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Gerry Conlon RIP

(Posted on 25/06/14)


I first met Gerry Conlon at the home of his solicitor Gareth Peirce in 1989 writes Paul May. A few days previously he‘d walked free following 15 years wrongful imprisonment. I led the London-based campaign for the innocent Irishmen known as the Birmingham Six. Gerry was determined to help the campaign in any way he could. It’s impossible to convey the euphoria felt by campaigners for innocent Irish prisoners when the Guildford Four were released. Plenty of cynics had proclaimed the formidable forces ranged against the prisoners meant we were wasting everybody’s time and now here was Gerry at liberty chatting amiably in Gareth’s living room.

In April 1990, I flew to Copenhagen with Gerry and other Birmingham Six campaigners to lobby the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe at the largest inter-governmental human rights event ever held. Most Western governments regarded the conference solely as an opportunity to condemn the Soviet Union’s human rights record. We hoped to interject that human rights abuses weren’t a Soviet monopoly.  We succeeded beyond our most optimistic aspirations with 23 out of 38 European and North American government delegations backing calls for the men’s convictions to be sent back to the courts. Gerry’s contribution was crucial. While the rest of us spoke (in often pedantic detail) about the case, Gerry described powerfully and passionately how it felt to be brutalised and imprisoned as an innocent man.  

Gerry left prison with many demons in his head. Not the least was watching his innocent father Giuseppe die in prison thanks to medical treatment which ranged from abysmal to non-existent. His dying words to his captors were ‘how does it feel to be murdering an innocent man?’ British Airways shameful refusal to transport Giuseppe’s coffin home to Ireland was unbearably vindictive.  The many horrors Gerry suffered caused him to succumb to acute depression and addiction for a period. He emerged from this dark time as the same warm, articulate, intelligent and compassionate individual I’d met at Gareth’s house still committed to helping innocent prisoners. In 2009, together with Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six he visited the Hoxton home of Sam Hallam’s mother Wendy. Sam’s case was then virtually unknown and Gerry’s kind words of encouragement meant a great deal to her. His final BBC interview was to predict (correctly) that Sam would receive no official help following his 2012 release and exoneration.

I last saw Gerry at a House of Lords event we organised to promote the case of Eddie Gilfoyle wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. Just days before Gerry’s cruelly premature death on 21 June, he spoke in support of the Craigavon Two whose appeal against conviction was dismissed in May. As I write, I’m preparing to fly to Belfast for his funeral (needless to say I won’t be travelling with British Airways). I know that people as far away as Australia have dropped everything to be there for this brave and profoundly decent man.  Farewell Gerry a chara.