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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 February 2005, 19:05 GMT
IRA trials: A reporter's memories
Paul Reynolds
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent

Gerry Conlon in 1989
Gerry Conlon was released after 14 years in jail
The apology given by the prime minister to the Conlon family for grave miscarriages of justice is a long way from the stern gaze of Mr Justice Donaldson as he sentenced three young Belfast men and a young Englishwoman to life imprisonment in 1974.

One of those young men was Gerard Conlon and I remember the moment well as I sat among other reporters on the press benches in the Old Bailey.

I switched my own gaze between the judge and the defendants as they received their sentences. The young Englishwoman Carole Richardson, burst into tears. Paul Hill and Patrick Armstrong, Richardson's boyfriend at the time, looked impassive and Gerard Conlon looked resigned - he glanced around the court and at the press benches as if to say, "What can you expect?"

To Paul Hill. who had previously been convicted of shooting a soldier in Belfast (a conviction later overturned) Mr Justice Donaldson said: "You should only be released on grounds of age or infirmity."

Hill of course was released a few years later and subsequently married Robert Kennedy's daughter.

No warnings

The four had been convicted of planting bombs in public houses in Guildford and Woolwich.

The pubs were chosen because they were the usual haunts of soldiers, and soldiers were among the dead and wounded.

There had been no warnings.

The evidence on which they were convicted consisted almost entirely of confessions made to Surrey police - confessions which turned out to be entirely false.

We know that now.

All four defendants said so in the trial. But the jury did not believe them.

At the time, a British jury did not take much convincing.

Here were three young men from Belfast living in squats in London. What chance did they have against their signed admissions and the prevailing fear of IRA bombs and ignorance of the IRA itself?

And yet, even at the time, there were curious features about this case which later developed into the campaign to overturn the verdicts.

For a start there were the confessions themselves. They were extremely vague. There was little more than "I got into a car and left a bomb under a table in the Horse and Groom" in them.

None of the statements - and each had made several - had the kind of detail one might expect.

Error of logic

We know these days that false confessions are made by people anxious to get out of their immediate plight but little was known about that syndrome in those days.

The defence said nothing about it.

Gerry Conlon in 2005
Tony Blair has apologised to those wrongly accused
All four said in court they had not said what they were alleged to have said, or had had it beaten out of them.

Then there was the approach of the prosecution.

The chief prosecuting counsel was the Attorney General Lord Havers himself, no less.

He began his summary of the case by saying that the confessions contained a mixture of facts and deliberate falsehoods.

This was a convenient way of saying "Heads I win, tails you lose."

If something in the confessions matched something which was known, it was a "fact". If it did not , it was a "deliberate falsehood", designed to throw the investigators off the track.

I was surprised that none of the defence counsel pointed out this error of logic.

One of the other things Lord Havers did was to ensure that the press, and not just the jury as is often the case, saw photographs of the bodies.

He handed these out to us himself.

I remember two of these vividly. One was of a young Scots Guardsman lying on a mortuary slab with this lower limbs blown off.

Another, from the Woolwich bomb, showed a soldier with the whole of one leg missing.

Woman suspect

Presumably Lord Havers thought this would put the press into the right frame of mind to cover such an important trial.

Havers was particularly hostile to Gerard Conlon, whom he curtly called "Conlon" and who tried to answer back from time to time.

At one stage. the Attorney General and the young man from the back streets of Belfast were eyeball to eyeball in a confrontation of cultures.

To be fair to the prosecution, they had no doubt about the guilt of the accused.

The Surrey police, whose experience of the IRA was practically nil, also appeared convinced.

Over a Turkish kebab lunch across the road from the Old Bailey one day, a Surrey detective told me why they had arrested these four.

He said bizarrely - but sincerely, I am sure - that a photofit picture of a woman suspect had reminded a Belfast policeman of Paul Hill, who did have very long hair.

From Hill they went to Conlon and, according to the evidence, Conlon himself told them about bomb making at "Aunty Annie's" house in London.

It was a sensational accusation and made headlines. It also led to the arrest of a totally innocent woman, Anne Maguire, another of those who received Mr Blair's apology.

Conlon's father also got swept into the net, again quite wrongly, and he died in prison.

The real truth

It was a bad time for justice.

And the reporters who covered the trial have often wondered if they could have done more to point out the weaknesses of the case.

We did try once, during the trial itself - which was a mistake because it nearly led to us being brought up in front of the judge.

One of the defence witnesses was a girl called Lisa Astin who said that Carole Richardson had been at a dance at the Elephant and Castle the night of the Guildford bombs.

There was a photo of her there to prove this.

Surrey police claimed that she would have had time to get from Guildford in time, though as I lived along the route, I thought their timing was improbable.

Three of us went to see Lisa Astin to get more details but ironically it was the defence who heard about this and they thought we were trying to interfere in some way.

We were warned off. Yet, had we been encouraged along this path, the real truth might have come out earlier.

In the event, it took some years for the convictions to be overturned and even longer for the apology to be made.




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