The Guildford Four: And one law for the Irish
The appeal by an English girl and three Irishmen, currently being heard at the Old Bailey in London, 'says something most unpalatable about the attitudes of English courts to Irish people and their acquaintances'. John Shirley wrote the ITV documentary 18 Months to Balcombe Street, and is co-author of a Penguin on the English police, The Fall of Scotland Yard.
By JOHN SHIRLEY
THE MOST DISTURBING single aspect of the appeals by those convicted for the Guildford and Woolwich public house bombings, which marked the start of phase two of the Provisional IRA's offensive on the British mainland three years ago, is that it has taken so long for doubts about their guilt to be raised in public.
The bombings took place in late 1974: on October 5, the Horse and Groom in Guildford, Surrey, a public house popular with British soldiers, blew up killing five people; later the same night another Guildford hostelry, the Seven Stars, exxploded (although no-one died because the bars had been evacuated). A month later, on November:", a bomb was lobbed in through the window of the King's Arms, Woolwich, another public house frequented by British military personnel. It was pay-night in the town and the bars were packed. Two patrons died, another 35 were injured.
In October, 1975, a year later almost to the day, four people were convicted for their part in the affair. Patrick Armmstrong (27) and Paul Hill, (23) were jailed for life on murder charges in connnection with the Horse and Groom and King's Arms killings; Gerald Conlon (23) was sent to prison for the Guilddford bombings; and Carole Richardson (17), Armstrong's girlfriend, was senntenced to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure for her involvement in the attacks in Guildford.
The case against them was simple to the point of being alarming. The police claimed that Armstrong, a volunteer from the Belfast Provisionals, had come to England in November 1973, drifted around and become involved with Richardson, a rootless English teenager who was said to have formed a romantic attachment to the cause ofIrish freedom. The following August, Hill and Conlon, both Provisionals from Belfast, had crossed the water, met up with Armmstrong and begun to lay the foundations of an active service unit (ASU) in London and Southampton. For five weeks, they had liased by telephone between the capital and the coast, until late on in September, when they had been ordered into action ..
At two meetings in the Memphis Belle, a public house in Kilburn, the Guildford jobs had supposedly been arranged. Other unidentified members of the unit had already taken reconnaisssance photographs of the scene. It was said that the four went down to Surrey in two cars, with four other (unknown) persons, primed up their bombs on the outskirts of the town and separated.
Armstrong and Carole Richardson went to the Horse and Groom, where they kissed and cuddled in a corner as they planted their bomb; Hill and Conlon (possibly accompanied by another woman) went to the Seven Stars.
A month later, it was said, Hill and Armstrong, accompanied by perhaps three others, had driven to the Kings Arms, Woolwich, parked their car, walked up to a window and thrown a bomb in through the glass. They were back inside the car and off before the explosion happened.
The Surrey police, undoubtedly influenced by the hysteria which swept the town, pulled in 42 suspects. 17 were taken down to Guildford to be held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which became effective the very same weekend) and eventually three were issued with Exclusion Orders. From the statements of 150 eye-witnesses, an artist's impression, supposedly showing the courting couple, Armstrong and Richardson, was drawn up and a photofit prepared of what appeared to be a woman with shoulder-length blonde hair.
But in November, a British Army Intelligence Officer perusing the pictures in Belfast, recognised the photefit as being not a woman, but Paul Hill, an Ardoyne Provisional wanted for the murder of an SAS officer. An informer was paid £350 for Hill's address in Southampton, and on arrest Hill connfessed it all and implicated Conlon, who was picked up two days later. Soon' afterwards, Richardson was arrested: and she quickly led the police to Armmstrong.
At the trial all four vainly pleaded innocence. Armstrong and Richardson claimed to have been at a dance some miles away the .night the Guildford pubs blew up, indeed they called memmbers of the band 'J ack the Lad', and they testified to the truth of this alibi.
But the police produced confessions from all four which showed varying degrees of involvement in the two bombbings. All four retracted these confessions, but they were Irish, or Irish sympathisers (Hill and Condon certainly had Proovisional connections) and the outcome of the trial, comfortingly to the British public, was never really in much doubt.
OF COURSE, this cosy version of events has now been rudely challlenged by the statements of 'Irish Joe' O'Connell, and Edward Butler, two of the four Provisionals arrested at the end of the Balcombe Street siege in December 1975, as well as by that of a third man, Brendan Dowd, an original member of the Balcombe Street Active Service Unit, arrested in the North of England (some months before the. siege took place).
The leader of that group, O'Connell, now says (on oath) that it was he, 'not Patrick Armstrong, who came to England in the latter part of 1973 to organise the ASU. Further, that the following summer, he returned again from Ireland with another unnamed man and Dowd, that he and Dowd prepared the bombs for Guildford, before travelling down to plant them with the unnamed third man and two girls (both of whom were Irish). If this scenario is correct, the kissing couple in the Horse and Groom were Dowd and one of the Irish women, not Armstrong and his girlfriend Richardson, as the police believed. Again, according to O'Connell, the people at the Seven Stars were himself and the unnamed other man, together with the second girl, not Hill and Conlon and a female whom the police could not identify. And Dowd - quite independently - supports this version of events.
As far as Woolwich is concerned, O'Connell's statements again rule out the involvement of Paul Hill and Patrick Armstrong. He says he made the bombs himself, that Dowd drove him down to South-East London, and that while he lobbed it through the window of the King's Arms personally, he was protected by the shotgun guard of Edward Butler, who had arrived in England (at the same time as a third Balcombe Street man, Harry Duggan) following the Guildford attacks. (The fourth Balcombe Street defendant, Hugh Doherty, did not come over to the mainland until Christmas of that year, and is irrelevant to this analysis.)
Again, this version of events conforms to the (quite separate) accounts of Dowd and Butler, who told the Metropolitan Police Bomb Squad interrogators after his arrest at Balcombe -Street that his first job had been the Woolwich bombing. Butler, who was something of a gun-freak, even specified the weapon that he had been carrying that night: a .38 handgun.
To some extent, a comparison ~of these tW9 scenarios is a numbers game. If the police were right in their belief that eight people went to Guildford, then it could be that it was some commbination of the four convicted younggsters, together with a number of O'Connell's team. Similarly, the three additional personnel supposedly involved at Woolwich might well have been O'Connell, Dowd, and Butler, as "they themselves admitted. But since at least three more Provos - two women and a man who were active with O'Connell's" unit at some point in their London campaign - are now alive and well and living in Dublin, we shall probably never really know the truth of who did what, and when and why, and where in these events.
Another possibility is that Armstrong, Richardson, Hill and Conlon were indeed together at the pubs in Guildford and at Woolwich, and were - as the police implied - the vanguard of the Provisionnals' mainland assault, which ran from October 1974 until the siege at Balcombe Street in December 1975. If this is true, then O'Connell's tactic in his fresh ad-
missions has merely been to try to get some useful operators released. Certainly in his statement to the Bomb Squad, O'Connell's colleague, Butler, suggests that Paul Hill might have confessed involvement in the Guildford job to save himself from the wrath of the Belfast Provisionals, who suspected him of leaking to the Brits (an aside that casts an interesting light on who really shoppped Hill in Belfast originally ... ). But against that dark idea, it must be regisstered that all three men - O'Connell, Butler and Dowd -' have made their statements with regard to Guidford and Woolwich quite independently, and that it is a very long time indeed since they were in any position to sit together and conspire a complex plot designed to spring old mates.
OF COURSE, the real doubts about his case do not concern this sort of petty substitution. They revolve around a comparison of the style of operation of everyone involved. The frightening aspect of it all is that these doubts were, in truth, available to the Old Bailey jury who, in 1975, sent the miserable quartet of Armstrong, Richard-: son, Hill and Conlon to prison in the first place.
Firstly, there was the question of bases, from which a complex set of bombing raids such as London saw that autumn might have been organised.
Before the Guildford assault, Armstrong and Richardson had been squatters, living precariously in a variety of North London slums; Hill and Conlon had for some time stayed together at a single persons' hostel in Kilburn. But the doors of their rooms inside that hostel could not be locked, and a squatter's pad could hardly be regarded as a safe house for storing gelignite, detonators and the like.
Secondly, there was a' problem of their lifestyles. Patrick Armstrong and Carole Richardson were drug-takers, dabbling quite frequently with cannabis and amphetamines, They showed no regard for personal hygiene, indeed at the time of their arrest both were infeccted with lice. Neither seemed capable of holding down a regular job. In less than a year Armstrong, for instance, had been a plumber's mate, a restaurant kitchen hand and a hotel porter. On the face of it, they might appear inadequate to qualify as fr~nt-line soldiers in an authorritarian (and Catholic) army like the Provisionals.
Then there was the difficulty of their origins. Carole Richardson was English, and blatantly unreliable with it. True, Armstrong, Hill and Conlon were from Ireland, and had undoubtedly been involved at some level in the republican struggle. But the significant point was that they were Northerners, and by the time they came to trial it was apparent to the mildest of observers that the mayhem that was sweeping London was being directed not from Belfast, but from Dublin (which had taken firm control of the mainland offensive after the debacle of the Old Bailey bornbs of March 1973).
If all of this was not enough to cast the seed of doubt into a jury's mind, there was the question of a small, and quite bizarre, incident that occurred between the night the Guildford pubs were blown to pieces and the arrests that followed. Walking out one evening, Carole Richardson was assaulted by a drunk. Together with her boyfriend Armstrong she escaped, but the following evening the assailant arrived at her front door to renew his disagreement, The 'courageous' Armstrong ran through the house and bolted over the garden fence to safety. Terrified that the attack might be repeated yet again, Richardson and Armstrong went next day into their local police station to lodge a complaint in their own names and to ask for aid. In the light of their subsequent conviction, it should be remembered that they were at the time two of the most wanted people wandering around the British Isles. They were, to put it mildly, taking something of a risk.
All of this was known when the Guildford/Woolwich trial started at the Old Bailey in the autumn of 1975. By that time it was apparent also that the arrests of Armstrong, Richardson, Hill and Conlon had not stopped the bombbing: indeed in the intervening period London had been subjected to a devasstating guerrilla campaign, run - as we now know - by a dedicated, disciplined group of Dublin-based Provisionals, serviced regularly with material from Ireland and effectively isolated from the Irish community in the capital. Their skill eluded the British for a further 12 months, until one night their confidence overcame them and they foolishly decided to return to the scene of one of their crimes, Scott's Restaurant, in Mayfair, to hit it for a second time, a fatal error that led to the siege of Balcombe Street and prison.
That it was only after these events that Messrs. Armstrong, Richardson, Hill and Conlon got even a chance to air their grievances in anything approaching a sane climate of opinion says something most unpalatable about the attitudes of English courts to Irish people, and their acquaintances.