Socialist Worker

New evidence: the reality of detention without trial in Northern Ireland

A secret army document reveals brutality of internment by the British state

Issue No. 2079

Gordon Brown wants to extend the limit for quizzing terror suspects from 28 days to 56 or 58.

His plans have raised comparisons with the use of internment in Northern Ireland between 1971 and 1975 which attempted to crush a movement against British rule.

Internment without trial was a weapon in Britain’s “war against terror” in Ireland. It meant people could be locked up indefinitely without being charged and without ever going to court.

It was used to try and smash resistance by the Catholic minority angry at being treated as second-class citizens.

At 4am on 9 August 1971 thousands of troops swamped Catholic areas. They smashed down doors and dragged 342 men off to prison at gunpoint.

There was much talk of using intelligence to target terrorists but in reality the lists of those targeted included things such as “man with a beard living at number 47” and in one case a man who was dead.

The army said that the raids were aimed at the armed resistance of the IRA. But hardly any IRA members were picked up – most had already gone into hiding.

Instead the army rounded up leaders of the civil rights movement, socialists, trade unionists and ordinary Catholics.

Despite widespread violence by Protestant “Loyalists” – those who wanted to keep British rule – no Loyalists were arrested.

A secret British Army document from September 1971 has been uncovered by the Derry-based Pat Finucane Centre and the campaign group Justice for the Forgotten.  

It exposes the tissue of lies upon which the British occupation was based.

According to the document, internment was a “success”.

It describes how, in one night following the introduction of internment, 300 Catholic houses were destroyed “to prevent the houses being occupied by Catholics”.

Some 7,000 Catholics were evicted from their homes following attacks by Loyalists in the weeks following the introduction of internment.

The document calls for the use of brutal interrogation techniques against internees.

“If we are going to gain the full military advantages of internment we must continue the process of interrogation-in-depth on carefully selected detainees,” says the document.

One internee, Paddy Joe McClean, later described what that meant: “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.

“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.”

The British government was later found guilty of  “inhumane and degrading treatment” for its treatment of interned prisoners.

The document estimates that between 12 and 30 people were killed by the Army between 9 and 12 August, describing them as “gunmen”.

In reality, the majority of people killed were civilians shot by British army snipers from roof-tops in Belfast.

Those shot included, the local priest Father Hugh Mullan who had attempted to administer the last rites to a man he saw shot by the army. Frank Quinn was shot dead when he crawled out to help the two men.

Joan Connolly was shot dead as she was searching the streets for her children. 

Internment had the opposite effect to that intended. 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, joined by 4,000 people.

On 30 January 1972 thousands gathered in Derry 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 the full truth about the appalling treatment of internees is still emerging today.

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Tue 27 Nov 2007, 18:48 GMT
Issue No. 2079
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