The emotional moment a British prime minister apologised to Gerry Conlon and the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven

The book, In The Name Of The Son, tells the story of Gerry Conlon after he was released from jail following a miscarriage of justice. In these extracts, Author Richard O'Rawe tells of the momentous day Conlon got an apology from the British prime minister and of his later death.

 Gerry Conlon with a picture of his father Giuseppe, who died in jail

The book, In The Name Of The Son, tells the story of Gerry Conlon after he was released from jail following a miscarriage of justice. In these extracts, Author Richard O'Rawe tells of the momentous day Conlon got an apology from the British prime minister and of his later death.

Extract one:

THE arrangement had been that Tony Blair would give the apology at Prime Minister’s Questions, after a question posed by SDLP MP Eddie McGrady. However, parliamentary procedure meant that questions to the prime minister were drawn in a ballot and could not be prearranged. Therefore, the apology would not be given from the floor of the house. When Gerry Conlon heard this news, he broke down in tears and was comforted by his sisters.

The Conlon and Maguire parties sat stunned in the ‘Strangers Gallery’ after Prime Minister’s Questions had finished and Tony Blair had left the chamber. Was that it? Was it for this that Giuseppe Conlon had died? Was it for this that the Conlons and Maguires had been so cruelly treated for all those years?

The party walked down the steps from the gallery, dejected and profoundly disappointed, but all was not lost. An aide to Tony Blair approached and informed them that they were to meet the prime minister in his private office in the Commons where he would personally apologise to them. The mood lifted when the aide escorted them, about twenty in all, to Blair’s office.

Standing at the open door, Blair first shook Gerry Conlon’s hand. It was a warm handshake, the greeting of a man anxious to present an image of sympathy, someone who was taking responsibility for putting right a terrible wrong. The party filed into the prime minister’s stately office and stood around an oval table. There was a tripod stand with a television camera in the corner.

Gerry spoke to Blair about the suffering his family had endured. The prime minister listened intently and put his arm around the west Belfast man as they spoke. It was a tender and sincere gesture. Then a very dignified Vincent Maguire spoke of his family’s torment, of how he had spent his childhood years in prison. Tony Blair listened as the Conlon and Maguire families told him their harrowing stories.

Finally the moment that the families had been waiting so long for was upon them.

Standing in front of the families, Tony Blair read out a prepared statement in which he appropriately expressed his sadness at the appalling loss of life in the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings. Then he said: "There was a miscarriage of justice in the case of Gerard Conlon and all the Guildford Four, as well as Giuseppe Conlon and the Maguire families and all the Maguire Seven. And, as with the others, I recognise the trauma that the conviction caused the Conlon and Maguire families and the stigma wrongly attached to them to this day. I am very sorry that they were subject to such an ordeal and such an injustice. That is why I am making this apology today. They deserve to be publicly and completely exonerated."

There was an intense silence as the majesty of the prime minister’s words swirled around the room. Then there came an eruption of applause and emotion. The families joyously hugged one another, the old antagonisms buried beneath a shroud of vindication. Tony Blair thanked each family member for coming along, gave each a signed copy of the apology and shook their hands. He gave an extra one to Gerry for his mother, who had remained back in Belfast.

Before leaving, Gerry Conlon reminded the prime minister that the families needed immediate psychological treatment to deal with the trauma he had referred to in his statement of apology. Blair turned to his parliamentary private secretary, David Hanson MP, and told him to make sure the appropriate remedies were put in place.

Gerry Conlon, a scarf wrapped around his neck and his arms around Ann and Bridie, with his nieces Sarah-Kate McKernan and Mary Brennan beside him, walked out of the Houses of Parliament.

Reporters thronged around. Annie, Vincent and Patrick Maguire, Gerry’s sisters Bridie and Ann, and Margaret Walsh joined him to face the press. Gerry’s first reaction to Blair’s apology was: "He went beyond what we thought he would: he took time to listen to everyone. His sincerity shone through – you could see he was physically taken aback when he saw the trauma and knew of the suffering. Tony Blair has healed rifts; he is helping to heal wounds."

One of the rifts that was healed was the Conlon-Maguire rift and, although there were many photographs taken that day, probably the most powerful one was of Gerry with his arm around Annie, with Vincent smiling in the background. A beaming Annie Maguire said: "This is a great day for us. It will help our children and their children. The people who were still doubting us should now believe that we are totally innocent."

 Gerry Conlon with the letter of apology from then British Prime Minister Tony Blair

Extract two: His sister Ann recalled -

"The doctor came out about 10.30pm. He spoke to Gerry and asked him if he wanted the syringe-drive in [a syringe-drive is the last resort if you’re in pain] and Gerry said, 'No. I’m going to get a few hours’ sleep.' He was on the oxygen and morphine. I sent for the Bel Doc again at 1.30 in the morning. It was a different doctor this time. Gerry again refused the syringe-drive, so she gave him another morphine shot and he fell asleep.

"The Marie Curie nurse came and she was very nervous. Linda heard a bit of a kerfuffle. She was lying on the settee and I was in the chair, and there was Gerry trying to pull the oxygen mask off and the wee Marie Curie nurse was letting him. He said he needed to go to the toilet. Linda then told him to use the bottle and she put his oxygen mask back on him. I had to go in and I said: 'Mister Gerry, get into bed! You’d better do what you’re told! Get into bed now!' Linda and me got him back into bed. It was the morphine; he didn’t know where he was or what he was doing. We had to get the Bel Doc out at six that morning and the Marie Curie nurse at seven again.

"Then Gerry fell asleep and Linda took his pulse and said to me: 'Ann, I think Gerry’s ready for going.' And just then, my Sarah and her husband Mark came in. And at that, the front door rapped and his daughter, Sara, came in. And Gerry just passed away. He had a peaceful death, I have to say. And not once did he shed a tear. I’m so proud of him."

A press statement from the Conlon family said: "He helped us to survive when we were not meant to survive. We recognise that what he achieved by fighting for justice for us had a far, far greater importance – it forced the world’s closed eyes to be opened to injustice. It forced unimaginable wickedness to be acknowledged. We believe it changed the course of history. We thank him for his life and we thank all his many friends for their love. He brought life, love, intelligence, wit and strength to our family through its darkest hours."

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, issued a statement saying that he was "greatly saddened" by the news, and that Gerry Conlon’s death was a loss "not only in Ireland, but also among all those who struggle against injustice. The integrity and determination Mr Conlon brought to the fight for truth, and the tireless work of those who supported the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six and Maguire Seven campaigns, stands as an inspiration to all who stand up for justice."

Paddy Hill said he was "gutted" to hear of Gerry’s death and he blamed prison conditions in Britain’s old Victorian gaols for his friend’s demise: "The cells were like ice boxes in winter and ovens during the summer. In the old prisons, the damp ran down the walls. I’ve no doubt that affected his health. I was speaking to him only last week when he was in hospital. He said to me, 'Give me a week until I get out of hospital and you can come over and visit,' so I said, 'Okay.'’ Hill referred to their recent talk at the law faculty of the University of Limerick in March and said that Conlon had been in "great form".

Annie Maguire of the Maguire Seven said that Conlon’s death was "very sad news. I am sorry to hear he has died, so young, and am so sorry for his sisters."

Paul Hill, Conlon’s co-accused, was reflective: "I think he suffered a great deal more than the other individuals involved, myself included, because Gerard could never have release from his father. I always said that Gerard’s father was continuously imprisoned in Gerard’s mind."

 Gerry Conlon with a picture of his father Giuseppe, who died in jail

Jim Sheridan paid tribute to Gerry: "We fought, we were pals; we had a mad relationship, like brothers. I met him in New York six months ago, and we had a great day. He was in great form, and all he talked about were people who were locked up, who he could help. He got rid of his demons by helping other people, and he had enormous respect for campaigning lawyer Gareth Peirce who worked on their case."

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