News of the ill-treatment of prisoners in Iraq created no great surprise in republican Ireland. We have seen and heard it all before. Some of us have even survived that type of treatment. Suggestions that the brutality in Iraq was meted out by a few miscreants aren’t even seriously entertained here. We have seen and heard all that before as well. But our experience is that, while individuals may bring a particular impact to their work, they do so within interrogative practices authorised by their superiors.
For example, the interrogation techniques which were used following the internment swoops in the north of Ireland in 1971 were taught to the RUC by British military officers. Someone authorised this. The first internment swoops, “Operation Demetrius”, saw hundreds of people systematically beaten and forced to run the gauntlet of war dogs, batons and boots.
Some were stripped naked and had black hessian bags placed over their heads. These bags kept out all light and extended down over the head to the shoulders. As the men stood spread-eagled against the wall, their legs were kicked out from under them. They were beaten with batons and fists on the testicles and kidneys and kicked between the legs. Radiators and electric fires were placed under them as they were stretched over benches. Arms were twisted, fingers were twisted, ribs were pummelled, objects were shoved up the anus, they were burned with matches and treated to games of Russian roulette. Some of them were taken up in helicopters and flung out, thinking that they were high in the sky when they were only five or six feet off the ground. All the time they were hooded, handcuffed and subjected to a high-pitched unrelenting noise.
This was later described as extra-sensory deprivation. It went on for days. During this process some of them were photographed in the nude.
And although these cases ended up in Europe, and the British government paid thousands in compensation, it didn’t stop the torture and ill-treatment of detainees. It just made the British government and its military and intelligence agencies more careful about how they carried it out and ensured that they changed the laws to protect the torturers and make it very difficult to expose the guilty.
I have been arrested a few times and interrogated on each occasion by a mixture of RUC or British army personnel. The first time was in Palace Barracks in 1972. I was placed in a cubicle in a barracks-style wooden hut and made to face a wall of boards with holes in it, which had the effect of inducing images, shapes and shadows. There were other detainees in the rest of the cubicles. Though I didn’t see them I could hear the screaming and shouting. I presumed they got the same treatment as me, punches to the back of the head, ears, small of the back, between the legs. From this room, over a period of days, I was taken back and forth to interrogation rooms.
On these journeys my captors went to very elaborate lengths to make sure that I saw nobody and that no one saw me. I was literally bounced off walls and into doorways. Once I was told I had to be fingerprinted, and when my hands were forcibly outstretched over a table, a screaming, shouting and apparently deranged man in a blood-stained apron came at me armed with a hatchet.
Another time my captors tried to administer what they called a truth drug.
Once a berserk man came into the room yelling and shouting. He pulled a gun and made as if he was trying to shoot at me while others restrained him.
In between these episodes I was put up against a wall, spread-eagled and beaten soundly around the kidneys and up between the legs, on my back and on the backs of my legs. The beating was systematic and quite clinical. There was no anger in it.
During my days in Palace Barracks I tried to make a formal complaint about my ill-treatment. My interrogators ignored this and the uniformed RUC officers also ignored my demand when I was handed over to them. Eventually, however, I was permitted to make a formal complaint before leaving. But when I was taken to fill out a form I was confronted by a number of large baton-wielding redcaps who sought to dissuade me from complaining. I knew I was leaving so I ignored them and filled in the form.
Some years later I was arrested again, this time with some friends. We were taken to a local RUC barracks on the Springfield Road. There I was taken into a cell and beaten for what seemed to be an endless time. All the people who beat me were in plain clothes. They had English accents.
After the first initial flurry, which I resisted briefly, the beating became a dogged punching and kicking match with me as the punch bag. I was forced into the search position, palms against the walls, body at an acute angle, legs well spread. They beat me systematically. I fell to the ground. Buckets of water were flung over me. I was stripped naked. Once I was aroused from unconsciousness by a British army doctor. He seemed concerned about damage to my kidneys. After he examined me he left and the beatings began again. At one point a plastic bucket was placed over my head. I was left in the company of two uniformed British soldiers. I could see their camouflage trousers and heavy boots from beneath the rim of the bucket. One of them stubbed his cigarette out on my wrist. His mate rebuked him.
When the interrogators returned they were in a totally different mood and very friendly. I was given my clothes back, parts of them still damp. One of them even combed my hair. I could barely walk upright and I was very badly marked. In the barrack yard I was reunited with my friends and photographs were taken of us with our arresting party. For a short time other British soldiers, individually and in groups, posed beside us. Someone even videoed the proceedings.
We were to learn from all the banter that there was a bounty for the soldiers who captured us. According to them we were on an “A” list, that is to be shot on sight. The various regiments kept a book which had accumulated considerable booty for whoever succeeded in apprehending us, dead or alive. From the craic in the barracks yard it was obvious that the lucky ones had won a considerable prize.
So for some time we were photographed in the company of young, noisy, exuberant squaddies. I’m sure we were not a pretty sight. I’m also sure that they were grinning as much as the soldiers in the photographs we have all seen recently. Our photos were never published, but somewhere, in some regimental museum or in the top of somebody’s wardrobe or in the bottom of a drawer, there are photographs of me and my friends and our captors. To the victor, the spoils.
Gerry Adams is president of Sinn Fein and MP for Belfast West.
This column originally appeared in the Guardian.