British Government protected security forces from justice during Troubles, international experts find

Demonstrators protesting in February against the Legacy Act. File photo by Stephen Hamilton, Press Eye

Demonstrators protesting in February against the Legacy Act. File photo by Stephen Hamilton, Press Eye

THE British government operated a “widespread, systematic, and systemic” practice of protecting the security forces from justice during the Troubles, a panel of international human rights experts has found.

In a report published today, the panel found that the government showed an "extraordinary level of institutional failure" over killings linked to the state, collusion and torture.

The experts also found that the Legacy Act, which is due to come into force on Wednesday, “represents a continuation of impunity” and should be scrapped.

The act, which became law in September, will stop civil cases and inquests linked to the Troubles.

The panel also warned that the act will have international consequences and will be “likely to be used by repressive regimes around the world to justify and legitimise their own policies of impunity”.

The report - Bitter Legacy: State Impunity in the Northern Ireland Conflict - looked at the government's response to state killings, torture and collusion.

The panel, convened by the Norwegian Center for Human Rights at the request of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and the Pat Finucane Centre, examined 54 killings between the 1970s and 1990s.

It found investigations “demonstrated poor execution and/or omission of key investigative steps” including poor forensics, “poor quality” interviews of suspects, and that important lines of inquiry were not followed up.

“The investigations examined in detail generally demonstrated gross incompetence and negligence at best,” the report read.

The panel also looked at a policy operated by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army between 1969 and 1973.

The policy meant that soldiers accused of wrongdoing were only questioned via ‘tea and sandwiches’ interviews by Royal Military Police.

The report found that the “blatant deficiencies of this system shielded soldiers from accountability for state violence and is arguably the reason why not a single state actor was prosecuted between 1969 and 1974”.

"Overall, the investigations failed the relatives’ rights to truth, justice and reparation," the report read.


The human rights experts looked at torture and abuse of people held by the security forces.

They highlighted that some detainees were subjected to pratices including waterboarding; electric shock treatment; mock execution; the administration or threat of the administration of drugs; sexual abuse; sexual degradation, and humiliation.

The panel found that when complaints were lodged against police, the army and intelligence services, typically only “perfunctory investigations” were launched.

And it stated that a lack of "effective investigations has detrimentally affected victims’ right to justice and the proper functioning of the rule of law that would hold perpetrators to account".


The panel found that collusion was not simply carried out by a few members of the security forces and was actually "regarded by the British State as a useful tactic in the conflict".

Experts cited evidence from official reports, including the Kenova investigation into British agent Stakeknife, widely believed to be senior IRA member Freddie Scappaticci, which revealed “a wider picture of collusion than previously understood".

“Kenova exposed and confirmed allegations of astounding forms of collusion, including security forces’ complicity in the murder of uninvolved civilians by their agents, as well as in agents killing other agents,” the panel found.

“The report confirmed what appears to be near-total impunity for these actions during the conflict.”

The panel found that “the duty to investigate allegations of collusion, via criminal processes, remained largely unfulfilled during the conflict”.

Many people suspected of collusion could have been charged at the time, the panel stated.

It added that “an unknown number of lives would have been saved if correct processes had been followed during the conflict”.

“But a reluctance by the State to even investigate, let alone prosecute, its own agents, meant that victims have not achieved the accountability to which they are entitled,” the report read.

Irish government

The report focused on the British government.

However, the panel also found that the Irish government did not carry out proper investigations in several cases “dating from as early as the early 1970s”.

“Subsequent, post-conflict attempts to discover the truth and hold perpetrators to account were invariably hampered by evidence being dated, and sometimes lost forever,” the report found.

Receive The Detail story alerts by email
Subscribe on Substack