British army used waterboarding in North, papers claim

Pat Finucane Centre has documents outlining four alleged torture cases in 1972

The Pat Finucane Centre in Derry has produced papers from 1972 which document four cases of the alleged "waterboarding" of people in Northern Ireland by the British army and RUC.

One of the papers is the "secret" minutes of a meeting in November 1972, where the then Fianna Fáil taoiseach Jack Lynch raised concerns with British prime minister Edward Heath about an epileptic who was allegedly "waterboarded" by British soldiers - although the term was not in use at the time.

Disclosure of the documents, which have been seen by The Irish Times, comes as British prime minister Theresa May condemns the proposal by US president Donald Trump to use "waterboarding" and other torture techniques against terrorist suspects.

“Waterboarding” involves temporarily filling a victim’s nose, sinuses, mouth and throat with water so that he or she has the sensation of drowning.


Paul O'Connor, director of the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC), said further cases of waterboarding have been alleged, but so far the claims are without supporting documentation.

“The PFC believes that it is highly unlikely that these were the only cases,” he said on Wednesday.

The civil liberties group uncovered declassified documents of the meeting between Mr Lynch and Mr Heath in Downing Street in November 1972.

Mr Lynch is described as “John Lynch” in the documents.

The 11-page minutes refers to many issues, including “the treatment of an epileptic who had been interrogated five times” by the British army.

It was alleged that, on at least two occasions, “he had been forced to lie on his back on the floor, a wet towel had been placed over his head and water had been poured over it to give him the impression that he would be suffocated”.

The PFC also produced documentary evidence that, in order to avoid adverse publicity, legal advice was given to the British ministry of defence to settle a case where a 19-year-old man alleged he had been subjected to “electric shock” abuse and waterboarding in February 1972.

He alleged his face had been “immersed in water for prolonged periods”.

The man, who spoke to Channel 4 anonymously about his experience, asked that his name not be disclosed.

Further allegations

The PFC produced further documentation about another Belfast man who alleged he suffered similar treatment in late August or early September 1972 at a school in Ballymurphy in Belfast requisitioned by the British parachute regiment.

His mother made a statement at the time saying that her then 17-year-old son was “brutally beaten” and that he “had a wet towel tied tightly around his head and face”.

“This was filled with water at intervals, causing him great distress and suffocation,” she told the Cork-based Association for Human Rights in the North at the time.

The man, who is now in his early 60s, also asked that his name not be disclosed.

The fourth case relates to a document the PFC uncovered in the O'Fiaich library in Co Armagh.

It relates to an unnamed man who told the Association for Legal Justice that he was physically abused in August 1972 by RUC special branch officers who wanted him to sign a document admitting he had carried out explosions for an “illegal organisation”.

He told the association: “I was being held by the special branch and my head was placed over the side of the table while water was poured up my nose.

“It was then I agreed to sign. They told me it was that or they would shoot me.”

A British government spokesman said that “the UK government considers torture or inhuman treatment to be an abhorrent violation of human rights and human dignity, and consistently and unreservedly condemns the practice”.

“It would not be appropriate to comment further on specific allegations,” he added.

‘No doubt’

PFC director Mr O’Connor said there could be “no doubt that the torture being inflicted was known of at the highest political levels in London.

“Although prime minister Edward Heath was aware of the practice of torture, there is no evidence of any investigations, any ministerial follow-up, any attempt to interview the victims or any repercussions for the torturers,” he said.

Mr O’Connor said that a “country which condones torture is diminished in the eyes of the world.

"Just as the images of Abu Ghraib fed the insurgency in Iraq, so too did the evidence of torture and ill treatment in interrogation centres here inflame the escalating conflict on the streets of the North.

“People knew what was happening to their neighbours, within their families.

“Trump’s recent defence of barbarism and denial that waterboarding is actually torture will have awakened painful memories on this side of the Irish Sea.

“His advocacy of torture will be welcomed by Isis.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times