“Gerry Conlon made friends like hillbillies made moonshine,” writes his friend Richard O’Rawe. “Doctors, playwrights, journalists, postmen and store assistants.” Not to speak of drug dealers, rock stars, and film-makers. “Once they tasted Gerry’s wit and charm, they were hooked.”
Johnny Depp was a kindred spirit who met Conlon in 1990, when Gerry was trying to make up for 15 years in prison by trying — as the Pogues’ manager put it — “to live the Sixties, the Seventies and the Eighties”, assisted by copious sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
Depp provides a thoughtful and hilarious foreword. His account of a riotous car journey from Dublin to Dingle via an all-night binge in Limerick, driven by a drunken thalidomide victim with pincers for arms — because on a whim Conlon was determined to meet Fungie the dolphin — is a little comic masterpiece. But he has tremendous insight into his comrade: “A man I loved and would have taken a bullet for, as I know he would have done for me.”
For as so many friends — including former girlfriends — testify in this fascinating biography, there was much more to Conlon than the petty criminal who at 20 became a hapless victim of a shocking miscarriage of justice. He was a highly intelligent man of intense loyalties, courage and self-knowledge, who became a campaigner and a ferocious opponent of capital punishment.
The nightmare for Conlon and the three others known as the Guildford Four was set in motion on October 5, 1974, when five people died and 65 were injured after a new and zealous IRA active service unit, the Balcombe Street Gang, began a murderous rampage by bombing two pubs in Guildford. In November alone, their bombs killed two and injured 50, and an IRA bomb in Birmingham killed 21 and injured 182.
On November 25, in response to what he called “the greatest threat since the end of the Second World War”, the UK home secretary Roy Jenkins brought in the “draconian” Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allowed suspects to be held for seven days. Amid public panic and media hysteria, police arrested Paul Hill, a 20-year-old from Belfast they believed to be in the IRA. After many hours of beatings and threats, Hill confessed, named Conlon and two others, and said Conlon’s aunt, Annie Maguire, ran a bomb-making factory.
After being similarly tortured, all four suspects confessed; and Maguire, her husband, two sons, brother, a family friend and her brother-in-law, Conlan’s father Giuseppe — who had travelled from Belfast to organise legal representation for his son — were arrested.
The British legal system prided itself on being the best in the world. Yet it suffered from complacency and an obsession with self-protection. Police lied, forensic evidence was concealed or dodgy, and the Guildford Four were convicted on confessions which also sank the Maguire Seven. They lost their appeal in 1977, despite the Balcombe Street Gang confessing to planting the bombs for which the four had been convicted.
Giuseppe Conlon began a letter-writing campaign proclaiming their innocence, and Gerry took over following his father’s death in jail in 1980. Nine years laters, pressure from campaigners and a legal team secured the quashing of their convictions. The attractive and articulate Conlon burst out from the Old Bailey and proclaimed that all were innocent — as were the Birmingham Six. A horrified Lord Denning, probably Britain’s greatest judge, declared that “British justice is in ruins”. In fact, the colossal scandal of the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six would be a catalyst for vital reforms to restore faith in the law.
Conlon said he had little bitterness except toward the judiciary and the police: “Nothing but time and respect for all the English people who helped, and there have been so, so many of them.” What he had in abundance was guilt and self-loathing for his part in sending his father to jail. From 1998 until 2006, this charismatic man was a crack-cocaine addict. When he died at 60 in 2014, after years of campaigning, he seemed to have forgiven himself.
He asked O’Rawe, his closest friend, to write this biography. O’Rawe has done Conlon proud.
Merrion Press £17.99 pp231