Thirty years after they were jailed, two Irish families finally received a public apology yesterday after their imprisonment for IRA bombings they did not commit.
Tony Blair's declaration that those jailed for the 1974 Guildford and Woolwich bombings deserved to be "completely and publicly exonerated" was what family members had demanded for years. The Prime Minister was attempting to draw a line in the cases of the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven, which are regarded as among the most conspicuous miscarriages of justice in recent times.
Eleven people spent up to 15 years behind bars before being cleared while one man, Guiseppe Conlon, died in prison. They were jailed in relation to the 1974 Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings in which the IRA killed seven people.
Mr Blair's apology was delivered in a TV statement in his office in the House of Commons and then in private to those wronged by the British legal system. He said: "I'm very sorry that they were subject to such an ordeal and such an injustice. That's why I'm making this apology today - they deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated." He then shook them by the hands.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "It was a meeting which nobody who was present will ever forget".
Several years ago Mr Blair delivered a private apology to the Conlon family but the Irish government and campaigners continued to press for a public statement. The British Government accepted the case for this some time ago. The timing of yesterday's declaration is thought to be related to a meeting between Mr Blair and Bertie Ahern, when the Taoiseach asked for a quick announcement.
Downing Street took the view that it was responding to a specific request from the Dublin authorities and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party. But the manner of Mr Blair's apology was immediately criticised on all sides. He had initially intended to make the apology during Prime Minister's question time but the Speaker did not call the nationalist MP Eddie McGrady to allow him to raise the issue.
Tories said the Speaker had been right not to allow question time to be used in that way. David Lidington MP said the device looked like a deliberate attempt to avoid the prolonged questioning that would follow a formal statement. The Democratic Unionist MP Nigel Dodds said there were "thousands of victims of IRA terrorism and other terrorism" who had not received such apologies. But Mr Blair's apology delighted the Maguire family and Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He said after meeting the Prime Minister: "He went beyond what we thought he would, he took time to listen to everyone.
"His sincerity shone through - you could see he was physically taken aback when he saw the trauma and knew of the suffering. Tony Blair has healed rifts, he is helping to heal wounds."
Annie Maguire, who was jailed along with members of her family, said: "This is a great day for us. It will help our children and their children. The people who were still doubting us should now believe that we were totally innocent." Six of the Maguire Seven were released after serving their sentences and were later cleared by the Court of Appeal. Guiseppe Conlon, subject of the film In the Name of the Father, was posthumously cleared. His wife Sarah is now in poor health.
After a lengthy campaign, the court overturned the convictions of the Guildford Four. Yesterday's statement follows a series of apologies, some from the IRA, about episodes during the Troubles.Reuse content