Bringing the troubles home: Anne Maguire loved Belfast. But London, she thought, would be safer for her children

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The Independent Online
Anne was released in 1985, but only in 1991 did the Court of Appeal quash the Maguire Seven convictions. Sir John May, heading an inquiry, called the case the worst miscarriage of justice he had ever seen. Compensation for the family's wrongful imprisonment has yet to be decided. This is an extract from Anne Maguire's story, published today.

PEOPLE still ask me today where I would rather live - Belfast or London. The truth of the matter is that part of my heart always remained in Northern Ireland. But who could say they would honestly want their children to grow up there today with all that has happened and is still happening? Apart from the tragic 'Troubles', Belfast is a great place. In some ways I believe Paddy and I would have been better off living over there. For example, we could have bought two decent houses in Belfast for the price of the little house we have in London today. But then, you always come back to the question of the politics, and more so the violence of the Troubles, the troubles which landed on our own doorstep in London.

During my childhood, there was no discussion of politics in our home, and only once did I hear of any violence. I think I was about 12 years old when there was a 'shoot-out' in Leesson Street, and one of my friends was on the street at the time. She got caught in the crossfire and was shot in the leg. I remember someone saying it was the IRA, and that was the only time I ever heard of them when I lived in Belfast. We certainly didn't know who they were, nor ever saw them, and none of my family, uncles, cousins or anybody else, was ever involved.

When the Troubles started in 1969, I worried about my daddy and brothers and sisters. Whenever we heard of a bomb going off near where any of the family lived, we would phone over to make sure they were all right. I still went over with the children in the summer holidays to visit their grandad. Our family has suffered directly. In 1983, when I was still in prison, Paddy's little eight-year-old nephew was run over by an armoured car and died as a result. The year before we were arrested, my Uncle Bobby, who drove one of my Uncle Vincent Clark's coal lorries, was killed. One day he was called out to a particular hire job and when he arrived Protestant paramilitaries were waiting for him. They tried to hang him and when they failed they shot him dead. It was one of those senseless 'reprisal killings' to revenge the death of a Protestant who had been killed.

My Uncle Vincent was assassinated just as brutally and as randomly the next year as he was leaving my Grandmother Clark's home in Whiterock Gardens. He died just because he was a Catholic, as some other man had died just because he was a Protestant. There can hardly be a family or a person in Belfast who doesn't know someone who has been hurt by the Troubles. My sister Mary, for example, worked in the Victoria Infirmary with young Marie Wilson, who was killed in the Enniskillen bombing and whose father Gordon became such an eloquent spokesman for forgiveness.

We only once witnessed for ourselves the reality of living with the Troubles. I was in Belfast one summer holiday with the children, and taking them to call on Paddy's sister and her husband Guiseppe, parents of Gerard Conlon, later one of the wrongly imprisoned 'Guildford Four'. Just as we turned the corner into their street, a whole crowd of soldiers came running towards us, followed by a hail of stones and rocks. Of course my two younger children were terrified and clung on to me, crying. I tried to calm them and said, 'It's all right, it's only some soldiers.' Then a crowd of youths followed, still throwing stones after the army.

Then I really began to get frightened, afraid we were going to get caught up in some kind of 'incident'. I ran the next few yards and pulled the children into the Conlons' doorway. Sarah was out but Guiseppe was there and I told him what we had just witnessed. He shook his head and with a sigh said it was happening all the time now, youths goading and stoning the soldiers. Perhaps we were lucky only to witness this one incident. We heard many stories about people suffering abuse from the army and having their homes wrecked in fruitless searches for weapons.

Our last visit before our own troubles began, in the summer of 1974, was to see my sister-in-law Teresa. She told me how there had been some sort of riot in Abyssinia Street. Her little son Michael was playing outside their house when a commotion began. As she pulled him in off the street, a rubber bullet landed just near her door. If she had not acted just then, it would have hit him. She told me how she picked up the bullet and shouted to the soldiers, 'That's one bullet you won't fire again' and, shaking with nerves, banged her door shut.

When she told me all this I thanked God for little Michael's escape, and asked Teresa what the difference was between a rubber bullet and an ordinary bullet as, thankfully, I had never seen either. She said the Americans were paying pounds 5 for them as some sort of grim souvenir. She handed it to me and I remember thinking how heavy it was. Teresa told me to take it home as a 'souvenir'. I refused her offer but she dropped it into my shopping bag anyway, no doubt thinking it must be valuable if the Americans were paying a fiver for them and that it would be a reminder to us living safely back in London of the hazards faced by them in those troubled times in Belfast. I thought no more of it and it remained at the bottom of that shopping bag. Neither of us could guess at the time the notoriety that that rubber bullet would attain.

When we arrived at the dock we were the last to board the ship after all our goodbyes. One of the dockers shouted to me, 'Come on, Mother, or you'll miss the boat'. As was routine, the police were doing security checks. I was asked to put my bag up on the table for checking. A policeman emptied out the bag. It was full of shoes and a hurley stick for young Patrick and there, sitting among them, was Teresa's rubber bullet. He didn't even mention it, just told me to hurry up or I would miss the boat. It was the only bag he checked.

When we were home and unpacking I showed Paddy the macabre souvenir and told him the story behind it. He told me quite sharply to get it out of sight; he didn't want the children seeing such a sign of violence. I assured him I had no intention of letting them see it and threw it into a drawer of the chest beside which I was unpacking in the back room downstairs. There it remained, untouched and forgotten until the fateful night in December when the police came to our house.

Paddy was unashamedly proud to have been a British soldier, and thought England the best place in the world to live and bring up a family. As others have pointed out, we had a bust of Winston Churchill in our house. Vincent wanted to be a policeman. The year we were arrested he had started working with the Gas Board, as his father had done, and was doing night classes until he was old enough to join. Patrick hoped to join the army when he was old enough. After school he would play for hours with his model soldiers. He had collected models of every regiment of the British army. Their ambitions were not to be realised and their first encounter with the police, the night of 3 December 1974 when they burst into our home, was not to be a happy one. My two sons were to end up in prison for crimes they never committed.

'Why Me?' by Anne Maguire is published by HarperCollins, pounds 4.99.

BORN in Belfast in 1935, Anne Maguire moved to London on her wedding day, aged 21. In December 1974 Anne, her husband, Patrick, and sons Vincent, 16, and Patrick, 13, were arrested, along with three other adults, on suspicion of involvement in the Guildford IRA bombings. All seven were convicted, with Anne and her husband jailed for 14 years each.

(Photograph omitted)

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