Former British Agent Admits Irish Citizens Were Waterboarded

Photo taken by civil rights activists of an Irish civilian tortured by the British military interrogators in the Occupied North of Ireland, 1970s
Photo taken by civil rights activists of an Irish civilian tortured by the British military interrogators in the Occupied North of Ireland, 1970s

I’ve written about the widespread use of torture, both physical and psychological, by the British Forces in the UK-administrated north-east of Ireland in a number of previous posts for An Sionnach Fionn. From the 1970s to the late ‘80s (and somewhat beyond), thousands of men, women and children suffered various forms of abuse at the hands of the United Kingdom’s military and paramilitary interrogators during some of the bloodiest years of the Long War, the so-called Troubles of 1966-2005. From the use of electric shocks in police cells to hooded men being thrown out of helicopters hovering a few metres above the ground the records illustrate countless acts of brutality. These practices were later expanded through the use of dedicated “special techniques” – mental torture to you and me. The first victims of this refined method were known as the “Guinea Pigs” and the effects of their treatment remains with them to the present day.

Incredibly, just as with the use of torture by the United States in its so-called War on Terror, all these actions were given official legal sanction by both the British government and judiciary. What other nation in the western democratic world would permit the legalised torture of people it claimed were its citizens? What other nation would permit the creation of torture centres for the incarceration and “processing” of people it claimed were its citizens? Well, up to the 2000s and the aftermath of 9-11.

Interestingly, despite numerous specific cases being catalogued and reported by several international investigations (including the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture, Amnesty International and the US Congress), the UK state continues to deny that any campaign of systematic abuse occurred in the first two decades of Britain’s Dirty War in Ireland. Even a condemnatory ruling by the International Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg brought little apology from the British authorities. Yet, every now and again, things slip out that reveal just how widespread and matter-of-fact the practices of torture were.

Eddie Carmichael, an Irish Republican prisoner beaten by British troops guarding the infamous Long Kesh concentration camp in October 1974
Eddie Carmichael, an Irish Republican prisoner beaten by British troops guarding the infamous Long Kesh concentration camp in October 1974

The latest titbit is a tiny, if informative, admission from Harry Ferguson, a former agent with the British Intelligence Service or SIS (colloquially known as MI6) now turned writer and historian. Here he is in the Huffington Post UK discussing the use of torture by the United States and its proxies, when out slips this admission:

“As to the morality, British reasoning is simple: we don’t use torture because it doesn’t work. Like the CIA we had to learn the hard way. In Northern Ireland, IRA terrorist suspects were waterboarded in the 1970s. Even using such techniques, it took time to overcome the subject’s resistance and by then the intelligence gained was virtually worthless. Intelligence is nothing if it is not timely.

Instead modern spies are taught that interrogation is a game of time – and it is something that those IRA suspects who were water boarded understood just as well. From the moment an agent is picked up and his loss is reported, the service is working to establish who and what might be compromised. Other agents will be moved, codes will be changed and, if necessary, entire operations will be closed down. You are not trying to hold out forever. You are holding out for as long as you can. You know that every minute before you break can be counted as another life saved.”

Of course what Ferguson fails to point out is that the majority of the Irish “suspects” formally abused by the British Forces in Ireland between 1970 and 1979 were entirely innocent people. In fact, an estimated 80% of the men, women and children during that period who were “interrogated in depth” (the official British euphemism for torture) were later evaluated as having had little to no information to impart. Which makes those interrogations less about seeking out counter-insurgency intelligence from enemy combatants than punishing and intimidating the civilian community which hosted them. One by one.

Finally, you may wonder why I use the words “formally abused” in the paragraph above? That is because the British Forces inflicted thousands of informal tortures throughout the British Occupied North of Ireland, and throughout the lifespan of the conflict. Take this recent account from the Irish singer and celebratory Brian Kennedy, describing his childhood in Belfast under the UK regime, and the casualness of abuse by Britain’s troops – even against schoolchildren:

“Brian recalls how he himself felt the ire of British soldiers.

‘One asked me something and out of pure contrariness I started answering him in Irish. He put his gun right to my balls and he goes, ‘Paddy, you better start speaking in English’.’

Did he have a hatred for the British back then?

‘I hated how scary it was. They could stop you at any time and ask you were you were going, when you were coming back — and clearly I was going to school. They got into an awful habit of making you take your shoes off and socks off to search you in the freezing cold in the morning. Then they would say all these awful things about your mother, about your sister — and that was just so you could get beyond them to get to school.’”

He later forgave his abusers and moved on, finding indeed in Britain itself a career and liberation of sorts. Well away from the coal face of the Irish war zone, though.

So, that was then, and this is now. But what has changed? Have the British officially admitted the use of physical and psychological torture against thousands of Irish citizens who found themselves trapped under continued United Kingdom jurisdiction in the North of Ireland? Has the Irish government, their government, sought redress and compensation for their grievances? And what of the torturers? Not one British subject has served one day or even one minute in prison for the campaign of terror unleashed in the military and paramilitary installations in the north-east of this island nation. Indeed many have instead found themselves promoted or rewarded within the UK’s Armed Forces, paramilitary police (the then RUC and its PSNI successor) and Intelligence community (MI5, MI6 and all the other acronyms).

And, to borrow a phrase from elsewhere, they haven’t gone away you know.

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