Former IRA ‘folk hero’ is ‘hardly fitting face for Amnesty International campaign’ say unionists

Amnesty International’s Northern Irish branch has come in for criticism for involving a former leading IRA man as part of a campaign for “truth and justice”.

Tuesday, 28th September 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 28th September 2021, 9:46 am
Soldiers pictured during a wave of bombings and arson in Belfast’s densely-packed city neighbourhoods around the time internment was launched in 1971

The group issued a press release last week denouncing the Tory government’s plans for a statute-of-limitations, which would bar any further investigations into Troubles crimes.

In it, Amnesty International included quotes from three individuals who share its objections to the government’s proposals.

One was Eugene Reavey, the brother of three civilian Catholics murdered by loyalists in 1976 (allegedly with security force involvement);

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Another was Eugene Oliver, whose father Thomas was a Catholic civilian murdered by the IRA in 1991;

And a third was Francis ‘Francie’ McGuigan, described in the Amnesty International press release as “a victim of state sanctioned torture” in 1971.

What the press release does not say is that Mr McGuigan was also a key part of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade at the time.

Mr McGuigan is one of the ‘Hooded Men’, a group who were subject to violent and mentally-traumatic treatment while interned by security forces.

Last Thursday’s press release from Amnesty International (which bills itself as the world’s leading human rights organisation) firmly rejects any statute-of-limitations, and quotes Mr McGuigan as saying: “It’s comforting to know that we’re not alone fighting this.

“We need the international community to continue to stand with us and ensure our rights to truth, justice and accountability are vindicated.

“Almost 50 years since I was subjected to torture, I am still fighting through the courts for an independent investigation and now the UK Government want to legislate so those who sanctioned and carried out torture may never be held accountable.

“We cannot allow this to happen.”

WHO IS ‘FOLK HERO’ MR MCGUIGAN?

Mr McGuigan was interned on August 9, 1971, becoming one of the roughly 2,000 people held without trial, including fellow IRA men and innocent Catholics.

By that date the IRA had already murdered at least 34 people, and probably more (given that paramilitary factions were only just emerging in 1969/70, it is hard to say exactly).

Out of those 34 murders, 21 were in Mr McGuigan’s brigade area, Belfast.

A 2007 article in Sinn Fein’s publication An Phoblacht described him as having been “an IRA volunteer”, adding: “His capture was a serious blow to the Belfast IRA.”

It adds: “Always looking for a chance to escape, [McGuigan] seized the moment when a group of priests came to visit the internees on February 7.

“McGuigan became a priest... dressed himself in black, replete with the clerical collar [and] mingled with the priests as they left and calmly walked to freedom.”

Once he escaped, the New York Times says he got married in Dundalk in 1973, and among those at his wedding was Sean Mac Stiofan, the erstwhile chief-of-staff of the entire Provisional IRA.

The article goes on to describe him as “a folk hero of the current civil war in Northern Ireland”.

He subsequently went on to seek redress through the courts for his ill-treatment while interned.

In a court case in 2019, judges were told the Hooded Men were physically attacked, kept in painful “stress positions”, and deprived of water, food, and sleep.

Two top NI judges - Sir Declan Morgan and Sir William Stephens - ruled that “we are satisfied that the treatment to which Mr McGuigan [and others] were subject would, if it occurred today, properly be characterised as torture”.

A third judge, Sir Donnell Deeney, disagreed, saying it was not “appropriate” to have the treament “re-labelled at this time as torture, 48 years after the events”.

Mr McGuigan has remained active, giving talks and interviews in recent years.

In a video posted online in 2014 by fringe republican party Eirigi, Mr McGuigan spoke of the “so-called peace process” saying: “We went through torture. You have the same thing happenning today.

“What’s happened in Ardoyne in the past couple of days again is torture – this thing of raiding homes, smashing up homes, dragging men away from their wives, children. It’s still going on.”

The News Letter sought comment from Amnesty for this article, and aimed to reach Mr McGuigan via the group, but such requests went unacknowledged.

UNIONISTS QUESTION MCGUIGAN’S INVOLVEMENT:

The UUP issued a statement in the name of councillor David Taylor, party leader in Newry, Mourne and Down.

It said: “For a former IRA member to demand ‘rights to truth, justice and accountability are vindicated’ requires a real brass neck.

“Given the fact that the IRA, of which he was a member, was a vicious terrorist organisation responsible for well over half of Troubles-related deaths – not to mention thousands of other unsolved crimes ranging from attempted murders, shootings, bombings, beatings, torture and child abuse – Francis McGuigan is hardly an appropriate person for Amnesty to be using to front up any campaign regarding torture and accountability.”

Meanwhile the DUP issued a statement from Mervyn Storey, its Assembly justice spokesman, saying that “it’s right innocent victims speak out against this amnesty”.

But he added that “it is the height of hypocrisy to hear demands for either truth or justice from republicans”, given that so many IRA men continue to evade the reach of the law.

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