Paper trail: from Northern Ireland’s hooded men to CIA’s global torture

In August 1971 the UK authorities arrested and interned hundreds of men in Northern Ireland. Fourteen of them were selected for “special treatment” – torture in a specially-built interrogation centre at a British Army camp. The men were subjected to the soon-to-be infamous “five techniques” of hooding, stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and water – combined with brutal beatings & death threats.

Allegations soon emerged of abuse. Amnesty International sent its first ever research mission to the UK to investigate, interviewing the men and finding some of them to still be black and blue with bruises.

In it’s October 30 1971 report, Amnesty found a “prima facie case of brutality and torture”.

Amnesty report hooded men 71 excerpt


Responding to public outrage in Ireland, the Irish government made history by taking the first ever inter-state case under the European Convention of Human Rights, alleging the UK had tortured the men.

While the UK denied torture, Prime Minister Ted Heath soon announced a prohibition by UK forces of any future use of the techniques.

In 1976, the European Commission on Human Rights found that the UK had tortured the men, but the UK appealed the decision claiming that the techniques used had no long-term impact.

The appeal succeeded and in 1978 the European Court of Human Rights found that the interrogation amounted to “inhuman and degrading treatment” but not torture.

The difference was subsequently seized upon by those who wanted to use similar interrogation techniques.

In 2002, Jay Bybee in the US Attorney General’s office prepared legal advice on what could and could not be done to interrogation subjects. He quoted liberally from the Ireland v UK 1978 decision in the infamous ‘torture memos‘:

Within months, the CIA was using the “five techniques” in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.

Here’s an excerpt from a CIA report on what they did when interrogating a “high value detainee” (HVD). The similarity of the torture techniques to those applied in Northern Ireland is striking.

With the publication today of the US Senate report into CIA torture, more of the horror of US abuses has now been laid bare.

Meanwhile, happy with the downgraded European Court decision and the “special stigma of torture” removed, the UK quietly forgot about Ted Heath’s supposed probihition. In Iraq, the techniques were put to use again.

They cost Baha Mousa his life. The inquiry into his death found that the Iraqi’s 2003 demise was caused by “factors including lack of food and water, heat, exhaustion, fear, previous injuries and the hooding and stress positions used by British troops – and a final struggle with his guards”.

Letter from Home Secretary Merlyn Rees to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1977, when the UK was (successfully)arguing in Strasbourg that the techniques used were not torture

Letter from Home Secretary Merlyn Rees to Prime Minister Jim Callaghan in 1977, when the UK was arguing (successfully, as it turned out)  in Strasbourg that the techniques used were not torture

Meanwhile, through work by the Pat Finucane Centre, NUI Galway and RTÉ, files were discovered in the UK state archives in Kew suggesting that Britain misled the Court in 1978, withholding key evidence demonstrating they knew the techniques had long-term health impacts on the victims, and that the torture had been authorised at UK Cabinet level.

Following calls from Amnesty International and others, the Irish government has now decided to appeal the European Court decision in light of the new evidence. Perhaps the ‘hooded men’ will finally have their day in a Strasbourg Court with the full truth before it.

Shockingly, to date, no proper, independent investigation of the torture of the ‘hooded men’ has ever been carried out by the UK authorities and no-one has ever been held to account.

With total impunity in the UK for torture conducted in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, it is perhaps no wonder that the US followed the example of their closest ally when it came to fighting their 21st century “war on terror”.

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  • Mister_Joe

    If a person is tortured and “breaks”, they will tell their torturers anything asked for. Information gained is of dubious value. the US Senate report confirms that.

  • Cue Bono

    When I think of torture I immediately think of Paddy Flood and his six stone corpse. That is what real torture looks like and as Mister Joe says it is ineffective. The victim will tell you whatever you want to hear. Paddy wasn’t a tout after all. The guy that was torturing him was.

  • Billy Smith

    The Irish Government understood perfectly well the circumstances of 1971/2 – better than the British – and exploited the abuse of the internees for its own diplomatic and political ends, as an attentive reading of Irish Government documents of the time will show. (Or, better, you could read my book, ‘From Violence to Power-sharing’, available now through

  • Tacapall

    Or you could read Cruel Britannia, A secret history of torture by Ian Cobain for further proof if needed of the British governments role throughout the years in turning a blind eye and allowing their security forces use torture as a method of gaining information.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    You didn’t mention what these people had actually done. What had they done that got them locked up? Where they engaged in conspiracy to murder or other terrorist stuff, or where they just going to get a pint of milk at the corner shop? Its a common thing to paint a terrorist who is trying to kill, as a innocent. So please supply the intended actions of these people as described by the arrest details?

  • chrisjones2

    As a Unionist I have no issue with this.

    What was done was wrong. Wrong in law. Wrong in application. Wrong in purpose. Ineffective and illegal. Wrong. wrong, wrong

    Was it torture? The ECHR said not and gave its reasons for that. So that was the state of the law at the time. Period

    But that doesn’t make it different that it was wong

  • Deke Thornton

    The C4 programme ‘Homeland’ taps into this very well, which is why it’s so well made. “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” -“rendition”-Drone strikes- whatever it takes. Robert Fisk is probably the best journalist alive who knows what’s going on. And how little people care. Maybe we just “can’t handle the truth”. Fairly sure the 1971 ‘renditions’ were at Ballykinler. Little corporals doing what they do. Stuff happens, as Donald Rumsfeld so aptly reminded us.

  • Morpheus

    The Judgement from “CASE OF IRELAND v. THE UNITED KINGDOM” back in 1978 gives for some harrowing reading. The Judge is particularly scathing{“itemid”:[“001-57506”]}

  • Sp12

    You clearly have enough of an issue to grasp onto the straw that it wasn’t ‘legally’ torture. Apparently because the men brutalising them didn’t actually enjoy it.
    Which I’m sure was some comfort to the men at the time.
    But between the previous posters mud slinging and your new found appreciation for the technicalities of legal definitions it’s nice to see the sneaking good enough for them attitude raise it’s head so early in the thread.

  • Cue Bono

    Robert Fisk. Isn’t he the guy who predicted that the American army would die in the desert before it reached Baghdad in 2003?

  • Cue Bono

    The men brutalising them would have been subjected to exactly the same thing during their training. As indeed are all Special Forces troops and pilots. I don’t think the forces torture their own people, so it is not torture. Torture is when you sit someone’s arse on a red hot electric cooker ring like what the Provos did.

  • Sp12

    Do you read what your about to post?
    Or just slap the enter key at the end of a bout of some sort of automatic writing that’s channeled from the ghost of someone who died after tying themselves in moral knots and suffocating on their own hypocrisy?

  • sk

    Were you there when they were being brutalised, Cue Bono? In the background, with your clipboard, making sure the lads in uniform didn’t go beyond what happened to them in boot camp?

    There’s benefit of the doubt, and then there’s apologism for torture. You’re intelligent enough to know the difference between the two.

  • Gopher

    Interestingly today a court in Germany binned a case against a former SS man who was present at the Oradour massacre although the 89 year old admitted being there it could not be proved whether he took part or not. His C/O Heinz Lammerding died sometime ago in his native Germany. JIm Callaghan is dead, Merln Rees is dead, Lord Carrington is dead and I’m pretty sure Brian Faulknar is dead. Shocking though it is soon all the people involved from the Vietnam, Algerian, Belguim Congo and Angolan conflict will be dead also. I remember the seventies good movies, ruined by bombs and murders and the like. Some of the culprits are even running around free, if you thought about it, sure it would be torture.

  • Patrick

    That’s not a ‘paper trail’ in any conventional sense.

    It’s a series of isolated documents that you want to draw a link between.

    Jay Bybee, in 2002, 24 years after the “inhuman and degrading treatment” but not torture ruling of the EU Court of Human Rights, is quoting one of the few available rulings on the issue of what is and is not permissible during interrogation without the use of torture. It was a live debate at the time whether you, or I, like it or not.

    The Merlyn Rees letter is debatable as evidence of anything other than an argument against – what was presumably the intention of the Irish Attorney General’s meeting – the prosecution of “individual policemen or soldiers” at a time when the EU Court had ruled, before appeal, of torture having occurred.

    With total impunity in the UK for torture conducted in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, it is perhaps no wonder that the US followed the example of their closest ally when it came to fighting their 21st century “war on terror”.

    You don’t yet have a finding of “torture conducted in Northern Ireland in the 1970s” never mind evidence of impunity for it.

    The CIA report details much more than the “five techniques” used in 1971. As, indeed, does your unreferenced quote from the inquiry into the death of Baha Mousa.

    That for centuries there has been arguments for and against the use of coercion during interrogations, and the limits under law, is evident.

    And that’s what the documents show.

  • chrisjones2

    Read the ECHR judgment. The court was clear that it wasn’t torture. Now read my post. You donty like the judgemnet? Comp0lain to the judges

  • chrisjones2

    Hypocrisy is ignoring the facts and the Courts judgement. The rest is just populist nonsense and mob rule.

  • david moloney

    It works but not in the way that you think. It was an ideal recruiting sergeant in Ireland and elsewhere. Apart from being immoral and ineffective it’s also lazy, stupid and counterproductive

  • Sp12

    The commission found it was ‘torture’, then the court said it wasn’t on appeal, and now with the new evidence it could be found to be ‘torture’ again.
    But lay it out from the liberal Unionist viewpoint for us, it’s not torture cause it was done to themmuns.

  • david moloney

    I doubt very much that normal squaddies are or were subjected to waterboarding, but it would be great if they were as trainees would die and there would be a public outcry leading to the banning of these practices

  • Tacapall

    Like you said the guy who tortured Paddy Flood was a British agent, was he trained with the special forces too and I hear he was implicated of the same sort of practice in up to 60 murders. Puppets and puppet masters come to mind, the puppets act out the wishes of the puppet masters yet you seem to blame the puppet for the actions of the puppet master, an phenomena that for some strange reason seems to be ignored by many in this part of Ireland including your good self.

  • Morpheus

    Interesting interview with one of the ‘Hooded men’ and Paul O’Connor. The last few minutes pull on the thread from the OP

  • Barneyt

    The appeal is proceeding on the basis that the information put forward to the ECHR was incorrect and vastly lessoned the acts and their impactduration. Lets see the outcome when the case is examined properly.

    It really doesn’t matter if the NI events are later classed as torture, as at the time they were accepted by regular joe as torture. This led to increased radicalisation within the republican.and nationalist community. Internment and other events served as an IRA recruitment drive, and turned many who would remain agnostic or officially oriented into full blown provisionals. That horse has bolted and a postive outcome for the victims will change little, only to embarrass (perhaps) the British government. It will backfire on Enda as it will give raison d’etre to aspects of the IRA campaign and of course the support historically provided by SF.

    Matt Cooper made a valid point when interviewing Cal Thomas on TodayFM yesterday. The united states needed to maintain the higher moral ground instead of engaging as they did, and justifying their actions on the basis that the “enemy” would do worse to them. Had Britain behaved, events at home may have developed differently.

    I can see why some republicans (US republicans) were alarmed at the release of this information and the “conflict” is fresh. Its a dangerous truth to emerge right now.

    Whilst the treatment of captives (rendition etc.) has served to swell the followers ranks, this latest release of information will resolve their current belief and provide an emboldened platform for increased radicalisation within the related community.

    Young men throughout the world are now more vulnerable to persuasion and being sent into war and criminalisation as a result.

    I draw no parallels between the likes if ISIS and the nationalistrepublican community (other than the patterns of torture applied) and specifically those that elected to take an active rather than solely political path.

  • Morpheus

    Well it looks like the Court Judgement may have been flawed because important facts were withheld. We’ll see what happens when all the cards are on the table.

  • Morpheus

    Those who ‘stand ready in the night’ are supposed to protect the people who sleep safely in their beds. Wasn’t the case in Operation Demetrius was it?

  • Morpheus

    Just watched the RTE documentary, pretty damning stuff

  • chrisjones2

    That’s just your sectarianism. Read what IU said…you just hate themus and want a fight

  • Cue Bono

    Putin’s propaganda channel?

  • Cue Bono

    It was intended to be though. Initial poor intelligence led to mistakes being made, but the intention of that operation was to protect life. Before internment finished the cages were packed full of terrorists.

  • Cue Bono

    No I wasn’t there. Were you?

  • Cue Bono

    I didn’t say normal squaddies. I said Special Forces, pilots, people trained to carry out interrogation duties and anyone who was likely to have to serve behind eemy lines. I didn’t mention waterboarding either as that wasn’t one of the five techniques used: ” prolonged hooding, being subjected to loud noise, sleep deprivation,
    food and water deprivation, and being forced into stress positions.”

  • Cue Bono

    The guy who tortured Flood was considered to be a great fellah within the republican movement right up until it was revealed that he was a tout. I doubt he needed any training from the Brits as the Provos have been experts at gratuitous, barbarous, unthinkable torture since their inception. No fannying about with stress positions for those boyos. Straight onto the electric cooker ring or head first into the bath full of cold water.

    Are there many other puppets at the top do you think?

  • Cue Bono

    Strangely no one in the nationalist community seemed to be radicalised by the kidnapping, torture and murder of Jean McConville.

  • Tacapall

    “Straight onto the electric cooker ring or head first into the bath full of cold water”

    The first bits a bit of a spoof, something to keep the bar stool generals pint glasses at full I suppose have you any verifiable evidence of this but the last part is fact there’s been many a person who has lived to tell that horrifying tale but is that any different than water boarding, a process in which the victim is continuously drowned then continuously resuscitated over a lengthy period of sometimes months or even years.

    Of course there’s many many more puppets just like Scap and Nelson on both sides and just because they were considered good guys by their peers doesn’t make what they done on behalf of their masters any less brutal or savage.

  • Cue Bono

    A bit of a spoof? Have a read through this.

    Not for the faint hearted.

    I think that the puppets in the republican movement are right at the very top.

  • Barneyt

    It was a very ugly state of affairs. Specific case is quite horrible. Perhaps at the time many were desensitised too far, or too scared to give it the response it needed?

    But, remember, as in the unionist community, there are different breeds of nationalist and accept it or not, different types of republican. Many nationalist and republicans would not have agreed, Its a mistake to be so sweeping. PUL for an example creates a false association between Protestants, Unionists and Loyalists.

  • MyrddinWilt

    Patrick, but it IS a surprise that the US would follow the UK government in this. Because the UK government abandoned the use of the torture techniques after deciding they had been counterproductive and did not work.

    If you look at the number of deaths in the troubles, they spike immediately after internment and keep doubling every month. Then the Labour government comes in and begins applying the West German model of treating terrorism as a purely criminal matter. The number of deaths drop to a third their previous level and stay there until the Good Friday process begins and then they drop again.

    The Provisional IRA was formed in 1969 but it was initially defensive, reacting to attacks by Iain Paisley’s Protestant terrorist allies. The change of policy was a direct result of internment.

    You can also draw a strong connection between the use of torture and Bloody Sunday. Once you tell troops they can torture people, they are likely to commit other atrocities.

    This was all known and understood by the UK counter terrorism experts. But the Bush administration wasn’t interested in any advice from people unless they validated their preconceived policy.

  • Cloughjordan23

    The thing is they hadn’t done anything. Internment meant people were arrested and held in prison conditions for no offence without being charged. They would raid the homes and then intern all the men in certain streets and then release them when the authorities felt like it. No one had done anything to deserve it.

  • John Flynn

    If so, Fisk only got one word wrong. He should have said the Americans would die in the desert AFTER they reached Baghdad rather than “before” 😉

  • sk

    They mental acrobatics they’re willing to jump through when it comes to stuff like this is appalling, isn’t it?

    Sure it was only fenians after all.

  • npbinni

    Obama vaporises his enemies – literally, with drones. He doesn’t take prisoners.

    AQ/ISIS, etc behead theirs.

    Bush/Cheney, with the support of leading Democrats, take prisoners, and try to get information from them to prevent further terrorist attacks.

    So, what’s the problem?