John Major pondered internment after IRA ceasefire collapse

John Major’s UK government seriously considered reintroducing internment without trial for suspected Northern Irish terrorists after the unexpected end of the Provisional IRA’s ceasefire in February 1996, according to newly released government documents. The papers record a discussion in July 1996 — five months after the Republican terror group ended an 18-month ceasefire with a large bomb at London’s Canary Wharf — on whether detention of people suspected but not convicted of participating in terror might help to combat the threat. The consideration given to the radical step — formally known as executive detention — underlines the deep concern stirred up by the Canary Wharf bombing, which killed two people, and other IRA violence.

Internment had been tried in Northern Ireland between 1971 and 1975 but was widely seen as counterproductive, having encouraged sympathy for violent groups seeking to recruit. The papers were among thousands released on December 31 under rules mandating the publication of most official papers after between 20 and 30 years. However, the Northern Ireland papers have previously not been publicised, having been omitted from a batch issued in advance to the media.

Northern Ireland currently faces a political crisis, with Julian Smith, Northern Ireland secretary, threatening to call elections if there is no breakthrough in talks to restore the region’s power-sharing executive, which collapsed in January 2017. Participants in the internment discussion included prime minister Sir John, Patrick Mayhew, then Northern Ireland secretary, and other attendees at a meeting of the cabinet’s Northern Ireland committee.


Minutes record that attendees said that, if introduced successfully, internment could “impair the IRA’s capability”. It might also be a “powerful signal of the government’s determination to safeguard public safety in the event of a major bombing campaign”.

However, the committee concluded it was unlikely the measure could achieve its goals — largely because the IRA’s leadership would seek refuge in the Irish Republic unless its government introduced internment simultaneously. “It seemed unlikely that the [Republic’s] coalition government would agree to such a policy,” the minute noted. The document nevertheless said it would be “worth pursuing” the question of “how far and on what basis” the Republic would be ready to consider “joint action”.

At the same meeting, on July 9, 1996, participants discussed the widespread rioting then under way across Northern Ireland. The disorder followed the refusal of permission for members of the Orange Order, a group fiercely loyal to the UK, to march through a mainly nationalist, Roman Catholic area of Portadown, in county Armagh.

Members of the Orange Order gather at a barricade in Drumcree, near PortadownMembers of the Orange Order gather at a barricade in Drumcree, near Portadown (C) Ian Waldie/Reuters

While most observers blamed intransigent loyalists for that crisis, committee attendees partly blamed the IRA and Sinn Fein, its political wing. Loyalists had refused to speak to the spokesman for Roman Catholic residents of the Garvaghy Road area because he had a conviction for terrorism, the committee was told.

“Sinn Fein and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) had almost certainly conspired to manufacture the crisis,” a minute of the discussion said. “It suited their purposes well that the loyalists were attracting public blame for their apparent unreasonableness and the ensuing disorder and violence.” The Royal Ulster Constabulary, the province’s then police force, forced the disputed parade down the Garvaghy Road against residents’ wishes on July 11, sparking protests and rioting in nationalist areas.

John Major with then Northern Ireland secretary Patrick MayhewJohn Major with then Northern Ireland secretary Patrick Mayhew (C) Tim Ockenden/PA

Despite the crises, Sir John’s government sought to minimise the damage to prospects for long-term peace. One repeated concern was the fate of Patrick Kelly, who was serving a 25-year sentence for attempting in 1992 to drive a huge truck bomb into central London.

Kelly, who was terminally ill, had requested transfer to a prison in the Republic, from which he was expected to be released for medical treatment. While the Irish government repeatedly raised Kelly’s case with British ministers and officials, the UK side was also eager to resolve the issue. Veronica Sutherland, then UK ambassador in Dublin, wrote to Downing Street in March 1996 approvingly quoting an Irish official who warned it would be “a disaster” if Kelly were allowed to die in a British prison.

He would be seen as a martyr whose death would justify a “campaign of violence in retribution”, she quoted the official as saying.

Kelly was granted transfer to the Republic later in 1996, where he died in 1997.

The IRA called a new, permanent ceasefire in July 1997, after the Labour election victory of that year.

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