Skip to main content

Patrick Joseph Conlon

Volume 990: debated on Monday 4 August 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

9.30 am

I thank the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan), for his presence. As he knows, the late Patrick Joseph Conlon—better known as Giuseppe Conlon—and six others were convicted at the Central Criminal Court, after a long trial, of possessing nitroglycerine for an unlawful object—namely, terrorism.

Conlon's Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) is in his place.

I first became interested in the case when I heard a distinguished Unionist lady tell me about it. She was associated with charitable work in Belfast with the Conlons' parish priest, the Reverend Vincent McKinley of St. Peter's Pro-Cathedral. He tells me that he is no lover of political clerics. He holds that there are enough of them on the two sides of the channel. Father McKinley refused to allow the remains of the Provisional IRA bomber, Kevin Delany, to be brought into his church. I respect and I believe a priest of this calibre.

The case for the prosecution rested almost entirely on forensic evidence. It rested on a test which was developed by a Mr. Yallop, who stands high in his profession and who developed the test known as thin layer chromotography—TLC. This process brought about the conviction of Conlon and the co-accused; and yet Mr. Yallop has told me that the Scottish verdict of "not proven" would have been more appropriate than a verdict of "guilty".

Another who believes Conlon to have been unjustly condemned is the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Hume, who visited him when he was a convicted prisoner and very ill—for Conlon had suffered from tuberculosis since the early 1960s, and he died on 23 January in Hammersmith hospital, to which he had been removed from Wormwood Scrubs.

When Father McKinley spoke at Conlon's funeral mass, he described Conlon as
"chronically sick, peace-loving, gentle, kindly … seldom leaving the shelter of his former home in Cyprus Street, Belfast."
The father said that Conlon had travelled to England with "great physical affliction".

As Mr. Justice Donaldson said in his summing-up, the reason for Conlon coming to London which he had not visited for 17 years, was concern for his son Gerard, who was arrested at home in connection with the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings of October and November 1974, and needed to be defended. It appears that on arriving in London, Conlon failed to contact his brother-in-law Hugh Maguire and lodged instead with another brother-in-law, Paddy Maguire, in Third Avenue, Harlesden. It was Paddy Maguire's wife Anne who gave her name to what came to be called "Aunt Annie's bomb factory."

Conlon was arrested with the Maguires and others. He was too ill to appear in court for his first remand. He was never given bail. Throughout his incarceration he wrote frequently to his wife Sarah. I quote but one sentence from one letter:
"I was never an IRA man in my life and I never will be."
Like me, Giuseppe Conlon had some wartime service in the Royal Marines. His service was not particularly distinguished; nor was mine. Giuseppe's son Gerry Conlon was convicted in a separate trial for bombing in Guildford. The explosive used was alleged to have come from Annie Maguire. However, the police found no nitroglycerine in or near the house in Third Avenue. A sniffer was brought in—that is to say, a mechanical sniffer, not a dog, such as from time to time checks your august Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

If one handles nitro-glycerine one stands to get a splitting headache, which can affect one for a long time. None of the accused in the case against Conlon and others complained of a headache. One might say that that is not surprising. However that may be, none of the accused were asked whether they had a headache. They were all convicted on forensic evidence without other corroborative evidence.

Swabs were taken from hands and fingernail clippings and were immersed in a solution which dissolves explosives. A trace was stated to have been found on a glove belonging to Annie Maguire. According to Mr. Yallop, who invented it, the test had
"been used in the wrong way",
so it is not to be wondered at that Mr. Yallop has misgivings and would welcome a review of the case.

I have compressed into a few inadequate words a complicated case resting almost entirely on forensic evidence, difficult for the non-scientific mind to grasp. The jury's task was hard and uneviable. I cannot help wondering whether this was a case less suitable for the Old Bailey than for one of those maligned Diplock courts of Northern Ireland, where terrorists are tried by a judge without a jury. Those courts are familiar with the methods of terrorism and with such matters as innocent contamination.

It is not for the House to retry the case. My request is that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should consider instituting a suitable inquiry. I dare hope that a Royal Pardon might in the end be recommended for the late Giuseppe Conlon. I do not comment on any of his co-accused.

When Giuseppe was convicted, the plea in mitigation made mention of the
"short amount of time that he had spent in this country"
and of Conlon's understandable reason for coming here, despite his ill health, after 17 years. It was put to Mr. Justice Donaldson that he should not
"shrink from making a differentiation in the case of Mr. Conlon".
It has been suggested that the jury might have been influenced by the atmosphere of terror, atrocity and suspicion then pervading England, in the wake of those terrible bombings. I say no word against jury, judge, or those, including my right hon. and learned Friend the present Attorney-General, who appeared for the Crown. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary knows that our great system of justice is not infallible. Several persons convicted and imprisoned have recently been released. Giuseppe Conlon, it might be said, has already been released by his death.

Throughout the United Kingdom we defend the rule of law against anarchy and terrorism. Let the Conlon case be studied afresh by expert opinion—scientific as well as legal, for in the just struggle against terrorism we vitiate our cause unless we do all within our power to keep the sword and scales of justice clean and unsullied.

9.37 am

On 19 January this year I visited Patrick Joseph Giuseppe Conlon in Hammersmith hospital. It was obvious that he was seriously ill and dying. He told me that he knew he was dying and asked me to promise that if he died I would do everything possible to prove that he was innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted and sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) and I have over the months since Mr. Conlon's death been closely involved in trying to prove his innocence. The hon. Gentleman described how Mr. Conlon arrived in England, having left Belfast on 2 December 1974. He was a very ill man; he had suffered for 15 years from tuberculosis. He had come to London to try to arrange legal representation for his son, who had been charged with a very serious offence—the Guildford bombing.

Mr. Conlon arrived in London on 3 December, and visited his sister. He had a sleep, because he was very tired, very ill and out of breath. He had little to eat, because he was taking 26 tablets a day to deal with his lung and chest infection. He then went to a bar with his brother and friends. He was altogether seven hours in London.

The police picked up Mr. Conlon and his colleagues in London and arrested them. They took swab tests, and on the evidence of those tests Mr. Conlon and the others were found guilty of possessing explosives. The hon. Member for Epping Forest has rightly said that that was very flimsy evidence. It has been called into question by many eminent people. The hon. Member mentioned a few; let me mention some more. There was also the Cardinal Archbishop of Armagh, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and all the members of the legal profession involved in the case. Indeed, Mr. Conlon was advised to go to England by his Belfast solicitor, Mr. Ted Jones, who was planning to travel there the following day. By the time he would have arrived in England Mr. Conlon had been arrested.

Since the day of his arrest Mr. Conlon has pleaded his innocence, to the arresting officers, to the judge, to the jury, to the prison governor, to the prison warders, to the nurses who looked after him during his last illness in Hammersmith hospital and to myself on 19 January. He has pleaded consistently and incessantly his innocence of the charge on which he was convicted.

I recognise that it is an onerous responsibility for me to stand on the Floor of this House and to plead the innocence of Mr. Conlon, because he is no longer able to give any further information or to defend himself. I accept this onerous responsibility, but not lightly. I am supported by all of the persons to whom I have referred. The person who spoke on behalf of Mr. Conlon Mr. H. J. Yallop, was the person who perfected the test under which Mr. Conlon was convicted. Mr. Yallop is an eminent scientist. He found himself able to go into the witness box and speak on behalf of the persons who had been charged.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest said that Mr. Conlon bore none of the signs, such as suffering from headache, that might be expected from a person who had been dealing with nitroglycerine. It is still an unresolved question whether there cannot be millions of substances available which would show the same positive results as those shown in the test in question.

Mr. Quentin Edwards, QC, speaking in defence of the accused said in court:
"There are potentially millions of substances which would have the same chemical reaction … It must raise a very grave question about the reliability of the test if it stands alone. For this reason you need to have a confirmatory test. That was not done in this case, and that really does have serious dangers"
The minute material involved, or alleged to be involved, was about one-thousandth part of one grain of sugar. Mr. Yallop, the eminent scientist to whom I have referred, said in a letter to the hon. Member for Epping Forest:
"I must make it clear, however, that the evidence was very well considered at the trial and that the jury returned their verdict … Such people as I have spoken to about this case and who have expressed doubts have all had the same point in mind, namely that they feel that the jury came to the wrong verdict on the evidence put before them. However, the Appeal Court declined to upset this verdict".
In another letter Mr. Yallop says:
"My own feeling is that it would be good if this case could be reviewed. I would, however, have misgivings about a review by a member of the legal profession since this would inevitably lead to the suspicion that he would be tempted to whitewash his own profession. The right sort of make-up would be an academic lawyer and an academic chemist."
Here we have the man who perfected the test, who spent 30 years at Woolwich dealing with this type of material, and who is calling the verdict into question.

On 18 July the Home Secretary saw fit to release two men who had served 11 years in prison. Only yesterday, because of the representations of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), three further people had their names cleared because it was felt they had been wrongly convicted. These men, after having spent a considerable time in prison, were able to live to see their consciences cleared and their actions vindicated. That was not to be for Giuseppe Conlon. Giuseppe Conlon died in prison and he has left the responsibility with myself and a few others. The numbers will grow and their voice will be heard incessantly until justice is done in this case.

Mr. Conlon died in Hammersmith hospital, a very lonely man, far away from his friends and far away from his home. He has left a few people behind to try to clear his name because his name needs to be cleared. The stigma of the trial and of the offence for which he was convicted rests heavily on the shoulders of his wife, his daughters, and many other people in Northern Ireland. They will never rest until his name is cleared.

I ask the Home Secretary, whom I knew in his position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and in other aspects, as a man of humanity and compassion to review all the circumstances of this case. I ask him to do that without fear of the obstacles into which he will undoubtedly run. Many people throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom will wish to let sleeping dogs lie. They will say that the court has given its verdict, that the law has taken its course and that those people were rightly convicted.

I say, without fear or hesitation, that those people were wrongly convicted. I refer specifically to the case of Giuseppe Conlon, but if the other cases are called into question let it be so. I say that the Home Secretary—or his successors—will one day be forced to come to the Dispatch Box to say that Giuseppe Conlon was innocent of the crime of which he was convicted. The ghost of Giuseppe Conlon will not go away. He was wrongly convicted.

A few days before he died Mr. Conlon told his wife that if he were to die he could look God in the eye and say that he was innocent of that crime. He said the same thing to me on 19 January. He wanted to be proved innocent. If it happens it will be posthumous. It will not do him any good, but it will go to show that the famed British judicial system of which this country is rightly proud—a system famed all over the world—can make mistakes. It will show that when it does make mistakes they must be admitted and that those people who have been unjustly sentenced to terms of imprisonment can be cleared.

I make a heart-rending appeal to the Home Secretary on behalf of Giuseppe Conlon and his relations, and all those people in this country who believe in justice, to review this case. I am quite certain that on review it will be found that Giuseppe Conlon was not guilty of the crime of which he was convicted.

9.47 am

I intervene in this debate only because I have had recent experience of what my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) spoke about. It is possible for miscarriages of justice to take place in the English courts and it is sometimes takes a very long time for the courts to recognise their mistakes.

Perhaps I could correct one point so that the Minister of State does not need to do that. The Confait case, to which my hon. Friend kindly referred, was not one in which three young men were held in custody until recently. They were released in 1975. A subsequent inquiry, as it were, purported to reconvict them. That made it necessary for the statement to be made in the House yesterday and the extremely generous statement about reopening compensation discussions, for which I thank the Minister of State.

I wish to make two points about Mr. Conlon's case. Although I have been attempting to study cases of miscarriages of justice, I cannot say that I am fully familiar with the Conlon case. However, I see parallels.

When reviewing possible miscarriages of justice the Home Office must take into account the atmosphere of the court where a particular conviction takes place. One cannot ignore the possibility that in the Confait case, for which I was responsible, the three defendants who have now been proved absolutely and totally innocent, were convicted in an atmosphere of great hostility against young people in London at that time. Allusions to that atmosphere were made throughout the case in 1972.

I am quite sure that cases tried in English courts which deal with violence by the IRA cannot be fully distinguished by an English jury, in the way that other cases can be distinguished, from feelings of dislike and prejudice. As a result, I believe that the Conlon case is not the only miscarriage of justice to have taken place in Britain. I am most unhappy about some of the convictions resulting from the Birmingham pub bombings.

Where the Home Office is reviewing a trial that has taken place in this sort of atmosphere that is a fact that Ministers and various officials who review these things ought properly to take into account. I know that the Home Office has always said that it can take only new evidence into account. It knows that that is not true because the Home Office changed the formulation to new evidence or other considerations of substance. Roy Jenkins, when he was Home Secretary, included that extra consideration into the examination of possible miscarriages of justice.

I urge the Minister to accept that both the atmosphere and the forensic evidence are a consideration of substance that should be taken into account by him.

There is a tendency for forensic evidence to be considered by the courts to have some mystical scientific status which it does not have. The whole lesson of the Confait case was just that. The doctors talked to the court as though they were talking about exact scientific evidence. It has now become clear that they were not. It is clear to me from all I have heard about the scientific forensic evidence in the Conlon case that it falls four square into that category and is a proper matter for review.

I pay tribute to the Minister of State. In many ways in releasing Cooper and McMahon and in the statement that the Attorney-General made yesterday the Government have shown themselves to be highly sensitive to the reality that miscarriages of justice can take place. I urge the Minister of State, however, not to treat the Conlon case in any different category simply because Mr. Conlon is dead. I can assure the hon. And learned Gentleman that the hurt and the pain live on quite as much within the families of the victims of miscarriages of justice as they do in the individuals themselves. I add my voice to those of the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West in urging the Minister to reconsider this case most carefully.

9.53 am

The concern that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) have shown about this case is long standing. I respect them for their anxieties over the matter. As has been pointed out in the debate, that concern has been shared by other eminent people. I should also like to say how much I appreciate the kind words of the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) about the Government in matters of this kind. It is precisely because of the context in time of this and other cases that it is important to restate clearly the functions of the Home Secretary with regard to individual cases where a miscarriage of justice is alleged to have occurred.

It is important that the comparative roles of the Executive and the judiciary should not be blurred. They should be clear. If they are not, I do not believe that the long-term interests of justice are in any way served.

Under our constitution the duty of administering justice in individual cases is placed upon the courts. Accordingly, while the Home Secretary has certain powers to intervene in a criminal case he must not exercise them in any way that might tend to usurp the functions of the courts. I regard that as a principle that is absolutely cardinal to the proper working of our constitution. What that means in practice is, as has been said in the debate, that the Home Secretary can consider intervening only if some significant new evidence or other material consideration of substance comes to light that has not already been before the courts. I stress that what has to come to light has to be new. If it is new, the Home Secretary can consider intervening. If it is not new, he is merely placing himself as some sort of court of appeal, which would be quite wrong.

What the Home Secretary may not do is review the decisions of the courts on the basis of facts or arguments already considered by them or in any way act as a further court of appeal. In particular, it would be quite wrong for him to use his powers of intervention merely because, if the decision had rested with him, he might have taken a different view of the facts. The Home Secretary cannot act merely on the basis of suggestion or opinion—even his own opinion.

As has been said in the debate, Mr. Conlon was convicted in 1976 of the unlawful possession of nitroglycerine, and was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. Six others were convicted with him on identical charges. All applied for leave to appeal against their convictions and sentences, but their applications were dismissed by the Court of Appeal.

I assure the House that in considering the matter the fact that Mr. Conlon is dead has played no part, and will play no part whatsoever, in the Home Secretary's mind.

The circumstances leading to the convictions were as follows. On the evening of 3 December 1974, police officers were keeping watch on the west London home of Mrs. Anne Maguire, to whom Mr. Conlon was related, her husband, their four children and Mrs. Maguire's brother, Mr. William Smyth. At the time Mr. Conlon was staying there, and a friend of the Maguires, Mr. O'Neill, was also Present that evening. As has been mentioned, Mr. Conlon had come to London only that day from Belfast, on hearing that his son Gerard had been arrested for complicity in the bombing of two public houses in Guildford.

At about 7.45 pm Mr. Conlon, Mr. Maguire, Mr. Smyth and Mr. O'Neill left the house. Police officers followed them to a public house but did not wait. About an hour later police officers called at the Maguires' house to inquire about IRA bombing incidents. The house was searched, but it is right to say that no explosives of any kind were found there or, indeed, in empty neighbouring houses that were searched later. The only evidence of substance found in the house was a pair of plastic disposable gloves, which Mrs. Maguire claimed that she wore to stop an ointment that she used for a skin disease getting around the house. These were taken for scientific examination.

Subsequently, the four men, Mrs. Maguire and the four children were taken to different police stations. Swabs of their hands and scrapings from their fingernails were taken and sent to the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment at Woolwich, where they were tested by a technique known as "thin layer chromatography", which is designed to detect nitroglycerine. The tests proved positive for all except Mrs. Maguire and two of her children. However, tests on Mrs. Maguire's gloves were positive. All except the two children were charged.

As has been said, the case for the Crown rested almost entirely on expert evidence on the results of the chromatography tests. The defence challenged that evidence vigorously, fielding its own experts, including, as its main scientific witness, Mr. Yallop, who has been referred to. I stress that Mr. Yallop was a defence witness at the trial. The points that he made against the validity of the tests were made at the trial, with the full force of his reputation behind him. That fact was considered by the Court of Appeal. The defence argued that the tests used could not eliminate the possibility that some substance other than nitroglycerine was present and that further tests should have been made. The Crown, on the other hand, argued that that was not necessary, and brought evidence of research which, it was claimed, showed that the possibility of innocent contamination was too remote to be seriously considered.

Not surprisingly, the appeals have also centred on the forensic evidence. Numerous grounds were put forward on behalf of Mr. Conlon and his co-defendants. In brief, they were that there was insufficient evidence to put to the jury and that the trial judge had given inadequate or incorrect directions to the jury about the significance and admissibility of the expert evidence for the Crown and the significance of that for the defence. The Court of Appeal considered these issues which were substantially the same issues as were put to my right hon. Friend and have been canvassed in the House today. The hearing lasted 10 days and the Court of Appeal delivered a judgment, the transcript of which runs to 53 pages. Lord Justice Roskill, who delivered the judgment, said:
"We have considered all these seven applications individually in detail with the utmost care, as we hope the detailed terms of this long judgment will show, and in the light of the elaborate and most helpful arguments of counsel for all the applicants, for which we express our sincere gratitude. But at the end no member of this Court sees any reason for disturbing these convictions either on the basis that any of them is unsafe or unsatisfactory or that the learned judge was guilty of any non-direction or misdirection or that his summing-up was in any way unbalanced."
None the less, there are those who say, as has been said today, that Mr. Conlon and those convicted with him were innocent. Many points have been made on Mr. Conlon's behalf and I shall deal with some of them later.

I begin, however, by dealing with one persistent rumour in which there is no substance whatsoever. From time to time there have been reports to the effect that the men concerned in what has come to be known as the Balcombe Street seige have claimed responsibility for the offence for which Mr. Conlon and Mrs. Maguire were tried and imprisoned. That is not true. Those men claimed that they were responsible also for the Woolwich and Guildford bombings. Mr. Conlon and Mrs. Maguire were never thought to have been involved in those offences. Nor is the claim new. Indeed, it was the main ground of appeal put forward by those convicted of the Woolwich and Guildford bombings and was unhesitatingly rejected by the Court of Appeal.

It is said, and has been pointed out today, that Mr. Conlon's recent arrival in this country to be near his son indicated that he was innocent of any intent to take part in the offence of which he was convicted. It may be that he travelled to this country with an innocent mind, but that does not mean that when he got here he did not take part in an offence. The Court of Appeal, to which this point was put when it was considering the matter, accepted that he had only recently arrived because of his son's arrest but commented that, whatever the period of his stay in the house, he must have known perfectly well what was going on and lent himself to the activities.

I recognise that those who feel disquiet about Mr. Conlon's case do so chiefly on account of what they see as deficiencies in the scientific evidence. Whatever doubts they or others may entertain, nothing new has been put forward that would justify my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in taking action.

Mr. Yallop, the main scientific witness for the defence, who used to work at Woolwich, where the tests were carried out, is now a private consultant. But he was the witness for the defence at the trial, his evidence was in favour of the defence and it was scrutinised at the time. He has been reported in the press—though I understand that he wishes to dissociate himself from these reports—as saying that the test used is not reliable and cannot be regarded as conclusive; it did not prove that the substance found was nitroglycerine; it might, for example, have been something present in tobacco smoke. As I said, I am not competent to comment on Mr. Yallop's scientific judgment. The real point is that none of this is new, since Mr. Yallop put precisely these points in his evidence at the trial.

Will the Minister confirm that in the Confait case there was no new consideration of any kind and no new evidence put to the Home Office, although in that case it was happy to refer that matter back? Is it not true that the material consideration does not need to have the same property of newness, as it were—which it did not have in the Confait cas—as new evidence?

It must be new, and I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. I regret to say that there is nothing new here. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest that if there were to be something new—if something new emerges—it would most certainly be considered with the care with which we consider any of these matters. However, the fact remains that neither new evidence nor a new consideration have arisen in this case at present.

While I respect the views of those hon. Members who have spoken, I have to say that it is for those reasons that at present there are no grounds on which my right hon. Friend would be justified in taking any action.