The use of internment by the Unionist government is often associated with the 9th August 1971 when mass arrests took place across the north. However, internment had been used on a frequent basis by the Unionist government since 1922. Whilst hundreds of men and women were interned in 1938-1945 and 1957-1962, there were a number of other episodes in which smaller numbers were interned in 1925, 1935, 1950-1 and indeed, 1969. The use of internment in 1969 is another overlooked aspect of how the events of that year unfolded.
Following the deployment of British troops in the face of a UVF bombing campaign in April 1969, the unfolding crisis saw a recurring discussion in the Unionist government over ending the British Army’s role. Early proposals to withdraw the British Army in early June had been pushed out until after the Twelfth of July when a slower withdrawal was envisaged. During July, the British soldiers continued to be used in guarding key installations while B Specials, officially armed with batons, provided support to the RUC during street disturbances.
By the 3rd August, the British Labour government was being advised by the Unionists that further military assistance was likely to be needed and suggested that a Company of British soldiers be placed on stand-by in Musgrave Street Barracks. On 6th August the Home Secretary (Jim Callaghan) had stated that direct rule from London would have to be imposed “…in the event that progress on the reforms discussed at previous Downing Street meetings was not satisfactory” or if there was “continuing use of troops to control riot situations.” The Home Office went as far as to say that failure to meaningful engage in civil rights reforms could lead to a “…review of the constitutional arrangements.” As far as London was concerned, use of the British Army meant that it would be “…difficult to separate the function of law and order, which H.M.G. might wish to control, from other functions of the Northern Ireland government and, therefore, his personal view was that it was a case of taking over all Northern Ireland’s affairs or none.” This point was reinforced by the Home Office stating that the “…Westminster Parliament would have to assert its authority.”
The views of the British Home Office on 6th August seemed to be a response to Unionists attempts to build up the RUC Reserve, continue to escalate the deployment of the B Specials and push for less restrictions on the use of CS gas. On 4th August the Unionists had proposed to increase the RUC Reserve by 50% by mixing it with B Specials. By 5th August, the Unionist cabinet agreed “It was the general view of Ministers that the maximum prudent use should be made of U.S.C. forces.”
The Unionist representatives told the Home Office that direct rule or a change in constitutional arrangements (arising from either the use of British army or a failure to engage in civil rights reforms) would lead to significant violence. A record of discussions made on 7th August reported that they had told the Home Office that, if Callaghan and the Labour government didn’t agree to deploying the British Army they would put “armed Specials on the streets – with all the implications that that might carry for a deepening of the sectarian conflict”. They went on to state that “…the United Kingdom authorities should consider the situation that might well arise if in fact they did decide to exercise direct rule from Whitehall. There would first of all be a frightening reaction by the Protestant community which could make anything that had happened up to now seem like child’s play; a provisional Government might be set up with extreme elements at its head and it was highly probable that wholesale sectarian strife would break out not only in the streets but in the factories.”
A Unionist cabinet meeting on 11th August was advised of the recent discussion with the British Home Office and that the continued use of British troops could necessitate the imposition of direct rule. Throughout July and August, the Apprentice Boys parade in Derry on 12th August loomed large as a likely focus for significant violence. So it was no surprise when the Battle of the Bogside then erupted in Derry on 12th August. The next day protests in Belfast over the actions of the RUC and B Specials in Derry led to further violence including a couple of armed clashes between the RUC and IRA over the night of 13th/14th August. That afternoon, 14th August the Unionists requested further military assistance in Derry and to intern suspected IRA ‘agitators’ under the provisions of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act.
The RUC then carried out a series of raids and arrested and interned at least twenty-four men. Those interned included Frank Campbell, Denis Cassidy, Denis Casson, M. Darity, J.J. Davey, Frank Donnelly, P. Duffy, R. Fitzpatrick, Jimmie Hargey, L. Johnston, D. Loy, H. Mallon, Prionsias MacAirt, Joe McCann, P.J. McCusker, John McEldowney, F. McGlennon, John McGuigan, Malachy McGurran, Liam McIlvenna, Billy McMillan, L. Savage, M. Toal and F. White. Not all were from Belfast. An Appeals Tribunal was to be constituted, under a Q.C., Frank Patton, to hear appeals against being interned.
Military assistance was also needed in Belfast and was requested the next day (15th August). In a public statement the next day the Unionist Prime Minister Chichester-Clarke said that “Well-disciplined and ruthless men, working to an evident plan, attacked the police at a number of points in the city.” Perhaps mindful that the use of the British Army could now trigger direct rule, Chichester-Clarke then tried to make it difficult for the British government to do so by saying the violence had been “…a deliberate conspiracy to subvert a democratically-elected Government.” By this he was implying that direct rule would be seen to be achieving the aims of the IRA. He also made reference to the use of internment, stating that “A considerable number of persons suspected of subversive activities are being held by the police for interrogation.”
The violence had largely been instigated by Unionists as opposition to civil rights reforms, just as Unionist officials had alluded to in talks with the British Home Office at the start of August. But Chichester-Clarke carefully framed the context of the current security crisis and violence, citing both the handful of armed clashes between the IRA and RUC and the need to detain IRA members. Thus, Chichester-Clarke painted a scenario in which the IRA were to blame so as to make it difficult for Westminster to either ‘review constitutional arrangements’ as a consequence of the violent resistance by Unionists of civil rights reform (that they had signalled to Westminster in the talks of 3rd-6th August) or impose direct rule due to the deployment of the British Army.
Meanwhile, many of the twenty-four internees were released within a few weeks. Three, Billy McMillan (the Belfast IRA O/C) and two other senior IRA figures, Prionsias MacAirt and Malachy McGurran continued to be interned. When McMillan got out late in September he found significant hostility among the Belfast IRA to the IRA’s leadership in Dublin over events in August. MacAirt and McGurran, though, were to be interned until the end of year.
Despite the deployment of the British Army on 14th-15th August 1969, it was to be March 1972 before Westminster finally imposed direct rule.