Miscarriage of justice formed campaigning character
The intensity with which he lived life was due in no small part to making up for lost time
Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four, spent 15 years in prison for “something I did not do, for something I did not know anything about”. Photograph: Paddy Whelan
The experience of Gerry Conlon and that of the other members of the Guildford Four, Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill and Carole Richardson, and of the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven demonstrated that at times the “appalling vista” of British injustice did exist.
The image of Gerry Conlon that will remain indelible is him coming out of the Old Bailey in London in 1989 a free man and declaring to the world that he had spent 15 years in prison “for something I did not do, for something I did not know anything about”.
As well as the words it was the raised clenched fist, the passion and anger in his voice and in his face that conveyed such a powerful impression of a man who had suffered a great injustice.
As he was released 25 years ago he also took time to wish for the exoneration of the six people wrongly jailed for the 1974 IRA Birmingham bombings in which 21 people were killed and 182 injured. That would come two years later.
In 1980 Lord Denning infamously rejected an appeal by the Birmingham Six by refusing to contemplate the “appalling vista” that police could be guilty of perjury, threats and violence in achieving forced confessions from the six.
As Gerry Conlon walked free flanked by his sisters Anne and Bridie there must have been some satisfaction that people were at last seeing that such a vista could indeed exist.
His family could proudly and justly state at the weekend: “We recognise that what he achieved by fighting for justice for us had a far, far greater importance – it forced the world’s closed eyes to be opened to injustice. It forced unimaginable wickedness to be acknowledged. We believe it changed the course of history.”
In his subsequent 25 years of freedom Gerry Conlon lived life with the same fervour and honest fury that he demonstrated on the day he was freed. He died from lung cancer that was late diagnosed.
As his friend, the SDLP Assembly member Alex Attwood said at the weekend he lived his life with “urgency, anger, exasperation, intensity and a thirst for justice. He was making up for lost time”.
Up until recently he had been involved in several campaigns. Conlon was also prepared to fight on behalf of unpopular causes such as saying that the two men convicted for the 2009 Continuity IRA murder of Constable Stephen Carroll may have been victims of “a miscarriage of justice”.
He was a supporter of the SDLP and had no love of dissident republicanism. But based on his own experience of the criminal and judicial system he wanted to test whether the evidence supported the convictions of Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton. He believed it did not, although the courts held otherwise.
He also campaigned for Old Bailey bomber Marian Price when her release licence was revoked, claiming she was a victim of internment and a denial of due process.
Struggles with alcohol and drugs that, in general, he overcame took a toll on his health. Conlon was only very recently diagnosed with cancer. His friend Margaret Walsh from the Lower Falls said that in hospital he spoke about getting better so that he could continue to fight more campaigns.
“But I think in his heart he knew what faced him,” said Walsh. “He will be sorely missed.”
Based on what happened to him,
his late father Giuseppe, to the rest of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven it was hardly surprising that he would challenge anything that he felt was an “affront to justice”.
“What happened to one of us could happen to all of us,” he said when campaigning for Ms Price.
It was that zeal which drove him on relentlessly, almost obsessively.
As Attwood said: “His death at 60 years of age is far too young for someone who had suffered far too much, who had then given so much and had so much more to give”.