Socialist Worker

Britain's terror policy to crush protest

by Hazel Croft
Issue No. 1761

'SOLDIERS BROKE into a house, hit one person several times in the body with the rifle butt, shot rubber bullets at a girl at point blank range, and threw a young man through a window.'

'A young man lay on the road bleeding heavily. A soldier came over to him, stamped one foot down on the injured leg, pushed the other leg away, and fired rubber bullets at point blank range into the youth's genitals.'

These descriptions could be of violence in the most repressive and dictatorial regimes in the world. In fact they describe what happened in Northern Ireland 30 years ago. On 9 August 1971 the British Tory government ordered its troops to raid the homes of hundreds of Catholics in Northern Ireland.

This was the start of the policy of internment, which would terrorise Catholics for four years. Internment meant that people could be locked up indefinitely without being charged with any crime, and without their case ever going to court.

It was one of the most repressive measures the British government introduced to try to smash resistance by the Catholic minority to being treated as second class citizens.

Two years earlier, in August 1969, the then British Labour government had sent in troops to Northern Ireland to 'restore law and order'. The troops failed to quell Catholic resistance. The Tory government's answer was to inflict even more repression. At 4am on 9 August thousands of troops swamped Catholic areas.

The troops smashed down doors, threatened men, women and children at gunpoint, and dragged 342 men to prison. 'Every man arrested was either a terrorist or a member of the IRA,' declared Brian Faulkner, Northern Ireland's prime minister, hours later. In fact hardly any IRA members were picked up-most had fled before the raids took place.

Instead the army rounded up leaders of the non-violent civil rights movement, socialists, trade unionists and ordinary Catholics. Those arrested included men in their 60s and 70s. The army even went to arrest one man who had been dead for four years.

Not a single Loyalist was picked up. Yet Loyalists had been responsible for most of the killings, mainly of innocent Catholics, since the mid-1960s. The men were incarcerated in army barracks where, although not charged with any crime, they faced vicious beatings and torture. Many were forced to run barefoot over barbed wire and broken glass while soldiers clubbed their ankles.

TWELVE MEN men were secretly taken away and subjected to a grotesque experiment in 'sensory deprivation techniques'. They included Paddy Joe McClean, a teacher of children with learning difficulties.

He described what happened to him: 'A hood was pulled over my head, and I was handcuffed and subjected to verbal and personal abuse, which included the threat of being dropped from a helicopter while it was in the air. Later I was made to stand with my feet wide apart with my hands pressed against a wall. I could hear a low droning noise like an electric saw. I collapsed several times only to be beaten and pulled to my feet again, and once more pushed, spreadeagled against the wall. Food, water, the opportunity to relieve my bowels were denied me. I had to urinate and defecate in my suit.'

He was kept like this for six days. Amnesty International accused the British government of torture. The European Court of Human Rights found the British government guilty of 'inhuman and degrading treatment'.

There was mass resistance to internment. Within minutes of the first internment raids hundreds of women came out on the streets to rattle bin lids. Young people built barricades and fought to keep British troops out of Catholic areas.

In the 48 hours after the first dawn raids the British army shot and killed ten civilians. The victims included a priest, Father Hugh Mullan, who was gunned down by the army as he was giving the last rites to a wounded man. Thousands of working class Catholics were forced out of their own homes and ended up living in squalid refugee camps in Southern Ireland.

THE NORTHERN Ireland government introduced a year-long ban on demonstrations. But that didn't stop protests. In Derry over 8,000 workers struck for 24 hours against internment. Even respectable figures, like John Hume of the SDLP, joined in the revolt. Some 130 councillors resigned from their seats.

Up to 30,000 households joined a rent and rates strike against internment. A group of trade unionists in Tyrone organised a march against internment on Christmas Day.

Some 4,000 people joined the march, which was viciously attacked by the RUC police. The height of the resistance was organised on 30 January 1972 in Derry, where thousands gathered for a peaceful march against internment.

The British government ordered the Parachute Regiment to shoot down unarmed demonstrators. They killed 14 people on what became known as Bloody Sunday. Far from crushing the IRA, internment and Bloody Sunday swelled its ranks, as Catholics saw the IRA as the only way to defend their lives and communities. The British government finally ended internment in December 1975.

But British repression, including a shoot to kill policy and collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries, continued to fuel the violence, repression and injustice that remain today.


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Features
Sat 11 Aug 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1761
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