On the second anniversary of his death, at the request of TPQ transcriber, Gerry Conlon's talk at Marxism 2010.
Marxism Festival July 2010
What Was It Like for the Irish?
Solicitor Gareth Peirce introduces Gerry Conlon, campaigner for those unjustly and illegally imprisoned, the author of Proved Innocent and whose experience with British justice and British prisons was recounted in the film, In the Name of the Father. May he rest in peace.
Gareth Peirce: I didn't ever think that these two (Gerry Conlon and Moazzam Begg) were going to meet each but I'm glad they did today. There are great equivalences in the facts of what happened to both of them - quite extraordinary similarities but perhaps not extraordinary at all because they are probably the most serious examples, both unique but for reasons that are very similar, the most serious examples of what the state, our state, can do, does, has done and, if we don't stop it, will do again when it wants to use and abuse and manipulate every ounce of power that it possesses. And there isn't one way in which one can say what happened to Gerry or what happened to Moazzam was an accident. It wasn't an accident. And if the terminology gets somehow softened and the word 'miscarriage' of justice is used for what happened to Gerry – it isn't a miscarriage if miscarriage means accident. It is a miscarriage if it means death.
There was a massacre, a murder, not just of justice in both their cases but a deliberate genocide of every fundamental, minimum principal standard that attaches to every individual. They were both tortured. They were both subject to rendition; Gerry from the North of Ireland to England. They were both abused. They were both confined, year after year, in solitary confinement which is another muted word for extreme, savage isolation designed to destroy and break the human spirit.
And it's all been an experiment. It was an experiment in 1974 when the Guildford Four, the first people to be arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, it was an experiment to see how far the state could go and it went far beyond with the absolute confidence that it could go so far. And amongst the equivalencies, by accident of fate, being able to interview years later police officers who were in Guildford and Godalming police stations. Ordinary police officers, not the ones who were perpetrating the torture of Gerry, but who observed mock executions, guns pointed into the cells so they would confess. The normality with which the police officers described it we thought that was okay. We thought that was what these new laws meant. In talking, interviewing, interrogators in America from Bagram or Kandahar who interrogated Moazzam - they thought it was okay - didn't know that you couldn't torture - thought it was permitted. And of course, it was. It was okay. We, at every level, said: It's okay. And thereafter our courts, our judges, our governments, state-to-state interaction all meant it to stay as it was: An experiment that the individual could be annihilated in the interests of so-called War on Terror. Many have commented that the terrorism of the weak against the powerful is nothing compared with the extreme terrorism perpetrated by the powerful against the weak.
Both Gerry and Moazzam came out, literally out of custody - perhaps that's a weak word - out of torture - and they both hit the deck running. They both didn't even pause for breath. Their first words: What about the Birmingham Six? What about Shaker Aamer? And they both have given and do give now their lives to try and rectify what we, what our state, has done to them and so there is a great deal to tell. They are two most spectacularly impressive people. It's an absolute honour and privilege to have known both of them. And the fragments of interaction it's better they tell you themselves. If there's time at the end perhaps we could summarise some of the exact patterns that happen now – the censorship - and The Pogues had a song about the innocence of the Birmingham and Guildford defendants. It was banned. We forget that. When Bernadette McAliskey said on television: I'm not a member of the IRA but I understand what has made people - she had to be subtitled. We've banned words. And now, the same all over again: We can't have speech. We can't have honesty. And that's intended because if we could we could have understanding and so we're here to hear them and it's a great privilege. (applause)
(The programme moderator makes announcements and introduces Gerry Conlon to huge applause)
Gerry Conlon: Friends and comrades, it's an absolute pleasure to be here. And most of you know the Guildford Four through In the Name of the Father. In the Name of the Father doesn't go close to telling the truth but it was a good vehicle for getting the message out. I was arrested on the 30th of November 1974 at half five in the morning. I was dragged from my bed. I was handcuffed. I was thrown in the back of an Army personnel carrier where the squaddies in it proceeded to kick me and stamp on me. And I had no idea why they were doing this. I am not a Republican. I didn't come from a Republican background. I came from a Catholic/Nationalist background. My father, Guiseppe, all I ever knew of my father was to be ill. He'd worked as a red-leader (Ed. Note: one who sprays the steel hulls of ships with red lead) at the shipyards and they had no health and safety masks and he developed a lung disease so consequently he was in and out of sanitoriums. But my life changed on the 30th of November. They took me from my house and they brought me to Springfield Road Police Station where they held me incommunicado for something like sixteen to eighteen hours and then the door opened and there were two policemen there. And the same with Paddy Hill, we name all the bastards who tortured us because they deserved to be named. They deserved to be shamed.
And the two policemen who opened the door was Cunningham and McCaul. One was a little small guy about five foot seven reeking of whiskey and the other one was a big six foot two red-faced seventeen stone country man wearing a tweed jacket with leather patches on his elbows. He asked me my name which I gave him – I was punched in the face. My nose started bleeding; it started dripping onto the green checked Ben Sherman shirt I was wearing and they said to me: If you don't know what that's for think about it 'cause we'll be back in ten minutes. Ten minutes later they came back and the door opened and I was sitting on the concrete bed that they have in police stations and he picked me by the ear like a naughty schoolboy and twisted it and took me down the corridor.
And as they were bringing me up to the interrogation room a foot patrol was coming down the stairs and they said: This is the bastard who bombed Guildford. And I didn't – and you know, I'm not being disrespectful to any of the victims of these bombings because they were horrendous - innocent people lost their lives in them - and it had no consequence to me because there was twenty and thirty bombs going off a day in Belfast. People were being killed; one bomb was the same as another. And they brought me up the stairs and they took me to this end room and in the room was Cunningham sitting behind a desk and there was two policemen there who introduced themselves as Detective Chief Inspector Grundy and Detective Sergeant Jeremy. And they sat me in a chair and McCaul sat behind me and they threw a statement in front of me - a statement that had been made by Paul Hill and they told me to read it. And I read it and it was incredible. Paul Hill was admitting to the Guildford bombings and he was naming everybody he knew and I happen to be one of the people he knew.
And when I said I didn't know nothing about it that's when the torture started. They started hitting me from behind and this went on for about an hour. And then they took me back down to the cell. The next morning they brought me up again. And Cunningham took me to the window and he said: We threw a guy out of this window three weeks ago and he broke his back. His name was Eddie Rooney and if you don't cooperate you're likely to get the same treatment. Then they stripped me naked and they put me in the search position for about four hours and I got cramps in my fingers and in my toes and in my calves. And when I fell they picked me up by my testicles. And this went on all day 'til about four o'clock. When I went back down to the cell there was a clean set of clothes which I recognised as my own which meant they must have went to my mother's house to collect fresh clothes to take me to England. I didn't know I going to be taken to England but the clothes I was wearing were saturated in blood. Anyway, they handcuffed me, they hooded me, they took me to an airport and they flew me to a foreign country and they started torturing me. Back then it was 'state kidnapping'. Today we call it rendition and extraordinary rendition.
I arrived at Heathrow and they took me off the plane. They hooded me again, they put me in the back of a police car and they drove me to Addlestone Police Station. And when they took me out they took the hood off and I could see the light flurries of snow and they marched me round to the back of the police station and there was a gauntlet of about fifteen policemen on each side and as I was walking through they were spitting on me and slapping me and punching me - and this is their language not my language - they were calling me a dirty, stinking, murdering Irish bastard – an IRA fucking bomber - every name under the sun. My mother was an IRA whore – my sisters were IRA whores – my father was an IRA bastard.
And they took me and they marched me up to the desk sergeant's desk and then they formed a semi-circle round me. They stripped me naked and they spat upon me and the desk sergeant told them to take me out of their sight. They took me to the last cell of three in a corridor off the desk sergeant's office and the first thing I noticed there was no windows – no glass in the windows - all the glass had been removed and snow was coming in. And I remember going and sitting on the concrete bed and I was trying to make myself small. Five minutes later the hatch dropped down and a gun came in, a shotgun came in, and they told me to stand up – called me every name under the sun – murdering Irish bastard. They told me to do press-ups. They told me to do squats. And then they told me to sit down. And this went on all through the night.
They came for me on the Monday morning, Jeremy and Grundy, the two cops who brought me to England, and their driver was called Rupert; I never got his second name. And they took me from Addlestone to Godalming where they took me to a cell and stripped me naked again. Then they took me upstairs to be interrogated and they put me in the search position again. And this was the first time I heard the term 'lemon tea'. Jeremy was ordering lemon tea – all I ever knew was an ordinary cup of tea – tea with milk and sugar but this guy was ordering... And the policewomen who came in were being encouraged to grab my testicles and twist them. They were being encouraged to stamp on my toes. And they put a little low one-bar electric fire in front of my shins and after about an hour they started to blister. And this went on all day. They took me back down to the cell naked and I remember wanting a drink of water and I rang the bell. And they said: If you want to drink water drink it out of the toilet. So I had to drink water out of the toilet. And I was kept naked. By three o'clock in the morning I'd fallen asleep and suddenly the doors opened and in they came with two police Alsatians and I was pinned - my back to the wall with their paws on my chest and their breath on my face and their saliva dripping onto me.
And the next day they took me out. They took me out to some country lane in Surrey – hooded and handcuffed again. And they dragged me out of the car, they forced me to my knees, they put a gun in my mouth, they cocked the hammer, they told me to make my peace with God that they were going to shoot me. They didn't shoot me but I thought they were going to shoot me. I thought that I was never, ever going to get out of that police station. They brought me back to Godalming where they proceeded to torture me again. And the two people who were in charge of this investigation were Christopher Rowe and Wally Simmons. And Wally Simmons was liaising with the Special Branch. And in the film, In the Name of the Father, it says they were going to shoot my father. They weren't going to shoot my father. They were going to murder my mother as she went to work as a hospital cleaner. And they told me how they were going to do it. They had sentry posts on top of all the buildings in the hospital because it's high rise and my mother used to work shift work – she'd start at half five in the morning. And they said when my mother was going to work, if I didn't confess, they would say they heard a car backfire and thought it was a shot and they were going to shoot her. And I knew they could do this because they'd been murdering civilians in Northern Ireland for years. And recently, Cameron apologised for the Bloody Sunday massacre. But there's another massacre that needs to be investigated. It's called the Ballymurphy Massacre that happened in August '71 in which fourteen people, most of them women and priests, were shot dead. That's the next thing the fucking British government are going to be apologising for. (big applause)
They tortured us for five days and at the end of five days four of us signed confessions and on the basis of that we were charged. And when I got charged I was given representation by one of the leading law firms in London, Simon, Muirhead & Allen from Covent Garden. And in their wisdom the guy they sent to represent me and advise me was an out-of-work actor called David Walsh – David Walsh, an out-of-work actor. They couldn't even bother to send me a regular solicitor. That's how worthy we were deemed! Anyway, we get charged and I was sent to Winchester Prison and I was walking around the yard about five days later with Paddy Armstrong, Paul Anderson, John McGuinness and Paul Hill and I thought I could hear my father's voice. Unbeknownst to me my father went to the police station that they'd held me in Belfast and the desk sergeant told him I'd been taken to England and told him what I was being taken to England for. And he got the desk sergeant to call Scotland Yard and he spoke with a member of - Jim Neville, who was commanding the bomb squad there, his team, and he told my father to come over, my father would have access to me and would be able to get me legal representation. My father arrived in England by the cheapest way possible. And my father couldn't walk from here to the end of that stage without having to stop for breath. He traveled overnight on the Heysham boat and then he made a long, arduous journey on the train to London.
And when he went to my first uncle's house he found that there was no one in. That was because Paul Hill had named my Uncle Hughie and my Aunt Kate who'd been arrested and taken to Guildford. So he went to my other aunt and uncle's house and he was only in their house three hours with my aunt and uncle, Annie and Paddy Maguire, when the house was raided. And the little overnight carrier case he had with his clothes in it lay on the floor for nine months – unopened. They arrested my father, my aunt, my uncle, my cousins, Pat O'Neil and Seán Smyth and they took them to different police station and they did forensic tests on them. And these tests were done by two people who ended up getting OBEs, (Douglas) Higgs and (Donald) Lidstone, (asks Gareth a question) and these are the people who framed innocent people and fifteen years later were framing al-Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing. Anyway, they took them and they did these tests called the TLC test – and it didn't stand for tender, loving care it stood for the Thin Layer Chromatography test. And all that was was a test that distinguished if there was something on your hands and it needed further tests. They burned these tests and they said that they had nitroglycerin on their hands and they were charged. So walking around the exercise yard I hear my name being called. I looked up and I saw my father in the prison hospital and he looked like an inmate from Belsen or Auschwitz, a thin, emaciated (edited) man wearing gray and blue striped pyjamas. And I couldn't believe this was happening to me. I'd been in trouble before. I'd been a shoplifter. I couldn't get employment because of my religion and the discrimination that was going on. And I didn't particularly want to work, you know? I wanted to have a good time. I wanted to go out and drink and back horses and chase women in nightclubs and stuff like that so part of the time my mother was sending me over to England to get jobs so that I could have enough stamps to claim the dole.
Anyway, on the 16th of September 1975 my trial started at the Old Bailey and the judge was John Donaldson. And Peter Imbert, who later became head of Metropolitan Police and who was knighted by the Queen and that prick Tony Blair made a Lord when he came into power, he organised the falsifying of evidence, the fabrication of evidence and the perjury by the policemen. Higgs and Lidstone came in and gave their forensic evidence but what they admitted was that the people who did the bombing at Guildford left a replica bomb in Maggie Thatcher's constituency but without the detonator and they were called from giving their evidence to go to this bomb scene. And they wrote the thesis that night saying that the people who left this bomb are the same people who bombed Guildford but yet they came back into court the next day and lied. I got sentenced on the 22nd of October and when Donaldson sentenced me he said he wanted to know why I wasn't charged with treason because it was the only charge that carried capital punishment. And he wanted to know from the then Home Secretary, Merlyn Rees, why we weren't charged with treason because he would have had no hesitation in hanging us and I was sent to Wandsworth Prison.
And when I arrived at Wandsworth Prison there was about forty or fifty inmates in the reception area waiting to be processed into the prison system. And when I walked in the whole room fell silent and they called me to the front of the reception screw's desk and they stripped me naked and started insulting and abusing me. Then they called the bath orderly out and they said: 'Run a special for him.' And about five minutes later he came back in and he said: 'I've run one, Boss' and they took me off to the side to the bath area and they put me in a bath with blocks of ice and they had me by the hair and they were lifting me up and they were putting me under and they were lifting me up and putting me under – and I thought they were going to kill me. And they brought me back out in front of the reception screw with all the other convicts laughing at me, all the screws laughing at me. And then they asked me what size shirt I took. I took a fifteen and a half so they gave me a nineteen and a half. And they asked me what size trousers I took and I said twenty-eight by twenty-nine leg – they gave me thirty-eight by thirty-four leg. What size shoes did I take? I took a size seven and a half they gave me a size thirteen. I was like a clown. And on each side of me they put down a piss pot, a wash-out basin and a water jug and on the other side they put a blanket and a bed roll down. And when I bent to pick it up my trousers fell down and they all started giggling. And then they frog-marched me over to E-1. And at the time I was being taken through the prison – they're usually locked up over tea time but they had let them all out – and they were all standing waiting on me with their piss pots and they were throwing shit over me and they were throwing their piss over me. And then they took me to the punishment block and for the next three months they kept me in the dark – they never turned the light on in my cell. And they were defecating in my food, and they were urinating in my food and they were putting glass in my food and stones in my food.
And on the 16th of December the four people who became known as the Balcombe Street Four got arrested at Balcolmbe Street and they were taken to four separate police stations. And when questioned about the first bombing that they had done each of them said: The first bombing we done you've put innocent people in prison for. And instead of handing that evidence over to our solicitors and making that available Peter Imbert decided to withhold it and bury it. On the 9th of January 1976 my father's trial started and the judge who had sentenced me and wanted to hang me was now presiding over my father's trial. How immoral and unethical was that? And before he started the trial, just after the jury was sworn in, he said: Before you start, Sir Michael (Sir Michael Havers – he was the prosecutor in my case and he was now the prosecutor in my father's case.) And Michael Havers went on to become Attorney General under Maggie Thatcher and Lord Chancellor. Donaldson said to the jury: The name Conlon will be running through this case and you may recognise it because three months ago I sentenced the Guildford pub bomber, Gerard Conlon, to life in prison - that man sitting at the end's his father. So what sort of trial was my Da going to get? What sort of trial was any of The Maguires going to get?
Now you have to remember that Vincent Maguire, who was fifteen at the time, had an application in to join the Metropolitan Police. And you have to remember that Patrick Maguire wanted to follow his father into the British Army and join the same regiment and fight for Queen and country. And here they were being tried in the Old Bailey for something they knew nothing about. My aunt and uncle were quintessentially English. They had pictures of the royal family around their walls. They had busts of Winston Churchill in the house and they were members of the Conservative Club. You know, we were the unlikeliest catch they ever got in their life. But my father got sentenced to twelve years; Annie and Paddy Maguire got fourteen.
And then the Balcombe Street trial came and they used that as a platform to not only show our innocence but to highlight everything that was rotten and corrupt and evil about British rule in Ireland. And after their trial we were given an appeal. And when our appeal started they came and gave evidence before Lawton, Roskill and Boreham and after six weeks of hearing the evidence they went away to consider their judgment for a further three weeks. And when they came back they said: We accept that the four people in the dock who had become known as the Guildford Four didn't bomb Guildford. We accept that they probably never been in Guildford in their life.
And in the case of Hill and Armstrong we accept that they didn't bomb Woolwich. But we think, although we have no evidence to support this, they may have known the people who did it and on that basis they sent us back to gaol for another twelve years. They sent us back after saying we didn't do it. But they couldn't do it - because they tortured us the same as they tortured the Birmingham Six. They framed us and this was deliberate. This was not a miscarriage of justice. We were being held hostage by the British state as a threat to what could happen to the Irish community if they got involved in militant Republicanism or if they supported the IRA. We went to gaol because the British government wanted to cow and terrorise the Irish community in England into having no say in relation to what was happening in Ireland. Anyway, my father started a letter campaign. I started smoking dope. That's the truth because I could see no way out but he had this enormous belief that the truth always outed. And then we got Cardinal Hume involved. In 1978, Rolf and Annabel Schild were held hostage by Sardinian bandits and Cardinal Hume asked the Pope to ask the bandits to release them. So I wrote to Cardinal Hume asking him to ask the Pope to tell the bandits who were holding us to release us. (big applause)
When I was in prison I seen two people being murdered in front of me and one of them was a Belfast man. Bobby Houston was the first in 1976 in Wakefield and Felix McGhee was the second on the 10th of July 1981 which was a Friday and they were murdered by the same guy, John Paton. And Felix Magee got stabbed in the side with a twenty-eight inch sword and when he fell the guy stabbed him in each eye. And then he pinned him to the floor by sticking the sword through his neck. I lived with people who took people hostage in Broadmoor (Ed. Note: This occurred when Gerry was in Wakefield Prison) because the punishment at Broadmoor (Wakefield) was so brutal - they went to the library and got Archbold's law book on law and for premeditated murder there's only one sentence.
So Bob Maudsley and John Cheeseman took a hostage at Broadmoor (Wakefield) and they had a scalpel. They cut the top of his head off and they held his brains with their hands – they held his brains with his hands - this was the type of living we were getting. And we had been attacked at every twist and turn - every twist and turn they were attacking us. The screws were paying cons to come and stab us. Everywhere. I spent five and a half in solitary confinement. Paddy Hill spent eight years in solitary confinement. My father took ill just before Christmas '79 and he had cancer and emphysema and they were giving him Benalyn. They were giving him Benalyn for cancer! And they took him out to Hammersmith Hospital and then some screw said he seen people trying to break in to help him escape – as I said my father couldn't walk from here to the end of this stage - and they took him back on the coldest night of the year at one o'clock in the morning and he developed pleurisy on top of it with pneumonia. And then they took him back out again. And on Friday the 18th of January 1980 at ten o'clock at night they brought me out to see him. And they took me into Hammersmith Hospital and there was policemen all over the place with shotguns and machine guns. And they took me up the stairs and they brought me into the room that he was in and there was politicians there and there was church dignitaries and prison officials and there was one little nun called Sister Sarah Clarke. And I remember looking at my father with the oxygen mask on and the drips coming out of his arms and he pulled the oxygen mask off and said to me: Son, I'm dying. He said: But don't be worrying. It's going to take my death to get this case opened and for people to see that innocent people are in prison. And remember – when the time comes for them to release you, you go out the front door 'cause they put us in the back door. And you tell the world what they did to us. He said: But don't be worrying. Then they took me away and I never seen my father again. And at half eight on Wednesday the 23rd of January 1980 Jerry Ellis, who was the chaplain, and the screws opened my door and he said: It's the news you've been waiting for and I thought my father's health had taken a turn for the better and I said: Well that's good. And he said: No. He just died ten minutes ago and closed the door and walked out. This is a Catholic priest.
Anyway, for the next seven or eight years I struggled with a letter campaign and then we got First Tuesday and World In Action involved. But after my appeal I sacked all my lawyers because I thought they were all fucking crooks. I had judges saying that I didn't bomb Guildford and here I was – back in. And then Gareth came along in 1987 and after twenty minutes I was convinced that this woman was going to get me out of prison. And she did! And then on the 19th of October 1989 they released me but I feel cheated because Roy Amlot of the prosecution got up and spoke for an hour and then Tony Scrivener, who was representing me, got up and spoke and the other barristers got up and spoke and then they let us out on a technicality. You know, they had came the year previous and asked did I wanted a Royal Prerogative of Mercy and would I accept that? And I said: I don't want mercy I want justice! (big applause) And if I don't get justice I'm going to go out exactly the same way my father did. I'll go out in a coffin because I'm an innocent man. I shouldn't be here!
And I got out and I went and I stayed with Gareth - had a bit of a mini-breakdown. Within two weeks I was in America and I was meeting Cardinal O'Connor about the Birmingham Six and meeting him about the Bridgewater people and then I was in Washington and for the first eighteen months of getting out I never stopped because I was haunted by the fact that Hughie Callaghan or Johnny Walker from the Birmingham Six might have died. And we came out and you know there's been no help for us. I suffer continuous flashbacks and nightmares - fifty-six years of age I'm wetting the bed. The terror never leaves me.
And I think we've been treated appallingly. I think – you know, the victims of the bombings at 7/7 everyone of them received trauma counseling. The people on the Marchioness – they've received help and trauma counseling. The people at Potters Bar and Paddington railway crashes have received counseling. We have not received one thing. We have not received one thing. We have not received no help or been offered any help. Gareth wrote to Gordon Turnbull who treated John McCarthy, Terry Waite and Jackie Mann. And the answer she got back from the Ministry of Defence is: We don't help the IRA. So even three years after my release and eighteen months after the Birmingham Six' release they were still condemning us as being IRA.
But three weeks after I got out that auld bastard Lord Denning said – and I quote: 'If we'd have hung the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four there'd have been no campaigns against British justice and it wouldn't have been dragged through the mud.' Now this is the Establishment's fear. I mean, it's an absolute pleasure to be here but I think charity starts at home. I'm wearing a tee shirt from a friend of mine, Gary Crichley, who we took onto our wing in Long Larton in 1983, he's still in fucking prison! There's a young kid called Sam Hallam from down the road in Hoxton who was five miles away from a murder – he's still in prison. We need to support the innocent people at home as well as the innocent people abroad. Thanks very much. It's been a pleasure.
(thunderous applause) (ends time stamp ~ 36:55)