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Peter Hadden

Bennett Report – Police torture exposed

(April 1979)

From Militant Irish Monthly, April 1979.
Transcribed by Ciaran Crossey.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Police doctor, Robert Irwin’s statement that he had recorded no less than 150 cases of injuries inflicted on prisoners during police interrogation has served to expose the methods used by the police in Castlereagh, Geogh and other police barracks in Northern Ireland.

Dr Irwin’s allegations can be added to the ever-growing list of complaints already made about the methods of RUC interrogations. They help clarify the actual circumstances surrounding the death last year of active trade unionist, Brian Maguire, who either hanged himself or was hanged while held in Castlereagh police station.

In particular they underline the conclusion already reached by Amnesty International following an investigation into complaints of brutality in November and December 1977.

Their report published in June 1978, divided police methods into the categories of physical and psychological ill treatment. Among the ‘physical’ methods they describe are ‘beatings, attempted strangulation, pressure to sensitive parts of the body, binding of limbs, prolonged standing or squatting in awkward positions, prolonged physical exercise and burning with cigarettes.’

‘Mental pressures include prolonged and oppressive questioning by teams, threats to the family of the suspect, verbal abuse and intimidation.’ Following the Amnesty report, the Government appointed an official committee of inquiry whose findings, the Bennett Report, have just been published.

The report notes that, early in 1977, forensic medical officers, examining prisoners became aware ‘of a large increase of significant bruising, contusions and abrasions of the body and of evidence of hyper-tension of joints (especially of the wrist), of tenderness associated with hair pulling and persistent jabbing, of rupture of the eardrums and or increased mental agitation and excessive anxiety states’. The Association of Forensic Medical Officers in the summer and autumn of 1977 ‘made repeated representations to the Police Authority, to senior police officers and to other persons of authority’. Not only were these approaches ignored, but more ominously ‘when denials of ill-treatment were made by the police, some of the medical officers who had examined prisoners, and found injuries, had reason to fear for their reputation.’

Access to Solicitors

Although the police have a clear code of conduct governing arrests and interrogations, and although the Judges’ Rules governing police treatment of suspects as drawn up for England were applied in Northern Ireland from 1976, these are simply set aside when the police deem them a nuisance.

So with the issue of access to solicitors dealt with at length in this report. The RUC code recommends that a subject be given access to a solicitor, and then cancels the recommendation by adding ‘unless this would hinder the investigation.’

But of course if someone is beaten up, or threatened, they can always complain. Their complaint against the police, they make to the police! There is even a special Complaints and Discipline branch of the RUC under the charge of a senior Police constable which does nothing else but investigate complaints. If its usefulness were measured by the results of it’s work, it’s members would be redundant by now.

Last year alone, of the 3,056 people who were held for questioning in Northern Ireland under either the Emergency Provisions Act or the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 411 made some form of complaint about their treatment. Many of these complaints were of physical assault. Many were substantiated by medical evidence supplied by police doctors.

Yet between 1972 and 1978 only 19 police officers were prosecuted. Of these only 2 were found guilty and in both these cases the convictions were set aside on appeal.

As regards internal disciplinary measures, the Bennett report states, ‘We record here that at least since 1974, no disciplinary proceedings have been brought in respect of the interrogation of persons in custody.’

Other recommendations are followed by the fatal trip wire clause ‘except in certain circumstances’.

The Bennett committee assumes that the ‘heads’ of the police are guiltless and recommends that closed circuit television camera be installed in the interview rooms.

Another much publicised recommendation is that prisoners should have access to a solicitor after each 48 hours in custody. While is obviously better than not seeing a solicitor at all, it will be no great comfort to those under-going RUC ‘treatment’. Solicitors will be granted an interview with their client and then asked to leave. They will not be permitted to be present during interrogation. Thus the report is really recommending that the police be given spells of two days in which to break down the resistance of the prisoner.

Dealing with the investigation of complaints the report may just as well not have been written. While noting the fact that the Chief Constable has continually ignored complaints brought to him by the Police Authority it produces the truly dramatic suggestion that the Chief Constable ‘pay careful regard’ to Police Authority representation!

The Bennett committee was only allowed to focus it’s attention on one part of the process of repression. When the activities of the police in Castlereagh and elsewhere are viewed in their proper place in the procedure of operating the Emergency Provision and the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, it becomes clear that the extorting of confessions by whatever means is part of overall policy.

Arbitrary Arrest

These two Acts together allow a person to be arrested on suspicion of almost anything at the subjective whim of any policeman. A suspect can be held for up to seven days and can be detained at the whim of the Secretary of State for an indefinite period.

Detention orders are not now being signed – but only because the legalised form of detention or internment created by the other provisions of the Emergency Provisions Act make them unnecessary for the moment. This Act allows for trial before mock non-jury courts where the onus of proof rests with the accused. Article 8 makes it permissible for a statement made by the accused to the police (in some cases even an unsigned statement has been admitted) to be used in all cases unless it can be proven that inhuman or degrading treatment was used to obtain this statement.

The methods of interrogation studied by the Bennett report are not the isolated actions of a few CID men. The fact is that without the ability of the police to obtain confessions the entire system would break down. Once again the facts speak for themselves. 94% of cases heard at the Belfast City Commission (the special courts), result in conviction. Of these the prosecution in between 75%–80% of cases, depends wholly or mainly on statements made by the accused to the police.

The Labour Movement in Britain and Ireland cannot afford to allow the continued use of these repressive methods and this repressive legislation. In Britain the Prevention of Terrorism Act has been extensively used as a device to permit arbitrary arrest and information gathering. So far 3,5000 people have been detained under this Act in Britain. Of these, only 100 have been charged with ANY offence.


This legislation, these police methods, are weapons in the hands of the ruling class which they hope to perfect for future use against the Labour Movement. ‘Justice’ as handed down by the establishment is really a means for the preservation of class injustice. Today it is those suspected of issues relating to the Northern Ireland troubles. Tomorrow attempts will be made to use these draconian measures against the Labour Movement. Terrorism as defined in these Acts is defined as ‘the use of violence for political ends and includes any use of violence for putting the public or any section of the public at risk’. That there are already many Backwoodsmen in Britain and Ireland who would with great ease apply this definition to cover such offences as picketing and other forms of industrial action, should be sufficient warning to the Labour Movement as to the ultimate direction in which all repressive laws will be aimed.

Labour Movement

The Bennett report and other allegations about police brutality should be used by the Labour Movement as part of a campaign for the immediate repeal of all repressive laws and for a review of all the sentences of those convicted by the Diplock Courts. Such a review cannot be left to the establishment but must be carried our by the Labour Movement which is the only body capable of ensuring that real justice is applied.

  • Repeal all Repressive Laws
  • Disband the Special Courts
  • Close the interrogation centres
  • For a review by the Labour Movement of all sentences handed out
    by the Special Courts under the Emergency Provisions Act

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