"IF any of these things had happened it would have been public knowledge within 24 hours" – Brian Faulkner on allegations of brutal treatment of men arrested on 9 August 1971, which resulted in the Committee of Inquiry and the Compton Report.
An introduction to the report, written by Reginald Maudling, begins:
On 31 August 1971, I appointed a Committee of Inquiry under the chairmanship of Sir Edmund Compton, GCB, with his Honour Edgar Fay, QC, and Dr. Ronald Gibson, CBE, as members, with the following terms of reference: To investigate allegations by those arrested on 9 August under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (NI) 1922 of physical brutality while in the custody of the security forces prior to either their release, the preferring of a criminal charge or being lodged in a place specified in a detention order. The Committee of Inquiry visited NI from 1 September until 26 October and have now sent me their report which is published in this command Paper. The Government are grateful for the care and thoroughness [sic] with which the members of the Committee of Inquiry carried out their difficult task.
Maudling continued with an attack on the IRA. and an attempted justification of internment.
But what of the report itself?
The Compton Report is one of the shabbiest and incompetent attempts at whitewash since the Warren Report in the USA into the assassination of President Kennedy. Even by the standards laid down by the English Royal Commission of Tribunals it falls far short of the minimum requirements on no fewer than seven counts. Lord Justice Salmon, the eminent English High Court Judge, had presided over the Royal Commission set up after the farcical Denning Report into the 'Profumo Affair'. He recommended that: (1) All future inquiries be conducted in public in order that the public could have confidence and justice "could be seen to have been done." Compton sat in secret. (2) Salmon recommended that the chairman of any committee should be "a person holding high judicial office." Compton is not and never has been such a person. He is a Unionist functionary who acted as a supposed 'ombudsman'. (3) Salmon recommended that the other members of the committee be appointed by the head of the judiciary in order to avoid any appearance of political bias. Gibson and Fay were appointed by Reginald Maudling. (4) Salmon recommended that none of the members "should have any close connection with any political party." Sir Edmund Compton, in his role as 'ombudsman', had had very close 'connections' with the Unionist Party. (5) Again, ignoring Salmon's recommendation, the committee was not vested with power to compel the attendance of witnesses. (6) The committee had no power to demand the production of documents – such as medical reports, police duty books, etc., again contrary to Salmon. (7) Initially, the detainees were allowed no legal help at all. Subsequently, after public and professional outcry, they were allowed a lawyer, but he was barred from even seeing or hearing, let alone questioning, the defence witnesses (army and police witnesses were legally represented).
From the detainees' point of view the 'inquiry' was a complete farce. They started with no faith in the impartiality of three Englishmen in hearing complaints principally against English soldiers. Even the conservative Observer was moved to comment that the appointment of Sir Edmund Compton was 'unfortunate'. It also described him as "notoriously bureaucratic and defensive". Moreover, if a detainee was not allowed to confront the people whom he was accusing of brutality, how could he identify them? No one in Girdwood barracks wore a number, and some prisoners had to wear hoods. Secret hearings in front of English functionaries, however 'distinguished' they might be, presaged an obvious whitewash. Accordingly, of 342 men arrested on 9 August all but one boycotted the Inquiry. Compton reports that "only one of those arrested on 9 August has availed himself of the opportunity to substantiate his complaint by appearing before us; this has not frustrated our Inquiry, since material for our investigations has been made available to us in the form of allegations published in the press and transmitted to us from a number of other sources." It is interesting to note what Lord Justice Salmon said on this point: "A tribunal should not base any finding on comment, on anything save the evidence given before it at a hearing." Compton, moreover, refused to accept evidence from organizations such as Amnesty International or the Association for Legal Justice. The Inquiry also ignored the police authorities' call for legal aid for the detainees (20 August).
In fact, Compton was set up by Westminster, following reports in The Irish Times and, more important from the English point of view, The Sunday Times, of persistent torture. It is clear beyond any doubt that by its very nature the committee was intended to be effectively disabled from arriving at the truth, but at the same time give the impression of concern and efficiency. The terms of reference deliberately excluded investigation into the most sadistic tortures. Moreover, the Inquiry was limited to those arrested on 9 August; many of the worst tortures came after that date when the interrogation-torture centre at Palace barracks, Holywood, became fully operational. In addition, the Inquiry was limited to 'physical' torture, no brief being given for psychological maltreatment.
Lord Justice Salmon in concluding his report observed:
The public may be left with the feeling that the Inquiry, if behind closed doors, is no more than what is sometimes referred to as "the usual whitewashing exercise" – the odds against any such tribunal being able to establish the truth, if the truth is black, are very heavy indeed. Any government which in the future adopts this procedure will lay itself open to the suspicion that it wishes the truth to be hidden from the light of day.
The Compton Commission's task was, as Claud Cockburn expressed it in The Irish Times of 19 November 1971:
(1) "to make with the whitewash as liberally as possible. (2) But in doing so it was not supposed to bring itself into total ridicule and contempt. Some of the things that could not be denied without complete loss of credibility, had to be admitted. (3) It had to prepare the mind of the British public to accept the previously supposedly 'unacceptable'."
And yet, from the Government point of view the Inquiry was a dismal failure. True, the report was couched in such a way that the Unionist Belfast Newsletter could have banner headlines, 'No brutality' says Compton, while the same morning the Irish News could proclaim, "Ill Treatment Admitted By Compton". Nonetheless, this clumsy attempt to differentiate between 'brutality' and 'ill-treatment' was too grotesque to convince anyone.
According to Compton (paragraph 105): "We consider that brutality is an inhuman or savage form of cruelty, and that cruelty implies a disposition to inflict suffering, coupled with indifference to, or pleasure in, the victim's pain. We do not think that happened." In other words, what they admit as having occurred is merely 'ill-treatment' since those inflicting the 'ill-treatment' took no pleasure in the exercise. "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you." It is a distinction which those at the receiving end of the brutality find difficulty in understanding. It is gobbledegook.
The seeming 'naïvety' of Compton is incredible. Judge Conaghan was not to be so naïve when he awarded compensation for ill-treatment at Ballykinlar and found that Compton's chief army witnesses were liars! The judge found that men at Ballykinlar were forced to carry out a lengthy series of floor exercises "which were physically taxing and of long duration" (paragraph 159); Compton prefers to call the exercises "position changes". He accepts they went on all day on 9 August. He accepts that they were "done under some degree of compulsion" – i.e., you were beaten if you didn't do them. He concludes, however, that these vigorous exercises were devised "to counteract the cold and stiffness of which the arrested persons complained." (Many were still in their pyjamas). He regrets that Desmond Smith, who had 'back trouble' connected with a slipped disc, was made to do these "position changes" all day.
If the picture of solicitous guards, concerned with the physical warmth of the detainees and, therefore, leading them (all day) in a series of "position changes", à la Eileen Fowler, does not strain the credulity, how about the following example of 'Comptonese'?;
We drew the attention to the evidence contradicting the allegations of men taken off the ground in the helicopter, threatened with dogs or otherwise assaulted. In this regard we give special weight to the evidence of the RAF crewman who has the status of an Independent witness [my emphasis].
A member of the armed forces, involved in a process of forcing men to crouch and run out to a helicopter (while batoned all the time), get in, pushed out again backwards, and dragged between rows of armed military policemen. Subsequently, when there are complaints about brutality, the RAF man becomes an independent witness!
The whole purpose of this bizarre incident at Girdwood barracks on the morning of 9 August was, Compton blandly accepts, "a deception operation". "Anyone watching would assume that the men were being transferred elsewhere while in reality they were being kept in Girdwood." Since the helicopter didn't fly off, the point of this deception might be regarded as somewhat ludicrous. Those watching from the houses which overlooked Girdwood must have thought that the soldiers had gone insane. Not so. Merely engaging in a harmless bit of sadism.
The catalogue of obscenities continued. Schoolteacher Paddy Joe McLean apparently slept in his own urine and faeces for three days because he liked it. "He could have gone to the toilet if he had wanted to." In reply to Joseph Clarke's complaint about the beating of his numb hands, we were told that, in a number of instances, as a result of maintaining the required posture for a considerable period (43½ hours up against the wall at finger-tip stretch) a prisoner would find his hands or arms had become numb. In such cases the guards would rub the hands to restore normal feeling. We were, however, told that Clarke was a strong young man who resisted, with considerable force, attempts to make him adopt and maintain the required posture. It is admitted that in order to restrain him he was handcuffed. The first pair of handcuffs were too small for him and chafed his wrists. The notes made at the time by the supervisors at the centre show that Clarke was aggressive and resisted strongly. They could not tell us how the injuries [which are now at last admitted – author's note] were suffered (paragraph 80).
Throughout, Compton reiterates that the security forces deny hitting or maltreating anyone, and that he sees no reason to disbelieve these "trained men". He is at a loss to account for the marks recorded by medical officers on a lot of the men.
The report records some dissatisfaction with the medical facilities (Girdwood, in particular, suffered from this lack of attention to medical planning). There were two medical officials, neither of whom appeared to know that the other existed until they met by chance. Moreover, owing to the rescinding of a Brigade administrative order, no medical examination took place either on admission or discharge from the camp (paragraph 336). This is in direct contradiction to General Tuzo who, in August, stated that everyone had been medically examined and that the records were available – except to the press.
In their conclusions the Compton Tribunal state that "we consider that the following actions constitute physical ill-treatment: posture on the wall, hooding, deprivation of sleep, diet of bread and water" (questioning in depth, as it is picturesquely called). "The 'helicopter incident' constitutes a measure of ill-treatment." With regard to the "obstacle course at Girdwood, we conclude that the men concerned may have suffered some measure of unintended hardship." "We consider that the compulsory exercises (at Ballykinlar) must have caused some hardship but do not think the exercises were thought of and carried out with a view to hurting or degrading the men who had to do them."
Thus are the beatings, maltreatment and, in some cases, specific torture – men hooded, deprived of sleep and food and subjected to incessant noise for up to eight days as well as being beaten into position every time they collapsed – dismissed. Even the Observer was scathing. "Six grains of truth and a bucket of whitewash" was the headline on 21 November.
The report did, however, "horrify many sensitive MP's" and consequently Maudling ordered the setting up of a new body under Lord Parker to consider guidelines for future interrogation methods. Denis Healey, the former Labour Minister, indignantly denied that 'our boys' had done anything like that in Aden – although the 'guidelines for interrogation methods' date to 1967 – and a Labour Government.