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Fiona Foster on the case of John Matthews, the latest person to be found guilty of being Irish

'They needed a face to fit'

In July, while the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice launched its formula for avoiding further miscarriages of justice, a mile away John Matthews was being rearrested outside a court in which he had been cleared of all charges.

While TV panels of experts discussed how the new proposals would protect the innocent, home secretary Michael Howard publicly declared that Matthews, against whom the prosecution could offer no evidence in court, was guilty of terrorism. He ordered that Matthews be held under armed guard in the high security Paddington Green police station, and served with an exclusion order banning him from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). If he sets foot in Britain again he could be jailed for up to five years.

John Matthews is a 22-year old Irishman from Derry who had been living and working in London. On 27 April he was arrested at Heathrow airport while on his way home for a holiday. When Special Branch officers contacted the Royal Ulster Constabulary they were told that Matthews was from 'a respectable family' and had no record of involvement with the IRA. In spite of this Matthews was taken to Rochester Row police station and questioned for 18 hours about the Bishopsgate bombing the previous week, and other IRA bombings in Britain over the past year.

According to John Matthews' family, his police interrogators offered him a range of deals. If he pleaded guilty to certain actions, he was told, he would get five years and be out in two. He refused. After seven days' interrogation Matthews was charged with causing an explosion. The charge related to an incident in which two minicabs were hijacked and told to carry bombs to Downing Street. In the event both cab drivers abandoned their vehicles and the bombs exploded without causing injury.

Back in Derry the family and friends of John Matthews were shattered by news of his arrest. Speaking to Living Marxism before Matthews' release, his uncle, Danny Kelly was at pains to emphasise that John was from a law-abiding family. 'We just can't believe this is happening to us. None of us is in a political party. None of us has been in trouble with the security forces. I can only think that they picked on John because he is an Irish Catholic from a nationalist area.'

John Matthews' mother refused to join other family members travelling to London to attend his remand hearing. 'I'll see my son when he walks through that door', she said, 'not in a British jail'. She made a wise decision. At the hearing Matthews stood in the dock handcuffed and surrounded by 27 armed police officers. Helicopters circled above the court, snipers lined nearby roofs, and armed police sealed off surrounding roads while they looked under manholes for bombs. Matthews' family and friends were questioned and strip-searched on their way into the court.

The treatment of John Matthews and his family had mild-mannered Danny Kelly sounding like a veteran campaigner. 'All this security gives the impression that this wee boy is really a very dangerous man. But we will not be intimidated. We know John is innocent and we demand a fair trial and fair access to the court.'

The police used the remand hearing to present their case against John Matthews. They claimed that swabs taken from his hands at the airport proved he had been in contact with explosives, and that he had been positively identified by one of the taxi drivers. Even at this early stage Matthews' lawyers raised serious questions about this evidence.

They pointed out that as a hospital porter Matthews came into daily contact with chemicals and X-ray equipment that could explain the forensic evidence. They also revealed that the identification evidence was based on an identity parade in which Matthews was picked out very hesitantly only after he was asked to stand up. Matthews is short with bright red hair. All of the other men on parade were of average height and none had red hair.

In spite of this, and an alibi from his aunt and letters of clearance from the RUC and the Irish police, he was held in Belmarsh prison for two months before the prosecution declared that they had no evidence against him on 6 July.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act allows the home secretary to deport people from Britain if he believes that they are associated with 'terrorist' organisations. No explanation nor evidence need be offered. In fact the vast majority of the 350 people excluded under the PTA since 1974 are, like John Matthews, ordinary Irish people who have been convicted of nothing. Simply being Irish is enough to brand them as a 'potential terrorist'.

Danny Kelly admits that despite his best efforts he and his family have become victims of the political situation in Northern Ireland. 'I've had to grow up a lot in the past eight weeks. The police had two very dodgy reasons to suggest that John was guilty and 101 good reasons to believe he was innocent. They even told John they knew he was innocent but they needed a face to fit. It makes you wonder how many other Irish people are in jail because their face fits.'

Judith Ward, herself imprisoned for 18 years after being framed for an IRA bombing, insists that John Matthews is a victim of the same system that took the best years of her life. 'Lots of people thought that when they released the people framed in the early seventies, like myself and the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four, that that was it. But the system is exactly the same. We got a t-shirt made for the Matthews campaign saying "Same shit, different date", and unfortunately that just about sums it up.'

It is 25 years this August since the first civil rights march in Northern Ireland. The John Matthews case confirms yet again that Irish people can never expect civil rights from the British authorities. They are the victims, not of an odd miscarriage of justice, but of a systematic denial of democracy.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993

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