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End of an era

(Clara Reilly,

Founder member of the Association of Legal Justice, and currently the chairperson of Relatives For Justice, Clara Reilly looks back at her own experience of Springfield Road Barracks which is in the process of being demolished.

When I think of Springfield Road joint RUC/Army station many bad memories spring to mind of serious human rights abuses that took place there over the past 30 years.

As a member of the Association for Legal Justice I, and others, documented hundreds of cases of beatings, tortures, threats and blackmail emanating from within the walls and perpetrated by those supposedly there to uphold law and order.

It was from Springfield Road in 1974 that a young Gerard Conlon was taken and flown to England to eventually face 19 years in jail for a crime he did not commit. He and three others all became known as the Guildford Four.

In November 1977 seventeen year old 'Kidso' Reilly was arrested and brought to Fort Monagh and then on to Springfield Road. He was questioned by Special Branch and pressure was applied to become a paid police informer. He was told he would be repeatedly arrested if he refused.

He immediately contacted the ALJ upon his release and a complaint made about the threat. He was to lose his young life on the 9th August 1983 when shot in the back by a British army bullet.

On 23 February 1977 25-year-old Eddie Rooney from Ballymurphy was arrested and taken to Springfield Road RUC station.

By 9:40 that same evening Mr Rooney was in the Royal Victoria Hospital where he was given a 50/50 chance of survival. He had suffered a fractured skull, collapsed lung, bruises to the abdomen, chest and lower part of the back. He had marks across his fingers which looked like cigarette burns. The backs of his ears were bruised and his face was covered in blood from the cuts to his head and nose. His ankles were bruised and badly swollen and his knees cut.

An RUC statement said he had made a break during questioning and had leapt through a window on the second floor, landing on a parked car in the station yard. The ALJ demanded an inquiry stating, “Considering the highly fortified condition of Springfield Road barracks the police story of a break for freedom from a second storey window must be severely questioned. A stringent investigation into methods employed in his investigation is urgently called for.” Eddie Rooney and his family have always denied the police version of events that evening.

In February 1980 I myself was arrested from my home in Turf Lodge by the British Army and taken to Springfield Road station. I was able to experience at first hand the fear, uncertainty and harassment described by numerous people regarding their arrest over the years.

I was held in freezing conditions and questioned by army personnel for over four hours. They inquired about members of my family and what motivated me into doing human rights work on behalf of the ALJ. I was never once asked about any serious crime and on my release immediately lodged a complaint about the illegality of the 'screening' procedure and the violation of my human rights.

A year later I stood in a court with my solicitor the late Pat Finucane and with great pleasure watched as the court upheld my complaint and ruled that the practice of arrest for 'screening' purposes was illegal. Pat and I shook hands and I knew he was as pleased as I was to have struck a blow for truth and justice.

I also recall the arrest of the schoolboy pupils from St Thomas' school on the Whiterock Road, some as young as 13 years old. The anger and determination of the mothers who descended on the barracks and refused to leave until their sons were safely back into their care and protection filled me with admiration and pride.

It was practice during those days to obtain the name of a senior officer and ask for him personally in order to put pressure on concerning people who had been arrested. One such man in Springfield station was the most senior police officer in west Belfast, Mr James Crutchley, who was always the perfect gentleman and most co-operative and helpful.

On 9 July 1981, 33-year-old Nora McCabe, the mother of three young children the youngest of whom was only three years old was hit in the head by a plastic bullet fired by the RUC in Linden Street off the Falls Road. She was placed on a life support machine and died the following day.

At the inquest the police denied firing plastic bullets in Linden Street but unknown to them a Canadian camera crew had captured the whole incident on film. When shown, this film clearly showed the RUC Land Rover in Linden Street and the plastic bullet being fired. Many of the police men stormed out of the inquest when the coroner ordered an investigation into the authenticity of the tape.

It was during the evidence that it emerged that James Crutchley was in fact in charge of the Land Rover and any plastic bullets fired that morning were on his orders. At the resumed inquest it was reported that the tape was a true and factual account of what had taken place.

Nora's husband Jim waited on justice to take its natural course and for the policemen involved to be charged in connection with his wife's death and for committing perjury. The DPP directed that no charges be brought. The conspiracy of silence among the policemen present ensured that the one who fired the fatal bullet would not be identified.

Mr Crutchley was subsequently removed from Springfield Road, promoted to Assistant Chief Constable and mentioned on the Queen's honours list. As we strive at this present time to come up with an agreed, much-needed police service we must ensure that lessons are learned from mistakes of the past otherwise we are doomed to repeat them in the future.

The weakest and poorest members of society deserve the special attention and care of the strongest. We should make our views clear that human rights and the promotion of personal dignity are central to all new policing proposals.

Where there is injustice there is suffering. Human rights are violated whenever governments seek to make the state the master rather than the servants of the citizens. Respect for the individual person must never be sacrificed to any other principle. In the meantime I say good riddance to Springfield Road police station and all the bad memories associated with it and let it be replaced by decent housing and the laughter of children at play.

October 28, 2002

This article appeared first on the web site on October 10, 2002.

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