Internment; From Collective Punishment To Targeted Detention

The 9th August 1971 is a date ingrained into the collective memory of the Irish people, it was a watershed moment in the period of conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ and an example of collective punishment against a ‘suspect community’ and today serves as a warning of the extremities in which the due process of a liberal democratic state, challenged,  may be diluted and ignored.

The dawn raids of that Monday morning in August 1971 have left an indelible effect on the innocents targeted, the victims of Operation Demetrius were not only those detained but also their children, their partners, parents and friends. First hand accounts of those arrested and detained during the operation show clearly why many suffered psychologically as well as physically as a result of the British government’s coercive measure. Sectarian taunts, cruel and degrading treatment, heinous threats and savage beatings were commonplace. One such statement taken of an incident that took place in Ballymurphy 11th August 1971 at approximately 5.45am provides a brief description of the treatment on one Belfast resident;

“He was made to sing ‘The Queen’ and intimidated. He was used as a human shield in front of soldiers at iron railings at entrance of Dermott Estate. Also made to run gauntlet into Girdwood Park and called “foreign bastard”.”

Another statement describes an arrest and the after effects thereof;

“He was only partially dressed but was refused permission to complete dressing. In the street outside he was beaten by the soldiers and then dragged down the street towards the Grosvenor Road. No charge was made and no reason given for arrest. When Mrs. Curry asked how long her husband would be gone, she was told that she would be lucky if she ever saw him again. No police were present. Mr. Curry suffers from nervous debility.”

One such statement listed specific complaints in which the discriminatory nature of  the treatment suspects received is clear, so to is the violence that was inflicted during this British army operation and its lasting psychological impact on the victim’s family.

“1. injuries to myself —
(a) From batoning.
(b) A severe stomach wound inflicted by a soldier with his gun when on the lorry.
(c) Blisters on my heels and feet from forcible exercise over the obstacle course.
(d) An arm injury received when I refused to sing ‘The Queen’.
(e) Wounds on hands and legs from kicks.
2. Obscene language, e.g. —
(a) On the obstacle course, “Run and train like soldiers, you bastards”.
(b) In the lorry, “Your Virgin Mary was the biggest whore in Bethlehem.”
(c) Also in the lorry, “Sure they are all the Pope’s bastards”.
3. injuries to my family —
A horrible experience for my children. My wife and daughter Geraldine were physically assaulted and have had nightmares since.”

Above are only three examples of the realities behind the statistics. This ill thought out and repressive measure was an attack against an entire community due to their perceived hostility towards Britain’s influence in Irish affairs and the Unionist government at that time. In light of recent events, the fact that Internment was indeed an attack against a community that had been forced to adapt to the daily hardships of life in an impoverished area with regular violence must be remembered. The reckless  anti-social violence attributed to the removal of bonfire material Belfast  must not be allowed to adapt a political cover. Those engaged in the violence represent an apolitical group of criminal elements, the “internment bonfire” is viewed as a blight by the very community that suffered the worst aspects of the measure in 1971 and Irish republicans should be united in our condemnation of the mindless violence we have seen in belfast in recent days.

The use of repressive legislation to unjustly imprison, whether it be on the order of  a British Executive or the result of a ‘law and order’ approach (arrest, charges, trial etc) remains a tool of coercion in Ireland. Both the 26 county and six county state’s employ such powers in order to combat the threat from individuals and groups that present a significant enough threat to the status quo; challenging their narrative, presenting a radical alternative and attempting to draw support for their position from a largely apathetic public. The use of these powers whether that be the revoking of licence or the unjustifiably long periods of remand based on inconsequential evidence, its aim remains the same. Its application however has been defined, to prevent public hostility, the collective punishment of the past has been replace with a more targeted approach amounting to selective detention.

The selective manner in which political actors are removed and the legal ambiguities surrounding each individual case (in contrast to the ham-fisted nature of Internment in 1971) has produced the apathy to the calls for justice, a clear legal process and the recognition of human rights of many Irish republicans. Irish republicans must not allow themselves to be isolated and must work for those working class communities that suffered at the hand of the British state almost fifty years ago, so that they may in return heed our calls for demanding an end to the modern manifestations of Internment.