Sunday Life

Force under fire: Reverberations of 'white noise'

04 January 2004
TWELVE of the men arrested in the internment swoops - 'the hooded men' as they became known - were singled out for special 'white noise' interrogation.

Minutes of a British cabinet meeting reveal that Stormont Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, selected the candidates for interrogation, after Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, and Defence Secretary, Peter Carrington, gave political approval for the practice, on August 10, 1971.

The plan to introduce "interrogation in depth" had first been hatched inside the intelligence community, around March 1971, as moves towards internment appeared inevitable.

In order to gain high-grade information, some of those on the suspect list would be subjected to the terrifying - and disorientating - interrogation.

In preparation, officers from the Joint Services Interrogation Wing of the School of Intelligence conducted a seminar for RUC officers, in April 1971, to teach them the required techniques - the morality and legality of which were so doubtful that they had never been written in a directive, or training manual.

These provided for the suspects to be hooded, deprived of sleep, fed only bread and water, be subjected to continuous 'white noise', and made to lean at an angle against a wall for prolonged periods, supported only by their toes and fingertips.

All of this was designed to dislocate all sense of time and location, and impose fatigue.

The techniques had been deployed and developed by British forces, in operations since the war, including Aden, Cyprus and Malaysia.

Rules were issued in 1965, and revised in 1967, to allow for daily inspection by a medical officer.

At first, ministerial approval was not sought, in either London or Belfast, for this extraordinary interrogation method.

Some senior RUC officers expressed reservations about the proposed methods, which went well beyond anything even the paramilitary RUC had ever been permitted to do.

The RUC officers' objections were brushed aside, with assurances that the police officers concerned would be protected, and not held responsible, if the methods were subsequently criticised.

Of the men 354 'lifted, 104 were released within 48 hours, while a dozen were singled out for special treatment, by teams of police, and Army interrogators.

Clad in boiler suits, the men were subjected to the five interrogation-in-depth techniques, involving degrees of physical and psychological deprivation.

A Government report into the hooded men, hastily set up by Prime Minister Heath after the episode was exposed, concluded that the men had been ill-treated.

But the minutes of the cabinet meeting of October 18, show ministers took the view that it had been justified.

"We were dealing with an enemy who had no scruples, and we should not be unduly squeamish over methods of interrogation, in these circumstances," the minutes record.

Britain ended up in the dock of the European Court of Human Rights, facing complaints of torture.

The court ruled, in January 1976, that the interrogation techniques did not constitute torture, but did amount to "inhuman and degrading treatment".

In June 1974, one of the claimants received an out of court settlement, of £10,000, and in December that year, six others received awards totalling £76,000.

Internment was a more costly debacle in other ways - Catholics pulled out of Parliament, councils and public life, in protest at the operation.

Thousands embarked on a campaign of civil disobedience, refusing to pay rent and rates, until internment ended.

This was the point at which Northern Ireland's partial independence was finally doomed.

On December 4, the senior civil servant, Dr John Oliver, chairing a meeting of advisory committee on relations with the Catholic community, said, according to the minutes: "The Government needs to decide upon its basic philosophy, in relation to the minority. Did it consider itself at war with the minority, or did it believe in treating it fairly, firmly and openly? At present, the Government's attitude was not clear."

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