Exoneration closes sordid chapter

IT has taken the British Government all of 31 years to apologise to members of the Conlon and Maguire families for their wrongful imprisonment for IRA bomb attacks, but they will derive a large measure of consolation from the fact that when it finally came it amounted to outright exoneration.

Unfortunately, the manner of the public apology leaves much to be desired. It was regrettable that British Prime Minister Tony Blair did not deliver his long overdue utterance of contrition on the floor of the House of Commons. At least that would have ensured his remarks were put on the parliamentary record.

That he delivered the apology in a televised statement at his room in Westminster has taken from the sense of gravity which the occasion warranted.

Nonetheless, the fact that Mr Blair made such a forthright apology, going far beyond the terms many people had expected, deserves to be loudly applauded.

For the Conlon and Maguire families, it means the dark shadows which have clouded their lives for so many years will finally begin to lift.

To say their shocking ordeal of wrongful imprisonment should never have happened is a gross understatement.

It was nothing less than a blatant miscarriage of justice on the part of a British police system with a long history of trampling over the rights and interests of Irish people unfortunate enough to find themselves caught up in investigations in the wake of a series of IRA atrocities.

In their haste to secure prosecutions at any price, police used trumped-up evidence against innocent suspects of the 1974 Guildford and Woolwich bombings, in which seven people were killed and more than 100 injured.

Hopelessly mired in a warped system of justice, the victims and their families were subjected to a prolonged trauma, paying a price that is hard to imagine. To this day, they are haunted by the stigma of terrorism, wrongly attached to their name.

To his credit, Mr Blair openly admits there was a grave miscarriage of justice in the case of Gerard Conlon, his father Giuseppe and all the Guildford Four, as well as Annie Maguire and all of the Maguire Seven.

The question that springs to mind is whether an equally generous apology will now be forthcoming in the case of the Birmingham Six and of other Irish people who have suffered injustice at the hands of British police.

It has taken an interminable campaign, involving a petition of tens of thousands of signatures, intensive lobbying by the Irish Government, as well as the award-winning film In the Name of the Father to wring this belated apology from a British administration which is notoriously reluctant to come clean when serious errors occur.

Inevitably in such cases, the wheels of state grind slowly and it has taken an age to ensure the victims of this sordid chapter of British injustice were vindicated.

Until now, the Conlon family had received what could at best be described as a second-hand apology from Mr Blair through SDLP leader Mark Durkan.

As Gerry Conlon succinctly put it, it has been harder to clear his name than to get out of prison.

Thankfully, not only has justice at last been done, it has been seen by the world to be done.

For the Conlon and Maguire families there is now the comfort of knowing their names have been finally, completely and publicly exonerated.

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