closure.
Of the Four, Gerry Conlon and Carole Richardson are dead now. The surviving members, Paul and Paddy Armstrong, along with the families of Gerry and Carole, also deserve to be given some closure.
Fifteen, starring Stefan McCusker and directed by Sebastien Blanc, will be screened at the Belfast Film Festival on Saturday April 13th. belfastfilmfestival.org