This morning the United Kingdom Supreme Court ruled that the Police Service of Northern Ireland had been wrong in deciding in 2014 not to investigate the treatment of the so-called “hooded men,” who were tortured by the British Army following their arrest during the introduction of internment in 1971.
The court ruled that the decision had been “unlawful” and that the men’s treatment had been part of a “deliberate policy” on the part of the British state.
The men who were tortured were among those who had been arrested during the mass raids which took place on August 9 and 10, 1971 as part of Operation Demetrius which was a British army attempt to destroy the resistance movement that had sprung up after 1969 in Catholic parts of the north, and especially in Belfast and Derry.
Although it had been ostensibly directed at the two wings of the IRA, many of those lifted and interned were not members of either the Provisional or Official armed organisations.
The house raids were accompanied by considerable brutality and wanton destruction of homes. 24 people, 17 of them victims of the British army, were killed during the fighting that ensued over the two days of the raids.
The most sinister aspect of Operation Demetrius was the treatment of the detainees. While resistance and brutal violence was a feature of most arrests, there was also a targeted torture programme for which 14 of the men were selected. These became known as “the hooded men.”
The torture took place at Shackleton Barracks, Ballykelly and initially involved 12 of the men who were subjected to the “five techniques” of prolonged standing against walls, white noise, hooding, sleep deprivation, and denial of food and water. They were also badly beaten. These were similar to methods used in British operations in Cyprus and Aden, and the later use of water boarding and electric shocks were not unlike the methods deployed by the French in Algeria.
The brutality was highlighted by John McGuffin in The Guinea Pigs, and by Fathers Raymond Murray and Denis Faul in The Hooded Men. Like other victims of torture, they have suffered prolonged symptoms of depression, anxiety, social isolation and health problems. Five of the 14 are now dead. PJ McClean of Beragh, County Tyrone passed away in August. The fact that he was a teacher and a civil rights activist illustrates for many that internment and torture were targeted at the heart of the northern Catholic community. It had nothing to do with tackling “terrorism.” Indeed as McGuffin’s 1974 book implies, it was a part of a broader British army intelligence programme to finesse its torture techniques.
In 1976 the Irish government took a case to the European Court of Human rights but it ruled that while the techniques were “inhuman and degrading” they did not constitute torture. The men and their families have never given up, and the decision by the Court of Appeal in Belfast in September 2019 to reject a PSNI attempt to prevent an investigation into the cases week marked a seminal moment in the campaign which culminated in today’s judgement. Lord Justice Morgan ruled in 2019 that the techniques could indeed “properly be characterised as torture.”
Nor did the Historical Enquiries commission which had been designed to uncover the truth about the hooded men and other incidents involving the British state emerge covered in glory. Its investigation was described by Morgan as “irrational.” Campaigners contrasted the failures of the Commission in relation to state violence to the number of former members of paramilitary groups who have been arrested over events which took place close enough to the time of the Ballykelly torture.