DUBLIN — The UK Supreme Court ruled that police in Northern Ireland were wrong not to investigate allegations that 14 Catholic men were tortured while in custody in the early 1970s.
The men — known as the “hooded men,” because while they were being detained their heads were hooded by the security forces — were arrested and held without charge or trial with hundreds of other Catholics in a campaign the British government in the region described as internment.
The men have been campaigning for the past 50 years to have a police investigation into their treatment. The Police Service of Northern Ireland refused to investigate in 2014, prompting the court case.
The judges ruled Dec. 15 that the decision by the police was “irrational.” The court also said the men’s treatment was “deplorable” and was a “deliberate policy” of the British government rather than the actions of rogue agents.
Operation Demetrius was launched by the British Army in Northern Ireland in August 1971. It involved the mass arrest and internment of people the authorities said they suspected of being involved with paramilitary organizations.
Almost 2,000 people were detained before being eventually released over a period of two years. Church leaders said the arrests were indiscriminate and that the vast majority of detainees were innocent.
One of the “hooded men,” Francis McGuigan, said it had been a frustrating process to get to this point.
“It’s been rough — we’re seven years in and out of court and we seem to win each time we go into court, but we seem to get no further forward,” he told reporters outside the Supreme Court.
“I’m hoping now … it can go nowhere else, we’ve appealed to the highest court in the land and we won there as well.
“I’m looking forward now to the investigation into it, the results of the investigation into it and hope that eventually the truth comes out that the British government sanctioned torture against its citizens,” he said.
McGuigan’s lawyer, Darragh Mackin, described the decision as “a landmark victory.”
The “hooded men” have long called for a new, independent investigation into their treatment, saying there were subjected to “deep interrogation” by the army during their detention.
The men said they were forced to listen to constant loud static noise; deprived of sleep, food and water; forced to stand in a stress position and beaten if they fell.
They also said they were hooded and thrown from helicopters a short distance off the ground — having been told they were hundreds of feet in the air.
The court said: “It is likely that the deplorable treatment to which the hooded men were subjected at the hands of the security forces would be characterized today, applying the standards of 2021, as torture. There is a growing body of high judicial authority in support of this view.
“Those who administered it were acting under orders and were trained as to how it should be inflicted. It was authorized at a very high level, including ministerial authorization, and was, therefore, an administrative practice of the state,” the court commented.
In a statement, the Police Service of Northern Ireland acknowledged the court judgment and welcomed “the clarity it brings to some complex legal issues.”
“We recognize the difficult realities that victims, families, friends and broader society continue to deal with as a result of our troubled past,” said a police spokesman.
“If we are to build a safe, confident and peaceful society, then we must find a way of dealing with our past, and we are committed to playing our part in that process,” the spokesman added.