In the early hours of Tuesday morning, November 9th, 1976, a series of British army and RUC swoops in the Cappagh district of Dungannon in East Tyrone led to the arrest from their homes, under Section 10 of the Emergency Provisions Act, of three young local men: Pat Joe O’Neill, Dermot Boyle and Peter Kane. Two days later, November 11th, in similar dawn swoops in the area, four other men, James Joseph Rafferty, Peter Nugent, Kevin O’Brien and Martin Hurson, were arrested from their homes.
Over the next few days all seven men were held in Omagh RUC barracks, interrogated about IRA operations in East Tyrone since 1972, and systematically tortured by detectives from the newly established Regional Crime Squad.
The men had their hair pulled, their ears slapped, they were made to stand for prolonged periods in the ‘search position’ against a wall, they were kicked and punched and forced to do exercises for lengthy periods.
Finally, two men, Peter Nugent and James Rafferty, were released without charge, Rafferty to Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh where he spent four days recovering from his injuries. The remaining five were charged (and subsequently convicted) on the sole basis of statements made during that interrogation.
One of the five is now in the cages of Long Kesh, the other four became blanket men in the H-Blocks.
Four-and-a-half years later with revealing ironic insight into the nature of the British judicial system in Ireland, while four RUC detectives involved in those Omagh interrogations were awaiting trial on charges of assaulting James Rafferty during interrogation, in the prison hospital of Long Kesh, one of those convicted on the basis of a tortured ‘confession’ – Martin Hurson – lay dying on hunger strike for political status.
Edward Martin Hurson was born on September 13th, 1956, in the townland of Aughnaskea, Cappagh, near Dungannon, the eighth of nine children: six girls and three boys.
Both of his parents, John, aged 74, a small hill farmer, and Mary Ann (whose maiden name was Gillespie) who died in April 1970 after a short illness, came from the Cappagh district, and the whole of their family – including Martin – were born into the white washed farmhouse perched precipitously on top of the thirty hilly acres of rough land that make up the Hurson farm.
The Cappagh district is a wholly nationalist area of County Tyrone, composed mainly of farmers, and comprising between two and three hundred closely knit families. The land is infertile, lowland hills, good only for grazing cattle and rearing a few pigs, yet the roots of families like the Hursons stretch back maybe two or three hundred years. The land may not be much but it is theirs.
Over by Donaghmore, a few miles away, where the fields are bigger and the grass more lush, most of the farmers are loyalists.
Martin was close to the land as he grew up. Although he went first to Crosscavanagh school in Galbally, and then to St. Patrick’s intermediate in Dungannon, when he was not at school he was more often than not helping out about the farm, driving a tractor, helping to rear ‘croppy pigs’ or looking after cattle.
A ‘typical’ country lad in many ways, part of a very close and good humoured family, Martin was a quiet, very religious, and easy going young man, who nevertheless, before his arrest, enjoyed social pursuits such as dancing and going to the cinema, and enjoyed the company of other people, among whom he had a well-earned reputation for being a practical joker and a bit of a comedian.
Like many others, he was capable of being very outgoing and talkative on occasions, while remaining essentially a rather shy and quiet personality.
Perhaps because he was one of the youngest of the family, Martin was particularly close to his mother, whose premature death in 1970 when he was only thirteen, came as a deep shock to him.
It was Martin who returned home one day to find his mother taken seriously ill and who ran to a neighbouring farm to ring a doctor. That day, a Saturday, Mrs. Hurson was taken to Omagh hospital, and from there to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where she died the following Thursday, April 30th.
Martin was so shocked by the tragedy that he lost his memory completely for a week, only regaining it when a tractor he was driving up a steep slope, with his father, overturned, throwing the pair to the ground, this fresh shock dramatically restoring his memory.
That period of his life was also the time when ‘the troubles’ began to have an impact.
Although the family did not discuss politics, and internment did not affect anyone from the Cappagh area, it was impossible not to be keenly aware of British oppression so close to Dungannon which – spearheading the civil rights campaign through the late sixties – had fostered such a strong current of republicanism in the process.
However, Martin’s personal resistance to that British repression and his subsequent intense suffering at the hands of it were not to occur for several years. In his teens his great delight was to play practical jokes on his family and neighbours, particularly on April Fool’s Day and on Hallowe’en.
“He liked a joke and a laugh” remembers a long-time friend of Martin’s. “Him and Peter Kane were a comical match”. Or, as his brother Francis remembers with a laugh, “If he thought it would make you mad he would do it”.
Like the time he ran breathless to Paddy Donnelly’s to tell him that Sylvie Kane’s cows had toppled his milkchurns and the milk was going everywhere. And as Paddy dashed down to save his milk, Martin called out, “Hey Paddy, April Fool” before disappearing through a gap in the hedge.
Leaving school, Martin started work as an apprentice fitter welder at Findlay’s, and after a stint there he went across to England for a while, living in Manchester with his brother Francis and his wife, and working for McAlpine’s. But not long after Francis and his wife returned to Tyrone, Martin too returned when the particular job he was working on had finished at Christmas in 1974, rather than move to another job.
He had spent almost a year-and-a half in England but wasn’t particular about it, a view confirmed early on after his arrival, when he was forced to spend two weeks in hospital having been struck by one of McAlpine’s mechanical diggers!
Back in the farmhouse at Cappagh, Martin bought himself a car on hire purchase and got himself a job in Dungannon at Powerscreen International. He paid for the car within a year, having always had a gift for scraping money together.
As a child, whenever he managed to get hold of a penny or a shilling, here or there, instead of spending it he would take it to a nearby farmer and family friend who put it into a box for him until he had enough to buy, once, a white cob, or a pig to rear. He was ‘old fashioned” in that way, his brother Francis recalls.
He also loved to work and was a “great riser” in the morning, his father says, never missing a day’s work until his arrest.
Late in 1975, he met and started going out with Bernadette Donnelly, at the wedding of her sister Mary Rose to a cousin of Martin’s, at which he was best man.
Bernadette, aged twenty-three, comes from Pomeroy: she was extremely active in the hunger strike campaign, along with members of Martin’s family, appearing on rally platforms and taking part in marches and pickets all over the country.
Before his arrest, Martin and Bernadette were often both behind the practical jokes he loved playing. His brother Francis was often the victim.
On one occasion, Francis, his wife, and their two children, were asleep in a caravan in the Donegal resort of Bundoran. They awoke however to find themselves not on the caravan site but on an adjacent road, Martin and Bernadette having towed it off-site during the night.
On another occasion the pair borrowed Francis’ almost new cine-camera to film the wedding of a friend, Seamus McGuire, in Donegal. Somewhere along the route back from Donegal they found out they’d lost the camera and lost it remained.
Afraid to tell Francis, they kept quiet about the camera for several weeks, before Francis remembered to ask for it back. Instead of owning-up, Martin gave Francis an almost identical replacement hoping he wouldn’t notice. But when he did, Martin, not lost for words, just explained: “I left it into a shop for fixing, but they said it wasn’t worth fixing.”
But those relatively light-hearted and easy-going days were coming to an end.
East Tyrone, like many other areas in the North, was a centre of highly proficient republican operations against the enemy forces.
To combat the level of republican military activity, deputy chief constable of the RUC Kenneth Newman (shortly to be promoted to chief constable), was one of those behind the restructuring of the RUC in early 1976, which led to the setting up of what were called Regional Crime Squads.
Their primary function was to ensure convictions for all ‘unsolved’ republican activity by extracting signed statements, in effect to ‘clear the books’ of an embarrassing list of unattributable republican operations.
Under the torturer Newman, and the then direct-ruler Roy Mason, the Regional Crime Squads only responsibility was to ‘get results’ (a guarantee of promotion) without undue regard to the methods they employed. One method they did employ was torture.
Martin was arrested and taken to Omagh RUC barracks on November 11th, 1976, along with the six others arrested that day and two days previously.
He was badly, and professionally tortured in Omagh for two days, beaten about the head, back and testicles, spread-eagled against a wall and across a table, slapped, punched and kicked. He heard Rafferty’s screams as he was tortured in the adjoining room.
To escape the torture Martin signed statements admitting involvement in republican activity.
He was then transferred to Cookstown barracks, but as soon as he arrived he made a formal complaint of ill-treatment. Back in Omagh barracks, chief inspector Farr, realising this could prejudice the admissibility of Martin’s statements at his trial, got the Cookstown detectives to re-interrogate Martin and extract the same statements, which they did by threatening to ‘send him back to Omagh’.
On Saturday night, November 13th, Martin was charged, along with Kevin O’Brien and Peter Kane. Dermot Boyle and Pat Joe O’Neill had been charged the day before.
Martin was charged with a landmine explosion at Galbally in November 1975. This charge was later dropped, but he was then further charged with IRA membership, possession of the Galbally landmine, conspiracy to kill members of the enemy forces, causing an explosion at Cappagh in September 1975, and possession of a landmine at Reclain in February 1976 which exploded near a passing UDR landrover.
Even though the alleged speciality of the East Tyrone active service unit operating around Cappagh was explosives, the RUC offered not one shred of forensic evidence, against any of the five men, merely signed statements extracted by torture.
These statements, however, were good enough for Judge Rowland at the trial of the five men in November 1977, after a year on remand in Crumlin Road and in the remand H-Block of Long Kesh.
Admitting as evidence the statements Martin made in Omagh, and dismissing doctor’s evidence about the extent of Martin’s injuries, Judge Rowland sentenced Martin to twenty years for possession of landmines and conspiracy, as well as two other sentences of fifteen and five years respectively, the sentences to run concurrently.
The other four men received sentences ranging from fifteen to twenty years.
Martin appealed his conviction on the grounds that the judge had ignored medical evidence about his ill-treatment. The appeal was dismissed but he was granted a retrial.
At the four-day trial in September 1979, before Judge Munray, the Omagh statements were ruled inadmissible, but instead of Martin walking free the judge went on to accept the admissibility of the Cookstown statements, themselves extracted under threat of renewed torture.
One of the consequences of the retrial was the further postponement of the enquiry into James Rafferty’s allegations of brutality in Omagh, on the grounds that it might prejudice the retrial (to the RUC’s detriment!).
The enquiry had been reluctantly acceded to by the RUC Police Authority following the persistent endeavours of Authority member, independent Dungannon councillor, Jack Hassard. He, however, later resigned from the Authority, describing it as being “as independent as a sausage without a skin” when the tribunal which was set up failed to begin its enquiries. The tribunal finally collapsed earlier this year when the RUC detectives from Omagh refused to give evidence to it on the grounds that they might incriminate themselves!
Subsequently, four of the detectives who tortured James Rafferty, Martin Hurson and the others at Omagh that November: chief inspector Harold Colgan, and constables Michael O Neil, Kenneth Hassan, and Robert McAdore were charged with assaulting Rafferty.
Those four torturers, however, are only convenient scape-goats representing the tip of the iceberg in what was an orchestrated and widespread attempt during the Roy Mason era to jail republicans on the flimsiest of pretexts by means of torture extracted statements. Such men make up a substantial proportion of those political prisoners in Britain’s Northern and English jails today.
Martin Hurson went straight on the blanket after his first trial, and following his retrial he appealed once again against conviction, challenging the admissibility of the Cookstown statements, but his appeal was disallowed in June 1980.
On May 29th, this year, Martin joined the hunger strike, replacing South Derryman Brendan McLoughlin who was forced to drop out because of a burst stomach ulcer.
In the Free State general election in June, Martin was a candidate in Longford/Westmeath, and although missing election, obtained almost four-and-a-half thousand first preference votes, and over a thousand transfers, before being eliminated at the end of the sixth count, outlasting two Labour candidates and a Fine Gael contender.
Barely one month after election the Free State government’s bolstering of Britain’s barbaric intransigence led to the death of Martin Hurson, the sixth hunger striker, at that stage, to die.
Having seriously deteriorated after forty days on hunger strike, he was unable to hold down water and died a horrifically agonising death after only forty-four days on hunger strike, at 4.30 a m. on Monday, July 13th.