GERRY Conlon was a “victorious human being” who “defeated a mighty foe”, his lawyer told mourners at his funeral in west Belfast on Saturday.
At the ceremony in St Peter’s Cathedral, Gareth Peirce paid a heartfelt tribute to Mr Conlon, one of the four who were wrongly convicted of the 1974 IRA bombings in Guildford.
She recalled the image of him emerging from the Old Bailey in London declaring his innocence after his conviction was quashed.
“When he angrily, angrily stated the truth it had an extraordinary effect and made the world understand that innocent men and women had been buried alive in English prisons year after year and it had been allowed. Indeed it had been organised to happen. It was no accident,” she said.
“So when he shouted out ‘I am an innocent man, my father was innocent, the Maguires are innocent and the Birmingham Six’, he set something in motion that forced the rest of us, the rest of the world, Britain, to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see precisely who we were and what we had done.”
Mr Conlon, 60, died last week only three weeks after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
He and the rest of the Guildford Four were handed life sentences for the attacks in Guilford, which killed five people and injured 65, before their convictions were overturned in 1989 and they were cleared of any involvement in the bombings.
At the time of their sentencing, the trial judge Mr Justice Donaldson told them: "If hanging were still an option, you would have been executed."
The wrongful conviction became one of the best known cases of a miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
His father Guiseppe was also wrongly arrested and died in prison in 1980, and his mother Sarah, who long-campaigned for their, died in 2008, aged 82.
Paddy Hill, who was one of six men wrongly convicted of IRA bombings in Birmingham in 1974, joined other members of the Birmingham Six and Paddy Armstrong of the Guildford Four in carrying the coffin during the service.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore was also in attendance at the funeral, along with Sinn Féin West Belfast MP Paul Maskey and SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell.
Chief celebrant, Fr Ciarán Dallat added that whilst Mr Conlon lived a life filled with great pain, “in the last 10 years he found some peace for himself”.
Lawyer Gareth Peirce also added: “Life dealt Gerry a pretty poor hand. He was a gambler and gambling was in his DNA but with a poor hand he made a magnificent fist of it. If anyone thinks that this is someone who was beaten or terrified and pushed down forever, that wasn't so. We can say with all the adversities, in the end Gerry Conlon won - the victory was his."
Fr Dallat, who anointed Mr Conlon shortly before his death, told the hundreds of mourners that he was amazed at his “readiness”.
He said Mr Conlon told him on his death bed: “I am just waiting for my master to come and take me home.”
Mr Conlon is survived by his partner Alison, daughter Sara and sisters Ann and Bridie.
Gerry Conlon did us all proud
Inside St Peter's Cathedral, Belfast for the Funeral Mass of Gerry Conlon, June 28
By Peter Kelly
Hundreds attended a reluctant farewell to Gerry Conlon in his home district of the Lower Falls in Belfast.
From far and wide, every walk of life, some from doors away, others travelling across borders, the Guildford Four man's life, plight and courage touched so many.
A valiant crusader for social justice inside a larger than life character, Gerry Conlon gave inspiration to the victimised, and rightful unease to abusers of power. He was a proud and passionate force to be reckoned with.
But as his lawyer Gareth Pierce told mourners, Gerry's impact reached further, wider and deeper. His famous cries of innocence were transformed into an invincible challenge to the then citadel of British judicial and policing corruption.
A system which finally faltered in the face of Conlon's determination. It featured in the 1993 film In the Name of the Father as co-campaigners for innocent Irish jailed in Britain. Mr Conlon's plight and passion merited Hollywood director Jim Sheridan to cast such heavyweights Daniel Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson in such key roles, then nominated for Oscar recognition the following year.
But recognition from the unsung around the world for Gerry in more recent times was the Falls Road man's true and heroic legacy. To those similarly incarcerated, ranging from Guantanamo in Cuba to aboriginals in Australia.
I would meet him, and others including Paul Hill, in New York, Sydney, and across England and Ireland during his campaigning. Bonds were fostered with similar crusaders in offering each other moral and strategic support.
The most recent were the Omagh bomb families. Gerry Conlon's network for justice, and along with it many admiring comrades, knew no bounds. He personalised the creed that 'injustice anywhere is an affront to justice everywhere'.
Gerry Conlon's Cathedral funeral took on the surreal when serenaded by rock band Alabama 3, composers of the theme tune of TV show The Sopranos. The congregation clapping in time, and prompting a standing ovation for both this and lawyer Gareth Pierce's contribution recalled Gerry's mix of irreverent rebelliousness which endearingly accompanied his somber campaigning to awaken our consciences. This was the true, irresistible blend, invigorating spirit and sheer craic that drew so many close to Gerry and deep into our hearts.
Such spirit and determination must live on, through his Miscarriage of Justice Organisation partners. And particularly Birmingham Six campaigner Paddy Hill, who carried him through the streets of Belfast to his final resting place with his father Giuseppe.
A proper and fitting tribute to Gerry Conlon is pressure to create long overdue legislation to provide adequate treatment for those wrongly convicted. This one final injustice is yet to be remedied. We have a final chance in times ahead to do him proud.