Cruel Britannia: a secret history of torture

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

3Ian Cobain
(Portobello Books, £18.99)
ISBN 9781846273339

Many years ago, when the UK prime minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, was eager to proclaim the British authenticity of the North of Ireland, she pronounced it to be ‘as British as Finchley’, her own constituency in England. She could as easily have said the same of torture, it too being as British as Finchley or, as the author of Cruel Britannia put it, red postboxes. The point is underlined with the Guardian’s report in June 2013 that the British government is to pay out around £19 million to over 5,000 Kenyan victims of British torture.
Long ago, having feasted on numerous Stephen King books, the induced fright fatigue left me feeling immune to the phenomenon of horror. Ian Cobain has swept away the erroneous comfort of such a belief. Horror fiction has an associated escape mechanism: the reader can always jump up consoled by the fact that it isn’t really happening. Alarmingly, Cruel Britannia brings it home that the worst nightmares can be true and that Freddie Kruger, a.k.a. British intelligence agencies, is real.

This is a crucially important book, and not just for the millions of law-abiding British citizens who should recoil in horror at what emerges from its pages. The Irish government too, and its citizenry, must ask serious questions about its closest neighbour. In 1977, when the government in Dublin had succeeded in forcing its London counterpart before the European Court on charges of using torture against Irish citizens, the British were giving undertakings to behave while scheming up new ways to misbehave towards those in their custody.

On page 190 Cruel Britannia reveals the details of a 1977 strike by RUC detectives. It was not the usual industrial action such as the Garda Síochána occasionally mutters about taking. A substantial body of RUC detectives took their action because they had been recorded by MI5 torturing their detainees in twenty interrogation rooms in Castlereagh. Their demand: the freedom to torture in private. They won.

One of the people who made this brutal system possible was the reactionary jurist Kenneth Diplock, whose history stretched back to his time as secretary to the highly secretive British wartime Executive Committee—‘torture central’. His jury-free courts, purpose-built in 1973 to facilitate the evidentiary value of confessions, no matter how extracted, continue to masquerade as courts of law in the North.

Today in the North a justice campaign is being built around the convictions of people who were tried without jury and against whom the sole evidence was a signed confession. Through Cobain we now know that the British state has in its possession records of just how such confessions were obtained in the supposedly secretive but monitored environment of RUC interrogation centres. That information should be made available forthwith: not for the purpose of prosecuting the RUC torturers involved. Many, like the thug Bill Mooney, are most likely deceased. But it would be an exercise in justice merely to establish that many people who now carry murder convictions are in fact innocent and that the ‘truth’ they provided in their statements of admission is pretty much useless. That the families of the victims might find it painful to realise that they too were duped by the RUC is hardly a reason for allowing the torture-induced myths of what happened to their lost ones to continue.

Doubtless the British have been practitioners of the dark art of torture for aeons. Cobain merely documents it in its international dimension from World War II with startling effect, even to a reader like myself who has little difficulty in believing that the British treat people brutally in their custody. Ever since when at fourteen years of age I was made to stand over a radiator in Musgrave Street RUC station while being beaten by a detective trying to extract information that I refused to divulge, I have known that it is ‘big boys’ rules’ once in the custody of British police.

Cobain explains the cover-up as efficiently as he does the torture. Whether in their conventional wars or in their anti-insurrection campaigns, British warlords have ensured a remarkable consistency: systematically to torture and then systemically to lie to mask a hidden brutal world.

Irish citizens might just think twice about what country they visit. They have no guarantee that a citizen will not be tortured in a foreign country at the request of the British, merely for the purpose of pressurising them into joining some armed republican organisation that the British want monitored more closely. Unfortunates have been subject to rendition followed by torture in foreign jails while British officials framed questions for the interrogators and drooled over answers extracted.

This deeply unsettling book, awash with torture narratives from different countries where the British state has found itself pitted against indigenous populations, reminds us of the precarious world we negotiate, for the most part oblivious to the horrible fate the upholders of law and order have planned for us should we fall into their hands. The Irish writer Roddy Doyle might yet pen a novel The Rule of Law ha ha ha. But it will evoke little laughter as it details screams of pain. HI

Anthony McIntyre is a former IRA prisoner and the author of Good Friday: the death of Irish republicanism (


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