Friday 6 December 2019

Without justice for the Hooded Men the spectre of torture still looms over peace

Prisoners in Guantanamo Bay: the Hooded Men ruling in 1971 was used by the US government to justify their controversial interrogation practices there.
Prisoners in Guantanamo Bay: the Hooded Men ruling in 1971 was used by the US government to justify their controversial interrogation practices there.
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

THE 'Hooded Men' looked more like the hollow men as they filed into a Dublin hotel yesterday to ask the Government to once again take on Downing Street over deep interrogation techniques used on them in the North in 1971.

Their physical scars and bruises have long since healed. But the mental scars and the effects of post-traumatic stress were etched on the faces of nine men who were anxious to remind those present that they were never charged for any criminal offence, before or after their interrogations.

As the conflict in the North escalated, the British army embarked on a barbaric experiment, adapting five techniques said to have been borrowed from the KGB.

The 14 men - 11 of whom are still alive - were subjected to hooding and beatings; disorientation including noise bombardment; food and sleep deprivation (including deprivation of toilet facilities); and were forced to maintain stress positions with force.

The Hooded Men controversy provoked a huge public outcry and in 1971 the Irish government pursued its closest neighbour to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) arguing that the five techniques used against the men constituted torture.

It was a brave and necessary decision by the government at the time, despite the risks of further destabilising relations between the two countries.

In 1978, the Strasbourg-based court - which only became a full-time institution in 1998 - found that Britain had carried out inhuman and degrading treatment when it used the controversial interrogation practices. But the court said the five techniques did not amount to torture.

The ECtHR ruling cast a long pall on the lives of the men and others who would later be subjected to the five techniques.

The non-torture ruling was notoriously relied upon by the US government to justify the controversial interrogation practices used on detainees in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

The techniques were deployed as part of the policy of extraordinary rendition, which soiled America's reputation as the leader of the free world.

The Government here has now been asked to re-open the Hooded Men case, a campaign backed by Amnesty International, which led a research delegation to Belfast in 1971.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has been asked by the men to invoke Rule 80 of the ECtHR's Rules of Court, which allows a party to request a revision of a ruling if it discovers new facts which may have altered the course of the original ruling had it been known to the court.

The "new facts" emerged last June, when RTE 'Prime Time''s Rita O'Reilly broadcast details of papers in Britain's National Archives which revealed that a political decision was taken by British ministers to use methods of torture in the North in 1971 and 1972.

Many of the official records unearthed by the Pat Finucane Centre and RTE did not form part of the original action and are now being reviewed by the Government to see if they justify a re-opening of the case.

Justice demands the true facts are established for these men and their families: there can be no impunity for torture.

But will any re-trial of the Hooded Men case help heal the past?

Even if the Government forms a view that the new facts in the Hooded Men case reaches the Rule 80 threshold, it must decide whether it is right, politically, to pursue the British government in such an adversarial fashion.

More than 30 years of political violence in the North has left more than 3,600 dead, 40,000 injured and countless more bearing psychological scars.

There is no easy way to deal with the devastating legacy of the Troubles: even the much-lauded Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) assembled in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid has proved to be a less than perfect balm.

The truth must emerge so that society can heal, but this is no mean feat as the commemoration anxiety over the centenary of the 1916 Rising attests to. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a product of its time, succeeded in bringing peace to the North.

But bringing an end to violence was, in some respects, the easy part of the deal. The real challenge is in cementing that peace, integrating a still divided society and helping it deal with a past that poses a constant threat to its future.

The task, therefore, facing Mr Flanagan is an unenviable one: truth, like peace, can come with a heavy price tag.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss