After the Guildford Four - The Red Menace

Gerry Conlon walks free in 1989
Gerry Conlon walks free in 1989

Article examining the case of the Guildford 4 following their release in October 1989, and placing it in a broader context of state repression.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on August 11, 2009

"Wrongfully convicted prisoners should stay in jail rather than be freed and risk a loss of public confidence in the law." (Lord Denning, 21/2/88)

"Prison is a killer- everything about it is designed to kill and destroy the human being." (Johnny Walker, one of the Birmingham 6)

The welcome release from prison in October 1989 of the Guildford Four does not signify any change of heart by the British state. Despite having quashed their convictions for the 1974 pub bombings in Guildford and Woolwich, the state still hasn’t even admitted that Paul Hill, Gerrard Conlon, Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson are innocent.

Freeing the Guildford 4 has an immediate political impact, in that the release of the Four strengthens the Anglo-Irish agreement, making it easier for Britain to have people like Patrick Ryan extradited from the 26 Counties i.e. hostage trading. It was also partly an exercise in damage limitation. It is already clear that the conspiracy that led to four Irish people being framed and spending nearly 15 years in prison involved various leading figures in the legal profession and the police (including Sir Peter Imbert, now commissioner of the Metropolitan Police). No doubt it is hoped that a ‘small scandal’ now will prevent a bigger scandal later on, as further information comes to light. Liberal lawyers have been expressing concern about the extension of police powers, particularly in the police station. This is more out of a desire to maintain their own power base and the illusion of "justice".

Attention is now shifting to the case of the Birmingham 6, jailed in similar circumstances to the Four in the same period. But we are not talking about tidying up a few legal loose ends from the 1970s. Only last year Martina Shanahan, Finbar Cullen and John McCann (the Winchester 3) were jailed for 25 years for conspiracy to murder with little more evidence against them than they had Irish accents in the vicinity of a government minister’s (Tom King’s) home. It remains the case, as Gerrard Conlon said on the day of his release, that "If you’re Irish and you’re arrested on a terrorist, political type of offence you don’t stand a chance". Significantly, it is in Northern Ireland that "the right to silence" has been abolished first.

It would be a mistake to think however that it is just a matter of how the British state treats Irish people. Repressive measures are often tested in Ireland, before being applied in Britain: snatch squads, plastic bullets, road blocks etc. And witness the case of Winston Silcott, Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite, jailed for life (for the murder of P.C. Blakelock during the 1985Tottenham riot) on the basis of ‘confessions’ extracted under duress. Meanwhile in the Irish ‘Free’ State, Noel and Marie Murray (two anarchists convicted of shooting a cop in a 1975 bank raid) are still in prison.

For us therefore, it is not a question of changing the colour of the flags flying over the prisons (as envisaged by nationalists of all persuasions) but of destroying them absolutely, and freeing not only those innocent of their supposed ‘crimes’ but also all those criminalized in the course of fighting to meet their needs.

The Red Menace, number five, January 1990. Taken from the Practical History website.