1970-1979 | Northern Ireland | Torture

Routine use of torture in Ulster exposed

17 October 1971

On 17 October 1971, the Sunday Times published a front page article entitled ‘How Ulster Internees are Made to Talk,’ in which former detainee Pat Shivers recounted how, over a period of several days, he was hooded and forced into agonizing stress positions and fell unconscious repeatedly.  The Ministry of Defence immediately held a press briefing to counter the charges, claiming that IRA suspects had been beaten up by their own comrades, so that they could make false allegations of army brutality.1 Even when, the following month, a report by a committee of inquiry set up by Reginald Maudling, the home secretary, and chaired by Sir Edmund Compton, acknowledged that there had indeed been ‘ill-treatment’, it was cautious in its criticism and widely regarded as a whitewash by Ulster’s Catholic population.  As the Guardian newspaper noted

‘From the Compton report it is clear that men were deliberately worn down and exhausted, physically and mentally. The methods are described: standing for hours with arms up against a wall, heads hooded, confused by continuous noise, deprived of sleep, and fed only on bread and water. These, in Compton’s view, amounted to ill treatment.’ However, the report had been  ‘unable to come to any conclusion about eight particular allegations of men being “beaten, kneed, and kicked in various parts of the body”’.2

The use of the term ‘ill-treatment’ by the committee suggests a deliberate attempt to play down the savage nature of the interrogation measures. It would be interesting to know whether its members would have accepted a similar description of mere ‘ill-treatment,’ if their own family members had suffered comparable physical and mental torture.


  1. Ian Cobain, Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture, Portobello Books, 2013, pp. 146-147.
  2. ‘Interrogation: What is allowed,’ The Guardian, 29 November 1971 accessed online at url https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2010/nov/29/archive-interrogation-what-is-allowed-1971

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