CAIN Web Service

Report of an Amnesty International Mission to Northern Ireland (28 Nov - 6 Dec 1977)

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: Amnesty International ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

book cover Northern Ireland
Report of an Amnesty International Mission to Northern Ireland (28 November 1977 - 6 December 1977)

by Amnesty International (1978)
Paperback 72pp Out of Print

These extracts are copyright Amnesty International. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

(28 NOVEMBER 1977 - 6 DECEMBER 1977)

























Political Background

Since the outbreak of serious civil unrest in Northern Ireland in 1969, British security forces have been engaged in an attempt to suppress armed insurgency and terrorism carried out by both Republican groups, notably the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and "Loyalist" groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force. A large number of civilian deaths have resulted from confrontations between the security forces and terrorists or suspected terrorists, and action by terrorist organizations including sectarian murders, sniping, bombing, and fires started by bombs. In 1972, 467 persons died in such incidents in the province, and in each succeeding year until 1977 the totals were between 200 and 300. In 1977 the level dropped, but even in that year 111 violent deaths took place, including 68 civilians and 43 members of the security forces (the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the Ulster Defence Regiment) who were shot or killed in bomb attacks. In addition to the deaths, over 14,000 civilians are believed to have been injured since the present violence began. The majority of the civilian injuries were sustained in bombing or shooting incidents, but deliberate maiming, carried out by both Republican and "Loyalist" paramilitary groups as a punishment or disciplinary measure, is also common. This usually takes the form of shattering one or both of the victim s knee-caps with bullets or an electric drill, or, more recently, the dropping of heavy concrete blocks on the limbs, causing fractures. During the first eleven months of 1977, over 116 such "knee-cappings" occurred, mostly carried out by the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Amnesty International condemns the use of political murder by the para-military groups involved, and their practice of deliberate maiming of persons in their temporary custody as a device of political intimidation and control.

Since the ending of detention without trial in 1975, and the release of the last detainees in December of that year, British government policy in dealing with terrorism has been to bring persons charged with terrorist offences before the special non-jury courts ("Diplock Courts") which were set up by the Emergency Provisions Act, 1973. Power to detain remains but is inoperative. Police detention with regard to scheduled offences has been extended to three days (Emergency Provisions Act, 1973), or a maximum of seven days with the written authorization of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Prevention of Terrorism Act, 1974 and 1976). By securing convictions before the courts, the British authorities hope to remove networks of terrorists and members of para-military organizations from the community, and thus to foster a gradual return to a normal state of law and order. The authorities have also sought to increase the effectiveness of the Royal Ulster Constabulary by enhancing its credibility among members of the Roman Catholic community. In the past this credibility has been difficult to achieve, due largely to the fact that the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) is manned mainly by Protestants. It is therefore important for the RUC to be seen to be bringing to justice members of Protestant para-military groups.

The force's impartial image in this regard was enhanced by the role it played in breaking the illegal "Loyalist" strike called by Protestant extremists in May 1977. If the RUC can win the confidence of the Roman Catholic community, the British authorities reason, then that community will cease to shelter and be intimidated by Republican para-military groups. Simultaneously, should the RUC achieve its aim of becoming a force acceptable to both sides of the sectarian divide, and able to operate normally even in traditionally "Republican" areas of the province, this would in turn allow the British government to reduce its commitment of regular armed forces to Northern Ireland. At the same time, in the British governmentís view, the RUC must maintain its success rate against the Provisional IRA, partly because any failure to do so might lead to a revival of vigilante action or large-scale violence by "Loyalist" para-military groups, for instance by sectarian assassination.

In pursuing this policy, the RUC has been, during 1976 and 1977, successful in bringing charges against numerous individuals suspected of terrorist involvement. During 1976, 1,602 persons were charged with scheduled offences, that is, offences set out in the schedule to the Emergency Provisions Act, and related to terrorist acts, such as murder, attempted murder, firearm and explosives offences, armed robbery, etc., and the figure for 1977 was 1,545. A number of the murder and attempted murder charges preferred related to crimes dating back to 1971. In a statement to the British House of Commons on 8 December 1977, Mr Roy Mason, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, stated that so far that year 316 people had been sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment or more on conviction for scheduled offences on indictment, compared with 214 in the whole of 1976.

An important aspect of this record of charge and conviction is the high conviction rate of persons charged with terrorist offences. According to a report in the London Sunday Times of 23 October 1977, researches undertaken by the Law Department of Queenís University, Belfast, showed that 94% of the cases brought before the Diplock Courts resulted in conviction. Between 70% and 90% of the convictions are based wholly or mainly on admissions of guilt (self-incriminating statements) made to the police during interrogation. Only in a minority of cases is other evidence - forensic evidence, intelligence evidence, or testimony of witnesses - produced in court to secure a conviction. Forensic evidence is rare, and in the current situation in Northern Ireland the use of witnesses is restricted by the fear of intimidation and reprisal. Intelligence evidence can, by its nature, hardly ever be used in court.

Allegations of Maltreatment

Statistics of complaints against the security forces in Northern Ireland have always been high (between August 1971 and November 1974 there were 1,105 complaints of assault and maltreatment lodged against the RUC, and 1,078 against the Army). There were signs of an increase in complaints against the RUC in 1975, when detention without trial was phased out. In part, this was a reflection of the increased number of suspected terrorists interviewed by the RUC. In 1975 1,797 suspects were interviewed, of whom 184 made complaints; in 1976 the figures were 3,042 and 322 respectively, and in the first eleven months of 1977 3,444 and 515. Prior to 1977 almost all complaints of assault or maltreatment during interview reportedly came from Republican sympathizers or bodies closely associated with the Republican movement; however, especially since the failure of the "Loyalist" strike in May 1977, an increasing number of complaints have come from Protestant sources.

In September 1976 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) claimed a number of men, all Roman Catholics, had been maltreated during interrogation at Cookstown RUC Station and Springfield Road RUC Station, Belfast, in January and February 1975 and June 1976. In March 1977 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television program "Tonight" featured two cases of Roman Catholics from the Enniskillen area who alleged maltreatment in January 1977 at Castlereagh Police Holding Centre, East Belfast, which was to become the focus of many later allegations of maltreatment. During the same month the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) constituency representatives accused the RUC of physically and mentally ill-treating people taken into custody for questioning, and said that there were grounds for believing that illegal police pressure was approved at the highest level. In July 1977 a member of the SDLP claimed that there was "overwhelming evidence" of involvement of plainclothes detectives in brutalities, and in the following month Dr. Thomas Fee, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, attacked alleged "brutalities and tortures" by members of the security forces.

Allegations of maltreatment during interrogation, especially at Castlereagh Holding Centre, continued to be reported in the Republican press throughout the summer and early autumn of 1977. In October NICRA called for a conference of all interested groups to discuss ways of ending the alleged maltreatment. Simultaneously the Protestant Ulster Defence Association reported that it had established a "thick file of cases of its members who had been maltreated". During the same month the SDLP renewed its call for an inquiry into the allegations, and it was reported that seven committee members representing the 42-member Police Surgeons Association had met to discuss the allegations, and had sought a meeting with the Chief Constable of the RUC to express their concern. At the end of the month a television program by the British Thames Television Company, entitled "Inhuman and Degrading Treatment?" featured ten cases -eight Roman Catholics and two Protestants - who alleged maltreatment at the Castlereagh Centre between February and October 1977.

Early in November 1977 a meeting of most of the approximately thirty solicitors handling cases before the Diplock Courts decided to set up a three-man committee to collate evidence of alleged brutality, and wrote to the Secretary of State expressing their concern at the allegations, and stating that in their view,

... ill-treatment of suspects by police officers, with the object of obtaining confessions, is now common practice, and that this most often, but not always, takes place at Castlereagh RUC station and other police stations throughout Northern Ireland.

Also in November, it was reported that the "Loyalist"-oriented Ulster Citizens' Civil Liberties Advice Centre (UCCLAC) had produced a forty-minute videotape reconstructing types of brutalities and other abuses allegedly occurring at the Castlereagh Centre. In early December, at the time of the Amnesty International mission to Northern Ireland, the clerical leaders of the four main Christian denominations in the province made a public statement to the effect that they were "disturbed" that "serious" allegations of ill-treatment were being made. Shortly afterwards a representative of the Northern Ireland Police Authority, the independent civilian body which oversees the police, stated that the authority had "recently" had talks with the Chief Constable of the RUC, "about finding new ways of eliminating the cause of justified complaints". Others who have publicly expressed concern at the allegations during the course of 1977 include doctors, lawyers, members of municipal authorities and members of parliament.

The ill-treatment alleged during 1977 included both mental and physical maltreatment. Physical methods alleged included: beatings, attempted strangulation, pressure to sensitive points of the body, bending of limbs, prolonged standing or squatting in awkward positions, prolonged physical exercises, and burning with cigarettes. Mental pressures alleged included: prolonged oppressive questioning by teams, threats of death and of imprisonment, and threats to the family of the suspect, stripping, and verbal abuse and humiliation.

Many of the allegations referred to the Castlereagh Centre, but others concerned Springfield Road RUC Station, Belfast; Cookstown, Coalisland, Dungannon, and Lurgan RUC Stations; and Strand Road RUC Station, Londonderry.

Response by the Authorities to the Allegations

One aspect of the response by the RUC and the authorities to the allegations mentioned above has been to describe them as part of a propaganda campaign against the RUC, designed to defeat the forceís aim of achieving an impartial reputation throughout the community (thus reducing its effectiveness against paramilitary groups) and to justify the assassination of its members by terrorist organizations. In addition, the RUC views the allegations as reflecting attempts by individuals to obtain acquittal before the courts on the grounds that their self-incriminating statements - often the only evidence against them which can be produced in court - were made under duress. The RUC also alleges that some prisoners inflict wounds on themselves, either as part of a general plan to discredit the force by producing medical evidence of "maltreatment", or as an attempt on the part of individual terrorists to exculpate themselves in the eyes of other members of their organizations by claiming that information was forced out of them by intolerable physical pressure. The authorities have also pointed to the provision for medical examination of suspects on arrest and on release, and at other times during their detention in police custody, and the comprehensive system for investigating complaints against the police which exists in Northern Ireland.

In his report for the year 1976, the Chief Constable of the RUC stated that "terrorist organizations [had] adopted a deliberate policy of manufacturing allegations or contriving incidents, including self-inflicted injury" in order to discredit the police or to cast doubt on statements of confession when cases are tried in court. In June 1977 the Chief Constable asserted that the increase in the number of brutality allegations against the force was an indication of the growing police success in combating terrorism. He stated that there was clear evidence that some of the allegations were manufactured, and that some prisoners were injuring themselves to throw blame on the RUC. In a public statement, he affirmed that "in recent months" he had issued instructions to the force to prevent self-inflicted injuries by prisoners. He mentioned instances of prisoners wounding themselves with "eating utensils, a nail, a tin of lemonade, or by butting their head against a wall or smashing a window." The statement added that complaints had been lodged during the first quarter of the year on behalf of 112 of the 904 suspected terrorists detained. Inquiries were not yet complete in all cases, but at that time scrutiny by the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) had not produced evidence to justify a prosecution against any police officer for alleged ill-treatment, the statement said. During the same month a Belfast judge claimed that it was the "common, indeed the universal policy of members of the IRA to fabricate allegations" of ill-treatment.

Following renewed allegations in the following months, the Chief Constable replied in October 1977 to the effect that, of 1,559 persons interviewed at the Castlereagh Centre during the first nine months of 1977, complaints were made by or on behalf of 215. Investigation of these cases was not yet completed, but of the complaint cases to that date submitted to the DPP in respect of the whole of the province during 1977, the DPP directed a prosecution for alleged assault against a prisoner in only one case, not relating to Castlereagh. Later in October the Chief Constable replied to the Thames television film (mentioned above) by stating,

No Chief Constable in charge of thousands of men can say without doubt that no member of the Force will fall below the high standards set. But, let there be no doubt that the policy in this Force is enforcement of the law within the law. Every member of the Force knows of this policy, which is being widely propagated, and every member of the Force knows that he would offend against that principle at his peril.

The Chief Constable did not rule out the possibility that "at times a police officer will be tempted to overstep the mark" but also pointed out that three other possibilities existed: that the suspect might refuse medical examination on arrest, thus taking bruises and other marks into police custody; that the suspect may injure himself - and in documented instances had done so; and that the suspect might deliberately attack the interviewing officer in order to provoke a situation in which he had to be restrained. The Chief Constable concluded that "there is no policy or toleration of ill-treatment in this Force. Quite the contrary."

Following the showing of the television program, the Northern Ireland Office wrote to the Independent Broadcasting Authority to complain about certain aspects of the film, and the London Daily Telegraph reported that Republican sources had stated that IRA members were receiving "prizes" in the form of cigarettes and drink if injuries they inflicted on themselves while in police custody justified complaints against the police. The RUC has since claimed that suspects have injured themselves by cutting themselves with pins concealed in their clothing, rubbing areas of their bodies to produce inflammation, and punching themselves in the eyes. Renewed instructions from the Chief Constable to members of the RUC to guard against such incidents were issued on 10 November 1977.

In the view of the RUC, the system of medical examinations now in force is as effective as can be hoped in protecting both suspects from possible maltreatment and the police from malicious allegations. On arrival in police custody each suspect is offered a medical examination by a police doctor (usually a general practitioner under contract to the Northern Ireland Police Authority), who also offers him an examination on release, or before transfer to court for charging prior to being remanded in custody. The consent of the suspect is necessary before these examinations can take place. The suspect may request to see the police doctor at any time; at the two holding centers at Castlereagh in Belfast and Cough Barracks in Armagh, police doctors are on duty from nine in the morning until five in the evening each day, and may be called in outside those hours at the request of the suspect or if interrogation is taking place. According to instructions issued by the Chief Constable in September 1977, arrested persons should be allowed to see a doctor of their own choice at "a suitable time" during their detention on the request of their solicitors, near relatives, or "genuine representatives". On being charged, accused persons are examined by a member of the Police Surgeons Association, and on being remanded in custody they are examined by a prison doctor. The implication of this system of medical checks in terms of the substantiation or disproving of complaints of assault by RUC personnel are examined later in this report.

The RUC has further made .the point that, while the force itself is arguably under strong pressure (for reasons mentioned earlier in this chapter) to obtain statements from terrorist suspects, such suspects as do make statements have a very powerful motive for alleging in court that the statement was induced by torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, and, if possible, producing apparently corroborative medical evidence. Under Section 6 of the Emergency Provisions Act, it is stated that a statement shall be ruled inadmissable if,

... prima facie evidence is adduced that the accused person was subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment in order to induce him to make the statement ...

Once such a prima fade case is made, the statement will be disregarded unless the prosecution is able to rebut such prima facie evidence to the satisfaction of the court. The standard of proof required to satisfy the court of the rebuttal is that of criminal cause - i.e., beyond reasonable doubt. The RUC would argue that rebuttal of prima facie evidence in these circumstances is extremely difficult, and that this means that when a self-incriminating statement is the only evidence against the accused, the motivation for the accused to claim maltreatment is extremely strong.

These two aspects of the question - medical examinations and the implications of allegations of maltreatment made before the courts - are dealt with in more detail in Chapters III and IV but are mentioned here in order to place in context the material which follows - especially that in Chapter III.

Publication Contents


The Amnesty International Mission

The allegations mentioned in the previous chapter are of concern to Amnesty International under article 1(c) of its statute, which states that one of the objects of Amnesty International shall be to oppose,

... by all appropriate means ... torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners or other detained or restricted persons whether or not they have used or advocated violence.

During 1976, Amnesty International received a number of allegations of maltreatment by security forces in Northern Ireland, and requested an official investigation into two such allegations, one involving three Belfast Republicans who alleged that they had been brutally maltreated after being wrongfully detained by members of the RUC, the other involving imprisoned members of the Ulster Defence Association who alleged that they were beaten with clubs by warders in Long Kesh Prison. The authorities informed Amnesty International that they were satisfied with the results of internal investigations into the allegations in both cases.

In the light of allegations which continued to reach the organization, the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International decided to send a research mission to Northern Ireland. Due to the fact that the majority of allegations reaching Amnesty International referred to persons in the custody of the RUC, the terms of reference of the mission were restricted to investigating such allegations, rather than more general charges of human rights violations. On 8 November 1977 the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Mr Martin Ennals, wrote to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Roy Mason, regarding the proposed mission. The letter requested that the delegation be able to meet with Mr Mason and other appropriate authorities, particularly with the Chief Constable of the RUC, Mr Kenneth Newman. Subsequently Amnesty International received a reply, dated 15 November, from Mr Mason to the effect that his department had been instructed to cooperate with the mission "as far as it reasonably can" and "to help the mission where possible to meet those outside the Royal Ulster Constabulary who are concerned with these matters The letter indicated that it would not be possible for the authorities in Northern Ireland to discuss details of individual allegations which were under investigation through the normal complaints machinery, or had been determined under the statutory procedures. However, Mr Mason stressed that he wished the mission to learn as much as possible about the safeguards employed to ensure that suspects were correctly treated, and about procedures used to investigate complaints of ill-treatment. Amnesty International also received notification that the Chief Constable of the RUC would meet the mission.

Prior to the mission Amnesty International also contacted civil rights organizations, lawyers, doctors, and other individuals who would be in a position to present the mission with written and oral evidence and place it in contact with complainants.

The mission, consisting of a Dutch lawyer, a Danish doctor, and a member of Amnesty Internationalís International Secretariat, visited Northern Ireland from 28 November to 6 December 1977. It was joined on 1 December by a second Danish doctor. The team interviewed organizations and individuals in Belfast, Dungannon, and Londonderry. Most of those interviewed were complainants (further details of this category of witnesses is given later in this chapter). In addition to speaking with the complainants and a number of organizations concerned with civil liberties, the mission met lawyers, doctors, politicians at the local and national level, and, among the authorities, the Deputy Secretary of State, a representative of the Attorney-Generalís office, the Chief Constable and a Deputy Chief Constable of the RUC, the head of the RUC Complaints Branch and members of his staff, members of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, and the Director and Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions. In addition, it met the Chairman, Secretary, and other members of the Northern Ireland Police Authority, doctors under contract with the Authority, members of the Police Surgeons Association, and the head of the Police Complaints Board. The mission was also offered, and accepted, the opportunity to visit Castlereagh Police Holding Centre in Belfast. Two members of the mission visited the reception, detention, and interrogation blocks of the centre for a period of approximately three quarters of an hour on 6 December 1977. They spoke to uniformed staff, and were shown unoccupied offices, cells, and interrogation rooms, but (as previously stipulated by the authorities) were not able to speak to individual suspects being held at the time of the visit. A similar offer of a visit in regard to Gough Barracks, Armagh, was declined due to lack of time.

During the mission, the Amnesty International delegates obtained direct testimony from 52 persons who alleged that they had been maltreated while in police custody. In all instances the mission undertook that names of individual complainants it interviewed would not be revealed - both because in some cases individuals had actions against the police for alleged maltreatment still before the courts, and in order to protect the individuals concerned. Doctors interviewed by the mission also expressed the wish to remain anonymous. Complete records of all interviews are however in the possession of Amnesty International. The delegates also examined medical reports relating to 13 of the 52 cases, and 5 of the 52 agreed at the request of the delegates to be further examined in greater detail by the medical members of the mission. In addition to obtaining testimony directly from the above-mentioned persons, the delegates also examined medical reports and other apparently corroborative data in relation to a further 26 cases of alleged maltreatment.

Thus, overall, a total of 78 cases were examined in some detail by the mission. Amnesty Internationalís findings with regard to these cases are described in Chapter III of this report. Further cases of alleged maltreatment were reported to the delegates, but the information given in these cases was either insufficient or they fell outside the terms of reference of the mission. These cases are not included in this report.

The 78 cases referred to above concern persons who were arrested, mostly during 1977, on suspicion of involvement in terrorism. It should be emphasized that these cases represent only a small proportion of the total of individuals interviewed by the RUC as terrorist suspects - in 1977, for instance, 3,444 suspects were interviewed, and in 1976 3,042. It should also be noted that the mission was only able to interview directly individuals who were at liberty - that is, either those who were not charged (the large majority of those interviewed) or against whom charges had been dropped, or who had been acquitted, or who were free on bail pending trial. The sample was random in the sense that it was not pre-selected by Amnesty International. On the other hand, most of those interviewed met members of the mission by arrangement with their lawyers or relatives, or with various organizations such as the Association for Legal Justice, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and the Ulster Citizensí Civil Liberties Advice Centre.

In the large majority of the cases examined the alleged victims were from the Roman Catholic community. This reflects the fact that most persons arrested on suspicion of involvement in terrorism are from that community - a situation which in turn reflects the fact that by far the most active para-military organization in Northern Ireland at present is the Provisional Irish Republican Army, although "Loyalist" para-military groups are also active. The mission took steps to ensure that it interviewed complainants from both Protestant and Roman Catholic communities.

In the majority of the cases examined the alleged victims of maltreatment had been arrested under the Emergency Provisions Act, which empowers the police to detain persons for up to three days without charge. A number of persons, however, had been held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows police to hold suspects for up to seven days without charge. Of the 78 cases examined, 36 persons were detained for three days, 21 for between four and seven days, ten for less than three days, and in the remaining cases the length of police detention is not known to Amnesty International.

41 of the 78 persons whose allegations are described in this report were released without charge after their detention in police custody. One was extradited. 22 persons were brought before a magistrate after their detention in police custody and charged with offences relating to terrorism; of these, two subsequently had all charges dropped. In most of the remaining cases trial is still pending. In the remaining 14 cases it is not known to Amnesty International whether the persons in question were charged.

The cases examined in this report cover a wide geographical area of Northern Ireland and include persons from rural and urban areas. Although in many cases examined by the mission the arrested persons were first taken to local police stations, in the majority of cases examined the persons involved were taken to Castlereagh Police Holding Centre at some stage during their period in police custody. 58 of the 78 cases examined alleged that they were maltreated at Castlereagh by plain-clothes detectives. No uniformed staff at Castlereagh were involved in the alleged maltreatment. In the remaining cases it was alleged that maltreatment had occurred in a number of local RUC stations, but not by uniformed police officers. These include Cookstown RUC Station, Strand Road RUC Station (Londonderry), Omagh RUC Station, Lurgan RUC Station, Springfield Road RUC Station, (Belfast) and Newry RUC Station in Armagh. While a number of allegations of brutality by army personnel towards persons not under arrest were reported to the mission, these do not fall within the mandate of this report, which concerns persons arrested and allegedly maltreated by members of the RUC.

Publication Contents

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :