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.