British ministers sanctioned the use of torture against internees in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, home secretary Merlyn Rees told Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan in 1977, it has emerged.
The Rees letter has been discovered in the British National Archives in Kew by RTÉ's Investigation Unit, which last night broadcast The Torture Files, a Prime Time documentary into the treatment of some of those interned without trial.
The letter emerges on the back of earlier research by the Pat Finucane Centre, which suggests the Irish government and the European Court of Human Rights were deliberately misled by London about the treatment of people interned in 1971.
In 1976, the European Commission of Human Rights, a special tribunal, ruled the interrogation methods used were torture. They comprised the so- called "five techniques", including lack of sleep and food, hooding, standing for hours at a wall with legs apart and arms high and the use of continuous noise.
However, the British government appealed the judgment in the case taken by the Irish Government 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.
In his letter, Rees, who served as Northern Ireland secretary between 1974 and 1976, made clear members of the police or army found using such methods in 1977 should be prosecuted, but those who had done so in 1970 or 1971 could not be because they followed orders.
"It is my view (confirmed by Brian Faulkner before his death) that the decision to use methods of torture in Northern Ireland in 1971-1972 was taken by ministers."
‘Prosecuted or disciplined’
“If at any time methods of torture are used in Northern Ireland contrary to the view of the government of the day I would agree that individual policemen or soldiers should be prosecuted or disciplined; but in the particular circumstances of 1971-1972 a political decision was taken.”
“I do not believe that the Irish government understand the nature of the situation in 1971-1972.”
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 officers and soldiers who carried out the interrogations.