Deep Interrogation in Ireland - 5 February 1972

There is, I am sorry to say, an unpleasant topic which touches us all, and which I must admit it would be very comfortable to avoid.

I had to go up to Boston last Monday, and when I checked into my hotel I went over to what you call the book stall and Americans call the news stand, and glanced down at the Boston evening papers. They were aflame in banner headlines with the single, declarative statement, "British soldiers kill thirteen".

The Boston papers that night, and the next morning were, agog with dispatches, indignant columns, letters and editorials. Why Boston? Well, the quickest and truest answer is the reminder that in the 1850s thousands – hundreds of thousands – of immigrants from the Irish potato famine had their American destination chosen for them by the simple fact that Boston was the terminus of the Cunard and White Star Lines. In time, and for other reasons, other cities became havens of Irishmen – New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh. But Boston remains the city where, to this day, the odds on having a mayor with an Irish name are better than two to one, and the odds on taking a cab whose driver has an Irish accent are heavier still.

By next morning Miss Bernadette Devlin was being pictured as a heroine – somewhere between Saint Joan and the Passionara of the Spanish civil war – because, simply, she had roughed up Mr Maudling. And, inevitably there came a shocked and eloquent public statement from Senator Edward Kennedy. I don’t for a moment question the sincerity of the senator, and if he feels as strongly as it appears, it would have been cowardly for him to hold his tongue. But any Kennedy in politics knows very well who his constituents are.

It sent me back in memory to an occasion – and you must bear with me, because this anecdote I think tells a great deal – it must have been about fourteen years ago when the senator's brother, who was then Senator John F Kennedy, got up on the floor of the United States Senate and delivered a long speech which ended with an impassioned plea to the French government to leave Algeria and set her free. This was a very puzzling novelty. Nobody else in the Senate, as I recall, had made more than a passing reference to the Algerian problem. What, I wondered at the time, had moved Senator Kennedy to make his exhaustively researched speech?

It didn’t take long for an exciting probability to dawn on me. Now this was a year after Senator Kennedy had lost the Democratic nomination for vice president in the Democratic Convention to Senator Estes Kefauver, who therefore received the unfortunate honour of becoming Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in the 1956 presidential campaign, and going down to a defeat even more inglorious than the first one that Eisenhower inflicted on Stevenson in 1952.

But what struck me when John Kennedy made that rousing Algerian speech in the Senate – in, it must have been 1957 – was that he was quietly tipping us off to a serious ambition to run for president, he was telling the Senate and the country that he was suddenly revealing himself as a big expert on foreign affairs, something we had not suspected.

I remember on the night that he lost the nomination battle in Chicago the year before, I had dinner with another Democrat who agreed with me that Stevenson would this time take a worse hiding from Eisenhower than he’d had the first time round. "Where does the party," I said to him, "go from here?" And he then said an amazing thing. He was a shrewd and experienced politician, he was then governor of his state and was subsequently to be elected twice to the Senate, he knew as well as any politician of my acquaintance where the chips fall and where the bodies are buried. He did not play long shots.

He said, "The next president of the United States is going to be John F Kennedy and I am going to start organising the bandwagon now". Which he did. I thought he was out of his mind at the time and I made a point of kidding him every time I saw him. Until the time after Kennedy’s speech on Algeria. Now mind you, this was three years before Kennedy came out and said he was running. But the Kennedy family has always planned its campaigns with Napoleonic care, and its destinies with Sherlock Holmesian circumspection. Admittedly, Kennedy was on the Senate’s foreign relations committee, but he had always been absorbed with organised crime, and with labour management relations. The Algerian speech – the heart-rending emotion he suddenly felt for the Algerians – was about as welcome in Paris as his brother's recent lamentations over Ireland are in the horse and hound belt of the home counties.

I wrote a piece about this Algerian speech, predicting that it was his flyer for the presidency and I ended it, perhaps meanly, but as a reporter I felt I had to put it in, I ended with the reminder that his one-sided eloquence and courage would do him little harm in his home state of Massachusetts, where the French vote was minute and the Algerian vote was tinier still, if indeed it existed at all.

He must have seen the piece because I got a livid letter from him, which I still have. The gist of it was that he felt strongly that he was speaking out on a public issue, as his senatorial oath required of him, but the last sentence of the piece, provoked in him a howl of rage, and I could only conclude as a devout Freudian that the only time the patient yells in protest is when you touch a nerve end. I ought to add, as a happy conclusion to this story, that Kennedy was a pro and bore no ill-will.

A pro in politics is a man who comes to believe that it doesn’t really matter what they say about you so long as they say something. Or as an old public relations friend of mine once said, by way of comfort to an author who was bemoaning a bad review he’d had, "Listen, a month from now, nobody will know what was said they will only remember that you got your name in print".

In fact I remember a genial social occasion later down in Palm Beach during which Kennedy, then president, expatiated for a handful of correspondents on his foreign policy during the past year. Somebody asked him when he came to the end of it and we broke up for drinks, "Do you have anything else in mind, Mr President?". "Well," he said with a sidelong glance at me, "I guess I could whip up something on Algeria", and he laughed.

Well, these are not laughing times, and Senator Edward Kennedy does not noticeably possess his brother's humour or his easy way with bygones. I am sure he feels deeply, as do many other people on the other side, on the other "sides", but the fact is that a senator from Massachusetts, when he has an Irish name, is bound to speak out on behalf of the Boston Irish that is to say, the Catholic Irish.

So, all rights and wrongs aside, the response of the Boston papers was predictable. What was not, however, was the reaction a couple of days later of Cardinal Cooke, the head of the New York archdiocese. He sent a letter to all his pastors, and one of his close advisers remarked that this was the first time the head of the Catholic Church in New York had spoken out so forcefully on events abroad, since Cardinal Spellman, Cardinal Cooke's predecessor, deplored and attacked Hitler’s treatment of the Jews during the second war.

Ostensibly the cardinal was calling on his pastors to start a relief fund to alleviate the suffering of the homeless, ill and jobless people of the north. But he also denounced internment camps where Catholic dissidents are imprisoned without trial, and are brought to the brink of physical and mental exhaustion during the process of interrogation. Interrogation – deep interrogation – that is the phrase that has rattled like a quotation from Dostoevsky or Arthur Koestler around the minds of people here, Catholic, protestant, atheist or agnostic, and has disturbed Americans who are normally, even incurably eager, to give England the benefit of any doubt.

The New York Times is at all times well disposed towards England, her people, her system of government, her traditional genius of compromise and her leaning towards compassion, but the Times too, when that commission report came out, gagged at the phrase "deep interrogation".

I don’t know how much of a bogey man the phrase has become in England. But from all careful reports back here, it does seem to mean that men are stripped and hooded and subjected to hours of grilling. Friends of mine ask me, with a bewildered rising inflexion if this can possibly be true of the British in Northern Ireland?

I temporise by saying that it does seem to have happened and somebody in Westminster should begin his own deep and disinterested investigation of it. Now, I realise it's not my business to follow the Boston, or the New York Irish, or anybody else, into the new and fearful troubles in Ulster. But as a reporter simply it would be irresponsible of me to the point of callousness not to tell you how widespread in this country is the disquiet, to put it mildly, over the rumour or report that torture is being used under the typically 20th Century euphemism of "deep interrogation".

I think it first came to our shocked notice not through the digging of American reporters in Ulster but through an article that appeared in the New York Times. It appeared first, I believe as a letter, to the London Times – it was by Graham Greene, who everybody knows is a distinguished novelist, an Englishman and a Catholic. He called his piece – or if the New York Times coined its title, it was aptly done – "Shame of Ireland, shame of England". He did not propose remedies, he had no axe to grind, Catholic or otherwise, he just execrated the brutality of the IRA and the alleged brutality of deep interrogation.

I think the feelings of Americans who live with no preconceptions against England and the English can best be summed up in the famous cry of a little boy, coming on a national baseball hero, who long ago rocked the country when he was accused of having thrown a game in the annual championship series. He came through the gate and the little boy, looked up at him and cried, "Say it ain’t so, Joe".

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