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Eamon McCann

The Guinea Pigs

(February 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.75, February 1977, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Guinea Pigs
John McGuffin
Penguin Special, 40p.

BRIAN Faulkner made a mistake when he interned John McGuffin in August 1971. McGuffin, a Belfast Protestant who describes himself as an anarchist, was so outraged that since his release he has spent his spare time collecting and publishing the facts about internment His first book, a history of imprisonment without trial since the inception of the Northern Ireland state, was published in 1973. This, his second, is a detailed account of what happened to fourteen of the 342 men arrested in the August ’71 swoop. It is hair-raising stuff and every socialist should read it.

Some of the internees were tortured. No-one denies that any longer and a few of them have been awarded substantial sums in compensation. But it has been widely assumed – and little has been published in Britain to contradict the assumption – that the torture consisted mainly of physical assault: unjustified perhaps, outrageous even, but hardly sinister. And, anyway, it was stopped after a wave of liberal indignation.

The facts themselves are horrific enough. The men were kicked and beaten, thrown into landrovers, lorries and helicopters and tossed out again. Taken to ‘interrogation centres’, separated from one another, stripped naked, some urinated on. Then black bags were put over their heads and they were made to lean spread-eagled against a wall, all their joints kept rigid and all their weight on flexed fingertips while white noise played into their ears. When they collapsed they were kicked and thrown up against the wall again. The ‘wall treatment’ lasted up to 43 hours.

In October 1971 some of the facts were published by the Sunday Times Insight team, and a low-decibel hue-and-cry was bought off by the appointment of then Ombudsman Sir Edmund Compton to write a report on the matter. McGuffin devastates Compton:

‘Compton saw only one complainant and received written evidence from another. As opposed to this he admits to hearing ninety-five Army witnesses, twenty-six police witnesses, eleven prison officers, two civilian doctors, and two specialists, one from a military and one from a civilian hospital, as well as receiving from their secretaries written evidence from a further ten prison officers and one police officer.’

Compton concluded that there had been ‘ill-treatment’ but no ‘brutality’. This piece of sneak-semantics was so transparently ludicrous that even some legal big-wigs blinked. Heath appointed Lord Parker to produce another report advising whether such techniques should be discontinued. Parker said they should not; but Lord Gardiner in a minority report said they should and it was Gardiner who was accepted by the Government. Sighs of relief all around that the whole nasty business could now be forgotten.

But McGuffin argues that none of that was the point. He claims that Compton, Parker and Gardiner, taken together, were a massive cover up, and that Compton may have willingly made himself look foolish the better to effect the cover-up. Because McGuffin’s basic thesis – and he argues it convincingly, bringing a wealth of evidence to bear – is that British Intelligence did not torture the men to gain information, that it was rather conducting a cold-blooded experiment into Sensory Deprivation as an interrogative technique: that the men were not chosen for any knowledge of subversion they were believed to have, but on a much more random basis, simply because they were young, physically fit and available for use as ‘guinea-pigs’.

After Compton’s report all controversy focused on the bizarre distinction between ill-treatment and brutality. Thus attention, including the attention of Parker and Gardiner, was directed towards the definition of what had happened, not why it had happened.

McGuffin traces the history of Sensory Deprivation from the NKVD through the Korean War, where the British first became aware of its potential for use in wartime, to Malaya, Aden and on to Northern Ireland. He says that the introduction of internment was regarded by Military Intelligence as a heaven-sent opportunity to run further checks on SD. He does not prove this thesis. And indeed it is not provable, short of somehow extracting a confession from the interrogators concerned ... But he certainly mounts a formidable case for it.

If McGuffin is right the British Army must be very pleased. It has conducted a successful experiment on how to deal with recalcitrants in the Kitsonian age and the knowledge gained no doubt adds measurably to its readiness to handle subversion at home. (What is the optimum time for depriving a man of intelligible sensory stimulation? The fourteen were subjected to it for periods ranging from nine to forty-three and a half hours. Should it be continuous or broken up? Some of the men were left to stand until they collapsed, others given periodic ‘rests’. And so on.)

McGuffin concludes:

‘These techniques have been used in controlled experiments, on members of the civilian population of Northern Ireland. There is no reason to suppose that the interrogation specialists ... will not, at some time in the future, use them on dissident members of society in England.’

Indeed not.


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