By Vincent Kearney
7 June 2012

Those arrested were imprisoned in what was then called the Long Kesh prison camp at the Maze

Nineteen Protestant men who were jailed without trial in the early 1970s are suing the government and Ministry of Defence for damages.

They claim there is evidence they were locked up simply to balance the books because the government was under pressure for only interning Catholics.

In the early hours of 9 August 1971, hundreds of soldiers and RUC officers swept into Catholic areas as part of Operation Demetrius.

More than 300 people were arrested and sent to what was then called the Long Kesh prison camp outside Lisburn. They were detained without trial, accused of involvement with the IRA.

The policy, known as internment, was introduced by the unionist government at Stormont in response to growing IRA violence.

No loyalists were arrested, despite the fact that the UVF and UDA were actively targeting Catholics at the time.

Brian Faulkner, the prime minister of Northern Ireland at the time, said the policy was necessary to protect life and property.

But it backfired. The huge security operation was based on flawed and out of date military and police intelligence files. This meant the vast majority of those arrested had no involvement with the IRA and were released within a matter of days.

There was an escalation of violence, with 23 people killed in the first 24 hours of internment. It also resulted in an increase in sympathy and support for the IRA.

It was 18 months later, in February 1973, before any loyalists were interned.

During the four years and four months when the policy operated, nearly 2,000 people were arrested and detained without trial. The vast majority, 1,874, were Catholics, while 107 were Protestants.

Now, 19 former Protestant internees are seeking damages from the government, Ministry of Defence and the police for unlawful detention.

International criticism

They say government documents discovered recently in the Public Records Office in London make it clear that they were arrested for purely political reasons because the government was facing international criticism for only targeting Catholics.

One of them is William ‘Plum’ Smyth, who served a 10-year prison sentence for attempted murder.

The former chairman of the Progressive Unionist Party, who now works with former UVF prisoners, says the government documents clearly suggest loyalists were interned to “balance the books”.

“The government didn’t want to discontinue internment, they wanted to continue, but there was pressure on them from worldwide opinion,” he says.

“It’s quite clear that they decided purely for political reasons to arrest a certain amount of Protestants so they could say they were interning both sides of the community.

“There are letters and memos between government departments which verify that was the case, that the pressure was so great they had to move politically to intern Protestants and for no other reason.”
Long Kesh Those arrested were imprisoned in what was then called the Long Kesh prison camp at the Maze

Another of those involved in the legal action is Jim Wilson. Now a community worker in east Belfast, he was 19 when arrested in July 1973 and was interned for 14 months.

He missed the birth of his daughter, and says his detention had a huge impact on his life.

“I had a job and I had just bought a house before I went to prison,” he says.

“I had a mortgage and was working to pay that off. When I came out of jail I couldn’t continue to pay the mortgage, I couldn’t get a decent job, the stigma followed me and I had to take up menial jobs that were paying very little money.

“I couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage and I had to sell the house.”

‘Political agenda’

Kevin Winters, the solicitor representing the 19 men, says the government documents leave no room for doubt about the reason for interning loyalists.

“This was a high-level executive political decision to detain and imprison loyalists for a wider political agenda,” he says.

“In a sense, it was balancing the books because of the huge international and national backlash against the detention and internment policy weighted very much against the republican, Catholic part of the community.

“It is very clear that was the rationale for interning these men and other Protestants.”

More former internees are expected to lodge claims before the case goes to court next year.