Guildford Four member Gerry Conlon today paid an emotional tribute to members of the SDLP for standing by him as he sought to clear his name.
In an address to the party’s annual conference in Derry, Mr Conlon, who, on Wednesday, received a public apology from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for his wrongful imprisonment, saluted senior SDLP figures for pressing for his, and his father, Guiseppe, to have their names cleared.
Gerry Conlon and Guiseppe Conlon were among 11 people arrested and wrongfully convicted of an IRA bombing campaign which killed five people in Guilford and also mounted attacks in Woolwich.
“I am indebted to Seamus Mallon as I am to John Hume for his fight for the Birmingham Six. It came down to SDLP leader Mark Durkan coming to see me after a nervous breakdown in October 2003.
“I cannot believe I am here to be able to talk to people who have worked tirelessly, not just for me, but my mother, my sister, all the McGuire family, and others. I know if my father was alive, my father would be telling people go out and do the right thing. Help the people who wanted to help you, help the people who want to make people’s lives better.”
On Wednesday, Tony Blair apologised on behalf of the British government before television cameras for the miscarriage of justice suffered by the Guilford Four and McGuire Seven.
The apology followed weeks of intense lobbying by the Conlon family, the McGuires, the SDLP and An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
A petition was also signed by thousands of people urging the British government to clear the family’s name.
The Conlon’s case was famously highlighted in the Oscar-nominated movie In The Name Of The Father, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Gerry, and Pete Postlethwaite as Guiseppe.
The film’s director Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day Lewis supported the campaign.
Mr Conlon today reminded SDLP delegates that there were still other miscarriages of justice, not just in the North, but around the world.
“When I went to prison, I lost a bit of humanity because of the austerity of the prison and I saw the way I was treated,” he said.
“In many ways, I was very lucky I had my da, Guiseppe, to guide me through dreadful times of bitterness and frustration. My father was a father who supported this party. I know if he got out before me, I would not have had to wait as long as I did.
“I see Seamus Mallon sitting there. He went to see me in prison and also the Birmingham Six. His was a single voice in the wilderness but it was a voice which kept echoing and rebounding.”
Mr Conlon received a standing ovation before and after his speech.
He was led into the conference hall by veteran SDLP MPs Seamus Mallon and Eddie McGrady.
On the podium, he was embraced by SDLP leader Mark Durkan and Belfast councillor Margaret Walsh, who has been a close friend of his sister, Ann.
Former SDLP leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume, who had also pressed for the clearing of the Guilford Four and McGuire’s Seven name, also welcomed Mr Conlon.
Councillor Walsh paid tribute to Guiseppe Conlon‘s wife, Sarah, who she compared to Mother Teresa.
“When I first heard of Guiseppe Conlon, I knew because I lived in the same area, that Guiseppe Conlon, the McGuires, and Guilford Four were never guilty of this crime,” she said.
Recounting how Sarah Conlon had to travel to prison in different parts of England to see her husband and son, Councillor Walsh said she had shown great pride and dignity throughout the ordeal, which saw Guiseppe die while serving his sentence.
“She forgave and never forgot,” Mrs Walsh said. “When people talk about Mother Teresa, I talk of Sarah Conlon in the same breath.”