The death on Saturday of Gerry Conlon, aged just 60, was a reminder of what can go wrong, of how a terrible injustice can be inflicted when the courts are hijacked to serve political ends.
His premature death was a reminder too that the independence of our courts and our judiciary is worth fighting for and that they are one of the cornerstones of a society where fairness has some value.
Gerry Conlon as wrongfully convicted in 1975 for the bombing of two pubs in Guildford on October 5, 1974, in which seven people were murdered and scores more injured. He was jailed for life along with his father Giuseppe Conlon — who died in prison — the Maguire Seven, and three of his friends — Paul Hill, Paddy Armstrong, and Carole Richardson. Their jailing, along with that of the Birmingham Six, was one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the long and bitter history of Irish-British relationships. It was Lord Denning’s “appalling vista” made real, though not exactly as he imagined it might be.
Though it’s nearly four decades since these terrible events, it is hard to accurately convey the atmosphere that prevailed, how poisonous relationships between these two islands were on occasion, how hopeless and remote the prospect of normalisation seemed.
It is appropriate, too, to remind ourselves that mainstream Irish politicians and the media did not interest themselves in this sorry saga of justice hijacked until the travesty cold not be ignored any longer.
It may be of some little comfort to Gerry Conlon’s family and friends that his monstrous treatment, and that meted out to the other members of the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and the Birmingham Six, was on such an outrageous and corrupt scale that it contributed significantly to the development of a new urgency around building relationships on these islands.
It is not overstating the case to suggest that jailing so many innocent people was such an affront to any standard of decency that the system that presided over this miscarriage had to be dismantled. That process culminated in the Good Friday Peace Agreement.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to say miscarriages of justice are a thing of the past. Dubliner Victor Nealon left Wakefield Prison in Yorkshire just before last Christmas with less than £50 in his pocket, having spent 17 years in jail for a wrongful conviction for attempted rape. His situation is as difficult as any faced by those wrongfully convicted of terrorism in the 1970s and seems another David-and-Goliath battle to see justice prevail.
Mr Conlon’s death is also an opportunity to consider the intervention of Fianna Fáil justice spokesman Niall Collins in the sentencing of a drug dealer and, to a lesser extent, his colleague Mr Ó Cuív’s communication with the Prison Services on behalf of a man who wanted to be moved to an open prison, in a slightly different light. It is nearly always wrong for a politician to try to influence our justice system but it is equally true that, as public representatives, they have a right to be heard.
The usual difficulties arise because there is no recognised route, no standard, transparent way to do this. Might the answer be in last week’s bill on lobbying?
Set up a register run by the courts service where all such interventions are recorded and published? This would, at least, bring clarity to the process.