Internment Poster1


Internment is defined as “the action of ‘interning’; confinement within the limits of a country or place.2” It is the imprisonment of people, selected according to some decisive factor, usually in large groups, without the due process of law. Internment is often employed during wartime or pther times of emergency against political enemies or minority groups on national security grounds. In the years between 1971 and 1975 internment was used in Northern Ireland against those suspected to be members of or colluding with the IRA.3


In 1922 the Special Powers Act was passed by the Parliament of Northern Ireland in response to the violent conflicts that arose over the partition of Ireland. Its sweeping powers “allowed arrests without warrant, internment without trial, unlimited search powers and bans on meetings and publications. The Special Powers Act provided far-reaching catch-all clauses”4 essentially condoning any actions taken by the RUC and B Specials in the name of “persevering the peace and maintaining order.”5


Internment Poster6
Previous to 1971 most of these powers were exercised sparingly but the implications behind them had an intimidating effect. Simply knowing that the police force had the power to invade homes and arrest people without warrant caused unrest. The expansion of the IRA in the 1970s resulted in the increase in the use of these powers. Reforms introduced by the administration of Northern Ireland prime minister James Chichester-Clark prompted Unionists to demand tougher security. They pushed for the army to pursue the IRA in republican area. “[I]nternment without trial, sealing the border, and flooding republican areas with troops were among the popular Unionist solutions.”7

In March of 1971 the IRA was responsible for the death of three off-duty British soldiers. They were lured out of a Belfast bar into a rural area and shot. The impact of their deaths is identified by many as one of the “key points in Northern Ireland’s descent into full-scale violence.”8 As the soldiers were buried in Scotland, 4,000 shipyard workers marched in Belfast demanding internment. In response, Chichester-Clark went to London to ask prime minister, Edward Heath, for more security. Heath however, only offered extra troops prompting Chichester-Clark's resignation.

Brian Faulkner, who had promoted internment in the 1950s, succeeded Chichster-Clark at Stormont. He saw internment as the universal remedy for violence in the North, hoping that in time it would provide a peaceful atmosphere in which political progress could be made. Faulkner flew to London in August to pressure Heath into the introduction of mass internment as a way of dealing with the increase in shootings, bombings and street rioting. Many viewed this as a last ditch effort to regain control of the situation while others, like Maulding, felt it was all the government could do to prevent a Protestant backlash.9

December 1975—Internment was ended, and the remaining detainees were released

January 1978—The European Court of Human Rights rules that interrogation methods used on internees in 1971 did not constitute torture but did amount to “inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Operation Demetrius

London authorized Faulkner to use a large-scale arrest operation, codenamed Operation Demetrius, on August 9, 1971. The goal was to round up members of the IRA with the help of thousands of troops and police. The first pass resulted in 340 arrests10 and 17 deaths. Ten of the dead were Catholics killed by British soldiers, including a priest killed while saying the last rites over a dying man.11) A total of 2,400 people were detained within the first six months of the operation. However, the plan did not go as smoothly as anticipated. The Special Branch of the RUC and British Military Intelligence were responsible for the compilation of a list of current Provisional IRA (pIRA) members but much of their information was inaccurate or out-of-date. As a result, the arresting officers often found themselves at the wrong residence or facing the relatives of the suspect. Even in these situations, officers sometimes felt compelled make an arrest, resulting in the detainment of many Catholics with no ties to the pIRA.12

Men who were arrested were transferred to Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast or makeshift internment camps such as the Long Kesh Detention Center. While most were released within hours or days, they were still subjected to abuses by authorities. Some internees were subjected new interrogation techniques in which they were subjected to sensory deprivation, the denial of sleep and food, forced standing, or white noise.13 The European Court of Human Rights later found these tactics constituted “inhumane and degrading” treatment of the detainees.14

Prison Protests

Internment was implemented according to the Special Powers Act in December 1971 when the Northern Ireland Government asked London if plans could be drawn up to use HM Maze also known as the H blocks for detention. The HM Maze is a prison used during the Northern Ireland Troubles from roughly 1971 to 2000. It was in the Royal Air Force station at Long Kesh near Lisburn, nine miles outside of Belfast.15 By 1972 over 920 men were interned none of which were loyalists. Outraged began to be expressed at the fact that not a single loyalist had been interned so in February of 1973, in an effort to appear balanced two loyalists were interned, sparking off a violent one-day loyalist strike. However out of the 1981 men interned throughout the Troubles only 107 were loyalists showing a definite prejudice against republicans.


Internment Poster16
The camp, Long Kesh, near Belfast was one of the worst. It was a decommissioned airfield with rusty Nissen huts and barbed wire surrounding the internment area. Faulkner received heavy criticism for such conditions—they were so bad in fact they prompted interned Loyalists and Republicans to band together to fight for the status of “political prisoner” which would give them the rights to their own clothes, increased visits and more letters from the outside. Although internment officially ended in 1975, political tensions were still high around the topic especially because of the new criminalization policy. In an effort to regain their rights the internees’ protested for political status by refusing to wear the prison uniforms and refusing to eat. This protest is now commonly known as the Hunger Strike.



Psychology of Internment

The psychological effects of internment on the Irish prisoners has yet to be studied in depth. Those who were interned or were found guilty of crimes related to the Troubles were often held in high regard within the community. A representative at a community reconciliation group, (a group offering educational workshops in conflict resolution, responses to violence, and personal growth in Belfast) stated that one child, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, answered "an ex-prisoner." However, even those in these positions of power within the community do not ofter seek psychological help for a variety of reasons. It is groups like this which push for community reconciliation who are beginning to give an outlet through volunteer opportunities and voices to those who have experienced violence as a way of squashing new violent uprisings within the communities.

The effects of internment on those in charge of the prisoners led to different types of psychological stress and coping. People like Faulkner displayed much hatred towards those who opposed him. He stated that “you can no more deal with such deep rooted terror without toughness and determination than you can excise a deep seated tumor without cutting the flesh. It is not pleasant business. Sometimes innocent people will suffer.” Faulkner argued that internment was working, saying that “the army is fighting back, not only fighting back but taking the offensive, and now, loud and clear, we hear the squeal of the increasingly cornered rat.” This was his way of mentally distancing himself from the situation, by dehumanizing the Catholics, internees specifically, he was able to justify his actions. At the same time he was able to compartmentalize the internship of innocent people—he held himself responsible for signing each individual internment form but was able to call himself a religious man.18

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