Internment

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2012), Letters, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 20

Sir,—Tommy McKearney’s article on internment (HI 19.6, Nov./Dec. 2011) was interesting in that his own response was to join the Provisional IRA. But I fear that his background has led Mr McKearney to present an incomplete analysis in that he plays down the impact of republican violence up to August 1971. He rightly deals with the failings of Operation Demetrius (no loyalists in the first swoops, abuse of internees and targeting of political activists with no record of violence). It is notable, though, that he gives scant attention to the state’s rationale for internment: a security response to the increasing violence of both wings of the IRA. In a four-page article, Mr McKearney devotes just two sentences to the pre-internment Provo campaign, and says that the group was small. Yet by August 1971 the Provisionals had killed seventeen civilians, eleven soldiers and four policemen. Referring to around 300 explosions (mostly Provisional) between January and July 1971, Richard English, in Armed struggle, describes the Provisional IRA as ‘bombing with energy and intensity’. Mr McKearney correctly says that violence spiralled after internment. But surely he must concede that Westminster would never have allowed the measure had it not been for the escalation before August 1971.
Mr McKearney recognises that angry young Catholics had an alternative to violence through the SDLP, whose leaders, as civil rights campaigners, had instigated reforms (housing, local government, policing) that pre-dated the Provisionals. But, of course, reform was not on the agenda of IRA leaders like Joe Cahill, who was featured in the article; his lifelong commitment was to the ‘unfinished business’ of partition, which is why in Belfast he was scaling up the bombings months before internment. It is ironic that Mr McKearney and so many others chose to join an organisation whose resort to the doomed strategy of armed struggle had helped precipitate the resort to the doomed strategy of internment.—Yours etc.,
JOHN DRAPER
London

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