Gerry Conlon Memorial Lecture

Interesting Event last night. The Gerry Conlon Memorial Lecture in St Marys College, Falls Road in the heart of West Belfast.
Organised by SDLP and with Alex Attwood MLA presenting the event…it says a lot ABOUT SDLP and indeed FOR SDLP that words “SDLP” was not mentioned AT ANY STAGE during the two hour event. Nor was there any SDLP “signage”.
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Several SDLP people in the room but most people were not SDLP. Standing room only…and one of the folks who could not get a seat was Dr Alasdair McDonnell MP and SDLP Leader, who was standing at the back of the hall, a few feet from me. Numbers? Well two hundred seats had been set out…and I heard two figures mentioned, both in excess of three hundred.

Blogs are sometimes difficult to write. Essentially I have two readerships. Local and American. And I am conscious that some “footnotes” are required (and I  HEAR one reader laugh out loud at that). I have a good friend, an American who is interested in Irish History and Politics and been a constant source of support for me and this Blog.

Blogging is difficult. I am a technophobe. I am lazy. And last night, standing at the back of the hall was difficult. I had no means of writing notes. Brian O’Neil, one of the editors on Slugger O’Toole was there last night and I daresay that he will put up a full “audio” version of the two hours. I urge you all to read the Slugger version. Another difficulty with Blogging is that every blog on a conference, lecture and seminar is “mediated” by me…and really last night was one of those nights when ….”you had to be there”. Much better understood if the regular readers and myself had all been there and gone (with many attendees) for the drinks in the “John Hewitt” and/or “Duke of York” afterwards. It was an open invite…but with the last train out of Belfast was at 11 .10pm, I had to give it a miss.

So why was last night so …different? Well it was …personal. Gerry Conlon who died last year and I are much the same age. We lived a few hundred metres apart. I am not aware that I knew him.  But our fathers knew each other.

And purely by coincidence…Guisseppi Conlon (Gerrys father)….the 35th anniversary of his death was yesterday. Which made it all more poignant. Guisseppi died in prison and would not be exonerated until long after his death. A short video…a  compilation of video and still footage. And a note that the real perpetrators of the crimes that Gerry Conlon did not commit have never been brought to Justice.

The main speaker last night was London lawyer, Michael Mansfield QC. Now 73 years old, he is a liberal English lawyer famed for taking on the Establishment. Famed for representing the people who are without a voice.

Wiith his shock of white hair, he cuts an almost Biblical image. As one might expect from a lwayer, he is a powerful orator. He bookends his 45 minute speech with the beginning and end of a letter Gerry Conlon had written to the wife of an English detainee at Guantanomo Bay. And he talks about Gerry Conlon being the first of a kind…a man who fought the Establishment. His theme was thatDemocracy is Bankrupt. That politicians are unwilling or unable to address real issues.

People Power overturns Injustice. The Guildford Four and Birmingham Six (Gerry Conlon and Paddy Hill), the Stephen Lawrence Murder (Mr and Mrs Lawrence), Bloody Sunday (families), Iraq (families of soldiers), the Marchioness pleasure boat on the River Thames (families of victims).

Mansfield emphasised how difficult it is …the Chilcott Delays….the inability of Teresa May to even appoint a Chair to the Sex Abuse Inquiry. A note that friends of Leon Brittan (who died on 21st January) bemoan that he has been denied an opportunity to demonstate his innocence. But conversely the victims of abuse have been denied the opportunity to interrogate him.

Gerry Conlon, said Mansfield had dedicated his post-prison life to encouraging victims up to and including Guantanamo detainees.

After his address, Mansfield fielded several questions.

Paddy Hill spoke next. One of the Birmingham Six, he was imprisoned with Gerry Conlon. He told some prison stories, how innocent men try to cope in jail. And he spoke of the life after prison. The tours to Australia, USA etc. The stories were seriously inappropriate.

Patrick Corrigan (top man in local Amnesty International) and Margaret Walsh (a friend of Gerry Conlon) were due to speak but Alex Attwood invited questions instead.

Before the event, I discussed Corrigans presence with some people. There was some surprise that he had been invited as the general belief was that Amnesty had done little to help victims of British Injustice in the 1970s.

So interesting that the first question to Patrick Corrigan was from a representative of the “Craigavon Two” Campaign. This refers to the two men (allegedly Republican Dissidents) who are in prison for the murder of a PSNI Officer in Craigavon six years ago.

The questioner expressed surprise that Patrick Corrigan was at an event to commemorate Gerry Conlon when he had refused to meet Gerry Conlon to discuss the Craigavon Two. There was a murmer of approval from my part of the room.

Corrigan, usually a gifted orator stumbled out an incoherent attempt at justification. “Limited staff”, “Limited Resources”, “decisions about where to focus”. But he had been successfully ambushed and I dont think anyone was really sympathetic to him.

Corrigan was in the seat behind Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness when President Obama spoke at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast in summer of 2013. He will have heard Obama name-check Nobel Peace Prize Winners, John Hume and David Trimble. He will have noticed that Obama did not pay the same courtesy to his namesake (Mairead Corrigan) another Nobel Peace Prize winner who was outside Belfast City Hall protesting the Obama visit.

But Patrick Corrigan is a campaigner for Human Rights. At Belfast City Hall.He is photographed holding signs that say “Je Suis Charlie” (two weeks ago) and “Free Raif” (two nights ago). But Paris and Saudi Arabia are a long way from Craigavon.

Patrick Corrigan is a key member of the Golden Halo of LetsGetAlongerists, much respected by that kinda person. Odd to hear him so openly criticised in public.

As I noted the “SDLP” was never mentioned at any time during the evening. And yet all SDLP members that I spoke to considered the event a success. I did not recognise any Sinn Féin politicians at the event. Nor did I see any Alliance Party people. Frankly it was nnot their kind of event.

Take…Sinn Féin. The Birmingham and Guildford Bombings were carried out by the IRA. While they did state that the wrong men were convicted, they did little to free them. It was …lets be frank…in the interests of the IRA to have the wrong men imprisoned.

Contrast the indifference of Sinn Féin to Gerry Conlon with their reaction to the four day “wrongful arrest of Gerry Adams in May last year. They even had a Falls Road mural dedicated to it.

There is of course a lot of culpability on the British side. They arrested, tortured and convicted innocent people. To people in West Belfast, who lived and worked alongside people like Gerry Conlon and Paddy Hill, it would have been apparent that they were not IRA men. To the British, with their access to Intelligence Reports, Psych Tests and Profiling, it would have been obvious.

And….LetsGetAlongerists. The Alliance Party. Again lets be frank. The Alliance Party has never done anything that has advanced the cause of Justice.

And yet Sinn Féin and Alliance have done well out of the Peace Process. Together they squeeze the SDLP vote. There is a lazy narrative that SDLP is in terminal decline. I doubt that. But clearly the disappearance of SDLP is a key aim of both SF and Alliance. Take a look at their supporters. “what is SDLP for?” “How is SDLP relevant?” (Slugger O’Toole passim).

Well the Gerry Conlon Memorial Lecture is what SDLP is about.

And the SDLP is about the SDLP Event at An Féile 2013…Catherine McCartney from Short Strand whose brother was murdered post-Good Friday Agreement by people associated with IRA and Mrs Quinn whose son was beaten to death by people associated with IRA.

Curiously in 2014, An Féile denied SDLP an “event”. Seemingly the programme should not have events sponsored by political parties. Really? One event in the 2014 programme was the unveiling of a bust of Bobby Sands by Gerry Adams ….in the Felons Club.

And last year the SDLP held an event featuring Mairia Cahill, the victim of sex abuse by republicans.

Thats what SDLP is “for”.

A successful night? Yes.

Afterwards, a lot of attendees, including SDLP folks and Paddy Hill and I think Michael Mansfield headed off to the “John Hewitt” and “The Duke of York”. I am sorry I missed that. I am sorry that I wasnt at a table with some of the open-minded (republican and nationalist) readers of this Blog.

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2 Responses to Gerry Conlon Memorial Lecture

  1. bangordub says:

    Great article Mr Fitz,
    I’m delighted you made it as I know your attendance was in doubt until shortly before the event. If I my say, the value of your blog is in your interpretation of the event and your observations. Others are, perhaps, better at recording a faithful account of the proceedings.
    I think I detect an antipithy towards Sinn Fein and I suspect it may be because of experiences in your past. I’m curious about this to be honest. Regardless it sounds like a good vent and I’m sorry I missed it

  2. Thanks Mr Dub. I dont have any particular antipathy to Sinn Féin.
    I dont like hypocrisy.
    And I dont like spoofing. Theres a lot of spoofing in politics.
    And I know when people are “spoofing” cos I am a bit of a spoofer myself.
    This was raw. This was honest.

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