they thought i was an IRA bomber

In 1985 Conor Foley was arrested on suspicion of planting a bomb at Chelsea Barracks. He was released without charge after three days, but last week's shooting of an IRA suspect bought back the nightmare

Conor Foley
Saturday 28 September 1996 23:02

At about 7.30 in the morning I was woken by a sharp knocking at the door followed by a crashing sound. It was November 1985 and I was a 20-year-old student, living in London. Two days before, explosives had been discovered at Chelsea Barracks.

A number of armed policemen burst through the door while I was still half dressed. I was told to spreadeagle on the floor and one officer knelt on my back and shoulders. I was acutely aware of the danger of being shot.

After a body search I was taken by both arms on to the landing where my friend, Brendan, who lived in the flat, was being held against another wall. We were told that we had been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and were held there while the police ransacked the flat with crowbars and sledgehammers. More armed policeman came down from the roof. As well as the shock, my main memory was the bitter cold: even the police were complaining about it.

They allowed us to get dressed and took us, handcuffed, to Paddington Green Police Station - the most secure police station in the country. I knew about Paddington Green and the Prevention of Terrorism Act because I had been involved in political campaigning about Northern Ireland, and in the campaigns to free the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. I knew that the police can hold people under the Act for seven days and that your rights are severely limited. I knew that most people are released without charge. But I also knew innocent people can be convicted after detentions like the one that I was experiencing.

There are no clocks in the holding area of Paddington Green. It feels like the cells are underground and I never saw daylight during my detention. It is easy to lose track of time and become disorientated. In the first day they took my hand and finger prints, took mug shots and carried out forensic tests on my hands. The tests they used were the same as those used on the Birmingham Six - which gave a faulty result - and I couldn't help dwelling on this in my cell.

At about 8pm, roughly 11 hours after my arrival, I was taken for my first interview. I was interrogated by two officers, who were friendly and polite but they made it clear that the sooner I co-operated, the sooner I would be released. I asked for a solicitor, they told me that I did not have a right to see one for the first 48 hours. I asked if someone could be informed that I was being detained. They said that I did not have the right.

The statements that they took did not seem particularly concerned with my possible involvement with a bombing attempt. They asked me about friends and family, holidays in Ireland, and my political views. Even though I knew that I was innocent, I felt ashamed and worried as I answered their questions as fully as I could.

That night it was difficult to sleep, the cell was hot, the lights stayed on and every 15 minutes someone rattled at the spy hole or called to me. The next day I retched badly over breakfast, partly at the food and partly from nerves.

At around lunch time I was brought for a second interview. Again I asked for a solicitor and this time they told me that one was on the way. It turned out later that the solicitor was actually in the police station waiting to see me, but I was more than happy to repeat what little I could tell them and sign the statements they read back to me.

That afternoon was probably the worst bit of the whole experience. I was frightened, lonely and isolated. Eventually, at about 8pm they told me to get my stuff together because I was going home. The detention had lasted 36 hours.

The police never apologised for the raid and I never asked them to. I still get the occasional nightmares, but my experience was not nearly as traumatic as some people's. I have since heard about people who have had nervous breakdowns after detentions and, in one case, of a stress- related suicide.

Someone was eventually charged with the attempted bombing of Chelsea barracks, a man named Patrick McLaughlin, but there is increasing evidence to suggest he was not the real bomber.

I had stopped thinking about what happened to me by the time of the IRA ceasefire of 1994. The bombing of Canary Wharf brought a lot of memories flooding back. I hope that the violence ends again but now I find it much more difficult to accept the word of the police and the press reports at face value. I am not sure what to think about the killing of Diarmuid O'Neill, but I recognise the shudder that I felt.

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