Smuggled Recordings Revealed the Harshness of British Internment Policies in Northern IrelandRoundup
tags: torture, human rights, Northern Ireland, prison, Incarceration, Troubles
Jack Sheehan is a writer, photographer, and PhD candidate in history at Trinity College Dublin. You can find his work at Tribune magazine, The Fence, and Lonely Planet, at jacksheehan.substack.com, or on Twitter @yulegoat.
“In the early hours of Monday 9 August 1971, I was kidnapped from my bed by armed men, taken away and held as a hostage for five and a half weeks. I was not in Uruguay, Brazil, Greece or Russia. I was in the United Kingdom, an hour’s flight from London. I was in Belfast.”
–John McGuffin, Internment! (1973)
THIS YEAR MARKS HALF A CENTURY since audio tapes secretly recorded inside the Long Kesh internment camp were smuggled out of that disused World War II airfield-turned-makeshift prison near Lisburn, Northern Ireland, and released as an LP called Smash Internment and Injustice! The story behind the tapes begins a year earlier, on August 9, 1971, when the British government and British Army—assisted by the devolved and decaying Northern Irish government—launched Operation Demetrius, a program of mass internment without trial. Invoking provisions of the 1922 Special Powers Act, the Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary seized more than three hundred people in a single day. Hundreds more were taken in the weeks and months that followed and held at Long Kesh, Crumlin Road Gaol, Magilligan Camp, and even aboard the HMS Maidstone, a prison ship.
By the time mass internment was ended in 1975, almost two thousand people had passed through the system. The vast majority of these detainees were Catholic and Nationalist; they favored, through means both violent and nonviolent, the reunification of Ireland. Many of those interned were civil rights leaders or socialists. The number of Loyalists interned was initially zero, and in the final estimated accounting, perhaps five percent of the total. The “Orange State” of Northern Ireland, headquartered at Stormont, had been constructed in the 1920s through gerrymandering and disenfranchisement. In this statelet, which was effectively run by the Ulster Unionist Party and supported by state paramilitaries like the hated “B Specials,” the simple principle of “one person, one vote” did not apply. But by 1970 that state was in a final crisis. It would not survive the subsequent backlash to internment, and the north was ruled directly from Britain until the late 1990s.
Significantly, the crisis in Ireland was hardly exceptional: the early 1970s saw internment used by governments both dictatorial and ostensibly democratic. During the 1970 October Crisis in Quebec, the government of Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act in response to the kidnapping and murder of labor minister Pierre Laporte by Quebec nationalists. Almost five hundred were interned, including many activists and intellectuals with no direct connection to the kidnapping.
Internment has a long history in Ireland. Before the 1970s, it had been sporadically used against republicans on both sides of the border in the aftermath of the war of independence; during the Second World War; and during the IRA’s Border Campaign in the late 1950s. The British Army, too, was very familiar with indefinite and arbitrary detention, having used it on a mass scale since the Boer War, notably in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, as well as in Cyprus, among others. This detention was coupled with widespread use of torture, including sexual abuse and castration.
The torture employed during interrogation in Ireland was more precise, and, given that these were an English-speaking people with considerable sympathy in the United States, there was a limit to the brutality that could be employed against them without attracting an unacceptable level of attention. Nonetheless, a significant number of internees were subjected to what became known as the “Five Techniques” while in custody. The five techniques were: “wall standing” and stress positions—being forced to stand for hours in painful positions with most of the weight on one’s fingers; subjection to extreme noise; sleep deprivation; food and drink deprivation; and “hooding”—the practice of one’s head being kept in a dark bag at all times, except during interrogation