In a low-rent corner of Belfast’s city centre is a district known as Smithfield, and on its main street there is a market, an anarchist bookshop, a public toilet and a bookmaker’s called Stanley’s. Above Stanley’s is the office of Challenge for Youth, an organization that provides support for teenagers in trouble. One afternoon in January last year, I went there to meet Jim Auld, the head of the operation.
He was just turning forty, although I would have guessed he was older – his hair and beard were greying. Twenty years earlier, he was arrested in the middle of the night, taken to a secret location and tortured. He was one of fourteen Northern Irish Catholic men who were tortured on the orders of the British government, which for the past two decades has concealed the identities of the torturers, their commanding officers and the men at the highest levels of government who sanctioned the abuse.
In the summer of 1971, Edward Heath, then Prime Minister, approved plans to introduce internment in Northern Ireland, a policy which empowered the government to arrest and hold anyone without charge for an unlimited period. Army intelligence officers compiled a list of potential internees: over five hundred Catholics whom they believed to be IRA members and sympathizers, plus civil rights activists who would organize protests if internment were introduced. Before dawn on 9 August 1971, the army began making arrests. By nightfall, 342 Catholics were in custody. The army’s intelligence proved to be so unreliable that almost a third of those arrested were released within forty-eight hours.