Trial and Error: The Maguires, the Guildford Pub Bombings and British Justice by Robert Kee - review by Paul Foot

Paul Foot

Out For a Drink

Trial and Error: The Maguires, the Guildford Pub Bombings and British Justice


Hamish Hamilton 284pp £10.95 order from our bookshop

This is the story of two crimes. The first was the bombing by the IRA of two pubs in Guildford in October 1974. Five people were killed, and many others horribly injured. The indiscriminate slaughter and maiming of innocent people out for a drink is here described in gory detail, and is as shocking now as it was to the entire nation at the time.

The second crime followed a few weeks later. The Surrey Police were low on information about IRA activities. After blundering about for several weeks, they picked up (for payment of £350) a piece of information from a police informer in Belfast. The information led them to Paul Hill, a young man who had come to England from Belfast apparently to escape the wrath of the Provisional IRA from whom he had stolen a rifle.

Surrey police swooped on Hill as he visited his girlfriend in Southampton. In the days that followed they got from him a confession of how he had taken part in the Guildford bombings. Hill made six statements, which are full of contradictions and immediately obvious lies. He named as his conspirators almost everyone he had met in the Irish community of North West London since his arrival. ‘I picked them out of the blue’ he explained later. ‘The first ones anyway. Then it took on its own momentum.’ He named Paul Colman, John Macguiness, Brian Anderson, Sean Mullin. All of these were arrested and were soon able to clear themselves of any involvement in the bombings. He named Paddy Armstrong, Gerald Conlon, and a young English girl called Carole Richardson. These three were also arrested. They too made ‘confessions’ which were almost immediately retracted as soon as the confessors were allowed to see their lawyers and friends.

They claimed, then and now, that the confessions were extracted by psychological and physical violence.

‘At this stage once policeman hit me,’ said Carole Richardson. ‘I lifted my arms to my face and he punched me in the ribs. Another policeman was shouting at me that I was a murdering bitch, and how did it feel to murder people. ‘W’ then said that if ‘L’ left the room I would be spattered all round it. That was the worst part of it.’

There was much more of this and then Carole confessed. She had a cast-iron alibi. She was at a pop concert with a friend. The concert started in South London some fifty minutes after the bomb was planted. When her friend went voluntarily to the police to tell them where Carole was, he too was arrested, threatened with a murder charge, beaten up and ‘persuaded’ to alter his statement, so that Carole, if she had been driven from the bombing in a car which hurtled through the late rush-hour traffic breaking the speed limits, could have made it to the concert just in time.

Conlon and Armstrong confessed in similar circumstances. Annie Maguire an office cleaner with a large family, who had also been named in two of the confessions, did not confess despite what she describes as the most vulgar and despicable torture by the Surrey Police. She was charged, with many of her family, with handling nitroglicerine, and sentenced to fourteen years.

The murder case went ahead against Hill, Conlon, Armstrong and Carole Richardson. The only evidence against them was their confessions. There was no identification evidence and no forensic evidence against any of the four. Apart from Hill, none of them had any real contact with the IRA. The idea that the four drop-outs from North London were part of a ruthless and effective IRA bomb squad looked most unlikely.

Prosecution counsel Sir Michael Havers proceeded diligently with his task. He is now Mrs Thatcher’s Attorney General. Mr Justice Donaldson leaned heavily in favour of the police case. He is now Master of the Rolls. Not long after the four were convicted, another (real) IRA gang was caught at Balcombe Street. Two of its members admitted to taking part in the Guildford bombings. They described the pubs in detail. They showed how they had carried out other bombings with exactly similar devices elsewhere. They fitted descriptions given by local people. They categorically denied that any of the four convicted people had anything to do with the Guildford bombings. Yet, when the four appealed, the Court of Appeal sided with the Surrey Police, Havers and Donaldson. Yes, they agreed, these IRA men might have been at Guildford – as well as the people who had been convicted!

The police of course deny that they used any violence against any of the four to get the confessions. Is it really credible in good old liberal England that such monstrous things can happen? Yes, it is. In the Birmingham bombings case, which arose from the same IRA campaign, confessions were said to be extracted by force from six innocent men who are still in prison. In the Carl Bridgewater murder case, the prosecution depended entirely on a confession forced out of a terrified Irish crook.

Robert Kee’s book can give some hope to the four young people who were so horribly framed for the Guildford bombings, and who are still rotting in prison twelve years later. From time to time, he loses the thread of the narrative in the welter of statements and characters with which he has to deal. He is also hedged about by the libel laws, which appear to stop him from alleging outright, for instance, (as he clearly believes), that Mrs Maguire and her family were planted with the nitroglicerine which so mysteriously appeared from tests on their hands though not a trace of it was found in their house or anywhere near it, and there was not a moment in the day when they were supposed to have been handling it when they were out of police observation. Nevertheless, his basic charge comes through loud and clear. It is reinforced by some sympathetic description of the world in which his main characters lived:

It was not the sort of life to leave memorials. The roughest records of incidents from everyday experience alone survive to give glimpses – and no more than hazy glimpses – of what it was really like to live in Linstead Street. And yet, because in this particular little corner, the sub-culture was to be so swiftly and overwhelmingly eclipsed by the moral juggernaut from which these people had voted themselves free, such glimpses reveal, in retrospect, if not exactly dignity, at least the pathos of all human beings trying to make something tolerable of their lives.

That is rather unfashionable writing in an age which prefers to measure human worth in quick bucks. It harks back to a softer, more democratic age in which the conviction of innocent people by battering confessions out of them in dark and cold police cells would have given rise to an unstoppable indignation.

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