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In the early hours of the 9th August 1971 British soldiers launched operation Demetrius, the introduction of internment without trial. Internment had been employed by the Unionist Government at Stormont in every decade since the creation of the northern state as a means to suppress Republican opposition. In the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s republican suspects had been imprisoned without trial. As violence increased in 1970 and 1971 the Unionist Government again came under increasing pressure to clamp down on the activities of the IRA. By August 1971 the Stormont Government had convinced the British Government that internment offered the best method of dealing with the increasing violence, and pointed to its repeated success in previous decades. In an attempt to reduce the expected nationalist outrage a ban on all parades was announced at the same time, aimed at defusing the potential for unrest that the Apprentice Boys parade on the 12th August posed.

Relying on outdated lists containing 450 names provided by the RUC Special Branch, the British Army swept into nationalist areas of the north and arrested 342 men. The RUC intelligence, however, was hopelessly outdated and many of those arrested had no connections with the IRA. Others, although Republican minded, had not been active in decades. Others arrested included prominent members of the Civil Rights movement. In one instance in Armagh the British Army sought to arrest a man who had been dead for the past 4 years. It appears that the rapid radicalisation of much of the north’s nationalist community, and the RUC’s alienation from that community in the previous 2 years, had created a large intelligence gap in RUC files. Indeed, so out of date were the lists that within 48 hours 116 of those arrested were released. The remainder were detained at Crumlin Rd prison and the prison ship The Maidstone.

Internees being transported to the Maidstone prison ship, August 1971.

Many of those active Republicans whose names were on the lists had been forewarned that internment was imminent and had gone on ‘the run’. At dawn on 23 July 1971, 1,800 troops and RUC raided Republican houses across the north, searching for documents. This operation was viewed by many Republicans as a dry run for internment and they responded accordingly.

Remarkably no Loyalists were arrested in the operation, despite the fact that the UVF had been active since 1966. The first Protestant internees were not arrested until 2nd February 1973.

The reaction of the Nationalist community was furious. This anger was reinforced when news of the treatment of the internees, particularly 11 men who became known as the "hooded men" became public. This anger took the form of increased support for the IRA and the commencement of a campaign of civil disobedience that enjoyed overwhelming support within the nationalist community.

The public concern at the treatment of many of the internees led to the establishment of the Compton Commission, which reported in November 1971. This report concluded that whilst detainees had suffered ill treatment this did not constitute brutality or torture. Incidents of ill treatment included:

  • in depth interrogation with the use of hooding, white noise, sleep deprivation, prolonged enforced physical exercise together with a diet of bread and water.
  • deceiving detainees into believing that they were to be thrown from high flying helicopters. In reality the blindfolded detainees were thrown from a helicopter that hovered approximately 4 feet above the ground.
  • forcing detainees to run an obstacle course over broken glass and rough ground whilst being beaten.

The combination of botched arrests, stories of brutality escaping from the internment centres and the reintroduction of internment, which was viewed as a form of communal punishment and humiliation, unleashed a wave of violence across the north, with practically no military gains to offset the impact internment had on the entire nationalist community.

In Derry City barricades were again erected around Free Derry and for the next 11 months these areas effectively seceded from Northern Ireland. Protests, street demonstrations and riots were common as the entire community sought to demonstrate its opposition to internment. At the same time a rents and rates strike was introduced in protest against internment and within weeks was supported, according to government figures, by 26,000 households. A day of action on the 16th August saw 8,000 Derry workers on strike. The next day 30 prominent Derry Catholics withdrew from public bodies, as Jack Lynch called for the immediate end of internment and 3 days later 130 anti Unionist local councillors across the north withdrew from local councils.

British troops coming under attack in the Bogside, Autumn 1971.

John Hume, soaked by a water-cannon, is arrested during
an anti internment protest in Derry, August 1971.

The IRA held a press conference in Belfast on the 13th August at which Joe Cahill, the Officer Commanding the IRA in Belfast, claimed that internment had had no noticeable effect on IRA structures and the campaign would continue. The statistics add weight to his words. In the remainder of August 1971 35 people were killed, 1 more than the total for the previous 7 months, and c. 7,000 Catholic families had fled across the border. By the year’s end 139 people had been killed since the introduction of internment.

In an attempt to provide a mechanism for the expression of non violent opposition to internment a number of rallies and marches were planned. On Christmas Day 1971 c. 4,000 protestors attempted to march from Belfast to Long Kesh.

This march was blocked before reaching its destination on the M1 motorway and dispersed.

On the 22nd January another protest march took place at Magilligan Strand, not far from Derry City.

This protest was blocked by the British Army and dispersed with violence, in which members of the Parachute Regiment were prominent. The next anti-internment rally was planned for Derry, on Sunday 30th January 1972.