An article from Do or Die Issue 9. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 55-57.
"Some of the tactics adopted by the London police and later by other forces were those developed and used by the army and the RUC Special Patrol Group in Northern Ireland. The introduction of 'snatch squads' and 'wedges' in demonstrations, and random stop and searches and roadblocks on the streets were based on the army's experience in Ulster" - Robert Mark, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner.
If people in Britain have been slow to learn the lessons of Ireland, the same cannot be said for our rulers. They have used the North as a laboratory for social control, where methods of repression can be tested before being tried out on the rest of us. This is not a new phenomenon. As long ago as 1883, the police Special Branch (originally called the Special Irish Branch) was set up to deal with Irish rebels. Before long they were being used against any radical opposition in Britain and Ireland, so that by 1978 Merlyn Rees (Labour Home Secretary) could accurately say: "The Special Branch collects information on those whom I think cause problems for the state" - a lot of people!
Plastic bullets, CS gas, riot shields, armoured personnel carriers, water cannons and roadblocks have all been piloted first in the six counties before being imported to the British mainland. And the new Terrorism Act is no exception - what was originally temporary emergency legislation to deal with 'the troubles' in Northern Ireland is now being made permanent and being extended to cover a wider range of people.
"You're innocent until proven Irish" - woman arrested under the PTA.
The new Terrorism Act will replace both the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the 1973 Northern Ireland Act. These two acts have led to some of the worst human rights abuses in this country over the last 25 years, imprisoned innocent people and led to the unnecessary detention of thousands of mainly Irish people. The original PTA was introduced by the Labour Party in 1974 on the basis that it was a short-term emergency measure. Funnily enough, successive governments have seemed rather reluctant to get rid of the law once it was in place.
Less than 7% of the 5,000 people nicked under the first 7 years of the law were even charged, let alone convicted of anything, although many were detained for days. In 1995 (during the IRA cease-fire) 22,691 mainly Irish people were stopped and searched for up to one hour. In fact, 98% of all those detained under the PTA were innocent of any crime. The law was clearly being used more to intimidate and monitor the general Irish population in the UK than arrest terrorists. The first person to be charged and subsequently convicted under the PTA was Paul Hill of the Guildford Four, who was wrongly jailed for a bombing and imprisoned for 15 years. As that case and the case of the Birmingham Six demonstrate, being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time is a major crime in British courts.
Every year 50,000 Irish people are stopped and questioned at British ports under the PTA. Many have been excluded from Britain without even being charged. The PTA has also been used to prevent Irish Republicans from speaking in Britain - in 1982, Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were both banned from entering Britain to speak. The Act has also been used to remove prominent opposition figures during 'difficult' times for the government - the week before the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands, 30 leading Republicans were arrested under the PTA, subject to 'extended detentions', and then released without charge.
Here's one example of the ordinary everyday use of the PTA:
Bernard O'Connor, a teacher from Enniskillen, was arrested under the PTA in 1977. His first interrogation session in Belfast lasted for over 3 hours. He was forced to stand on his toes, bend his knees and hold his hands out in front of him and he was hit in the face when his heels touched the ground or he lost balance. Every time he denied taking part in bombings and shootings he was hit again. That afternoon, three detectives tried to get him to admit to lesser charges to avoid 35 years in jail. Then at night the brutality really started. He was stripped naked, beaten up and forced to do press-ups continually. His underpants were placed over his head and he was threatened with being choked, then with being handed over to the death squads of the Ulster Volunteer Force. These interrogations continued until he was released without charge on Monday night.
Despite what the government said at the time, the original PTA was not intended to convict people or to prevent bombings. It was intended to prevent the Irish community in Britain from expressing support for a united Ireland. This new Terrorism Act will likely be used in a similar way - they will use the stop and search powers in the new Act for 'dragnet' low-level intelligence gathering exercises and general intimidation and harassment. Leon Brittan, the former Home Secretary, said as much of the old PTA in 1985: "The object of the exercise is not just to secure convictions but to secure information".
The other primary aim of the legislation was clear. Terrorise the non-political population - mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers, teenage boys and girls - and you destabilise and marginalise the political movement, because 'ordinary' people will distance themselves from the politicos, or worse, they will betray friends they think are involved. The British state will tell you this is not the object of the legislation, but it is and so it will be again. In this age of electronic surveillance and Cold War-like observation, the forces of the British Crown are able to identify those they know are involved in anti-state activity, whether violent or non-violent. This produces two effects: the political people become paranoid, the non-political people become scared. The political people, in the eyes of the non-political people, are shunned and stereotyped. It took 30 years for this to happen in Ireland and now it has. Anyone who is associated with the Republican movement is a terrorist. No matter what they do, they are never able to shake off this image or stereotype.
The ignorance prevailing about Northern Ireland amongst most of the population of mainland Britain, and even amongst many political radicals, demonstrates how well the British state has succeeded in isolating and demonising Republicans and radicals in Northern Ireland. It is vital that we know the history of what has gone on in Northern Ireland over the last 30 years. Especially today when new anti-'terrorist' legislation is casting the net ever wider, it is important that we learn what the British state is capable of and how it operates. It is also important that we do not fall into the trap of bemoaning how we are lumped together with 'real' terrorists and start demanding better laws to catch the 'real' terrorists while leaving us alone. Even this brief look at the history of the original PTA shows what sort of 'real terrorists' were the majority of its victims. Still, some people would no doubt say, things are different in Ireland. After all, isn't all this repression simply a response to the bullets and bombs of the IRA? NO! In fact the tactics used by working class Catholics in the early phases of the present 'troubles' were remarkably similar to those used by activists and protesters in mainland Britain today. It was the vicious repression of the early civil rights movement of 68/69 that led to an escalation of struggle and eventually to the pre-meditated massacre of Bloody Sunday when British troops shot and killed unarmed demonstrators in Derry in 1971.
For more information see: 'From Bloody Sunday to Trafalgar Square', available