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All sides had torturers and all should be prosecuted

By Liam Kennedy

Published 25/11/2015

Murder victim: Paul Quinn
Murder victim: Paul Quinn

Most of us would take it as axiomatic that torture is always wrong, irrespective of the quarter from which it emanates and however high-minded the advocates of such measures might be.

Seanna Walsh's recent article on the subject is timely and moving. The largely one-sided introduction of internment in the early-1970s was not only a political disaster, it also visited terrible suffering on some of those caught up in the swoops.

I have spoken down the years to a few of the victims, so I have at least some sense of how some internees suffered. I will always remember the late Paddy Joe McClean, who, remarkably, did not allow his ill-treatment to carry over into support for communal sectarian violence. There were others I knew who took a very different view and pathway.

I do not know how much ill-treatment, in some instances amounting to torture, there was of loyalist and republican suspects in the later 1970s and the 1980s, but I am certainly open to hearing more about such instances.

It is, of course, necessary to contextualise what was happening in Northern Ireland in terms of an insurgency against the State and a conflict that also ran along age-old loyalist/nationalist lines.

Of fundamental importance, this was a conflict ("war") which did not have the backing of the Irish people, however defined. The self-appointed liberationists and their loyalist counterparts were at war with their own people and, indeed, their preferred nation states.

None of this takes away from the desirability of bringing perpetrators of State violence to justice, and I applaud the recent arrest of a soldier allegedly involved in the killings on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972.

Both loyalist and republican paramilitaries - these self-appointed "defenders" - visited untold sufferings on people within their own communities. The torture, mutilation and murder of Paul Quinn in south Armagh is but one of the many such instances. Another is Andrew Peden, the victim of a loyalist torture gang who ended up having his two legs amputated above the knee.

In all, the police recorded more than 6,000 instances of punishment beatings and shootings between 1973 and 2014.

The so-called punishment system in most cases amounted to torture. Few if any of the perpetrators were ever brought to justice.

The scale of the punishment system, which operated in a more systematic fashion on the nationalist side, is not usually appreciated, though it has been surveyed and condemned by Amnesty International and Helsinki Human Rights Watch. The supine Committee on the Administration of Justice, unfortunately, has yet to catch up with international human rights organisations.

Here is a challenge, and it has a personal element to it. I worked with Seanna Walsh on the board of Foras Na Gaeilge for several years. I was always impressed by his hard work, his dedication to An Gaeilge and his fair-minded approach to controversial issues.

Can we be assured that those calling for - and legitimately calling for - investigations into State abuses were not themselves human rights abusers within their own communities? Can Seanna assure us that he would like to see the hundreds of volunteers involved in these activities brought before the courts and prosecuted?

I would put exactly the same question to members of the Progressive Unionist Party, which - like Sinn Fein - recruited heavily from former volunteers.

Indeed, is it not time for Sinn Fein and the PUP to co-operate with the police in naming and helping prosecute the neighbourhood abusers within their ranks?

  • Liam Kennedy is Emeritus Professor of History at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University, Belfast

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