The torture centre: Northern Ireland’s ‘hooded men’

In 1971 the British army took 14 men to a secret location in rural Co Derry and subjected them to a horrific interrogation from which they have never recovered. Nine of the surviving ‘hooded men’ are still seeking justice for what they say was torture – and they have the human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney on their side

There is a handwritten note in the margin of a letter written in 1977 by the British home secretary at the time, Merlyn Rees, to the prime minister, James Callaghan. The letter confirms Rees's view that "the decision to use methods of torture in Northern Ireland in 1971/72" was a political one, taken by government ministers. The note in the margin, written by the head of the army, says: "This could grow into something awkward if pursued."

Indeed it could. It is in fact still growing, and some of the victims of that torture now believe that, after more than 40 years, they may soon, finally, be vindicated.

As the summer of 1971 approached and the bombs, riots and shootings intensified, internment without trial was widely expected in Northern Ireland, and the construction of the prison camp at Long Kesh confirmed to those aware of the rumours that a major swoop was imminent on those deemed a threat to the unionist state.

But the building that was erected that spring on the British army site at the old second World War airfield at Ballykelly, in Co Derry, was far less conspicuous.


More than 1,000 people would be interned, but just 14 men would be brought to the secret compound in Ballykelly. They did not see it, for they were hooded, and they did not know for many years where they had been.

Their names were Jim Auld, Pat Shivers, Joe Clarke, Michael Donnelly, Kevin Hannaway, Paddy Joe McLean, Francie McGuigan, Patrick McNally, Sean McKenna, Gerry McKerr, Michael Montgomery, Davy Rodgers, Liam Shannon and Brian Turley.

None of them would ever recover fully from what was done to them there, and several did not recover at all. The Ballykelly unit was a purpose-built torture centre.

Now nine of the 10 "hooded men" who survived, along with family members of four who have since died, are preparing for two major court cases. On November 30th lawyers acting for them will go to the High Court in Belfast to try to force the PSNI, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Department of Justice to investigate what happened. Avenues to be investigated include the fact that it is now known that Special Branch officers of the RUC were trained by British intelligence officials to carry out the interrogations.

In parallel, with the backing of the Irish Government, they are seeking to have the European Court of Human Rights declare that the men were tortured.

The cases have enormous international significance. The US and Israel are among the regimes that have relied on a 1978 ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that although what the British did to the hooded men in Northern Ireland was “inhuman and degrading” it stopped short of torture.

There is a wealth of newly declassified evidence, with more to come. The European Court of Human Rights may decline to reopen the case. But the truth is emerging, and public interest has been enormously boosted by the fact that the international human-rights lawyer Amal Clooney, as part of the team led by Ben Emerson QC, is to represent the men, and is already keeping a watching brief over the Belfast case.

‘Daddy’s black hair had turned white’

Mary McKenna’s apartment looks out over the discreetly camouflaged perimeter walls of Newry police station to the green fields and woods of Co Down where she and her brothers and sisters played as children in the 1960s. Their father, Seán, was the caretaker at a secondary school on the edge of the town, and looked after a small farm that the school ran in the grounds.

“There were goats and pigs and vegetables and abandoned fox cubs that Daddy had rescued. He was big into the anti-hunting movement,” McKenna says. “He was a natural musician: he could pick up a fiddle or a flute or an accordion and just play. A great darts player, too.”

A photograph on the mantelpiece of her father around this time shows a smiling, tall, strong man with dark wavy hair.

But if life for the young McKennas was idyllic in some ways, the future of his eight children in a state in which civil rights were denied to Catholics was something about which Seán McKenna was passionately concerned. He got involved in the new civil-rights movement, speaking out about injustices in housing allocation, employment and votes at rallies and meetings in Newry and around Co Down.

“Daddy was a great orator,” says McKenna. “He’d have made you very proud of him. He was self-taught. He left school at 13, but he could stand up in front of a crowd of thousands, and people listened to him. He was very forward thinking – he wanted Sinn Féin to be a political party right from the start.”

On August 9th, 1971, Brian Faulkner, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, introduced internment. He had the backing of the British prime minister, Ted Heath. At 4am that day Seán McKenna was taken from the family home by the British army, along with his son, also called Seán, who had just turned 17.

“It said ‘Seán McKenna’ on the paper they had, and they didn’t know which one it meant, so they took the both of them,” Mary McKenna says. The family did not know where he was for more than a week, only that he was not with hundreds of others at the internment camp at Long Kesh, or at any of the other holding centres. When they did see him again, at Crumlin Road, they were shocked. “Daddy’s black hair had turned white, and he just sat there crying,” McKenna says.

Seán McKenna was never able to fully describe what had happened to him during the week when he was missing. He was released from internment on medical grounds in October 1972 and gave an account of his ordeal to the priests Denis Faul and Raymond Murray.

They published a detailed report on the hooded men in 1974, demanding that those responsible for their ordeals should be tried and jailed, “Otherwise there is no justice, but tyranny.”

In his account Seán McKenna describes extreme physical brutality, sectarian abuse and humiliation and how, after a few days of this, he was hooded and taken to a place he called the madhouse, where he was tortured and interrogated. “My head was spinning . . . my mind went wild, I was crying, I couldn’t stand up and I was trying to grip the wall . . . I couldn’t even remember my name or my children’s names . . . My head still won’t focus right . . . I detest being alone . . . I never imagined anyone could be so cruel to his fellow man . . . I don’t think I will ever be the same again.”

He never would be. Mary McKenna remembers his return home. “He was a totally different person,” she says. “The happy, jolly Daddy that played with you on the front grass was gone, and what you had instead was a broken soul. There was no normality any more. He was like a 75-year-old. Childhood was just over.”

McKenna remembers her father telling her that while he was being tortured he had seen his dead mother. Because he could no longer do his job the family was evicted from the caretaker’s house. Although he hated to be alone their father could no longer live with his family. “He had to go into the mental hospital, and then he had to go and live on his own in a cottage in Co Louth. He could not stick noise. Mum had to hold it all together for the family.”

In the next two years Seán McKenna had a series of small heart attacks. A psychiatrist who examined him found that he had a feeling that he was going to die, and a few months later, in June 1975, he had a final, fatal heart attack.

There is no doubt in his daughter’s mind that it was his experience as one of the hooded men that killed her father.

The tragic consequences of the torture of Seán McKenna did not end with his death. Seán McKenna jnr had shared a cell with his father after the latter’s return from the secret detention facility, and he was kept in prison until 1975.

“Seán’s life was totally and utterly ruined. As were all our lives. But he took it harder,” says Mary McKenna. “He went into prison a totally innocent child. He came out and had a year of freedom, during which we buried our father. It was an emotionally charged time. Seán got involved in the IRA. It was the times that were in it.”

He was jailed again in 1976; he went on the IRA’s no-wash protest and then on its first hunger strike in 1980.

“He did 53 days, and we were told he had half an hour to live,” says McKenna. “Some of us were there with him when they called it off. Afterwards, when it turned out they had been lied to, he felt he had failed. He never got over it.”

Seán McKenna jnr was released in 1993 with serious mental-health problems. In 2008 he hanged himself.

‘This isn’t a matter of history’

Mary McKenna speaks reluctantly about her father and asks her solicitor, Gemma McKeown, to sit in on the interview. McKeown works for a human-rights organisation, the

, and will represent the McKenna family during the judicial review in November. The Committee for the Administration of Justice will allege that Seán McKenna’s treatment breached articles 2 and 3 of the

: his right to life and his right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way.

“This isn’t a matter of history,” McKeown says. In 2003 an Iraqi hotel worker, Baha Mousa, died after being treated remarkably similarly to the way the hooded men had been in Northern Ireland. During the 2009 inquiry into his death it was admitted that the British had not abandoned the practices they used in Ballykelly.

In 2003 an Iraqi hotel worker, Baha Mousa, died after interrogation by British soldiers. It emerged in 2009,at an inquiry into his death, that he had died after being beaten, hooded, starved and held for long periods in the stress position. The UK was still using the so-called Five Techniques: wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, deprivation of sleep, and deprivation of food and drink.

"The 1978 European Court judgment was, in our view, erroneous, and it created a terrible precedent," says Patrick Corrigan, director of Amnesty International's Northern Ireland programme. "The UK has relied on it, and so have Israel and the US, in the so-called war on terror.

“The Landau Commission in 1987 was charged with investigating the conduct of interrogation by Israeli forces, and it referred to [the ruling]. In 2002 the Bush administration in the US got legal advice which quoted the judgment. Within months the CIA was using the techniques in Iraq and Afghanistan. This case has important implications in the fight against torture.”

The journalist Ian Cobain notes that Lord Saville refers in his report on Bloody Sunday to the inflammatory effect of the use of the Five Techniques during internment. "It is now clear that, despite appearing to ban their use, the government of Ted Heath continued to allow their use, and relied on the European Court ruling to justify this, morally and legally," he says. "You cannot claim to be a force for good in the world, and to represent basic decency, if you do this sort of thing. How can the UK lecture states like Egypt and Pakistan? The ongoing use of torture encourages others to do the same."

Darragh Mackin is a rising star on the international legal scene, but there is nothing glittering about the cases with which he is making his name. Mackin is part of a team of lawyers at Kevin Winters's well-known KRW Law practice, in Belfast, tasked with dealing with "legacy cases" related to the Troubles.

Mackin is working through thousands of documents relating to the hooded men, in preparation for the judicial review, in which KRW Law will represent most of the men.

Mackin, who is from Newry, is young enough to be a grandson of the men he will represent. At 24 years old, he was not born until 20 years after the events he is painstakingly researching. The Belfast Agreement was signed when he was seven. But he is now passionate about human-rights law.

“Human rights is hard to walk away from. Sometimes you become accustomed to terms like ‘collusion’ and ‘shoot to kill’. But the cases I’m working on involve what is effectively state-sponsored terrorism. It is hard to think of anything worse in international law.”

Among the documents that have come to light for this case is evidence that the UK withheld evidence from the European Court of Human Rights that its own expert witness had found that Seán McKenna had shown signs of “serious psychiatric symptoms”. A few days before McKenna died this psychiatrist had re-examined him and said he believed that his symptoms were a result of the “so-called ‘deep interrogation’ procedures”.

‘I looked like a werewolf’

Liam Shannon, who is now a silver-haired 67-year-old, was reared on Falls Road in Belfast. “I come from a republican family, very much so,” he says. He grew up listening to stories about family who had been interned and jailed. At the age of 15, he left school on a Friday and by Monday had a job with a textile company. “It was run by a Jewish outfit. They were very sympathetic to ex-internees; they reared half the Falls Road and they paid good wages,” he says.

He got married at the age of 19, in 1967. “The Troubles broke out in 1969, and things got a bit crazy. We live right next to a loyalist area here. The fighting was incredibly fierce, and a lot of people, including members of my family, got burned out of their homes. My father and some of my cousins were interned in August, and I was arrested in October.”

After some preliminary violence Shannon was brought to a barracks, where a gun was put to his head and fired – but turned out not to be loaded. Then he was hooded and bundled into a helicopter.

“One of the guys said, ‘We are over water now. Throw him out.’ And they did, but we were only a few feet from the ground. Then came seven days of oblivion. They messed with your mind, as well as the punches and kicks, and having to stand on your toes against the wall with your arms up, head back, your weight on your fingers and your legs apart. You’d be left to stand till you collapsed, and then you’d be forced into position again.

“There was this terrible noise, like steam escaping from a valve, and sometimes it dropped down and you felt relief, and then it got louder again. They’d put a polystyrene cup of water in your hand, but they’d only lift the hood up to below your nose, and you couldn’t tilt your head back, so you couldn’t get more than a sip. Your mouth was so dry.

“Sometimes the hood would be lifted and there was this figure in silhouette firing questions and abuse – telling you your wife had done filthy, terrible things and your kids were in care. I was sure they were going to kill me anyway, so I just said, ‘Aye, dead on.’ ”

He had no idea how long this had been going on when he was brought to a washroom and his hood was removed. “The scariest thing was I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror. My eyes were like two pissholes in the snow. I looked like a werewolf, a rabid dog. I had a beard, and it was matted with saliva.”

He learned after he was brought to Crumlin Road jail that there had been a frenzy of anxiety about his whereabouts for the week. “A doctor appeared in a tuxedo. He’d been out at a dinner, and he wasn’t pleased. He gave me a cursory examination, and then I was brought up to C wing. I was never so glad to see a prison cell.”

‘I started hallucinating’

Big and friendly and full of ready laughter, Joe Clarke is also from Falls Road and also left school at 15. He went straight into work at a garage.

“My ambition was to be a Formula 1 world champion,” he says. “I worked on Formula 2 cars, and I loved it. I’d have worked all night sometimes. My father was a coalman. Life was good: we never wanted for anything. We were well fed and we were taught to have respect for people.

“In ’69 the barricades went up, and I’d be on duty on them. I met a girl worked in a soup kitchen at nights and started to go out with her. Then internment came, and my life changed for ever.”

The youngest of the hooded men, Clarke was 19 when the soldiers came for him. The army then drove him through the loyalist Shankill Road, “where hundreds of people were out cheering”. What he calls ordinary interrogation was followed by the same “helicopter treatment”, by being forced to hold the search position against a wall, and by beatings, starvation, sleep deprivation and noise.

“I started hallucinating, and at one stage I snapped. I ran around the room and grabbed one of my tormentors. They handcuffed my wrists and ankles then and dropped me on my knees.”

Afterwards his internment lasted for three years. “For a long time after that I didn’t speak about it,” he says.

Brian Turley thought he had finished with physical abuse when he left school in Armagh, where the Christian Brothers had, while helping the sons of local solicitors and doctors, terrorised the working-class boys with beatings and humiliations. “Sadistic,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get away. One thing they did teach you, though, was Irish history.”

He left at 15 and went to England, but he returned in 1969, when he thought there was going to be a civil war and wanted to be near his family. He got involved in the civil-rights movement.

“I had no hatred for Protestants, but I saw the B Specials” – the quasi-military Ulster Special Constabulary reserve force – “and I saw Paisleyites with big sticks and nails in them. You were seeing things older people had told you about in the past. No Taigs here. Houses burned.”

He was arrested on the first day of internment, marched out of his estate at gunpoint, and brought to an army camp where various humiliations were inflicted, including being given food from a pot that army dogs had eaten out of first, and having to run up and down while soldiers beat his legs.

After hooding he was subjected to the helicopter treatment and then brought to a place where he was made to put on an ill-fitting boiler suit and spreadeagled against a wall. “Such a hammering. I thought they were going to murder me.” Turley remembers the noise as resembling screaming that got louder and louder.

When he was returned to Crumlin Road, he says, he was made to run across broken glass in his bare feet.

The first book that Kevin Hannaway read from his father's library was My Fight for Irish Freedom, by Dan Breen. "Republicanism goes back generations in my family," he says.

Born in north Belfast in 1947, Hannaway says that he caused ructions at school when a priest asked what he was going to do in life. “I said I was going to be an IRA man, like my daddy.” He joined the Fianna Éireann when he was 16.

“It is in my DNA. As far as I’m concerned there has only been one legitimate government in this country, and that is the one formed in 1919. The problem in Ireland has always been the British presence,” he says. Gerry Adams is his cousin.

Hannaway looks a little like Picasso, with a badly broken nose. Compared with other interrogations he has experienced, the hooding torture was infinitely worse – “horrendous and endless”.

The room where he was subjected to the white noise was known as the music room. You stood until you collapsed, and then you were forced to get up. Your hands were beaten against the wall. If your head slumped forwards to touch the wall your face would be slammed into it.

Hannaway was sure he was going to be executed. When he was brought back to Crumlin Road, through a hole blasted in the back wall apparently for the secret transit of prisoners, his brothers, who had also been interned, did not recognise him. “A year later I was still passing blood,” he says. “I was a long time recovering.”

Francie McGuigan, who is also from a republican family, and has a background in civil rights, says he was always amazed that Protestants did not recognise that such rights were denied to many of them as well.

McGuigan believes that some of the men who tortured him took pleasure in it. When he was so confused that he could not spell his name they laughed and joked.

McGuigan was told that there had been a huge bomb on his street in Belfast. As there had been hundreds of bombings and shootings in 1969, he thought it sounded plausible. (Patrick McNally was told that the estate where his family lived had been invaded by loyalists and that his wife was among the residents killed.)

When McGuigan needed to relieve himself he was told that there was no toilet and that he had to go in the boiler suit. He too believed that he would not get out alive. He resolved to end the torture himself.

“I remember the noise coming in the top of your head and out your toes and in every sinew of your body. I was chained to a radiator pipe, and I bashed my head against it again and again, to try to kill myself, till the blood was running down my face.”

‘I was against paramilitarism’

At 38 Paddy Joe McLean was the oldest of the men in 1971, a married father of seven young children, living in the religiously mixed Co Tyrone village of Beragh. His grandfather was a Presbyterian. McLean was a remedial teacher who taught at Protestant state schools as well as Catholic ones, and he was the Tyrone chairman of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

“My mouth was my biggest enemy,” he says. “Whatever was wrong I was pointing it out, whether it was in the allocation of jobs or promotions or houses. I was against paramilitarism and had nothing to do with it. The lists they had for arresting people were hopelessly out of date and had them searching graveyards.

“The nature of our society was that it always threw up extremes. The pressure on the government was great, and what it did made a bad situation worse. Young people flocked to the paramilitaries.” He laughs. “I was a bigger terrorist coming out than I was going in.”

His wife, Ann, was pregnant. Her mother was dying the day McLean was arrested, and she died a few hours later.

McLean does not want to talk about what happened, because it reawakens the trauma. In their report Frs Faul and Murray record notes that he wrote on envelopes shortly after his ordeal. Under “sounds” he lists: “Compressed air escaping all the time. Morning. Death services hymns. Execution order. Protest poems. Firing squad singing.”

He listed 22 torture techniques practised on him, including being kicked in the groin, being choked and being handcuffed and hung up.

Michael Donnelly from Derry disclosed to the priests that on his last day as a hooded man he was hallucinating. When his hood was removed, and he was asked if he would like something to eat, he replied that he would like a bottle of Coca-Cola and a box of After Eight mints. Asked if he would like something to read he replied, "Animal Farm". He got coffee and a cigarette, but his hands were shaking so much that he was scarcely able to take either.

‘New evidence emerging’

Sara Duddy is a solicitor and case worker with the

in Derry. In 2013 she was trawling through a batch of files copied from declassified documents at the British national archives, in Kew, when she came across a reference to interrogations at Ballykelly, which is a few kilometres up the coast from Derry.

Intrigued, she and other researchers began to look for more documents. They found plenty, including a memo that referred to the need to keep the location of the interrogation centre secret.

Checking the European Court of Human Rights ruling, they became convinced that Britain had misled the court not just about the venue but also about responsibility for the treatment of the hooded men, about the intensity of the interrogations and about knowledge of the impact of the Five Techniques on their victims.

The Pat Finucane Centre contacted some of the men and made a presentation at Féile an Phobail in Belfast that summer. RTÉ's Rita O'Reilly subsequently made a documentary, The Torture Files, that uncovered further evidence.

The Pat Finucane Centre, the Committee for the Administration of Justice and KRW Law wrote to the Irish Attorney General, Máire Whelan, urging her to invoke a rarely applied rule that allows for the reopening of a European Court of Human Rights finding in the event of new evidence.

Daragh Mackin went on to seek a judicial review of the Attorney General’s failure to act – and just before the six-month time limit on lodging the appeal, she did so. The Pat Finucane Centre subsequently found evidence that the interrogations at Ballykelly were taped and that Sir Edmund Compton had declined to consider this material in his 1971 inquiry into allegations of brutality and ill treatment of detainees.

Mackin is attempting to get the British to release boxes held at Hanslope Park, a formerly secret archive at a high-security British government communications centre near London, where documents relating to former colonies are held. A historian with access to the files has discovered that 20 boxes relate to the hooded men.

“We now know that tapes of the Ballykelly interrogations were used to train British intelligence officers,” he says.

‘At last something is happening’

Four of the men – Pat Shivers, Sean McKenna, Gerry McKerr and Michael Montgomery – have since died, arguably as a result of physical or psychological problems triggered by the torture.

Kevin Hannaway considers himself “one of the lucky ones” because he is still alive.

Liam Shannon has ongoing health problems that he believes are a result of his experiences as a hooded man. He says he is still bitter about what happened and about the way it was covered up. “For 40 years I have been telling everyone about it, and now at last something is happening,” he says.

Brian Turley suffered for years from nightmares. “I’d wake up drenched in sweat after facing skeleton-faced RUC men about to put a bag over my head.” He suffered mental-health problems and his first marriage broke up.

Turley says that as a republican he is disillusioned with the outcome of the peace process. “Sometimes I ask myself what it was all for,” he says. “A bunch of gits up at Stormont stopping each other from doing anything.”

Francie McGuigan became famous for escaping from Long Kesh dressed as a priest. He even gave a soldier a lift out of the prison. “I asked him to reverse the car for me, and he handed me his rifle while he did so,” he says. McGuigan considered the outcome of the European case in 1978 to be “a travesty”.

He was not much better pleased with the Belfast Agreement, although he supported the ceasefires. “The cause of republicanism was betrayed,” he says. He still has sleepless nights about his experiences as a hooded man. “I have hidden myself away in roof spaces and wardrobes as recently as last year, and I haven’t remembered doing so,” he says. Helicopters cause him to panic, and he has tinnitis.

Paddy Joe McLean and his wife, Ann, live in a small house at the back of their old home in Beragh, surrounded by their children and grandchildren. McLean went back to teaching after his release. He tried to return to the civil-rights movement, but he felt that the paramilitaries had taken the lead by that stage.

“All my efforts since then have been to try to ensure that what happened to us never happens again,” he says. For that reason he supports the court cases. “I have resolved to hate no man,” he says. “Let it go.”

Patrick McNally lives in a small housing-estate apartment in Armagh, where he cares for his disabled wife. He has brought aid to Romania and spent many years working in Africa, where he helped to build schools, and is soon to go to the Philippines, where he will build houses. He supports Sinn Féin and thinks that the regime at Stormont is making “great progress”.

“When I saw pictures of hooded prisoners in Iraq I knew it was the same thing happening again,” says Patrick McNally. “It is just totally outrageous that they got away with it and that they are still at it.”

Joe Clarke was also horrified by reports from Iraq and Guantánamo Bay. “It brought it all back, big time,” he says. After his release from prison Clarke went back to being a motor mechanic, married, had children, got shot in a republican feud – he still has a bullet in his back – lost a brother to a sectarian murder, divorced and remarried.

Clarke also set up a charity to bring aid to Chernobyl and helped to build schools and a health centre there, as well as bringing children to Belfast for holidays, and for longer terms.

“I always knew I’d win the lottery,” Clarke says, and a couple of years ago he did. He won £10 million (€14 million), in fact, and now lives in a mansion in south Belfast, outside of which stands a gleaming row of cars, including a Maserati and a Ferrari. There is also a big house in Spain. “Yes, I am a lucky man,” he says. “But I have looked after a lot of people, and I think my feet are firmly on the ground.”

He thinks Northern Ireland is a far better place now. “The younger people are able to move on. It used to be hardly any Catholics got to university or into the civil service. Now they can.”

He laughs. “Listen, I am losing three or four stone. Amal is coming, and I’m going to the airport to pick her up in the Ferrari,” he says. “And of course all that the women want to know is if George is coming with her.”

Mary McKenna says that she and her siblings will go to the High Court in November. “It will be hard, but this has given us fresh hope,” she says. “What was done to Daddy was torture. It must be so described.”

Official inquiries: What the Compton and Parker reports found, and what the European Court of Human Rights says

In 1971 the British home secretary, Reginald Maudling, appointed Sir Edmund Compton to investigate allegations of “physical brutality” towards the 14 men taken to Shackleton Barracks.

Only one of the men, Paddy Joe McLean, was called to give evidence, and his lawyer was not allowed to cross-examine any of the more than 100 security-force witnesses.

So unperturbed by Compton’s proceedings were the authorities in Northern Ireland that Liam Shannon and Davy Rodgers were arrested and subjected to hooded-men torture while Compton was at work in the North.

In his Report of the Enquiry into Allegations Against the Security Forces of Physical Brutality in Northern Ireland Arising Out of Events on the 9th August, 1971, Compton found that there had been no brutality, although his concession that there had been some "ill treatment" brought a strong rebuke from Ted Heath, the British prime minister, who called the report unbalanced and ill judged. In Ireland it was dismissed as a whitewash.

But as the journalist Ian Cobain points out in his 2014 book, ‘Cruel Britannia’, Compton confirmed that the “Five Techniques” used at Ballykelly were authorised at the highest levels and that “ill treatment of selected prisoners had been an integral part of British military doctrine for years”.

Later that year, announcing a second inquiry under the former lord chief justice Hubert Parker, Maudling went on to confirm in the House of Commons that Britain had used the techniques in other “struggles against armed terrorists” around the world.

Parker's report – formally the Report of the Committee of Privy Counsellors Appointed to Consider Authorised Procedures for the Interrogation of Persons Suspected of Terrorism – published in 1972, found that some of the techniques constituted criminal assaults but that, with ministerial approval and the presence of an army officer and a doctor with psychiatric training, they should continue.

In a strongly worded minority report the Labour peer Gerald Gardiner, a former lord chancellor, described the techniques as illegal under British law and potentially in breach of the full panoply of international human-rights conventions.

Parliament was faced with deciding to ban the techniques or legislate for them, and if the ends of obtaining information justified any means then the legislation would have to include “extreme torture”.

The Parker report revealed that the techniques had been used in Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Aden, Malaysia and other former British colonies.

“In fact they had been experimenting going back to the second World War, right up to Oman in 1970, so they had well-developed techniques by the time they got to Northern Ireland in 1971,” Cobain says.

“In 1972 Heath responded with a remarkable sleight of hand: he appeared to ban the use of the Five Techniques ‘in all future circumstances’ but actually allowed for their continued use in training.”

In 1971 the Irish government had initiated proceedings against the UK for alleged breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The British, mindful that “the security forces will be on international trial and we must do everything possible to minimise the risk of losing this battle in the propaganda war”, denied that the Five Techniques amounted to torture.

The European Commission on Human Rights found in 1976 that the British were indeed in breach of article 3 of the convention, which prohibits both inhuman and degrading treatment, and torture. It made a finding of torture.

But when the matter came before the European Court of Human Rights in 1978, the court ruled that although the breach of article 3 remained, because of "inhuman and degrading treatment", what had been done did not constitute torture, as a "special stigma" attached to torture as "deliberate inhuman treatment causing very serious and cruel suffering".

It is this finding that the Irish Government is seeking to have reviewed.

This article was edited on 27/07/2015