Torture retold: how the ‘Hooded Men’ case has come back under the spotlight

Opinion: ‘Cover up is not containable. The past keeps pouring out’

Photograph: RTÉ Investigations Unit

Photograph: RTÉ Investigations Unit

Thu, Jun 12, 2014, 07:26

It was January 31st, 1972, the day after Bloody Sunday. The head of the army department in the British Ministry of Defence, John M Parkin wrote to the Chief of Staff, Northern Ireland, Brigadier Marston Tickell, seeking the facts on more than 100 allegations of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment of internees included in Ireland v United Kingdom, the first full-blown inter-state case under the European Convention on Human Rights, lodged a month earlier by the Irish Government before the European Commission on Human Rights.

“Perhaps I should mention that material needs to be presented with complete frankness and that nothing should be withheld. You may of course take it that this is to permit our lawyers to determine the best line of defence and not for reporting to the Commission”, he wrote. His letter was stamped ‘Confidential’.

“We must provide everything possible to the Attorney General in his defence of our cause. The Security Forces will be on international trial, and we must do everything possible to minimise the risk of losing this battle in the propaganda war.”

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That night, the Prime Minister Ted Heath invoked that phrase again with the then serving Lord Chief Justice, John Widgery when commissioning his now infamous Bloody Sunday inquiry. Britain was “fighting not only a military war, but also a propaganda war”, he said. Four days later, on February 4th, 1972, Heath met Lord Widgery’s predecessor, Hubert Parker. Lord Parker was about to submit a Privy Counsellors’ report into interrogation techniques that had led to the torture allegations in Strasbourg, the ‘five techniques’ of sensory deprivation: hooding; ‘white noise’; wall-standing in stress positions; and sleep, food and water deprivation.

Heath had commissioned the report after public outcry and unwelcome scrutiny from Amnesty International over the treatment of, in particular, 14 so-called ‘Hooded Men’, arrested and removed by helicopter to a secret location and for days subjected to the combined use of the techniques. An initial inquiry by a civil servant, Sir Edmund Compton, had been roundly dismissed as a whitewash.

On November 18th, 1971, Heath had privately met Lord Parker to discuss a fresh inquiry. Dismissing Amnesty as “a disreputable organisation” Heath sought a report as soon as possible, as “large numbers of persons on the wanted list were now being detained and it was not possible to foresee how soon the time would come when Ministers had to consider whether they would authorise further interrogation in depth.”

When they met again on February 4th, Lord Parker’s conclusion was that there was no reason to rule out what Britain called ‘interrogation in depth’ on moral grounds and that it was possible to operate the five techniques “in a manner consistent with the highest standards of society”.

There was a problem. In a minority report, the Labour peer Gerald Gardiner had found the techniques illegal. Former Lord Chief Justice Parker told the prime minister that Lord Gardiner, “had taken the purist view that no Government minister could ever give authority for something to be done that was against the law.”

The above quotes, taken from the official documentary record – private British government papers held in the British National Archives in Kew – are a sample of thousands the RTÉ Investigations Unit examined for The Torture Files programme broadcast last week. Some still partially redacted, others revealing themselves from a sea of files released since 2002, like truth dropping slow. Many more unseen, and more still retained beyond their due date.

Together they amount to just what was committed to paper. But the pattern and extent of their revelations amount to a lot: a compelling case that torture was sanctioned by the government of a democratic European state against citizens.

The RTÉ Investigations Unit revealed one document that sums up the case to be answered – a letter from the Home Secretary Merlyn Rees to his Prime Minister James Callaghan on March 31st, 1977 solemnly stating: “It is my view (confirmed by Brian Faulkner before his death) that the decision to use methods of torture in Northern Ireland in 1971/72 was taken by Ministers, in particular Lord Carrington, then Secretary of State for Defence”.

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