Internment in Northern Ireland


A poster condemning Brian Faulkner’s policy of internment

Internment is the imprisonment or detention of individuals without a fair trial or hearing, usually in a time of war or domestic conflict. Internment was introduced in August 1971 by Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner, under the auspices of the Special Powers Act. This was not the first use of internment in Irish history, nor was it entirely unexpected. Faulkner’s decision to use interment came at a pivotal time in the Troubles, when civil unrest and paramilitary violence were both on the increase. The Provisional IRA had intensified its campaign against security forces, killing its first British soldier in February 1971 and kidnapping and murdering three others in Belfast the following month. By August 1971 there had been almost 100 deaths from political violence, four times the number of the previous year. Catholic civilians had also turned on the British Army because of its heavy handed tactics in Ballymurphy, the Falls and elsewhere in 1970. This growing anti-British sentiment provided the Provisional IRA not just with new recruits but with a civilian population willing to support and conceal them. Faulkner’s use of internment was intended to extract IRA leaders, organisers and active volunteers from the general population – not just to curtail attacks on security forces but to prevent a groundswell of support for the IRA that might lead to a full scale civil war. But internment had little impact on the IRA, in fact most historians now consider it one of the most disastrous policy decisions during the entire Troubles.

The two men ultimately responsible for introducing internment were Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulkner and British prime minister Edward Heath. Faulkner became prime minister in March 1971 following the resignation of James Chichester-Clark, who had been worried out of office by escalating violence and increasing British interference. Faulkner was a much more resolute figure: a career politician who had sat in the Northern Ireland parliament for more than 20 years and a staunch Unionist. Faulkner tried resolving the problems of 1971 with mild political concessions, coupled with tough talk on security. The incoming prime minister appointed a Catholic Unionist as his state minister, selected a non-Unionist in his cabinet put opposition MPs in charge of important committees. But these appointments were as far as Faulkner was likely to go down a reformist path. Meanwhile, Faulkner thundered publicly about the “thugs and murderers” in the IRA and promised that his government would take tough action.


Brian Faulkner, speaking after the commencement of Operation Demetrius

Faulkner claimed to be a reluctant convert to the idea of internment. He had witnessed its successful use to scatter and weaken the IRA in the late 1950s – but he had opposed the idea under Chichester-Clark’s government. Nevertheless, by July 1971 Faulkner was actively lobbying for the internment of suspected Republican paramilitaries. Internment could not be implemented without the British Army and thus the backing of Westminster. When Faulkner and British leader Edward Heath discussed the issue in early August, Heath gave ‘in principle’ agreement to Faulkner’s request – but he wanted Faulkner to take action against radical Loyalists, so that internment did not seem entirely focused on Catholics and Nationalists. Heath’s advisors suggested the internment of Loyalist paramilitary leaders, the seizure of weapons from Loyalist gun clubs and an indefinite ban on Loyalist parades and marches. Faulkner rejected all of these proposals, only agreeing to a six-month ban on parades. Thus was born a great folly: Faulkner’s one-sidedness and Heath’s unwillingness to impose conditions on internment meant that it became almost entirely focused on Northern Ireland’s Nationalist community.


British soldiers with a suspect in 1971

Internment itself commenced at dawn on August 9th, with raids carried out by the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) under the name Operation Demetrius. They were armed with lists of names compiled by RUC’s Special Branch and MI5, the British intelligence agency. These lists, It later emerged, were badly outdated. Many arrested during Operation Demetrius had been actively involved in the IRA for several years; some were civil rights campaigners who were not affiliated with paramilitaries at all. As per Faulkner’s instructions, Loyalist paramilitaries were not targeted. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had been bombing Catholic-owned stores in Belfast since early 1970, yet no member of the UVF was arrested and interned. The manner in which internment was instigated was itself a study in terror tactics. Houses were raided, mostly in the dead of night, catching the targets and their families asleep in their beds. Suspects were whisked away to police stations and prison camps, where they claimed of interrogation methods that bordered on torture. One internee, Patrick McClean, later described his arrest and transportation to Magilligan, a makeshift army camp in County Londonderry:

“I spent the first 48 hours period with the other detainees at Magilligan Camp. At the end of these initial 48 hours a hood was pulled over my head and I was handcuffed and subjected to verbal and personal abuse, which included the threat of being dropped from a helicopter while it was in the air. I was then dragged out to the helicopter, being kicked and struck about the body with batons on the way. After what seemed about one hour in the helicopter I was thrown from it and kicked and batoned into what I took to be a lorry.”


A plaque remembering two victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre in 1971

Operation Demetrius resulted in the location, arrest and internment of 342 people in three days. These sudden arrests triggered protests and violent riots in several Catholic areas across Northern Ireland. Some of the worst rioting broke out in Ballymurphy, a poor housing estate in Belfast’s west. Several hours into Demetrius, a squad of British paratroopers were sent into Ballymurphy to arrest suspected IRA volunteers. As they entered the estate the soldiers opened fire, later claiming they had come under attack from Republican snipers. Six civilians were shot dead in one day. Hugh Mullan, a Catholic priest, and 19-year-old Francis Quinn were both gunned down as they went to the aid of wounded people. Daniel Teggart was shot 14 times, most of these in the back. A further four civilians were killed by British forces over the next two days. Another man died from a heart attack after British soldiers terrorised him, putting an unloaded gun into his mouth and pulling the trigger. Eleven civilians died in what became known as the ‘Ballymurphy Massacre’. These killings paralleled the better known ‘Bloody Sunday’ shootings, perpetrated by the same regiment five months later.

At the end of August 1971 the British government convened an inquiry into allegations of brutality and torture during Operation Demetrius. The investigation, overseen by English parliamentary ombudsman Sir Edmund Compton, was poorly handled from the outset. Compton was a civil servant with no experience of conflict, policing or Northern Ireland. The inquiry’s hearings were conducted in camera with no public or press present. Witnesses were not allowed to be deposed or cross-examined. The inquiry heard testimony mainly from police, soldiers and civilian onlookers: only one of the 342 men arrested during Operation Demetrius appeared as a witness. The report concurred that internees had been treated with excessive physical exertion, placed in distorted and painful positions and bombarded with loud music – but Compton denied these measures constituted torture. “Where we have concluded that physical ill treatment took place,” Compton wrote, “we are not making a finding of brutality… We consider that brutality is an inhuman or savage form of cruelty and that cruelty implies a disposition to inflict suffering, coupled with an indifference to or pleasure in the victim’s pain. We do not think that happened here.”

“The introduction of internment without trial in August 1971 ended what hopes remained that the Nationalists would cooperate with the Northern Irish government and, therefore, the prospects for some kind of power-sharing political accommodation that might undermine the IRA’s military campaign. Internment without trial, though welcomed widely in Britain at the time, was probably the single most disastrous measure introduced during the recent troubles, resulting in a major escalation of violence.”
Paul Dixon, historian

Many condemned the Compton Report as a whitewash. The report was debated on the floor of the British parliament, in the press and behind closed doors. Rights campaigners and lawyers pointed out that the treatment of internees was in breach of European Commission of Human Rights principles. Former World War II soldiers criticised the tactics used in Operation Demetrius, suggesting they would not have been permitted in prisoner-of-war camps due to the Geneva Convention. Conversely, Edward Heath was annoyed by the report because it did not absolve the Army from blame entirely. Heath was particularly outraged that evidence from civilians was given the same value as evidence from soldiers or the RUC. In a memo written in 1971 but found in 2005, Heath called Compton’s report “one of the most unbalanced, ill judged reports I have ever read… They seem to have gone to endless lengths to show that anyone not given three-star hotel facilities suffered hardship and ill treatment.”

In the end, the policy of internment failed to quash or minimise paramilitary violence. The great problem with internment was that it targeted Catholics and Nationalists but left Loyalist paramilitaries untouched. This one-sidedness hardened public disdain for British policy; the vast majority of Catholics were now convinced that the British military was little more than a tool for perpetuating Unionist discrimination. Incidents like the Ballymurphy Massacre, the brutal interrogation methods used by security forces and the Compton fiasco also created a sense of outrage that drove many Catholics into the welcoming arms of the IRA. The decision not to intern Loyalist paramilitaries was exposed as folly just weeks later when the UVF bombed McGurk’s Bar, killing 15 Catholic civilians. The use of internment and the jackboot fashion in which it was implemented also generated worldwide media attention, much of it critical of the British and Northern Ireland governments. Internment caused outrage in the United States, which had a large population of expatriate Irish, many of whom sympathised with the Nationalist cause. In cities with large Irish populations, such as Boston and Philadelphia, affluent Irish-Americans donated to local Nationalist clubs and societies; a good deal of this money found its way to the IRA and was used to acquire weapons and supplies. Internment was introduced to curtail paramilitary violence but instead provided it with both motive and means. It is no coincidence that 1972, the year immediately following internment, was the deadliest year of the Troubles.

northern ireland
1. Internment is the practice of arresting and detaining suspects without trial, usually in a time of war or conflict.
2. It was introduced by Northern Ireland prime minister Brian Faulker, with the backing of Britain, in August 1971.
3. Operation Demetrius was the British Army’s three-day mission that interned 342 suspected Republican paramilitaries.
4. It was controversial because no Loyalists were interned, while many internees complained of torture or brutalisation.
5. While internment was intended to curtail paramilitary violence, its real effect was to alienate and outrage Northern Ireland’s Catholics. Support for and membership of the IRA increased markedly after Operation Demetrius and contributed to a rapid increase in violence in late 1971 and 1972.

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This page was written by Rebekah Poole and Jennifer Llewellyn. To reference this page, use the following citation:
R. Poole and J. Llewellyn, “Internment in Northern Ireland”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],