Relentless Northern campaigner against miscarriages of justice

 

SARAH CONLON, who has died aged 82, impressed many in her years of campaigning for her husband and son, wrongfully convicted in connection with two IRA bombings in 1974 which were at the centre of a web of injustice.

Her husband died in jail and it took another nine years for her son's conviction to be quashed.

Sarah Conlon's sheer goodness was not unique among innocents caught up in miscarriages of justice, but she seemed supernaturally devoid of bitterness. A prayerful woman, she said her God had answered her plea: "If I had bitterness I could never live with myself."

Her long ordeal began when her son Gerry was arrested the day after his friend Paul Hill, as police investigated bombings of two pubs in Guildford, Surrey, in the first of which five people died and scores were injured.

Sarah's husband Giuseppe travelled to London four days later to try to help their son but arrived at the home of his sister Annie Maguire shortly before police raided the house, arresting everyone in it. The tabloids dubbed it "Auntie Annie's bomb-factory".

Police claimed that Hill and Gerry Conlon had named his aunt as a bomb-maker. With two others, Ardoyne man Patrick Armstrong and his teenage English girlfriend Carole Richardson, Hill and Gerry Conlon were given life sentences in 1975.

The following year Mrs Maguire and her husband Patrick received 14-year sentences on a charge of handling nitroglycerine, their two teenage sons were sentenced to several years, two friends and Giuseppe Conlon to 12 years' imprisonment each. They became known as the Maguire Seven; Gerry Conlon and the three convicted with him as the Guildford Four.

From soon after their arrests, several critics of the police treatment of IRA suspects began insisting that these were all innocent people.

Giuseppe Conlon's chronic bronchial problems worsened in jail and he died in Wormwood Scrubs in January 1980.

It took many years for the convictions of the Maguire Seven to be overturned, by which time the survivors had completed their sentences. The Guildford Four had been cleared earlier. The evidence which convicted all 11 was comprehensively discredited.

Sarah Conlon did not find campaigning easy, having left school at 14 to work in low-paid jobs, the last of which was as catering assistant in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Gerry Conlon said her letters to him in jail always ended by urging him to pray for those who "tortured and beat you, who sentenced you and lied and perjured against you".

"At times it used to drive me mad, but that was my mum."

She wrote letters putting the case against the convictions to many prominent figures and as her son said, met "cardinals, bishops, politicians and TV programme-makers".

She was played by Marie Jones in the award-winning film In the Name of the Father and by Stella McCusker in the television play Dear Sarah.

After a final campaign in the Belfast paper the Irish News - inspired by the fortitude of the now aged and ill Sarah Conlon - British prime minister Tony Blair made a public apology in February 2005 for the miscarriage of justice which took her son's freedom for 15 years and saw her husband die in jail aged 56.

Gerry Conlon said the first inkling he had of the move came on a visit to Belfast when his mother told him she thought it "about time a British prime minister apologised publicly for what they did to you and your father and the others". He said she had begun to campaign with the encouragement of Clonard Monastery priest Fr Gerry Reynolds.

The SDLP politician Joe Hendron, also the family's doctor and for a time MP for West Belfast, was also an admiring supporter.

She is survived by her daughters Ann and Bridie, son Gerry, eight grand-children and 12 great grand-children. She was buried last Tuesday in Milltown Cemetery beside her husband.

...

Sarah Conlon, born 1926, died July 19th, 2008