‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone’? Modern Ireland, Inauthenticity and the Request to Revise Ireland v UK

Through our false ignorance we become progressively demeaned until we are just like those [torturers] that we should condemn ... Yet, we cannot claim to be ignorant — we knew.

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In 1971 the Hillside Singers, in a song designed to inspire worldwide unity, sang of how they’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony; apparently the inspiration for the song came from the writers’ experiences while delayed at Ireland’s Shannon Airport.

Documents recently unearthed by the Irish human rights NGO The Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) and publicised in the Irish television documentary The Torture Files show that, also in 1971 and in a grotesque parody of the song, the British government had a different understanding of teaching the world to sing in harmony.

A 1977 memo to the then Prime Minister James Callaghan from his Home Secretary Merlyn Rees regarding the then ongoing Ireland v UK1 case in the European Court of Human Rights stated,

It is my view (confirmed by Brian Faulkner before his death) that the decision to use methods of torture in Northern Ireland in 1971/72 was taken by Ministers – in particular Lord Carrington, then Secretary of State for Defence.

And, just like the song, the British government wanted to teach the rest of the world, exporting its torture techniques worldwide. There was also perfect harmony, albeit within two distinct groups – the torturers and the tortured. The Brazilian Truth Commission heard Colonel Paulo Malhaes, a torturer under the Brazilian military dictatorship, express his admiration for the ‘English system’ of torture. Meanwhile, General Ivan de Souza Mendes, head of the dictatorship’s intelligence service, told how Britain ran torture courses for the dictatorship. By 1976 the adoption of the ‘English system’ was regarded as facilitating a move from more physical forms of torture towards more ‘acceptable standards of interrogation (eg of the kind permitted in Northern Ireland)’ which would be less likely to draw condemnation upon the regime.

These more ‘acceptable standards’ were more psychological than physical and came to light in the wake of ‘Operation Demetrius’, the August 1971 British military operation to arrest and intern hundreds of Irish nationalists without trial. Allegations of ill-treatment rapidly came to light and it became apparent that a number of those being held had been selected for ‘deep interrogation’, fourteen of whom came to be known as the ‘Hooded Men’ and became the focus of the Ireland v UK case, the first inter-state case brought before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).

‘Deep interrogation’ included what are now known as the ‘Five Techniques’: (1) Hooding detainees at all times except during interrogation, (2) periods of wall-standing/stress positions, (3) submission to continuous and monotonous noise, (4) sleep deprivation, and (5) a minimal bread and water diet. The techniques were applied in combination for long time periods and, in the case of the Irish detainees, were often supplemented by beatings, being thrown from low-flying helicopters while hooded, being forced to urinate and defecate in their own clothing, running gauntlets of dogs, electric shocks, and genital abuse.

In December 1971, the Irish government brought its complaint to Europe, arguing that the UK had breached the Hooded Men’s Article 3 Rights, that is the prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Initially the now defunct European Commission of Human Rights held that the combined use of the five techniques constituted a practice of torture and inhuman treatment. The Irish government then pursued the case in the ECtHR.

That these techniques and methods are familiar to us today through images and reports from Afghanistan and Iraq among other places is no coincidence. In what is regarded as one of the seminal international decisions on torture, the ECtHR held in Ireland v UK, contrary to the Commission, that the five techniques did not amount to torture but, rather, constituted inhuman and degrading treatment. Importantly, in differentiating torture from inhuman and degrading treatment, the ECtHR argued that a ‘special stigma’ was attached to torture.

In freeing the five techniques from the ‘special stigma’ of torture the ECtHR had set the standard by which countries could develop ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ without being stigmatised. In short, it helped legitimate torture throughout the world. Thus, Israel’s Landau Commission into interrogation techniques used by Shin Bet on Palestinian prisoners examined the Ireland v UK case and argued that Israel’s image as a law-abiding state would be preserved by using, as a benchmark, the techniques used by Britain. The case was also relied upon in the notorious Torture Memos where the US Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Council advised the CIA and other US agencies on the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, special attention being paid to the ECtHR’s distinction between torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.

The documents uncovered by the PFC show that the British government had misled, and withheld information from, the ECtHR about its use of torture in Ireland. This led the Irish government, last month, to formally request that the ECtHR revise its Ireland v UK judgment to recognise the men’s treatment as torture.

And so Ireland and its government are ‘applauded’ and lauded as ‘brave’ in the media for doing the right thing, for salvaging ‘the men’s last hope of placing trust in the rule of law’, for attempting to redeem the world from its ‘eternal shame’ caused by the ‘shocking consequences’ of the case’s use as a ‘comforting cloak of legality’ for torture around the world – we are truly wonderful!

Of course, it is right that this move should be welcomed both in terms of dealing with the legacy of the conflict in Ireland and for the possibility that it offers for the removal of Ireland v UK as a legitimating tool for torture.

However, it is also true that this case reveals more about both ourselves and modern Ireland than we may be comfortable admitting; it reveals what Jean-Paul Sartre would have called an illness within our society.

In the same month that Ireland made its request to the ECtHR, we were told by Dermot Ahern, Foreign Affairs Minister in the previous Irish government, that his government had received assurances from US President George Bush that Shannon Airport had not been used in any CIA ‘rendition’ flights. Despite it being public knowledge since at least 2005 that aircraft involved in the CIA’s rendition program were using Shannon Airport as a stopover, with concerns also raised a number of years earlier, Ahern took these assurances at face value and did not see the need to inspect aircraft landing at Shannon. The present Irish government have adopted the same position.

This is the same Shannon Airport which had provided the inspiration for the 1971 song ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’. Thus, the grotesque parody of the New Seekers’ song, instigated by the British government, had become the reality of Shannon Airport and the Irish government was now complicit in exporting the ‘English system’ of torture throughout the globe.

However, it is we who mandate our governments, and our consistent refusal to revoke this mandate renders us complicit in the crimes committed by successive governments. This is the point made by Sartre in his You are Wonderful article written in response to revelations of torture by French soldiers during the Algerian War of Independence.2

Following Sartre’s argument, we can say that it is this which constitutes the illness within our society, and it is the product of a ‘demoralization offensive’, whereby we are demoralised by the degradation of our morality caused by being plunged into a situation which, from without, instills within us a sense of social guilt. However, the uncomfortable reality of this situation is that, ultimately, it is we who are responsible for this guilt, but, rather than taking responsibility we opt to live in a state of ‘false ignorance’, a state in which we both find ourselves situated and contribute towards maintaining.

Such a state ensures that our consciences are not disturbed while at the same time they are not clear, the effect being that through our pretence of ignorance, we become complicit in the crimes of our government. Through our false ignorance we become progressively demeaned until we are just like those that we should condemn; our own politicians and those whom they now emulate on the world stage. And this is the trap which is laid for us.

This process has been made easy for us; in the short life-span of the modern Irish state we have known an almost continual combination of states of emergency, ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation, broadcasting bans and other forms of censorship. All of which, no doubt, has played a role in creating a climate of self-censorship among sections of the media and other institutions. This is the state in which we find ourselves, a state in which we can allow ourselves to be convinced that we are ignorant of the reality, whereby we can believe the media when they tell us that we are wonderful because we have asked the ECtHR to review the Ireland v UK decision.

Yet, we cannot claim to be ignorant – we knew. Just as we knew, despite what the ECtHR said, that the ‘Five Techniques’ were torture, we knew that, despite what the government told us, rendition flights were passing through Shannon Airport. When information came into the public domain it was easier for us, so busy with our daily lives, to convince ourselves that we believed the official denials rather than seek the facts for ourselves, for to seek the facts would have revealed what we always knew, that Shannon was part of a world-wide torture network. To seek the facts would be to confront our own complicity in this torture network. Thus, as Sartre explains, all that our government needs to do is ‘fold their arms and wait: we will finish off the job ourselves’ every time.3

Again we were singing in perfect harmony, but no longer with the tortured, we had joined the ranks of the torturers.

And so we hold up our government’s call to the ECtHR to revisit Ireland v UK as a sign of our steadfastness against torture. Again we are guilty, we know full well that whatever the ECtHR decides torture will continue. Furthermore, we are fully aware of our government’s complicity in this regard, yet we continue the charade of false ignorance. We wish to be judged on Ireland v UK rather than on rendition flights and in so doing we choose to live in bad faith, inauthentically. We know this, ‘the turmoil in our minds, the game of hide and seek that we play, the lamps that we dim, this painful bad faith … the profound sign of a collapse within ourselves’, this makes us guilty.4

All of this, however, is merely symptomatic of a wider illness in Irish society, for it is not just in torture that we have been complicit. We have been complicit in a State that, in its formative years, executed more of its own citizens than the British had prior to their withdrawal; a State which imitated the colonial institutions that went before it;5 a State which yearly exports tens of thousands of its young people as economic migrants as a strategy for stopping radical change;6 a State where institutional abuse of the vulnerable was long the norm; a State which would deny an abortion to a suicidal rape victim, and so the list goes on and on, yet we never revoke the mandate that we have furnished to successive governments, we hide behind false ignorance.

It was such a lifetime of complicity which contributed to a guilty silence among many when the government told us ‘We all partied’ in justification for handing over the country to the Troika of the IMF, European Central Bank, and European Commission. We had fallen into the trap laid for us and become just like them.

In this context, when Fanon calls upon us not to imitate Europe, not to ‘pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions, and societies which draw their inspiration from her’,7 it should make us feel uncomfortable as he is speaking to us as much as to anyone else. The Europe he speaks of is not a geographic location but a rationality, a rationality of the sort that would export torture and misery throughout the world, and this forces us to confront our own complicity and guilt, our own bad faith.

Ireland has long found itself in a liminal space between what were once known as the First and Third Worlds, the worlds of the torturers and the tortured; like Albert Memmi perhaps we find ourselves facing both a double solidarity and a double rejection. We have gone from being Charles Kingsley’s ‘white chimpanzees’,8 preferential to a black chimpanzee in his eyes, but a chimpanzee nonetheless, to the European Union’s PIIGS, still reduced to ‘bestiary’ to put it in Fanon’s terms. Bestiary we may be, but like Memmi we remain ‘relatively privileged’ compared to the rest of the bestiary, and yet still rejected by a Europe which nonetheless does not ‘completely discourage’ our efforts to integrate into European society.9

We have lived out this lifetime of contradiction in bad faith, exemplified by the contradiction between our stance on Ireland v UK and rendition flights, hiding the guilt of our choice to become complicit, to be like those we should condemn, behind our false ignorance.

In his poem September 1913, W.B Yeats lamented what he saw as the replacing of previous generations of selfless Irish revolutionaries by a money-grabbing bourgeoise who suck the life out of Ireland: ‘Was it for this the wild geese spread … For this that all that blood was shed’, he writes, concluding each stanza, ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave’.

And yet, within a few years, in the wake of the 1916 Rising, he was able to write that all had ‘[t]ransformed utterly‘. The Rising, triggering a brief revolutionary period, a period that, while ultimately ending with the creation of two conservative states on the island of Ireland, offered a brief glimpse of the possibility of something different.

As the centenary of the 1916 Rising approaches, already elements of the great and the good are attempting to disorientate us by rendering the revolutionary period unreadable; in Badiou’s terms, they are attempting to render the radical thought of the period pathological.10

However, at the same time hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets across Ireland against austerity measures and government plans to impose water charges at the behest of the Troika. Some are already beginning to question, was it for this that all that blood was shed? Such questioning cannot proceed without questioning the legitimacy of both conservative states on the island of Ireland and, of course our own complicity in them.

‘Come, then, comrades’, writes Fanon, ‘it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways. We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we are plunged, and leave it behind’;11 we could do worse than to heed his call – dare we look ourselves in the eye?

Paddy McDaid is a PhD Candidate at Birkbeck Law School.

Show 11 footnotes

  1. Ireland v UK App no 5310/71 (ECtHR, 18 January 1978)
  2. Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘You are Wonderful’ in Jean-Paul Sartre, Colonialism and Neocolonialism (Azzedine Haddour, Steve Brewer and Terry McWilliams trs, Routledge 2006).
  3. ibid 67.
  4. ibid 69.
  5. Clare Carroll, ‘Introduction: The Nation and Postcolonial Theory’ in Clare Carroll and Patricia King (eds), Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (University of Notre Dame Press 2003) 1.
  6. Here I am referring specifically to the comments of Alexis Fitzgerald, see here. Also see David Lloyd, ‘After History: Historicism and Irish Postcolonial Studies’ in Clare Carroll and Patricia King (eds), Ireland and Postcolonial Theory (University of Notre Dame Press 2003) 56.
  7. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (Constance Farrington tr, Grove Press 1963) 315.
  8. As quoted in Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development (2nd 3d, Transaction Publishers 1999) xxviii.
  9. Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized‘ in Jean-Paul Sartre, Colonialism and Neocolonialism (Azzedine Haddour, Steve Brewer and Terry McWilliams trs, Routledge 2006) 57.
  10. Alain Badiou, ‘The Courage of the Present/Contemporary Obscurantism’ La Monde (Unknown tr, Paris, 15 February 2010) available at: <http://www.lacan.com/symptom11/?p=163>
  11. Fanon (n7) 311.
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