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Peter Hunt

After three years of internment in Northern Ireland

Only workers’ movement can solve the problems

(September 1974)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 27, September 1974.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Three years ago, the pre-dawn silence in Northern Ireland was broken by the noise of armoured cars rumbling in force into every major Catholic district. In the hours of first light, barricades were erected and people began pouring onto the streets to find that internment had begun.

342 men were lifted in those first swoops. Today over 600 are held in Long Kesh. Eight of these have been prisoners since internment began. Hundreds of others have spent time ‘behind the wire’.

A virtual uprising in every major Catholic area in the North followed internment. Twelve died in the bloody rioting which ensued. Rents and rates were withheld. Schoolchildren across the province staged protests. One month later, many thousands of workers marched to Belfast’s Casement Park to hear speakers from the Civil Rights Association (NICRA), the Social Democratic and Labour Party and other speakers. The campaign of mass resistance was begun.

The three years since August 9th 1971 have been the most tumultuous in the history of Northern Ireland. They have seen 1004 deaths. The have seen the Provisional IRA campaign reach its climax. They have seen the murders of 13 unarmed civilians on Derry’s ‘Bloody Sunday’.

Among Protestant workers these have been the years of the growth of para-military grouping and of the Ulster Workers’ Council, whose general strike call paralysed the province and left the Sunningdale Agreement in shreds.

Terrible Conditions

Above all, it is the lives of the internees and their families which have been turned inside out. Many prisoners initially thought an internment camp would be preferable to conditions in the Crumlin Road prison or on the HMS Maidstone prison ship.

The cramped conditions of Long Kesh came as a shock. Here the huts are draughty, cold and damp. Many have leaking roofs and broken windows. There is one hand-basin and one toilet for every thirty internees. Sean Murphy, an internee since August 1971, comments in a letter: “It has been said that the Ministry of Agriculture regulations governing the keeping of pigs would, if enforced in Long Kesh, provide us with better living conditions.”

For the wives of internees, internment means raising families on paltry state handouts. Their life often revolves around the weekly trip to Long Kesh – a humiliating experience by any account. Visits last for thirty minutes. Physical contact with the internee, once forbidden, has now been permitted by the beneficent administration – in the presence of a warder of course! For these thirty minutes together, relatives have to endure hours of waiting and searching on their way in and out of the camp. A ‘visit’ lasts a whole day.

This year the 3rd anniversary was marked by protests in many centres. As is now almost traditional, Catholic ghettoes echoed once again to the early-morning rattling of bin lids – the warning sound which first spread the message that the men were being lifted.

After three years of protest, internment is by no means at an end. The ruling class, through the Tory Government in Britain, introduced it and they see no way of ending it. All the promises of their political spokesmen to this effect have been hollow.

When Stormont fell, Whitelaw announced “the phased release of the internees.” He was to be the man of reforms! Indeed he was! The Special Powers Act was abolished. Instead we were given new special powers under the Emergency Provisions Act. Long Kesh was to go. So it was politely renamed ‘The Maze.’

There was to be no more internment. Instead we had ‘detention’, no internees, only ‘detainees’. Nothing was changed and with the failure of Whitelaw’s ‘initiatives’, internment has not been ‘phased out’, it has been ‘phased in.’ More people now languish in the barbed wire than at any time since early 1972.

In 1971, as the Saracens rolled through the Catholic side streets, Unionist and Loyalist politicians were loud in their cheers. Hibernia (August 9th 1974) cites the case of William Hutchinson. He was then a warder in Crumlin Road prison and was aboard the helicopter which ferried the first load of internees into Long Kesh. Today he looks through the other side of the wire, having been interned as a member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). His wife and two children live on £11.30 a week benefit. Her comment is typical of the forced change of attitude among many Protestant workers: “We’ve had our eyes opened. We never believed the Catholics had to put up with half the things they said they did. We never really cared, but we believe them now.”

At the beginning of 1973, the state apparatus turned its repressive attentions towards the Protestants. Over fifty ‘Loyalists’ are now interned. The UDA have stated that politicians who favour internment will not gain any para-military backing at the elections. As a result there have been some remarkable political gymnastics from Unionist and other opportunist politicians. The Alliance Party now pontificate about the evils of locking men up with no trial. ‘Moderate’ Unionists such as Peter McLochlen and Anne Dickson denounce this system. The Unionist hierarchy is split. Faulkner favours internment. The Craig, Paisley, West grand triumvirate will lift not one finger to fight the repression of any worker. Recently when the Emergency Provisions Act was renewed at Westminster, these great leaders eased their consciences by abstaining!

From the working class based Protestant groups comes the only real opposition to internment on their side. Initially they demanded only the release of Loyalist detainees; now they insist that the entire system be scrapped. Harry Murray of the UWC has stated that “the only common ground Protestants and Catholics have is internment.” Dave Payne, a UDA member who has been interned, echoes the sentiments of Mrs Hutchinson (quoted above): “To be honest I was in favour of internment to begin with. But since I was interned, and with all our men inside, we can appreciate what it means.”

Paradoxically, while more and more add their voices to demand the release of those now held, the main protest movement is splintering. The third anniversary protests were divided between those organised by the Provisional IRA and those held under the banner of NICRA. A further body of opinion would back the methods of the SDLP.

But since its inception, the entire movement has been mobilised with one hand tied behind its back. No attempt has been made to spread it beyond the Catholic community. No attempt was made to relate to the struggle to free the internees with the struggle to free workers of both religions from their common oppressor – big business.

Who can force the release of the internees? A united movement of the working class marching shoulder to shoulder, this and this alone.

The resentment of people like Harry Murray has not been accompanied by even one concrete step towards a united movement. The Official Republicans movement, during this year’s protest proposed a united front of NICRA and the UWC on this issue. But not in this way will working class unity be achieved. The UWC contains the ex-B Specials and other extreme right-wingers. It contains the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) whose paper Combat has just condoned the assassination of members of the Official IRA.

This would not be a united front of the working class. The task is to win Protestant workers away from such right-wing influences as the ex-B men. The trade union and Labour movement and they alone have the power to bring workers, Protestant and Catholic, together on this and other issues. They have the power to force the release of those detained; but only if they boldly take up the real social and political problems which face all the workers can this be done. To strike out on this road inevitably is to fight for socialist policies.

Billy Blease, Brendan Harkin, Andy Barr and other trade union chiefs have signed petitions against internment. The Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions opposed its introduction. So did Belfast Trades Council. So, in a belated and half-hearted manner did the Northern Ireland Labour Party (NILP), although its public spokesmen have retreated from their position of opposition. The ATGWU at its recent conference demanded its ending. Of fine words and resolutions there have been no shortage. But action from this quarter has been little or none.

Militant warned

In 1971 the trade unions should have fought for the leadership of the anti-internment movement. Their banners should have been to the forefront of the marches. To sceptical Protestant trade unionists, they should have issued the same warning as did the Militant (September 1971):

“Interment is not a religious but a class issue. The criteria by which internees are arrested is not their religion but the extent to which they threaten the ruling class … Today if is the Catholics who present the problem. Tomorrow it may be members of the Protestant nuisance groups and the day after it will be members of the Labour movement.”

It is still not too late to begin a campaign. This question must be taken up by the Labour movement throughout Ireland. In Britain also it must be raised. It cannot be over-stressed that Labour has nothing to gain from the enactment of Tory legislation or the use of Tory methods.

Labour must free internees

There are now more people in Long Kesh than were there when Labour took office. This fact alone speaks volumes about the myth of Merlyn Ree’s ‘phased releases’, a hollow echo of Whitelaw’s promise. On July 109th, this ‘phased run down’ began and a magnificent seven released men were permitted, the very same day Labour pushed onto the Statute Book for a further six months the iniquitous Emergency provisions Act.

This vicious legislation gives the army virtually unlimited powers to search and arrest. Although it states that charges must be laid 28 days after arrest, an escape clause allows a way round this, and it is now admitted that the average time between arrest and the serving of allegations is seven months. It allows for non-jury tribunals, mock courts in which the defendant is denied access to, and in many cases, is not even told, the evidence against him. It is a total travesty of any kind of justice.

Stanley Orme was, despite all, any still be, a member of the ‘Campaign for Democracy in Ulster’. On 11th December 1973, he said, “At this historic moment the Campaign for Democracy in Ulster appeals to the Secretary of State to make a gesture fitting to the occasion (the Sunningdale Agreement, MIM) and end internment now”. Out of opposition, now side by side with Merlyn Rees, Orme has the power to do this. Yet the arrests continue.

To Labour in Britain the message must go – stop carrying out Tory policies at both home and in Ireland.

The Labour movement must demand an end to internment immediately. But at the same time, this is not to condone the policies and methods of the Provisional IRA in particular. Many would argue that to end internment would be to allow sectarian assassins, bombers, etc. to go loose.

But it is not the capitalist state that can defend workers of either religion from sectarian attack, but the organisations of the workers themselves. In fact, the bombing campaigns have only given the capitalists a good excuse for perfecting methods of repression which they could later use against the Labour movement in Britain as well as in Ireland. At the same time the campaign of terror has only widened the gulf between the workers and not solved one of the problems which face them.

It is only the Labour movement which can, and must, take on the defence of workers against sectarian attack. In pace of British troops, who have proved incapable of this task, the workers’ organisations, trade unions, shop stewards’ committees, Labour Parties, must jointly mobilise defence forces to ‘keep the peace’.

A Trade Union Defence Force would be able to end sectarian terror and at the same time be able to lay the basis for real unity among the workers in a struggle around all the social problems which lie at the root of sectarianism.

  • Free internees and all political prisoners!
  • Amnesty for all those on the run!
  • Amnesty for rent and rates strikers!
  • Withdraw the troops!
  • For a Trade Union Defence Force!

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