1970-1979 | Detention without trial | Northern Ireland

PM advised to be ‘economical with the truth’ over detention of Catholics

Edward Heath- c. September 1972.
Magnussen Friedrich CC BY-SA 3.0 DE – crop.

18 October 1972

Today in 1972, Prime Minister Edward Heath was briefed to be ‘economical with the truth’ when he met the Irish Taoiseach, Jack Lynch. The advice was to inform him only that ‘the police (in Northern Ireland) draw no distinction between Catholics and Protestants in the investigation of security offences and the prosecution of such offences.’

In reality, as Ministry of Defence memos of the time acknowledge, while Catholics could be detained for an indefinite period, without trial, on reasonable suspicion of terrorism, the Northern Ireland Office had a covert ‘arrest policy for protestants,’ under which they remained exempt from such draconian measures.  Unlike Catholics, Protestants could only be detained on criminal charges and with the usual required standards of evidence, regardless of any suspicion of involvement in terror attacks.1 Discussions among British ministers regarding this covert policy continued the following month and an MOD memo, dated 8 December, noted that ‘ministers have judged that the time is not at the moment right for an extension of the arrest policy (indefinite detention without trial) in respect of Protestants.’2 Such discrimination alienated the Catholic community in Northern Ireland, who knew all too well that the rule of the law was not being applied equitably.


  1. Margaret Urwin, A State of Denial: British Collaboration with Loyalist Paramilitaries, Mercier Press, Cork, 2016, pp. 66-67.
  2. Ibid., p. 69.

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