Belfast Telegraph

Internment a prisoner of poor political timing

Today is the 40th anniversary of internment. Brian Faulkner was criticised for the way it was introduced but, done right, it could have shortened the Troubles, says Malachi O'Doherty

It is almost universally acknowledged that the introduction of internment 40 years ago was a calamitous mistake. The decision by the then Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, to authorise the arrest and detention without trial of hundreds of suspected members of the Provisional IRA, historians will agree, exacerbated the Troubles horribly.

I was alone at home in Riverdale with my sister, watching the Provisionals build a barricade and stock up with petrol-bombs for a riot. I was crouching on the living-room floor with her when paratroopers fired the shots that killed Frank McGuinness, a neighbour of about my own age.

Brian Faulkner was flown over Belfast in a helicopter on the afternoon of the first day of the new era he had ushered in and he would have known from the scale of the burning below him that he had made a terrible mistake, even before the Provisional IRA commander Joe Cahill appeared at a Press conference to demonstrate that he was still free to do as he pleased.

Nationalist resentment at internment was massive. Homes had been smashed up. Wholly innocent people had been dragged from their beds beaten up and, in some cases, tortured.

Some arrested men had been blindfolded and thrown out of helicopters, believing that they would plummet through cold sky to their deaths.

Men were interrogated in stress positions, with bags over their heads, subjected to white noise and imprisoned in old Nissen huts.

It felt as if the unionist government was using the Army to wage war on the Catholic community. It made innocent people feel afraid of their government and the Army.

But Faulkner was not so cruel or stupid that he would have wanted this outcome.

He could have made a better job of it. He could never have secured Catholic confidence in internment as a legitimate measure, but the irony was that the law and the judicial system would have to be contorted for decades in efforts to find an alternative.

Had the Army not been acting on the flimsiest speculation about IRA membership, had the top men like Joe Cahill and Gerry Adams been caught and the violence actually been reduced and had the same diligence been applied to arresting loyalists, then at least Faulkner would have been able to defend the waiving of due process on pragmatic grounds.

But he didn't even have that. He had played the only card he had left really and he had played it ineptly and lost.

Not only had he lost strategically, he had removed any possibility of internment being a viable weapon against paramilitaries in Northern Ireland again.

It was an embarrassment from the start and, when the British government took over security six months later, one of its primary objectives was to find other devices by which it could circumvent the normal legal processes, which, on their own, were not going to work.

Indeed, in the years ahead, faced with the legal contortions required to get paramilitaries into jail and to behave themselves there, through supergrass trials, jury-less Diplock courts, the prison protests over special category status and the hunger strikes, the debasement of policing and the abuses by Special Branch, it must often have seemed a pity that the weapon of internment was simply not available.

There could even have been gains in it for the paramilitaries themselves, as well as for the state. Men the state killed might be alive today. And the compromise settled on in the Good Friday Agreement would have seen all paramilitaries walk free.

The long struggle between the Provisional IRA and the British state was over legitimacy; the IRA's determination to claim that it was fighting a war against the British state's insistence that it was upholding the law while distorting it.

A trade-off in which paramilitaries had their status as prisoners of war would have saved an awful lot of trouble.

Prisoners of war, internees, get released when the war is over. They do not have criminal records. And the state, when it negotiates with them, has no need to effect the pretence that it is not talking to criminals.

And since internees are not imprisoned for determinate sentences, they bargain for their release; they have an incentive to compromise and make deals.

Surely even some Provisionals who served long sentences can see that they might have been better off interned.

The irony of their position is that they fought a long campaign in the prison to gain the status that only internment would have entitled them to. Even now, when the agreement acknowledges that they were political prisoners, they retain their criminal records for, legally, they were political criminals.

I cannot believe that, on that horrific day 40 years ago, anyone affected by the rioting and the raids would have considered that there was any merit in Brian Faulkner's clumsily executed plan.

Neither, though, did they think that trouble would go on for decades more and that the law would look just as battered at the end of it as it did on that August day in 1971.

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