Politics Magazine

Northern Ireland, Beyond the Limits of Law?

Posted on the 20 April 2012 by Sephremers @ladystingray

Northern Ireland, Beyond the limits of Law?



I will begin by outlining the conflict in Northern Ireland and discuss the effects it had on its society, concentrating on Internment and the treatment of its people. I am going to separate the issues into sections. Beginning with a brief history, then more regarding internment itself and what it is, and then look at the development of the “Supergrass”. In order to paint a better picture of the situation in Ireland, and how the law fought its war on terrorism. I am going to use a case study of Murray V The Ministry of Defence and then discuss the responses of the law and how the law behaved in order to justify its actions on innocent people, who were also victims of this conflict. I will also be discussing how the government responded to the removal of Internment by introducing a Criminal Charge Strategy.  I will then bring the issue up to date with a recent report from the Guardian which encouraged Amnesty International to pursue a campaign to bring justice to the victims of torture under internment, their pleas for a Bill of rights and conclude with an over view of what I discovered though my research.

Brief History of the conflict:

In December 1922 the whole of Ireland became Independent from Britain and was named The Irish Free State However, Northern Ireland did not agree with this and immediately wanted to opt out, this caused civil conflicts, which still happen to this day (the two; North and South are now divided, with the North being part of the United Kingdom). The conflict in Ireland became violent from 1960 to 1990 (and still happens sporadically); this was between the two different religions; Catholics and Protestants. The two religions are politically separated, Catholics saw it as a struggle of self-determination, they wanted N Ireland to be part of the Republic of Ireland whereas the Protestants saw the conflict as an issue of security and self-determination, and they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Marches and protest in the 1960 happened in Ireland, the Catholics wanted more political power and civil rights. This is when British soldiers were brought in to ‘supposedly’ protect the marchers from opposing unionists. It was at this time that the IRA created to fight for Irish independence became a major focus for the fight for a united Ireland.

From this came issues such as stop and search and house raids, which lead to and generally always resulted in internment. The number of deaths in Northern Ireland through the conflict was 3,704 and a further 40,000 were wounded as a result of the hostilities.  (Northern Ireland 1968 – 2008. 2010 pg1).


It is generally expressed that in extreme times, extreme measures need to be taken in order to combat terrorism, and on the 9 August 1977 (The Longest War 2002 pg 96 -97) internment was introduced to Ireland in order to wage against terrorists such at the IRA. Internment is the imprisonment of suspects without trial.  When this was introduced conflict broke out and it resulted in over 345 people being arrested and taken to camps, this mainly targeted at republicans. Because of this violence broke out and 74 people were killed. 10 of whom were Catholics shot by the British army (The Longest War 2002 pg 96 – 97).

There were over 7000 people who fled their homes during this time (Catholics) because of all the violence which was occurring. (The Longest War 2002 pg 102) However, due to the arrest of the Republicans and their interrogation a guerrilla war seemed the only option.


The supergrasses policy was used to gather low level intelligence from republicans in order to find out who the terrorist were. Supergrass is an old term taken from the word ‘grasses’, it is people giving information to the authorities on others. And in the case of Northern Ireland it was the soldiers gathering intelligence from the Republicans and giving it to the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) (Northern Ireland conflict and Change pg 28)).  People could be put into detention for up to three days without charge or even 7 days in serious cases dependent of the power which arrested them. (Bloody Sunday 2000 Pg 239 – 241). The people who were arrested were taken to interrogation centres in Castlereagh or Gough barracks. Interrogated people were usually just the general public and most of the time was not even interrogated for the reasons they had been arrested for.

Around 90% of people arrested were not charged with anything on their release (bloody Sunday 2000 pg 239). In doing this the RUC were able to paint a good picture of each community, adding all the information they got to other intelligence, they would know the weaknesses and strengths of each community, who was doing what, who was an alcoholic, peoples sexual activities, domestic violence issues and who was willing to cheat on their criminal or terrorist associates. They would then use this information to pressure people to becoming informers. The informers would be rewarded by being provided with things like money, a new job, even a new life away from Ireland.   Between 1980 and 1985, around 499 people were charges as terrorist thought the Supergrass strategy. (Bloody Sunday 2000 pg 241).

Obviously the main reason here for detaining people was to try and get information on the IRA and their activities; however, not in all cases were the correct people arrested and this meant that innocent people were also detained which simply allowed the IRA’s to gain more support and resulted in the IRA being strengthened rather than weakened.

Murray V Ministry of Defence:

In order to paint a picture I would like to show the case of Murray v The Ministry of Defence (Bloody Sunday 2000 Pg 250 – 253). This is a case of a lady who was arrested under the interment policy and who was not a terrorist or even suspected as a terrorist. The reason that they arrested her was because her brother had been arrested under suspicion of arms control. When she was arrested they asked her questions about her private life, about her brother, personal questions and information which was irrelevant to any form of terrorist activity. They broke in to her house as 7am while she, her husband and her children were sleeping. They held her family in another room then took her to a different room to get dressed, she kept asking them if she was under arrest and what for and no one would answer her, it was 7.30 am before they said she was under arrest and they took her away to be held and interrogated.  Murray took this to court, however the case was lost (Bloody Sunday 2000 Pg 250 – 253).

The judge stated that

‘I regard it as an entirely responsible precaution that all the occupants of the house should be asked to assemble in one room. As Col Davies explained in evidence, this procedure is followed because the soldiers may be distracted by other occupants in the house rising from one room to another, perhaps in a state of alarm, perhaps for the purpose of raising the alarm and resist arrest. In such circumstances a tragic shooting accident might all to easily happen with young, often relatively inexperienced, armed soldiers operating under conditions of extreme tension’.

   (Bloody Sunday 2002. Lord Justice Griffiths Pg 252, Ibid., para. 54)

This statement leaves me dumfounded. It appears that the judge would lean towards the military rather than innocent individuals.

The judge also stated that as long as the arresting officer had a genuine suspicion as to why a person should be arrested then they are free to do so as it is there for the safest of protection the rest of society.

Also, while people were under arrest they were not generally entitled to a solicitor until they had confessed to a crime. There was a rule that they could seek advice form a solicitor after 48 hours (Bloody Sunday, Pg; 257 2000), however this meant that during the 48 hours the suspects would be under harsh scrutiny for the whole 48 hours. It was often also thought that seeking advice from a solicitor could result in the solicitor being kidnapped and being forced to release information. This may have been unlikely but it shows how little faith Catholics had in the judicial system.

The Governments answer to Internment: Criminal charge strategy (The Diplock System 1973) and The Prison strategy.

From interment came criminal charge strategy. In 1973 it became apparent that the internment strategy was not working. Therefor they brought about the Diplock System (Bloody Sunday 2000 Pg 228 – 229). This removed any distinction between political violence and normal crime; it meant that trials could be conducted without a jury.  People who had been interrogation for purposes of and/or who had been forced to confess to an act of terrorism due to intense interrogation were then placed in prisons with regular criminals.

An outcome of this was that the arrested supposed terrorist who could be entirely innocent, completely disapproved of this, there were riots and they refused to wear the same clothing as other prisoners, they did not see themselves as criminals but political prisoners. The officers would then put the prisoners who were rioting in to solitary confinement and would not allow them to have any furniture in their cells during the day (Bloody Sunday 2000 Pg 242 – 243). They were advised that if they did not wear the prison uniforms they would have to either come out naked or stay in their cells. This resulted in many prisoners staying in their cells for days on end. They them staged “dirty protests” – not washing, shaving or cutting their hair and smearing their own excrement on the walls of the prisons cells. The prison officers would also punish them by putting them in confinement with nothing but a blanket for days. Hunger strikes also took place which devastating resulted in the some of these political prisoners dying. Obviously when images of this got into the media it provoked reactions from the nationalist parties outside and cause many protests and riots. Applications which were made to the human rights commission regarding their treatment failed and Margaret Thatcher refused to budge on changing any polices (Bloody Sunday 2000 Pg 242 – 243).

Response of the Law:

Northern Ireland does not have a written constitution protecting fundamental rights, or a Bill Of Rights (Bloody Sunday 2000 Pg 249). Therefore anything which is questioned goes through the normal civil and criminal process. This allows the law to say what they feel is right and wrong and would not have any great support for its people.  With issues likes stop and search no prior suspicion was required before searching people. However, the soldiers who did search the people were supposedly meant to be searching for transmitters and weapons. Even when it came to house searches and people were detained, this was not considered a breech on Human Rights, by the European Commission.  People were also shot dead when it was obvious that they could have been arrested instead. It was the E4a, well trained gunmen who carried out these acts. (Bloody Sunday 2000). The law was a law unto itself, and still is today with Ireland still not having a Bill of Rights.

Guardian Report and Action by Amnesty International today:

On the 11 October 2010 Ian Cobain of The Guardian Newspaper released a report and short film on the issues of Torture by the British government to Republicans. The video is a short film of stories from the victims and the arresting officers themselves who feel able to come forward with their stories now about the truth behind the conflict. His report is about the people who were wrongly convicted of terrorism. During the time of the conflicts, while people were under arrest for internment they were tortured in order to gain confessions.

Most of the time the form of torture used would be enough to cause harm, but not to leave many marks. One of the victims of the troubles was Charlie McMenamin, he was a 16 year old boy at the time who was arrested under suspicion of acts of terrorism, during his time under interrogation he was badly hurt and they would pull out his hair. He would have to go back for regular interviews. On one occasion he was so scared of going back that he informed his doctor about it, as he had attempted to commit suicide by slitting his own wrists, the doctor stated that he would still have to go to the meetings. Charlie eventually confessed to several actor of terrorism, even though when some of the terrorist’s acts had occurred, of which he was accused of, he was in a secure children’s home 75 miles away. Even with this solid alibi he was still convicted and sent to three years in prison. (Ian Cobain The Guardian 2010)

At the time it was not fully known what was happening behind the scenes. All that was being reported was that people were being arrested and that the police were on top of the terrorist. The only reason that people were being arrested is because people were confessing in order to stop the torture.

From this report Amnesty International started a new campaign called ‘Demand justice for Northern Ireland torture victims’. British Irish Rights Watch Director Jane Winter said:

‘We have long been aware of serious human rights violations against suspects and prisoners by members of the RUC and the army in Northern Ireland.  It is important that these shocking incidents are exposed and that where possible justice is now seen to be done.  The impunity around interrogation techniques amounting to torture has continued as we have seen in the case of Iraqi detainee Baha Mousa and others and must now be institutionally expunged.’

(Jane Winter Amnesty Article 11/10/10)

Amnesty International is campaigning for justice for the victims of the Irish conflict. One of the other things which they are doing is appealing for a Bill of Rights in Ireland. On the 31 March 2010 they made a submission to the N.I office consultation. Stating that any current proposal from the United Kingdome fall below standards and that it needs to be completely reassessed and better proposals need to be made to uphold human rights.  (Amnesty Article 31.03.2010)


This issue with holding terrorist without trial basically comes down to a breach of human rights. The law take the law into its own hands, by this I mean that it will make up its own rules in order to achieve the outcome it wants. Like holding suspects without charge, or torturing them until they get a confession to make it look like they are getting results. It is needed to say that not all the suspect were actually innocent, and the British army and RUC did arrest in imprison many terrorist; however it is the methods they used to do this which are unorthodox. It would be naive to believe that the British government were not still doing this today, as you can see for reports such as in Guantanamo Bay and the ‘war on Terror’ issues in the newspaper today.  Although at the time of the troubles it may not have been fully reported what was going on behind the scenes, it was still highly aware by the public and the politicians what was happening to the republicans, yet nothing was done about it. All that happened was that new laws were made in order to continue with their plans. In the case of Murray V the Ministry of defence, it was blatantly obvious that she had been wrongly treated yet the court overruled. The only glimmer of hope is that thankfully we have organisations such as Amnesty International who are not scared to raise awareness of these issues and are not scared to do all that they can to prevent them from happening and put proper policies in place to make that happen. The major issue is that not many policies have changed in Ireland to this day. The troubles and the actions of the law have caused great distrust. Restoring any confidence in Northern Ireland in politics will continue to be a long battle. Unless people’s human rights are upheld, then the law is not just and fair to all those whose rights it is supposed to protect.

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