‘The Guineapigs’ by John McGuffin (1974, 1981)

Chapter 6

While the members of the Compton Committee were deliberating in the luxurious surroundings of the Conway Hotel, the Army Intelligence Squad and the RUC Special Branch were not idle either. While some of their members were giving evidence about SD to the Committee others were at work at the secret interrogation centre – in this case almost certainly Palace barracks, Holywood. Another two subjects had been selected for experimentation.

The first was William Shannon, aged 24, from the St. James's area of Belfast. Shannon came from a staunchly Republican background. His father and uncle had both been detained and then interned in the original August 1971 swoop. The Shannon family had been constantly harassed by the troops ever since. At 11.30 p.m. on Saturday 9 October 1971 Shannon was walking home. As he neared his street an Army patrol jumped out of a driveway. Shannon, in his own words, panicked and ran'. Two shots were fired at him, both narrowly missing. He was captured and taken in custody to Springfield Road police barracks. He was unarmed and had no incriminating documents on him. No charges were preferred against him nor was he informed why he had been arrested. Instead, after an hour, he was taken to Girdwood barracks, at the back of Crumlin Road jail, in an armoured car. After half an hour there he was again transferred, this time to Palace barracks, Holywood. What follows is his account of what happened next.

I was in Holywood military barracks till Monday evening. I was interrogated by a member of the Special Branch. I was spreadeagled against the wall. My feet were kicked from under me. I was made to count the holes on a wall, a section of which appeared to be made of pegboard material. I told him there were twenty-three spots. He said I was wrong and I got a thumping.
I was threatened with a truth drug. He took my coat off. He had a syringe his hand. He asked me had I any illnesses. I told him I had an ulcer. He then remarked, 'Maybe it's well not', meaning not to inject the truth drug. I could state that he had the needle up to my arm and was about to inject it. He kept punching me on the head and on the shoulders and back, as well as in the sides and in the back of the neck. This happened over a period of approximately one hour and a half.
He then sent me into a room with a lot of other fellows. I was made to sit facing the wall. Periodically from Sunday to Monday afternoon I was pulled out of the room and back into the first room. On Sunday morning I, with others, was made clean the whole place out.
Interrogation continued on and off all day Sunday. At one stage I was put into a room with my face against the wall. A shot was fired. It sizzled past my ear and either lodged in the wall or went right through it, I am not sure which. There were several police outside and they all had a good laugh at this. In a room off this room which had cubicles in it, about six policemen kept taking out their guns, emptying them and pulling the trigger. They were in uniform. All this carry-on went on until Monday.
I got a couple of hours' sleep on Sunday night. On Monday morning the interrogation commenced again by two young Special Branch officers. Again I was spreadeagled. Continual interrogation. I was put back into a cubicle. I was always made to face the wall and not allowed to look around me. I was beaten three or four times by a police officer in uniform who had some sort of a plastic hose. He was not satisfied as to how quick we were cleaning up the place.
On the following Monday I was taken to Crumlin Road prison. I was there no more than ten minutes and then taken Out again. I do not know where I was taken to after that. I remember going down the inside of the jail. My coat was taken off and wrapped round my head. I was heaved out of a tender for about fifteen minutes. I do not know where. I was put into a helicopter. The engines roared and it lifted but I do not know whether it actually took off or not. There were two Special Branch men. I appeared to be in the helicopter for about twenty to thirty minutes.
The helicopter then landed. I had the coat still on my head. I was thrown out onto the ground as soon as it landed. This appeared to be quite a drop of about three or four feet. I was then put into what I think was an Army lorry, the coat still round my head. The lorry drove off and I appeared to be about ten minutes in it. I was taken out of the lorry and put into a room.
A doctor took the coat off my head. This was a square room with no windows. I was told to strip completely and was examined. I think he was an Army doctor. He appeared to be very English.
I was then taken into another room. I do not know where this was – still undressed – the bag was over my head again and I was put against the wall. The bag was then pulled off and I was photographed. I was made to turn round and the number '21' was drawn in blue on the back of both my hands. [1]
The bag was then taken off again and I was given a pair of overalls. I put them on. I was then taken away. There was then more interrogation. I do not know where I was. I was made to stand for hours at a time, spreadeagled.
At one stage I was taken out into a garden. I had the overalls on me and there was only one button and the bag over my head. There was a man at each side of me and they dragged and made me run all over the garden. This was taken in relays by the two men and lasted for about half an hour. I was then taken inside again against the wall and spreadeagled again. This was all on Monday but I do not know where.
The bag was taken off my head three times during interrogation. I did not recognize any of the men at this stage. My feet were very badly bruised.
On quite a few occasions during this interrogation a gun was put at the back of my head and the trigger pulled. From Monday I lost all conception of time.
I had no shoes or socks on me, only the overall. On the same day I was put into a room with a fantastic noise like steam hissing through a pipe. I was completely disorientated from this until the following Monday.
I had nothing to eat for, I reckon, four days except a cup of water and one round of dry bread each time. I got asleep after three days. This went on and on. I had no idea where I was. I lost all track of time. The noise of steam was varying – roaring at times and then it would calm down and then roar up again. At one stage I was completely exhausted.
I was taken outside – I do not know where. I was put against a rough brick wall. The overall which had only one button was pulled open. The bag was still over my head and I was rubbed against the wall.
When eating the dry bread and drinking the water I was allowed to lift the bag up as far as my nose and no more. I got my first meal on 16 October and I got my first wash on Monday, 18 October.
I arrived at Crumlin Road prison at 1 p.m. that Monday. I have no idea where I was. I was taken out in the morning, with a bag over my head and put into a helicopter.
The journey by helicopter appeared to be about half an hour, i.e. the helicopter journey when I was taken to Girdwood Park. During the flight I heard someone with an English accent say that they had to stop to re-fuel before they crossed the sea. The helicopter came down and then took off again.
I was taken from Girdwood to the prison by a police Land-Rover via Cliftonpark Avenue. I have bruises on my feet, legs, back and shoulders. I was made to take a good wash before I was taken to Girdwood.
The torture was mostly psychological with the exception of the punchings which I got on my first day there. I was warned by a Special Branch officer not to say anything about being ill-treated before I arrived at Girdwood.
On Sunday last when I was in Holywood a telephone call came through when I was in the cubicle. A man with an English accent answered the phone and said to a police officer (bag not over head at this time), 'This is that fucker Faul again. He wants to know who's here.' The peeler replied, 'Tell him to fuck off.'[2]
On Monday last, 11 October, when I arrived at Crumlin Road prison the Deputy Governor told me that the police wanted to remove me but he had no idea where I was being removed to.

When Shannon disappeared his wife was frantic. No one, neither police, Army nor prison authorities would admit that he was being held. He had literally vanished. After some days, however, some news filtered out. A student, Tony Rosato, had been picked up with some friends, threatened and interrogated by the SB at Palace barracks for two days before being released. Despite threats from the police to keep his mouth shut or else', Rosato went straight to the press. He gave an account of his experiences to members of the Sunday Times staff and claimed that while in Holywood he had seen the missing man, Liam Shannon. Questions were asked in Parliament. Faulkner, as Minister of Home Affairs as well as the Northern Ireland PM, denied what was happening, but orders must have filtered down. Finally, nine days after his disappearance, word came that Shannon had emerged. He was now in Crumlin jail, detained, like so many other men, without charge or trial.

Although he had gone through a shattering experience, Shannon was to some extent 'luckier' than another man – Liam David Rodgers. Rodgers is from Warrenpoint, a Republican but not an IRA man. In the early hours of Monday 11 October he was driving to Belfast from Newcastle, Co. Down, when his car was stopped and searched by the Army. In it they found a variety of Republican pamphlets – none of them 'subversive'. He was taken in for questioning to Castlereagh police barracks and then to Holywood. What follows is his account of what happened.

I was taken to Palace barracks, Holywood, where both my particulars and photographs were taken. I was put into a cubicle. After a half hour I was taken out for a ten-minute interrogation, asked if I were a member of the IRA – I said, 'No'. I accepted responsibility for the literature, saying that I was a member of a Republican Club. No violence was used and I was returned to my cubicle. 1 helped to remove books to the Interrogation Office.
Next interrogation was an hour later and it involved three Special Branch men, one behind the table and one on either side of it. Same four questions asked and same replies given. They then tried to find out the destination of the books. I replied that this was irrelevant if I was being charged with possession. Then one of the Branch men kicked my chair with the intention of knocking me to the ground. Questions came thick and fast. I was accused of lying. The Branch then moved on to questions relating to the IRA. I denied any connection. They claimed they had information regarding my position, etc. Violence up to this point had consisted of kicking the chair and pulling my hair. Questions changed again to, 'Who held the Quarter-master position in the IRA?' When accused of being QM I denied it. I was told that I would reveal hiding places of arms under pressure.
I was made to stand spreadeagled with fingertips touching the wall. Whilst in this position I was assaulted by the Branch men and repeatedly hit in the stomach. I fell to the ground and was kicked about the body by another Branch man. Then I was asked the same questions again and I gave the same answers. The beating was repeated. One Branch man drove two fingers under my breastbone saying this would release poison into my system. The other Branch man stood behind me kicking the seat of my chair. I lost all sense of time during this interrogation.
Much later Harry Taylor[3] came and took me to another interrogation room. He asked after my welfare and said that he [Taylor] had nothing to do with the beatings. Asked if I wanted to make a statement about the IRA, I said, 'No'. I was then sent back to the cubicle and allowed to make up a bed.
When woken the next morning, I was made to take down the bed, was taken to the toilet and allowed to wash. I was then sent back to the cubicle and made sit facing the wall until breakfast. After breakfast I was made to sweep out the cubicles, the SB interrogation centre and another hut occupied by Englishmen in plain clothes. For the most of the day I was forced to sit facing the wall or forced to stand with my nose touching the wall.
At 5 p.m. I was again taken to the interrogation hut and told that I was being held in Crumlin Road for a period of twenty-eight days, then sent back to the cubicle. Later I was brought back to the interrogation hut and confronted by one Branch man while another stood behind him. I was ordered to stand to attention. I was asked if I had anything to say and said, 'No'. They said they would hand me over to the paratroopers who they claimed wanted to get their hands on me. I made no reply. I was then told I would be taken to a place where I would be treated twice as severely as I had been up to now. I was then taken to Crumlin Road prison.
In Crumlin Road I was marked in, taken for a bath, medically examined and brought before the Assistant Governor, who informed me that he had received written orders to return me to custody of the RUC. I asked if I was allowed Legal Aid. The Deputy Governor said that he would have to ask the RUC about that.
I was then taken through the prison and into Girdwood where a man wearing a three-quarter-length coat handcuffed me and put a black hood of soft material over my head. This man spoke with an English accent. I was then placed on what I presumed was a jeep, brought to a waiting helicopter and put aboard. I was taken to an unknown destination where I was forced into another vehicle in which I was taken for a two-minute ride.
I was then brought into a building. From the time the bag was put over my head not a word was spoken to me. All communications were made by means of taps on my body and these only concerned the need for movement. I was taken into a room where the handcuffs were taken off and then the hood. The man with an English accent told me that he was a doctor and that he wished to examine me. There was another man present, presumably an assistant. The doctor asked me to strip and gave me a very thorough examination. I was not allowed to dress again but was told to put the hood back over my head which I did.
The door was then opened and someone came and escorted me to the next room. I was stood against the wall, the hood removed and a flash picture was taken. The hood was replaced and I was made to walk forward and after about three minutes a NI voice listed my clothing and asked me to sign for it. The hood was lifted and a light shone into my eyes so that I could only see the paper I was signing. The hood was replaced and I was dressed in a lightweight green boilersuit. I was then taken from that room down a long corridor and through another room where I both felt and heard a rush of air – possible compressed air. Next I was taken into a room which was very cold and where there was a sound as if a very large volume of water was being pumped near by. This impression was supported by the dampness and vibrations of the wall. I was then led to the wall and spreadeagled against it. My feet and arms were stretched to their limits and I was made to lean with just my fingertips against the wall and unshod feet resting on what I assumed was a concrete floor strewn with chips and bits of wood. These small particles were very sore on the soft pads of my feet. I was in this position for a considerable time until my arms collapsed and my head hit the wall. At this point someone came in and forced me back into my original position. I was feeling the extreme cold.
I was then taken away for interrogation. I was brought into a room and when the guard left the bag was taken off my head. I could see a very shiny table but could only distinguish the outline of my interrogator. The questions related to my supposed connection with the IRA, which I denied. I was then asked about arms dumps and the whereabouts of certain people. I could answer none of these questions through lack of knowledge.
I was then taken back to the original room and spreadeagled against the wall again. This time they straightened my arms against the wall when I collapsed and it was not until my legs gave in that I was taken back for interrogation. This treatment lasted until I completely lost track of time and I only remember vague details. I was given water and bread three times during this period.
One occasion after I had collapsed they forced a pair of shoes onto my feet which were in a very painful condition. I was then taken outside and forced to run twice around some track. I collapsed on the track and was dragged for a short distance. They then half dragged, half ran me, then they let me go and I fell and hit my head against what I think was a door. I was taken back to the original wall, then taken out again, where the process was repeated.
When they returned me to the wall this time I was made to lie on the ground and was rolled in a blanket and allowed to sleep for a short period.
I was taken out again for interrogation, was returned to the wall for a while. I was then rolled in the blanket and allowed to sleep in the blanket, this time for a long while. I was then taken again to the interrogation room where for the first time no light was shone in my face. I was given a cup of hot coffee and allowed to smoke my pipe. I was also allowed to sit down.
After this interrogation I was returned to a different room in which there was a mattress and three blankets. The interrogator led me to believe that he had got these specially for me. I was allowed to remove the bag from my head in this room and also to sleep for a good deal of the time. I also got at least five wholesome meals from this time on.
There were two more interrogations. Eventually I was given a thorough medical, was photographed back and front in the nude and was given back my clothes and personal belongings. The bag was put back over my head. I was driven to the helicopter and returned to Crumlin on Monday 18 October 1971.

Rodgers was 'unluckier' than Shannon in that there was not as widespread a hue and cry about his disappearance. Nonetheless the questions asked in Parliament seem to have embarrassed the government, and he was released from Holywood and returned to Crumlin at the same time as Shannon. As a result of the Sunday Times article Compton was asked to prepare a special addendum on the allegations of ill-treatment regarding Shannon and Rosato. This he grudgingly did. It was not published, however. Instead, a few hundred roneoed copies of the addendum were run off and given to MPs. It was signed only by Compton and not Messrs Fay or Gibson. While admitting that Shannon had received 'similar ill-treatment' to that received by the other eleven [sic] 'guineapigs' it makes no reference to Rodgers. As for Tony Rosato's claims that guns had been put in his mouth and blanks fired beside his head Compton lived up (or down) to his usual standard and stated that since it was laid down in the holding centre regulations that all personnel must empty their guns on entry into the hall, Rosato's allegations could not have been true. There was a rule against it!

The main difference between the treatment meted out to the first twelve 'guineapigs' and the last two seems to have been that while the former were part of a carefully conceived and executed experiment, the latter were not. They seem to have been the victims of some RUC 'freelancing' experiment – though clearly there was collusion with the Army personnel. Physical exhaustion was an added factor also, with both men being made to run around in a circle outside the hut. The threat of a 'truth drug' was also used, as part of the build-up designed to terrify the men. [4]

There remain a few points to be made about the actual SD treatment. If, as the Parker apologia claims, it was undertaken with regret only because it was necessary to extract information from 'dangerous terrorists', why did the 'security forces' at no time take the fingerprints of these 'terrorists'? This is surely one of the first things to do when you get your hands on such dangerous men. The forensic evidence can be used not only to obtain convictions against bombers – from unexploded or defused bombs the police have a wide range of fingerprints – but can be used as a weapon during interrogation. Most people will co-operate if confronted with cast-iron evidence of their guilt, such as a fingerprint on an unexploded bomb! The answer of course is that information was not the primary aim of the exercise. It only came second to the experimentation side.

This brings us to another aspect of the whole operation: the basis for selection of the 'guineapigs'. It is clear that the original twelve men were selected on primarily geographical grounds. The province was divided into three, and four men were taken from each area –Belfast, Counties Down and Armagh and Counties Derry and Tyrone. That they were not selected on the grounds that the police/Army/Special Branch believed them to be the top hard-core. IRA men was admitted by both Faulkner and Whitelaw, for, of the fourteen men selected for the experiment and subsequently detained and then interned, no fewer than seven were released from Long Kesh. Of the other seven, six were still interned after two years and one, Francis McGuigan, escaped.[5] It is true of course that some of the fourteen were members of the IRA, either Provisional or Official, but it is equally true that some were not and never had been. P. J. McClean for example, from Beragh, was told during interrogation that he had been chosen because 'we needed someone from the Omagh area, and since you are a well known and respected Civil Rights speaker lots of IRA men must have confided in you'.
     But why these fourteen men in particular? Admittedly the 9 August swoop was, from a military point of view, most unsuccessful. No top Provisional or Official leaders were captured. Indeed, of the 342 men still held after forty-eight hours only some 150 were actually in the IRA. Nonetheless, if the Army wanted information on arms dumps, explosions, shootings, etc., they had in their grasp several men whom they knew only too well were more involved and had more information in their heads than most of the fourteen 'guineapigs'. Yet they were left untouched. At their interrogation in Girdwood two well-known members of the IRA were told by Harry Taylor, 'It's a waste of time talking to youse men, you've seen it all before.' This may give some clue as to the pattern involved in choosing the SD 'subjects'. They were nearly all young men, under 30, who were exceptionally fit. Their fitness was necessary if they were to last the eight days (here, however, insufficient research into medical records was done, and several apparently fit but in point of fact quite ill men were included). Their youth also meant that most of them – with four exceptions – had not experienced intensive interrogations before. Most had had experience of being roughly kicked up against a wall, searched, abused and then perhaps questioned for an hour before being released – but then so had a large percentage of the male Catholic population of Belfast by that time. But few if any had had experience likely to prepare them for the SD experiment, designed as it was to induce a week-long psychosis. Consequently, with the exception of the older and more perceptive P. J. McClean, they were unwitting and unsuspecting guineapigs. (One man told me how after an hour standing at the wall he thought to himself that they, the interrogators, were 'soft in the head'. Three days later, he was one of the men who tried to commit suicide by throwing himself head first onto the water pipes.)
     Civilian subjects and even Army volunteers' had proven unsatisfactory from the SD researcher's point of view. Here, sanctioned by the government, the researchers had had the perfect subjects upon whom they could experiment. Small wonder that they had a field day. Small wonder that there had to be another cover-up when Compton failed.

Footnotes Chapter 6:

  1. The number '21' is interesting. Each of the original twelve 'subjects' had had a number inked on the backs of their hands and the soles of their feet: P. J. McClean was No. 1, Pat Shivers was No. 2, Micky Montgomery was No. 3. etc. The first twelve coupled with the seven men in the basement cells in Crumlin who were prepared as the 'second batch' of subjects make the numbers up to 19, leaving Davy Rodgers as No. 20 and Liam Shannon as No. 21, thus indicating a degree of long-term planning which both Compton and Parker tried to play down. When P. J. McClean was at the original holding centre at Magilligan he was escorted by a local SB man. As he was being taken into the main room with the rest of the men as Army officers stopped both of them and, consulting his records, said, 'No, he's No. 1', to the apparent surprise of the Branch man.
  2. This is no doubt a reference to Fr. Denis Faul, who had been phoning Holywood continually to inquire as to the whereabouts of Shannon.
  3. Harry Tayor, Belfast's best-known SB man, was the Branch Number Two at Palace barracks – his superior was Michael Slevin, who (shades of Col. Wilford of Bloody Sunday fame) was subsequently to receive the MBE in Her Majesty's Honours List of 1973. Taylor is unlikely to receive a similar decoration and indeed has already been used by both the Army and the police as a 'tall guy' because he is so well known to both Republicans and Loyalists. The likely upshot of his long-standing loyalty and service to the Special Branch would seem to be a golden handshake – and more likely silver than golden – and a ticket to some faraway former colony, as a sop to the SDLP and those Catholics who demanding a reform of the RUC and Special Branch. (A false prediction. He is still in Belfast in 1981.)
  4. In fact, drugs of any kind used in conjunction with the SD treatment would almost certainly have been self-defeating. The drugs which were later used (see Chapter 9) during interrogations would have had the effect of so completely disorientating a person undergoing SD that he would be totally unable to convey any meaningful information, even if he wanted to.
  5. McGuigan was the first man to escape from Long Kesh when, in February 1972, he walked out of the camp disguised as a priest – a trick subsequently used a year later by James Francis Green, who walked out on 9 September 1973 leaving his brother, a priest, trussed up. Only three other men were successfully to escape from the camp: William Kelly, who on 11 March 1973, in a dense fog, succeeding in cutting through the wire and vanishing; Brendan Hughes, who left in a dust-cart; and Ivor Bell, through a substitution. Both Hughes and Bell were recaptured in Belfast within months. Two young Loyalist prisoners succeeded in escaping hidden in a dust-cart, but were recaptured within an hour.
Author's note. Subsequently there have been two tunnel escapes from the Kesh, one by Provos and the other by members of the IRSP.

Back to top of this page

Chapter 5  |  Table of Contents  |  Chapter 7

Irish Resistance Books

Copyright  ©  IRB/McGuffin