I had intended to be at Gerry Conlon’s funeral on Saturday. Sadly I was at a family funeral in County Tyrone.
To clarify, Gerry Conlon was 60 years old and died of lung cancer. He received unwanted fame as one of the Guildford Four, imprisoned for fifteen years for bombing Woolwich and Guildford in England. Along with the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven, he was innocent…part of an anti-Irish hysteria that gripped Britain…politics, law, police, media and trade unions in the early and mid 1970s. Innocent people were arrested…beaten in police custody, evidence and confessions contaminated, forensics invented, lies told in court, evidence hidden from Defence lawyers, brutality in prisons and for good measure…food contaminated with human waste. A Nightmare.
And a nightmare that lasted fifteen years. The footage of Gerry Conlon …and indeed others walking free from court is iconic. Oddly the British Establishment look on it as a triumph….the system “worked”….eventually.
I declare an interest. I never knew or met Gerry Conlon. I did hear him speak during the 1990s. But he was two years younger than me. And lived about 400 metres away from me. Although I did not know him, my father would have known his father…Guiseppi Conlon, in many ways an (ailing) man …quite similar to my own father.
In part, its about how I identify with Gerry Conlon. And even more so how I fixate on the image of his father and mine.
Yet getting framed by the “Security Forces” was hardly unheard of. In West Belfast, there is the case of the known IRA, Officer Commanding and his Quartermaster, and their car stopped on the Falls Road and the “discovery” of two bullets. Now that was either extremely careless or a great big frame up, which kept two IRA men off the streets. The IRA itself would have looked on that as an occupational hazard and the RUC would have considered it “fair game”.
But innocent people did go to jail. Especially in the early days and in the aftermath of mass riots. British Army “snatch squads” didnt much care who they baton charged and didnt much care how often they perjured themselves in Court. In fairness, the RUC were more reliable. They did of course have more than their fair share of unrepentant bigoted bastards but they also had local knowledge… And on occasions they rejected the “evidence” produced by the Green Cowards (oops I mean Green Howards) and the Black Watch that the arrested person was hurling stones or petrol bombs.
The chances of being arrested or more likely stopped, searched, verbally or physically abused by some (uniformed) street thugs from Middlesbrough or Aberdeen were high. Even for me. The double fear of being beaten up by the Brits or being torturedto death in a UDA “Romper Room” was high…even for “respectable” boys.
I am struck by how few of the boys from my A Level Year (ie 18 year olds in 1970) that I have actually seen since the early 1970s. Disproportionately many took the Heysham and Liverpool boats out of Belfast. So many were encouraged by their families to “get out of here”.
And Gerry Conlon was one such person. Getting out of West Belfast, where we had no street lights and into the bright lights of London and its multiple sub cultures of communes and squats could appear attractive. And while they worried about him, Guisseppi and Sarah Conlon would have thought that their boy was safer out of West Belfast.
So when he was arrested for the Guildford Bombings, along with some other very unlikely suspects and Guisseppi went to London to sort it all out, it would have been in the belief that it was all a misunderstanding. The last thing Guisseppi would have expected was his own arrest and charged as some kinda bomb maker.
Of course in 2014, none of this makes any kinda sense. It is absurd except in the context of anti-Irish bigotry, where “any Irishman will do”.
Of course the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven were all imprisoned and brutalised. Guisseppi Conlon would die in jail. And the British Legal System were too involved in protecting themselves….”Lord” Justice Denning believing that unsafe convictions were more satisfactory than the “appalling vista” of British police officers lying thru their teeth.
So people stayed in jail, while lawyers, police officers, forensic officers and police officers retired into respectable old age.
And so Gerry Conlon got released. Immortalised by Daniel Day Lewis in “In the Name of The Father”. And more significantly he fought his own demons (a consequence of those fifteen years) and became a champion for Justice.
So…by any standards…a hero.
Except of course he was a bit of an embarrassment to many people.
Consider this. Slugger O’Toole reported his death and as I recall Mick Fealtys post attracted less than twenty comments. This, of course is not a reflection on Mick.
It is a reflection on the “commenters”.
The “commenters” (sic) on Slugger…and I include myself….have a Golden Rule. Ignore any post which is an embarrassment to “my” side. In my case, I tend to ignore posts which are (accurately) critical of the mainstream republican-nationalist (and specifically SDLP) case. Least said, soonest mended. Dont fan the flames.
Thats how it works.
So the fewer than twenty comments on Gerry Conlon is genuinely curious.
A lot of people have cause to be embarrassed.
Obviously unionists…with all that Law and Order stuff, would have seen him hanged. After all, he was just another guy from West Belfast. Surely if he wasnt guilty of the Guildford Bombing, he was guilty of something else. After all he was from West Belfast.
And what about the LetsGetAlongerists? What did they have to say about Gerry Conlon?
Just last week a self-described letsgetalongerist asked me what have I got against them.
Well…their silence on Injustice over forty odd years is a good starting point. Where was the Alliance Party in relation to Gerry Conlon, the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six and Maguire Seven?
I rest my case.
But what about the noisy Sinn Fein supporters on Slugger and on Twitter? Why did they take such a communal vow of Silence?
Was it Shame.
People died at Guildford, Woolwich and Birmingham.
They issued long over-due apologies.
But Nationalism (I am a Nationalist) and Republicanism (I am a Republican) thrives on Injustice. From Strongbow, to Oliver Cromwell, to King Billy, to Trevalyens Corn, to Easter 1916.
From the Falls Curfew, to the Ballymurphy Massacre, to Bloody Sunday.
The Dogs in the West Belfast streets …even a young mongrel like me…knew these people were innocent. Where was the Republican Movement? Of course in 2014, the Movement has largely split…dissidents who are aware of Sinn Feins chequered history and SF loyalists, who are uncritical.
So let me say this bluntly. It absolutely suited the IRA that innocent people were locked up and brutalised in high security English prisons.
Is there evidence to the contrary?
Well …in fairness…there is.
A statement on behalf of the IRA that the charged defendants were innocent?
But is that really going to help?
And there is the statement of the Active Service Unit, arrested after the Balcombe Street Siege in London that they were responsible.
Again is that really going to help?
The Truth is that Gerry Conlon and the rest were squeezed by TWO sets of Injustice.
When the Balcombe Street Active Service Unit were released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, they were feted as heroes at a critical post-Peace Agreement Sinn Fein Conference. The Leadership NEEDED their endorsement.
Of course just six weeks previous to Gerry Conlons death, there was the high profile detention of …Gerry Adams.
Gerry Adams went by appointment to the PSNI Station at Antrim. He was arrested and questioned for four days. He complained about the food. I suppose these things are relative.
A mural appeared at the International Wall in West Belfast, just metres from where the murdered Jean McConville was kidnapped more than forty years previously. The “Leader, Peacemaker and Visionary”, was lauded in SF protests and SFs Tweeters proclaimed It all to be the greatest injustice since…well the last one.
So Unionist, Alliance and Sinn Fein silence in the context of Gerry Conlon is understandable. They have much to be ashamed about.
But the SDLP…yes I am a member…has much to be proud of in the context of Gerry Conlon. At a time when every politician, lawyer and churchman/woman who stood up for Gerry and the others was vilified as a fellow traveller of “terrorists”, the SDLP was unrelenting and stood solidly with Gerry Conlon.
Dr Joe Hendron, SDLP MP for West Belfast was a particular friend to the campaign to free him. Dr Joes nomination papers were signed by Sarah Conlon, mother of The imprisoned Gerry and widow of Guisseppi. Gerry Conlon addressed SDLP conferences.
It would have been easy…far too easy for SDLP to have politicised Gerrys death.
The Party was discrete but supportive.
Several SDLP members attended Gerrys funeral.
More brazenly, Sinn Fein members also did.
But sometimes I do wonder if SDLP is far too shy about pushing itself forward. And really publicising its achievements.
The steadfast support for the unjustly imprisoned is a triumph for SDLP.