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Why Seamus Ruddy saga makes case for a PTSD centre in Northern Ireland unanswerable

The trauma suffered by so many in the Troubles cries out to be addressed, says Henry McDonald

Influenced as much by The Clash's Joe Strummer as Karl Marx, or Che Guevara, this writer became an early convert to Left-wing causes. Even by the end of the 1970s, this fledgling Leftist was adopting the "causes" of others across the planet, such as the heroic Vietnamese, who had driven out the Americans and were now engaged in an equally justified war against the genocidal Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot and their Chinese backers.

In Latin America, this stance meant standing behind the Sandinistas in Nicaragua long before The Clash recorded an album in homage to the Left-wing guerrilla fighters of the same name. Further down that continent, there was solidarity with the crushed and exiled Left, such as the followers of the murdered Salvador Allende in Chile, or the Leftists in Brazil and Argentina.

So, in 1978, when the latter country hosted the World Cup, this football fanatic's enjoyment of the tournament was coloured with guilt. The Right-wing military junta was not only using the World Cup to promote an acquiescent, reactionary patriotism, but all the time under the cover of the competition the regime was kidnapping, torturing and then "disappearing" Left-wing opponents.

Even while Argentinian supporters covered stadiums in torn pieces of blue and white paper and roared on Kempes, Passarella and Ardiles, men and women were being taken from military-run concentration camps, drugged, beaten and traumatised before being loaded onto "death flights" over the South Atlantic, where their bodies were thrown into the ocean.

The policy of "disappearance" led, eventually, to a unique protest by a group of brave women, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wore white headscarves and staged frequent demonstrations demanding that the dictatorship reveal what happened to their loved ones.

All sections of the Western Left denounced the junta and spoke up for the "Disappeared" of Argentina. Amnesty International estimated that the generals' regime may have abducted, killed and buried in secret up to 20,000 people.

The victims' plight was a moral and just cause among the Left in democracies and one of the reasons why, against the grain of most Left-wing thinking in 1982, this writer was delighted when the junta lost the Falklands War, believing and being correct in the end that defeat would loosen the generals' grip on power.

Yet, here on this island, even when we were signing petitions calling on Western governments to pile pressure on the junta's sponsors in Washington DC to free, or reveal the whereabouts of, the "Disappeared'", we had our own smaller, but equally shameful, scandal of "Disappeared".

The Provisional IRA was responsible for almost all of the more than two dozen people kidnapped, killed and buried in secret at remote locations across Ireland during the Troubles.

Were it not for a handful of activists supporting the families of those who had been "disappeared" after the conflict wound down following the first IRA ceasefire of 1994, it is unlikely the missing's remains would ever have been uncovered and returned to their loved ones.

Political pressure, not pious road to Damascus conversion, forced the IRA's hand.

The only one of our "Disappeared" not to have suffered this fate at the Provisionals' hands lay for 32 years at a remote spot in a forest near Rouen, northern France.

Seamus Ruddy's body was finally recovered at the weekend, following the third and final fruitful search for his remains. For three decades, his family back in Newry lived with the agonising prospect that their brother would never be found.

Ruddy was living in Paris in 1985 when he was abducted, tortured, shot dead and later buried in secret. He had been involved with the Irish National Liberation Army and the Irish Republican Socialist Party, who belonged to a fractious, far-Left strain of republicanism that would have seen themselves as the equivalents of many of the Leftist guerrillas and radicals being "disappeared" in Argentina.

The schoolteacher was the victim of an INLA faction that believed - wrongly - that he had the intelligence on where the organisation's arms dumps were secreted across France, much of this weaponry having been smuggled into Western Europe from the Middle East via communist Czechoslovakia.

When that faction took Ruddy "prisoner", there was no legal representation, no human rights protection, no right to an appeal. He was tortured and then eventually shot dead and his body taken to that remote spot far north of Paris to be "disappeared".

Having co-written INLA: Deadly Divisions with the late Jack Holland, over the years we heard of various attempts to persuade those who had knowledge of the Ruddy disappearance to finally right this injustice, to get his remains back to his family.

We also came across people who appeared mentally scarred and haunted by what had been done to Ruddy and, of course, his family, too.

The case was unsolved trauma until last Saturday and one which you can guess will still haunt some of those with direct knowledge of it for years to come.

As psychiatrists and psychologists deepen their understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they have started to break down this form of mental trauma into different categories. In the United States, experts at the National Centre for PTSD have pioneered the concept of "moral injury" as an important sub-set of the syndrome.

It defines "moral injury" thus: "(1) In the context of war, moral injuries may stem from direct participation in acts of combat, such as killing, or harming, others, or indirect acts, such as witnessing death, or dying, failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving, or receiving, orders that are perceived as gross moral violations. (2) The act may have been carried out by an individual, or a group, through a decision made individually, or as a response to orders given by leaders."

Its aftermath, according to the centre, exhibits the classic symptoms of PTSD - alienation, social withdrawal, self-harm, self-handicapping behaviours, like drug and alcohol abuse.

Thinking about the plight of Seamus Ruddy and the three decades of pain his family endured, you return to the wider issue of the "Disappeared" - especially the three remaining missing victims, including Captain Robert Nairac. The controversy is one of the many "stains of shame" left by the wholly unnecessary conflict called the "Troubles".

The "moral injury" Jack Holland and myself came across (but were never able to define) in relation to individuals connected, even indirectly, to the Ruddy scandal was staring us in the face. Because, when you pause to think about the Ruddy saga and the plight of all of our "Disappeared", you realise that there is a collective, societal problem being borne out - even unto the next generation - in terms of drugs, alcohol abuse and rising suicide rates.

And that is why we urgently need our very own National Centre for PTSD here in Northern Ireland, far more than public inquiries, tribunals, or retrospective historic prosecutions.

  • Henry McDonald is co-author (with Jack Holland) of INLA: Deadly Divisions, published by Torc/ Poolbeg Press

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