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.
on outdated lists containing 450 names provided by the RUC Special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hopelessly outdated and many of those arrested had no connections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 Indeed, so out
of date were the lists that within 48 hours 116 of those arrested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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
detainees to run an obstacle course over broken glass and
rough ground whilst being beaten.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
march was blocked before reaching its destination on the M1
motorway and dispersed.
the 22nd January another protest march took place at Magilligan
Strand, not far from Derry City.
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.