CAIN Web Service

Abstract of Important Events - Internment

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text and Research: Martin Melaugh
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

This is one of a number of files which provide a very brief abstract of important events during the Northern Ireland conflict. Some of the events are dealt with in greater detail elsewhere (check, for example, Key Events and the corresponding entry in the chronology).


"While internment in itself provided limited, if any, security benefits the social and political reaction which internment created far outweighed this. As a result violence increase for the rest of the year and the SDLP, the only major Catholic political party in Northern Ireland, refused to become involved in political talks while internment continued. It is clear, however, that the main winners from the introduction of internment were the Provisional IRA, ..."
Bew, P. and Gillespie, G. (1994) Northern Ireland: A Chronology of the Troubles 1969-1993 page 37

For Operation Demetrius, as the internment drive was termed, was botched in practically every respect one can think of. … it relied on lists drawn up by the RUC Special Branch. There were 450 names on the lists, but only 350 of these rendered themselves available for internment. Key figures on the lists, and many who never appeared on them, were warned before the swoop began. The lists were weighted towards the Officials, who, despite being the more pacific of the two IRA wings, were regarded by MI5 as the more dangerous adversaries because of their Marxist orientation. Hence their potential was assessed in cold-war terms, rather than in an Irish context. The names included people who had been interned previously, or had been active in the IRA decades earlier, but who, despite Republican sympathies, were no longer active. They also included people who had never been in the IRA, including Ivan Barr, chairman of the NICRA executive, and Michael Farrell. What they did not include was a single Loyalist. Although the UVF had begun the killing and bombing, this organisation was left untouched, as were other violent Loyalist satellite organisations such as Tara, the Shankill Defenders Association and the Ulster Protestant Volunteers. It is known that Faulkner was urged by the British to include a few Protestants in the trawl but he refused.
The lists were so out of date that 104 people had to be released within forty-eight hours. … The army quite often simply picked up the wrong people, a son for a father, the wrong ‘man with a beard living at no. 47’ and so on. But by the time they were released, a number had suffered quite brutal treatment, as had those still detained … Internees were beaten with batons, kicked and forced to run the gauntlet between lines of club-wielding soldiers.
Coogan, T.P. (1995) The Troubles: Ireland's Ordeal 1966-1995 and the Search for Peace page 126

Internment refers to the arrest and detention without trial of people suspected of being members of illegal paramilitary groups. The policy of internment had been used a number of times during Northern Ireland's history. It was reintroduced on Monday 9 August 1971 and continued in use until Friday 5 December 1975. During this period a total of 1,981 people were detained; 1,874 were Catholic / Republican, while 107 were Protestant / Loyalist.

The Unionist controlled Stormont Government convinced the British Government of the need, and the advantages, of introducing internment as a means of countering rising levels of paramilitary violence. The policy proved however to be a disastrous mistake. The measure was only used against the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Catholic community. Although Loyalist paramilitaries had been responsible for some of the violence no Protestants were arrested (the first Protestant internees were detained on 2 February 1973). The crucial intelligence on which the success of the operation depended was flawed and many of those arrested had to be subsequently released because they were not involved in any paramilitary activity.

In response to internment the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association began a campaign of civil disobedience which culminated in a 'rent and rates strike' by those in public sector houses. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) was forced to end co-operation with the Northern Ireland government. In addition many commentators are of the opinion that internment resulted in increased support, active and tacit, among the Catholic community for the IRA. The level of civil unrest and the level of IRA violence surged.

While unionists would have initially welcomed the stronger security measures represented by internment they would perhaps have been less enthusiastic for the policy if they had foreseen the consequences for the Northern Ireland parliament.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within the University of Ulster.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :