Sunday With Miriam
RTÉ Radio One
Miriam O’Callaghan is in studio with Francie McGuigan who discusses the decision by the European Court of Human Rights in the ‘Hooded Men’ case. (begins time stamp ~1:03)
Miriam: Well my next guest this morning, he’s driven from Belfast to be here, is Francis McGuigan, known as Francie, one of the so-called ‘hooded men’. Arrested in 1971 by the British Army when he was just twenty-three when the Army interned hundreds of Catholics without trial. He suffered brutal interrogation techniques to such an extent that at one stage things got so bad he actually thought he was going to die. This week Francie was among fourteen men who had their cases rejected by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The men and the Irish government were seeking the court to find that the men had suffered tortured and not just inhuman and degrading treatment. Good Morning, Francie! And thank you for being here.
Francie: Good Morning! My pleasure.
Miriam: Listen, do you mind if we go right back just for my listeners when this all began when you were twenty-three – tell me if you don’t mind, what happened?
Francie: I was arrested at three-thirty in the morning in August 1971, dragged off to Girdwood Army Barracks, spent forty-eight hours there and then hooded, handcuffed and taken out in a helicopter along with three other lads and flown to what now turns out to be Ballykelly although at the time we had not got a clue what was going on.
We arrived in Ballykelly and when the helicopter started to slow down they took me just towards the door, the air compression doors opened and I was thrown out. I didn’t know where, how high I was or what but I was actually caught, brought it, the hood was removed and I was standing in front of a man with a white coat and a stethoscope, who I assumed to be a doctor. He gave me a thirty second medical examination and just nodded. At which place the hood was placed back on and my clothing was removed and I was placed into the boiler suit. And I’m just going to go over basically what my life consisted of for the next seven days. As I said, I was hooded. Just think about that: Seven days – the only time that hood was off was while I was being interrogated. Wall standing: Standing up against a wall in the stress position; fingertips on the wall, feet back out, wide apart, small of the back pushed in. The only way that I could come off the wall was to fall into a ball. The next method they had was food deprivation. I don’t think we got anything to eat or drink for first three days were we there. We also had sleep deprivation. We were denied sleep. We were physically exhausted.
The noise. The white noise. This is the noise that I describe as coming in through my hair, down through my body, out through my toes and touched every nerve and sinew in my body as it was doing that. Now everybody talks about these ‘five techniques’ that they used on us. I would like to tell everyone now there was a sixth technique – and that was sheer brutality, brute force, beating. When I came back after those seven days I had three fractured ribs, I had no skin on either wrist where I had been handcuffed and that’s how I spent those next seven days. And I’m talking about, I spoke about the boiler suit. Just think about this for a second: For seven days that boiler suit was my day clothes, my night clothes and, unfortunately, was also my toilet for seven days. We were denied the use of toilets.
I was placed against a wall. I refused to stand, rolled up and into a ball. I was beaten, dragged, kicked – back up against the wall and that went on for four or five times, I just refused to stand, ’til eventually I discovered if I stood against the wall the kicking and beating stopped while I was standing there. But while this was going on this white noise was constantly there in my brain- the white noise took over the brain. You kept wondering: What’s going on? What are they doing? What’s this? What’s this? Because nobody has spoken to me. Nobody has told me why I’m there or anything else. And you would collapse out of sheer exhaustion against the wall in which case you were taken, beaten, battered, back up against the wall and this white noise going on continuously as I said that occupied the brain. I passed out. The next thing I recall is coming to, being dragged along a corridor, two soldiers had me in below the arms, I was barefooted and my feet scraping along the floor. When I did eventually get into Crumlin Road Prison they noticed the insteps of my feet – the skin was off them as it was off my wrists. I was then taken into this room, sat down in a chair, my hands were taken and handcuffed behind my back, the hood was removed and there in front of men were two men sitting facing me, one standing behind me and these bright lights shining in my eyes and this was the Interrogation Room – and this was like the Cagney stuff out of the movies – the bright lights in my face. The fella went up and down behind, these boys would ask questions. They start off every question session with: Name and Address. The boy behind me would walk up and down as these boys were asking questions. If they didn’t get the answers he’d come along, he’d slap me in the two ears or he’d swing on the handcuffs and this went on, these interrogations lasted one, two, three, four hours. I remember one particular interrogator who has this peculiar habit – he’d stick his, reach across the table and put his forehead to my forehead and scream and shout at me down to the point where I could feel his spittle hitting me in the face. I couldn’t…
Miriam: …What kind of questions were they asking you at the time, Francie?
Francie: Who’s in the IRA? Are you in the IRA? Is your father in the IRA? Who shot such-and-such? Who planted such-and-such a bomb? I hadn’t knowledge of all these things at all. And this went on – they say that they spent a total of, in some of the documents, where they spent a total of twenty-eight hours interrogating me over that seven day period. I don’t remember – I remember another time going in for interrogation…
Miriam: …Can I just ask something, Francie – You weren’t arrested on your own – weren’t there six in total of your family arrested at that time?
Francie: No, at that particular morning I was the only one arrested. They tried to arrest my father, who was over sixty at the time, but my father just laid – while there was three soldiers – took me and placed me in the lorry they left one soldier to take my father.
Miriam: Why did they take you?
Francie: Um, I’ll tell you straightaway why they possibly took me and you can find the answer yourself. Brian Faulkner was the Minister for Home Affairs at the time and one of the lads that was actually a ‘hooded men’ was going across on the Strangford ferry one day and there was Brian Faulkner. So he approached Brian Faulkner and said: Mr. Faulkner, you had me arrested in 1971 for internment. Could you tell me why? Mr. Faulkner, rather amased, looked at him and said: I interned three types of people: the terrorist, those that supported them and those that protest against internment. Fit yourself into whichever category suits. Good Day, Sir! And walked on so…which category?
Miriam: Which category did you fit into?
Miriam: Which one did you fit into?
Francie: Brian Faulkner would tell you I fitted into all three!
Miriam: But you were involved in the civil rights, weren’t you?
Francie: I was involved. I was elected onto the first Belfast civil rights committee…
Miriam: …Yeah, exactly! So you were…
Francie: …myself and a young lad called Adams! I also took part in housing action committees within Belfast.
We done surveys on houses in Belfast. They had just completed Divis Flats at the time and they were lying dormant and people living in rat infested homes and I thought, we thought, it’d be a great idea to re-house these people in these home. Little did we know that we were putting people into sectarian ghettos that have since, thank God, been knocked down but we were naive at the time. But as I say, go back to this torture thing that happened with the fourteen of us: As I said at another interrogation they started off: Name. Address. Spell your name. And I spelt ‘Francie’ all right – could not spell ‘McGuigan’ – kept making a mistake in spelling my own name and started to panic at this stage – what’s happening? I can’t! They thought this was very humourous so they decided this time: Take him away and let them think about this. So this time they brought me back to the room where they handcuffed me to the cast iron pipes and I had a mattress this time, as opposed to the other times where they put me on the concrete floor, and the guard there – for the first time only the guard spoke says: You’re not to sleep. You’re to think about all of this. Of course, I passed out. And immediately, I imagine immediately, the doors opened – You were told not to sleep! Dragged up, back to the ‘Music Room’ as they call it. So for seven days I was either standing against this wall or else lying on a concrete floor handcuffed to a cast iron pipe or I was in for interrogation.
Miriam: And at the time, Francie – because I know you’re recalling it now as a much older man – how terrified were you? And I know at one stage you thought you were going to die.
Francie: At one stage I wanted to die. At one stage we all, and you can ask any of the boys this, we all believed that at that stage they are never going to release us alive to tell the world what happened. I’ve just, in two or three minutes, tried to describe what happened in seven days. Fear, panic, despair, try to resist, try to stand up, go collapse again but we kept fighting and oppose it. I can listen to the other lads talking and I know exactly what they’re trying to say – I can’t find the words to describe the words to describe the emotions I went through at that stage but when I hear some of the other boys talking I understand exactly.
Miriam: Tell my listeners about the helicopter because, in other words, we know now it was hovering low but tell the terror of that when they were threatening to throw you out of that.
Francie: It’s just – I can’t describe terror in that aspect – you’re just there. You believe that you’re going to be thrown to your death. You have five, ten, fifteen seconds to imagine your death. Think about it yourself. How do you imagine your emotions should react? You know, and as I said, that during this we did not believe we’d be let free from this place to tell the world what they done to us. We thought we were going to be killed at the end of it or done away with or whatever decided thing they wanted to do to us and you actually came to the point: Well I hope it’s sooner rather than later. I can’t stand much more of this.
Miriam: And I know as a result of this – in the end, of course, you were charged with nothing because you should not have been charged with anything – you were there interned without trial…
Francie: …No, none of us had been!…
Miriam: …but you suffered mentally for years after, didn’t you, Francie? And is it right that you couldn’t live in Belfast for thirty years – just the sheer trauma?
Francie: Well I managed somehow to escape out of Long Kesh and I was then – they wanted to arrest me to put m,e back in Long Kesh again or charge me for escaping from lawful custody – I dispute the ‘lawful custody’ – so I ended up living in Dundalk for a few years and then in Dublin for twenty years. And it’s only recent years I’ve returned to Belfast – the past ten years.
Miriam: What impact did that have on your life, Francie?
Francie: I initially thought it had none. You know. I’m one of these big, strong lads – nothing bothers me. I’m grand – but I had discovered as years passed I found a need for counseling. I’ve been receiving counseling on and off for the past thirty years. One other thing I’d like to point out: The British have said there’d be no after-effects of this. They seemed to have forgotten that they released four of the fourteen men – they released them from the prison into psychiatric hospitals. Another man, after he was released (a few months later), spent three months in a psychiatric hospital. Another man spent three weeks in a psychiatric hospital. And it’s only in recent years, with speaking to each other, that we actually even admit to each other that yes, this causes me sleepless nights, I’m waking up in the middle of the night – the bed is absolutely saturated with sweat. I have nightmares. I’m afraid to go back to sleep and it does come back – you relive this whole process over and over again and that’s why I think there’s a few points I’d like to bring up here just about the result in Europe….
Miriam: …of the European Court. Just explain to my listeners: I think partly also, to give credit to Rita O’Reilly, she made the documentary called The Torture Files for RTÉ Investigates, and they brought up new evidence because Europe did find that the British were guilty of inhuman and degrading treatment but you and the Irish government believe it was torture…
Francie: …I know it was torture!…
Miriam: …Yeah. And that investigation showed that. So this week’s judgment, which found against that, first of all: How disappointing was that for you, Francie?
Francie: Very dismayed in disappointment. Not only for the fourteen of us but in 1976 the European Commission came up with the verdict that it was torture. That was appealed to the European Court who ruled ‘degrading and inhumane treatment’. And I remember saying at the time, and it’s copied in the Irish Times if somebody cares to look it up , I said it was a political decision. It now gave permission for governments to arrest citizens, drag them from the streets and torture them and say it wasn’t torture. And I think the intervening years have proved it – we have Guantánamo, we had Abu Ghraib, we had the ‘black sites’ – so I think what I said in 1978 was true. Now this ruling this week has now given double indemnity to these governments that want to go ahead and do this poor bugger who, wherever part of the world he’s in today, is going to be arrested by his government – he will be tortured but he’ll be told it’s not torture it’s degrading and inhumane treatment. I think Europe had a massive chance to help eliminate torture throughout the world and they failed So I think there’s a big onus on the Irish government today to appeal this case in the strongest possible terms. Torture must be eliminated throughout the world. I don’t know whether it’ll be eliminated but I think that governments will have to be wary of the fact that if they are convicted of torture the stigma of torture will stick with their nation. When I say ‘political decision’ I think they didn’t want Britain, who was one of the founders of the Human Rights Court, I don’t think they wanted them branded with the stigma of torture.
Miriam: And I know this happened, Francie, when you were a twenty-three year old man – as I said you were never charged with anything. You were a young carpenter and joiner at the time – did cast a shadow over your entire life?
Francie: Oh, it has, yes. It has. I, for years, had been in denial. It’s only in recent years I’ll admit that it changed me in many ways and I’m not actually sure what they were. I’m at times watching a television programme or watching the news I have to get up and leave the room because there’s something coming on that brings it all back to me. And it’s just very hard to explain how it still affects me today. There’s night’s I’m afraid to go to bed because I know I’m going to have a bad night – I’m not going to sleep. I’ve seen me at times locking the door, refusing to answer the phone, refusing to open the door, not opening the blinds, spending four or five days not getting dressed, not eating, not washing, shaving, showering and can’t explain to you or to anybody else why I’ve done that. You know? But during that whole time this whole thing is going through my mind – I’m going through this – living it again. Sometimes I believe I’m actually back in the place. Other times I know I’m not back there but I have the same feelings and same emotions.
Miriam: And Francie lots are saying – Cormac says: Thanks for interviewing Francis. Impossible to understand how any sane person could say this is not torture. When you – you were twenty-three then, Francie, it’s decades later – why is so important for you now, at this stage of your life, that it is held up to be torture, what happened to you, why does it matter after all this time. I understand it but just explain to me why it matters?
Francie: Because, as I said, it gives governments, the ‘degrading and inhumane treatment’, gives governments the permission. George Bush said it wasn’t torture in Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo – he said it was the same as Britain in Ireland it was degrading and inhumane treatment not torture. Israel has used it. Brazil used it. Argentina used it. There’s other countries that have used it. And I think where a country can be found guilty of torture and that stigma attached to that country – it’ll make an awful difference. One other thing: The RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) men, Special Branch, that were trained to do this, they started this in March of ’71 – they brought over a squad and they built the Special Interrogation Centre in Ballykelly Camp and they trained twelve RUC officers to do this interrogation. They refused to do it until they were granted immunity. They were granted immunity! And it wasn’t a Desk Sergeant that granted them immunity. It came from much higher up the scale and I would say as far as the British Parliament because they were well aware of what was going on.
Miriam: And for you personally? I can see the bigger picture of how it will, hopefully, stop states torturing others but for you personally, Francie McGuigan, as we close, why would it matter to you, for you and your life, if it is declared to be torture? Do you think it would ease your pain that you’re going through still?
Francie: I would like to think so but I’m not sure on that because I know I was tortured. My family now know I was tortured. My friends know I was tortured and I think anybody that listens to our case or reads our book knows what happened – that we were tortured. But I think at the moment I’m fighting about what I believe to be, and the lads are all on board with this, it’s not just for the fourteen of us – it’s for every victim anywhere in the world that was tortured by his own government or by foreign governments. Torture is wrong, it’s illegal, it’s bad and it must be stamped out and Europe must take responsibility for what’s happening.
Well,Francie McGuigan, you came down from Belfast this morning – we appreciate that. And you gave me, actually, a book – thank you very much! – The Hooded Men, written by the greats, Denis Faul and Raymond Murray, about your time. Thank you! (ends time stamp ~20:12)