Sunday 22 June 2014
Gerry Conlon died last night aged sixty. He spent 15 years (that's 25%!) on his life in jail. On 5th October 1974, the IRA bombed a couple of pubs in Guildford in Southern England because they were known to be frequented by members of the British military. Four soldiers and an innocent plasterer were killed. A few weeks later, the Metropolitan Police, incapable to identifying the perpetrators of these crimes, had themselves a razzia and rounded up four Irish people (the Guildford Four: Gerry Conlon, Paul Hill, Patrick Armstrong, Carole Richardson) living in England. A few days after that they identified another parcel of seven friends-and-relations of Gerry Conlon (the Maguire Seven) and accused them of running the bomb factory that made the gelignite. On the way home last night, I listened to an interview of Daniel Day-Lewis who played Conlon in In the Name of the Father the film of Gerry Conlon's book. He was asked if it was true if he had slept in prison while filming. It's a reasonable question because Day-Lewis really gets into his parts: he learned Czech while filming Unbearable Lightness of Being, and carried a long-rifle all the time while shooting The Last of the Mohicans as well as learning how to skin a deer and build a canoe. DD-L's reply was a bit round the houses about how he found it really difficult to get into the mind of a man who, totally innocent, would confess to a murder he didn't commit. But then he came to the point: no he didn't sleep in prison because every ten minutes for three consecutive night someone banged on the door of his cell with a tin cup and then he was interviewed by two ex-Special Branch policemen for 8 hours. He then felt he understood, even if all his experiences were play-acting, why Conlon and the others would sign confessions to a string of suggestions put to them by their interrogators. You don't need to waterboard, or pistol-whip people to get them to condemn themselves. You can achieve what you want by depriving them of sleep and threatening to shoot their family back home in Belfast.
The British Government in their response to the deadly assaults of the IRA suspended Habeus Corpus and allowed The Man, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to hold people for seven days without access to a telephone or a lawyer while He convinced himself that the Perp had been identified. Conlon said afterwards that he could, and did, resist the pressure for 48 hours (the previous limit); so clearly the new limit 'worked'. The Guildford Four promptly retracted their confessions but they nevertheless served as the basis for their conviction a year after the bombings. Interestingly a fifth accused, Brian Anderson, was worn down to a frazzle by his grilling and would have confessed but for the fact that his interrogator was called away for a telephone call and the respite enabled Anderson to brace up enough to resist for the whole seven days. Guildford Five sounds as reasonable as Guildford Four. no?
In parallel, another pair of pub bombings allowed the police to collar the Birmingham Six at the ferryport to Belfast and these men too were given life sentences after they confessed to whatever their interrogators wanted to believe was true. Two days after those bombings a Marxist splinter group the Manchester Brigade of Red Flag 74 claimed responsibility but the police knew they had their men. In 1977, the Six brought a civil suit against the West Midlands Police for damages; holding that they had been assaulted while in custody. The suit was struck out on Appeal on the principal of Issue Estoppel. The fact that British justice chooses to dress up their law with jargon derived from Medieval French as they dress up their judges in the fashion of 1720 indicates how out of touch with modern realities the whole system can be. Lord Diplock estoppled the legitimacy of their claim because it "would otherwise bring the administration of justice into disrepute among right-thinking people". The implication is that once the law has decided something, you can't question its correctness. It's probably true that right-thinking people in those days were prepared to believe all sorts of demonising nonsense about all the Irish, so Diplock was weasily correct in his application of Estoppel in that case. We lived in England in the 1980s and came home regularly to Ireland. Our neighbours were routinely unable to distinguish between Northern Ireland where The Troubles were in full swing and the Republic where it was all Kerrygold butter and dancing at the cross-roads. Anyway, they thought the whole island was essentially part of Her Majesty's demesne and would be incredulously annoyed that Sterling wasn't accepted to shops in Limerick.
In the early 1990s, the Four, the Six and the Seven finally had their convictions quashed and they were set free. One of their lawyers had found evidence in police files that the confessions were drafted, sexed-up in a typescript (all full of copy-editor's amendments and re-writes) and then transcribed back into a handwritten document that looked like it was a verbatim transcript of what the accused was spilling from his bruised kidneys. They also looked at the evidence of Dr Frank Skuse, the Crown's forensic "expert" and found "Dr Skuse's conclusion was wrong, and demonstrably wrong, judged even by the state of forensic science in 1974." In other words, any of my final year environmental chemists could have carried out a quantitative test for nitrites more effectively than this salaryman. Skuse later sued a Granada TV programme about his contribution to the deprivation of liberty of his Irish neighbours on the grounds that a chap like him could be wrong without being negligent, as if that somehow made him innocent.
Many people in the UK are still convinced that the de-conviction was all about legal technicalities and that they know that Paddywhack carried out the original crimes. But this knowledge is almost certainly in inverse proportion to the amount of effort the opinionators are prepared to put into reading the evidence. Regardless, there is a well-nobody-died sense of complacency about the whole sorry story: desperate times require desperate remedies and so on. And it's just not true, because Gerry's father Guiseppe Conlon died while still banged up in chokey on the day the British Home Secretary signed an order releasing the poor old desperately sick man 'on compassionate grounds'.
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the whole sorry saga occurred in 2000 when the Prime Minister Tony Blair formally apologised to the Paul Hill's wife for "a matter for the greatest regret when anyone suffers punishment as a result of a miscarriage of justice". As with exonerating Alan Turing years after his death, there is a gross and grotesque smugness in apologising for what other people did in times past because it implies the we wouldn't have done the same in the same circumstances. While I was over in England, I bought a copy of Are We All Nazis? by Hans Askenasy. It's an echo of Hannah Arendt's more widely known Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I know that if I'd been a railway-worker in Bohemia in 1943, I'd have continued switching the points or filing the bills of lading as the cattle-wagons rumbled inexorably East. What about you?
I said at the top that 21st June is the anniversary of another failure of Justice, but I'm too depressed now to take my hat off to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner who were murdered 50 years ago and buried in a swamp in Mississippi.