In the presence of extraordinary men

Note: This posting was amended on 30 August 2013

In this business of journalism you are sometimes lucky enough to meet truly extraordinary people whose stories make them remarkable in many different ways.

There are some people who are remarkable for all that has been bad in their lives, horrific experiences that brought them to the attention of the world. Michael Shields was one whom I met last year.

Then there are three men whom I met two weeks ago, famous for all the wrong reasons, known not as individuals but as part of a group of men who suffered some of the biggest miscarriages of justice in modern times, miscarriages that ruined their lives and the lives of many others.

Paddy Hill, Gerry Conlon and Patrick Maguire were part of the ‘Birmingham Six’, the ‘Guildford Four’ and the ‘Maguire Seven’ respectively. Groups of men accused of heinous crimes committed by the IRA, plucked from their normal lives, put on show to the world as criminals, tortured into confessions and forced to spend years behind bars for crimes they had no involvement in.

Their experiences as they described to me were truly horrific, shocking and appalling. For them the physical torture may have ended long ago but the mental torture is never ending. Their experiences have brought them together and provided them with the only meaningful counselling they have ever received according to Conlon.

It was truly a pleasure to spend an hour in the company of such fine men, so willing and able to talk about the horrors they endured and witnessed and so passionate in their beliefs and in their anger at the British government for their neglect of victims such as themselves.

It’s an interview I don’t think I’ll ever forget for it is rare to encounter people as remarkably brave as Paddy Hill, Gerry Conlon and Patrick Maguire were and continue to be.

Meeting Michael Shields

CIMG0335Last week I interviewed Michael Shields, the Liverpool fan wrongly jailed in Bulgaria four and a half years ago in the aftermath of Liverpool’s unforgettable Champions League victory in Istanbul.

His story is well known in Liverpool, the UK and beyond. It is a story of grave injustice and of the determination of the campaign to win his freedom that ultimately succeeded.

But at the end of the day he’s just like you and I.

He was 18-years-old when he was jailed for up to 15 years for the attempted murder of waiter Martin Georgiev whilst holidaying in Bulgaria after the game.

He spent the early part of his sentence in Bulgaria before being transferred back to the UK where eventually, Justice Secretary Jack Straw released him last month after being convinced of his innocence, something the majority of those who looked at the case early on became convinced of almost instantly.

Shields has clearly been affected by his time spent behind bars. Physically he looks totally different. He is four stone lighter and  his face looks older.

His shyness is something he has probably exuded all his life and it’s no surprise that when facing the camera as he was in the interview he was more than a little bashful.

But his opinions on his case are strong and full of conviction. You can sense his anger about having been away for so long for a crime he didn’t commit.

You can sense that he still has fight in him, he wants to clear his name but he is up against a questionable Bulgarian legal system that in his words tried to “kill him off”.

This fight is continuing but for now he is back home in Liverpool attempting to put his life back together. He’s just getting used to leading a normal day again, keen to put a stop to the interviews, even suggesting his one with me may be his last.

I hope it is, not for my own self satisfaction at having scooped the last ever interview with Michael Shields, but so that he can just get on with.

So he can do the things normal 22-year-old lads like myself do, play FIFA 10, have a laugh, go the gym, go out and get drunk and enjoy your youth while you still have it.

After all he has been through he deserves that at the very least.