BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Sunday, 2 January, 2005, 00:49 GMT
Internment report led to fury
by Paul Reynolds
BBC News website

A furious memo from the then Prime Minister Edward Heath about a report on alleged torture by the army and police during internment in Northern Ireland has come to light in files released by the National Archives.

Long Kesh internment camp
Long Kesh internment camp 1971

Mr Heath wrote the memorandum in advance of publication of the report, chaired by Sir Edmund Compton, in 1971: "It seems to me to be one of the most unbalanced, ill-judged reports I have ever read," he stated.

Amid arguments similar to those surrounding the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, the Compton report examined so-called sensory deprivation techniques used on IRA suspects held without trial - hooding, wall-standing, white noise, sleep deprivation.

It ruled, controversially, that these did not constitute torture or brutality but did amount to "physical ill-treatment."

Too far

Even that appears to have gone too far for the conservative prime minister.

His memo said: "It is astonishing that men of such experience should have got themselves so lost in the trees, or indeed the undergrowth, that they are proved quite incapable of seeing the wood."

The first part of the report was on the arrest operation which heralded the introduction of internment.

Mr Heath commented: "When you go through the report carefully, the number of incidents involved in the arrest of 300 odd men were small and, in the conditions of war against the IRA, trivial.

"But nowhere is this stated loud and clear and a clean bill of health given to the army."

As for the report's findings on the interrogation methods, he said: "Here they seem to have gone to endless lengths to show that anyone not given 3-star hotel facilities suffered hardship and ill-treatment. Again, nowhere is this set in the context of war against the IRA.

"What, above all, I object to - and I think many others will share this view to the point of driving themselves into a lesser or greater degree of fury - is that the unfounded allegations made for the most part by outsiders are put on exactly the same level as tested evidence from the Army and the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary]. This I believe to be intolerable."


Mr Heath demanded of his cabinet secretary Sir Burke Trend that steps be taken to make a "robust and forthright" response.

However, exactly how this response was discussed is not known, because a number of files from key meetings in the days following have been removed from the archive folder without explanation.

It seems to me to be one of the most unbalanced, ill-judged reports I have ever read
Edward Heath on Compton report

After publication, the government made a major effort to justify its position. Measures included allowing access to a military hospital to film wounded soldiers.

Interviews were also offered with senior military figures who had led previous counter-insurgency campaigns in Kenya, Cyprus, Malaya and Aden, where the interrogation methods had been developed and used.

In the aftermath of the furore over internment, the government's "Intelligence Co-ordinator" was asked to examine interrogation techniques.

The files show that he recommended that there should be limits on the use of certain methods - no more than two hours for hooding or wall-standing and sparing use of "white sound".

But the following year, after a widespread public outcry, Mr Heath backed down and announced in Parliament that sensory deprivation would in future be banned.


The philosophy behind its use is also revealed in the files which contain the full text of a document drawn up by the Joint Intelligence Committee in 1965.

This laid out the principles of prolonged interrogation which it says "calls for a psychological attack."

The interrogator must remember that he is engaged in a contest of wills
Joint Intelligence Committee

It dismisses torture and physical cruelty as "professionally unrewarding since a suspect so treated may be persuaded to talk, but not tell the truth."

It goes on: "The actual and instinctive resistance of the person concerned to interrogation must be overcome by permissible techniques. This will be more easily achieved in an atmosphere of rigid discipline. It may therefore be necessary for interviews to be carried out for long periods by day and by night.

"It is essential that moral ascendancy over the detainee is established immediately. The interrogator must remember that he is engaged in a contest of wills."


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific