Today marks the forty-fifth anniversary of Operation Demetrius, where the British Army conducted dawn raids across Northern Ireland, leading to the arrest and imprisonment without trial of 342 suspected members of the Irish Republican Army.

Unsurprisingly, the raids were poorly received by Irish nationalists, who rioted throughout Northern Ireland in response. Over the three days of the operation, 24 people were killed, 20 of whom were civilians. Over 7000 people were left homeless after the violence, with Protestant and Catholic families fleeing to safer areas, burning their homes behind them so that the properties would not fall into each other’s hands.

Despite the eruption of violence sparked by the raids, Operation Demetrius is more often associated in Irish memory with allegations of torture. Fourteen of the 342 IRA suspects arrested during the operation were subject to a series of special interrogation methods known as the “five techniques“. These techniques were:

  1. Wall-standing: “forcing the detainees to remain for periods of some hours in a ‘stress position’, described by those who underwent it as being ‘spreadeagled against the wall, with their fingers put high above the head against the wall, the legs spread apart and the feet back, causing them to stand on their toes with the weight of the body mainly on the fingers’.”
  2. Hooding: “putting a black or navy coloured bag over the detainees’ heads and, at least initially, keeping it there all the time except during interrogation.”
  3. Subjection to noise: “pending their interrogations, holding the detainees in a room where there was a continuous loud and hissing noise.”
  4. Deprivation of sleep: “pending their interrogations, depriving the detainees of sleep.”
  5. Deprivation of food and drink: “subjecting the detainees to a reduced diet during their stay at the centre and pending interrogations.”

These techniques formed the foundation for two cases that the Irish government brought before European courts for breaches of human rights.

The first, in 1976, was a case brought before the European Commission of Human Rights. Prior to 1998, individual complaints could not be brought before the European Court of Human Rights. They would go to the European Commission, and then the Commission would bring the case before the European Court, if it thought the case was sufficiently strong. In 1976, the Irish government brought an action against the United Kingdom on behalf of five of the prisoners subject to the ‘five techniques’, known as the ‘Hooded Men’. They claimed that the five techniques amounted to torture, which was prohibited by the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, when the case went to the European Court in 1978, the Court disagreed. They said:

Although the five techniques, as applied in combination, undoubtedly amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, although their object was the extraction of confessions, the naming of others and/or information and although they were used systematically, they did not occasion suffering of the particular intensity and cruelty implied by the word torture as so understood.

Nevertheless, “inhuman and degrading treatment” was also a breach of the Hooded Men’s human rights. During the case, the United Kingdom government released a statement that:

The ‘five techniques’ will not in any circumstances be reintroduced as an aid to interrogation.

Operation Demetrius marks a low point in the rule of law in Northern Ireland. Rule of law principles received their fair share of abuse during the Troubles, but Operation Demetrius’ use of imprisonment without trial, and treatment that would later become known in Iraq and Afghanistan as “enhanced interrogation“, marks an egregious lapse in respect for fundamental principles.

The debates about Operation Demetrius foreshadowed the contemporary debates about the limits of justifiable interrogation techniques in the War on Terror. These debates remind us that each generation in turn is entrusted with the protection and promotion of the rule of law.


— William Shrubb