Author Q&A:
Paddy Armstrong

One of the Guildford Four, Paddy Armstrong's memoir is a tale of state injustice, resilience and recklessness

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When the IRA detonated two bombs in Guildford in 1974, the police framed four people, including Paddy Armstrong, who was more interested in the wild parties of the London squat scene than politics. He spent 15 years in prison protesting his innocence until a campaign forced the Guildford Four’s release. Armstrong is unsparing about his recklessness in Life After Life (Gill Books, £12.99), puts his faith in the love of others and is remarkably resilient. Armstrong and Mary-Elaine Tynan will talk about the book at Manchester Literature Festival on 21 October. Big Issue North is proud to be media partner to MLF and you can read more about its authors and events in coming issues.

In prison at least, you preferred to keep yourself to yourself. Why did you decide to write the book?
Yes, I have always been a private person. When I got out of prison I decided to lead my life away from the media. Gerry Conlon and Paul Hill both wrote books after their release. I didn’t want to do that. I found the adjustment to normal life difficult. My solicitor Alastair Logan made sure I got the best counselling available to help me cope and I just wanted to get on with my life.

There are a few reasons why I felt the time was finally right to tell my story. It’s 28 years since my release from prison and I now feel I have something worth telling. I wanted to share not just my prison experience, but also my life after prison – Life After Life. I’ve been lucky enough to be blessed with a fabulous family, which I never thought I would have. I have had an amazing, ordinary, happy life with my wife Caroline and our two children John (18) and Sophie (15).

My children are very much part of the reason I wanted to do this book. As they got older and realised what had happened to me they wanted to know more. I found it difficult to talk about it to them and decided then to go about writing it down and letting them read it.

I think also it’s important that miscarriages of justice are not forgotten and that generations to come can learn from them and ensure that they don’t happen again.

You’re a hippie but with the strong will that got you through not only torture and long imprisonment but false imprisonment. Where did it come from?
I suppose my strength came from the people who believed in me and in my innocence. My mam and family were a huge support. Alastair Logan, my solicitor, was with me since I was arrested in 1974 and he worked relentlessly to prove the innocence of the Guildford Four, for many years unpaid. He was my rock through it all and he made sure we weren’t forgotten. He also continued to support me after my release and we are firm friends to this day.

Irish prisoners also looked after us in prison. They knew we were innocent and helped to protect us, especially in the early days. I wasn’t always strong and I did go through some dark times and depression where I thought I’d be better off dead and thought of doing myself in. Friends like Ronnie McCartney and Paddy Hill didn’t let me go under during those times.

There were many setbacks in our fight for justice but I suppose deep down I held onto the hope that our innocence would eventually be recognised. Part of what has helped me have a happy life is that I’m not bitter or angry. I don’t see the point in being angry. I believe bitterness and anger only destroy oneself. People often say to me you must hate the English. I don’t. Some of my best friends are English. Many good friends in prison were English and over time I even became friends with some of the prison officers who believed we were innocent. At the end of the day it was English people who fought for our release – people like Alastair and Cardinal Hume among others.

The book’s a collaboration with journalist Mary-Elaine Tynan. How did you go about writing it together and did it come easily?
The process of writing the book took about 18 months. Mary and I used to go walking together along the seafront in Clontarf in Dublin, beside where I live. She would ask me questions about my life and record our conversations. We moved from my childhood through to my teens, my life in London, prison and the aftermath.

As you can probably imagine some of those periods were harder to talk about than others. We had to talk about things that I hadn’t thought about in many years, dig up old feelings that I thought I had left behind. I don’t dwell on the past. I’ve spent almost 30 years trying to move on from the trauma of being locked up as an innocent man. At times she had to drag the information out of me because talking and thinking about it again was very painful. It was like I was coming to terms with it again but in the end it was cathartic, I think, because I came to a new acceptance and found a deeper level of peace.

Mary also spoke to my family, friends, my solicitor Alastair, old prison mates, journalists and other people who knew me before, during and after prison. They remembered stories I had forgotten so that gave the book an extra layer. Mary even tracked down the letters that Carole [Richardson, his then girlfriend, also falsely imprisoned] wrote to me in a journalist’s loft so we were able to include them in the book.

After our conversations Mary would construct a section of the book using my words. She was able to capture my voice and personality because she knows me so well. I really trusted her. She used a narrative structure that was closer to a novel so it reads like a story even though it’s obviously true. It just made it easier for people to read as I didn’t want it to be a difficult read even though the subject matter can be harrowing at times.

I would check everything she wrote and clarify anything that wasn’t right. We did that for months on end until the book was finished. After that my wife Caroline and my solicitor Alastair read it as they’ve both known me for a long time so they were able to make sure it was all correct. Between us all we eventually got there. It was gruelling at times but it was so worth it. Now I have a record of my life, my story.

What did Tony Blair’s apology in 2005 mean to you?
Tony Blair’s apology meant a great deal to me. I honestly never thought that that the British government would issue a public apology. I was surprised by how moved I was by it. I felt it made our innocence official, especially in the eyes of some people who said we got off on a technicality.

When we got the official letter of apology a few weeks after the apology was made I was disappointed that we were not all mentioned by name. Only Gerry, Guiseppi and Annie Maguire were mentioned by name and of course that was only right and proper, but I felt the rest of us also deserved to be mentioned by name, not just “and all the Guildford Four”. Nevertheless I do appreciate that it was made.

You weren’t only stitched up by the police but also, it seems, in the appeal court. Could the state still fit up someone so easily?
I would love to think that what happened to us could never happen again but you never know. It’s hard to believe that in our civilised world the corruption from the top, right down to the police, was strong enough to keep us in prison for 15 years for a crime we clearly did not commit.

It happened in our case, and the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Maguire Seven. Hopefully my book, along with the documentation of other miscarriages of justice will highlight the fact that this has happened in the past and must never be allowed to happen again. We must all fight to protect the innocent people in our society – whatever their race, religion or nationality.

Do you think that power sharing can be achieved again in Northern Ireland and what will happen if it isn’t?
Yes, I would like to think that that this can be achieved. It’s more important than ever to re-establish power sharing. The best people to make decisions about Northern Ireland are the people of Northern Ireland themselves.

I think the representatives of all parties need to stand united so that they can have a say in protecting the interests of the people of the North, not least in the context of Brexit, which holds so many unknowns across the board. Failure to re-establish power sharing, with the reversion to rule from Westminster, would be a massive backward step for the North. Hopefully the peace process and the building of bridges, in particular those built by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness in more recent times, have provided enough of a basis for an agreement to be reached.

The May Inquiry papers are due to be released in 2020. Do you believe they will be, and what do you hope they will reveal?
The May Inquiry was held in secret between 1989 and 1994 and it was supposed to investigate how our miscarriages of justice came about. Instead it cleared those who were involved. We were not allowed to take part in the Inquiry nor were our solicitors. When we asked to see the evidence given to May we were told that it had been embargoed for 30 years.

We believe they were hoping that we would be all dead by then! A small number of the papers were released recently and these contain utter lies. They are designed to convict us again in the media. It is vitally important that the remaining 700 papers are released so that we can refute any other lies they contain.

My fear is that they will not be released until we are all gone. There have been rumours that they want to embargo them for up to another 40 years. Gerry Conlon fought tirelessly for the release of these papers and this was his dying wish. Alastair Logan is still fighting this injustice on our behalf.

What can we expect from you at Manchester Literature Festival?
Mary and I are really looking forward to coming to Manchester. For our talk we are planning to have a chat like we did when Mary was interviewing me for the book. Except in this case it will be in front of a live audience. We have a great rapport and Mary has a great way of drawing me out of myself so I hope that people will enjoy it.

I’m also looking forward to meeting people who followed our case and supported us in our fight for justice, as there were many such people in Manchester. Most of all I am really hoping that we will inspire people to continue the fight against injustice so that what happened to us can never happen again.

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