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  1. Politics
11 December 1998

Dawn raids: a guide to the etiquette

They've come to take your husband away. How should you treat them, asks Gillian Linscott

By Gillian Linscott

Dear Ms Manners: Before dawn last Thursday our cottage was raided by Ministry of Defence police. Six plainclothes officers arrested my husband under the Official Secrets Act and spent the next seven and a half hours searching the place from top to bottom. He has written a book about 300 years of fighting in Ireland and apparently there is something in it of which the MoD does not approve. Their manners were impeccable, but never having been in this situation before I felt socially at a disadvantage. Is one expected to throw crockery, barricade oneself in one’s study or inquire if they would like breakfast? I’m sure any guidance you could give would be very helpful to anybody who might find him or herself in a similar situation.

It’s just after dawn, in a village of black and white cottages in north Herefordshire. Frost on the grass. Two women are about to feed a pony. One is slicing carrots into a bucket. The other, who wears a smart black trouser suit, is holding open the fodder room door. They are talking about whether garter snakes make good pets for children. A calm rural scene from Middle England, except that the woman in the black trouser suit is a sergeant in the Ministry of Defence CID. I am the one slicing carrots. She and her five male colleagues have just got us from our beds at ten minutes to seven, arrested my husband under Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act 1989 and handed him a search warrant.

Back at the cottage they have started going methodically through his files, taking photographs as they go. I’m not under arrest, but the woman sergeant has obviously been ordered to stick by me.

I’ve done the civil rights things. My message is already recorded on a solicitor’s answerphone, plus calls to three newspapers whose journalists, at this time of the morning, will probably still be waiting for the coffee to filter through or shivering on Tube platforms. When the pony is fed and we’re walking back other things are on my mind. Stupid things – like how come this woman and I are already on first name terms, and do we offer them coffee?

Back inside, one problem is solved. My husband, Tony Geraghty, with filing cabinets being searched and camera flashing in the background, is well launched on the hospitality round. Although he’s under arrest, they won’t be taking him away until they’ve finished searching the house. So he hands round cups of tea with one sugar, coffee black with no sugar, coffee white with two sugars, even – no, I don’t believe this – even a bowl of muesli for one of them who admits to being hungry. They missed breakfast, you see. Stayed overnight at the local hotel, all six of them. Had to set their alarm clocks to get up at quarter past five. I find myself murmuring sympathetically that it’s an ungodly hour to have to get up.

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They dined at the hotel the night before. The plump one with the camera had the full Christmas dinner. They tease him about that. I should say something bitter, I know I should, about sitting there scoffing turkey at the taxpayer’s expense, planning dawn raids on innocent, hard-working writers, but it seems – well, so inhospitable, so louche, to break up the chummy mood. The sergeant who seems to be in charge, thirtyish, smart suit, smooth haircut, almost apologises for the earliness of their arrival. They have to come early, you see, to find people in. I remember that their pre-dawn knock on the door was soft, another near-apology, like a neighbour who really doesn’t want to disturb you, but . . .

When they search my study and our bedroom, they ask me to be there. They are neat, methodical. My files on the suffragette movement are not deemed dangerous to public safety. Downstairs, Tony is not so lucky. Two of the officers are poring over his computer while others take what they want from the filing cabinets. On the dining room table, the line of envelope files and papers in clear plastic evidence bags grows steadily. They will be taking them away. Of course, Tony will be given a receipt. He makes a quip about signing a copy of his book, The Irish War, for them “before you send me down”. For a moment the atmosphere goes cold. “Joke,” he says.

In the bedroom, I wonder whether to watch or not watch as the nice woman sergeant goes through the bag containing my dirty underwear waiting to be washed. Watch. Say nothing. Try not to blush because she must have seen the vibrator on the chest of drawers. My fault. Should have put it away before our guests arrived.

In the spare room, there’s a big cardboard box tied up with string, labelled “Do Not Tilt”. I can’t remember what’s in it. Three of them look at it with caution. “I don’t think it’s a bomb,” I say. One of them says, “Well, if it is, we’re all going together.” It turns out to be empty glass jars. “For herbal tinctures,” I explain. “He’s interested in herbalism.” Why can’t I shut up? I don’t have to explain that to them.

It’s a relief when the photographer from the Daily Telegraph arrives outside. I can go to the gate and talk to him, back in a world I understand, pose for pictures. The team from inside watch, amused. They wonder if the photographer’s ears are getting cold. They joke about making sure their hair is combed before they go out, because they’re making frequent trips to their little white van, carrying those plastic evidence bags. Soon Tony’s computer goes into the van, too.

The solicitor phones. They begin making arrangements to take Tony to the local police station, everybody as calm as if they were going to the pictures together. At 2.20 in the afternoon they walk with Tony down the path, open the car door for him. I think they probably said goodbye. I dare say I did. Goodbye, safe journey, come again soon. Such nice people. They’ve just taken my husband away.

Note: Tony Geraghty was at the police station for five hours, being questioned for part of the time and also locked in a cell. He was released on unconditional bail and told to report to Hereford police station at 1pm on 29 January. He has so far not been charged with anything.

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