British ministers sanctioned the use of torture against internees in the north of Ireland in the early 1970s, the then British Home Secretary Merlyn Rees admitted in 1977, it has emerged.
A letter by Rees to then Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan has been discovered in the British National Archives in Kew by RTE’s Investigation Unit. This week it broadcast ‘The Torture Files’, a Prime Time documentary into the treatment of some of those interned without trial.
The letter backs up earlier research by the Pat Finucane Centre, which suggests the Dublin government and the European Court of Human Rights were deliberately misled by London about the treatment of people interned in 1971.
In August 1971, 340 men were arrested and interned. Fourteen of these were subject to in-depth interrogation techniques which had been well planned and involved specially trained British interrogators and RUC Special Branch officers.
In 1976, the European Commission of Human Rights ruled the interrogation methods used were torture. They comprised the so-called “five techniques”, including white noise, sleep deprivation, hooding, being forced to stand spreadeagled against a wall and being deprived of food and water. The men were also beaten and terrorised.
However, the British government appealed the judgment to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 1978 that while the interrogation methods were “inhuman and degrading”, they did not amount to torture.
Relying on the official record of several government departments from the British National Archives, the report reveals for the first time significant evidence relating to the so-called ‘Hooded Men’.
The 14 men were arrested during internment in 1971 and removed for special, so-called ‘in-depth interrogation’ where they were subjected to a “psychological attack” according to a British army directive.
In his letter, Rees made clear members of the British Crown forces found using such methods in that period could not be prosecuted because they followed orders as a result of a “political decision”.
“I do not believe that the Irish government understand the nature of the situation in 1971-1972,” he later wrote.
The Rees letter was written after a meeting in March 1977 between the Irish attorney general, Declan Costello, and his British counterpart, Samuel Silkin, during which Costello pressed the British to prosecute RUC men and British soldiers who had carried out torture on republican prisoners.
The five torture techniques were banned by the British Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1972 but the programme shows how the techniques were used thirty years later in 2003 by British battle groups stationed in Iraq.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has called for the reopening of the case of the ‘hooded men’.
He said the new evidence showed that the British government had lied to the European Court of Human Rights “both on the severity of the methods used on the men, their long term physical and psychological consequences, on where these interrogations took place and who gave the political authority and clearance for it to occur”.
“Not only was the European Court misled and lied to by the British government but so too was the Irish government,” he added.
Mr Adams said he was disappointed that the 26-County Attorney General Maire Whelan had refused to reopen the case following representation from lawyers acting for the men.
Republican Sinn Fein’s Fergal Moore said the programme had confirmed that the torture of Irish citizens was sanctioned at the highest levels of the British cabinet and that the British “lied continuously” and withheld evidence about it.
“This is further proof that there can be no true justice in Ireland while British occupation remains,” he said.