“My father went in a man and came out a shell” – daughter reveals Hooded Men’s anguish
“Family life ended forever when they took my dad that morning – we never got him back and life was never the same again.” Those are the words of Mary McKenna, the heartbroken daughter of Newry man Sean McKenna, who was taken from his home on the morning of internment, 9th August 1971, an operation introduced by Brian Faulkner, the prime minister of Northern Ireland at the time under the backing of the British prime minister, Ted Heath.
The father-of-eight, a caretaker at St.Colman’s College in Newry, was taken to a secret interrogation centre in rural County Derry where he and 13 other “hooded men” were subjected to horrific interrogation methods carried out by British soldiers and sanctioned by the British government.
Sean’s daughter Mary, is still seeking justice, along with the nine surviving members of the so-called Hooded Men, for what they say was torture.
The group have taken legal action in an effort to secure an independent and human rights-compliant investigation into their treatment. Proceedings have been issued against the Chief Constable, Secretary of State and the Department of Justice over alleged failures to properly probe and order a full inquiry into the treatment of the men. Avenues to be investigated include the fact that it is now known that Special Branch officers of the RUC were trained by British intelligence officials to carry out the interrogations.
Alongside the case which reached the Belfast High Court last week, with the support of the Irish Government, they are seeking to have the European Court of Human Rights declare that the men were tortured.
The men allege they were subjected to the soon-to-be infamous “five techniques” of hooding, stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and water – combined with brutal beatings and death threats. Some reported being blindfolded and thrown from helicopters they were told were hundreds of feet in the air when they were just several feet off the ground.
In 1976 the European Commission on Human Rights ruled that the men had been tortured but this was overturned in 1978 when the European Court found that the UK had carried out inhuman and degrading treatment – not torture.
Following fresh information which came to light in a 2014 RTE documentary, The Torture Files, the Irish government reviewed thousands of documents, and asked the European Court to revise its judgement in the case of the “Hooded Men.”
Speaking to The Examiner after a harrowing 4 days of legal argument at the Belfast High Court last week where lawyers held the state to account for Sean McKenna’s premature death from a heart condition just 4 years after his internment, Mary recalled the day her 41 year old father was taken from the family home in Newry. Just 14 at the time, she remembers it “as if it was yesterday,” she says.
“I remember everything, it’s like yesterday. I remember the soldiers coming into the house that morning at 4am. The noise was horrendous and when I got up to see what was going on my dad was at the door with his back to me. My brother Sean had already been taken outside.” In fact, Sean McKenna junior, who had just turned 17, was the youngest person to be interned that day.
“It said ‘Seán McKenna’ on the paper the soldiers had, and because they didn’t know which one it meant, they took the both of them,”says Mary.
“Dad was being taken out the door with no shoes on him and his shirt lying open. He looked over his shoulder at me and told me to go back to bed, that he’d be home in a couple of hours – but he never came back,” she says, almost breaking down at the memory.
The distraught family did not know where their father was for over a week. They knew he was not with hundreds of others at the internment camp at Long Kesh, or at any of the other holding centres. More than 1000 men were interned that day, but only 14 were brought to the secret compound in Ballykelly. None of them would ever fully recover from what they suffered in Ballykelly and several did not recover at all.
Mary’s father Sean, who was the oldest of the hooded men and suffered from a pre-existing heart condition, was one of those who did not recover and, according to lawyers, medical evidence backs claims that the torture he endured was responsible for his death in 1975 as well as his prolonged psychiatric effects.
When the McKenna family saw their father again at Crumlin Road, 10 days after he had been taken away, they were shocked.
“Daddy’s black hair had turned completely white, and I was looking at him and I really didn’t think it was my Daddy,” Mary says.
“He was sitting crying and shaking very badly. He could barely talk throughout the visit and just kept saying ‘It was brutal’, that’s all he could say. I remember my mum warning us not to cry when we saw him but it was very hard not to.”
“My Daddy never came home after that. He was released into psychiatric care a broken man and died four years later. Family life was over. It ended at 14 for me and younger for some of my siblings. He spoke to me sometimes over the years about what happened to him. He told me about being forced to drink out of the dog’s dish, being forced to run with no shoes, his head being banged off concrete posts, throwing him out of the helicopter. He endured three days with no water, no food. He told me he prayed for death.
“Of course I’m affected by it,” admits Mary, who says her relationships over the years have all been affected by the trauma she and her family have gone through.
“They came in and took my father out of his home and we never saw him home again. He died in St. John’s hospice in 1975 and I was with him then too. He didn’t leave me once, he left me twice. Of course I’m affected, not just me but our entire family. My mother lost her husband, the father of her eight children and was left to rear them on her own.
“We all suffered and the ripple effect of it and the injustice of it and the fight for recognition they were tortured has affected the next generations of our family as well.
“Christmas never happened for us after my Daddy was taken. There were no occasions, nothing. All of the men and their families have been horrendously traumatised by what happened to them. It didn’t stop when they were released. My father said to me at one stage that he went in a man and came out a shell.”
Asked what she hoped would be the outcome of last week’s proceedings, Mary said.
“My mother is approaching 90 and her whole life has been ruined by what happened to our father. Like the rest of us, she would like to see justice served before she dies. The truth is there before the judge, the evidence that the government sanctioned this torture is there in signed documents and we just want the British government to admit that what was done to those 14 men in fact torture – state sanctioned torture.”
“The judge can decide that we proceed to court with the evidence, or that they can take in an outside body to investigate or he may rule that there is nothing to be done and sweep it under the carpet again.
“We want him to say this is a war crime, this was torture and the british government sanctioned it.”
The case has enormous international ramifications with the US and Israel among the regimes that have relied on the 1978 ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that although what the British did to the hooded men in Northern Ireland was “inhuman and degrading” it stopped short of torture. A ruling that it was in fact torture will have huge implications worldwide.
What follows now is an agonising wait for the men and the families in a battle that Mary says is “for every internee that was tortured mentally and physically in any way and under all regimes.”