October 2016        

The civil rights issue of our time: Internment

Graham Harrington

Patrick Pearse opened his essay “The Murder Machine” with the following words: “A French writer has paid the English a very well-deserved compliment. He says that they never commit a useless crime. When they hire a man to assassinate an Irish patriot, when they blow a Sepoy from the mouth of a cannon, when they produce a famine in one of their dependencies, they have always an ulterior motive . . . Every crime that the English have planned and carried out in Ireland has had a definite end.”
     In 1971 the British army launched “Operation Demetrius,” the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of people alleged to be members of the IRA. They received no trial and were detained indefinitely in Long Kesh internment camp. Almost without exception, only republicans were arrested. Many had no involvement with the IRA and were arrested purely for their involvement with the civil rights movement.
     Internees were exposed to intimidation and torture. A group of internees known as the “hooded men” endured a particularly intense period of daily torture, including being dropped out of a helicopter; they were only a few feet off the ground, but the men were led to believe that they were falling to their death. The point of internment was to break the anti-imperialist community in the Six Counties, to punish the community as a whole for the actions of militant republicanism, in an attempt to prevent people from supporting the IRA, lest they suffer loss of freedom.
     However, internment largely became a new pillar of the civil rights movement. New anti-internment marches were held, and the state was put under increased pressure. At an anti-internment march in Derry on 30 January 1972 fourteen people were murdered by the British army.
     The British later dropped their policy of internment without trial and replaced it with the “criminalisation” policy in 1976, with the revoking of political status.
     The point of these policies was the same—to suppress democratic opposition—just updated in response to the changing political conditions.
     Forty-five years years later the British government has reintroduced internment, albeit in a more subtle form. It would be counter-productive to arrest vast swathes of the republican community, as happened in 1971; therefore internment needs to be more selective and directed at those the British deem a threat.
     It is important to point out that, as in 1971, those detained are not generally involved in military activity but rather are selected according to how much of an irritant they are to British interests in the colonial statelet.
     In 2011 the republican activist Marian Price was arrested for holding up a statement for a masked man at a republican event in Derry. The British government’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Patterson, revoked her previous release on licence on the grounds that the “threat by her had significantly increased.” She was later released after a long campaign by supporters.
     In 2012 the home of a republican activist, Stephen Murney, was raided and he was detained in prison. The charges against him were that he had pictures of PSNI members on duty and was in possession of political stencils. The state considered this to be enough to detain him for “possessing materials deemed useful to terrorists.” After fourteen months in Maghaberry prison, Murney was released when a judge ruled that the possession of these materials was “not sinister.”
     What is significant is that he spent fourteen months in prison, away from his family, despite there having been no crime or threat of a crime. Murney was known to be a prominent member of the socialist republican group Éirígí in the Newry area, and it is difficult to conclude that his detention was for any other reason than to remove him from the streets and from his political activity.
     In 2010 a former IRA prisoner, Martin Corey from Armagh, was arrested after the British secretary of state, Shaun Woodward, requested it. This was based on evidence linking Corey to illegal activities, but this evidence was never released. Corey was at the time a member of Republican Sinn Féin in Co. Armagh, and it appears again that his imprisonment was more for this than for anything related to illegal activity. The parole commission that granted the request for Corey to be arrested stated that it believed Corey was involved in armed activity but again provided no evidence of this, deeming it to be a “security risk” to do so. A campaign for Corey’s release put significant pressure on the British state, and he was freed in 2014 after agreeing not to speak publicly about his detention or to engage in any sort of political activity.
     More recently a republican from Derry, Tony Taylor, was arrested and imprisoned in early 2016. He was a former political prisoner who was a prominent member of the Republican Network for Unity in Derry. The charge against him was of “posing a threat to the public.” Again there is no evidence for this assertion, and Taylor is at present in Maghaberry prison without having faced any trial. The decision to arrest him came from the secretary of state, Theresa Villiers. While in prison Taylor was also denied attention for a medical complaint.
     All these cases can be deemed to be political in nature. They are all examples of members of republican organisations being imprisoned without any fair trial but only on the opinion of the British secretary of state, in an attempt to silence all dissent.
     It is obvious that British surveillance, including the Security Service (MI5), is directing these events as part of covert operations against anti-imperialists in the north of Ireland.
     We can also add the case of the Craigavon Two, John Paul Wooton and Brendan McConville, who were arrested and jailed in 2012 for the killing of a PSNI constable. Wooton was only seventeen at the time of his arrest. There is practically no evidence linking either of them to the killing: the only evidence comes from a secret witness who testified that he saw them in the area at the time of the killing. It then emerged that Witness M was a Walter Mitty character and an abuser of alcohol; this came from his own father! It also emerged that he had received a payment from the PSNI, who were under pressure to secure a conviction. His father and the defence lawyers were then harassed by the PSNI.
     The purpose of the present phase of internment is to force the funnelling of resources into campaigns to free the internees. Considering the disparate structure of republicanism as it stands today, this means that a significant effort by organisations must be made to ensure that the campaign continues. This allows the British to concentrate on other areas and take advantage of the lack of resources. If a republican group is concerned, understandably, with a campaign for releasing one of its members it will have less time to devote to campaigns against austerity, for example.
     The fact that only republicans are interned and not loyalists ensures that internment is sectarianised, with only one side of the community being affected, which further prevents the prospect of a cross-community approach against internment. It also allows the state to paint the issue as just being against republicans and therefore as a necessary security issue, not a civil one.
     However, it is obvious that the state is using internment to see how much support can be mobilised and to see if it could get away even with interning trade unionists later on.
     In the 26 Counties, internment is also evident in the form of the Special Criminal Court. In this court a person can be charged on the day of their arrest for political offences purely on the opinion of a superintendent. The southern state also uses the policy of internment by remand, whereby a person is arrested for a political offence and then detained for “public security” for as many as three or four years until their trial takes place. The charge may then be thrown out for lack of evidence, but the person still has a criminal record for their time in prison, hurting their employment prospects and also their chances of going abroad.
     The Jobstown trials also show that internment is not used only against republicans but is being expanded to include any and all political dissidents.
     Of course internment is not used only in Ireland. The Israeli occupation authorities are known to hold Palestinian prisoners in “administrative detention,” a notable case being that of a member of the PFLP, Bilal Kayed, who was detained after his formal imprisonment had ended. He was released after a lengthy hunger strike; but other prisoners remain interned.
     The United States holds prisoners in the infamous Guantánamo Bay facility and in other secret sites around eastern Europe, mainly from areas enduring America’s colonial adventures in the Middle East.
     Internment is also used, in various guises, by the Spanish state in the Basque Country, and in various Latin American countries against trade unionists and left-wing activists.
     The concepts of a fair trial and basic human rights are discarded when necessary by the imperialists, in Ireland and abroad.

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