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Northern Ireland: The Gentle Art of Interrogation

Anybody living in Northern Ireland today who doubts the assertion that the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary are waging a vicious war against that section of the working class who are Catholics or who question the allegation that part of the weaponry of that war are brutality and torture can carry out his own inquiry.

There are a number of approaches.

For example, one could go into a Catholic district almost any night and linger in the vicinity of a street corner until the inevitable military patrol comes along. When one has been called a “fucking Irish pig”, or a “fenian bastard” or when one has been put against a wall and had one’s ankles or knees kicked or, even, a baton deflected off one’s testicles, one can quote “the Law”—which, along with “Order", the military are defending for one’s protection—and the consequences will complete a definite stage of one’s inquiry! It is a simple test which we would urge on marble-mouthed gentry who speak down to us from Westminster or Stormont—though, if they were to get the full benefits of such a test, it would have to be carried out incognito!

If one has escaped the needs for hospitalisation at this stage of the test, it can be carried further by indulging in some simple and minimal act of self-defence. Irrespective of one’s age or sex this is guaranteed to provoke the “security forces” into a flurry of security excitement which will ensure that in future one will have no difficulty in appreciating why so many people who, a short time ago, laughed at the military posturings of the I.R.A. are now, tragically, finding their way into its ranks.

There are, of course, no gas chambers in Ulster. Unlike the ghetto Jews in Nazi Germany, Ulster’s ghetto Catholics are not herded into gas chambers and murdered. They may be gassed in their bedrooms or living rooms but then they have the satisfaction of knowing that a group of humane medical people, acting for the British government, have said that the gas used has no long-term effects—unless, that is, the concentration is heavy, in which case permanent brain damage may result. Again, maybe, they could be disturbed by other medical opinion that asserts that inhalation of the gas does produce permanent and damaging side-effects or they could be apprehensive about the fact that the power determining the concentration of the gas is the same power that shot an unarmed man outside his own door, further up the street, last night.

One can understand the brutal reaction to taunt and provocation. One can appreciate the anger of a member of a military machine, embracing the most awesome devices for killing, to the death of comrades at the hands of amateurs who must compensate for lack of numbers and weaponry with stealth. What continues to surprise is the fact that politically ignorant members of the working class, with normal emotional appetites, can be induced into the trade of killing at all; but worse, that there can be a process whereby such men can be brutalised into a condition that allows them to engage in acts of savagery against homes that look like their own homes, women who look like their own wives and mothers, and children who look like their own kids.

When we go up the scale to the professional torturers, the mind simply boggles. Here’s one person’s reaction:

    ". . .  I knew I was in a torture chamber. Yet my mind could not conceive that I was living in the twentieth century . . . Surely these men could never bring themselves to torture me in cold blood. Looking around at their faces I saw neither passion nor compassion in any one of them."

The writer in question details the ensuing physical and psychological torture to which he and his fellow-prisoners were subjected:

    ". . . Corporal Walters had been compelled to stand to attention for over forty hours before he collapsed. Fusilier Kinne had been kicked so savagely during a beating-up in jail that he sustained a double-rupture . . . Denis’s hands were secured so far up behind his back that he had to stand on tip-toe."

The quotations are from The Edge of the Sword a book written by Lieut-General Farrar-Hockley, who recently commanded British Land Forces in Northern Ireland. The writer is describing the experiences of himself and his comrades at the hands of the Chinese and Koreans when, as Captain Farrar-Hockley, he was taken prisoner in Korea in 1951 and he digresses at length on the mere beatings and kickings meted out by his captors as well as the foul system of psychological tortures devised to break them.

It was after Korea that the British Army began to develop its own techniques for the interrogation of prisoners and the specialisation in brutality and torture devolved on men whose personality and behaviour showed aptitude for the trade. Such men were seconded from their regiments and “elevated” to the Special Air Services (SAS) where the entire curricula of known brutality was imparted to them in “schools” such as that at Bradbury Line, near Hereford. The activities of these heroes is the subject of a permanent “D” notice imposed on the British press. Apart from their employment as torturers, killers, and specialists in counter-espionage activities these worthies are sometimes employed in the business of toughening-up and brutalising ordinary troops.

Despite denials by Lord Balniel, the British Minister of State for Defence, and the protests of Lord Carrington—sometimes known in Ireland as Himmler Carrington—of SAS presence in Ulster, some Irish newspapers have given quite detailed information about the activities of SAS Unit 22 in the province. It is possible, however, that Balniel’s honesty may be vindicated in the suggestion that the SAS unit concerned got around the dilemma of plying their foulness in the UK by seconding their Ulster contingent back to their old regiments. Certainly, if they are not in Northern Ireland, there is a lot of evidence to indicate that the brutality of the army and police dealing with political detainees makes the work of the SAS superfluous!

    "After being given the overall I was taken outside the room and along the corridor into another room and made to stand against the wall as one is made for frisking only I was made to stretch my legs and arms as far apart as I could get them. My feet also had to be as far from the wall as possible. I was to remain in this position for at least two, and at most four, days with the hood on. I lost all track of time, but there is no doubt that 1 remained in this position for days. If I did not keep my head straight I was hit with a fist in the small of the back, the genitals, the arms. As the duration of my stance against this wall grew longer, the collapsing and falling became more frequent, until I began falling every twenty or thirty minutes."

No, we are not back to Lieut-General Farrar-Hockley and his Edge of the Sword; this time we are with a Mr. Michael Donnelly who was arrested in Ulster by Crown Forces on 9 August 1971, “on suspicion”. The extract above is from his sworn statement made eleven days later.

There are many other statements that speak of beatings and kickings, the “disorientation treatment” which involves putting a hood over a prisoner’s head and putting him in a confined space where he is subjected to a constant high-pitched or throbbing noise for days on end, the discharging of firearms, using blank cartridges, at the prisoner’s head, sexual assault, electric shocks, and the use of injections. Many of these statements are attested to by medical evidence of the victim’s condition after “treatment”, by the corroboration of other prisoners (and it is noteworthy that prisoners who did not know one another and had no chance to devise corroboration after their experiences, relate the same details), by the “disappearance” of prisoners for periods up to eleven days after arrest (during which the police, the military, and the local Home Affairs Ministry pass the buck about the prisoner’s whereabouts until he subsequently turns up in a prison hospital).

Following on the adverse publicity which the Authorities have been subjected to as a result of the well-documented revelations of torture and brutality, the Westminster government yielded to pressure and set up the inevitable inquiry. That such serious allegations should be answered by an inquiry confining examination, by its terms of reference, to a mere fraction of the total complaints, that it should be presided over by a paid British government official, that it should have no powers to compel witnesses to attend or to order the production of any records relating to the complaints, gives rise to the suggestion that it is a mere whitewashing exercise.

By the time these lines are in print the official inquiry will be complete (the complainants, predictably, boycotted it) and will have published its report. It is safe to say that while it may make scapegoats out of some minor thugs for some slight overstepping of the mark—doubtless “as a result of the regrettable circumstances of the occasion”—it will not, and could not, find the political flunkeys of capitalism guilty of the charges levelled against them. If you reflect on the effects of such a decision on the British government and its Stormont rubber-stamp you will understand what we mean!

The “Security” Chiefs themselves are revealing. As part of the general propaganda drive against the IRA which includes finding “large caches” of arms conveniently deposited on vacant lots and empty houses and killing gunmen who are carted off by their comrades and, presumably, buried secretly—despite the fact that anyone conversant with IRA tradition knows that the denial of a patriot funeral to an IRA man killed in action would be an affront that his family and comrades would regard as blasphemous — the “Security” people are now justifying the internment of men without trial by claiming that it is bringing them the necessary intelligence to take the initiative against the IRA. The proposition is worth pondering; surely if a suspect’s arrest is justified in the first place the authorities must be well satisfied that he is an IRA activist and, indeed, the claim that they are getting information from those arrested would appear to bear this out. But if there is no brutality, no torture, why do these vicious enemies of the State who must be arbitrarily incarcerated in the public interest, suddenly decide to give helpful information to the Authorities?

There are those, of course, who will claim that whatever methods are being used are justified. It is a convenient stance when one is not included among the innocent—and the Authorities have released considerable numbers of people who claim they were victims of torture and brutality after relatively short periods, showing that even in their own recognition they had “made a mistake” and have even admitted that some of those detained were victims of mistaken identity.

One can be sickened by it all; can say impotently “I must do something”. But what to do? That is the question . . . the question that chokes on emotion. On pity, on sadness, on hatred, on a blind desire to strike wildly at the perpetrators of the foulness. By all means, we must strike back at the evil but not wildly, not emotionally, not stupidly. There is no solution in wanting to strike back at the leering face of the soldier or widow the wife of the cop. Certainly violence, riots, killings, bombings etc., could decide the issue against those who use the weapons of torture and brutality. Enough deaths and destruction of property and the British government may decide that the job is not worth the candle and, if one is a Republican, one may have the joys of victory and the pleasure of imposing one’s notions of freedom on those in Northern Ireland who don’t want a Republic.

It could happen then that those who presently support the British connection in Northern Ireland could become the rebels and one could become a member of the new Irish Republican “Security” Forces—it’s even possible, and it has happened before, that one could be seconded to a British SAS “school” to learn the techniques of brutality and torture in order to put one’s talents “in the service of Ireland”.

It could happen because the material conditions that now allow it to happen here would continue to exist in the Irish Republic of one’s ambition despite the vapourings of the IRA and similarly-confused pundits regarding the establishment of “a Workers’ Socialist Republic”. It did happen when the British withdrew from the south of Ireland in 1922 and left the Irish Free State Army to deal with the unfortunate idealists who thought that among other things, freedom meant more than changing flags. It continues to happen now in the various state-capitalist “Socialist Republics” throughout the world where freedom is mortgaged for the State organisation of poverty—“Socialist Republics” established by the efforts of IRA-like idealists who were strong on the poetry of freedom and weak on the economic and political conditions required to establish it. How often does theirs become the face that leers behind the riot vizor? Theirs the finger on the executioner’s gun? Theirs the macabre brain of the torturer: Cuba . . . Russia . . . China . . . Israel . . . Egypt . . Kenya . . .

Just think of a country, any country, where a minority—a group who identify their economic privation with some common ethnic or religious distinguishing feature —resist their condition by real or alleged extra-constitutional means and there you have the Northern Ireland situation. What is happening in Northern Ireland today is happening, somewhere in the world of capitalism, every day. It is yesterday’s news from Czechoslovakia, or Aden, or Vietnam; it is today’s news from East Pakistan and Ulster; it will be tomorrow’s news from somewhere else in the crazy world where trade and profit take precedence over human beings. The news deals only with the death, the shootings, the bombings and organised barbarities. The poverty, frustration, bad housing and utter social despair that causes the eruptions rarely breaks through the veneer of religious bigotry, racial prejudice or political hatreds they have created. For poverty and human privation is not news . . . they are too general ... too mundane ... too constant a feature of capitalism.

It is only in capitalism, with its market economy and its need to deceive the overwhelming majority of those who produce wealth that the wages and money systems are essentials of production and distribution, that the material conditions for friction and violence can continue to exist. It does not matter what political party presides over the system of wages exploitation, whether it calls itself “Socialist”, “Communist”, “Republican”, “Democratic” or any other name; the capitalist system, identified by its broad masses of wage workers, its production of wealth for sale and profit and the continuing existence of poverty and want on the one hand and privilege and power on the other hand is an anachronistic foulness that cannot exist without war, violence and brutality. It is a foulness that not only deprives the great majority of the material means of a full and happy life, but degrades and brutalises people to play the role of soldiers, “freedom fighters”, gaolers, torturers and murderers.

How can we then strike back at such a system? Not surely of degrading ourselves with the same foul weapons of murder and torture simply to drive out the present administrators of the system and the flag that identifies them in order to submit to the same system under a different gang of political administrators?

It is essential that we should understand that capitalism is a world system, a world problem to which a world solution is required. Wealth today is produced by social labour from the resources of the world and the abundant evidence of those countries that have attempted to counter the effects of world capitalism by tampering with the economy at national level has demonstrated the truth of the Socialist contention that only the total abolition of capitalism as a world system can end the problems of society in general and the working class in particular. Even more, perhaps, experiments in State-capitalism, as proposed by the IRA and other political groups in Ireland, and as practiced in many countries of the world today, have shown that not only do the old miseries of poverty, etc., remain but that, faced with the disillusion and frustration of a working class that believed State ownership could solve its problems, the new regime resorts to the worst excesses of capitalism and denies its subject class access to the very political avenues essential to its emancipation.

Richard Montague