When Gerry Conlon’s conviction for the 1974 Guildford pub bombings was quashed in 1989, after he had been in prison for 15 years, he gave a furious statement outside the Old Bailey, vowing to continue the fight for justice. “I’m a totally innocent man. I watched my father die in a British prison for something he didn’t do. He is innocent. The Maguires are innocent,” he shouted. Daniel Day Lewis gave a version of the speech when he played Conlon in In The Name of the Father, which told the story of the Guildford Four. A Great British Injustice: The Maguire Story(BBC Two) focuses instead on the family who were also caught up in the miserable saga and whose lives were devastated by the same shocking miscarriage of justice.
It is an outrageous story told by those at the centre of it, and it is a testament to the strength of the surviving Maguires that they are able to talk about it with such clarity. Conlon’s false confession implicated his father’s sister-in-law, Anne Maguire, who was arrested in Kilburn, north-west London, by police who insisted the Maguire family home was also a bomb factory. The use of archive footage does a remarkable job of conjuring up the atmosphere of the 1970s, when anti-Irish sentiment in the UK had been whipped up against a backdrop of IRA bombings. One news report from the time painted Anne as “Auntie Annie”, a sleeper agent who had disguised herself as a quiet family woman, storing bombs in the kitchen “as you might store corned beef”.
“I couldn’t even put a fuse in that plug,” says Anne Maguire today, still incredulous, admitting that she weeps even now over the long, wasted years that followed. Along with her brother-in-law Giuseppe Conlon, her brother Sean Smyth, a family friend Patrick O’Neill, her husband Patrick, and her two teenage sons, Vincent and Patrick, she was eventually convicted of possessing nitroglycerine, based on traces of explosives found underneath their fingernails, or in Anne’s case, on a pair of gloves. The Maguire Seven, as they became known, served sentences ranging from four to 14 years, apart from Giuseppe Conlon, Gerry’s father, who died in prison in 1980. Their convictions were eventually quashed in 1991, the forensic evidence, the only evidence, widely dismissed.
Presenter Stephen Nolan is not quite an impartial observer, and this is an emotional, invested documentary, in which he has fostered the trust of the surviving Maguires, who open up to him about the terrible effects these wrongful convictions wrought upon their lives. The younger Patrick [photo, top] was 14 when he was sent to a category A adult prison. His face cracking with pain throughout his story, he explains that he believes his childhood ended there. Anne remembers being so affronted by what they had been accused of she asked the police van to let her out into a crowd of anti-Irish protesters bearing placards that called for her to be hanged. “Let me out and I’ll tell them we’re not those people,” she said. They talk of violent beatings by the officers who questioned them; Anne says she had a gun held to her head. “None of you broke,” says Nolan to Vincent Maguire. “We had nothing to break for,” he replies.
In among the layers of corruption and incompetence – other confessions that were not investigated, alibis ignored – there are moments that would be written out of a potboiler for stretching credulity. Nobody bothered to find out that Anne and her husband Patrick were members of the local Conservative club, or that he had served in the British army. Anne talks of being punched and kicked by interrogating officers, but even in her recollections of what they said to her, she can’t bring herself to use their language. “Get up, you Irish ‘B’, you murdering ‘B’,” she reports, instead.
In 2005, the then prime minister Tony Blair offered a formal apology to the Maguires, but, as with the quashed conviction, they do not see it as a cause for celebration. Nolan presses the point that, even now, justice has not been done: nobody has been held responsible. And yet, it manages to end on as touching a note as is possible, when, at the close of a brutal testimony, Patrick declares himself to be lucky to have had Anne as his mother. This is a harrowing story, infuriating and awful and tragic, but the participants have found what light they could, where they could find it.