RTÉ last night: a change of tack?



There was a surprising and in some ways ground-breaking programme on RTÉ One last night. Surprising because it showed the difficulties and injustices which nationalist people in the North suffered. The national broadcaster has for some years now tended to broadcast programmes that highlight the (real) suffering of the unionist population. Whether last night marks a blip or the start of a new and welcome trend remains to be seen.The programme last night – The Torture Files – focused on the nationalist population in the early days of the Troubles.  

It was ground-breaking in its difference from, say,  the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. The Inquiry, you’ll remember, found that the First Para company had lost self-control, “forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training and with a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline”. And David Cameron apologised for this lapse of discipline in the House of Commons.

The RTÉ programme last night established that crimes committed in the early 1970s were policy, not lapse. Building on research done by the Pat Finucane Centre, the programme found that when the European Commission of Human Rights ruled  in 1976 that the interrogation of “the hooded men” was torture, the British government appealed the judgement and the European Court of Human Rights withdrew the charge of torture and settled for “inhuman and degrading treatment”. Now newly-found documents make it clear that crucial material was witheld by the British because they showed how the British Secretary of State Merlyn Rees and the British Prime Minister Jim O’Callaghan knew torture had happened under the auspices of  Prime Minister Ted Heath. In other words, those with ultimate responsibility were not the torturers themselves but their masters who sat around the Cabinet Table at 10 Downing Street.  That’s a first.

What did this torture consist of? Men being hooded and forced to stand, legs apart,  leaning on their finger-tips against a wall for hours on end. When they wilted or fell they were beaten until they resumed the position. Men hooded, taken up in a helicopter and then thrown out. The helicopter was in fact hovering a few feet above the ground but those ejected didn’t know that. Sleep deprivation. White noise. In several cases the torture techniques resulted in the early death of those subjected to it. Strong men were broken and the rest of their lives lived in a state of anxiety and depression and thoughts of suicide. The physical beatings were crude and primitive: black and white photographs showed massive bruises, cuts, tears all over the body.

As  the programme pointed out, since then Britain has continued to use similar torture techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan, as have the Americans. But the key point about this case from the early 1970s is that documented proof shows the British Cabinet knew what was happening and did nothing to stop it. The buck stopped with them, particularly the prime minister, but the torture continued.

This grim programme will not bring back those who died early or whose lives were damaged forever. But it does nail once and for all the canard that the British government acted as a neutral force here, keeping two warring tribes from inflicting harm on each other. Now we have proof that the inhumanity visited on a number of  Irish people came right from the top: from the British prime  minister and cabinet. They trained these soldiers how to do it, they allowed them to do it, and they lied about their having done it.

29 Responses to RTÉ last night: a change of tack?

  1. Séan June 5, 2014 at 11:01 am #

    Yes but never mind all that, whatabout the IRA…

  2. morpheus June 5, 2014 at 11:20 am #

    Available on RTE-player:


  3. RJC June 5, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    Excellent piece, Mr Collins.

    On a slightly similar tip, this piece from a year or so back touches on similar topics. This site it appeared on is not really Ireland related – more a general popular culture/critical theory/Spenglerian type of thing. Worth a read if you have the time though –


  4. paddykool June 5, 2014 at 11:36 am #

    Jude ;
    Maybe I’m too jaded now or maybe I was always of cynical mind. By the time these practices of torture were being wrestled with we had already been exposed to some of the worst excesses that any “civilised” society should have to endure. We’d all seen John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy fall to the assassin’s bullet in America …live on television, too !. We’d seen the Vietnam war each night on tea-time television…Agent Orange and all that . The hangings in Alabama…the racist bigotry of the Ku Klux Klan which resonated with us .. .Now it was our turn to be the focus of the world’s baleful eye. The reporters were upending some very dirty rocks and the horror that was scuttling into the light was not a pretty sight.The Sunday Times , bastion of the British establishment , was sending “Insight” reports back that were turning the Establishment inside out.for once , the Establishment were under fire by their own chattering classes.

    In retrospect , the government of the day hadn’t a clue how to deal with a situation on their doorstep .It was one thing to send the troops in to some far-away country on a “peace-keeping” mission, where things could be controlled by force and covered up.. It was quite another scenario to intern one section of your own citizens and then torture them like you were able to do anywhere else in the world. After all , empires are built by dominating the natives . It worked quite nicely right up until 1969 when the empire was all but dust and there was nowhere left to hide.

    I knew people who were interned without trial.They were not best pleased , to say the least! Ultimately the buck always stops at the top , so the Cabinet is in the dock on this one .It’s no use blaming a bunch of young soldiers or young policemen who basically didn’t know their arse from their elbow anyway. The thing about all this is that it was only Nationalists/Catholics who were interned en masse.. There had been plenty of loyalist threat and illegal behaviour too but the focus was purely on the Nationalists. Paisley , Craig and al the rest were allowed to upend law and order at every turn without any kind of real redress.

    Like , I say , maybe I’m too jaded now. It’s all ancient history. It even looks like ancient history when viewed in black and white newsreels.Thankfully we have the instant communication now where bigotry and racism can appear on Youtube and be exposed to the world right away.

  5. Iolar June 5, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

    R.T.É is playing catch up. The north of Ireland was used as a training ground by the British to perfect techniques developed in Africa. It is estimated that between 160,000 and 320,000 Africans were detained during the campaign against the Kikuyu. It is said that, “The Catholics seemed to epitomize Christian hypocrisy…with a bible in one hand and gun in the other.” (Elkins 2005:174) ‘Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya’ Where have we heard that expression before? But back to R.T.É. People living in the north of Ireland will perhaps recall one particular show in which Mr Byrne stated, “we are sick listening about the north” and went on to devote part of his show about a ferret running up and down a man’s leg. For those that missed or do not recall the show, just reflect on the way Mr Byrne once interviewed the President of Sinn Féin. It is important also to point out that members of the Irish government had access to tape recordings of British Army radio transmissions on Bloody Sunday and stood idly by. On reflection, at a critical period in Irish history, many politicians and bankers were lining their own pockets. For evidence, see “The Boss: Charles J. Haughey in Government”. The vast majority of people in the Republic are currently paying for such excesses, and wait for it…some members of F.F., F.G. and the Labour Party are now talking about coalition government with Sinn Féin, a late. late, show indeed.

  6. Paul Devlin June 5, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

    Interestingly Panorama a few weeks ago did a program about how the torture gangs of the Brazilian dictatorship in the 70s were trained up by British servicemen in the techniques they’d developed in Northern Ireland. The British were there in an official capacity, not some freelance thing. They were specifically sent to Brazil to teach the Junta’s henchmen how to torture prisoners. This too makes an utter mockery of any claim that the highest echelons of the British Government.Security forces knew nothing about the torture of Irish Republicans

  7. paddykool June 5, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

    Iolar : Gay Byrne’s televisual style came from the same oily can that spawned the equally oleaginous Hughie Green. They could have been brothers in that respect.The southerners have a lot of catching up to do in respect of what really happened to their neighbours. I dare say that there is another new generation who haven’t a clue what happened on their doorstep but then so too have a lot of our good Christian brothers and sisters in the north.

  8. RJC June 5, 2014 at 1:46 pm #

    The Irish Republic has its own questions to answer over horrendous things that were allowed to happen there over the past 100 years. The deaths of close to 800 children in Tuam is almost too horrific to contemplate.

    Our New Ireland (with its Green Harp Fleg) needs to be an entirely secular state. Ireland is a largely Christian country (and will probably remain so for long after we are all gone) but the state needs to be neutral in matters of religion. Dev’s Ireland – the Ireland of Church oppression and abuse, Charlie Haughey and Anglo Irish Bank – whilst not as dysfunctional as the North, has been far from perfect.

    • Theresa Watson June 5, 2014 at 5:49 pm #


      I was listening to a report on this case of the Tuam graves on RTE last night.

      It was mentioned about single mothers would not have sat well in Dev’s Catholic Ireland of comely maiden’s dancing at the crossroads. But 800 babies being starved to death obviously did.

      A case of doesn’t matter about God knowing, so long as the neighbours didn’t.

  9. paul June 5, 2014 at 5:30 pm #

    I am caught between “too little too late” or “better late than never” I think I lean towards the latter, but I am an optimist. A-1 column, dead on and to the point. It is only a matter of time before we learn that more outrages were sanctioned from the top

  10. Theresa Watson June 5, 2014 at 5:41 pm #

    I think most people accept that the British tortured people in N Ireland. How the European Court could come to a decision of degrading treatment is beyond belief.

    But as with so many things in N Ireland, most of those involved are long gone and hopefully facing a higher judgement.

    Horrible things happened on all sides, it’s time to draw a line under it all and move on.

  11. Billy Pilgrim June 5, 2014 at 7:36 pm #

    Great column (as usual), Jude.

    And you’re right to identify what’s really new here – not that the British conducted torture here, but that RTE are covering this.

    It’s surely not a coincidence that this was taking place (and the ECHR judgement was handed down) at exactly the same time as Conor Cruise-O’Brien was ramming through his souped-up version of Section 31.

    Amazing though it may seem to nordies, the vast majority of people in the south just don’t really know about this stuff. And it’s mainly because RTE was in the grip of a seriously dangerous bunch of entryist fanatics. (Is there another example anywhere in history of journalistic institution that took its government to court demanding that greater restrictions be placed on it?)

    So perhaps, thanks to this programme, we can now quantify exactly how far back we were all set by Section 31 and the Ned Stapleton Cumann. About 38 years, it turns out.

    • Jude Collins June 5, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

      Thank you Billy (and others) for the positive comments. You put your finger on it: RTE tells the people in the south how to view the north and boy, do they obediently follow the instructions. I keep asking myself ‘Why was this uncharacteristic programme aired?’ and I note that it’s No 1 in the RTE replayer thingy online. No one with an ounce of integrity would deny that cruelty and outrages inflicted on the unionist population by republicans deserve air-time; but the treatment of nationalists/republicans and the vile activities of loyalist/British forces in the north equally deserve airtime. Let’s hope this is the start of something big.

      • William Fay June 5, 2014 at 9:23 pm #

        Who is the picture of at the top of your piece, Jude, an abused prisoner or a google photo put on there for effect?

        • paddykool June 5, 2014 at 9:28 pm #

          William : Are you really serious? I might have said”What fucking planet are you living on?”….but I don’t think I’ll bother….

          • William Fay June 9, 2014 at 7:37 pm #

            paddy, get a grip, you know exactly what I’m talking about, this blog is one way traffic and quite frankly it is getting quite tedious. You and your cohorts are out and out republicans and cannot see the wood for the trees, my view is classed as a bigoted unionist sectarian viewpoint, yet you are all rational, middle of the road republicans. You don’t know me at all, yet you seem to think you do, maybe you’ll be happy when you have shipped every last unionist out of Ireland, and then you can start on the other minorities.

  12. Ryan June 5, 2014 at 8:23 pm #

    Now the question is: what happens now? this is just the tip of the iceberg, the British Government were FAR from a neutral force here and they need exposed for all the criminalities they were involved in (which is ALOT) over the past decades.

    • William Fay June 5, 2014 at 9:31 pm #

      Ryan, I’m open to all these enquiries that you suggest, that will include the British government, the RoI government, and all the paramilitaries. The problem is the only ones to keep records were the British government, so the rest can tell all the lies they want. Maybe the IRA can release some documents on what they did with their prisoners!

      • Thomas Russell June 6, 2014 at 12:22 am #

        Strange how Unionists sometimes equate H.M. forces with the IRA.

        • ANOTHER JUDE June 6, 2014 at 1:12 am #

          Yes, but the difference is one side were fighting for a cause they believed in against overwhelming odds and a cruel foe, the other were the British,

        • William Fay June 9, 2014 at 7:29 pm #

          I’m not sure what you are talking about Thomas, cause I certainly wasn’t equating the Security Forces with the ira.

  13. RJC June 6, 2014 at 7:11 am #

    Gadfly of the Irish establishment, An Sionnach Fionn blogs excellently on this issue


  14. ted hagan June 9, 2014 at 8:41 am #

    How about looking for the truth Jude instead of all the usual republican propoganda. Who exactly didn’t think there wasn’t British torture. It’s hardly new. But the North needs reconciliation not all this chip on the shoulder stuff that old loyalists and republicans can’t live without. I lived through the Troubles and the new générations deserve better.

    • Wolfe tone June 9, 2014 at 11:56 am #

      That’s right ted, why don’t we all doff the cap and be good subjects of the UK? Lets not tell our kids what happened in the north and just let them accept what Britain says happened. After all if we don’t toe the line British violence could be unleashed on us once again. Lets all agree that republicans were the baddies and move on. By the way when we are told to ‘move on’ is it via rolling over?

  15. Wolfe tone June 9, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

    Btw ted, I wonder do our ‘new generations’ need to be spared the constant tales about the world wars? Surely reconciliation is needed there ted? I for one am constantly amazed at how the narrative fed to our kids is that the US and Britain were the people who won the war for the world and other allies played a smaller role in their victory. In this present era of anti Russia that seems to be doing the rounds would it not be better to teach our kids how Russia did most of the fighting and dying for the allies? Then perhaps there wouldn’t be as much animosity? Oh wait I forgot, we should only follow the narrative that the uk and its partners want us to follow, I get you now ted.
    The next time you are in the ministry for truth, will you tell them this squalid little war in the north was between republicans and the British state and not between republicans and loyalists? The sooner that is acknowledged the sooner we can all move on to a successful resolution rather than another successful cover up.

  16. ted hagan June 9, 2014 at 5:08 pm #

    Who are you trying to kid? Republicans like to portray themselves as heroic, non_sectarian freedom fighters taking on the might of the British empire. That was the propaganda. If that were true then why did they born the Abercorn? Why did they single out Protestants, line them up and shoot them? Republicans were as sectarian as the Loyalists thugs. Republicans also always love to have a different spin on World War 2; The fact is that the Brits and Americans fought Nazi-ism while the narrow-minded Republicans backed the wrong horse, and they can’t get over that.

  17. Wolfe tone June 9, 2014 at 5:48 pm #

    And the Russians ted? What was their impact on ww2? If you look at the timeline you would be forgiven for thinking the heroic allies were waiting to see who was going to get the upper hand between the nazis and Russia before they really joined the war? They allies soon got their finger out when it looked like the Russians were going to triumph. Strange. As for backing whatever horse, its before my time and I couldn’t care less who won as nazism was closer to Britain than some would care to admit, so it wouldn’t have made much difference who won. Could never work out why hitler allowed the British troops to escape from Dunkirk, there must have been some wheeling and dealing to pull that one off????
    Any sectarian deaths that happened in the north were exactly how the British wanted, its their age old tactic. If republicans fell into the sectarian trap then it is very regrettable to say the least. That trap has/had britains finger prints all over it.

    • William Fay June 9, 2014 at 7:48 pm #

      Conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy, are you sure wolfe, that your are not David Icke in disguise. The theories you are coming out with are sickening to say the least and denigrate the memory of the many thousands of soldiers killed in the wars from all of Ireland, who fought side by side and didn’t ask each other what religion they were. But de Valera did respond at the end of the war, he flew the Irish tricolour at half mast on the death of Hitler.
      The sectarian murders of Catholics were horrible heinous crimes but the murder of Protestants were ‘regrettable’. Can you not see your mirror image wolfe, it’s the loyalist bigot looking back at you.

      • Wolfe tone June 9, 2014 at 8:49 pm #

        You know history has shown how Britain has operated in countries around the world, its no conspiracy. Take a look at the Kenyans who recently tried to seek justice for the brutal terror inflicted upon them by your heroic soldiers. Next you will be telling me 27 million soviets didn’t die so you could be free; )

        As for de Valera etc? Couldn’t care if he hoisted a pair of knickers up when hitler died. Develera abandoned the northerners too so why you keep referring to him is beyond me. And I am sorry but I won’t be forced to commemorate anybody you deem ‘heroic’ just because you tell me to. The only irish people I will salute who joined the British army are the ones who left it to come home and fight for their own country.

        I recall the propagandists denying collusion ever existed during the 80’s; dismissing it as a conspiracy. To be fair they weren’t telling lies as collusion wasn’t happening, it was active participation in the terror of Catholics by the British state forces.

        The likes of yourself William, who have an unhealthy hatred of all things republican should be haranguing your government instead of republicans, as to why they seem to be treating republicans like they treat their own combatants? Why secret deals between enemies seems to be the norm? Equal combatants perhaps? The British seem to be moving on but their followers appear reluctant too.