LONDON - British Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a public apology Wednesday to members of two families whose wrongful imprisonment for IRA bombings three decades ago was dramatized in the film "In the Name of the Father."
Members of the Conlon and Maguire families were jailed in connection with Irish Republican Army bombings in Guildford and Woolwich in England in 1974. The attacks killed seven people and injured more than 100.
Eleven people convicted in connection with the attacks were subsequently acquitted, and the case is regarded as one of Britain's biggest miscarriages of justice.
"I am very sorry that they were subject to such an ordeal and injustice," Blair said in a statement. "The Guildford and Woolwich bombings killed seven people and injured over 100. Their loss, the loss suffered by their families, will never go away. But it serves no one for the wrong people to be convicted for such an awful crime."
Gerry Conlon was one of four people found guilty of two IRA bombings of Guildford pubs on Oct. 5, 1974, which killed five people and wounded 54.
During his interrogation, Conlon implicated seven others as alleged bomb-makers, including his own father, Guiseppe, who died in prison in 1980. Conlon says police coerced false confessions by beating and disorienting him.
Gerry Conlon and three others were acquitted on appeal in 1989 after authorities concluded their confessions to police had been fabricated and forensic evidence favorable to their defense had been suppressed.
The other seven, including Guiseppe Conlon, were acquitted in 1991, long after they had served their sentences, when the forensic evidence used to convict them was discredited.
The 1993 film dramatizing the case earned seven Oscar nominations. Daniel-Day Lewis portrayed Gerry Conlon and Pete Postlethwaite portrayed Guiseppe Conlon.
Last month, Gerry Conlon demanded a formal apology from Blair for his imprisonment, calling it "a dreadful miscarriage of justice."
"It is a matter of great regret when anyone suffers a miscarriage of justice," Blair said in Wednesday's statement. "I recognize the trauma that the conviction caused the Conlon and Maguire families and the stigma which wrongly attaches to them to this day.
"I am very sorry that they were subject to such an ordeal and such an injustice. That's why I am making this apology today. They deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated."
Blair set a precedent for such apologies soon after taking office in 1997, when he offered a statement of regret for British policy during the 1845-1852 potato famine, during which 1 million people died in Ireland and another 2 million fled to Britain or North America.
Blair's gesture Wednesday came during the latest deadlock in Northern Ireland's long-running peace process and with pressure mounting on Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party, over the outlawed group's alleged $50 million robbery of a Belfast bank -- the biggest cash theft in history.
Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern has said he believes the IRA committed the Dec. 20 raid on Northern Bank and that senior figures in Sinn Fein authorized it. The IRA has denied involvement, and police have made no arrests and recovered none of the cash.
Ireland's police chiefs have said it is still too early to say if recent cash seizures in the Republic of Ireland came from the Northern Bank robbery.
Chief Constable Hugh Orde and Garda Commissioner Noel Conroy were speaking after signing a new agreement to enhance cross-border policing.
Almost £3m has been seized during police raids and it is being tested to see if there are links to the robbery.
Mr Orde said a number of lines of inquiry were being followed.
Mr Conroy added: "There is a lot of money recovered and it will take quite a bit of time to do all the technical examination that is required to be carried out."
Mr Orde also said he did not know if Sinn Fein leaders knew in advance about the £26.5m robbery on 20 December, which police have blamed on the IRA.
He said he would not be drawn on intelligence matters.
"I'm not clear in my mind who knew and at what level and the cross-overs between the issues around the inextricable links as they have described between Sinn Fein and the IRA," he said.
"That's not my business. Our business is to solve the crime and that's exactly what we intend to do."
About £2m - £60,000 of Northern Bank notes - was seized last Thursday in the Irish Republic by police investigating alleged money laundering.
Some £50,000 in new Northern Bank notes was discovered at the weekend at a police sports club in Belfast.
Mr Orde has said that he was convinced republicans planted that money, which was stolen in the raid.
The latest seizure - £437,000 - was made in the Irish Republic.
The police comments were made during a news conference on Monday after the protocol document was signed.
The document means officers will be able to share knowledge and experience, including secondments and placements.
Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell and Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy witnessed the event.
Mr McDowell said it was an "important day for policing on this island".
Mr Murphy said it marked an important milestone in the implementation of the Patten recommendations on reforms to policing.
"The PSNI and Garda Siochana already have a close professional working relationship and the protocols provide officers, from both forces, the opportunity to enhance this relationship and to develop their own professional skills.
"Allowing officers to share knowledge and experience can only be of benefit to the public, both North and South, in tackling crime."
Meanwhile, a Cork man who was arrested as part of a garda investigation into money laundering has been granted bail at the Special Criminal Court in Dublin.
Don Bullman, 30, a chef from Wilton, was charged last Friday with membership of the Real IRA.
He was freed on bail on Monday, despite garda objections.
Earlier, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said that neither he nor two of his party colleagues were on the IRA Army Council.
He was responding to an allegation from Irish Justice Minister Michael McDowell who claimed SF President Gerry Adams, Mr McGuinness and Martin Ferris, an Irish TD, were three members of the IRA's seven-man army council.
"It's not true. I reject it completely. What he has alleged is totally and utterly false," he said.
"I'm not a member of the IRA. I'm not a member of the IRA Army Council," he insisted but admitted his past again saying: "I was a member of the IRA many years ago".
Mr McGuinness also criticised how the latest developments in the bank robbery story had been reported.
He said that one single Sinn Fein member had been arrested and was later released without charge.
Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four wrongfully imprisoned for the IRA bomb attacks in Guildford and Woolwich in 1974, has welcomed the British Prime Minister's apology to the Conlon and Maguire families.
Emerging from the Commons after a meeting with Tony Blair, Mr Conlon and the other family members held aloft copies of Mr Blair's statement.
They said they were pleased with the Prime Minister's words.
Amid a huge scrum of reporters and cameramen, Mr Conlon said: "We can't say who the Speaker will pick, or who he won't pick, but Tony Blair picked us.
"He didn't have to do it and he did it and that is the important thing.
"He apologised profusely and he was physically taken aback by the suffering that we have all suffered."
"Tony Blair met us privately, he spoke to every one of us, he took time, he listened to us, he exceeded our expectations in apologising, he said it was long overdue."
He continued: "I asked why we hadn't received the same treatment as John McCarthy, Terry Waite and Brian Keenan, and he said he would make sure that we got the help that we needed.
"Because this hasn't ended for us. But today is the start of the end.
"We want parity of esteem with other victims of miscarriage of justice, and we want other miscarriage of justice victims to receive a public apology the same way we have.
"If you damage people and you can repair them, it is your duty to do that. We said that to the Prime Minister, he accepted it. He went beyond our expectations."
"Everyone has been affected by this, everyone has suffered trauma from it. And the good thing is that he has acknowledged it, and he accepts that we are in pain, that we are suffering terrible, terrible nightmares and terrible post-traumatic stress disorder."
Annie Maguire said: "We have all suffered. And this is a great day for us, for all of us."
She added: "It will help our children and their children."
Sinn Féin said it hoped the apology from the Prime Minister to the Conlon and Maguire families would help end their decades-long ordeal.
Speaking on behalf of the party, Lower Falls councillor Fra McCann said: "There was a grave injustice visited upon the Conlon and Maguire families. The smear campaign operated by the British establishment against those freed from prison continued for years.
"It would be my sincere hope that the apology issued by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair marks an end to this and indeed goes some way to ending the ordeal of the Conlon and Maguire families."
PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR
PM apologises to families
Analysis: 'Glaring' miscarriage
We would like it to be the police apologising -- Annie Maguire
"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."
GERRY CONLON, ONE OF THE 'GUILDFORD FOUR'
"People thought that when we were released it was the end of it, but it was only the start of it.
Gerry Conlon was released from prison in 1989 It has been harder to clear our names than to get out of prison.
If they can damage you that much by convicting you and publicly hang, draw and quarter you, then they have a moral duty to repair that damage.
This apology is so important, not just for me but for my mother, my sisters, my nieces, my nephews, because this has seeped down the generations."
ANNIE MAGUIRE, ONE OF THE 'MAGUIRE SEVEN'
"This is very important to my family and their children and our great grandchildren.
We would like it to be the police...apologising. It is lovely for Mr Blair to do it."
PATRICK MAGUIRE, ANNIE'S SON
"Going to prison, the fears, the loneliness, the not knowing, having five birthdays and Christmases away from my family. I just became a number, 33892.
Coming out of prison, that's when my other sentence started. I became bitter and angry, a life of crime was to be my only outlet ... having trouble with the police for being one of the 'Maguire Seven' for many years. I was at their mercy.
[In] January of last year, I ended up in the Priory Hospital for nearly six months ... I take up to 20 tablets a day and I have been told I will probably have to take most of them for the rest of my life.
My own three children have also paid the price, because their father is not the man he would like to have been. For them this day is their day, and I would like to say sorry to them
Miscarriage of justice victim Gerry Conlon said today it has been harder to clear his name than to get out of prison.
The Prime Minister Tony Blair is today expected to apologise over the wrongful imprisonment of Mr Conlon and his father, Guiseppe, who died while wrongly imprisoned for a bombing in Guilford in 1974.
Mr Conlon said: "People thought that when we were released it was the end of it, but it was only the start of it.
"It has been harder to clear our names than to get out of prison."
The Conlon family, who will be in the public gallery in the House of Commons today, has previously received a "second-hand apology" sent to SDLP leader Mark Durkan from Tony Blair.
Mr Conlon's mother Sarah is unwell and won't travel to London.
"Mark always said that a 'Dear Sarah' letter from Tony Blair was always going to be better than a 'Dear Mark' letter," Mr Conlon told RTE Radio.
He added: "If they can damage you that much by convicting you and publicly hang, draw and quarter you, then they have a moral duty to repair that damage."
The Conlon family has fought a long campaign for a public apology from the British Government for the miscarriage of justice.
They have compiled a petition which has been signed by tens of thousands of people.
Their case was brought to international attention through the Oscar-nominated movie In the Name of the Father, starring Daniel Day Lewis as Gerry Conlon and Pete Postlethwaite as Guiseppe.
A House of Commons source confirmed a question was being prepared by the SDLP's Eddie McGrady, which would "provide ample opportunity for public recognition of the wrongs inflicted on the Conlons".
"There have been positive signs in recent days from [Northern Ireland Secretary] Paul Murphy and from Tony Blair that an apology is coming."
Gerry Conlon - along with Paddy Armstrong, Paul Hill and Carole Richardson - were arrested in 1974 and wrongfully jailed for an IRA bomb attack on the Horse and Groom pub in Guildford.
The blast killed five people - four soldiers and a civilian. The prisoners became known as the Guildford Four.
Mr Conlon's father and members of Mrs Annie Maguire's family were also later arrested and jailed for the attack and other bombings in Woolwich, south east London, after they were allegedly identified as being involved in the bomb plot in confessions extracted by the police.
Mr Guiseppe Conlon, who had a history of bronchial problems, died in prison while serving his sentence in January 1980. In October 1989 the Court of Appeal quashed the sentences of the Guildford Four after doubts were raised about the police evidence.
In June 1991, the Court of Appeal also overturned the sentences on the Maguires and Guiseppe Conlon.
Last year in a letter to SDLP leader Mr Mark Durkan, the British government acknowledged the miscarriage of justice but the family wants public recognition.
Daniel Day Lewis and the director of In the Name of the Father Jim Sheridan have joined with thousands of people who have signed the petition.
The Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern and Mr Durkan also lobbied Mr Blair directly during Downing Street meetings last week.