‘A step on the road to dictatorship’: The threat of internment during the Troubles

Jack Lynch’s administration was on the verge of introducing new security legislation against the IRA

The Irish State’s tried and tested response to subversion had always been emergency law. Internment, military courts and restrictions on the press had all been implemented during the Civil War, the Emergency and the IRA’s 1956-62 campaign. But the situation after August 1969 was unfamiliar. The emotional upsurge that accompanied the outbreak of conflict in the North made security measures against republicans problematic. During late 1969 and again in early 1972 plans to introduce repressive laws were stymied by public solidarity with northern nationalists. But there was also a contradiction in southern nationalism that ultimately was to prove crucial. As British diplomats noted in late 1972

“Nationalist struggles” in the North, whether about civil rights or reunification, deeply affect emotions in the South. To many, action against “Irish patriots” is unacceptable: action against those threatening the institutions of the Republic is a different matter.

While in popular memory repression is associated with the 1973-77 Coalition, and censorship almost entirely with Conor Cruise O’Brien, when Fianna Fáil left power in 1973 they had acquired a much harder-line reputation on law and order than their rivals. Jack Lynch’s administration had introduced the Forcible Entry Bill, the Prisons Bill, the Special Criminal Court and the Offences Against the State Amendment Bill. They had also tightened control of radio and television and sacked the RTÉ Authority for objecting to government broadcasting policy.

In fact the government had been on the verge of introducing new security legislation against the IRA even before the North exploded. In early August 1969 Jack Lynch met RTÉ’s Director-General and Deputy Head of News, along with the ‘editors of Dublin and Cork newspapers’ to express his concern at increased republican activity. He provided estimates of the IRA’s membership (1,200 in the Republic) and suggested the communists had gained influence among its leadership. The Taoiseach was worried that the IRA’s campaign “against foreigners might be broadened to include nationals who were considered to have too much land or wealth and that this economic campaign was a prelude to a military campaign.”

He asked that the media men refrain from publicising IRA statements or using language which he claimed romanticised them in “immature minds.” Lynch also suggested that the term “illegal organisation” be used rather then “IRA.” He then signalled that the government was intent on introducing new measures to deal with IRA activities soon. However by September events across the Border had transformed the political mood and made this impossible. Instead republicans took advantage of the emotional period after August to intensify their training and arms procurement.

Critics accused the government over the next year of pursuing the “politics of underkill” in dealing with subversives. In a number of instances armed men were apprehended by gardaí, but when brought to court then argued that their weapons were not “to be used against forces in the 26 counties but for the protection of people in the 6 counties.” In such cases suspects were often released on probation or with a small fine.

During 1970 an Irish civil servant explained to a British counterpart how there was a “depth of public sympathy among Irish people of all kinds for men sentenced for political offences-irrespective of the logic or even of the merits.” By the end of the year the mood had shifted somewhat. Frustration with republicans was accelerated by the killing of Garda Richard Fallon during a bank robbery during April.

After the shooting one detective stated that “the honeymoon is now over. One of our men has been killed, a father of five, who never did harm to anybody. We’ve always been painted as the villains, the ones who were brutal. You go up and ask Dick Fallon’s widow today who are the brutal ones.”

One activist recalled hearing real anger expressed at the IRA by working class Dubliners in the aftermath of the killing. Fallon had been shot dead during a raid by the splinter republican group Saor Éire. Though much smaller than either the Official or Provisional IRA’s, this group had gained notoriety for audacious bank robberies, which, unlike mainstream republican organisations, they were prepared to admit to.

Despite some signs that a harsher security policy was in the offing, there was shock when on 4th December 1970 Jack Lynch announced that internment without trial was to be introduced. The government claimed this was in response to information that Saor Éire were about to assassinate or kidnap politicians and civil servants. Ministers were adamant that the threat from a “secret armed conspiracy” was credible. It was suggested that Saor Éire was targeting either the Minister for Justice Desmond O’Malley, senior civil servant Peter Berry at the Department of Justice or Chief Superintendent John Fleming of the Special Branch.

Reports that the Curragh camp was to be reopened and that lists of potential internees had been drawn up were soon in circulation. A series of Garda raids on republican activists during December were perceived as dry-runs for the measure. The announcement provoked initial incredulity, followed by outrage. Most commentators felt that the threat, even if credible, hardly justified such a measure. The Irish Times warned that "internment camps mean a step on the road to dictatorship." The Irish Press on the other hand, while expressing "surprise and puzzlement" nevertheless considered that "in a country in which there is a tradition of not recognising the courts, intimidating jurors and, above all, not giving evidence against political defendants … some such recourse as detention camps is inevitable if distasteful."

Republicans, the left, the labour movement and civil liberties groups were united in opposition. Eamonn McCann and Bernadette Devlin, along with Official Sinn Féin’s Máirín de Burca, Labour’s John Horgan and solicitor Con Lehane of Citizens For Civil Liberty were among those who addressed a protest rally of 1,000 people outside the Dáil. Walkouts and ‘teach-ins’ took place in several universities and leading trade unionists forcibly expressed their opposition. Four Labour TDs were suspended from Leinster House for criticising the governments refusal to allow debate on the issue. Limerick TD Steven Coughlan warned that “the Taoiseach knows where this is going to end, in hunger strikes and civil war. Be it on the Taoiseach’s head.”

Noel Browne called for industrial action in protest while Conor Cruise O’Brien was physically threatened by Fianna Fáil TDs as he left the Dáil chamber after denouncing the measure. Northern activists, from Paddy Devlin of the SDLP to Michael Farrell of Peoples’ Democracy noted that internment in the south would only embolden the Unionist government in its use of repression north of the Border. Indeed the Reverend Martin Smyth, a leading member of the Orange Order and the Unionist party had applauded Lynch’s proposal.

Most of those who opposed internment suggested that government claims about armed threats were fantasy. Official Sinn Féin compared them to the British government’s cliams of a ‘German plot’ during 1918.

Provocatively however Saor Éire asserted that they might indeed just do what the government alleged they were planning to do and admitted they had not ruled out kidnapping as part of an urban guerilla strategy. Fianna Fáil spokesmen dismissed worries about civil liberties, with Tánaiste Erskine Childers ridiculing them as “wails of protest from a limited number of people.” But less than a fortnight later the issue had disappeared from the political agenda.

Internment was not introduced and discussion of the issue proved remarkably short-lived. Peter Berry later contended that the government had threatened the measure in order to win support in a by-election in Donegal-Leitrim. The substantial Protestant vote in the constituency, he suggested, would have been receptive to harsh measures against republicans. But the by-election (won comfortably by Fianna Fáil) had taken place on 2nd December, two days before the government had mentioned internment. Minister for Justice Desmond O’Malley later gave a more credible, if also curious explanation. He claimed that gardaí had information that Saor Éire were planning a major operation against senior politicians or civil servants. But the authorities were also aware that neither the Official or Provisional IRA wanted a clampdown in the Republic. By signalling that they were about to introduce internment the government hoped that the rival IRAs would head off such a threat by neutralising Saor Éire themselves. So O’Malley argued, the government would “threaten to do it (introduce internment) and convey to a much more sizeable subversive organisation the fact that we were considering that and let them exert pressure to see that this matter didn’t happen. It wouldn’t have suited the more sizeable organisation. And that’s the way it worked, and it did work.”

Indeed Provisional IRA Chief of Staff Seán Mac Stíofáin later claimed that he had “sent two people to the two people in Saor Éire. I said ‘look if your people are responsible for internment down here you’re all dead.” That the Irish government were prepared to let larger republican organisations threaten smaller ones was certainly innovative, if hardly consistent with the rule of law.

As it was, the whole issue was forgotten remarkably quickly, though when internment was introduced north of the Border during August 1971, Unionists were quick to point out that Jack Lynch had threatened to use the same measure less than a year before. Though the northern conflict escalated terribly during 1972, internment without trial was not seriously mooted again by the southern state. However by the conclusion of that year several draconian security measures to combat ‘subversives’ had been introduced, which despite widespread protest ultimately became permanent legal fixtures and part of the legacy of the northern conflict on southern Ireland.

Briain Hanley is author of The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968-79: Boiling Volcano? (Manchester University Press, 272pp, £75)

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