9 August 1971
On 9 August 1971, hundreds of British soldiers were deployed across Northern Ireland to arrest 342 Catholics and two protestants with suspected Republican sympathies under new powers of ‘internment without trial.’1 They kicked down doors and dragged men of all ages from their beds. Only Catholic areas were targeted. The British government saw no equivalent need to target suspect loyalist paramilitaries and the vast majority of those arrested were not guilty of any serious crime.
Most of those who had committed acts of brutal violence against British soldiers or protestant civilians had already fled south across the border and the mass arrest of so many without credible evidence of any crime proved to be a serious propaganda victory for the IRA which won them many new recruits. The clampdown predictably failed to quell the unrest. Instead, it was following by an explosion of violence. In the four months prior to the introduction of internment, four soldiers and four civilians had been killed, but the subsequent four months saw the murder of thirty soldiers, eleven police officers and 73 civilians.
Determined to win by any means, the Royal Ulster Constabulary resorted to torture methods against the detainees, both psychological and physical, which it termed ‘highly coercive interrogation’ or ‘interrogation in depth.’ The aim was to destroy the prisoners mentally. This meant hooding, hours of wall-standing, subjection to extreme ‘white noise’, sleep deprivation and the withholding of food and drink. A Sunday Times investigation highlighted ‘white noise’ in particular, which it found ‘literally drove [people] out of their minds.’2 Internees were even thrown out of helicopters, hovering just three or four feet above the ground, in terrifying mock executions.
When news that an RAF base at Ballykelly was being used as a torture centre leaked, the Conservative government of Edward Heath appointed a committee, under Sir Edmond Compton, to investigate the claims. It declared that while the internees had been subjected to ill-treatment, their interrogators had not acted in a brutal way because they had neither enjoyed nor been indifferent to the suffering they had inflicted. Those who had survived the terrible ordeal of such torture would have found such reasoning absurd. Heath, however, thought otherwise, declaring that ‘the number of incidents involved in the arrest of 300 odd men were small and, in the condition of war against the IRA, trivial.’ adding mockingly that ‘they seem to have gone to endless lengths to show that anyone not given 3-star hotel facilities suffered hardship and ill-treatment.’3
- Margaret Urwin, A State in Denial: British Collaboration with Loyalist Paramilitaries, Mercier Press, Cork, 2016, p. 29.
- Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac, The Black Door: Spies, Secret Intelligence and British Prime Ministers, William Collins, London, 2018, pp. 293-294.
- Edward Heath cited in Ian Cobain, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, Portobello Books, London, 2013, p. 149.
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