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13 May 2004 Edition

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Britain's torture culture - Ireland was testing ground for Iraq


The claim by both Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon this week that they did not know about the Red Cross report on the abuse of detainees in Iraq by US and British soldiers until the story broke in the media last week seems barely credible. Given their respective positions as Prime Minister and Defence Secretary, and the contents of the report itself, their argument that the it was "confidential" and had in any case already been acted upon by the MoD defies belief.

But actually, the decision by some invisible official in the MoD that neither the Prime Minister nor the secretary of state need be troubled by a report documenting serious breaches of international and British law by British forces betrays the deeply ingrained culture within the British establishment of the toleration of violence by the British Army; a culture which has always existed and which has seen British soldiers across the world routinely excused for even the most horrific of crimes, not least in Ireland.

Given their historic success in batting away accusations, very often by independent and reputable organisations like the Red Cross and Amnesty International, of murder, torture and rape by British forces and their equal success in ensuring that convictions in the European Court of Human Rights are quickly forgotten, the British Government and MoD officials must have felt reasonably confident that the same could be achieved with the latest Red Cross report and the equally damning AI report on the killing of 37 civilians by British forces in Iraq.

Of course, in their complacency and indifference, they had not accounted for the power of the image. Those photographs of Iraqis being tortured have succeeded where no amount of words ever could in forcing the issue of the conduct of the US and British Armies into the public consciousness where it will stay for years to come. If they had not reached the public domain, it is virtually certain that both governments would have been able to deny, cover up, legislate and propagandise the accusations out of existence.

After all, an AI report on the torture occurring in the detention centres in the north of Ireland in 1972 created barely a ripple anywhere outside the Six Counties. When, in 1979, police surgeon Dr Robert Irwin told London Weekend Television that during the previous three years he had seen more than 150 prisoners who had sustained serious injuries due to beatings, the British Government responded by claiming that the injuries were self-inflicted and making public the fact that his wife had been raped by an SAS man a short while before, implying that Irwin was merely exercising a grudge. The fact that the soldier responsible had been swiftly and safely flown out of the north without facing any charges was glossed over.

In 1978, the British Government was convicted in the European Court when it was found that during 1971-72, 14 detainees had been subjected to "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" by the British Army, which was using them as guinea-pigs for its refined new interrogation techniques. The European Commission went further, finding that the government was guilty of outright torture against the detainees in contravention of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In its report, the Commission also remarked on the widespread and systematic abuses which were being perpetrated at the Palace Barracks. "Quite a large number of those held in custody were subjected to violence by members of the RUC," it noted. "It led to intense suffering and physical injury which on occasions was substantial."

The techniques employed by police and army interrogators were almost identical to those currently being employed in Iraq. The accounts and images of prisoners being made to stand spread-eagled for long periods of time, prolonged hooding, white noise, sleep deprivation, mock executions, ritualised sexual humiliation and severe beatings are all familiar. Also familiar are the accounts of the army's behaviour on the ground; arbitrary arrest and detention, theft of possessions and money, brutal and wantonly destructive house searches, the targeting of the families of 'suspects', deaths in custody and the random shooting of unarmed civilians, including children.

Indeed, so familiar is all of this that one former British soldier who served in the Six Counties during the 1970s called BBC Radio's Five Live whilst the subject of Iraq was being discussed to voice his retrospective guilt at the way in which the army had behaved in Ireland. He wanted to apologise, he said, to the Irish people for the mistreatment they had suffered at the hands of the British Army, mistreatment which was now being replicated in Iraq. (Another caller recounted how, when working in the north during the same period, he was regularly stopped by both British Army and IRA checkpoints. In the light of the revelations coming out of Iraq, he said, "I don't need to tell you who was the more civilised.")

But it is worth remembering that the systematic ill-treatment of Irish political prisoners was not confined to the worst days of the conflict in the 1970s and '80s. As recently as 1997, Amnesty issued a report denouncing the British Government's continued use of the 'concrete coffins', Special Secure Units to house 13 republican prisoners within Belmarsh and Whitemoor prisons in England as "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment". The report went on to say that Irish republican prisoners were "arbitrarily and punitively" subjected to this particular form of imprisonment and that the use of SSUs was in clear violation of "Britain's obligations under international human rights treaties". The SSUs are currently used to house Muslim 'terrorist' suspects.

And whilst we are on the subject of history repeating itself, Tony Blair might do well to take a long hard look at the last days of the last Labour government. At exactly the time that the Bennett report on the abuse of detainees in the north was published — March 1979 — James Callaghan's government was in crisis and facing a vote of No Confidence in parliament. It desperately needed every vote it could muster, including those of the Independent MP for Tyrone/Fermanagh, Frank Maquire and the SDLP's Gerry Fitt. Fitt could normally be relied on for support Labour, but during the No Confidence motion debate stood up and berated the government over the findings of the Bennett Report declaring that the British public would be react with "horror".

In fact, the British public remained blissfully unaware of the report but both he and Maquire abstained in the vote on 28 March. The government lost by 311 votes to 310, precipitating the general election of May 1979 and the victory of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. A few years later, the journalist Peter Taylor wrote about those momentous events. "It was a fine irony that the issue the government had consistently refused to face, the ill-treatment of suspects in its custody, was at the end of the day the issue that finally destroyed it."


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