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UK Confidential Tuesday, 1 January, 2002, 10:09 GMT
Army 'warned against internment'
A protester clashes with police in the mainly Catholic part of Ardoyne
Memories of internment still generate anger
By the BBC's Chris West

Confidential cabinet papers released on Tuesday reveal why the British Government disregarded all advice, and introduced internment, one of the most politically damaging measures in modern Northern Ireland history.

In August 1971, troops in the province rounded up and jailed a total of 342 men - the vast majority of them Catholics with alleged links to paramilitary organisations, and just a handful of Protestants.

Documents released under the 30-year rule make it clear that the move was made against the counsel of Army chiefs and Whitehall advisors.

A memo classified Top Secret from the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Burke Trend, to Prime Minister Edward Heath only weeks earlier, warns: "We should be wary of adopting it until we are compelled to."

Graffiti on a wall in Belfast
The graffiti murals in Belfast illustrate the religious hatred
At a top level meeting in Downing Street, it was recognised that internment would have international implications. It was "not impossible" that it would become a matter for scrutiny by the United Nations, and retaliatory action by the IRA could be expected - in Britain as well as Ireland.

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But the former Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Major James Chichester Clark, had resigned and the newly-installed administration of Brian Faulkner was already weakening. He was urging the British government for greater support, in the form of internment.

In an interview for UK Confidential, Sir Edward Heath recalls: "We were all very loathe to do this, but as we were faced with the collapse of the whole government of Northern Ireland, we said yes.


Direct rule would alienate almost all elements of the population and exacerbate relations with the Irish Republic - it should be considered only as a last resort.

Top secret government memo
"But when they had taken these steps, one realised that so much of it was unjustified. We found that some of those who had been arrested had actually been trouble-makers in 1921, but ever since then had led a perfectly normal respectable life, and that got us even more worried."

For Sir Edward Heath's government, the only alternative to internment was the introduction of direct rule from Westminster. A Cabinet memo marked Top Secret suggests: "Direct rule would alienate almost all elements of the population and exacerbate relations with the Irish Republic - it should be considered only as a last resort."

A secret Cabinet briefing a week after the introduction of internment describes it as "a considerable success technically", but goes on: "The political and social consequences have been serious - more serious than many people in Northern Ireland expected."

The following year, direct rule was introduced, and Northern Ireland entered a new, and even more bitter phase of its troubled history.

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Internment
The BBC's Michael Sullivan reports on Northern Ireland's reaction to internment
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