British state papers revealed under the thirty-year rule detail the concern of doctors that beatings were taking place in the three main interrogation centres in the North, and British annoyance at Archbishop O Fiaich’s remarks after his visit to the H-Blocks of Long Kesh where he spoke to prisoners on the no wash protest.
At the time, the British government dismissed the allegations of police brutality and RUC Chief Constable Kenneth Newman claimed that prisoners were inflicting the injuries on themselves. Much of the media – with a few honourable exceptions – broadcast these rebuttals as ‘fact’. Prisoners who were beaten and signed ‘confessions’ were subsequently convicted in the non-jury Diplock Courts and sent to the H-Blocks where many joined the hundreds then on the blanket protest and to Armagh Women’s Prison.
The doctors involved monitored prisoners at Castlereagh [Belfast], Strand Road [Derry] and Gough Barracks [Armagh]. Their complaints fell on deaf ears and even the Police Authority felt powerless. At a meeting between Newman and the Police Doctors’ Association in October 1977 they expressed their concern. At a further meeting in April 1978 between Dr Robert Irwin and senior civil servant Maurice Hayes, Hayes reported that Irwin struck him as “a completely credible witness . . . concerned about his own professional standards and aware of the difficulties of the police. He is not a troublemaker or an agitator but is concerned with the public good . . . and with the human rights of persons in custody…
“Dr Irwin said that the recent report to the Police Authority had effected no change. He was alarmed at the number of prisoners showing signs of injury which could not be self-inflicted. These were continuing and were associated with a group of eight or 10 policemen who were consistently described to the doctors by injured prisoners and were familiarly known as the ‘Goon Squad’. He was convinced that these officers were maltreating prisoners under interrogation as a matter of policy approved by the chief constable.” More importantly, Hayes added: “The surgeons also feel that they were used to secure a favourable report from Amnesty International and are determined not to be so used again. If asked by Amnesty, they were not prepared to stand over the present practice.
“It is very obvious to me that the doctors are nearly at the end of their patience and getting little satisfaction from the Police Authority and less from the chief constable. Some have been subjected to personal threats by anonymous phone calls.”
The papers also show that in December 1977, Joe Cooper, the chairman of the Armagh Prison Board of Visitors wrote to the Northern secretary of state Roy Mason. He said that the board had interviewed six female prisoners at Armagh Jail who had just returned from court, escorted by a detail of the RUC.
“The prisoners were in a very distressed and shocked condition. A couple had torn clothing and others had bruises and marks of having been recently physically assaulted by the RUC escort party at Armagh courthouse…The Board of Visitors were very concerned at the condition of the prisoners who were seen in the prison hospital where they were examined by the Prison Doctor and nurse. It was unanimously decided to minute this concern and to request that the allegations be investigated to prevent a re-occurrence.”
Women prisoners continued to be assaulted.
After a damning report by Amnesty International the British government set up the Bennett Inquiry which in March 1979 confirmed medical evidence of ill-treatment at interrogation centres.
The state papers also report on the close monitoring of the blanket protest in the H-Blocks which in March 1978 had escalated into a no-wash/no slop-out protest involving over 320 prisoners after prisoners were assaulted and forced to go naked when slopping out their pots in the toilets. One file on IRA Volunteer Kieran Nugent, the first man on the blanket, shows that he had lost 519 days remission for refusing to wear the prison uniform.
On August 1st, 1978, the Primate of All-Ireland Archbishop [later Cardinal] Tomas O Fiaich visited the H-Blocks and spoke about what he saw: “One would hardly allow an animal to remain in such conditions, let alone a human being,” he said, comparing the situation to the slums of Calcutta. “The stench and filth of some cells was unbearable,” he added.
Archbishop O Fiaich argued that, contrary to the British government’s contention, these prisoners were “in a different category to the ordinary. Many are youthful and come from families which have never been in trouble with the law, though living in areas which suffered great discrimination.”
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) expressed surprise at Archbishop O Fiaich’s statement and reiterated the British government’s determination to “stand firm in its policy on Special Category status”.
Other leading Catholic churchmen had already expressed concern at the deteriorating situation. In May, Bishop Edward Daly of Derry wrote to the NIO proposing a form of ‘emergency status’ but this was rejected by Junior Minister Don Concannon who said that “there are going to be no concessions on the question of special treatment for prisoners, no matter how such treatment may be described”. Emergency status, said Concannon, seemed to imply an amnesty at some stage. [After the hunger strike the prisoners won their five demands and under the Belfast Agreement there was an amnesty.]
In a candid memo to Roy Mason from a prison official, E. Hannigan, dated 20 October, he warns that, “The determination of the protesting prisoners seems strong…They may believe they are winning the propaganda battle which is being controlled by the PIRA… The government’s determination is at least equal to the protestors’, but the secretary of state needs to take into account the risks which PIRA shrug off. Responsible people and bodies who profess little sympathy with the object of the protest are worried about the disgusting conditions in the H-Blocks and the apparent severity of the regime. They hold the government responsible for doing something about them.” In conclusion, the official warned ministers: “Humanitarian concern makes the present regime vulnerable, especially if something goes suddenly wrong, and human concern can turn into political pressure, especially if it emerges that we may be vulnerable at the European Court.”