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10 January 2002 Edition

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Heath's internment folly - 1971 State Papers


The British Conservative government under Edward Heath introduced internment in 1971 because it feared the imminent collapse of British rule in the Six Counties. Documents released at the Public Records Office in London in early January under the 30-year disclosure rule reveal that Heath, who has continued to defend his decision, authorised the use of internment in an attempt to prop up the Stormont regime and fend off the possibility of direct rule. He did so against the advice of the government's military commander in the North, General Harry Tuzo, who told him that it would have a "harmful" effect on the army's attempts to control the nationalist population and that those held under it could be categorised as political prisoner. The British Army's preferred option, said Tuzo, was to regularly arrest and interrogate republican activists in order to quell resistance.

Nevertheless, Heath insisted on allowing Unionist leader Brian Faulker to introduce internment, thus setting the scene for almost 30 years of disastrous British military policy. In 1971, Heath's war cabinet was told that the army hoped to arrest some 300 of the 500 or so "suspects" on 9 August. Although a warning was issued to the British prime minister just days before the first wave of arrests that internment "would lead to retaliation" the raids went ahead on the basis of hopelessly outdated and useless intelligence. The extreme degree of British army violence involved and the arrest of hundreds of ordinary nationalists caused a massive backlash and an international outcry.


The torture of detainees was also approved by the British cabinet, who were told on 8 October 1971 by the then Defence Secretary, Peter Carrington, that they should not be "unduly squeamish" about the methods employed by the British Army and RUC to extract information. In language reminiscent of the worst days of British colonial rule, the papers also show that Carrington defended the B Specials as essentially "decent" and insisted that whilst some of the interrogation methods employed during internment might appear "unnecessarily harsh", it was important to remember that the government was "dealing with an enemy who has no scruples". According to the papers released, "techniques designed to isolate detainees subject to interrogation, to prevent them from obtaining any exact sense of time and location and to impose fatigue by exposure to insistent and disturbing noise were regarded as proper".

However, "expelling" the six counties from the United Kingdom was also discussed at the time. In a memo dated 3 September 1971, British cabinet secretary, Sir Burke Trend, says that although "to let Ulster go... is, presumably, unthinkable in the current climate" it is "less unrealistic to think in terms of an arrangement which would give Dublin, not complete control over Ulster, but at least more effective say in its administration". And, with some foresight, he noted:"Sooner or later, all the parties will be driven to the negotiating table. It will be both more honourable and more economic to go there sooner rather than later."


The colonial attitude of the British ruling elite towards all of the people of Ireland, including Unionists, is also revealed in a briefing paper written in 1970 by one Oliver Wright, the British state's representative in the North, who routinely refers to them as "Micks" and "Prods".

In his assessment to the then Labour Home Secretary, James Callaghan, Wright - who had spent just six months there - referred to the Six Counties as a "tribal" society, and observed that the "Scots Calvinist colonists" despised the "native Irish" and were terrified of the possibility of being absorbed by these "natives". "They like and trust each other as do Arab and Jew, Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot, dog and cat" he wrote.

Commenting on the outbreak of the conflict, he said: "When the Catholics, whose loyalties are at best ambivalent and at worst treacherous, demanded their civil rights, the Prods saw red and burned their houses down." In his despatch, Wright goes on to blame Britain's neglect of this part of its "realm", for the troubles and says that its mistake had been to try and govern the Irish for the past 700 years.

Whilst Wright concedes that nationalists have been "more sinned against" he also claims that they are not "entirely blameless", saying that "the Micks have enjoyed provoking the Prods as much as the Prods enjoy retaliating. It makes the Prods' blood boil - and all Irish blood boils at very low temperatures - to see the Micks enjoy the superior material benefits of the British connection while continuing to wave the Tricolour at them."

He warned that the Protestant population were thirsting for revenge at having to suffer the perceived indignity of watching the ascendancy apparently being forced to offer civil rights to Catholics, saying: "Altogether, too many of them have only one thing in their heart: hatred; and only one desire: vengeance. Altogether too many of them look to one man with charisma in Ulster, a man of God, the Reverend Ian Paisley, to give it to them... It is small wonder that Ulster men seem, in my short experience, to be men of pessimism: they have a lot to be pessimistic about."

His solution? "I am suggesting a containment or the managing of the Ulster problem," he said.


As Harold Wilson's Labour government sent the British Army into the Six Counties, its most senior officer branded the RUC as hopeless, describing it as "poorly led", "behind the times" and describing Special Branch as "sadly inefficient". Chief of Staff General Sir Geoffrey Baker went on to say that within Special Branch "speculation and guesswork largely replace intelligence", and that senior RUC officers consistently withheld information from British ministers if such information was considered detrimental to the interests of the force.

The papers reveal that the ineptitude of the RUC prompted the British Army and intelligence services to install their own anti-republican networks, but that relations between MI5 and the RUC became so fraught that the former moved its offices out of an RUC building and into British military premises.

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