Gerry Conlon: A thirst for justice

Eamonn McCann reflects on the life of Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four, who became a fighter for justice

August 1, 2014
4 min read

Gerry Conlon wouldn’t want to be remembered only as a victim of injustice but as a fighter against injustice. His last campaign was for freedom for the Craigavon Two.

Many readers won’t know of the Craigavon Two. Gerry’s last wish, at a time when he knew he had but weeks left, was that his passing wouldn’t diminish the campaign for their release. It is a measure of the man and of the extent to which his own experience had fuelled not bitterness only – although he seethed with bitterness too – but a passion for freedom for the many suffering injustice today.

‘Hardly anybody believed in us either until the evidence was pushed right their faces. Muslims are going through the same thing today,’ he said.

The Craigavon Two are Brendan McConville and John-Paul Wootton, convicted by a no-jury court of murdering PSNI officer Stephen Carroll in Craigavon in 2009 and sentenced to a minimum of 25 and 14 years respectively. At the time, there were widespread fears that the Carroll killing and that of two soldiers at a barracks in Antrim heralded a return to all-out violence. Pressure was intense on the police and the courts to find and jail the culprits – the same as the pressure to make somebody, anybody, pay for the Guildford and Woolwich bombings.

It has been widely canvassed since Gerry’s death that the convictions of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire family, Judith Theresa Ward and others can simply be put down to the conditions of the 1970s – a regrettable sign of times that are gone.

But while hysteria, racism, and political corruption provide the context, they don’t offer any excuse. The cops knew at the time they charged the Four that they were innocent. It was they who verballed them, concocted the evidence and lied under oath.

The judges at the trial and the appeal cannot have believed the yarn presented by the prosecution. Leading for the prosecution was Sir Michael Havers, attorney general no less, the highest law officer in the land. The conspiracy went to the top. It is highly likely prime minister Thatcher knew in detail what was afoot. The trial was a political event.

Understanding this, Gerry understood too that cases like his were not specific to Britain, that his ordeal was shared by victims of imperialism and capitalism around the world and that his role must be to encourage the fight, even when the odds seemed impossible.

None of this is to suggest that he was a saint before he went in or after he came out. He freely confessed he had been a petty thief in his youth – ‘Couldn’t keep my hands to myself.’ On occasion, later, he could be an awkward customer. The first time I met him, at a rock festival in Tramore, he took a swing at me over an entirely imagined offence. But we managed alright after that.

He was a big fan of music, a good friend of Peter Doherty and of the Pogues. He had huge admiration for his lawyer Gareth Peirce. He didn’t have a lot of time for the Provos or their political associates. He was closer to the SDLP than to Sinn Fein.

Most of all, he had an unquenchable thirst for justice. He campaigned for Mumia Abu Jamal in the US – a toxic subject for peace-processers craving US backing – and for the Guantanamo internees, the Muslim victims of war‑on‑terror racism, the Aboriginal people of Australia, the countless confused, abused, misused.

He didn’t find it easy, but he conquered everything they threw at him. He was a survivor, his spirit lives on. He gave heart to all who fight for justice. He was a great man.