You only live twice: Paul Hill is one of the real Guildford Four. Since his release, in 1989, real life has taken a turn that no screenwriter could have dreamed up. In the best Hollywood rags-to-riches tradition, he's become a star and married a Kennedy

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A FEW MONTHS ago, the actor Tommy Lee Jones handed his new pal, Paul Hill, a big cigar. Hill tucked it in his pocket and forgot about it. That is, until a waiter at Boston's trendiest restaurant came scurrying across the floor, wagging his finger.

The waiter had no idea who Hill was. He blended in with the beautiful people. His shoulder-length hair, which he pushes back from his face, has blond highlights now. He'd been smoking more than usual because his body clock was out of sync. He was working as a consultant on a film called Blown Away, starring Jones and Jeff Bridges, and they'd been shooting on Boston's narrow streets until dawn. Before they'd sat down to dinner, the film's cast had sought special dispensation from the restaurant's owner to ignore the no-smoking rule. But as soon as Hill lit up, the waiter was on top of him.

This was one of those days that tried the patience of Paul Michael Hill. A few hours earlier, he'd been standing at the cash register in Cache, a smart women's boutique, buying clothes for his wife. He had about dollars 500-worth piled up on the counter.

'I'm sorry, sir,' the assistant said. 'They won't approve this.'

'Who won't?' Hill asked.

'American Express.'

'But it's a Gold Card,' Hill replied.

'I can't do anything about it, sir. I just called American Express and they won't approve it.'

'Give me the phone.'

Mr American Express was lucky he was in Florida, or wherever he was, because Paul Hill was fit to be tied by now, demanding an apology and approval for his purchases.

'You're a fraud,' the American Express guy told him.

'I'm a what?' Hill exclaimed.

'You're a fraud.'

'Lookit, you asshole,' Hill said, 'I'm not a fuckin' cross- dresser. If I wanted to commit fraud, I sure as hell wouldn't be in here buying women's clothes.'

A crowd was gathering. The saleswomen were looking at each other. 'Call the police,' Hill told one of them. 'Call the police.'

Soon a couple of Boston cops showed up.

'Arrest me,' Paul Hill told them. The cops looked at each other.

'Arrest me,' said Hill. 'This asshole at American Express won't approve my purchase. He says I'm a fraud. That means the card is stolen. Arrest me.'

'We can't arrest you,' stuttered one of the cops, incredulous.

'Either I've broken the law or I haven't,' Hill said. 'Now, either you arrest me, or you tell this asshole to approve my purchase.'

'Now, look here, buddy,' the other cop, the big one, said, 'don't tell me how to do my job.'

The rest was academic. Paul Hill had won. He had, after all, stood up to worse aggravation than this in his time. And he can aggravate back.

'The funny thing is,' Hill was saying later, 'the guy from American Express was a black guy. I could tell by the way he talked. I was almost about to tell him: 'Hey, listen, man. Your people have been oppressed. I can relate to that. But now you're starting to act like them.' But I didn't say anything. Maybe he was just having a bad day.'

Certainly, Paul Hill was having a bad day. But then, everything is relative. Four years ago, he was sitting in Gartree, doing life for murder. And now here he was, basking in the reflected glory of In the Name of the Father, a critically acclaimed film about the Guildford Four, worrying about his Amex Gold Card and the no-smoking rule at a posh restaurant, with his buddy Tommy Lee Jones across the table and his new wife back home.

Of all the reversals of fortune Paul Hill has encountered since 1989, when he was cleared of his role in the 1974 Guildford bombings, maybe none was as curious as his marriage last June to Courtney Kennedy, daughter of Bobby, niece of Jack, and a member of the richest, most powerful of all Irish-American families. After 15 years in prison, the street kid from West Belfast now rubs elbows with Hollywood stars, Washington power-brokers and Manhattan socialites. He doesn't want for money or high-powered connections; and as for officious waiters, he deals with them as if he had been eating in fashionable restaurants all his life.

Back in Boston, a compromise was worked out with the restaurant and Hill was allowed to sit at the bar and smoke. By this time though he had gone through too much to settle for a cigarette. He whipped out the cigar.

'He doesn't smoke cigars,' Courtney Kennedy said later, shaking her head. 'He was just trying to start trouble.'

THE CONVENTIONAL wisdom about Hill's metamorphosis into a US socialite is that Joe Kennedy, the congressman, fixed him up with his little sister. It's a little more complicated than that. Joe and Courtney Kennedy are two of Robert and Ethel Kennedy's 11 children. It was despite, or perhaps because of the assassination of his father and his uncle, that Joe Kennedy became a politician.

While they are a glittering American political dynasty, the Kennedys retain a strong link with Ireland, their ancestral home. On Capitol Hill, Joe Kennedy has been a consistent voice on Irish issues, more outspoken than his uncle, Senator Edward Kennedy. Joe Kennedy has criticised the IRA campaign and the British Government's response to it with equal vigour.

Hill says that he had an affection for the Kennedys before meeting any of them. 'They're haves that give a damn about have-nots,' he says.

Joe Kennedy and Hill became fast friends in the late 1980s, when the congressman championed the cause of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, visiting them in prison. In April 1990, not long after the Guildford Four were released, Joe Kennedy invited Hill and Gerry Conlon to testify before a congressional hearing on human rights. Ethel Kennedy was in the audience, and was especially taken by Hill's presentation.

'What he said, and how he said it, was very powerful,' Mrs Kennedy recalls. A direct person, she walked right up to Paul Hill and introduced herself, explaining how she wished that her daughter, Courtney, had been able to attend, because she was intrigued by Ireland and especially the problem in the North. But Courtney had hurt her neck in a skiing accident and was laid up in her Manhattan apartment.

Ethel Kennedy asked if Hill was by any chance going to be in New York. 'Well, as a matter of fact . . .' he began. Before he knew what was happening, Mrs Kennedy had given him the address.

Standing in an elevator on Fifth Avenue, Hill was kicking himself. He had been locked up for 15 years, and free drink and adoration awaited at hundreds of Irish pubs from Manhattan to Queens. Yet here he was, going to a luncheon - a luncheon ] - with an injured rich girl he'd never met.

'I couldn't understand a word he said,' Courtney Kennedy recalls, hearing a Belfast accent in person for the first time. 'But I thought: 'He's gorgeous.' ' Hill's first impression wasn't as romantic: so many flowers, it looked like a wake. But the next night they went to Desmond's, a Manhattan restaurant and discovered that they both possessed, as Hill puts it, a sick sense of humour.

Courtney's 10-year marriage to a television executive was just ending (as was Hill's first marriage). She decided to write to Hill in London, who wrote back. A series of letters followed. Courtney came to visit him. They went to parties together and liked each other's company. Courtney says she was worried about rushing Paul. She knew Kennedys could be intimidating.

'I'm not fazed by celebrity,' Hill says. 'Lou Reed and Leonard Cohen are the only two people I'd go out of my way to meet. And maybe Neil Young.'

When he was in prison, Hill listened to Leonard Cohen a lot, something that people at smart Manhattan cocktail parties find amusing. 'People tell me: 'Oh, but he's a manic depressive.' And I say: 'I was in prison for 15 years for something I didn't do. I wasn't exactly on holiday.' '

PAUL HILL grew up in Leeson Street, just off the Falls Road, in West Belfast. His father was a Protestant, his mother a Catholic. Paul was the eldest of five children. His grandfather was a British soldier who had endured hardship as a prisoner of the Japanese during the Second World War. His father served in the Royal Navy, from which he was honourably discharged after being hurt in Korea.

Hill didn't get along with his father. One day, he announced that he was moving in with his grandparents, around the corner. He was seven years old, and he didn't go back.

He remained close to his mother, though and made a point of seeing her every day. But even with her he was defiant.

''Did you ever see the film A River Runs Through It? There's that scene where the wee boy won't finish his supper. He sits there and his parents and his brother leave, and he's left there to finish it. But he won't finish it. That's me. I was that boy. I'd take a thrashing before I'd do something I didn't want to.'

In November 1963, Paul Hill was nine years old. He was one of the tough little paper boys who sold the Belfast Telegraph by walking through pubs, jumping on and off buses, chanting the word 'Telly' with a resonance and tone that made them seem three times their age.

One night, Hill was hawking the Telegraph on the Falls Road when he began to notice that something was not right. Adults kept stopping each other on the street, with purpose, exchanging words, then stunned stares. Women were crying openly. A man ran up to Hill and took a Telegraph out of his hand, racing his eyes over the front page, then the next one, and the next. 'It's not there. It's not there,' the man said, before wandering off. John F Kennedy had died too late in the day to make the city edition of the Belfast Telegraph.

A few days later, Hill was with his mother in a small shop that sold odds and ends. He saw his mother and the shopkeeper engage in a long conversation, which ended when his mother explained she had to go home to get more money. After they had returned home, his mother handed him some money, instructing him to return to the store with it.

Hill did as he was told and was handed a framed picture. Outside, on the pavement, he studied the photograph. It was of a small boy, much younger than him. The boy was dressed in a heavy wool coat, but his legs were bare. The boy was wearing shorts. And the boy was saluting. The boy was John F Kennedy Jr, son of the dead president. Paul Hill would marry his cousin 30 years later.

THE HORRIFIC bombings at Guildford, and the subsequent judicial travesties that led to Hill, Gerry Conlon, Paddy Armstrong and Carole Richardson serving 15 years in prison, are well documented; Courtney Kennedy's last 25 years less so.

She was 11 when her father, Robert Kennedy, was killed in 1968. 'I did not react well,' she says. 'I wasn't rebellious, like the boys. I just kept things in. I was unhappy.'

By the age of 12, while most of her friends were worrying about acne and boys, Courtney had an ulcer. She didn't like school and, after a less than glowing scholastic career, drifted from job to job, not quite sure of what she wanted. It was when she visited Ireland with her sister, Kerry, that she felt an affinity for the country her great-grandparents had left a century before. So she enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin, although she admits that she wasn't much of a student.

After this, she settled in New York City and married, in 1980. It didn't work out. She didn't like being a Manhattan housewife. 'I was not comfortable with that lifestyle,' she says. 'I am comfortable being Mrs Paul Hill.'

ON THE 25th anniversary of his death last summer, a Mass was held for Bobby Kennedy. One of his successors, the present Attorney General, Janet Reno, invited the Kennedy family into his old Washington office. For Courtney and her brothers and sisters, it was an emotional moment. Hill was moved, too. Still, he had a funny feeling. He felt eyes on the back of his neck. He noticed two hulking federal agents, all dark glasses, earphones and attitudes. Were they looking at him? Did they know? At one point, the tension seemed to rise because no one was saying anything. Courtney's brother, Max, and his wife, Vicki, got there late. Max Kennedy nodded to everyone, then looked at his new brother-in-law.

'Jesus, Paul,' Max Kennedy said, 'things really have changed. You're usually in the basement in places like this.'

Everybody laughed, including Hill. But he was stunned when Reno approached him and took him aside for a private conversation. You know, said, I have a friend who served 15 years in a Cuban prison. You two must get together and talk.

Courtney Kennedy accompanies Hill on his speaking engagements. She admires his passion. Invited to speak before a presumably sympathetic Amnesty International conference at Georgetown University in Washington, he lambasted the audience, saying that they employed a double standard in viewing injustices in Britain and Ireland and the same kind of abuse of power in South Africa and Central America.

After a three-year courtship, the couple decided to get married on a yacht in the Aegean last June. Their two-month honeymoon was spent in Ireland, mostly in Doolin, a tiny village in County Clare that is the mecca of Irish traditional music. For Paul's 39th birthday, on 13 August (a Friday), they threw an all-night party. About 40 Kennedys from the family's ancestral village, New Ross in Wexford, showed up. 'It was amazing,' Courtney says. 'They all looked like Kennedys.'

Despite the circles in which they move, Hill and his wife say that they are frequently confronted by people, usually Americans, who think that Hill was in the IRA and beat the rap on a technicality. Says Courtney: 'It is unbelievable to me that people, some of them my friends, would think that I would marry someone who took part in politically-motivated murders. I mean, given what my family has gone through, between my uncle and my father . . .' Her voice trails off.

Paul Hill is more philosophical. 'There are some people who, because they are ignorant or because it threatens their political view, will insist that I'm guilty. I'm sure Maggie Thatcher still thinks we're all guilty. I can't worry about that. I know I'm innocent. And that's why we're going back to Belfast. I could have signed a piece of paper and walked away. I'm not walking away.'

Unlike the other members of the Guildford Four, Paul Hill has another conviction hanging over his head. Since his release, in October 1989, he has been on bail pending his appeal against his conviction, in 1975, for the murder in Belfast of former British soldier Brian Shaw. He has been offered parole, and, if he were to admit his involvement in the abduction and murder of Shaw, he would not serve another day in prison. But Hill won't take the easy way out. He will be back in his home town, where his appeal is scheduled to begin towards the end of February.

IN JIM SHERIDAN's new film In the Name of the Father, based on the Guildford Four case, Hill is played by the actor John Lynch. The film has been well received by American critics and is considered an Oscars' contender. Having some idea of the demands of Hollywood, Hill understands why Gerry Conlon, and not he, was the protagonist, and why the relationship between Conlon and his father, Giuseppe, who was also convicted of IRA offences and died in prison before being exonerated, was more compelling in box-office terms.

The critics have raved about Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal of Conlon, but Hill has no reason to be dissatisfied with his own treatment. John Lynch (star of the 1984 film Cal) smoulders with all the attitude that Hill had as a young man - and retains as he approaches middle age.

In any case, Hill's main concern is that his story should be more widely known. 'People don't care about Northern Ireland because they don't know about it,' he says. 'There's incredible ignorance about what's going on in the North. Especially in Britain itself. There's been a tendency to reduce it to its simplest terms. And it's just not that simple.'

Recently, Gerry Conlon rang Hill. Two old mates from West Belfast, they talked about old times a bit, but mostly about what they were up to at the moment.

'Paul was in California,' Conlon says, 'wrapping up the movie he was working on. I was finishing up In the Name of the Father. And we were talking, using all these terms, you know, film-making terms, and Paul just started laughing. 'Gerry,' he says, 'can you believe the pair of us? You're in one, I'm in one. Can you believe it?' '

(Photographs omitted)