‘You’re doing this for future generations. The next generation of politicians know this – you’re setting a democratic precedent with these inquiries. And if they won’t do it, set up people’s tribunals.’
So advised Michael Mansfield QC, the radical lawyer and defence counsel for the Birmingham Six, to a packed auditorium at St. Mary’s College on the lower Falls Road in Belfast, metres from where Gerry Conlon had grown up. The lecture, titled ‘Democratic Bankruptcy’ had been organised as the first of an annual event in memory of Conlon, one of the Guildford Four wrongly imprisoned for 15 years by the British state, the story retold in the film ‘In the Name of the Father’ (1993). After coping with returning to civilian life after the injustice he had been through, including seeing his father die in prison, Conlon went on to be a campaigner for others wrongfully targeted by the state, and passed away last year of lung cancer at the age of 60. Mansfield was here to talk about ‘a system that at its heart has collusion, between higher politics, the upper echelons of the police, and the media.’
By way of illustrating the momentous effect that Conlon and his comrades had delivered with their successful fight for justice, Mansfield listed a few of the cases since, where the marginalised ‘took mental sustenance from what had gone before’ – the Marchioness disaster in the Thames, where ‘50 people died because of corporate greed,’ and the resolute demand of the families for an inquiry resulted in changes to safety standards. Or the Lawrences, whose perseverance has finally led to two convictions for the murder of their son. ‘They recognised,’ said Mansfield, ‘just like Paddy and Gerry did, that the battle isn’t over when you’re out; that’s when it’s just beginning…’ Doreen Lawrence, now a Life peer in the House of Lords, regularly summons senior politicians and police chiefs to a public hearing where they are asked how many of the new recommendations have been implemented. ‘And they all turn up, because they’re worried about votes of course. And she’s got the moral high ground!’
Mansfield gave as his last example Bloody Sunday. The famous verdict from Saville’s ‘historic inquiry’ was that British paratroopers had fired first, had shot fleeing civilians, and had concocted lies to cover their actions. ‘I was in Derry the day (the Report) was broadcast – and I’m not particularly religious but for me it was spiritual. The whole place erupted.’ Mansfield repeated that the key word was ‘accountability’, what Gerry Conlon and Paddy Joe Hill had fought for, what the families of those murdered on Bloody Sunday had fought for, and the predominant lack of which was the reason for the lecture’s title – ‘Democratic Bankruptcy.’
Michael Mansfield’s comments were bookmarked by his reading of Gerry Conlon’s open letter to Obama, speaking out against Shaker Aamer’s detention and Guantanamo Bay, which Mansfield linked to the continued abuse of the legal system and government power to cover atrocities, as with the perpetually delayed Chilcot Inquiry. The child abuse scandal has been ‘another case where the families have had to set the agenda,’ with the government prevaricating and delaying. Chairs of inquiries have been appointed and then forced to stand down due to conflicts of interest.
Mansfield ended, however, on a positive note, noting that ‘where the system refuses to rectify its own mistakes,’ people’s tribunals have emerged to challenge abuses, as with the ongoing Russell Tribunal on Palestine, where Mansfield sits as a member of the jury, assessing whether Israel’s military has committed war crimes. A similar tribunal was set up by Iranian émigrés in London, in the face of the regime’s failure, and the international legal system’s failure, to account for massacres and mass burials in 1980s Iran. Another inspiring example is the campaign to save ‘one of the most successful hospitals in the UK, in Lewisham’ from closure by Health Minister Jeremy Hunt, where 25,000 took to the streets in protest. The proposal to cut had ‘nothing to do with performance, everything to do with the private finance initiative’, and with regard to the wider legislation mandating further privatisation of the NHS, to do with the ‘nearly 200 … members of the Houses of Parliament with their fingers in the private pie. I think it’s what we would call in the law a conflict of interest.’
Gerry Conlon and Paddy Hill’s time in, and after, prison was illuminated through Hill’s stories and anecdotes. Hill recalled how the Bishop of Leicestershire offered to conduct ‘a few prayers’ before he concluded a visit to the two at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, to be met with ‘a few prayers? It’s not prayers we need, it’s money!’ The Bishop, surprised, dutifully slipped his wallet across the table as they rose to pray while Hill took what he could find – ‘Me and Gerry went back in the jail and got two ounces of weed.. stoned for a week!’
The stories continued and the auditorium laughed, but Hill ended on a sombre tone, saying ‘We have nothing to be guilty about, but we feel so guilty about what happened to our families. Gerry felt the same (particularly for) what happened to his dad Giuseppe.’ Giuseppe Conlon died in prison after his health deteriorated, exactly (and apparently coincidentally) 25 years before tonight’s event. ‘When (Gerry) died, thankfully that burden of guilt was lifted off his shoulders, and he’s now at peace.’