As British as ....

This review of Cruel Britannia initially featured in History Ireland September 2013.

Image of Cruel Britannia
Cruel Britannia
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 ‘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 post boxes. The point is underlined with the Guardian reporting in June that the British government is to pay out around £19 million to over 5000 Kenyan victims of British torture,

Many years 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 aka British Intelligence Agencies is real.
This is a crucially important book, not just for 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 geographical neighbour, the UK. 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 Siochana occasionally mutters about taking. A substantial body of RUC detectives took their action because they had been recorded by MI5 torturing their detainees in 20 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 2 with startling effect, even to a reader like myself who has little difficulty in believing that the British brutally treat people in their custody. Ever since when at 14 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 part with, 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 consistent: systematically torture and then systemically 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.

Ian Cobain. Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture. London: Portobello Books. £18.99. ISBN 978-1-84627-333-9


  1. Thank you a cara for again highlighting this as you say "crucially important "book,it is also true the stuff of nightmares,but unlike nightmares when the victim wakes,that is if they are allowed to sleep , the nightmare just gets worse,and what really makes this whole scenario all the more frightening is that its happening on a global scale ,with all sorts of governments and juntas participating in one form or another,even here the government in the Republic is culpable by allowing rendition flights to be refueled at Shannon,Ian Cobains book is I think one of the most important books in a very long time and to ignore the warnings contained within is akin to turkeys voting for christmas, not just a brilliant review a cara but highlighting human rights abuse on a global scale which until its stopped is being carried out in our names,this book should carry the warning ignore at your peril!

  2. Thanks for this review, Anthony. I remember you mentioning this book some months ago, but I had forgotten about it. I bought the Kindle version a few minutes ago.

    In my view, the greatest hypocrisy of the Troubles was the efforts of most of the mainstream media in Britain and Ireland to portray the British security forces in the North as principled fellows doing their best to bring those murdering sadistic Provos to justice. At the very least, many historians and journalists of that period turned a blind eye to the evidence of the RUC's systematic use of torture to extract confessions while exaggerating the extent to which armed republicans used such methods. I guess those writers justified this unethical elision to themselves as necessary in order to defeat the Provo campaign. In the end, though, such moral compromises lead only to Animal Farm-style conclusions.

    In my adult life, I have never sought to justify the long, offensive campaign by the PIRA. I also think the bombing of economic targets was inexcusable. However, I do find it astounding that I was castigated as an "apologist for murder" when I argued recently that armed republicans were entirely justified in defending their communities in the late 60s and early 70s from loyalist pogroms and from assaults by British security forces who did very little to protect nationalists from loyalist aggression in the first place. Ah well...

  3. Marty,

    Ian Cobain has done a great job in bringing this into public view. Not one torturer charged or seemingly investigated. This is one of the serious problems with prosecuting individuals. It completely overlooks the systemic nature of the problem.


    one problem is that the same people who know about the torture will still try to justify it or put it in a different moral category from the abuses perpetrated by republicans. They will resort to 'ends justifies the means' type logic. The British torture and they continue to torture. That is the bottom line.

  4. Great review Anthony , sadly there are those who know all about the torture and those who read about it, even to this very day.

    No matter which country the British went to, torture was endemic.

    But it is now common practice throughout the world.

  5. Anthony,

    "one problem is that the same people who know about the torture will still try to justify it or put it in a different moral category from the abuses perpetrated by republicans. They will resort to 'ends justifies the means' type logic. The British torture and they continue to torture. That is the bottom line."

    I have made the case to unionists and anti-PIRA nationalists that while the PIRA campaign was not a just war in the theoretical sense, it was certainly an understandable consequence of British actions and certain defensive measures by republicans were completely justified. Indeed, some people seem quite appalled by my contention that the bulk of Provo volunteers were not bloodthirsty sectarian killers dedicated to destruction for its own sake.

    In my view, if you were to base your understanding of the Troubles on opinion pieces in Irish newspapers like the Sunday Independent, you might believe that the TUAS strategy is still in operation.

  6. Alfie

    I have often wondered how the mainstream media would cover the Provo insurgency if it was happening today. True they would wish to replicate the way they covered the north between 1969-2004.But given the multitude of web sites today which believe in telling the truth, they would have a much harder task in convincing people their MSM bullshit was the truth.

    I'm sure they would use the law to shut down web sites, but as one shuts down another opens up, or as the Pirate Bay fiasco shows there is nearly always a work around.

  7. It seems only cherry-picked individuals get their sentences quashed. Prominent SF people, makes you wonder.