UK Law

John Horgan

  • Stolen Years: Before and After Guildford by Paul Hill and Ronan Bennett
    Doubleday, 287 pp, £12.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 385 40125 6
  • Proved Innocent by Gerry Conlon
    Hamish Hamilton, 234 pp, £12.99, June 1990, ISBN 0 241 13065 4
  • Cage Eleven by Gerry Adams
    Brandon, 156 pp, £4.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 86322 114 9
  • The Poisoned Tree: The untold truth about the Police conspiracy to discredit John Stalker and destroy me by Kevin Taylor and Keith Mumby
    Sidgwick, 219 pp, £15.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 283 06056 5

At a time when half the Police Forces in Britain seem to be gainfully employed on investigations of the real or alleged misdeeds of the other half, the image of British justice, formerly as reliable and predictable as Mrs Thatcher’s attitude to Europe, faces us like something grinning out of a crazy mirror at a fairground: paunchy, knock-kneed, grotesque. But, it will be argued, the driver of the tumbril has suddenly thrown the thing into reverse. The Guildford Four are free, and officially declared innocent. The Maguires are not far behind them. As far as the Birmingham Six are concerned, it appears to be only a matter of time. And Kevin Taylor got off, didn’t he? Retrospective justice is at least better than no justice at all, and the Court of Appeal will always get it right in the end. This is not a view which is taken by Lord Denning. British justice, he said after the quashing of the Guildford Four verdict, was ‘in ruins’. It is important, however, to pinpoint the cause of his concern. It is not the action of the Police leading to the wrongful convictions of the Guildford Four which appears to trouble him, but the Court of Appeal’s decision to set them free. He had stated earlier that the Guildford Four ought to remain in gaol, guilty or innocent, because of the horrendous consequences for public confidence in British law of admitting that an injustice had been done to them.

This profoundly instrumentalist view of English law sits oddly with the more traditional belief that it is better that guilty men go free than that the innocent be punished. Nevertheless, there is now a rare, and probably brief, consensus about the seismic nature of what has happened between those who have had their worst fears realised and those who know that their suspicions were well-founded.

The monolith which has cracked is one which straddles the Irish Sea. Hill’s book and Conlon’s make this clear. After their arrest and trial, and the brief flurry of protest, there was a long period, reaching well into the Eighties, when the sense of injustice was little more than a private hurt, its barbs sunk deep only in the flesh of family and close friends. In Ireland there was little support for the Guildford Four for many years. Not even the tragic and dignified death in gaol in 1980 of Giuseppe Conlon, Gerry Conlon’s father, occasioned much initial protest. Such as there was came from people like Fathers Raymond Murray of Armagh and Denis Faul of Dungannon – who for many years were unable to convince either the media or the public of the distinction between two profoundly different issues: the IRA’s struggle for a united Ireland and the defence of the civil rights of the minority population in the North.

The blurring of the all-important demarcation line between these two issues has been a hallmark of IRA strategy, which consistently depicts its Armalite-laden cadres as ‘defenders’ of the Catholic population of the North. The fact that much IRA policy is cynically devised to increase the pressure on that population as an aid to its own recruitment policy is still not widely understood. The ‘defender’ rhetoric is so pervasive in its effects that people who genuinely want to express concern about civil rights in Northern Ireland, or about abuses by the security forces there, now find that they have to spend a considerable amount of their time proving positively that they are not IRA fellow-travellers. Small wonder that many give up, or that even in the Republic, which prides itself on being the essential guarantor of the rights of Northern Catholics, there is an endemic suspicion that many of the voices on the other side of the Border are simply crying ‘wolf’. In addition, the South’s tradition of constitutional nationalism, which is now as firmly established, and about as conservative, as the British monarchy, has (if the truth be told) little time for most of the intermittent yells of protest that come from the working-class redoubts of Ballymurphy and the Falls Road in Belfast.

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