The Torture Files

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2014), Letters, Volume 22

Sir,—As a footnote to John Gibney’s excellent review of RTÉ’s The Torture Files (HI 22.5, Sept./Oct. 2014), may I remind your readers that a great Englishman raised his voice vigorously denouncing the so-called ‘clean torture’ practised in Northern Ireland after the introduction of internment. It was none other than Graham Greene who poured scorn on the apologists for the interrogation techniques in a letter to the editor of the London Times (26 November 1971), and even more perceptively anticipated the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement:

‘To be at the same time a Catholic and an Englishman is today to be ashamed on both counts. As a Catholic one is ashamed that more than a thousand years of Christianity has not abated the brutality of those Catholic women who shaved a young girl’s head and poured tar and red lead over her body because she intended to marry an English soldier. As an Englishman the shame is even greater.

“Deep interrogation”—a bureaucratic phrase which takes the place of the simpler word “torture” and is worthy of Orwell’s 1984—is on a different level of immorality from hysterical sadism or the indiscriminating bombs of urban guerillas. It is something organized with ima-gination and a knowledge of psychology, calculated and cold blooded, and it is only half condemned by the Compton investigation.

Mr Maudling in his blithe jolly style, reminiscent of that used by defenders of corporal punishment when they remember their school days, suggests that no one has suffered permanent injury from this form of torture, by standing long hours pressed against a wall, hooded in darkness, isolated and deprived of hearing as well as sight by permanent noise, prevented in the intervals of the ordeal from sleep. These were the methods we condemned in the Slanski trial in Czechoslovakia and in the case of Cardinal Mindzenty in Hungary.

Slanski is dead, he cannot be asked by Mr Maudling how permanent was the injury he suffered, but one would like to know the opinion of the Cardinal on methods which when applied by communists or fascists we call “torture” and when applied by the British become downgraded to “ill treatment”. If I, as a Catholic, were living in Ulster today I confess I would have one savage and irrational ambition—to see Mr Maudling pressed against a wall for hours on end, with a hood over his head, hearing nothing but the noise of a wind-machine, deprived of sleep when the noise temporarily ceases by the bland voice of a politician telling him that his brain will suffer no irreparable damage.

The effect of these methods extends far beyond the borders of Ulster. How can any Englishman now protest against torture in Vietnam, in Greece, in Brazil, in the psychiatric wards of the USSR, without being told “You have double standards: one for others and another for your own country”.

And after all the British tortures and the Catholic outrages, what comes next? We all know the end of the story, however long the politicians keep up their parrot cry of “no talk until violence ends”. When I was young it was the same cliché they repeated. Collins was “a gunman and a thug”. “We will not talk to murderers.” No one doubts that it was in our power then to hold Ireland by force. The Black and Tans matched the Republicans in terror. It was the English people who in the end forced the politicians to sit down at a table with “the gunman and the thug”.

Now too, when the deaths and the tortures have gone on long enough to blacken us in the eyes of the world and to sicken even a Conservative of the right, there will inevitably be a temporary truce and round-table conference. Mr Maudling or his successor will sit down over the coffee and the sandwiches with representatives of Éire and Stormont, of the IRA and the Provisional IRA to discuss with no preordained conditions changes in the constitution and in the borders of Ulster. Why not now rather than later?’

Coincidentally, I was living at the time in the same block of flats as Graham Greene (the Résidence des Fleurs overlooking the port of Antibes in the south of France). On the publication day of his scathing attack against the interrogation methods in Ulster, I introduced myself to the ‘grand old man’ of English letters and congratulated him warmly on his very lucid and courageous public statement. Thus began a close friendship between the two of us that continued until his demise some twenty years later.—Yours etc.,

PIERRE JOANNON
Cannes, France

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