Court action over internment

 

The discovery of British government papers from the early years of the Troubles has sparked a court action by former prisoners held without trial under the controversial policy of internment.

Six former internees who have reported being tortured by British troops are suing the British
ministry of defence, the secretary of state, the police, as well as the estate of the late Brain Faulkner, former Northern Ireland prime minister.

The group, who see their action as a test case for the 2,000 people interned in the early 1970s during some of the worst years of violence, said the confidential documents confirmed their long-standing belief that the policy was directed against the Catholic community and included indiscriminate arrests.

In 1978, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that interrogation methods used on internees in 1971 amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment.”

One man recounted having barbed wire wrapped around his wrists before he was hooded and beaten by troops, while a woman jailed without trial recalled the trauma of having to sign her two children into care.

Solicitor Pádraig Ó Muirigh said his clients were launching proceedings on the 40th anniversary of internment, which began on August 9th, 1971.

And while it was ordered by Mr Faulkner, the policy was continued by Westminster politicians for four years after they stepped in to take over the running of Northern Ireland.

Mr Ó Muirigh said: “These papers demonstrate not only the existence of a discriminatory policy against the nationalist community, but also the indiscriminate nature of the arrests by the army, who were clearly instructed to arrest without question those in a household over the age of 18 in circumstances where there was uncertainty over the identity of the person being sought out by the Army.”

Internment was introduced as the authorities struggled to cope with spiralling levels of violence and was billed as a bid to take paramilitaries off the streets.

But weak intelligence meant many of the key targets escaped and people without any involvement in violence were arrested.

The ferocity of the security force tactics and the targeting of Catholic districts also turned the policy into a political own-goal that fuelled discontent.

A total of 1,981 people were detained over the period, with 1,874 internees drawn from the Catholic community, while 107 were Protestant.

A document from 1974 recording a meeting of the Northern Ireland Office, but which included the attorney general, the home office and the ministry of defence, showed officials asking “why only Roman Catholics were interned before 1973”.

The reason given was that “in the view of the security forces there was no serious Protestant threat in that period of a kind which led to death and serious injury”.

This was despite the fact that by the end of 1972 loyalist paramilitaries had killed 150 people.

West Belfast man Joseph Curley, now aged 60 but who was 20 at the time he was interned, said he was taken to a vehicle by troops who wrapped barbed wire around his wrists.

He had an empty sandbag placed over his head and suffered a series of beatings.

Soldiers told him he was going to be killed. The hooded man was taken to what he believed was a helicopter and pushed out of the door, fearing he was being dropped from a height, before quickly hitting the ground.

“I was held for eight months. They never even told me what they put me in prison for. They laughed. It was just beating, beating, beating,” he said.

“I am disabled now. I have metal plates in my spine. I can’t work. I felt worthless, useless, because I couldn’t work. I had a mental breakdown and my marriage broke up.”

Evelyn Gilroy (58) recounted how she was arrested and questioned by police who showed her pictures of dead bodies from republican bomb attacks during questioning which she described as psychological torture.

She said her denials of involvement in any criminal activities were ignored.

The mother of two young girls, aged nine months and three years at the time, she added: “I was frantic with worry about my daughters. But they asked me to sign papers consenting to the children being put into the care of the social services.”

Her younger daughter Denise did not recognise her mother when she was freed from jail 10 months later.

The former internee, who subsequently obtained a degree in child psychology, hit out at the impact on her children, particularly her younger daughter, who died at the age of only 28.

“They damaged my two children, aside from what they did to me,” she said.

The internees’ solicitor Mr O Muirigh said: “If there was liability accepted, or a settlement in these cases, it would be an acknowledgement of the wrong done to these people, an official acknowledgement if you like, whether it’s by the courts or whether the Secretary of State himself or the other respondents settle the matter.

“But it’s not about money, its really about acknowledgement, officially, that internment was illegal and discriminatory and the actions of the government at the time were unlawful.”

PA