Torture in Northern Ireland: lessons still not learnt

Hundreds of men and women convicted of terrorism offences in Northern Ireland are planning to appeal against convictions based on confessions that were, they allege, beaten out of them. So says a new film on the Guardian site today.

Such allegations are nothing particularly new, though for many readers I suspect they’ll still come as a surprise. The Guardian’s Ian Cobain has interviewed people on camera talking about what happened to them and, perhaps most compellingly, has got a former officer to confirm that not only was this happening but that it was sanctioned at the highest level. As this anonymous source, voiced by an actor, says:

“Some men were known for their use of force… Bill Mooney the head of CID would be telling us ‘Get in there, what are you – men or mice?’”

Charlie McManamin’s testimony is particularly shocking, especially when voiced over a picture of him at the time, as a 16-year-old boy who looks far younger. He was interrogated and beaten until he confessed to terrorist offences, despite the fact that at the time of the crimes he was being held at a secure children’s home 75 miles away. He spent three years in jail. Understandably, he now expresses some bitterness towards the authorities who wrongly imprisoned him.

Another man testifies that he was burned with cigarettes on his face and had a cigarette lighter held under his testicles.

Victims, including victims of torture, have tended to be left out of the debate about how to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. But the authorities have a responsibility to provide remedy and reparation to people who have suffered human rights abuses.

There’s also the issue of impunity, something that Amnesty campaigns against all over the world. When abuses are not addressed and people are not brought to justice, wounds are left to fester and the door is left open for further human rights violations to happen in the future.

Of course it would be naïve indeed to suggest that the people featured in the Guardian’s film are the only ones to suffer in Northern Ireland. Tragically all sides of the community have more than their fair share of victims and they all have human rights. But that does not mean that these abuses should go unaddressed.

Accountability is an essential part of human rights and one that applies not just to Northern Ireland. The inquiry into the treatment in Iraq of detainee Baha Mousa, and the Gibson Inquiry into UK security personnel accused of complicity in the torture and ill-treatment of detainees held overseas post-2001, must be empowered to get to the facts and hold to account those responsible for abuses. Sadly, it appears, lessons from Northern Ireland do not appear to have been learnt.

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