Paul O'Connor

The Legacy of Colonialism

Paul O'Connor
The Legacy of Colonialism

RECENTLY THE DERRY-BASED Pat Finucane Centre produced an exhibition on the legacy of colonialism. The exhibition, consisting of ten pop-ups and a brochure, takes the reader on a violent and bloody journey from the Indian sub-continent, through Palestine, Brunei, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, Dhofar and on to Oman. The final destination of this colonial journey is a requisitioned primary school in north Belfast where 17 year olds were waterboarded by the Paras in 1971.

See Channel 4 on waterboarding

 And therein lies the key to why a northern Irish-based human rights NGO would produce an exhibition on the legacy of colonialism.

The military policies and practices that defined Operation Banner, the military name for deployment of British troops in the North from 1969 to 2007, did not begin nor did they end on the island of Ireland. Internment, mass screening of civilians, the use of the five torture techniques, waterboarding and electric shocks, states of emergency, massacres by troops and the use of undercover secret units had long been standard practice in the counter-insurgency wars fought during the retreat from empire.

Troops that stepped off boats in Derry and Belfast in 1969 were often fresh from other brutalising conflicts as the sun began to set on the empire. That units such as the Parachute Regiment would go on to commit massacres (Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy, Springhill) or use waterboarding on detainees is hardly surprising given their record in other conflicts.

Senior officers who had free rein in Cyprus or Aden such as Brigadier Frank Kitson soon set about implementing low intensity war tactics that had been tried and tested elsewhere. The European Convention on Human Rights cuts little ice in military circles. Kitson created undercover units (the Military Reaction Force) whose aim was to provoke sectarian conflict. Similar units had been set up in Cyprus (Q Patrols) and Oman (firqats). It is striking that every single general officer commanding the British army in the north in the 1970s had seen military service in the ‘colonies’.

Prior colonial service was not limited to the ranks of the military. Two RUC chief constables in the 1970s had been colonial police. Arthur Young served in Malaya and Kenya, though it should be noted that Young was apparently so appalled by the atrocities being carried out in Kenya by British forces that he left after less than eight months.

Kenneth Newman’s stint in Palestine as a young officer was preceded by that of another controversial figure. In the 1920s Major General Henry Tudor of the Mandate Police Force oversaw a reign of terror. Tudor had form. He had created and commanded the infamous Black and Tans during the Irish war of independence and succeeded in bringing many of his former Tan comrades with him to Palestine. Between 75% and 95% of the ‘gendamerie’ that he commanded were former Tans.

In 1971 allegations of torture began to emerge from interrogation centres in the north. This led to the Irish government taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights. The location of the most egregious torture, including the use of the five techniques, has only recently been revealed. Declassified documents found by the Pat Finucane Centre confirmed that a selected group of men were tortured at Ballykelly army camp near Derry.

The same documents contain the name of a senior officer, an expert in interrogation from the Joint Services Interrogation Wing at Ashford in Kent, who was in charge in Ballykelly in 1971. According to the 2011 Baha Mousa inquiry this same individual, Lt Col John Robert Nicholson OBE, had admitted to an earlier inquiry to being ‘present’ during interrogations at the infamous Fort Morbut interrogation centre in Aden in the mid ’60s. Fort Morbut had a fearsome reputation as a British torture centre during this time. And Fort Morbut was closer to Ballykelly and Castlereagh that many of us knew.

To this day there is little mention of the dark side of empire in the curriculum, in Parliament or in the media. The Imperial War Museum tells a fascinating story but the torture, massacre and repression that was a hallmark of empire is conspicuous by its absence from the exhibitions. Little wonder that the same violations have recurred more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the 1970s the then Attorney General, gave evidence to the European Court of Human Rights that the five torture techniques would never again be permitted. Not long after the Iraq invasion British army units began interrogating prisoners using the same techniques.

We all pay the price for the ongoing collective failure to face up to the poisonous legacy of empire.

The Pat Fenucane Centre is keen to have the Legacy of Colonialism exhibit displayed in Britain. See http://www.patfinucanecentre. org/legacy-colonialism   

Pat Finucane Centre