‘Internment’ by John McGuffin (1973)

Chapter 10

THE 1971-1972 internment period witnessed a new element in the internment saga: a massive civil resistance movement. The most important aspect of the movement was its spontaneity.
     Internment had been in the air in the months of June and July 1971. Faulkner had consistently requested it, and, by and large, all anti-Unionist groups had felt the need for a united front to oppose its imposition. The Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association called a conference several weeks before 9 August after discussions with the Official Republicans, the People's Democracy and the SDLP. The meeting was held before an enthusiastic audience in St. Mary's Hall, Belfast, and speaker after speaker was cheered as he denounced internment and the Special Powers Act and pledged support to a united front. But the proposed next meeting, which had been agreed upon by the audience, was not called. The NICRA began to procrastinate, and in the end Brian Faulkner pre-empted everyone by introducing internment on 9 August 1971.
     The sorry truth is that there was no real basis for a united front against internment. The SDLP with six MP's is a middle-class Catholic party which had never contested an election. The party had been formed from the remnants of the old tired Nationalist Party, civil rights independents, the Labour Party and Gerry Fitt's Republican Labour Party group. At the time when internment was merely in the air they had been desperate to get off the hook of non-participation in Stormont which their constituents in Derry had pushed them onto after the Deny shootings of Cusack and Beattie on 7 July 1971.
     But internment finished that. There could be no longer any question of the SDLP participating in Stormont, or in Brian Faulkner's tempting and lucrative parliamentary committees. They abstained from Stormont, but continued to draw their salaries and to have secret meetings with conservative MP's.
     NICRA was in an awkward position. What once had the pretensions to be a mass public movement had shrunk to a small faction which could no longer hide its obvious function as an Official Republican front with CP backing. For over a year their policy, in line with CP and Official leadership in Dublin thinking, had been reformist: 'democratise Stormont', and a 'Bill of Rights'. But events and the people had passed them by. They were, however, to provide a very real stumbling block to unity with their insistence that any mass movement against internment must be under their control. This was clearly unacceptable to many people and it led to the formation of the Northern Resistance Movement which, in turn, came to be regarded as a front for the Provisional Republicans and the PD.
     The NRM was born out of the failure of several meetings in Omagh and Dungannon to agree on a formula for a mass movement. NICRA insisted on having total control. The PD and many individuals felt that NICRA would be undemocratic and a brake upon militant action. The Provisionals were then concerned with the military campaign against the British army and had little time for what they described somewhat contemptuously as 'politics'.
     The fact was, however, that the people at grass roots had, as usual, outstripped their self-appointed 'leaders'. Within minutes of the initial internment raids by the army on the morning of 9 August 1971, women were out rattling bin-lids as a warning, youths were throwing stones and bottles, barricades were erected. Soon local units of both wings of the IRA engaged troops. Taking advantage of the situation, 'Loyalists' began to intimidate and to burn people out of their homes and, in some cases, to snipe from roofs. In the first few weeks of violence 35 people died. The numbers were soon to rise with the concerted bombing and shooting campaign of the Provisionals.
     Internment succeeded in uniting the minority as nothing else had ever done. With this final ham-fisted blow Faulkner managed to totally alienate nearly 40% of the population against the State. Nor were most of the 60% that pleased either. Boal and Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party, as well as the Alliance and Labour Parties,[1] condemned internment. The main prop of the civil resistance was the rent-and-rates strike.
     The strike began spontaneously. It was not organized by the SDLP, the Official Republicans or any other movement, though some were to claim it as their creation. The idea caught on like wildfire. Traditionally, strike action by the Catholic minority in the North has always been an impractical weapon. There were very few jobs in which they held key positions or a majority of the workforce, unlike the Protestant Vanguard who were to show they could bring the province to a standstill, though harming themselves more than anyone else in the process. Catholics did have several one-day industrial strikes, especially after 'Bloody Sunday', but it was the strike against the State that was the most effective.
     Within weeks, more than 40,000 households were on rent-and-rate strike. Placards to this effect appeared in windows all over the country – as well as the more contemptuously militant slogan 'Rent Spent'. At the conference called by the Tyrone Central Civil Resistance Committee in Omagh on 17 October 1971, which was to lead to the setting up of NRM, delegates gave some examples of the effectiveness of the strike. In Newry 95% solidarity. The Newry Urban Council had lost £150,000 in ten weeks. In Lurgan 4,000 were refusing to pay; £10,000 a week was being held back. In Derry, the Creggan with 15,000 people had 98% strike success; the Bogside and Brandywell had 90%. Coalisland 95%. Andersonstown, Belfast, had 80% refusing to pay. Soon gas and electricity bills, car tax, ground rent, TV licences and fines to courts were added. Local Government virtually ground to a halt. In many areas Local Government had been halted completely when Opposition councillors and businessmen withdrew from the councils and commissions. Newry, Strabane, Coalisland and various smaller towns were left with no town councils at all and the Government had to step in and try to take over their functions. Faced with the wholesale refusal to pay rent and rates, Unionists had to abandon the normal process of enforcing payments. Their answer was the Payment for Debt (Emergency Powers) Act.
     Professor Peter Townsend of the Child Poverty Action Group called it "The worst piece of social legislation passed in the UK in this century." He was right. It had all the crude simplicity of a totalitarian decree.
     The Act provides that anyone who owes money to the State and who refuses to pay is to have his or her debts paid by way of deductions from their State entitlements. Families on rent strike have the rent money and arrears deducted from benefits they usually received, before any benefits are paid over. The money so deducted is then paid to the local housing account. These benefits can include any that Stormont controls: supplementary allowances, unemployment benefits, sickness benefits, pensions or family allowance and even death grants. But the Act went even further. As Kevin Boyle, a lawyer and university lecturer, pointed out:

This extraordinary Act concerns itself with more than debts owed to the State. A private landlord whose tenants are withholding rent can also dip into their State benefits to make up the rent. So also may a building society where a person stalls or defaults on repayments; for example gas, electricity or water, can be met in the same way. For those defaulters who have no State benefits to subtract from, powers exist to attack wages or debts, seize property or charge land. An employer who refuses to dock money from his employees' wages, once ordered, becomes personally liable for his employees' debts. The Act's provisions are retrospective, all of these powers being available for debts accruing from 1 April 1972.
To implement this debt-collection service a special administrative unit has been set up at Stormont Castle. Eighty Civil Servants have been seconded from all branches to work the new machinery, a task some regard as distasteful. Their removal from other departments has caused considerable strain on the functioning of normal services, and in the special unit itself conditions have been described as administrative anarchy. There is evidence in the non-payment or delayed payment of some benefits that parts of the social services are close to breakdown with the additional task of collecting 30,000 rents each week. The whole machinery may be unable to cope, particularly if the refusal to pay continues on the present scale, which it shows every sign of doing.
The functioning of this penal act has inevitably brought hardship to the poorer families in the North. In theory, the civil servants can take all the benefits a person receives in satisfaction for the rent and arrears owed since August, and there is no appeal against deductions once made. In practice, directions have been given as follows: The amount to be deducted is the rent money for the week, an amount for the arrears depending on the status of the beneficiary. If the person is unemployed and on the standard rate of benefit, the maximum to be taken for arrears is £1.50 per week. If the person has an earnings related supplement, i.e. not the standard rate of benefit, up to £3.50 can be taken as arrears. If he is employed, then the amount taken is the weekly rent and arrears up to £2,00. It is obvious that persons either on supplementary benefit or low wages are going to be in severe straits as a result of these deductions. The supplementary benefit standard allowance is taken as the official poverty line, and the effect of this Act will be to put many thousands of families below that line throughout this winter. Particularly vulnerable will be those families affected by the 'wage-stop', the device whereby benefits are pegged to the level of wages last earned by the husband. Pensioners and the disabled who get inadequate money at the best of times will also suffer special hardship.
Indeed, hardship is guaranteed by one provision in the debt act, which declares that no exceptional needs grant will normally be paid to a rent defaulter. That has already been administratively interpreted as meaning no payments at all, and there is no appeal against the refusal.
But perhaps the most extraordinary feature of all is that the bureaucracy of the Act will mean for the normal family that it can never leave the rent strike! If a person wishes to start paying his rent, he must inform the local authority, who in turn must inform Stormont Castle, who, again, must inform his local supplementary office. It is calculated that all this will take, in present circumstances, at least two weeks. Meanwhile the tenant will have had money deducted for rent out of his weekly benefit, so he will be effectively paying double rent as well as a sum for arrears. Few families in the rent strike could afford such payments, and even if special secret arrangements exist whereby double payment could be avoided, few are going to pursue them. It is known that the unprecedented publicity campaign prior to this act, to cajole people out of the strike, produced negligible results.
The administrative costs of the new machinery may yet exceed the rent revenue being collected. Civil Resistance and Disobedience committees are determined to increase costs by making applications for extra benefits and information on a massive scale.

The Act did, indeed, fail. The Government tried everything from threats to bribes but to little avail. Full-page advertisements were published in all the newspapers claiming that the Government had information that "... many people withholding rent and rates are unwilling participants in the campaign. They are doing so only through fear of intimidation or reprisals. Nevertheless, nearly 2,000 families in the areas concerned have already asked that part of the supplementary benefit should be paid direct to their housing authority, so as to secure the tenancies." Roy Bradford, ex-disc jockey and the then Unionist Minister for Development, cut a sorry sight on television with his 'Do not be misled – Civil wrongs secure no rights' speech. Two weeks later[2] the Andersonstown Civil Resistance Committee were able to conclusively answer him:

The Unionists have been asked to disclose the facts about the rent and rates strike .... they have refused! We give you the facts. At 20th November 1971, Local Authorities and Housing Bodies had registered 14,000 applications for collection of Rent and Rate from Social Benefits. Civil Servants estimate that by 30th December 1971, 30,000 applications will have been made. Thousands of pounds have been spent on advertising aimed at breaking the anti-internment campaign. Bradford has failed! Less than 1/4 of one per cent (only 80 people) have started to pay. The Unionist party is now a debt-collecting machine. Unionism has a future for you .... behind bars.

The continuation of the violence showed even more conclusively that internment had failed.
     In the four months prior to internment:
     four soldiers, four civilians and no RUC men died.
     In the four months after internment:
     30 soldiers, 73 civilians and 11 RUC and UDR men died.
     The violence of the army when patrolling, raiding and sacking the Catholic ghettoes cemented the alienation. The tortures and brutalities exacerbated it even further. The plain and simple truth is that the Unionist Government, the army, the police and the courts had lost all credibility. The Unionists had for years resisted even the most minor demands for justice. The PM Brian Faulkner had been denounced as 'treacherous', 'devious' and 'untrustworthy' by members of his own Cabinet and by the ex-PM Terence (later Lord) O'Neill. He was hardly the man to inspire confidence in anyone.
     The RUC had been condemned by two British Commissions (Scarman and Hunt). Many were party to what their own commander, Sir Arthur Young, termed "a conspiracy of silence". The courts were denounced for their bigoted magistrates and unjust sentences. For example, between 28 October 1971 and 16 February 1972, no fewer than ten men were acquitted, whether by jury or the direction of the judge, only to be interned as they left the court. In December 1971 alone, four men were granted bail and detained under the Special Powers Act as they attempted to leave.[3]
     As Henry Kelly[4] has pointed out: "As for the office of public prosecutor, some idea of Unionist urgency in introducing this minor but necessary reform can be gauged from the fact that the first incumbent, Mr. Barry Shaw, QC, took up office only in April 1972, nearly three years after the idea was proposed." Meanwhile, a Stormont Government could continue to introduce repressive legislation such as the Criminal Justice (Temporary Provisions) Act (Northern Ireland) in one late-night sitting. And despite promises by PM O'Neill, the notorious Special Powers Act not only remained in toto on the Statute Book but had actually been strengthened.
     The civil resistance campaign was to have important side effects apart from the discrediting of internment. Foremost, of course, was the downfall of Stormont. Lord Brookeborough had been PM of Northern Ireland for 20 years. Terence O'Neill lasted from 1963 until April 1969. Chichester Clark survived only from April 1969 until March 1971. Brian Faulkner, who had schemed for, intrigued for, and coveted the job for so long, was to last only 12 months exactly. When he fell, Stormont and the Unionist monolith fell with him.
     Nor was the resistance campaign confined to Ireland North and South. Branches of the Anti-Internment League, formed in London immediately after the introduction of internment, by John Gray and Bowes Egan, proliferated throughout the 'British Isles' and as far afield as America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. International organizations, such as Amnesty and The Red Cross, investigated. Reports went to the Human Rights Commission in The Hague and the UN. The Civil Rights Association co-operated with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to involve trade unionists throughout Britain. Similarly, in many towns the National Union of Students organized demonstrations and protests against internment.
     But again, the old tried-and-true tactic of marching, so successful in the early days of the civil rights campaign, was to become decisive. With internment on 9 August Faulkner had imposed a ban on all marches for 12 months. Soon those opposed to repressive legislation began to clamour for street action. NICRA, the traditional march organizers, refused – their logic was simple – you couldn't march because it was illegal and they might put you in jail if you did! Resentment and frustration grew. Finally, in December, with the full support of the internees in Long Kesh, a group of trade unionists in Tyrone, in co-operation with Belfast and Armagh PD's, called a march for Christmas Day. It was to go from Beechmount in Belfast along the M1 motorway to Long Kesh itself, ten miles away. Of course, everyone knew that they would not be allowed to get there. Nonetheless, despite the atrocious weather and the delights of the traditional Christmas afternoon, 4,000 people assembled in the snow and marched. The army blocked the left-hand lane to the motorway but, undaunted, the marchers swung past them and began to march down the other lane into the oncoming traffic. They got three miles before the army were able to stop them. The temerity of people, not only parading on the motorway but going down the wrong lane, was apparently beyond the experience of the army.
     The march was a great success. The law had been flouted and floodgates were opened. NICRA shamefacedly had to call their own march – straight up the Falls Road to the heart of the ghetto. But the marching season was on. Marches at Magilligan camp, protests at Long Kesh, and finally the march in Derry on 'Bloody Sunday'.
     In Derry the British army showed its 'answer' to illegal marches: cold-blooded murder. Lord Widgery was to find that the Paras had, indeed, killed 13 innocent civilians, but that they (the marchers) "shouldn't have been there in the first place." British justice. The death penalty, without trial, for marching against repression. Laws like the Special Powers Act. "In order to protect the law we had to break it!"
     Next week saw an enormous crowd of some 70,000 marching in Newry. This time, with the world's press there, the soldiers refrained from gunning people down. Marches became a weekly occurrence, despite NICRA's attempts to restrain the people. Moreover, the 'Loyalists' began holding their own marches. The Loyalist Association of Workers (LAW), a crypto-fascist organization led by Billy Hull, held regular marches throughout the towns. The Vanguard movement was formed and parades of men in para-military uniforms – later, masked as well – became a regular feature. Somehow these marches were never illegal – only those of the anti-Unionists were so designated – and none of the organizers was arrested. Members of the NRM, PD and NICRA did not fare so well. In the space of five months, Michael Farrell, PD, collected two years jail sentences (in the form of four separate six-months sentences – none of which he had to serve), Bernadette Devlin MP received three years and Frank McManus MP got five years in all. All were appealed and the process was dragged out for several months. Meanwhile the courts insisted on suspending the sentences passed upon the 'respectable' MPs, Fitt, Paddy Devlin, Hume and Cooper.
     Eventually, tiring of the farce, Farrell, Devlin and McManus announced that they had no intention of turning up at the courts to answer yet more marching charges, nor would they appeal. Legally, they should have been arrested at once. Political considerations intervened, and Whitelaw, the new supremo, on 27 April announced an amnesty for all sentenced for breaking the march ban. Simultaneously, the ban itself was scrapped. It had been yet another piece of bad legislation from Brian Faulkner, popular with no one, not even with the Orangemen who became increasingly militant as the traditional 12th July marches approached.

The Civil Resistance campaign, in conjunction with the IRA's military campaign, proved to be a combination with which the Unionist Government could not cope. They had 50 years of uninterrupted rule and had become stultified and inflexible. The resistance campaign did not end internment, but it helped to bring down Stormont. Even more important, with its resistance councils it gave many people, for the first time in their lives, the chance to see that they could "seize the time"; that they could exercise a very real measure of control over their jobs, their streets, their areas. Resistance councils proliferated. Some were better organized than others. Some were experiments which failed.[5]
     When we look at the New Lodge Road though, with a council and street committees elected by everyone over the age of 16, area committees, defence, welfare, health, finance and recreational committees, meeting every week, running their own clubs, newspapers, barricades (when necessary), we can see real democracy in action. And freedom is a contagious virus. Internment has brought the people together and made them see the need for organizing from the grass roots up, instead of relying on traditional 'leaders'. Certainly, many of the people will never be the same again after their involvement in the anti-internment campaign.
     They have changed. "A terrible beauty is born."

Footnotes Chapter 10:

  1. It is true, unfortunately, that the Northern Ireland Labour party was only lukewarm in its condemnation. They would not even expel David Bleakley, the Labour MP who had disgraced the party by joining Faulkner's Cabinet.
  2. 4 December 1971. On 27 November 1972, 15 months after the introduction of internment, the Ministry was forced to concede that at least 18,000 families were still on rent-and-rate strike. Council-house tenants had withheld £2,250,000, of which only £1,130,000 had been recovered by deductions from social security benefits. In the private sector a further £850,000 was still owed. See The Irish News, Belfast, 17 August 1972, and The Irish Times, Dublin, 28 November 1972.
  3. One man, Seamus O'Kane from Derry, was more fortunate. He was arrested in England and grilled non-stop for 72 hours in connection with the Aldershot bombing. Police realized then that he had nothing to do with it (indeed, he had been in Derry at the time of the bombing). Nevertheless, they phoned the RUC who took him back to Belfast on the pretext of an old charge dating back four years. He received a suspended sentence and was told by an RUC man to go down to his cell to collect his belongings prior to his release. Rightly suspicious, however, O'Kane declined and made his exit through the front door of the court and into a waiting car. Meanwhile, two disappointed Special Branch men sat holding his internment order in his cell.
  4. HENRY KELLY, How Stormont Fell, Dublin (Gill & Macmillan), 1972.
  5. A factor in the campaign, which should not be forgotten, was the power of song. Internment brought a whole spate of ballads, the most popular being 'The Men Behind the Wire', recorded by the Barleycorn, which raised a lot of money for the Andersonstown Civil Resistance movement. But dozens of songs proliferated about the 'Crumlin Kangaroos' and the 'Magnificent Seven' escapers, and the tragic events of 'Bloody Sunday' in Derry. All were designed to keep up the spirit of resistance.

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