‘Internment’ by John McGuffin (1973)

Chapter 1

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.
     A crashing on the door awoke me. It was 4.45 o'clock. I went down stairs in my pyjamas to answer. As I opened the door I was forced back against the wall by two soldiers who screamed at me "Do you live here?" Overwhelmed by their perspicacity I admitted that this was so, whereupon they ordered me to get dressed. I foolishly asked why. "Under the Special Powers Act we don't have to give a reason for anything," an officer said. "You have two minutes to get dressed." Through the window I could see in the dawn light half a dozen armed men skulking in our tiny front garden.
     I was given exactly two minutes to get dressed while a young soldier boosted his ego by sticking an SLR up my nose. My wife, not surprisingly, was almost in tears as I was dragged down the stairs and into the street. She ran after me to give me my jacket and was roughly ordered back into the house. Our quiet residential bourgeois neighbourhood hadn't seen such excitement in years as I was frogmarched and escorted at the double down the avenue by eight soldiers. As we sped down we were joined by a dozen more who had been hiding in nearby gardens, wreaking havoc on the horticultural efforts of various OAPs. People who looked out into the early morning mist must have imagined that a Vietcong patrol had been sighted in the locale.
     "Tie him up and gag the fecker" [sic] an educated English accent ordered. "That's hardly necessary," I said, as I was frisked for the second time up against a lorry, or 'pig' as they called it. This was accepted, albeit reluctantly in the case of a corporal who was positively twitching with desire to practise his boyscout knots upon me. My shoes were taken off me and I was put none too gently into the back of the 'pig'. Two men with sten-guns covered me. "Nice morning," I ventured. "Shut your fecking Fenian mouth."
     I sat there and watched the army manoeuvres. Back up the avenue they scurried, to a friend's house, I thought. Obviously, however, they were out of luck. But, never men to return empty-handed, they came back with another friend, Liam, who lived at my house. He was barefoot and, it subsequently transpired, had been arrested in error for someone else. The two other houses they raided in the area were empty and so, after casually wrecking the two flats they hastened back, each man covering the other. There wasn't a soul about and their antics began to assume a somewhat surreal aspect. Any amusement to be derived from the situation soon evaporated, however.
     Sitting shivering in the back of the 'pig' I began to try to work out what was happening. I had known, as of course had anyone involved in Irish politics, that internment was on the cards, but I had never expected to be involved. For three years I had been a member of the People's Democracy, a libertarian socialist group, and had attended meetings, marches and pickets, all perfectly legal. I had contributed articles to their weekly paper The Free Citizen, again perfectly legal. My wife and I had received compensation from the government for being beaten. up at Burntollet by B Specials. But the public had been told over and over by the Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, that only IRA and UVF men could be interned. What, therefore, were Liam and I doing freezing in a lorry with sten-guns covering us at this ungodly hour? Could the discredited Faulkner have panicked to the extent that in order to prop up his Orange State he had resorted to arresting unarmed socialists? It appeared so.
     We were driven to Annadale TA camp and forced to stand, legs apart, against the nissen huts. Then back to the 'pig' where we were joined by another PD member, Michael Farrell, and an unknown man whom I later discovered was Harry McKeown. They, too, were barefoot and when ten soldiers joined us in the back of the 'pig' we were very cramped. We sped through the deserted early-morning streets, with no idea where we were being taken. Each time we passed a police station I mentally crossed it off the possible list of destinations. Up through Carlisle Circus and past Crumlin jail. "Christ, it must be Rathlin Island," McKeown said. No one spoke, and the 'pig' made a sudden sharp right turn through to the Antrim Road. Then up a side street and into what we were later to learn was Girdwood barracks.
     Four lorries were in front of us and slowly disembarking were other men, mostly in pyjamas. A helicopter, engine revving, stood on the turf outside the TA hail. Another half an hour was spent shivering in the back of the lorry until we were told to jump down, without our shoes, into the mud and make our way, guns in our backs, into the hall. Soldiers, RUC and Special Branch men thronged the corridor and entrance hall. As we were 'processed', polaroid flash pictures were taken and affixed to a card. A further search. Watches, rings, belts were taken and we were pushed into the gym hail where about 150 other people were squatting on the floor. Many were in pyjamas or shirtless. Heavily armed soldiers walked up and down, risking apoplexy or a coronary by incessantly bellowing, "No talking, you scum."
     Every five minutes or so groups of six of us were called out. The first three groups didn't return. The fourth did. They were dishevelled and several were bleeding, including a young man I knew, called Murphy. Was this the treatment we could all expect? I tried to comfort myself by thinking "Westminster must have sanctioned this internment; they'll have to behave themselves." Then I remembered Cyprus and Aden and Hola Camp in Kenya. My optimism flagged. The familiar lines of R. W. Grimshaw came back to me: "what can you expect from a pig but a grunt?" I braced myself and looked around. Very few faces I recognised. Mostly old men and very young boys. A man was led in by the police. Good Christ! He was blind! What sort of people were these, at whose mercy we were?
     [The army also detained three winos, picked up drunk at Dunville Park bus shelter, and a dog. All were released after 24 hours. It is not reported what the dog was suspected of – people will find this hard to credit, but it is absolutely true.]
     My name was called. Apprehensively I shuffled forward. I was taken by two young SB officers who identified themselves – the only ones to do so during my four interrogations – into a room and desultorily questioned. They obviously knew very little about me and cared even less. Name, address, occupation (lecturer) and a few general comments such as "Well, it's at least five years for you." What interested me more was the view past them through the window. On the lawn outside, the helicopter stood, engines still revving and blades rotating. A dozen or so barefoot men were being forced to run the gauntlet between two rows of military policemen who were clubbing them with sten-gun butts and batons. Those who fell were badly kicked. When they reached the helicopter they were grabbed in and then thrown out again almost immediately. The noise of the helicopter drowned any screams.
     The interrogators noted my concern. "That's nothing to do with us," one said. "That's just the army letting off a bit of steam."
     "I'd like to see my lawyer," I said, feeling foolish. They laughed. "I'm entitled to see a lawyer and to know what I'm being charged with," I tried again. They stopped laughing. "Listen, you smarty bastard, under the Special Powers Act we can keep you here as long as we like. You can't see anyone. No one will know where you are and we don't have to charge you with anything. If one of those soldiers happens to shoot you, there'll be no inquest either, you bastard." Having read the SP Acts I knew this to be unfortunately all too true. They lost interest and led me out again, this time upstairs to a crowded room where about 220 people were crammed on the floor. A faded sign on the door, under a regimental motto, said 'Merry Xmas'. Beside that a portrait of Her Serene Highness Elizabeth R. gazed serenely down.
     People were still being brought in and I saw another two PD members, John Murphy and Oliver Cosgrove, president of St. Joseph's Students' Council. I sprawled down beside Liam, who was looking very pale. I glanced down and saw congealed blood on his leg. "What happened?" I whispered. "Helicopter run," he grunted. It was only later I learned that he and others had been taken about four feet up in the air and pushed out backwards, believing that they were much higher off the ground, having been told so by the soldiers.
     The door opened and a young lad, his arm covered in blood, was thrust onto the floor. A policeman completed the task by going over and kicking him in the ribs. I later discovered that the lad's name was Patrick McGeogh and that he'd had to run the gauntlet three times.
     Military police patrolled us, preventing anyone from dozing off or talking, but with over 200 sprawled on the floor whispered conversation was possible at times. The young man in front of me was obviously in pain. He was Eamonn Kerr. Then I saw the pus oozing out of the sores on the back of his neck. Soldiers under command of Major Lloyd had stubbed out four cigarette butts on his neck in the 'pig'. William Burroughs has said "a paranoid is someone who has some small idea of what is really going on." I began to see his point.
     New military police wandered in and out making jocular remarks about getting the Fenians to sing 'the Queen'. No one stirred. At about 11 a.m. we were ordered to the door in groups of six, to get a cup of warm swill. An English gentleman put his head around the door and announced that he was a priest. Did anyone want to see him? His accent seemed to put off many. Only four queued up, shamefacedly. "You'll all be needing the last rites soon enough," the military policeman beside me smirked. Slowly they began to call out names. These were taken away in groups of six, apparently the mystic number, and disappeared from sight. By lunchtime our numbers had been reduced to 87. We were then taken downstairs again for 'lunch'.
     Again we sat in ranks on the floor. No talking, no dozing, no sprawling. As different NCOs came on duty the 'rules' changed. We were shuffled in order and made to walk in circles. Throughout the afternoon we were called out for further questioning. The boredom and uncertainty dragged on. We had little idea of time, of what was happening outside, of where our friends were, of what was going to happen to us. Most of the 87 were old men or youths. The blind man, Peter Farran, was still there. By now they had given him a table to sit at.
     The sergeant began to play a very real role in our lives. It was apparently his job to invent as many petty regulations as possible to make our lives uncomfortable. To go to the toilet necessitated queuing in a corner, looking straight ahead and putting one's hands on the shoulders of the man in front. Failure to comply exactly with this occasioned anything from a rebuke to a sten-gun butt in the kidneys, depending upon which NCO was guarding this vital installation. Time dragged on. 'Tea' was as unappetising as 'lunch'. Watery 'stew' "and you're fecking lucky to get anything." "Eat it, it may be your last." More reassurance. RUC men sat around the room, but it was clear that they were mere message boys; the army was in control. Some requests for a doctor were scornfully refused.
     Uncertainty was the worst enemy. A man, later identified as Geordie Shannon, was taken off to hospital. He suffered from ulcers and had been forced to squat, head between knees, for an hour. It was four days before he was brought over to the jail.
     The night shift came on to guard us. They, of course, had new sets of rules for us to obey. A new 'game' was introduced. It consisted of going down the line pointing at men and saying "tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, fecking nailbomber!" Whereupon the fifth man would be set upon and beaten. Exhaustion had set in but people were still being called out and interrogated. At about 11 p.m. we were ordered to erect camp beds and given two blankets each. "Those Irish bastards smell; give them showers," the sergeant said. That we smelt was true, but hardly surprising, since men, still in their pyjamas in many cases, had been dragged through the mud. Everyone's feet, with or without socks, were encrusted with filth.
     The showers proved another opportunity for jocular fun. Several youths were forced into showers that were boiling hot, the next lot into freezing ones. We were issued with army socks and toothbrushes. "Compliments of her majesty," I was told. At midnight lights were dimmed and we piled into the rows of camp beds. I fell asleep but was soon awakened by a soldier shining his torch into my face. "O'Hara?" he asked. "No," I mumbled. He moved down the line. I dozed off again. Suddenly there was a thunderous sound. Batons hammered on the walls. "Get up you bastards." We fell out of bed. It was 3 a.m. 'Rollcall'. A Branch man came round and solemnly took everyone's name yet again. "What are you doing standing there, get to bed!" We dropped off once more only to be aroused at 5.30 am for 'breakfast'. Half a bowl of stale cornflakes. The beds were dismantled and we resumed squatting on the floor. People were still called out singly for further interrogation. Police walked in grinning and held up the morning newspapers to show us headlines "13 shot dead". "Ardoyne burnt to the ground" (an exaggeration). The sergeant, refreshed from his sleep, was also forthcoming. "That's 13 less of you Irish pigs; none of ours was got." Word filtered back from those who'd been interrogated again. The death toll had risen to 18, including four women and a priest.
     I got talking in whispers with my neighbour, George O'Hara. After doing the 'helicopter run' he, too, had been dragged into it, but, unlike the others, he had been taken up some 200 feet into the air. Two military policemen had then told him to "talk or we'll shove you out." Shades of Vietnam!
     My further three interrogations were tragi-comic. At no time was I questioned about the IRA, UVF or bombs. All questions which could be termed in any way relevant were concerned with what was socialism. Bizarre jokes were thrown in, such as "did I know that Farrell was getting Moscow gold?" So help me! Moscow gold! I explained that libertarian socialism as advocated by the PD and Farrell in particular was directly opposed to state capitalism as carried out by totalitarian regimes like the USSR. "That's just the KGB's cleverness," I was told. They clearly didn't believe it for a minute, but any smear in a storm. Next I was asked about Jerry Rubin. Was it not all a part of the international conspiracy, the trouble here? The next questioners were the most bizarre. A lugubrious gentleman gave me a lecture on the evils of atheism (I am an agnostic, but this theological distinction passed my Presbyterian inquisitor by). Did I believe in hellfire? Did I know that I would burn in all eternity? He didn't quite spell it out but the clear implication was that if I confessed to some crime or other – unspecified – he would be able to get on some kind of supernatural shortwave and put in a good word for me. Next I was asked what I was doing in the same room with a band of child murderers, rapists and mad bombers. All of them? All of them! "Even the blind man?" I explained that I had been dragged there by armed men, knew virtually none of the men and boys in the room, and rather doubted the allegations so wildly hurled about them. A view backed up by the Special Branch themselves when they released over 80 of them that day. They didn't seem very interested in me after these exchanges and contented themselves with telling me that I'd get "at least five years." For what? For speaking at civil rights meetings (perfectly legal meetings, in fact) which had led to "all this trouble."
     Their tactics with me may have been innocuous enough, but what others suffered was not. Quite a few were badly beaten – a fact obvious to all who saw them emerge from the interrogation room; many were told that the streets where their families lived had been "burnt down by the Orangemen," that their relatives had been shot, sons arrested, their friends had "squealed and told all about them," that everyone believed that they had squealed and that only the SB could smuggle them out of the country, that they had lost their jobs (about the only true statement made) and finally, that if they didn't talk "we'll rip out your teeth with pliers" – which were brandished by a well-known Branch man named Harry Taylor.
     By lunchtime on the second day discipline had relaxed slightly. The sergeant graciously permitted one cigarette per man before and after the 'meal'. Then we had a period; of exercise – five minutes walk outside. Soldiers gathered to make humorous remarks about 'the animals'. A playful corporal kept slipping the leash of his Alsatian as we passed him until the bewildered beast turned and tried to bite him., We were hastily rushed back inside lest we should laugh.
     Rumours began to spread that they couldn't keep us more than 48 hours without officially charging or interning us. This was incorrect. They can do anything they like. under the Special Powers Act, and most of the men we met in Crumlin Road jail who were from out of Belfast were kept six days without being issued detention notices, let alone internment notices.
     We continued to squat on the floor. Many were afraid to go to the toilet because of the blows some received there. Everyone was stiff and very tired, but still we were told nothing. Eventually, at 9.30 p.m., we were ordered to collect the bags containing our 'personal effects' and to put on our shoes. Suddenly there was a bustle of activity. About 25 military policemen and a dozen RUC men entered and surrounded us. Guns were cocked. Special Branch men entered and a senior officer appeared with a list. As he read from it, those called were to stand up and move over towards the door. The list was obviously incompetently compiled. Many of those called weren't in the hall or had been released earlier. The dates of birth of several people were incorrect but the Branch refused to recognize this and so sons were still mistaken for their fathers and vice versa. Eventually, 17 men were marched out. Were they being interned? Or released? We had no idea. My friend Liam, who had been arrested in error for someone else, was last to go.
     Then it became really frightening. The SB withdrew, leaving the soldiers. They began to drill us, shouting what presumably to them were merry quips. "You're the feckin' bomber then, are you?" (This to a 77-year-old dignified man who never for a minute deigned to complain). "Haven't got your Thompson now, have you? You'll have to be fitter than that to join the British army" (this to a 70-year-old asthmatic who had had seven hours sleep, and that interrupted, in the last 65 hours, and who was quite unable to keep up with the exercises). Some of us were given 'fatigues' to do, which ranged from cleaning out toilet bowls with our bare hands to dishwashing. I was more fortunate and was given the task of sweeping the floor under the tutelage of a pimply teenager, eager to impress his superiors with his wit. My efforts were dearly regarded as inadequate and he let me know by constantly prodding me with the butt of his sten-gun. "Keep awake, you dozy sods," they continually yelled. It was now 2 a.m. My mind started to drift off. Things took what I felt was a very surrealistic turn. In front of me was the company notice board, upon which were pinned three notices – all of them blank! During the day one had been taken down and replaced with a blue notice, but it, too, was blank. (On looking back, I thought that I must have imagined this, but others who were standing in the front row with me have confirmed it). I kept trying to work out some kind of secret message from the board. Was it in the colour of the drawing pins? In the different shapes of the blank paper? Invisible ink? I felt myself falling asleep and a kind soldier awakened me with his baton across my back. "Feckin' bastard." I began to wish that if they must swear so repetitiously, they would at least say 'fuck' instead of using this emasculated surrogate.
     A quarter to four. Surely they must let us go. After all, the blind man was still in our group along with most of the very old men, and the only two other people in the hall whom I knew were not only not terrorists, but clearly couldn't be mistaken for terrorists. I wasn't even a Republican, a political belief quite legal in any democratic society. But then William Craig had banned Republican clubs, hadn't he, and the House of Lords had upheld the ban. I began to think of getting home and getting some sleep; surely it was just all a bad dream? About 3.50 a.m. the military police massed in strength again, this time even more threateningly. Most of us had had only a disturbed seven-hours sleep out of the last 67 hours. Was it to be a mass beating? Mentally I tried to resign myself to it. But no. Out came the lists again.
     Of the 60 still remaining, 48 of us were called up in groups of six. As I stood waiting to be taken out an SB man began to talk to me. "It's Crumlin for all you lads," he said, "and they've brought back the B men."
     "Not even Faulkner's that stupid."
     "Just joking, lads." Some joke!
     "Are you interning the blind man?"
     "Yes, at night he can see better than all of you put together."
     We were taken out into the entrance hall and photographed again with a RUG man holding us by the collar. We had been 46 hours in Girdwood barracks. At no time since our arrest had we seen a doctor, although later Brigadier Marston Tickell was to claim: "Those arrested were given a medical inspection both on arrival at the 'police station' and again on moving into the place of detention." (Army press briefing, Belfast, 20 August). "These medical tests are available for inspection," he went on to say. This, in fact, was totally untrue. No one was inspected. About ten men saw someone who, it was alleged, was a medical orderly. His only action was to order Edward Campbell to have his head completely shaven because he had 'venereal scabies'. (No such disease exists). Pressmen who asked to see the mythical medical records were refused.
     "Draw pistols," came the order. The group of six of us who had been called out of the hall together were forced down a corridor to our right, a RUC man holding each of us by the scruff of the neck and a redcap with a pistol at our heads, beside each of us. I could hardly stand for fatigue. "If there's any sniping out there we can afford to lose two of you bastards on the way over," a corporal said.
     Then we were out of the building and onto the path; We were rushed over the by now infamous 'obstacle course – broken glass, barbed wire, sharp stones. We were more fortunate than people like Michael Farrell who had had to traverse it in daylight – with bare feet. We at least had our shoes on, but one slip meant a cruel beating. Then we were rushed through a hole in a wall and found ourselves in the grounds of Crumlin Road jail. A rapid dash over the football pitch, with soldier snipers all around it. A final dash down a grassy slope and inside the walls of the prison itself. We were out of the hands of the soldiers. The screws couldn't be as bad? They weren't. Most seemed very subdued. There was no violence shown towards us.
     Two to a cell. Initially, we found the usual plethora of petty and nonsensical regulations. All the conditions the old internees had fought for, over the last 50 years, had to be fought for again, but, within two days, a prisoners committee had been elected and began to demand changes from the Governor, Major Albert Mullin. Because the treatment accorded in Crumlin was tolerable, Mullin was addressed as 'governor', unlike 'commandant' Kerr of the Long Kesh camp.
     We retained our civilian clothes, although most of these were torn and filthy; it took time to get fresh clothes sent in. We could get food and books sent in, and for the first time got to see newspapers. Free copies were sent in by the Irish News, Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph as well as a few Independents. The day after we arrived we were joined by those who had been sent over from Girdwood a day before us. They had been put up in D wing and had, by and large, received worse treatment than we had – more beatings, attacked by the guard dogs, put over the 'obstacle course' in bare feet. Most of them bore the marks of rough treatment and some were still confined to hospital, but the medical authorities didn't want to know about any allegations of maltreatment.
     From the papers we learned that about 110 men, mainly from rural areas, had been detained on the HMS Maidstone, a hulk moored at the coal wharf. They were getting only four hours on deck out of 24 and were apparently much more cramped than we were. At first we also had been limited to four hours but strenuous protests had forced the prison authorities to extend this, after the first week, to letting us out of the cells from 7.30 a.m. to 8 p.m. (4 p.m. on Sundays) and this was later extended to 9 p.m. After the first week we were able to eat together in the small recreation hall, although this necessitated some men having to eat with the toilets only a few yards away. Still, for most it was better than being forced to eat in our cells every day. Lights went out at 10 p.m.
     Most of the time, if the weather was dry, we spent in the small prison yard. The yard was overlooked by both C wing and D wing where the convicted prisoners were, and the first day when we entered it we were greeted by an incredible spontaneous outburst. From every cell window cigarettes, food, books, papers and encouragement showered down. That these men, whose conditions were worse than ours (though as some of them pointed out, "At least we've got a release date on our cell doors"), were so generous was, to me at least, a morale booster.
     Helicopters flew over every day, landing in Girdwood, a sordid reminder for most of us, exacerbated when they swooped low and gesticulated and mocked us.
     We were not allowed to contact lawyers for several weeks and our initial postcards out were held up for four days, presumably while SB men perused them. Later, "as a favour" we were permitted two postcards a week and eventually a 20-minute visit from relatives, with a warder sitting between us. It had been harder on relatives and wives. In most cases they had been trying without success to find out where we were being held. Some, like Mrs. Shivers of Toome, were only told where their husbands were after nine days. All had been fobbed off with bland lies by the Ministry for Home Affairs and shuttled from one authority to another. One army official evidently believed that it was a good joke to give the number of Paisley's 'Dial-a-Prayer' to relatives requesting a phone number to get permission to apply for a visit.
     On 14 September 12 of us were released. The next day the other detainees were moved to Long Kesh.

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