Ireland must answer for its complicity in extraordinary rendition and torture

It has not been a good week for Ireland’s human rights record. Not just one, but two, reports released on Tuesday revealed a state that was complicit in enabling systematic human rights abuses to occur. The findings of the McAleese report into abuse at the Magdalene laundries rightly made front page news, as did state’s continuing prevarication over granting the full apology the survivors called for and deserve. However, the second report did not get anything like the same coverage, even though  in many ways it is as unsettling.

Globalizing Torture
© 2013 Open Society Foundations. Cover photo © Ron Haviv/VII

Globalizing Torture, produced by the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, listed Ireland among 54 national governments that actively facilitated the CIA’s “extraordinary rendition” programme, established by US president, George W Bush. In doing so, these states “violated domestic and international laws and further undermined the norm against torture.” The report documents 136 individuals abducted by the CIA, unlawfully transferred or “rendered” to “black sites” outside the US where they were subjected to “enhanced interrogation”, including torture. Given the fundamentally secret nature of the rendition programme, the report states that there are likely to be very many more cases unknown.

Questions without Answers

The release of Globalizing Torture struck a personal chord with me. In 2006, I wrote a letter to the Irish Times, questioning the Irish government’s blithe readiness to accept all assurances of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Shannon airport was not being used as part of the rendition programme. I wrote that since the programme was dependent on secrecy, any assurances could only be unreliable.

A few months later, I got a phone call from a producer of RTÉ’s current affairs programme, Questions and Answers, asking if I would be willing to ask a question on the issue to the panel on that week’s show. If memory serves (and I’m not sure it does), Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern was on the programme that night. I sat in the studio audience, my question prepared and ready to pose. But it happened to be the same day that the minister’s namesake – Taoiseach Bertie Ahern – announced plans for a referendum on children’s rights. That referendum didn’t take place for another six years, but it was newsworthy enough that day to bump the rendition discussion from RTÉ’s agenda. The issue went unaddressed and my question went unasked and unanswered.

There were, however, plenty of activists and journalists who were asking questions – asking why there were known CIA planes landing at Shannon airport, asking why the government refused to search these planes, asking why it was not doing more to ensure that Ireland was not facilitating human rights abuses. Bertie Ahern famously ventured a response to this last question, explaining how he had personally raised his concerns on the matter with George Bush. It was a response of such ineptitude it would have been shocking were it not coming from a man famous for incredible answers to credible questions.

“I looked at the great President Bush,” he said, (with more pandering obsequiousness than even I thought he was capable of), “and I said to him, you know: ‘I want to be sure to be sure.’ And he assured me.  Couldn’t do any more than that.”

Aside from becoming perhaps the first Irishman ever to actually use that most twee and squirm-inducing of all Irish clichés, there is very much more that he could – and should – have done. The Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) said, according to Tuesday’s Globalizing Torture report, that “the Irish State should put in place a… system of inspection so that no prisoner is ever transported through this country except in accordance with proper legal formalities and the highest observance of human rights standards.”

Instead, the Irish government just expected the US to own up and undermine its national security agenda simply because it was asked politely. This showed either breathtaking ignorance of the machinations of international relations or a deliberate lack of political will. Globalizing Torture seems to suggest – and I agree – that it as the latter.

Shannon Airport (Wikimedia Commons)

The reasons why the Irish government did not try harder to find out if prisoners were being unlawfully rendered through Irish airports was not a fear of insulting the Americans, a “friendly” nation. Rather, it seems it was that the government was well aware of the answer, because it was knowingly facilitating it. Globalizing Torture presents cables released by WikiLeaks that show Dermot Ahern as good as knew that rendition flights were passing through Irish airspace and airports. Moreover, James Kenny, the then-US Ambassador to Ireland, commended the Irish government for continuing the practice “in the face of public criticism” – or to dispense with the euphemism, in disregard for the will of a democratic people.


Globalising Torture collates comments from the Irish Human Rights Commission, European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the UN Committee Against Torture, which conclude that:

  • “Ireland permitted the use of its airspace and airports for flights associated with CIA extraordinary rendition operations.” (EU, 2007)
  • 147 CIA-operated flights, many involved in extraordinary rendition and the “unlawful transfer of detainees” stopped over at Shannon Airport (EU, 2007)
  • “The Irish State is not complying with its human rights obligations to prevent torture or inhuman or degrading treatment” (IHRC, 2007)
  • the Irish government had given an “inadequate response…  with regard to investigating these allegations.” (UNCAT, 2011)
  • and Ireland could be held accountable for “collusion” in the “unlawful transfer of detainees”. (Council of Europe 2006)

The CIA programme consists of three phases: “the abduction and disappearance of detainees, their extra-legal transfer on secret flights to undisclosed locations around the world, followed by their incommunicado detention, interrogation, torture, and abuse.” The Shannon stopover, it would seem, fulfilled the second, connective, phase. The third phase – the torture and abuse – could not have happened without that second phase – the “extra-legal transfer” that Ireland has been found to have been complicit in.


The Irish government often seems to be under the illusion that the middleman bears no responsibility, that if it is not involved in the final act that it has absolved itself of any complicity. It doesn’t seem to feel the need to fully apologise to the women it referred to Magdalene laundries, because it didn’t actually conduct the abuse. It sees no double standard in providing women with information on accessing abortion services elsewhere while moralistically denying them abortion services here. And it assumes that it is fine to allow planes to land and refuel here because it had nothing to do with abducting the prisoners on those planes, and it will not be the one doing the actual torturing them when they are taken off those planes. Ireland shamefully mistakes burying its head in the sand with washing its hands of its involvement.

Six years ago, I may have missed my opportunity to question Dermot Ahern on live TV about Ireland’s involvement in this torture programme. The so-called “Teflon Taoiseach” Bertie Ahern seemed somehow gotten away with his risible answer when he was asked about it. However, Bertie’s own experiences in recent years should illustrate that the past does stick, and questions evaded have a way of eventually demanding a proper answer. Globalizing Torture warns that, despite the efforts to maintain the secrecy around an unlawful, corrupt programme implicating a quarter of the globe’s governments, the truth will out.

Among its recommendations, the report says that these countries – including Ireland – must “conduct effective and thorough investigations (including, where appropriate, criminal investigations) into the full range of human rights abuses associated with CIA secret detention and extraordinary rendition operations, with a view to examining and publicly disclosing the role of, and holding legally accountable, officials who authorized, ordered assisted, or otherwise participated in these abuses.”

Bertie said he couldn’t have done “any more than that”. I say we shouldn’t do any less than this.


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