Still from the movie Hunger (2007).

Britain’s history of torture in Northern Ireland

  • December 22, 2014

Authority & Abolition

CIA torture revelations direct our focus to the inhumanity of the US government, but the British state has set important precedents in Northern Ireland.

This article was originally published in Italian at, translation by author.

There is no human situation so miserable that it cannot be made worse by the presence of a policeman.

— Brendan Behan

The recent CIA torture revelations confirmed what many already knew about the inhumanity of American foreign policy. However, we must not limit our consternation to the Americans. The role of Europe, particularly the UK, in the historical legitimation of torture has had a devastating impact on the ability of the United States to torture with impunity.

Endemic racist violence in American policing has similarly sent shockwaves around the world, but we must also turn attention to the British tradition of policing. Compared to the paramilitary-style policing of some of its European neighbors, British security policy may appear moderate and restrained. In practice, the British have a proud history of draconian counter-terrorism legislation, extra-judicial killing, collusion with murderers, torture, and political imprisonment.

Politics of torture and murder

Indeed, the British security forces were the envy of fascists around the world. In April 1963, the South African Minister of Justice, strident apartheid enforcer and supporter of Nazi Germany B. J. Vorster commented that he would be “willing to exchange all the [South African justice] legislation… for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.”

Six years later, the province of Northern Ireland descended into violence following the continuous brutal repression of a civil rights movement demanding equal votes, access to housing, jobs, and education. The British Army was deployed that summer ostensibly to protect the minority nationalist/Catholic community from the sectarian police force known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). In reality, what then happened was a counter-insurgency military operation with the police, army, justice system, and media working together to undermine the popular support for the Provisional IRA.

The following thirty years were marked by political violence and the armed campaign of the Provisional IRA was the most notorious element of this period of conflict. However, the violent actions of the British state are now slowly being uncovered, in part due to the declassification of secret ministerial files but also thanks to recent judicial inquiries and reviews. The accepted narrative that atrocities such as Bloody Sunday and the murder of Pat Finucane were committed by misguided individuals in the pay of the state is becoming discredited. It is increasingly recognized that these crimes were politically-led and sanctioned at a ministerial level.

The five techniques

In August 1971, the British Army arrested hundreds of suspected terrorists from Catholic/nationalist areas and interned them without trial in prisoner-of-war camps and on boats. Whilst many suffered brutality, fourteen in particular were chosen for in-depth interrogation using what became known as the five techniques (hooding, wall-standing, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, deprivation of food and drink).

In a landmark case, the government of the Republic of Ireland took the UK to the European Commission on Human Rights, accusing them of torturing these fourteen men. Whilst the Commission judged that the UK had used torture, this was overturned when the case progressed in 1978 to the European Court of Human Rights which agreed that whilst article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been breached, the five techniques amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment but not torture. The British military, the government, and the RUC were off the hook.

The use of these interrogation techniques by the British continued during the war in Northern Ireland and beyond. In 2003, a young Iraqi man named Baha Mousa was killed by the British Army after they had used the same methods of in-depth interrogation.

Furthermore, in 1999 the Israeli government cited the Ireland v UK 1978 case to claim that their mistreatment of Palestinian prisoners did not amount to torture. Likewise, the assistant attorney general in the United States quoted the case in his advice to the CIA on the legality of ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques. The case therefore set a dangerous precedent.


On 2 December 2014, the Irish government decided to ask the European Court to re-open the case upon the discovery of evidence indicating that the British government misled the Court in 1978: according to ministerial papers, the government knew that the severity of the interrogation constituted torture, and its use was given approval at ministerial level.

Another manifestation of brutality in Northern Ireland that is currently being investigated is the shoot-to-kill policy of the RUC. Within 31 days in 1982, seven unarmed terror suspects were shot (six died and one survived) by police, all within the same region of Northern Ireland. A subsequent inquiry by a senior British policeman was never published, presumably because his conclusions were critical of the security forces.

Thirty years later and no closer to the truth, the senior coroner of Northern Ireland has started an inquest into these deaths. He has been met with intransigence and non-cooperation on the part of the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), even discovering that the documents relating to the original unpublished inquiry have been destroyed. Extra-judicial killing by police is not uncommon in the United Kingdom. Recent victims include Mark Duggan, Ian Tomlinson, and Jean Charles De Menezes, among many others who have died in suspicious circumstances in police custody. No police officer has ever been found guilty of these deaths.

Plain-clothed killers

In both practices of torture and shoot-to-kill, there are strong indications that the security forces — the Army and the police — acted in concert. During internment without trial, it was RUC officers who carried out the interrogations with supervision from the Army. Even as British politicians were publicly claiming that the use of the contentious five techniques had stopped by 1978, the RUC were still practicing such brutality in interrogation centers. Indeed, it is believed that this was directed at policy level by the Chief Constable of the RUC, Kenneth Newman. Knighted by the Queen in 1978 whilst his police officers were torturing suspects, Sir Kenneth became head of the London Metropolitan Police in 1982 shortly after the Brixton riots, overseeing its militarization including the introduction of the infamous Territorial Support Group.

Where the army had deployed shoot-to-kill tactics in 1971 using the plain-clothed Military Reaction Force, this policy became police policy over the following decade culminating in the six deaths in 1982 at the hands of policemen. Not only did the RUC increasingly use paramilitary tactics as the army’s duties were passed on to them, but Northern Ireland was used as a testing ground for military and policing strategies on mainland Britain. This was openly expressed by senior military officers including Brigadier Frank Kitson who saw the military policing of riots as practice for British soldiers should they need to intervene in a state of emergency on the British mainland.

The illusion of British fair-play is slowly disintegrating, and the more that is uncovered about British crimes in Ireland, the clearer we can see the continuity in British state practices: during the 1984 Battle of Orgreave, the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, and the riots of 2011, the British police acted brutally, the judiciary punished civilians and protected police, and the media echoed the institutional narratives of victim-blaming.

By publicizing the historic injustices in Northern Ireland, it becomes clear that the British traditions practiced in Northern Ireland have not stopped; instead they have been refined and continue to this day.

Rosa Gilbert

Rosa Gilbert is a PhD researcher in History at the European University Institute in Florence.

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