A Raid in Londondderry, Northern Ireland
Eammon Kelly lives in a Catholic
neighborhood in Londonderry, Northern Ireland located about
seventy miles outside of Belfast. On August 26, 1996, he began
his day as usual by going to work. That evening he arrived home
at five o’clock in time for tea. His sister and brother were
home, as well as a friend of the family with her three year old
boy. Fifteen minutes later the raid began.
Eammon, 23, was slumped on a couch
in the living room when he spoke to me less than an hour after
the raid. His face was pale and he continually crossed and
re-crossed his arms and legs. "We were sitting in the
house," Eammon said in a shaking voice, "and the next
thing we see is about fifteen police officers busting in the
front door. No, they didn’t knock, jeez no. They just ran in and
started shouting, ‘ye bastards get on the ground. Get on the
ground. We’ll blow your heads in."’
I was in Londonderry as a free
lance journalist when my landlady told me about the Kelly raid,
only one block away. I arrived at the Kellys as the police were
leaving, filing out of the house in pairs carrying rifles. I
counted ten officers. More were loitering behind a military land
rover. I was not allowed to enter the house until the police had
The Kelly’s were raided under
Title 14 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which permits
wide powers of arrest, detention and search by the British
military and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (R.U.C.), the local
police force. The Act not only criminilizes the use of violence
for political ends but also many other activities as well;
belonging to banned organizations, collecting money or materials
for a banned organization, encouraging others to support banned
organizations by, for example, having a public or private meeting
with more than two people present. Any one of these allegations
can prompt a raid.
"I was raided persistently
for over a period of five years and then it seemed to stop and I
wasn’t raided for about three and a half years," recalls
Daisy Mules, a neighbor of the Kellys. A school teacher and a
member of Sinn Fein for 14 years, Mules says "raids mean
coming into your house without your permission with a warrant
detailing what section [of the Act] they’re coming in on, and
proceed to search your house which means any time they raid you,
you can’t prevent them from doing anything really. I’ve been
lucky in that any time I have been raided they’ve never knocked
my front door down."
Paula Devline, 19, another
neighbor of the Kellys, experienced her first raid the previous
week. She describes the experience as "humiliating."
everything," she says. "Took everything apart. Wrecked
the whole house. They were very cheeky. Very crude. They had
these m- mirrors they used to check for things under the floor.
They’re very handy aren’t they? one officer said to me. And I
said, Why, what do you mean? And the next thing I know he’s
holding it beneath the hem of my nighty. I wished I had been more
assertive like. They just took me that much unawares I didn’t
know what to do. "
Standing outside the Kelly home, I
watched youthful-looking British soldiers standing staunchly
alert in neighboring yards on trampled flower beds. Many of their
faces were scarred with acne. Children scrutinized the soldiers.
One boy asked me if I threw stones at "Brits." It began
to rain. I saw the frightened, distorted faces of the Kelly
family through a hall window.
"They dragged me off a chair
by me hair and threw me to the ground," Eammon said pointing
toward the kitchen. "Put me hands behind me head. Made me
kneel down. Put straps around me wrists. The marks are still
there," he said showing me the red half moons chafed into
his wrists. "They put a white hood over me head and entire
The living room was a jumbled mass
of sofas, chairs, cans of paint and drop cloths. The Kelly’s had
been redecorating their house. New counter-tops had just been
fitted in the kitchen. Freshly stained wood gleamed in the faint
During the raid at the Kelly’s
home nobody, not even a visitor and her three year old boy, was
spared the rough treatment by the police. Eammon shook his head
in amazement as he told me how the police terrorized the boy as
he cried in the living room.
"My sister was trying to calm
the child down," Eammon said. "At that time the police
were grabbing the mother of the boy. The boy was on the sofa and
the police were pointing their AK-47s at him. The mother tried to
throw herself in front of the guns in case they were going to
shoot him, you know, she just wanted to save her child. Her
response was to throw herself in front of the guns. The police
were still shouting at us, obscenities, you bastards."
The Kelly raid is an example,
critics say, of how the Prevention of Terrorism Act allows the
British military and the R.U.C. to operate with very little
accountability. The R.U.C, for instance, was called "the
untouchables" in a recent Helsinki Commission report,
"Irish Terrorism or British Colonialism? The Violation of
Human Rights In Northern Ireland." In the report, the
Commission, a European human rights organization, charged that
out of nearly 1400 complaints of harassment by security forces in
1989, only three officers had been disciplined, two of whom were
acquitted on appeal. In that same year 328 civilians were killed
by security forces.
According to this same report,
house raids increased dramatically in the past decade. In 1988
over 5,000 such raids were carried out, 1, 100 in December alone.
Of the 1,717 people held in detention under the Prevention of
Terrorism Act that year, 1,343 were released without charge.
Violations of this kind are so
common that the Committee On The Administration of Justice
(C.A.J.) in Belfast has two information packets available to
Catholic and Protestant families victimized by the police;
"Killings By The Security Forces: An Information Pack For
Families Of Victims," and "Cause For Complaint: The
System For Dealing With Complaints Against The Police In Northern
"The Prevention of Terrorism
Act has done nothing to create peace," Martin O’Brien, a
lawyer with the C.A.J. told me. "It has simply fueled
resentment and has led to many victims of miscarriages of
justice. In a sense it’s about resorting to the same tactics as
to those it is meant to be defending society against. That’s
always a very slippery slope and people should think more than
twice about it."
Although the R.U.C. press office
refused to be interviewed for this article, an R.U.C. officer
patrolling the streets of Londonderry and, who, fearing possible
retaliation by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), spoke to me only
on condition of anonymity, said the PTA is absolutely essential
because it is the only way for the police to disrupt support for
"The IRA recruits from
Catholic nationalist neighborhoods," he said.
"Therefore we are forced to wage the fight at the community
But a Catholic priest active in
the peace movement says anti-terrorism legislation only increases
community resistance against British rule.
"The [British] ask what
community supports the IRA," says Father Raymond Murry, an
organizer for the Committee To Tell the Truth, a human rights
advocacy group in Belfast. "Where do they get their shelters
and all that sort of thing. Obviously it is the nationalist
community. So, the more we punish them the more they’ll put
pressure on the IRA to stop and bring them to heel.
"The opposite is the case.
The more they wreck homes, the more they invade homes, the more
people they imprison without trial, the more hard-line people
become. So, what do we end up with? We end up with the police
violating the law themselves. We end up protecting ourselves from
their secret services. If you use a sledge hammer, even a dog in
the street will not have confidence in any law."
Families caught in the crossfire
have little leverage on their own and often seek legal
assistance. In this instance, the Kelly’s filed a complaint
against the police and retained the services of Padraig McDermott
of McDermott & McGurk Solicitors.
"There are some house
searches where the police simply leave without any problem,"
MacDermott told me. "But you also have house searches where
the police shepherd all the people in the house in one room and
basically rampage through the house wrecking things, pulling out
things and throwing things on the ground.
"That would be the word in
many cases," he said. "Rampage. There have been times
that the police know nothing is going to be found, yet they still
carry out this destruction on houses."
According to one criminology
expert, the entire police force needs to be restructured if
police abuse is to be addressed.
"Harassment is endemic in
Northern Ireland," says Kieran McEvoy a professor at Queen’s
University. "It’s part of the police culture. It’s difficult
not to have to deal with this abuse. Ordinary policing skills
have fallen by the wayside in the war against terrorism. There
needs to be more democratic accountability and actual real
accountability to the criminal justice process. Policemen have to
be accountable to the criminal justice process because currently
they’re not. "
According to Vivian Harvey,
director of Starting Point, a social service center serving
children in Belfast, the shaky but on-going peace process has
made the disposition of the R.U.C. a point of contention.
"The major debate in the
communities at the moment is the role of the R.U.C.," Harvey
says. "The R.U.C. is trusted by working class nationalists
or loyalists. There have already been a number of conferences
about the issue, with Sinn Fein demanding that they disband and
the loyalists demanding that they become more accountable.
"It may well be a
coincidence," she adds, "but there has been a huge rise
in media reporting about muggings, attempted child abductions and
violence against women. The R.U.C. proving they are needed? I try
really hard not to be cynical, especially regarding child abuse
and violence against women, but it’s not easy, having lived
through 30 years of misinformation and propaganda."
When the IRA ended its cease-fire
last February, the history of violence between sectarian
paramilitary units and the R.U.C. returned to haunt the 1,600,000
residents of this rural province.
"Belfast is very strange at
the minute," Harvey says. "It is as if we’re all
holding our breath. Talk of the future is minimal. Changes are
slow, and suspicion still rules."
Heavy wooden doors protect entry
ways and iron-grilled gates are posted within many homes. Sealing
off stairways, hallways and all other vulnerable interior spaces,
the gates serve as deliberate obstacles should paramilitary death
squads or police burst through the barred front doors. These
"security doors" effectively convert houses into
bunkers. The inhabitants exist behind bars, prisoners in their
own homes, obliged to open and shut gates as they move from room
During my six week stay I saw
neighborhoods like the Kelly’s under constant surveillance.
Military helicopters hovered overhead sometimes making it
difficult to talk. Land rovers with British soldiers in gun
turrets drove through the city day and night. In Belfast I
listened to soldiers shout taunts at a woman belittling the size
of her breasts. Huge stockade-like watch towers with cameras,
microphones and other electronic gear impressed their bulk
against the tallest buildings, fine-tuning electronic
observations on individuals, neighborhoods and homes. I was told
by a friend to think positively when I passed a watch tower as if
my thoughts, as well as my movements and conversations, could be
Protestants and Catholics alike
were afraid of gathering in groups lest they become targets of
opposing paramilitary forces or raise the suspicion of the
police. I realized how fearful people were when I approached a
Catholic acquaintance who sharply urged me to move about six feet
behind her so we would not attract attention.
I saw patrolling British soldiers
abruptly spin around in neighborhood streets and aim their rifles
in the direction they had just passed, reminding me of the news
footage I grew up watching of American soldiers searching
Two days prior to the Kelly raid I
had been standing at a bus stop in Belfast. I glanced behind me
and was horrified to see a British soldier sprawled out on his
stomach on the front door landing of an apartment building
focusing his rifle at the back of my head. A woman next to me
tried to put me at ease.
"He’s pointing it at you, but
he’s not aiming it. It’s not that personal."
It may not be personal, but it is
impossible not to take it personally. Another day as I was
walking to lunch a British soldier stopped me, pressed the muzzle
of his rifle against my neck demanding identification.
My encounter with the British
soldier lasted five minutes but the raid at the Kelly’ took three
and a half hours.
"Typically, raids can last up
to a maximum of four hours," Mules says. "Once you get
to four hours they have to renew the warrant, so they tend to
just do you up to the fourhours. "
As in other raids on the Kelly’s
house, nothing was found.
"They went through every
personal item people had," Eammon said indicating some
papers on the floor. "Letters, correspondence of friends we
had met on holiday. They read every letter. Checked along the
seams of our clothes. Examined girls underwear.
It was really
At one point, the Kelly’s thought
they were going to get shot.
"It could have been a mock
execution because they put our faces to the wall and guns to the
back of our heads so we didn’t know if they were going to shoot
us," Eammon’s 19-year old brother Kieran said. "We
didn’t see their faces. All we felt were the guns and punches and
kicks," he said his voice trailing off.
Due to health problems, Kieran
suffered greater risk than the rest of the Kelly family.
"I have a chronic heart
complaint," he explained to me. "They put the handcuffs
on me, tied me hands behind my back, put the white sheet over my
head. Punched me in the head, punching me, pushing me, kicking
me, asking me questions. I needed me medication then. They
wouldn’t allow me to start off with. They wouldn’t allow me my
medication. Then they allowed it. I had to be taken to the
hospital in an ambulance." He raised his shirt and showed me
four white circular nitroglycerin patches stuck across his chest
for his heart.
His face and hands started to turn
blue. Gasping for air he was. Tears, various stuff," Eammon
said looking at his brother. "It was bad, jeez. Jeez, it was
Eammon said after the handcuffs
were removed the officer in charge asked if they had any
complaints about the manner in which they had been treated.
"I says, how can you ask us that sort of question when
you’re pointing guns at all of our heads and you told us we were
going to be done? And you’re pointing guns at a three year old
child’s head. He said he was doing his job. Orders from the top.
"I’m still nervous, you
know," he said. "It is a hard thing to comprehend to
someone when you think your door is getting shoved down to get
shot. All we saw was guns and people charging in. It was just
kick in the doors and everybody get on the floor, you bastards.
Anybody who was in the room was getting the verbal abuse. It
didn’t stop at fellas, it didn’t stop at girls or children. I
heard one of them call my sister a whore."
Eammon’s 20-year old sister Anna
sat on a chest of drawers, her hands tucked under her legs,
rocking nervously. "When they called me a whore," she
said softly, "I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed.
I can give as good as I take, you know what I mean? I hate them.
Hate them," she said again, her voice rising. "They’re
scum. Hate them!"
Boiling fog tumbled and twisted
above my head as I left the Kelly’s and began the short walk back
to my room. The sidewalks were empty. The quiet of parked cars
emphasized the silence. Several times I was stopped at gun point
by British soldiers stationed at roadblocks requesting
Dark narrow streets dampened from
a light drizzle wound down from City Center to the outskirts of
Londonderry. Stone and brick houses squeezed up in rows
throughout the neighborhood, pressing in on the streets, creating
a sense of confinement. Drifting smoke coiled casually out of
The house was cold and I smelled
soup simmering behind the closed kitchen door. There was also a
much sharper, irritating odor. A security door that opened out
into the back alley behind the house had been constructed two
weeks after my arrival. I was smelling shellac recently applied
to the newly honed wood to protect it and those of us inside from
"They talk of peace,"
Anna said to me as I left her home. "What peace have they
given this house today?"