CONFERENCE ON BRUTALITY
"IS THERE A REPRESENTATIVE from The Irish Times here?" asked Father Piaras O'Duill at the recent enquiry in Dublin's Liberty Hall into allegations of abuse and torture of prisoners in Ireland and England. No reply. He asked if representatives of the other morning or evening papers were there. No reply. The circle of public indifference to torture allegations and the news media's reflection to that indifference was making itself evident.
The enquiry was held before a panel of "judges", three of whom were lawyers from the Continent: Judge E. Bloch, (France) Paul Bekaert (Belgium) and Juan Marie Bandres (Basque). They had been invited after the conference organisers had contacted civil liberties groups in Europe asking for the names of liberal lawyers.
The other members of the panel of judges came from Ireland, although one of them, Yann Goulet, is of Breton origin. They were Uinseann Mac Eoin, Ken Quinn, Brendan O'Cathaoir, Brendan O'Cearbhaill and Dr. Dermott McDermott.
If the final conclusions reached by the panel had a predictably Republican ring about them there se'ems little doubt that the Continental judges were genuinely surprised at the allegations of maltreatment they had heard. Judge Bloch, with no trace of disingenuousness, summing up for the three foreigners, spoke of their astonishment that such things could happen in democratic countries.
The conference had dwelt on a number of areas. Interrogation techniques, prison conditions, alleged harassment of the Northern minority, and the judicial systems in Ireland provided the topics for the three day enquiry. Victims of alleged ill treatment were heard, and Judge Bloch said he found their testimony "most moving".
Written allegations were also provided. One of the first to give evidence was Sean Macken. He told how he was arrested on May 9, 1977 in his Belfast home and taken to Castlereach RUC barracks, where he was accused of a variety of terrorist offences and membership of the Irish National Liberation Army, the political wing of the Irish Republican Socialist Party. In a prepared statement he alleged how interrogators threatened to cause him agony and leave no marks. One of them held him while another "did something with the back of my neck and behind my ear. This was very painful and I began to scream." Shortly afterwards, Macken alleged "the policeman started to slap and punch me. The other grabbed me by the hair and pulled me to the ground; they then began to kick me, I got into a corner but they pulled me out by the hair". He alleged that this beating lasted some quarter of an hour, while the police tried to make him confess to involvement in shootings and robberies.
Macken was then given the notorious and debilitating wall-standing treatment, which involved leaning at a wide angle to the wall, perched on fingertips and on the tips of toes. He collapsed after a quarter of an' hour, after which more beatings followed. "They then began to slap me on each side of my face; they did this for what seemed a considerable time. They told me to admit to everything. My nose and my mouth were bleeding and my jaw was very sore ... They then pulled me up by the hair and punched me in the stomach. Every time they hit me in the stomach they would put their hands over my face and suffocate me."
Macken claimed that when he asked for a doctor, a man who said he was one came and asked him to let him examine his stomach, and his injured jaw. When Macken lifted his shirt, he claimed the "doctor" hit him in his abdomen and his jaw.
After several other beatings and constant interrogations, followed by a visit to Dundonald Hospital, where he was examined, Macken was subjected to more interrogation. "They came and pulled me on to the floor and kicked me about the legs. They then told me to stand up and face the wall. The wall was white and perforated. They held my head up and told me to watch the dots. After a short while the dots seemed to move and I closed my eyes. When I did this I was slapped on the back of the head and told to keep my eyes open, I did so and the dots seemed to move and my vision blurred up. Every time I closed my eyes I was slapped. I was questioned most of the time during this. After what seemed a long period of time they got fed up and banged my head off the wall about twelve times."
Further beatings followed, until about six in the morning. The following lunch time, Macken tried to saw through his wrist with a plastic knife. He was discovered, his wound was treated, and more beatings followed. He was, he said, constantly offered statements of admission to a variety of crimes.
Sean Macken was charged with theft and attempted murder on the basis of verbal statements he allegedly made to his RUC interrogators. Those charges have now been dropped, and he is now a free man.
Allegations concerning the Gardai came from Gerry Roche, from Dun Laoghaire, who was heard after Macken. He was originally arrested on March 31, 1976 by Special Branch Officers, but released after fifteen hours. He was rearrested at about 7.30 a.m. On April 5 under Section 30 of the Offences Against the State Act, in connection with the train robbery at Celbridge on March 31, he told the hearing that from 2 pm to almost 1.00 am he was alternatively beaten and interrogated by five police officers.
"I was beaten about the head and ears. I was punched about the ribs and kidney areas of my body. I was caught by the throat and felt that I was choking. I was beaten about the head and body with what appeared to be a baton or truncheon. I was kicked in the legs."
The following day, interrogation lasted from about 1am to 7am the day after that, he claimed, during which time he was questioned about a variety of offences. He was then released. He was re-arrested immediately as he left Harcourt Street station and returned to a cell. He slept for a time ( he could not estimate how long) and further interrogation followed, accompanied by more beatings. After a witness failed to pick him out in an identity parade, Roche was freed.
Submissions concerning other alleged victims were made to the panel of judges, who heard the evidence before an audience which seldom dropped below eighty or so people, and which at times included prominent Republicans such as David O'Connell, Jimmy Drumm, Joe Cahill and Joe Stagg. All the submissions referred to similar beatings, intimidation and humiliation.
The enquiry also heard about prison conditions in Long Kesh, Portlaoise and England, Jacqueline Kaye, the English woman well known for her work with imprisoned Irish Republicans in England, gave an outline of the situation there. She said that of the 300 Category "A" prisoners of Britain's 40,000 jail population, 80 were Irish political prisoners. Only five Irish men convicted of political crimes were not Category "A". Within that Category "A", there was a further subdivision, involving special security precautions. Only Irish prisoners belonged to this group. These prisoners could only be visited by specially approved members of their families who are interviewed and given special security clearance by the security forces in Ireland or Britain.
Kaye said of the 92 prisoners in Britain, who have special security precautions during visits, 81 are Irish. Denouncing the measures against Irish prisoners as racist and politically motivated, she alleged that Irish prisoners had been subjected to violence from warders. The use of non-judicial punishments such as loss of remission and solitary confinement were further grievances for Irish Republicans.
A written account by one former prisoner was available. Michael Mac Loughlann, alleged that a group of ordinary criminals threw a bucket of boiling water over Eddie O'Neill, an Irish prisoner. "When Eddie tried to defend himself, a number of screws appeared on the scene and batoned Eddie to the ground whilst meantime his attackers disappeared". MacLoughlann all aged that at Wakefield prison, a warder approached a prisoner, a former British soldier who had served in the North, suggesting an attack on an Irish prisoner. The former soldier refused.
Allegations were also made about conditions in Portlaoise prison concentrating on needless strip searches and arbitrary sentencing to solitary confinement for small offences. "During the last week of July 1974, I was strip searched six times in twenty four hours in Portloaise" claimed Councillor Joseph O'Neill, of Bundoran. Each time warders pulled his buttocks apart and examined his anus, he claimed.
Another prisoner Thomas O'Sullivan from Limerick, submitted that a prisoner from Clare had been strip-searched twice in ten minutes. He himself had been strip searched three times in twenty four hours, although between two of the searches he had been locked in his cell and been in contact with nobody. All the respondents referred to the deep sense of humiliation felt during these examinations.
One of the first depositions before the committee had been laid by Dessie Wilson, the Ballymurphy priest, who claimed that there was a campaign of community harassment by the security forces against the minority community in West Belfast. The panel's report, issued after the conference, noted that "about a thousand people are screened daily in West Belfast and on average 250 interrogated each month. The evidence presented to the tribunal (sic) led us to believe that this form of oppression was directed against the politically mature in the ghettos."
The panel drew up its conclusions on the Saturday night and the Sunday mornings of the week-end conference. The Sunday afternoon was largely an occasion for Republican outcry. Eamonn McCann, the journalist, summed up succinctly the attitude of many in the hall to the question of repression: "It is not really meaningful just to fight for an end to repression in the Northern Ireland state. You must be involved in the opposition to that state itself. And if you are not prepared to bring about the downfall of that state, however well intentioned you are, you cannot end repression."
The Republican nature of the affair was apparent in the findings of the panel of judges, who concluded that "sufficient evidence has been submitted, both verbally and documentary, to convince us that the abuse of prisoners is widespread and systematic. Our brief is humanitarian, our concern the res toration of dignity to prisoners and peace of mind to their families; nevertheless we cannot but conclude that the root cause of the emergency is the persistent British involvement in Irish affairs".
In the short term, the panel called for
(1) Action by British and Irish Governments to ease conditions in H Blocks in Long Kesh;
(2) Harassment of the Northern minority ceases;
(3) That action be taken on Amnesty report recommendations. (The Minister for Justice Mr. Collins has dropped the investigation into the Amnesty report of last year. One of its recommendations was that "The Special Criminal Court has seemingly failed or refused to scrutinize allegations of maltreatment according to principles of law which govern the burden of proof with regard to the admissibility of statements." Mr. Collins claimed that Amnesty had not supplied the Government with specific complaints).
(4) Discrimination against Irish prisoners in Britain be stopped;
(5) no restriction on prisoners rights of access to lawyers and doctors.
Although the conference was heavily attended by Republicans, including two former IRA leaders, it was not organised as such by Sinn Fein. Christine Carney, who did most of the work in the build-up to the conference, is a member of the Trade Union Campaign Against Repression, which drew a sizeable contingent from the North. Several of those involved in the organisation of the conference visibly winced at some of the more extreme expressions of Republicanism, and the
strong pro-Republican element was not balanced by any serious representation from other civil liberties groups. The conference ended with a whip round to help Christine Carney find the £1,000 still outstanding for the costs of the enquiry.