GOC wanted detention without trial in 1985

Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Pascoe
Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Pascoe

The most senior Army officer in Northern Ireland in 1985 wanted the Government to consider detention without trial for suspected IRA members.

Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Pascoe, who was only in post for several months before raising the idea with a senior NIO official, was told firmly that such a suggestion was out of the question.

An October 1985 confidential memo from Anthony Stephens, an under secretary at the NIO with a background at the Ministry of Defence, recorded a lunch meeting which he had with the General Officer Commanding (GOC).

The file has been released at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the 20-year rule.

He said that the GOC believed that progress in reducing the level of terrorism had “got stuck”, despite a “very great improvement” since the mid-1970s.

He said that “the statistics for the past three years or so, taken in aggregate, showed quite clearly that the downward trend was not being maintained but had levelled out. It might be a relatively low plateau that we had reached, but it undoubtedly was a plateau and he could see no sign of our being about to step off it and resume a downward path of further improvement”.

The GOC was “convinced” that the level of terrorism at that point was “being maintained by only a quite small number of activists. He could not avoid the conclusion that it was our inability to remove those relatively few people from circulation that was alone preventing us from making further and indeed decisive progress in eradicating terrorism”.

Mr Stephens agreed with the GOC that they were “stuck on a plateau”, but said that he was not convinced there was merely a small group of republican activists. He highlighted the growing Sinn Fein vote as evidence of a large number of people who were “at least potential participants in violence”.

Mr Stephens then wrote: “However assuming for the moment that he was right, surely the problem was not one of having the will to proceed against the activists but of having the evidence to sustain charges against them — unless, that was, he was advocating some form of extra-judicial process for detaining them. What had he in mind?

“The GOC said he was not in favour of anything as crude and unselective as a general resumption of executive detention [internment]. He hoped it would be possible to find ways to proceed through the criminal law, perhaps by creating new offences but mainly by enabling witnesses to remain unidentified. Failing that, the answer might lie in detention for a fixed period, preferably awarded by the established courts (and applied to a maximum of 40 or 50 people).

“I told him that I could give him no encouragement at all to toy with the latter possibility. Attempts had been made before to find a respectable half-way house between conviction and detention, but the task was an impossible one.”

Later in the memo, Mr Stephens commented on why the GOC had raised the issue: “There was no indication that it had been mooted with the RUC and I should be surprised if it were to receive much encouragement from that quarter nowadays. (Sir Kenneth Newman was not averse to the idea of legal short cuts to reduce the number of Provos at large, but his successor has a purer concept of normality.)