Sunday Life

Force under fire: Internment
A disaster for the forces of law and order
04 January 2004
INTERMENT - introduced on August 9, 1971 - turned out to be a disastrous episode for Northern Ireland.

In a series of swoops, 354 out of 452 identified targets - all alleged republicans - were arrested and detained without trial.

It was Stormont PM, Brian Faulkner, who pushed the British Government for internment, despite advice from the Army's GOC, Lt General Harry Tuzo, that it was militarily unnecessary.

Against a background of increasing IRA violence, and pressure from hardliners in his own party, Faulkner wanted decisive action against the IRA.

Tuzo felt it would do more harm than good, and, instead, strongly favoured a more robust policy of short-term interrogations, utilising terms of the Special Powers Act.

Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling's insistence, that Protestants must be included on the internment arrest list, was also ignored.

And the Irish Premier, Jack Lynch, not only refused to simultaneously arrest IRA activists in the Republic, but strongly urged the British against internment, fearing "it would produce an explosion it would be impossible to contain".

The RUC chief constable, Graham Shillington, had agreed, however, that the time for internment had come.

Within 24 hours of the swoops, 13 people had been killed, as widespread rioting, shooting, arson and disorder erupted across Northern Ireland - 240 houses were destroyed in the Ardoyne district alone.

The violent reaction - on a scale totally unforeseen by the security forces - caused the authorities to drop plans for a second swoop, on 200 further suspects.

The IRA quickly demonstrated that it had been far from neutered by Faulkner's gamble.

In the pre-internment months, from January 1971, there had been over 250 explosions, and 27 people had lost their lives - two police, 10 soldiers, and 15 civilians.

In the remaining five months, after internment, the death toll jumped to 173, and explosions for the year totalled 1,022. Shooting incidents soared from 213, in 1970, to 1,756, in 1971, the vast majority of them after August 9.

Far from taking IRA leaders and activists out of circulation, as Faulkner suggested had happened, the devastating escalation in violence exposed the abysmal quality of the outdated intelligence, on which the arrests were made.

Many of those "lifted" were arrested on the basis of inadequate and inaccurate intelligence.

In some cases, fathers and sons with the same names were confused. Many of those lifted were traditionalist, well-known republicans, no longer active in the movement. Others were peaceful civil rights activists.

The identities of new, younger activists would take the authorities several more years to identify with any certainty, and in any numbers.

The one-sided implementation of internment, with no loyalists or Protestants arrested, justified the warning by nationalist critics that internment was the best recruiting sergeant the IRA could ever have hoped for.

Indeed, there is ample evidence that internment caused many people to become directly or indirectly involved with the IRA, and set off the uncontrollable "explosion" that Jack Lynch correctly predicted.

Despite Reginald Maudling's specific insistence that Protestants must be included on the arrest list, they were excluded at the last minute.

Faulkner told a concerned Stormont cabinet colleague that, at present, he was advised that there was no case to justify the detention of Protestants.

The attorney general, Basil Kelly, confirmed that the police had been genuinely unable to furnish them with any information, suggesting that a subversive organisation existed in the Protestant community.

This was plainly myopic.

One of the first signs of resurgent violence had come in May 1966, when Protestant extremists, designating themselves the 'Ulster Volunteer Force' , declared war on the IRA.

The warning was dismissed as the work of cranks, until a month later, when a Catholic barman was shot dead and two companions wounded, as they left a pub on the Shankill Road.

The first bombing of the Troubles, attacks on public utilities, in 1969, had been the work of loyalists, who also claimed the first police life, during a riot to protest against proposed police reforms.

By 1971, all sorts of shadowy loyalist organisations had been formed.

The omission of any Protestant subversives was a bigoted and costly blunder.

Catholics believed the RUC was being used as an instrument of repression by unionists.

More importantly, the loyalists, who would have been on a properly balanced internment list, would soon launch a campaign of brutal sectarian assassination, randomly targeting Catholics.

Dr Robert Ramsey, Faulkner's private secretary, has outlined a number of reasons for the failure of internment, including:

- "It had become so obviously 'inevitable' that many of its intended prisoners had already fled."

- "The intelligence on which the arrests were made proved to be sadly out of date . . . the Irish Republic took a cynically opportunist view of the situation, both providing a safe haven for men on the run, and adding a loud condemnatory voice against the measure, in the forum of world opinion."

- "It was seen as one sided. The arrest of some loyalist paramilitaries, who had been active a few years previously, had been considered at political level, in both Belfast and London, but on the advice of the security forces, had not been carried out."

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