The following transcript is of an interview that was broadcast in November 2013. The interviewee and one of the interviewers are now deceased. TPQ transcriber thought it an appropriate and poignant time to revisit the interview. Sandy Boyer (SB) and John McDonagh (JM) interview Gerry Conlon (GC) at a book tour event at Rocky Sullivan's scheduled as Gerry is in New York City to accept the Sister Sarah Clarke Human Rights Award. Radio Free Eireann.
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
23 January 2016
New York City
23 January 2016
(begins time stamp ~ 17:00)
To honour Guiseppe Conlon today on the thirty-sixth anniversary of his undignified and unjustified death at the hands of the British government Radio Free Éireann replays its last interview with his son and international justice campaigner, Gerry Conlon. This interview originally aired on 2 November 2013.
Audio clip: Trailer of the film, In the Name of the Father, is played.
SB: And we have a great privilege here to welcome Gerry Conlon to Radio Free Éireann and, for the very first time, to Rocky Sullivan's. Gerry, it's such a great pleasure finally to have you here.
GC: Well it's a great pleasure to be here, Sandy, and you and John have done great work down the years on this station helping people get the message out about what's happening to prisoners back home. And it's an issue that still is happening back home and it's an issue that I've become involved with along with Paddy Hill from the Birmingham Six. You know, we have several cases at the minute that need outside scrutiny and we need help in order to highlight the injustices that some people that are having such as the Craigavon Two, such as the internment-by-remand of Stephen Murney and Marian Price and Martin Corey. And the work we do needs the help of everyone we can get.
SB: Gerry, everybody knows that you did twenty-five years for....
GC: ...Sandy, you just gave me an extra ten! (all laugh)
SB: It must have felt like twenty-five, Gerry! But what very few people know is that you're not a victim – you're a crusader - that once you got out the first thing, almost the first thing you said when you emerged from the court house was: The Birmingham Six are innocent. And clearly within weeks of being free you were in this country because you and your lawyer figured out this was a good place to put pressure on for the Birmingham Six. And Gerry you knocked on every door – saw everybody - until you were testifying before Congress in a hearing co-chaired by Joe Kennedy and Tom Lantos. But Gerry, you didn't have to do that – everybody would have been perfectly understanding if you just got your head together – taken a bit more time - your three co-accused, and nobody blamed them for it, just tried to retire to private life. When the Birmingham Six finally got out – and you're largely responsible for that – five out of six of them again – just tried to get their heads together, get their lives together – didn't do too well but that's another story – but Gerry, why? Why did you decide that you had to keep going? And as you said you're crusading to this day. That made you very different. Why did you do that?
GC: Well, you know my father died in prison. My father came over to help me and he was arrested within three hours of being in Britain. The little overnight suitcase that he had lay on my aunt's floor for a year and was never touched by the police. You know, this was obviously a conspiracy that went to the highest level. And when my father died I'd lost my way in prison. I had become consumed by bitterness and anger and, to a certain extent, a hatred of everything British which I've come to understand – you know, not everything British is bad. My lawyer's British; she campaigned tirelessly for me. We had two Law Lords, Leslie Scarman and Lord (Patrick) Devlin. We had two archbishops, we had Cardinal Hume, we had Archbishop Runcie, we had cross-party delegation. But most important of all I met Paddy Hill in prison. And Paddy Hill was running, single-handedly, the campaign for the Birmingham Six. And I was running, single-handedly, the campaign for the Guildford Four. And I knew all of the Birmingham Six well but it went beyond the Birmingham Six! There was the Bridgewater Four, there was the Tottenham Three, there were different single individuals who I knew were in the same predicament as me. And how could I walk out and not try to highlight the injustice that happened to me and that was still happening to them and walk away from it? And I made Paddy Hill a solemn promise: That if I got out first that I would do everything in my power to help him and he made the same vow to me. And you know, I thought when Paddy got out and the Birmingham Six got out the baton would be handed on like in a relay race – that they would pick it up. But as you said, Sandy, I came here for a specific reason because by the time I was released everyone knew we were innocent because there had been documentaries made about us, there had been newspaper editorials written about us and we had the most influential newspapers and media groups within Britain campaigning for our release. And when I got out Gareth said to me: Anybody who knows anything about the Birmingham Six here in Britain knows they're innocent. And they're not out. The place to go is to go to America because the Brits didn't like outside influence in their judicial system or in their way of government. But what they did care about was people questioning their ability in relation to Irish people. So when I came here you were my first point of contact and we were lucky enough to meet some great politicians - you know from Charlie Rangel to Brian Donnelly to Joe Kennedy to Bonnie Dwyer to Tom Lantos to Cardinal O'Connor – people who opened doors - people who were concerned about human rights abuses. And it was the scrutiny of American politicians and the scrutiny of American newspapers that brought the ultimate pressure to bear on the British government and the British judiciary in order for the Birmingham Six to be released. And it was a pleasure to lead a delegation of cross-party American politicians to Gartree Prison, the maximum security prison in the Midlands, to meet with Paddy Hill. And they came away and they did more within a short space of time than what we all did in a long period of time.
SB: Gerry, I just want to say there are still, as you said very eloquently a few minutes ago, there's still a lot of people, political prisoners, in prison and the Brits still respond to American pressure. (event announcement)
JM: (station identification and announcements) Now Gerry, we've interview you a lot over the years and what I wanted to do now in the last twenty minutes or so is talk about your life after you got released, about the compensation, you got a book deal, the name of the book is Proved Innocent which is being sold and will be signed here at Rocky's and at the other events around the tri-state area and about the movie deal. How did this all come about? What type of compensation? What was you life like when you were released one day after fifteen years in prison?
GC: Well you know, it was strange – I was just saying to some friends of mine last night – the night before I was released I remember standing in Brixton Prison holding the bars and trying to catch a glimpse of the moon and maybe to see a star and I started crying. And it wasn't tears of joy or expectation. It was tears of anticipation and trepidation because in many ways we'd become institutionalised. You know, we were products of the system. And the outside world – you know when you go into prison, John, the outside world is so vivid. And as years pass and it stretches into five years and then ten years and fifteen years you know - that becomes your home and the prisoners become your family. And that's why it was so important that when I got out that the Birmingham Six were at the forefront of every thought I had. And I came to America and I met with Sandy and I was sort of commuting between New York and Washington with my cousin, Martin, and we were trying to get doors opened and get people to listen and we were fortunate in that respect. And when I came back I was staying with my lawyer, Gareth Peirce, because you know – I had made a short journey to Belfast and I went to see Paul Hill's mother, Lily Hill, great woman who sold her furniture in order to campaign on our behalf. And you know I had a few quid in my pocket - they'd given us a little bit of money and I wanted to go to make sure she was alright, and I remember I had my niece in my arms and being pulled out by the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and a gun put to my head and told that under no uncertain terms the first opportunity they got they would shoot me.
So I ended up staying with Gareth and doing whatever I could and highlighting whatever I could. But you don't realise the trauma that you're witnessing within prison – I seen two guys being murdered in front of me in the most horrendous fashion by the same guy who wanted to go to a mental institution and this was his way of getting to a mental institution was stabbing somebody with a twenty-eight inch sword through his back and coming out through his ribs and cutting his spleen - I mean the violence that you suffered in there and the personal violence that you suffered from the system. When we went in, you know, the guards were paying people to stab us. We used to go to sleep with magazines taped to our chests so that the prisoners wouldn't stab us. And then the watershed came with my father – my father dying. By that time he had met Cardinal Hume and he had met eminent people who came on board. And you know, when Paddy got out we campaigned for other groups and stuff like that and it started to impact on me - the loss of my father – you know - what he had given up for me.
JM: So how does the deal come around for the movie and how does that get made?
GC: Well, I mean I came back from New York and there was a letter from a publishing company and they were offering me a lot of money for my life story and I thought: Well, who wants to write about paint drying in a prison you know? Because that, at times, is what it was like. But two people had written a book about us, Ros Franey and Grant McKee called Timebomb, along with Robert Kee (book: Trial and Error), and they said that Bloomsbury were interested and that Hamish Hamilton was interested and different companies were interested and Gareth thought that it would be a good idea to document what had happened and to tell it from our point of view. Because in many respects were never had an appeal. They kept us in gaol for fifteen years. They spent millions of pounds on security in keeping us in. And then when it came to releasing us they let us out in three hours. And that wasn't because they were being magnanimous or fair - that was to protect the people who were allowed to torture innocent people in order to extract confessions and frame them. And this went right up to the highest positions in government.
JM: So how does the book then get made into the film? How does that work?
GC: Gabriel Byrne! Gabriel Byrne! I mean I'm back in New York – the book's come out - I'm at The Limelight in New York and this girl, Ann McPhee, comes up to me and she said to me: Are you Gerry Conlon? And I said: Yes. And she says: Well, I'm Gabriel Byrne's nanny and everyone who comes round to see Gabriel he gives a copy of the book and says: Read this! Read this! And she asked me if I had a number and I gave her a number and through a good friend of mine, Shane Doyle who had a cafe, Sin-é Cafe, down in Saint Mark's Place, we arranged a meeting. Gabriel just thought it was an amasing book. And it happened at the time of Shoot to Kill (Ed. Correction: film was Hidden Agenda) with Frances MacDormund and it was produced by a guy called John Daly and he invited us to the premiere of it and he stood up and he said he wanted to make a movie from my book. And I went out to Los Angeles and I met with a guy called John Patek from the William Morris Agency who offered me an outrageous amount of money for an option but I wanted somebody who would understand the situation. I didn't want John Wayne coming in and releasing people. I wanted the story to be told. I wanted people to understand it - when terrorism happens, when bombs go off, when innocent people are killed that the reaction of the press and the police is to Get someone. Get anyone.
SB: And that pattern: Get someone. Get anyone is now repeating today.
GC: Look Sandy, we're always going to have injustice, no matter what part of the world we're in. And injustice is like rust – it never sleeps. But I'm living in Ireland now and there are cases that are really, really disturbing. The case of the Craigavon Two : a policeman gets killed. The rush from the media to find someone – the pressure that politicians put on the police and the corruption within the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland), the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary), is still endemic. And they've taken two innocent people within a day and they framed them! And how could I not want to get involved when this is happening on my doorstep? If I'm working with the Aborigines in Australia and I'm working with anti-death penalty groups here in America and I'm working with a great organisation called Centurion Ministries out of Princeton that had fifty-four people released from never-ending sentence, most of them from death row in the last twenty-five years, how can I not do this on my doorstep? It's imperative I do it! You know, I have to do it because I can't sit back and not give the help to others that I expected for myself.
JM: (station identification and announcements) After the show today at two o'clock we'll be showing In the Name of the Father here and then have Gerry, who's going to watch it for the first time, comment on the movie.
GC: Can I just say something, John? I heard I've got to watch it on Sunday and on Monday as well... (all laugh) You know, this could be pretty cruel!
JM: Now the actor that played you in the movie, Daniel Day-Lewis, is probably one of the greatest actors right now – he just got the Academy Award for Lincoln. The movie itself got nominated for seven Academy Awards it just had the unfortune of going up against Schindler's List. Did you interact with Daniel Day-Lewis because he's notorious for taking on the character itself? Has...
GC: ...He's a method actor.
JM: Right! Well, how did that work out?
GC: Well I mean, you can imagine: I went into gaol when I was just turned twenty so when I got out of gaol at thirty-five I still had that twenty year old mentality and I wanted to party all night and I wanted to go out and do the things a twenty year old did even though I was thirty-five. And I would just be coming back from the pub at five or six o'clock in the morning with a crowd of Irish guys just to have another few scoops and Daniel would turn up and just sit and watch. But he was such a great, great guy you know? He was just a lovely, lovely human being. You know, Gabriel had the visions of Johnny Depp playing the part because he was close to Johnny Depp, they had the same agent in LA and I met Depp when I was out there – an absolute gentleman you know and still a good friend. And you know, I never expected a kid from West Belfast for this to happen to but I never expected - even though we didn't come from a Republican family – my father was an ill man most of his life – he had been in and out of sanitoriums and stuff like that and you know - I thought I was a pop singer when I was a kid, you know I probably woke up a few neighbours thinking the cat was screaming and stuff. And then this incredible thing happens to you you know and turns your life around. And as my mother used to say to me in her letters in prison: You know you could have been dead. At least I know you're safe. So and then you get out and a movie's made about you and stuff like that - it's just one of those things. But there's so many people this happens to and so many people we don't know it happens to. It's happening here in America all the time – Trayvon Martin you know, down in Florida and stuff – so we've got to be aware and try to highlight what's right and what's wrong.
JM: Gerry, what I find: People were amazed when you answered the question that you hadn't seen the movie. Why is that? Twenty years now – Daniel Day-Lewis plays you. Why is it? You must have been in hotel rooms clicking through cable TVs and you would see In the Name of the Father is on. Why is it that you just didn't go and see it or rent to DVD or, or...?
GC: Well I live it, you know? And that was it. I lived it. You know, we want everything to be as it was – almost documentary-type movie - and it wasn't. And I understand, for cinematography reasons, they had me and my father in the same cell. We were never in the same cell. We were Category A prisoners. We were on opposite sides of the landing. You know, his cell was facing mine so and that... But you know? It's painful. You know, I wake up every night and I think of my father. I never had a nightmare in prison, John, not one nightmare in prison. Since I've come out – all the things that they did to us in prison - the unspeakable things that they did to Irish prisoners – and that's a story that hasn't been told yet. This is a story that needs to be documented. They suffered incredible, incredible cruelty within British prisons from the guards and they couldn't break them. You know, you think to yourself: There but for the grace of God go I. And I'm haunted by my father coming to help me, wanting to do something for his son and ultimately giving his life for me in order that his death would ultimately get my release. So I do what I do because it's the right thing to do. And for a long time I lost the plot. For a long time I got involved with drugs and alcohol, you know? And I make no excuses for it and I blame no one except myself. And it was like a second life sentence but here I am with a third chance in life and I'm making the most of it and I'm trying to do as much as I can to help people.
SB: And Gerry, you said you had a real problem with drugs and alcohol for years but you were trying to get counseling. You were trying to get treatment. What happened?
GC: They threw us out – it was almost as if when our release came about – I mean I existed on say six dollars a week in prison and then they give me seventy-five thousand dollars and I didn't know what to do with it - you know I looked after my family, I'd no direction – when I was in prison
Irish prisoners weren't allowed education. They weren't allowed vocational training courses so you came out and you didn't know what you were going to do. And it was almost like they were giving you money so you could medicate yourself because there was no help.
And you think: That the hostages who were in Beirut - Brian Anderson and Brian Kennan and Terry Waite and John McCarthy and Jackie Mann - when they were released they all got trauma counseling. They all got the best trauma counseling. And subsequently people who've been involved in disasters such as the Marchioness disaster or the Paddington rail crash disaster - they've all got help. And the victims of crime have got help. Neville and Doreen Lawrence whose son, Stephen, was murdered by racists on the streets of London - stabbed to death – they got help. But being Irish we got nothing. It was almost like they threw money at us in the hope that we would destroy ourselves and in some cases we have done.
JM: (station identification and announcements) Also, they're selling the book here that Gerry will be signing, the book that he wrote called Proved Innocent. Gerry, maybe you could read a piece from it and do you know what piece you're going to read from that?
SB: Yeah, the first piece is about the death of Gerry's father, Guiseppe. (set-up chat)
JM: (announcements) And we have special guest, Gerry Conlon, here in the bar and he's now going to read an excerpt from his book called Proved Innocent.
GC: (reads from his book, Proved Innocent) My father was in a room on the ground floor. He had a drip plugged into his arm and I don't know what other treatment he'd been getting, but he looked fifty percent better than I'd seen him for months. He was sitting up and the nurses were clucking over him and saying he'd been a good boy, eating up his tea and all that. I went away feeling that so long as he stayed where he was and they kept up the treatment he was capable of getting back on his feet.
But a few days later a screw said he had seen someone looking in the window of my father's hospital room. Some bright spark decided that it might be an IRA reconnaissance team and that any time now they were going to try and trying to spring Joe Conlon from hospital – Joe Conlon who couldn't walk twenty yards. So in a panic they bundled him into his pyjamas and into a taxi and whisked him back to the prison hospital. Then my mother could no longer stay, she was terrified of losing her job. So she flew back to Belfast. And it was like being back at square one again, my mother back across the water, my father back being looked after by the screws who had the bare minimal of paramedical training and now thought they were brain surgeons.
By the eighteenth of the month he'd gone back downhill, lost all the ground he'd made up in the Hammersmith Hospital and was developing pneumonia. He went back to Hammersmith Hospial and I was sitting in my cell listening to the radio late one night, around ten o'clock, when the screw came and told me I was going down to see him now, in the middle of the night. The hospital was full of policemen armed to the teeth. I was taken up stairs past policeman holding a pump-action shotgun and into his room.
I couldn't understand why it was so full of people, Catholic priests, Home Office people, screws, prison doctors. The room was crowded, everyone was standing around muttering or just standing quietly, as if they were there to witness something.
My father had an oxygen mask on, drips stuck in his veins. He was awake. I was near the bed, still handcuffed to the screw, and saw that even with the oxygen mask he was labouring for breath. I began to cry. My father moved, twitched his hand up and pulled away the oxygen mask.
'I'm going to die.'
'No, you're not going to die. No, you're not.'
'Yes, I am. But don't be worrying. I want you to promise me something.'
'I mean it.'
'Yes, I promise you.'
Speech was taking it out of him, but it was so important that he raised his voice. 'When I die I don't want you attacking any screws. I want you to start clearing my name. My death's going to clear your name and when your name gets cleared, you clear mine.'
I was crying. I leaned forward to touch him with both my hands, but one wrist was still handcuffed. And then he looked past me at all the people and said out in a voice loud enough for them all to hear, 'If any of youse people think I'm guilty, look me straight in the face.' They all dropped their heads onto their shoulders and he said, 'How does it feel to be murdering an innocent man?'
Then a screw came to me and said, 'The visit's over.' And I was led out. (reading ends)
SB: That was an excerpt from Proved Innocent and that is the horrible story of Guiseppe Conlon, Gerry's father, dying in prison.
JM: Now, when he was released for his funeral were you allowed to go to the funeral? Or who was allowed to go to his funeral?
GC: My father's body was stolen by the government and my mother couldn't find the body for seven days. And when she eventually did find out the location of it it was in an SAS base in Herefordshire. And the body was flown home by the RAF to Aldergrove Airport and there was a delegation of Unionists there demanding that the body be put back on the plane again and flown back to England because they said it would have been an insult to fly an IRA man's body home in a British military aircraft. So my father's body was flown back to London and my mother tried to arrange with British Airways for British Airways to fly the body to Belfast and British Airways released a statement at the time saying that they didn't fly the bodies of terrorists back to Ireland. So British Airways wouldn't fly it. So my mother had to scrape together the little bit of money that she could find with the help of the neighbours and Aer Lingus flew it to Dublin. So my father's body was missing for a week. And when he arrived back at my mother's home they had performed an autopsy on him and he had been cut from his navel to his throat. And we don't even know to this day, John, if they took organs out. I mean everything surrounding this case is disgusting.
JM: Were you allowed to appeal to the authorities to get out on compassionate parole? Because that happens all the time – a next-of-kin dies you're allowed out even with a prison guard or an officer going with you to the wake or the funeral.
GC: John, I wasn't even allowed a phone call. They wouldn't even give me a phone call. It was out of the question that they would even consider releasing me although I applied to attend my father's funeral they refused. And when I applied for a phone call they refused that as well. And at the same time there was two guys who had been convicted of rape who were given compassionate parole to go and visit sick relatives in hospital and both of them never returned. And there wouldn't have been much chance of me not returning because you can imagine if they had of let me out the security presence they would had had around me. But everything surrounding my father's death was disgraceful. I mean, there was no consideration. And by this time we had Cardinal Hume, we had Archbishop Runcie, we had Leslie Scarman, we had Lord Devlin – you know, the doubts were there and they were huge.
JM: But why was his death a turning point in getting your release?
GC: Because he had met these dignitaries, these leaders, these politicians and had convinced them and whatever he had said to them – because a lot of the time my father seen them on his own – probably because he thought I may have been abusing them or shouting or swearing at them because of the situation that we were in. And he made such an impression upon them. And I think he got them to promise that they wouldn't let this case go and that his name would be cleared – that they give firm promises to him and I have to say that they held those promises and delivered on them.
SB: Well Gerry, you talk in your book about how your father was the only man in the prison who even the prison administration came to and asked his advice about what they should do - the unique respect that he was held in throughout the prison.
GC: I mean, there was two politicians, there was two Labour politicians called Phillip Whitehead and Andrew Bennett who came to see my father in 1978 and they said they had secured a transfer to a prison back in Ireland and that he would be released within three months - this was two years before his death. And he said: Is my son going with me? And they said: No, your son won't be transferred with you. And he said: Well, I'm not going. He said because I came over here to help my son and my son is as innocent as I am and unless he's going I don't want the transfer. I mean, it was the ultimate sacrifice and unconditional love from my father. And you know I think my father, I think probably a lot of what I do today is driven by what I think my father would have wanted me to do. He would have wanted to use his experience to prevent it happening to someone else. And it's a double whammy. I mean, here in The States we see so many convictions being overturned through the development of DNA and stuff like that. But when we gaol people wrongly we not only destroy the lives of the person we put in gaol and their families but we disrespect the victims' families and we leave the killers on the street. And how can that be right in any society?
JM: Now, is there the possibility if your father didn't have the love for you to try to come and get you out and he just said: Ah, he was probably mixed up and didn't bother to go to England is there a possibility that he never would have got caught up in the conveyor belt over there?
GC: No, I mean there were several factors, you know. And people – you know I don't class myself as a Republican. I don't class myself as a Nationalist. I class myself as an individual who an extraordinary thing happened to where I've been given an opportunity to help people irrespective of what their political backgrounds are or what the colour of their skin is or what their religion is. But I have to pay tribute, I have to pay tribute to the integrity of the Balcombe Street Unit who bombed Guildford who, upon arrest, when taken to four different police stations, when interviewed individually, confessed that they had done what we had been convicted of and without that confession nothing would have happened. My father probably would have proved that he's innocent – he probably still would have died in that but that set people thinking as well. And there was so much that happened with the Balcombe Street that the police withheld the evidence – you know? They perverted the course of justice. And it's not that I would like the police who lied and tortured me to go to gaol because they've been demonised in the media and they wouldn't get a fair trial. But what I would like would be the system to work they way it is supposed to work – to be transparent, to be accountable and to deliver fairness and to be honest.
SB: But Gerry, one of the extraordinary things about your case is the involvement of the Balcome Street people and the other thing: It was known up to the very highest levels of the British government that you were innocent and yet you were still in prison.
GC: Sandy, the Birmingham Six case and the Guildford Four case are the only two cases in British legal history where there is a seventy-five year PII, Public Immunity Interest Order, around it - which is the official Secrets Act. And we met a woman who was the Undersecretary of State at the Justice Department called Marie Eagles who apologised to us. She said: I have been in reading your files and youse weren't a miscarriage of justice - youse were something completely different.
(ends time stamp ~ 52:55)