Monday, 6 October 2014

An appalling Vista

Sometimes you hear something which triggers memories and makes you think of how unfair the world can be. I had such an experience a few days ago. I was driving through the drizzle on a dark, autumnal night recently when I clicked on the car radio. It happened to be on Radio 4 and I heard that familiar Belfast accent speaking words which I initially assumed were from a radio play. A young man languishing in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is close to despair as he writes to his mother…

‘’Someday mum people will find out the truth, but that isn't the point mum, I've been told I'll never come out of prison. How can I take that mum? I can't.’’

Of course it wasn’t a play and the despair in the letter was all too real. That young man was Paul Hill one of the innocent people wrongfully convicted of the Guilford pub bombings in the 1970s.  The radio show used quotes from his letters to his mother as well as archive news reports from the time to tell the story of one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in recent history.  What was most disturbing about the case and those of the Birmingham Six, Giuseppe Conlon and McGuire family was not the fact that the Police used threats, violence, perjury and fabrication of evidence in their attempts to convict them but that the judiciary of the time, who must have seen the weakness in the evidence, appeared to acquiesce in this whole sordid episode. Lord Denning, one of the most senior Judges in the land said of the Birmingham Six’s application for appeal against their conviction…

’Just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed to trial ... If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous. ... That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, "It cannot be right that these actions should go any further."

In other words Lord Denning would rather deny the men the opportunity of justice than risk the exposure of lies and corruption at the heart of the Police case. That is the real ‘appalling vista’ in all of this. In an interview in the Spectator Magazine in 1990, Denning remarked that if the Guildford Four had been hanged "They'd probably have hanged the right men. Just not proved against them, that's all’’

He had also expressed a similar and equally appalling opinion regarding the Birmingham six in 1988, saying:

"Hanging ought to be retained for murder most foul. We shouldn't have all these campaigns to get the Birmingham Six released if they'd been hanged. They'd have been forgotten, and the whole community would be satisfied... It is better that some innocent men remain in jail than that the integrity of the English judicial system be impugned.’’

As we saw with the initial, deeply flawed, Bloody Sunday enquiry, the Hillsborough enquiry and other such events down the years, the establishment’s first recourse is always to protect themselves and their friends with a thin veneer of legal respectability. But just as the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough never gave up the fight for justice, so too the families of those wrongly convicted in the Guilford and Birmingham cases fought a long, bitter fight to see justice done.  I remember watching them walk free from the High court in 1991 to the cheers of hundreds of people standing in the streets outside. It was a bitter sweet moment as they had suffered so much in prison and had been demonized in the gutter press as monsters and mass murderers.

It’s hard for any younger people not around at the time to realise the extent of anti-Irish hysteria around in the mid-1970s. It far exceeded the anti-Islamic feelings held by some of our less enlightened citizens today. A fair trial would have been very difficult for anyone targeted by a Police force put under immense political pressure to find the IRA cell active on the UK mainland. A few brave people risked their reputations to query the validity of the convictions but the atmosphere of the time meant they were portrayed as IRA sympathisers and traitors. Justice lay bleeding on the streets of Britain during those sad times and no one seemed to care.

It’s amazing that the Radio 4 programme on the letters sent home to his mother in Belfast by Paul Hill triggered all these thoughts in my head. Of course there have been miscarriages of justice since then and the powers that be still close ranks when challenged. Freedoms are under threat as the so called ‘War on terror’ is used as an excuse to enforce conformity and infringe liberty. But decent people will never give up the struggle when they know they are right. We rely on an impartial and non-political judiciary in this country to see that justice is done and the law upheld. One of the great scandals of that era was that the very guardians of the law were part of the establishment which damned innocent men and women to years of torment knowing well that the evidence against them was to say the least flimsy.

I don’t write these words out of a sense of bitterness against anyone. God knows those families of the victims of Guilford and Birmingham have never seen justice done. But to convict the innocent will never assuage the anguish felt by those who lost loved ones. Those were dark days in these islands and so many innocent people on all sides were caught up in madness of the time. The effects of those years will last a lifetime for those involved. At the end of the day if we aim to have a decent society then we must have a police force and judiciary who uphold the law with impartiality and fairness.

The statue of ‘Lady Justice’ above the old Bailey holds the scales of justice in her hand. It is fair to say that they were weighted against people like Paul Hill who wrote those moving letters to his mother from his prison cell. If you visit the Old Bailey today you will also see, embedded in the wall above the main stairway, a shard of glass. It was blasted there by a car bomb in 1973 and has been left as a reminder of those unhappy days. The injustices of the time have, in some cases, been recognised now and it is incumbent on us all to be vigilant and ensure that our legal system is as honest and just as it should be. A wise man once said…

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”  (Elie Wiesel)

I’m heartened that many people today heed those words and that others from Gaza to Guantanamo know they aren’t forgotten. For too long, people like Paul Hill were forgotten and that remains an indelible stain on British justice.

God bless and keep all the innocent victims of conflict and those convicted of crimes they did not commit.

From inside: The Guilford Four

click to enlarge

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