Internment! – What it Means Today

Guest writer Martin Galvin with a lengthy piece on the British state practice of Internment currently in use against republicans.

It is said that 'those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat its mistakes.' Had George Santayana looked to Irish history, he might have added that those who fail to learn the lessons of British rule are condemned to see its injustices repeated.

Internment is again in vogue with the British colonial secretary presiding. Once Internment was a claim made only by supporters of Marian Price and Martin Corey. As Paterson happily ignored all judicial rulings or medical appeals for their release, the word Internment came to be accepted more and more widely, and is now repeated by Sinn Fein and SDLP members.

Internment by license is the most obvious but not most prevalent method of Interment Paterson now practices. Decades ago the British crafted catch-all criteria which empowered crown forces to intern anyone they imagined “likely to act in a manner prejudicial to good order.” Simply stated, internees could be held indefinitely for what they might do.

Today the British have updated Internment by remand. Republicans can be denied bail where a member of the constabulary says the suspect might “re-offend”. Simply stated those presumed innocent, and thus presumed to have done nothing, are refused bail because a constabulary member presumes they are likely to do it again. Skeptical Republicans note that an increasing number of well known activists from non-politically correct Republican groups have swelled the ranks of those conveniently removed from the streets by this policy of Internment by remand.

Some will say it does not manner. Today Martin McGuinness stands alongside Peter Robinson. Sinn Fein and the SDLP hold places within the British administration. Only a comparative few are interned. Why not let bygone images of Internment be bygones, forgotten and replaced by photos of former internees or Blanketmen at constabulary board or partnership meetings?

Is this history best forgotten? Are there lessons from Internment which Republicans must learn or else be condemned to see repeated under new terms and shapes tailored to today’s British strategy?


Brian Faulkner looked back upon his ministerial role in Internment during the 57-62 campaign, as a career highlight and personal triumph against the IRA. He urged the British to bring back Internment as soon as he became Stormont Prime Minister. Lists of suitable subjects were compiled. Troopers practiced Internment swoops. The Paratroopers were dispatched.

New laws would not be needed. Internment was of course already on the British statute books under the Special Powers Act. Those “likely to act in a manner prejudicial to good order” would be denied charges, trials or legal defense. Those interned for what they might do in future would be held until the crown deemed it convenient to let them go.

On Monday August 9th 1971, 3,000 British troopers swooped across the north at 4a.m. battering through the doors of those targeted for Internment. More than three hundred were taken the first day. The principle “once in never out,” shaped the lists. Many of those rounded-up had years before left politics. BBC journalist Peter Taylor would recount an interview with a trooper who scooped an Easter Week 1916 veteran, pleased to still be thought a threat to the crown in his 80s.

Some internees were merely related to or bore the same family names as one time activists. Others were merely at the wrong place or wrong homes.

Curiously, civil rights leaders were lifted. Either the British mistakenly thought People’s Democracy or NICRA were IRA fronts, or more likely that eliminating civil rights protesters would eliminate civil rights protests.

Faulkner refused to allow the Internment of any Protestant loyalists. None would be interned until much later and then only in tiny fractions of the number of nationalist internees.

Ballymurphy Massacre

The reaction could have been foreseen by anyone, but the British and Unionists. Those who saw friends and relations being brutally hauled away at gunpoint came out onto the streets. They protested and rioted. The British also reacted predictably.

Fourteen people would be shot down by British troopers in Belfast between the 9th and 11th of August. The murder victims included two children 14 and 15, a Catholic priest administering last rites, and two women. The Paratroop Regiment alone killed eleven in West Belfast in the “Ballymurphy Massacre.”

In each case a cover story was concocted. Sarah Worthington, a widowed mother of nine became the first woman shot dead in the conflict. Journalists printed British accounts which blamed an IRA sniper. Months later at her inquest the British admitted that she was shot by one of their troopers.

Claims about riots, accidents, or invisible snipers were routinely invented by the British.

The lesson was patently clear. The British were not only prepared to intern without charge or trial, but also to shoot down those who got in the way or protested, and to lie about it afterwards.

Hooded Men

Besides removing suspected Republican troublemakers, Internment was planned to gift crown forces with intelligence gathering opportunities. Britain solemnly condemned sensory deprivation techniques used by other countries as psychological and physical torture. Britain had no scruples about subjecting Irish suspects to such inhuman treatment or about experimenting with them as human guinea pigs to test the new methods for collecting information.

A number of Internees were picked to be hooded, spread-eagled with finger tips against a wall in search position for hours on end, deprived of food, sleep, even sound by a blasting white noise, then at intervals beaten and interrogated about the IRA. It was sensory deprivation designed to break prisoners mentally and physically. It was planned and premeditated torture.

Word spread and sparked an international outcry. Across the north there were indignant protests. Irish Americans rallied outside British Consulates and in Congress. Normally unsympathetic newspapers like the London Sunday Times published special reports. Dublin would be shamed into backing the victims before the European Court of Human Rights.

Cover up by Commission

The British resorted to an old colonial trick of cover-up by Commission or Enquiry. It was a scenario we would come to know well. Some commission or tribunal would be announced. British officials would feign “grave concern” over “serious allegations”, and then stonewall every legitimate question by repeating that the matter was now “sub judice” and any comment might be prejudicial to the enquiry.

The commission, or enquiry or tribunal, then made up terms of remit and rules which predetermined a favorable verdict. The British could solemnly exonerate themselves and then congratulate themselves on their impartiality.

Edmund Compton would head the commission on torture of internees. His rules were carefully devised. His commission would sit in private. There would be no public scrutiny. No difficult questions by victims’ solicitors would be permitted to trouble any British troopers or RUC who appeared. Torture techniques were lauded as safety measures benefiting the prisoners, or life-saving measures, or even comfort measures designed to counteract the cold.

Compton promulgated a novel definition which ruled out torture unless the torturer took pleasure in inflicting pain. Torture like beauty lay in the eye of the beholder.

Compton’s report was not alone rejected but ridiculed. His name would for a time enter the north’s lingo as a derisory term for a whitewash or patently ridiculous excuse. Someone recounting an unlikely tale would be told that “Compton would not believe that” or “Compton would not whitewash that.”

Nevertheless his twisted definition requiring enjoyment as an element of torture was adopted by the crown, and argued all the way to the European Court at Strasbourg.

When years later the European Court of Human Rights modified the torture findings of the European Commission, British newspapers proclaimed in bold headlines, “Britain Found Not Guilty of Torture”, although the British had actually been found guilty of inhuman and degrading treatment.

Bloody Sunday

Internment backfired. Recruits joined the IRA. The SDLP walked out from public bodies and Councils. There were large protest rallies across Ireland. Thousands joined a rent and rates strike. An Anti-Interment League rallied in Britain and mass demonstrations were held in America.  Faulkner answered by banning protest marches in the north for a year. The British planned in January 1972, to use a Derry Civil Rights protest against Internment to give a final answer silencing protests once and for all.

The Paratroop Regiment had won pride of place by its part in the “Ballymurphy Massacre” and was deployed to Derry. There was the customary stand-off, with barricades erected, the protesters blocked from the city centre, and tear gas fired.

Suddenly, needlessly, and without warning the British opened fire killing 13, and wounding 29, one of whom would die weeks later. It was in the words of the Derry Coroner “sheer unadulterated murder.” It was public and witnessed by many. It was filmed and reported by journalists. It was undeniable.

Still the British issued denials and cover stories about invisible IRA snipers and bombers. Still the British trotted out once more their trick of cover-up by commission. Widgery would be appointed to head a tribunal which would supplant Compton in the annals of whitewashes. Unarmed murder victims would become posthumous nail bombers or even assistant nail bombers. The commander of the regiment was knighted.

Today the Bloody Sunday families have yet to see any British trooper charged for these “unjustified and unjustifiable killings” or for perjury in the cover-up which followed. One hopes for the sake of these courageous families, that the just announced 3 to 4 year investigation will not be another “cover-up by enquiry” nor be more interested in pursuing IRA membership charges than British Army murder charges.

Clearly on Bloody Sunday the British were merely repeating the lesson, that they were willing to jail without charge or trial, to torture those jailed, and to shoot down those who got in the way.

Nor would it be the last time. At an Internment Rally in Belfast in 1984, a then supposedly reformed RUC would open fire with plastic bullets murdering John Downes, wounding scores more and exonerating itself even as the television images belied each new cover story.

New Dispensation

A hunger strike led by IRA leader Billy McKee would demand prisoner-of-war status. The British conceded the principle, but not the words, recognizing special category status for political prisoners. It soon became embarrassing for crown ministers and diplomats to claim that the British held-six counties was a normal society, while caging thousands of special category political prisoners behind the wire of Long Kesh.

It became untenable to brand those imprisoned as criminals, while acknowledging that these were special category political prisoners, many interned without charge or trial.

The need for thousands of troops recruited from outside the north, made impossible the desired Ulsterization of British crown forces. International opposition to British rule fueled by Internment, derailed political and diplomatic efforts at Ulsterization or confining the issue of Irish national self-determination within the six counties under a unionist veto.

With its strategic objectives of Normalization, Criminalization and Ulsterization in tatters, Merlyn Rees proclaimed in July 1975, that the remaining internees would be out before Christmas. Internment was ended in December 1975. A new dispensation of justice was promised. New modern prison facilities would be built. All accused would be granted a trial.

The new dispensation turned out to be Diplock Courts, and non-jury trials that were little more than a conveyor belt to Long Kesh or Armagh. Confessions beaten out of suspects would make up the evidence in four out of five cases. Supergrass evidence would be rubber-stamped. The modern facilities would be the H-blocks of Long Kesh. Blanketmen would replace the hooded men of Internment. This time the hunger strike for political status would only be won after the deaths of ten patriot martyrs. The new dispensation had been merely a change in British tactics, fashioned to dispense with justice and attain the same British objectives.

Acceptable Level of Violence

Internment was defeated and Stormont fell. The British were forced to see that ruling through a one party Orange state would be self-defeating in the long-term. They formulated plans to remodel their six county regime. As the British shifted from Internment to conveyor belt courts, they made moves to replace unionist ascendancy rule with a token power-sharing system that could show a modicum of nationalist assent. White papers were drafted. Sunningdale was tried and failed but decades later Stormont succeeded.

One difficulty which the British anticipated for any power-sharing system, would be managing an acceptable level of repression.

The SDLP walk-out from councils and public bodies had dealt a blow to Internment. The SDLP’S failure to walk out during the Blanket protest and Hunger Strikes had dealt a blow to the SDLP, branding the party as accomplices in the regime’s torture of Republican prisoners. The SDLP stood aside from running a candidate against Bobby Sands because of the deep feelings generated by these charges of complicity which emanated from Long Kesh and echoed through nationalist areas.

The new system of British rule would inherently require measures of injustice and repression to deal with unreconstructed Republicans. There would certainly be Republicans and nationalists who would point out that being partners in the new regime made Sinn Fein and the SDLP partners in any and all of the regime’s injustices.

Would there be a breaking point?  How much Internment or other repressive measures could the British mete out without Sinn Fein or the SDLP walking out and collapsing the new arrangement? What is the acceptable level of Internment?

Internment By License

Marian Price and Martin Corey are today held under the policy of Internment by license, (or more accurately in Marian’s case Internment by shredded pardon). Neither they nor their chosen legal representatives are permitted to see, much less rebut the secret information or “closed material” which was rubber-stamped by Paterson and Ford’s parole commissioners to imprison them. A senior British judge ruled only last month that the crown had breached Martin Corey’s human rights under the European Convention by depriving him of liberty without any meaningful opportunity to present a defense and challenge the legality of his detention before a court. The case should have provided a binding precedent for Marian’s immediate release. Paterson simply overruled the court order to release Martin Corey and ordered him to remain at Maghaberry until another court could issue a ruling more to the colonial secretary’s liking.

Two British courts granted Marian release on bail on the minor charges filed against her. One of those charges was since dismissed. She was held in solitary confinement for more than a year. Doctors have called for her release and reported on the irreparable physical and psychological damage being done to her.

Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have called for Marian’s and Martin’s release. Clearly the British calculate that they need not take such representations seriously, so long as those making the representations remain within the British administration, and attend constabulary board meetings as visible tokens of assent to Internment.

Internment By Remand

Internment by remand is a more subtle and insidious form of Internment. It is no new invention. Republicans during the late 1970s and 80s accepted Interment as the word for what was being done by the crown as a planned strategy.

Republicans were arrested, denied bail on flimsy grounds and taken off the streets for lengthy periods before the charges were dismissed or case collapsed. The British said it was not Interment because there was a charge and some far off future day, a trial. If Republicans were right to say that Gerry Adams’ arrest and months in custody on dubious charges in 1978 was Interment by remand, then surely the same criteria can be applied to other Republicans held without bail today.

Colin Duffy was jailed for nearly 3 years before a Diplock judge dismissed the case which Duffy claimed was fabricated on planted DNA evidence. This period would have placed him among the longest internees during 1971-75. It did not match the 4 plus years that Sean Hoey spent in Maghaberry before a Diplock judge said there was no legitimate evidence against him.

A growing number of Republicans are now being held under circumstances which have raised questions about Internment by remand.

Paul Duffy, Damien Duffy and Shane Duffy are being held on fanciful conspiracy charges, amidst concerns about a retaliatory arrest for Colin Duffy’s acquittal and his public claims of planted DNA evidence.

Last month Republicans in Ardoyne behind GARC and other groups, rallied in protest against Orange feet being shepherded in a triumphal sectarian march through their streets. A number of prominent Republicans including Alan Lundy and Ta McWilliams have since been held without bail under dubious circumstances which smack of Internment by remand.

Prominent Derry activist Tony Taylor was arrested shortly after an interview in the Derry Journal about an upcoming protest campaign.

These cases are just a start. There are certainly other Republicans held at Maghaberry under Internment by remand and mention of these few cases is not intended to diminish the injustice done to any other Republican victimized under this policy. It seems clear that many Republican groups have had members subjected to Internment in one form or another, and would have compelling reasons to unite against Internment.


Internment was not halted in 1975 because the British or Merlyn Rees were suddenly conscience-stricken about the injustice of holding Irish men and women without charge. Interment was defeated.

The British have now begun to use Internment under their new Stormont regime. The British calculate that Sinn Fein is so tightly wedded to its offices within the Stormont administration that the party will not break ranks with the crown and walk out, even on so fundamental an issue as Internment. The British calculate that if Sinn Fein sits still for Internment now, then these procedures can be methodically used to Intern others. The strength and weakness of the British system is clear.

Can Republicans rally together to defeat Internment? Can we unite in the same way we did to save Brendan Lillis? Can we follow the example of the H-Block Blanketmen, and brand nationalist politicians who remain inside the British regime as accomplices and front men for the regime’s repression? Can we inspire a level of grassroots support which will force Sinn Fein to take the type of moral stand necessary to break Internment? Can we learn the lessons of Internment or will we be condemned to see more Republicans interned?


  1. Last year Jim Mc Veigh from Coiste led a delegation of former internees to Downing Street.
    His mission was to demand justice and financial compensation for the former illegal practice of internment.
    A lot of people were very dubious about Coistes real intention.
    People believed it was diversion, a smokescreen, one designed to give the illusion these well funded organisations are still to the fore in tackling british injustice.
    Cynical as it sounds those people were proved right. I have yet to hear Jim or his Coiste boss Micky Culbert even acknowledge that internment is still taking place in the North.

    Last year I wrote to Jim Mc Veigh and Micky Culbert in relation to the continuing internment of Marian Price.
    I pointed out that they and Coiste were guilty of hypocrisy on two fronts.
    Firstly, Marian Price is a former political prisoner, therefore she is entitled to a duty of care from these people, well thats what they claim the big grants for.
    Secondly, Marian is interned yet they have not uttered a word, not in public anyway. Yet, they claim to be holding the brits to account for a forty year old injustice, neither responded.

  2. Nuala,

    it is always disappointing when this type of thing happens. Yet it is very much a feature of the perspective of former radicals. Republicans being jailed by the British is not a problem for SF. They call for information to be given to the British police for that very purpose. It is the circumstances of Marian's imprisonment that causes the party some discomfort. But at the end of the day if SF ever call for internment I don't think there should be any great surprise.

    I remember Cathal Goulding supporting the supergrass system in the North in 1983. When republicans embrace a Stick perspective this sort of thing happens.

  3. Mackers,
    Sinn Fein never fail to shock. Which means anything could now be on their agenda and internment could be a feature and an explanation as to why they do not come right out and condemn it.

  4. Nuala,

    they could shock us all and do something republican one of these days. But that is too much to expect I suppose. I heard Morrison on the radio the other day and he made an interesting point. He said things had changed in the North but at a terrible price. It almost sounded like a price not worth paying. This is more or less the view of many republicans today. What change occured was not worth the price paid. And what makes it even more worthless is that today's outcome was what we always envisaged failure and defeat to look like.

    SF simply never wanted this said or pointed out and tried to censor it at every opportunity.

  5. Internment! – What it Means Today


    ‘A lot of people were very dubious about Coistes real intention.’

    And have been for years. Since one of its senior figures, who was not an ex prisoner, lobbied to get Tommy Gorman, who was an ex prisoner the sack from his job, it has drawn suspicion.