28 Days

It is the longest anyone has been in custody without charge since internment - BBC

It was heralded as the end of political policing but what Sinn Fein endorsed at its 2007 special Ard Fheis was anything but. With MI5 using at least 15 per cent of its resources to combat republican physical force in the North and people being held in police custody without charge for an inordinate amount of time, the hurrah for a new era is somewhat muted. Even in non-political terms the gap between promise and delivery was yawning. The pledge that ordinary people could now begin to walk up and down the Falls Road free from the fear of hoods has proven to be the myth critics of the move foresaw at the time.

The policing structure now legitimised by the party most hostile to previous British policing structures was simply a reconfiguration of the management of policing on the part of the British state. Sinn Fein has been left cruelly exposed on this matter. At no time over the past forty years have policing powers in relation to the detention of suspects been so draconian. Under 2006 legislation detainees can be held for a period of up to 28 days. After so many years of struggle it takes some amount of explaining to justify how a British police force ended up with more stringent powers of abuse than before.

Although sold as such Sinn Fein’s strategy on policing has been anything but revolutionary. Attributing revolutionary boldness to the decision to suck the truncheon made no sense other than to allow the faithful to carry on deluding themselves. The strategy only ever made sense if viewed through a reformist prism where at least there was something to recommend it. Now the reformist strategy is looking decidedly weak even by its own terms of reference.

Since it voiced its support for the PSNI Sinn Fein has made no progress on the policing question whatsoever. Rather it has sought to bamboozle the public by inflating the significance of the devolution of policing and justice powers. Will the British Police Service of Northern Ireland be any less British because it is operated from a regional branch of the British government rather than the central branch? Not in the slightest. Will its abusive powers be curbed? Not a hope.

Sinn Fein finds itself in the position of supporting the right of the British police to detain Irish republicans for a period of seven days before they must either release or charge them. When the IRA campaign was in full swing against the wishes of the Irish people and presenting a much more potent threat to the security of the British state than the physical force republicans of today, seven day detention was viewed by Sinn Fein as a violation of human rights. Why support it now in circumstances which from a British security perspective need it less?

In criticising the move to hold people in detention for longer than seven days Sinn Fein’s opposition is hardly strident and has a vacuous ring to it. How else could it be given that the police exercising the abusive powers has been endorsed by the party seemingly without the slightest attempt to curb draconian powers. It cannot claim to have been blindsided. The legislation permitting the practice existed prior to the decision to support the PSNI.

However it is looked at, holding political detainees for a 28 day period constitutes a serious assault on civil liberties and is a substantial encroachment on human rights. On top of this the North’s chief Human Rights Commissioner, Monica McWilliams, criticised the conditions under which people are being held. ‘To hold individuals in such confinement for extended periods of time raises human rights concerns …’

What we are now witnessing is the creation of a new breed of political detainees underscored by the fact that detained republicans are on hunger strike in British state detention centres. While not yet comparable to water boarding, isolating detainees for prolonged periods increases the likelihood of depression and loneliness setting it. That will almost certainly have an attenuating effect on the human character. It will create a powerful stimulus to confess and will lead to admissions of guilt by the innocent who are most vulnerable. Any statements from detainees procured in such circumstances should be treated as the product of coercion and duress and thoroughly inadmissible as evidence.

In the end, it all comes down to the simple question once posed by Ramsey Clarke: ‘who will protect the public when the police violate the law?’


  1. actually it was the roman poet juvenal who asked the question, a couple of thousand years before ramsay clark: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? is what he asked, which literally translates to "Who will guard the guards themselves?"

  2. Sinn Fein’s criticism of the length of detention is vacuous for another reason: how seriously can we take Sinn Fein’s concern for the human rights of dissident republicans when Sinn Fein is the very party leading the way in dehumanizing all those republicans who dissent from the peace process?

  3. On the subject of isolation and depression in prisoners in custody, I recently read the Lucifer Effect (http://www.lucifereffect.com/) by the psychologist who ran the Standford Prison Experiment in the early 70s. I wouldn't say it was a great book, but certainly reasonably interesting. Might be worth a glance if you get a mo.

  4. Stray Taoist, the Zimbardo experiment fascinated me when I first came across it in the 1980s. I must revisit it