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Hooded Man: 'They asked me to count to ten; I refused in case I couldn’t do it'

A European court ruled that the 14 men “did not occasion suffering of the particular intensity and cruelty implied by the word torture”.

File Photo THE EUROPEAN COURT of Human Rights will today deliver its judgement in the case of the Ôhooded menÕ Ð a case involving the alleged torture and ill-treatment of 14 men who were interned in the North in 1971. End. Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

THIS WEEK, A landmark ruling was given in the case of the ‘Hooded Men’ – fourteen men who say they were tortured by British forces during the Troubles.

The men, ten of whom are still alive today, claim members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) caused them long-term psychological damage because of the techniques they used on them over seven days in 1971.

Although the techniques were found to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1976, two years later that finding was reversed by the European Court of Human Rights.

The European court doubled down on that ruling this week, when it announced that it would not review the finding that the five techniques were torture (it did find that the techniques amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment”).

The five techniques were hooding, wall-standing in stress positions for hours, white noise, sleep deprivation, and food and water deprivation.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, one of the ‘hooded men’ Francie McGuigan recounted what happened to him over the course of a week, and how he’s been coping with the memory of what happened.

“There are times you believed that you were actually back there, other times you know you’re not there but you feel the same as if you were.”

“One of the lads said, ‘If there’s such a place as hell, we spent seven days there’.”

A night in 1971

After a brutal campaign by the IRA involving hundreds of explosions and shootings in the previous year, internment without trial is introduced in Northern Ireland in an attempt to stem the escalating violence.

On 9 August, Operation Demetrius begins, where members of the British Forces begin ‘arresting’ IRA suspects. In Belfast’s Ardoyne district, a 23-year-old Francie McGuigan is asleep in his bed.

He’s woken up by a soldier, who thrusts the butt of his gun into his stomach.

“I was thumped in the stomach with the butt of a soldier’s rifle, there were two other soldiers pointing guns at me. There were two in with my father, but one joined me because I wouldn’t volunteer to go with them – but they were fairly insistent. I put on a pair of underpants and trousers and that was it, no shoes or socks.”

McGuigan was a member of Sinn Féin, had taken part in protests, was the first elected member of the Belfast civil rights committee, and had a history of Republicanism on both sides of his family.

His father had been interned twice beforehand – later he would be interned for a third time for questioning the whereabouts of his son after this night.

McGuigan said that his last memory was of his father being dragged into the street by soldiers and left there.

I was dragged into back of lorry and was lying face down. I remembered that they were dragging my father down the street at the time; he was in his 60s and they were dragging him out by his arm.

“I heard them say ‘Leave him we’ll get him again’, and left him lying in the street.”

He said that when they arrived at a former British army base in Ballykelly in Co Derry, there were a number of men there already gathered in the courtyard whom he recognised.

“One was over 70 and the other totally blind, a lot of them were just civilians who had no connection to Republican movement.”

For the first 48 hours, we were interrogated. A group of four or five lads were put into a helicopter, which lifted a few feet off the air and then they threw the lads out of them backwards.

Thrown out of a helicopter

He said that the group was segregated then.

“Me and another [of the 'hooded men'], Joe Clarke I think, were placed into the back of a helicopter and we knew this was different because we were hooded.

We started to fly we thought for maybe 30 or 40 minutes, the air compression doors opened, our handcuffs were removed, we were moved to the door and thrown out.

He said they were caught by a group of soldiers as they weren’t far from the ground and taken into a building. He was brought to a man in white coat and stethoscope who he assumed was a doctor.

“After a 30-second medical examination they took me away, and my trousers and underpants were removed and I was put into a boiler suit that was too big for me.

I was dragged into a room, placed against a wall with my fingertips spread out against a wall. I rolled down the wall a few times and got a severe kicking for it.

He said he eventually obeyed their orders and faced the wall, waiting.

I was trying to figure out what they were doing when this high-pitched noise happened – it went through my hair, down my body and out my toes, it touched every sinew and nerve – it occupied my brain.
That went on and on and on. I collapsed numerous times and was kicked, battered, and beaten. I don’t know how long it went on for.

‘The music room’

“Afterwards, they took me out of the room and I was placed in a chair, two bright lights were shining in my face, I could just vaguely make out the shadows of them and they started with the questions, questions, accusations, questions.

And then they said ‘take him back to the music room’. And that continued for seven days.

He said that for the seven days he spent at Ballykelly, he was in one of three places.

Handcuffed to a cast iron pipe on a concrete floor with a hood on my head, up against the wall in ‘the music room’, or interrogated.
This boiler suit was my day suit and my night suit – and also my toilet. Think about that.

“I could not spell my name – and they found this very funny – they told me ‘We know how to spell it’. They asked me to count up to ten, and I refused in case I couldn’t do it. That was on the third or fourth day.”

Over the course of the next seven days, McGuigan would lose a stone and a half in weight, he had three fractured ribs and his feet were “destroyed” from being dragged along the ground.

The other ‘hooded men’ had varying injuries. One man, Kevin Hannaway who is a cousin of Gerry Adams, was so badly beaten that his brothers would later walk by him and not recognise him. The hair of Sean McKenna, aged 42, had turned from black to pure white over that week. In 1975 he would die of a heart attack.

McGuigan was sure he was going to die.

We did not believe we’d be let out alive. They’d dump our bodies somewhere or shoot us.

Eventually they were escorted from the barrack’s to Belfast’s Crumlin Road. They were later moved again to Long Kesh prison where they were interned without trial for four years.

Campaigning

In 2011, historian Jim McIlmurray brought the men together, as they hadn’t seen each other since their time at Ballykelly.

He told The Times magazine that it was an emotional scene.

“It was one of the most emotional days I have ever witnessed.

I saw men crying, hugging. Two men held each other in front of me and neither could speak. There were a lot of tears, and at the end of the day a lot of laughter.

Since then they have been discussing their experiences since, and begun campaigning to find out why they were treated the way they were.

Archived documents uncovered in 2013 revealed the extent of the UK government’s involvement in and knowledge of the treatment of those 14 men.

In 1977, home secretary at the time Merlyn Rees wrote in a letter to Labour prime minister James Callaghan:

“It is my view (confirmed by Brian Faulkner before his death) that the decision to use methods of torture in Northern Ireland in 1971/72 was taken by Ministers – in particular Lord Carrington.

If at any time methods of torture are used in Northern Ireland contrary to the view of the government of the day I would agree that individual policemen or soldiers should be prosecuted or disciplined; but in the particular situation of 1971/72, a political decision was taken.

Reacting to the court’s decision this week, McGuigan told TheJournal.ie that they’re not accepting this ruling.

There were 14 of us – four of the lads are dead but their families still there, so it’s not just about us. So many people around the world have been tortured, have suffered at the hands of his own government.

“I’ve spoken to some of the lads from Guantanamo, we were all tortured and badly treated.”

He said that their families are all involved in their campaigning efforts.

“Eight of us are over 70, the youngest is 66, the second youngest is 68. We’ve told our families that if anything happens to us to carry on the fight.”

He says he’s never spoken to or heard from the men who captured him.

Read: Treatment of ‘hooded men’ wasn’t torture, human rights court rules

Read: ‘Hooded men’ to ask Irish government to appeal European ‘torture’ ruling

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