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Tuesday, 1 January, 2002, 14:28 GMT
Army 'warned against internment'
A protester clashes with police in the mainly Catholic part of Ardoyne
Memories of internment still generate anger
The UK Government introduced internment in Northern Ireland in 1971 against the advice of its military commander, newly-released secret documents show.

The decision to detain republican terrorist suspects without trial caused fury and unrest in Catholic communities.

But Lieutenant General Sir Harry Tuzo, head of the Army in the province, had warned it would have a "harmful effect", according to the confidential cabinet papers.

Direct rule would alienate almost all elements of the population

Top secret government memo
Documents released under the 30-year rule also make it clear that the move, regarded as one of the biggest mistakes of the troubles, was made against the counsel of Whitehall advisers.

In August 1971, troops in Northern Ireland 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.

However, Northern Ireland's education minister Martin McGuinness said he doesn't believe that the army opposed internment.

"We have, within all this, a very clear contradiction that we hear on the one hand that the British Army were opposed to internment yet the British Army were up to their necks in the torture and ill treatment of the internees and of many prisoners since," he said.

Retaliatory action

A top secret memo from 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."

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 UN, and retaliatory action by the IRA could be expected - in Britain as well as Ireland.

Click here for more on the UK Confidential programme

Heath himself acknowledged that the measure was an explicitly "political act" intended to shore up the government of Northern Ireland's Ulster Unionist Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, in the face of the rising tide of IRA violence.

Graffiti on a wall in Belfast
The graffiti murals in Belfast illustrate the religious hatred
The former Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Major James Chichester Clark, had resigned and the new Faulkner administration was already weakening.

He was urging the UK Government for greater support, in the form of internment.

The position of Tuzo, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Northern Ireland, and Defence Secretary Lord Carrington, had been clearly set out in a letter to Heath's private office from the Ministry of Defence on 21 July of that year.

"The view of the GOC, with which the defence secretary entirely agrees, is that the arguments against resorting to internment remain very strong and that other possibilities for disrupting the IRA should certainly be tried first."

'Unjustified' steps

Tuzo wanted to adopt a new strategy of "continuous harassment" of IRA suspects, periodically arresting them on suspicion and searching their homes in an attempt to make it impossible for them to mount terrorist attacks.

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.

"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 troublemakers in 1921.

"Ever since then [they] had led a perfectly normal, respectable life, and that got us even more worried."

'Last resort'

If the Faulkner administration collapsed, the only alternative was direct rule from Westminster, an equally unpalatable option.

A top secret cabinet memo 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 it added: "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.

The BBC's Nicholas Jones
looks at the secrets revealed in the 1971 cabinet papers
See also:

01 Jan 02 | UK Confidential
Ian Paisley sought 'deal' with SDLP
01 Jan 02 | UK Confidential
Thatcher's appeal over free milk
01 Jan 02 | UK Confidential
Government's shipbuilding crisis
01 Jan 02 | UK Confidential
Treasury's 1970 'euro' warning
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