Statewatch article: RefNo# 26850
"The 'War on terror' - Lessons from Northern Ireland" by Paddy Hillyard
Statewatch Bulletin; vol 15 no 5 September-October 2005
Marx made many comments about history. But one particular comment is important when reflecting upon the current war on terror. He pointed out that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and second as farce. This is an apt description for the current racketing-up of the anti-terror legislation by the United Kingdom parliament. It conveniently ignores the 105 odd “Acts of Coercion” in Ireland in the nineteenth century, which did little to quell the dissent and led eventually to the granting of independence. It tragically ignores the Special Powers Act, the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Acts and the Prevention of Terrorism Acts of the twentieth century. Most of these anti-terrorist measures were counterproductive. Many of the actions taken simply served to increase the levels of violence and alienation and prolonged the conflict before a political settlement rather than a military defeat could be obtained. Now history repeats itself as farce.

The new proposed terror laws will include outlawing ‘glorification’ of terrorism, an offence of acts preparatory to terrorism, laws against giving or receiving terror training, a law against the indirect incitement of terrorism, laws against bookshops selling extremist material, the reintroduction of internment in the guise of detention with suspects able to be held for up to three months, and the requirement that those applying for British citizenship must be of good character. Many of these proposals have been tried before in some form in Ireland. The aim of this short paper is to comment on some of the more important measures.


The single most disastrous measure in Northern Ireland was the introduction of internment in 1971.[1] Symbolically, it suggested to the nationalist population that their demands for a more fair and just society in Northern Ireland could no longer be carried forward through dialogue and persuasion. The rule of law had been abandoned. Nearly 2,000 people were interned over the period and less than 150 of them were Protestants. Practically, it led to hundreds of young men in working class nationalist communities joining the IRA and creating one of the most efficient insurgency forces in the world.


Internment was accompanied by the ‘torture’ of a selected number of internees. It involved the use of five techniques. Each internee was spread-eagled some distance from a wall and made to place their hands against the wall to hold their weight. A hood was placed over their heads and a high-pitched whine was played. If they fell down they were beaten and placed again in the same position. They were deprived of food and sleep. The Government set up a Committee of Inquiry to investigate the allegations under Sir Edward Compton.[2] He was not asked to comment on the legality of the techniques and make a vacuous distinction between ‘brutality’ and ‘physical ill-treatment’, deciding that the techniques fell into the latter rather than the former category. The confirmation that the techniques had been used and the attempt to argue that the practices did not amount to brutality united the Catholic community behind the IRA. In 1975 Amnesty established an independent Commission and reported on a number of further cases into the ill-treatment of prisoners and internees.[3] The revelations further alienated nationalist communities.

When the images began to emerge from Abu Ghraib prison showing prisoners hooded, humiliated and tortured few people in Northern Ireland were surprised and expressed deep cynicism when the authorities claimed that the practices were not systemic but the unauthorised behaviour of a few individuals. The lesson from Northern Ireland is that these barbarian methods of interrogation were common practice within the British army and no doubt within other armies worldwide and approved at the highest level. To compound matters, the government now appears to be prepared to allow evidence obtained throug

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