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The Butcher’s Apron – Britain’s War In Ireland

Irish Civilian Tortured In The British Occupied North Of Ireland, Image Early 1970s

A few days ago I discussed the casual revelation by a former British Intelligence agent, the writer and historian Harry Ferguson, of the British Army policy of torturing suspects and detainees in the North of Ireland through waterboarding. Now more evidence has emerged of this abuse – from the British judicial system that originally gave legal sanction to Britain’s “interrogation in-depth” techniques in Ireland in the 1970s and ‘80s.

From the Guardian newspaper:

“The last man to be sentenced to death in the UK has had his conviction quashed after a court heard that he confessed to the crime after being waterboarded and subjected to death threats. His successful appeal comes 39 years after his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Liam Holden served 17 years behind bars after being convicted of being the IRA sniper who shot dead Frank Bell, a teenage member of the Parachute Regiment, in west Belfast in 1972.

Holden’s conviction was quashed after the court of appeal heard that he had signed a confession only after being taken to an army base near to the scene of the shooting and subjected to waterboarding and death threats.

More significantly, inquiries by the Criminal Cases Review Commission discovered evidence that the army’s practice of detaining and questioning suspects at that time was unlawful, potentially opening an avenue of appeal for other people convicted of terrorism offences during the early years of the conflict in Northern Ireland.”

BBC News has a more detailed report:

“It happened almost 40 years ago, but Liam Holden can still recall the sensation of gasping for breath as water was slowly poured on to a towel covering his face.

“That feeling will never leave me,” he says.

“Even talking about it now, I get a gagging sensation in my throat.”

He was 19 at the time and was being questioned by members of the Parachute Regiment about the murder of a soldier, Private Frank Bell.

The teenage chef was taken from his home and brought to an army post at Black Mountain school, where he was held for almost five hours.

By the end of his time in military custody, he had agreed to sign a statement admitting he had shot the soldier.

“I didn’t think about going to prison or anything like that, I just confessed to make them stop”

So what did the Army do during that time? Liam Holden says he was subjected to sustained torture and then threatened that he would be shot if he did not confess to the killing.

“I was beaten and they told me to admit I had shot the soldier, but I said that wasn’t true because I didn’t.

“Then six soldiers came into the cubicle where I was being held and grabbed me. They held me down on the floor and one of them placed a towel over my face, and they got water and they started pouring the water through the towel all round my face, very slowly,” he says.

“After a while you can’t get your breath but you still try to get your breath, so when you were trying to breathe in through your mouth you are sucking the water in, and if you try to breathe in through your nose, you are sniffing the water in.

Liam Holden says those who forced him to sign the confession knew he was innocent.

“It was continual, a slow process, and at the end of it you basically feel like you are suffocating. They did not stop until I passed out, or was close to passing out.

“They repeated that three or four times, but were still getting the same answer. I told them I had not shot the soldier.”

Mr Holden, now a father of two, said the soldiers then changed tactics and put a hood over his head and told him he was going to be shot.

“They put me into a car and took me for a drive and said they were bringing me to a loyalist area,” he said.

“I couldn’t see where I was but I was in a field somewhere. One of the soldiers put a gun to my head and said that if I didn’t admit to killing the soldier that they were going to shoot me and just leave me there.

“I had a hood over my head and a gun at my head in the middle of a field and was told I would be killed if I didn’t admit it. There were no ifs or buts, I just said I did it.

“I didn’t think about going to prison or anything like that, I just confessed to make them stop.”

The term “waterboarding” was not in use at the time, but Mr Holden’s description of what happened to him, which he outlined in court at the time, are remarkably similar to the accounts of others who claim to have been subjected to the same form of torture by the CIA in recent years.”

Liam Holden also described his torture in the book, The Guinea Pigs, a publication that the British government banned from sale or importation into Britain:

“But electric-shock treatment was not the only ‘experiment’ undertaken by zealous interrogators, intent on brushing up their techniques. The ALJ report isolated cases of the Falanga (beatings of the soles of the feet with heavy rods) being used, and also the water torture. The latter appears to have been used only during the months of October and November 1972 at the Black Mountain Army post and at the Grand Central Hotel. Two of the victims, Liam Holden and William Parker, told how they had had water poured slowly through a towel over their faces until they felt themselves suffocating. This is of course a well-known torture used in particular by the French in Algeria and the present military regime in Greece. After a lengthy treatment of this kind, Holden ‘confessed’ to shooting a soldier in Ballymurphy. In most cases where the sole evidence against a man has been his own alleged ‘confession’, the judges in Northern Ireland have thrown the cases out of court and the Special Branch have been content to arrest the acquitted man as he tries to leave the court and send him to the detention camp at Long Kesh. In Holden’s case, however, he was convicted as a result of his ‘confession’ and sentenced to death.”

The British have consistently denied the catalogue of abuse recorded in the pages of the “Guinea Pigs”, along with the many other accounts of torture in the Occupied North of Ireland. Yet with every passing year those denials ring all the more hollow.

4 comments on “The Butcher’s Apron – Britain’s War In Ireland

  1. Diarmuid Breatnach

    Torture is used by many regimes and they learn techniques from one another. Partial drowning, not the joking Army slang of “waterboarding” has and continues to be used against Basque independence Left activists (but they mostly use the plastic bag) and was of course among the torture techniques used in Iraq and Afghanistan by British and US forces.


    • Very true, Diarmuid. The situation in Spain and the Basque Country in relation to torture was particularly bad. Though things have improved since the days of the GAL’s Dirty War there is still much abuse occurring, especially of the psychological variety, both on political detainees and their families.


  2. Yet, in another article on the BBC n.Ireland website, we have absurd claims from a DUP councillor that it is wrong to assume nationalists would be offended by Belfast city hall flying an armed forces flag for a full week


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