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9 August 2001 Edition

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Remembering the Past

The cry of the morning

Internment: 30 years on

On 18 July 1971, Unionist MP John Taylor, the then Minister of State for Home Affairs at Stormont, said: ``I would defend without hesitation the action taken by the [British] Army authorities in Derry against subversives during the past week or so when it was necessary in the end to actually shoot to kill. I feel that it may be necessary to shoot even more in the forthcoming months in Northern Ireland.''

What Taylor's remarks did at that time was to make clear to the nationalist population the willingness of the unionist regime to use violence against them and to justify the deaths of any nationalist killed by either the British army or the RUC.

Taylor was referring to the killings of two Derry youths, Seamus Cusack and Desy Beattie, shot dead on 8 July by British soldiers who claimed both were armed when shot. Although the pair were rioting at the time they were killed, neither was armed with a gun or a bomb.

The SDLP reacted to the shootings and withdrew from Stormont, as nationalist anger demanded action not words. Sinn Féin brought large numbers onto the streets of Derry to protest against the killings, a development that worried an SDLP leadership that saw itself as the `natural' leaders of nationalism.

Within a month, the Unionist government under Brian Faulkner had introduced internment without trial.

Put on the statute books in 1922 in the immediate aftermath of partition by Sir Richard Dawson Bates, interment, to imprison people without charge or trial, was used by successive Unionist regimes in every decade since partition to curb nationalist resistance.

Throughout 1971, the war in the North intensified as nationalist resistance to unionist repression grew. It was becoming clear that after 50 years of misrule, discrimination and blatant sectarianism, the unionist power structure was fractured and so internment, a tried and trusted weapon used on many an occasion by unionists before, was introduced.

Indeed, as Minister for Home Affairs during the 1950s, Faulkner had brought in internment to defeat the IRA's border campaign. Faulkner, a firm believer in interment, was now again admitting to the failure of politics and signing up to war.

The British government underwrote his decision to bring in internment. In a meeting between Faulkner and the then British Prime Minister Edward Heath and his cabinet on 5 August 1971, the British gave the go ahead for Operation Demetrius.

As British soldiers swooped on nationalist areas across the Six Counties, smashing down doors and dragging nationalist men off to interrogation centres, it soon became clear that the measure was a sectarian act, given that no loyalists were among the 342 arrested. Despite the substantial loyalist violence since 1969 and before, no loyalists were picked up.

In the internment swoops of 1971, Ballymurphy in West Belfast was one of the areas to suffer most from the huge military operation that saw over 2,000 British soldiers deployed.

On 9 August, two British soldiers were killed, as were ten civilians, seven of whom were nationalists. After four days, 19 civilians were dead and three British soldiers.

In the two days after internment, eight people from the Greater Ballymurphy area were shot dead by the British Army, which had sided with loyalists who were attacking Springfield Park. Among the dead was Fr Hugh Mullan, shot through the heart as he went to give the Last Rites to a young man wounded by British Army gunfire.

Describing the British shooting as indiscriminate, Gerry Adams wrote at the time that ``the area around the base (the Henry Taggart British Army and RUC base) had obviously been designated a killing zone. As we registered the information coming in and assessed it we could see no reason for all those deaths other than that the British soldiers had been told to shoot whoever entered it''.

As trouble erupted in Ardoyne, loyalists moved out of their houses in the area and torched their homes as they went so that Catholics couldn't be housed in them. Three people from the area, IRA Volunteer Paddy McAdorey, 16-year-old Leo McGuigan and a Protestant woman, Sarah Worthington, were shot dead by the British Army in the hours after the introduction of internment.

Of the hundreds detained, all were physically abused, but 12 were selected for special treatment. These had been secretly moved from the internment clearing centres to an unknown destination and held for seven days. They had hoods on their heads throughout, had no idea where they were and were kept completely isolated. They were severely beaten, forced to stand spreadeagled against walls until they collapsed, given hardly any food and subjected to `white noise', which prevented them from sleeping. All the while they were constantly interrogated. It was a new technique of sensory deprivation designed to disorient the mind and facilitate interrogation in depth. The order for the removal of the men had been personally signed by Brian Faulkner.

By any standards, internment was a disaster, although it took the British government up to four years to release the last of the internees.

Unfortunately, 30 years on, it appears that the political reactions of a large swathe of unionism have more in common with John Taylor's 1971 remarks than with a willingness to embrace change.

An Phoblacht
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