Miriam O’Callaghan speaks to Paddy Joe Hill and Gerry Conlon as this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings.
Miriam: First though today this year marks forty years since the IRA bombings in Guildford and Birmingham which killed twenty-six people and injured hundreds of others. As well as the devastation those attacks caused for the immediate victims they also set in motion a chain of events that ended in the wrongful imprisonment of my first guests. Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford 4, spent fifteen years in prison and Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham 6, was wrongly jailed for nearly seventeen years.
Audio: Paddy Joe Hill on 14 March 1991 addressing the media outside the Old Bailey in London after the Birmingham 6 convictions were quashed.
Audio: Gerry Conlon on 19 October 1989 addressing the media outside the Old Bailey in London after the Guildford 4 convictions were quashed.
Miriam: Morning, Gerry Conlon! Morning, Paddy Joe Hill!
Gerry: Good Morning, Miriam.
Paddy: Morning, Miriam.
Miriam: I’m going to start with you, Gerry. Do you remember the first time you heard about the bombings in Guildford in 1974?
Gerry: You know I think the first time I heard of them was when the allegation was put to me. I mean I came from West Belfast, the Lower Falls, and they were an everyday occurrence. And that was one of the reasons I went to England. You know, in the eyes of the local Republicans and the IRA I would have been one of these people who would have been creating problems by singing on corners and stuff like that, you know? So the bombings didn’t really mean a lot. The Birmingham pub bombing registered simply because of the amount of people that were murdered that night.
Miriam: Do you recall the moment that you were arrested? Is it still very vivid in your memory?
Gerry: Not only is my arrest vivid but everyday of the torture in the various police stations from Springfield Road to Addlestone to Godalming to Guildford and every day of my prison experience is indelibly stamped in my brain. And at the least drop of a hat memories come flooding back of what they did to us.
Miriam: So time, the notion that time eases those memories, isn’t true for you, Gerry?
Gerry: No, not at all. You know, my father came over on the assurance of Jim Neville, who was the then head of the bomb squad, and my father spoke to him from Springfield Road police station. And Jim Neville told my father: Come over. You’ll have access to him and you’d be able to get a solicitor of your choosing to represent him. My father was no sooner in the country, four hours, and he was arrested and never came out.
Miriam: That was Guiseppe, of course, Gerry. Gerry, recall for me the actual arrest. Do you remember even where you were?
Gerry: Oh, I was in 32 Cypress Street. That’s where we lived at the time in the Lower Falls. And it was the start of a horrendous nightmare that we’re still living through because we’ve never had help for it.
Miriam: What do you mean you’ve never had help for it?
Gerry: Well we’ve never had help. The government have never gave us help for the trauma we suffered. I witnessed not only my father dying in prison but two people being murdered in front of my eyes in the most brutal of fashion. And when we came out I was given thirty-four pound ninety of a discharge grant and told to get on with it.
Miriam: Paddy, when was the first time you heard about the Birmingham bombings? Was it when you were detained that time, the first time, by the police?
Paddy: It was at the boat, the Heysham boat terminal. I’d already gone through the security check. And as far as the Heysham and Morecambe Police are concerned I have no complaints about them at all, Miriam. They were absolutely brilliant. And it was Sergeant Willoughby who took me off the boat and he told me, the sergeant, he wanted to talk to me and I went out and I’ll never forget his words – they’re burned into my brain. He said to me: Paddy, please excuse the pun but you know how things gets blown up out of all proportion when something happens but he said I can tell you something now, this is bad. The first reports we have is that there’s over two hundred people injured and that there’s over twenty people dead. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, he said, that could be blown up out of all proportion but it is serious. And that was the first time that I heard about it.
Miriam: But I assume, Paddy, a bit like Gerry there, when you look back on being detained, I assume at the very beginning you couldn’t actually believe this was happening to you.
Paddy: No, that’s the thing about it. We went to the police station of our own free will. And I remember I was sitting on a bench reading this book and suddenly the door beside me opened and two cops walked in and they had a couple of bundles of clothes in their hands and they threw them behind the door. And I looked up and both of them were standing there staring at me and you could feel the hatred coming out of them. And I happened to look out the door and I seen this guy standing there, another cop, and the funny thing about it was I’ve seen cops before with guns but I’ve never seen a cop with two guns. This guy that was standing there and he had a shoulder holster with a thirty-eight in it and he had a side arm on his hip with a thirty-eight. And I remember looking at him thinking: Jaysus! Some poor people are in for a rough ride. I never thought for one second it had anything to do with us.
Miriam: I mean, not a lot of people, Paddy, know this but your own family – your dad, I think three of your brothers – they were in the British Army. It’s not like you were the kind of guy who was going to be joining up with the IRA.
Paddy: No, definitely not.
Miriam: Gerry, in terms of both of you surviving in prison for something you didn’t do you said in the past if there is a hell it’s being in prison and knowing you’re innocent. But what sustained you through the years?
Gerry: What sustained me was knowing that my father was going to be tried by the same judge in the same dock in the same court by the same prosecutor and the possibility that he was going to be coming to prison – little did I know he was going to be dying in prison. But we made promises to each other, as Paddy and I did, and I think you find something in adversity and you find something when everything is against you.
Miriam: Gerry, obviously what happened to both of you was so horrific but did you find it particularly difficult that because of the situation you found yourself in your dad, who you adored, got embroiled in it, too, and in the end ended up dying in prison. Did you feel guilty about that?
Gerry: I still feel guilty about it. I remember being in Wormwood Scrubs in 1978 when two Labour MPs came, Philip Bennett and Andrew Whitehead, and they said – they called my dad ‘Joe’ because that’s the Anglicisation of Guiseppe – they said: Joe, we’ve secured a transfer for you back to the H-Blocks. You’d be out within three months. And he said: Is my son coming with me? And they went: No, we can’t get him a transfer. He says: Well, I’m not going. I came here to help my son. So of course I feel guilty. Of course I feel guilty.
Miriam: Those moments when you finally got out, Paddy…
Miriam: Do they, in the way in which you were both talking earlier about the horror of being put away for something you didn’t do stay indelibly etched in your mind, do you also remember the moments of release incredibly vividly?
Paddy: Yes, I still remember it. Like even though I look back on it and I seen it that many times on television etc it seems a bit ethereal. It’s like something that you’re looking down on. You know?
Gerry: You know you’re talking about the moment we got out which should have been filled with joy and elation but too much pain had gone on, Miriam, beforehand. You know, Paddy didn’t know what was happening to his children while he was in prison and obviously I had lost my father but too much had been done. When we went in, as Paddy says, the prison officers – they were defecating in our food, they were urinating in our food, they were putting glass and stones and crushed florescent tubing in our food – we were being targeted more so than any member of the IRA. But when my father died and the ‘appalling vista‘ happened there was a slow sea of change. And of course we were very lucky – British documentary makers started coming to our aid – World in Action, Panorama, First Tuesday – major broadsheet newspapers started publishing editorials. And what also should not be forgotten was that the Irish government, and the Irish Embassy in particular, didn’t do anything for us until after these programmes and these editorials were written. In fact, we never seen any Irish politicians until early ’87 – twelve years, thirteen years, after our incarceration – did any Irish politicians want to come to help us.
Paddy: And not only that, Miriam, when they did come to see us in March 1987, that was the first time that the six of us had all been put together and they sent an all-party delegation. And when they came over they brought the six of us up into the education department, in a classroom, and they spent an hour with us. And about six o’clock they said they were leaving. And I said: What do you mean you’re leaving? What about Gerry Conlon? What about the Guildford 4? You better see them before you go. And they turned around and said: Oh, no. we haven’t get the time. We’ve got to get a plane. I said: Ach! The only thing you’ll be getting is an ambulance. And I picked up two of the table legs and Richard McIlkenny, God rest his soul, Richard grabbed the other two and I told them: The only place you’re going to go is to the hospital. You’re not leaving here until you see the Guildford 4. And ten minutes later they brought Gerry up and when he walked into the room you know the first thing they said to him? I’m sorry, Gerry, to hear about your uncle dying in prison. His uncle?! That’s how much they knew about us in 1987!
Miriam: Paddy, had you thought beforehand about what you were going to say when you were released?
Paddy: No. I never do. It just comes off the cuff.
Miriam: Good! And you, Gerry, had you thought?
Gerry: I mean those words that came out of my mouth that day I believe it was my father speaking through me. When you ‘go in’, Miriam, you learn a whole new vocabulary and it’s very coarse and very abrupt and very harsh. How those words came out in sequence and with the right amount of meaning and truth was just incredible. I don’t believe – I believe my father spoke them through me.
Miriam: Of course we heard your eloquent words there at the beginning of today’s show. We have some clips now which is what you both said shortly after you were released about how life had changed from the time you went into prison to the time you were released. Let’s listen to them now.
Audio: Paddy Joe Hill comments on technology and changes.
Audio: Gerry Conlon comments on technology and changes.
Miriam: Were they a huge change, Paddy?
Paddy: Massive changes. Massive changes. Like when I came out I never believed there was that many motors and what have you, vehicles, on the road in the world never mind in London. In prison the one thing that you don’t have is long vision. You can only see ‘x’ amount of yards and then you come against a big wall and barbed wire. The only long-vision you have is looking up at the sky. And of course there’s no such thing as colours in prison. And when we came out all you could see was these big buildings with all these funny glass, coloured things and big fancy trucks flying down the road at you. The only time I seen some of these trucks was on television in one of these American movies. And suddenly you come out and you’re standing in the middle of Holloway Road and I’m standing there like somebody that’s been hypnotised or something. And I’m standing in the middle of the road and this big thing’s flying at me! And I couldn’t move. I was completely paralysed. Everything, everything had changed so much. And you’re completely lost. Your mind can’t take it in so quickly. And the more you try to take it in, the funny thing about it is, the more your mind closes down. You just can’t handle it. And then for so many people who come out, Gerry’ll tell you this, they start becoming hermits. They don’t go out because they can’t handle the outside world. And they start locking themselves in their room or where ever they are living. The only time that you go out is at night when it’s quiet and it’s dark and you walk the streets at night. Like I’ve had people that’s come out of jail and I’ve picked them up – Johnny Kamara etc – or Paddy Nicholls etc…
Gerry: …Rob Brown.
Paddy: Rob – I picked them all up and brought them home to live with me. And they were all the same. The only time they went out was at night. It’s just – I don’t know what it is. And as Gerry said, we get no help. No help whatsoever. And like I try to tell people when they come out: Don’t bother going to doctors. Going to doctors – the only thing they’re going to tell you is that you’re depressed and the only thing they’re going to do is try and shovel you full of pills. Our problem is not pill problems. Our problem is not medication. Our problem is trauma. And we’ve been fighting for years to get help. And yes, we get angry at times, and – don’t get me wrong, don’t take this the wrong way – if anybody that suffers trauma if there’s help and they need it and they can get it fair play to them for getting it and for having it and I thank the authorities for giving it to them but at the same time – why should we be left out?
Gerry: But getting back to what you were saying about difficulties: There’s also this suspended animation in relation to maturing over those years you are in prison. So you’re playing catch-up. And Miriam, you became a close friend of my family’s. So you knew my mother well and you knew my sisters and you knew my aunts and uncles. I mean, we became disenfranchised from our families while we were in prison. Your visits were heavily populated by prisoner officers. You weren’t allowed to talk about prison. So you lied to each other. And then when you come out after fifteen years of telling lies, that you believed the other side is telling you the truth even though you knew you were telling them lies, because there’s this idea in their head: They don’t want to tell you something that you’re going to take back to your cell that’s going to worry you and you think: I’m not going to tell them anything about this prison that’s bad because I don’t want them taking it home and worrying. So the relationship fractures. I’ve been in treatment for nearly seven years – seeing a psychiatrist, a trauma counselor, twice a week, and for the first three years all I did was cry. I couldn’t get over when he mentioned my father or a certain prison I would just burst into tears – the trauma was so deep.
Miriam: Gerry, are you still getting therapy now?
Miriam: Because listening to you you sound in a very good place at the moment.
Gerry: I am in a very good place, Miriam. I’ve been very lucky and I’ve had to fight very hard and I’ve had to go through – I mean, for a long time I wanted to kill myself. It’s only the last year that my life is, for some reason, the therapy has kicked in. I never thought I’d get to this position, Miriam, where I would be able to feel relatively happy, able to deal with what had happened in a positive way – but I’m going to be doing this for the rest of my life.
Miriam: Your mum and dad would be very pleased to hear you say that – to know you’re in a good place.
Gerry: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well you know, the healing started when my mother got cancer in 2005 and she asked me would I come home to look after her and it was a traumatic experience looking after her. It was always – it was crazy. But after nine months of living together, you know, I started to have this empathy again with her. I started to feel this paternal love. And she started to trust me and started to engage with me and we became not only a loving mother and son we became best friends. And I got enormous pleasure out of getting up every morning and going into the town and buying some food and cooking her different meals that she’d never tasted before and getting her to watch programmes she’d’ve never had watched and becoming good friends.
Miriam: In terms of how you are, Paddy, right now – I know because you have, of course, children and you were missing from their lives for seventeen years. Is it possible to heal those fractured relationships after such a long time?
Paddy: No. Definitely not. I’m still a stranger to my kids. I spent more time here this morning talking to you than I’ve done with my kids, some of them for years. I hardly ever see them. And when I go I get such – I don’t know what it is – for the want of a better word you get this sort of guilt feeling and I know we’ve got nothing to feel guilty about but, when you’re there, you feel like an intruder. There’s nothing there. I don’t know what it is. Prison kills you a little bit every day particularly for innocent people. One day you’ll waken up and you won’t feel nothing because one thing you can’t afford to have in prison is emotion. Emotions will get you killed in prison. So you bury your emotions so deep. And after a while it comes to the point in prison where you don’t even want to have visits because they’re too traumatic. And you don’t get visits – instead of having a visit every month you may get two visits a year – and you’re thankful for them but even at the time you don’t want them. Gerry will tell you the same things and so will most people in prison and when they come out trying to re-build relationships – it just doesn’t work. The money, the first fifty thousand pound they gave me interim payment, I was going out buying my kids and grand kids things. And what I was actually doing was just trying to buy love and affection and I realised after a year: You can’t do that. It’s an impossibility. But more importantly I realised, and had to be honest with myself and my kids, I didn’t feel nothing for them. Even today, I’ve been out twenty-three years now last week, and I feel sorry for my kids for the simple reason is that none of them is ever, ever going to have a father and daughter or father and son relationship with me like we should’ve have. And that’s just the way it is. It’s the only way I can handle it.
Gerry: See you become dependent, you become institutionalised after that length of time. Whether you want to admit it or not. And the only people that you’re really comfortable around are people who have had a shared experience with you. So you gravitate to people who’d been in prison because there’s no need to qualify how you’re feeling. You know, I’ve often thought that they did ‘silent lobotomies’ on us when we were in prison – clip the emotion and clip the love – and it’s something that’s very hard to get back once it’s gone.
Miriam: Paddy, obviously listening to Gerry he has said he’s been going to therapy, going to see a psychiatrist, still is and it has clearly worked a lot for him. Have you gone to therapy and do you think you’re in as good a place as say Gerry is psychologically at the moment?
Paddy: No. I’m not in the same place as Gerry. And as far as treatment is concerned I’ve never had any.
Miriam: Gerry and Paddy, you’re both very involved now in helping other people who are victims of miscarriages of justice, aren’t you?
Paddy: Yes. I’ve been doing this ever since I got out. And I’m still doing it.
Miriam: Do you find that in itself is almost therapeutic, Paddy? That you can work to try and help other people?
Paddy: Yeah, yeah. It’s therapeutic in the simple fact that if I wasn’t doing it I’d probably be sitting at home and just thinking, thinking, thinking and that’s the worst thing for people coming out of jail, innocent people coming out. It’s having nothing to do and just sitting, hiding away in a room. It kept me going. I made a promise to certain people when I got out – the Bridgewater 4, the Tottenham 3, etc, John McGranahan and a number of other people and I gave them the first year of my life.
Miriam: Also Paddy, I mentioned at the beginning it’s forty years since the Birmingham bombings themselves and you work also today, don’t you, with the families of the victims of those bombings? I mean, nobody’s ever been put away for those bombings.
Paddy: No, no, no. I got involved with this just over a year ago in relation to a petition that was up by Brian and Julie Hambleton. This is a brother and sister whose other sister was killed in the bombs. And of course since we got out these people have been a thorn in the side of the Birmingham Police. And I must say, in Birmingham, I thought they would’ve got a hundred thousand signatures in no time. And all I can say, particularly to the Irish people in Birmingham: Shame on you for not joining this! If anyone should want to know the truth it should be the people of Birmingham, particularly the Irish people. And when I met Brian and Julie I think they were more nervous of meeting me, we had been the figures of hate and the police have made them hate us. And I sat with them for about two and a half three hours.
Miriam: Gerry, I know the organisation, MOJO, Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, is the one that you and Paddy do a lot with. Are there any particular cases you’d like to mention this morning?
Oh, well I certainly would like to mention the case of Brendan Dixon who’s a Doire man who’s been in prison in a Scottish jail for ten years for a crime we think he’s absolutely innocent of. And how he came to be a suspect was someone said that they seen ‘Irish Brendan’ near the house where the pensioner was murdered. And the evidence that we have checked out, you know, shows that Brendan Dixon was in another place. He was living an intransient type of life and he was involved in drugs and alcohol but because you’re involved in drugs and alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a killer. And of course there’s the case of the Craigavon Two. And the things that I heard there started to disturb me and you spoke to the family and you spoke to witnesses and stuff like that – you seen that here was a high profile case that need a conviction. But in the Brendan McConville – John Paul Wootten case I firmly believe that they’re innocent.
Well we’re going to put a link on our website as well, Paddy and Gerry, to that organisation you’re both really involved in, Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, anyone who wants to find out about it or about those cases can get in touch with you. Final question for you, Gerry: You seem in a good place. I’m so happy to see that. Do you wake up, by and large, content?
Gerry: I still have the nightmares. I still have the nightmares. I don’t think they’ll ever go. The trauma people don’t think they’ll ever go. They’re so deep. They’re so brutal. And they lasted for so long in prison. But it’s something that’s now manageable, Miriam. It’s something within a short space of time of getting out of bed I’ve learned techniques how to not disassociate and how to focus on other things. So yeah, life is better than it’s ever been at the moment.
Miriam: And you, Paddy?
Paddy: No, I’m not there yet. I still have bad times, you know? But of course, I’ve never had any help. The only help, I learned a long time ago that the only help I’m going to get is the help that I give myself. They come up with this old cliché, Miriam, that time’s a great healer. That’s a load of garbage. Time doesn’t heal nothing. The only thing that you can do with time is hopefully, with time, you’ll learn to handle it a little bit better than you did.
Gerry: Just to interject there: The guy who’s treating me and treats me twice a week has offered to help Paddy and Paddy’s met him but the government won’t pay for Paddy’s fares to come from Scotland two or three times a month to have that treatment. I think that would be very little for them to pay in order to give Paddy Joe Hill a quality of life that he so richly deserves and that his family deserves. I think we all should be getting it without having to go cap in hand.
Miriam: Okay, listen Gerry, Paddy, it’s been a real pleasure and privilege for me to chat to you both today – delighted you’re in a great place, Gerry. And Paddy, I hope you get there one day very soon, too.
Gerry: Miriam, thank you for your support down the years in highlighting the injustice that happens to people in life. Thank you!
Miriam: Thanks, Gerry.
Paddy: It’s been a pleasure and thanks for keeping other people aware of what is actually going on in miscarriage of justice cases.
Miriam: Thank you, Paddy. Thank you, Gerry. Take good care of yourselves.
Paddy: Same to you. Bye. (ends)