England

Guildford Four: Gerry Conlon's sister calls for files to be released

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Media captionAnn McKernan said the rest of the files needed to be made public

The sister of Guildford Four member Gerry Conlon has called for secret papers on his case to be made public after some were released to the BBC.

Mr Conlon and three others were jailed in what is widely regarded as one of the UK's worst miscarriages of justice.

Previously unseen files from an inquiry into the case indicate persistent attempts to try to "reconvict" the four, Mr Conlon's lawyer has said.

His sister Ann McKernan said releasing the documents would reveal the truth.

It was Mr Conlon's dying wish to see evidence gathered as part of an inquiry into the case made public.

Following a freedom of information request, the first six files from Sir John May's five-year probe into the bombings were released to the BBC after a redaction process that took nearly a year.

But the vast majority of the files - more than 700 - remain closed at the National Archives at Kew.


The Guildford Four

Image copyright PA
Image caption Mr Conlon received a letter of apology from Tony Blair

Gerry Conlon (pictured), Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill and Carole Richardson, who always protested their innocence, served 15 years before their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1989.

All made signed confessions and were charged with the Guildford bombings, but would later retract their statements, claiming they had been obtained using violence, threats to their family and intimidation.

But all four were found guilty and received life sentences.

It was only after a campaign that received support from high-profile politicians and law lords that the four were finally released.

The "Balcombe Street Gang" IRA unit later claimed responsibility, although no-one else was ever charged.


Mrs McKernan said her brother always believed the files contained information that needed to be made public.

"Gerry had applied to get in the queue," she said.

"They refused. They wouldn't let him.

"He knew that there was stuff in there that had to be released to the public."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Gerry Conlon served 15 years before his release

Files released so far - working papers that include letters, meeting minutes and memos - have shown some inquiry members refused to accept Mr Conlon's assertion that he was not in the IRA.

In the papers, assessor Richard Barratt suggests that Mr Conlon's alleged IRA background would have influenced the legal process in 1974 ahead of the Guildford Four's trial.

The allegation of IRA membership was a claim Mr Conlon always denied.


What the released papers say

One February 1994 memo headed "Conlon's Proof" quotes a document suggesting Mr Conlon admitted he was a member of the IRA until 1974.

It gives "three reasons" to believe the statement was true:

  • Intelligence linking Mr Conlon to IRA activities existed as far back as 1971
  • That Mr Conlon had associated with leading IRA figures in Southampton
  • That Mr Conlon later provided the Hampshire and Metropolitan police forces with a list of names of IRA members
Image copyright National Archives

And in a letter to Sir John May that February, Richard Barratt, a chief inspector of constabulary for HMIC, said: "Rightly or wrongly intelligence about Conlon's involvement in IRA affairs would have influenced detectives in their attitude to him..."

He continued: "... almost certainly the approach to the case of the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] and his staff, as well as prosecuting counsel in the lead-up to his trial, would have been affected by this background knowledge".

Image copyright National Archives
Image caption Files suggest Mr Conlon's alleged IRA involvement influenced the legal process ahead of the Guildford Four trial

Mr Barratt added: "Conlon has portrayed himself as an innocent young Irishman who was plucked from the street by rogue police officers... This is patently false."

Image copyright National Archives
Image caption It was Gerry Conlon's dying wish to see the files released

But another earlier memo from the collection of documents, written in 1990 and headed Metropolitan Police special branch papers, said of Mr Conlon: "The intelligence material is thought to amount to very little."

Image copyright National Archives
Image caption Meeting notes revealed views were divided on what was in the public interest. Those at the meeting were listed as Sir John May, Sir Richard Barratt, Sir John Smith, Mr Alastair [redaction], Mr Timothy King QC, Mr Ian Burnett, Mrs Vicky [redaction], Mr Peter [redaction], Mr Tim Morris and Mr Richard Mason

Throughout February 1994, the inquiry, which also examined the convictions of the Maguire Seven, debated whether the information should be disclosed "in the public interest" and the impact of demonstrating the four were not "innocents plucked from the streets".

A memo dated 9 February 1994 about the information said: "It is by no means conclusive of guilt but it does have the effect of destroying almost all the arguments and evidence deployed on the four's behalf over the years."

Image copyright National Archives
Image caption Papers said arguments and evidence deployed on behalf of the Guildford Four would be destroyed

Mrs McKernan said the Conlons were "an ordinary Catholic family" growing up in the Falls Road in a working-class area.

"My family weren't republicans," she said.

Lawyer Alastair Logan, who represented Mr Conlon in the years following his conviction, said the documents were not comprehensive and were working papers.

But he added: "They give us an indication that some of the problems that we had in the course of the case over many years, the persistent attempt to try and 'reconvict' the Guildford Four, was still going on after their acquittal."

'Whispering campaign'

He said once the Guildford Four had been acquitted, no-one could assert they were guilty without risking a defamation claim.

But Mr Logan said a "whispering campaign" began, based on claims the Guildford Four were guilty.

He said it was primarily motivated by police but also by others whose reputations were involved.

"It wasn't just police. It was law officers and certain judges," he said.

He added: "So far as we are concerned, their reputations had been restored by the acquittal, but the police reputation was in tatters."

Image caption The "Balcombe Street Gang" IRA unit later claimed responsibility but no-one was charged

Richard O'Rawe, Mr Conlon's biographer and a former spokesman for IRA prisoners in the 1980s, said: "They wanted to establish some kind of guilt - it was guilt by association."

He said that during the early 1990s people tried to make out Mr Conlon was in the IRA, but he added that the Guildford Four "were just a bunch of hippies" without the discipline and reliability to be part of a "military machine".

Mr O'Rawe said his lifelong friend was left "burning up inside" because he never saw the files.


Guildford Four timeline

  • 5 October 1974 - IRA bombs explode in two pubs in Guildford, Surrey, killing five people and injuring scores more. Guildford was known as a "garrison town", with several barracks nearby, at Stoughton and Pirbright and Aldershot in Hampshire, and a night-life that was popular with the 6,000 military personnel in the area
  • 22 October 1975 - Paul Hill, Gerry Conlon, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson - the Guildford Four - jailed for life at the Old Bailey
  • 19 October 1989 - After years of campaigning, the Court of Appeal quashes the convictions, ruling them as unsafe, and releases them
  • 9 February 2005 - Prime Minister Tony Blair formally apologises to the Guildford Four for the miscarriage of justice they suffered
  • 21 June 2014 - Gerry Conlon dies, aged 60

Mr Conlon referred to the papers in a BBC interview in 2011.

He said: "I lost so much that I need to have the truth come out. I need the papers that the government have put a public immunity interest on being released."

He said he condemned the IRA.

"I don't support the IRA. I don't support militant nationalism. I condemn them as much as I condemn the British government and the British police because they let us rot in prison when they could have helped us," he said.

Image caption Six files were released containing memos, letters and meeting minutes

Sir John May's final, public, report did include some information about Mr Conlon's alleged IRA background, and his denial of it.

Calling for the release of the rest of the files, Mrs McKernan said: "The government's guilty of hiding evidence and to this very day they are still hiding the evidence.

"You've only got six files out of 700-and-odd. Release the rest of them. Release the rest of the files. Let the public see because surely I've nothing to hide and neither has my family."

Mr Conlon died two years ago at the age of 60. He spent a quarter of his life in jail.

The remaining files show a release date of 1 January 2020, but Mr Logan said it would be a tragedy if they were not made public sooner.

He said: "Impunity at any time is hugely reprehensible.

"What I am sure is that we need to know the truth. And because part of that inquiry was held in camera, in secret, we will never know the truth until those papers are revealed."

Image caption Retired West Sussex solicitor Alastair Logan said Paul Hill and Patrick Armstrong still needed the truth to be told

Mr Logan said the surviving members of the Guildford Four, Paul Hill and Patrick Armstrong, still asserted their innocence and wanted the truth to be told.

At one stage, campaigners claimed there was a 75-year embargo on the papers but the National Archives said two years ago the review date of 2019 had not changed.

A government spokesman said the Home Office did not comment on matters of national security.

But the Home Office did provide background which said the government expected to release the files as planned in 2020 "subject to any sensitive or personal safety issues that may arise".

The BBC has asked to see more files.

Image caption Two bombs went off in the town on 5 October 1974

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