(by Gary Kent, Fortnight)
October 21, 2001
Commuting to the Commons over the years, I often wondered about the possibility of a jet slamming into it. The unthinkable is now with us and this "asymmetrical" war moves us into dangerous and completely uncharted waters. The security manuals are being revised. Terrorism in these islands is also in the firing line and internment is no longer unthinkable.
Ah, I hear you sigh, "Internment was a complete disaster thirty years ago." It certainly was. Britain's long-standing ignorance and massively outdated intelligence was dangerously combined with the desire for revenge by the Unionist State in its dying moments of supremacy. Few loyalists were picked up and, in the main, the wrong republicans were locked up. It was only imposed on one side of the border.
It was also brutal. I often meet a republican who was blindfolded and pushed out of an Army helicopter. It was only six feet up but he thought he would finish six feet under. Britain was found guilty of torturing internees.
Internment boosted the Provos who milked for all it was worth. Today's conventional wisdom is that internment failed then and would fail again.
But the Irish Government seriously contemplated internment in 1983 but retreated under pressure from a "petrified" British Government.
This is an example of fighting the last war. Peter Taylor writes that internment was "devastatingly effective" when it was imposed by both states against the IRA's 1956-62 border campaign, which lacked public support.
The failure of internment in 1971 was in its implementation and its context. 2001 presents completely different circumstances: mainstream Irish republicanism is seeking to run the State. Discrimination against Catholics is being eradicated and power-sharing is the basic norm of government. The people have sanctioned this. Direct rule may be re-imposed but the basic framework will remain, waiting for the right time.
I assume, after the Manhattan massacre, that the Provisional IRA and its mainstream loyalist equivalents will decommission or be sidelined, although gangsterism is deeply embedded and will require other dedicated actions such as an Anti-Intimidation Unit.
There are conflicting signals about the Real IRA's intentions. They may again declare a fake cease-fire to escape public odium but, even in the face of a Bush Administration determined to tackle terrorism, the Real IRA and dissident loyalists may continue.
If so, internment should be directed at the Real IRA and various loyalist groups. My greatest fear is that, as the Provos did with rogue states like Libya, that the Real IRA and even loyalists might link up with Osama bin Laden's network.
There are sound civil liberties arguments against internment without trial and on the word of a handful of servants of the state - it ignores the principle that a person is innocent until found guilty by due process of law.
The Real IRA may be the bastard child of the Provisionals but it is not the increasingly sleek political animal that the Provos have become pre-Colombia.
If they were, the civil liberties arguments against internment would be added to by more practical political considerations. It could, for instance, be plausibly argued that internment would be counter-productive and would make martyrs of them, thus increasing their wider and softer support base. It would be argued that it would be far more efficient to prove that politics rather than violence works.
But the die-hard militarists of the Real IRA or last-ditch loyalists seem immune to political blandishments and have no significant social base or international support to mobilise.
Internment must remain a last resort. The legal action initiated by the relatives of the Omagh victims could do much to disrupt the Real IRA. Allowing wiretap evidence in courts would also help.
Some analysts deride the capacity of the Real IRA whilst others believe that they have recovered from their three main set-backs - public indignation over Omagh, private infiltration by various enemies and Provisional IRA threats and secret grassing them up. In any case, they now seem keen to demonstrate that they haven't gone away. It may only be a matter of time before they pull off a lethal spectacular.
Another difference between now and 1971 is, I hope, that the British and Irish intelligence services are on top of the situation. Debate about the timing and tactics of internment must focus on how many dissident paramilitaries would remain at large. But it's surely better to prevent even a small proportion of these people carrying out assassinations and atrocities, given that all are bent on terror in any case.
Internment would require a well-understood public narrative in these islands and Irish-America that ultimately there was no judicial or political equivalent to internment. That is undoubtedly made easier by the backlash against terrorism. But Sinn Féin couldn't and wouldn't back it. So be it if there's a big enough popular consensus for such a harsh measure.
Democratic societies have to defend themselves, sometimes with illiberal measures. Unfortunately, one of Mo Mowlam's more foolish decisions was to withdraw internment from the State's legal armoury. It would have to be reinstated some time before any possible use, for otherwise its reinstatement would telegraph the punch. Selective internment along with other security measures should be debated seriously.
This article first appeared in the October 2001 edition of the Fortnight and at SourceUK.net.