Operation Demetrius, the British army round up of republican suspects to be interned without trial, began in the early hours of August 9, 1971. It was memorialised by the famous ballad; “In the little streets of Belfast in the dark of early morn.”
A total of 341 people were arrested, and, by the time internment ended in 1975, almost 2,000 people had been taken in. Those detained at first were mostly held in Crumlin Road jail or on the Maidstone prison ship in Belfast harbour. The disused RAF base at Long Kesh, outside Lisburn, was opened to house the internees.
The initial wave consisted of those suspected of membership or involvement in either the Provisional or Official IRA, with one member of the student civil rights group People’s Democracy also taken up. It was solely directed against nationalists despite the role played by loyalists – and indeed the RUC itself – in the violence that had broken out in response to the civil rights marches in 1968 and 1969.
The list was mostly compiled by RUC Special Branch, and it is clear that MI5 was almost completely dependent on that section for its own intelligence in the north. As such it was both flawed and based on old information. RUC Special Branch had had a source codenamed HORSECOPER who appears to have been a member of the Belfast IRA during the 1950s ‘border campaign’ and on whom they might still have been reliant on in the mid to late 1960s.
If that was the case, and it is substantiated by those arrested, then much of the intelligence on the IRA was out of date as many Volunteers from the earlier period had either left the movement or were no longer active. RUC Special Branch warnings of an IRA planned uprising to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966 had been baseless but MI5 had not bothered to take a closer hand prior to the 1970s.
Most of the overall intelligence on the IRA it would seem came from two Dublin based members of the Army Council and both of these had it would appear taken the Official side in the 1969 split. Their knowledge of both Belfast and the Provos would have been slight even if Garda Special Branch who controlled them was closely working with their RUC counterparts.
The raids and the brutality of the raiding parties sparked violent confrontations with nationalist communities rushing to erect barricades to halt both the military and police, and a feared loyalist onslaught at least on the scale of that of 1969. Both IRA factions were involved and the Provos killed two British soldiers, and lost two of their own Volunteers. There were a total of 24 fatalities, 20 of them civilians, over the course of August 9 to 11.
The nature of the raids had clearly been designed to frighten and demoralise the Catholic communities, thousands more of whom fled Belfast, but also had a more sinister element. This included the “deep interrogation” of 14 “hooded men” selected from among those arrested for what was designated by the European Court of Human Rights in 1976 as torture by British army and Special Branch interrogators. The British government’s own Parker Inquiry came to the same conclusion in March 1972.
Operation Demetrius was a military and propaganda disaster for the British. Rather than ensuring that the Fenians were put back in their box, as had happened on all previous occasions since 1920 when there had been a threat to Unionist domination of the north east, internment led to mass insurgency.
Stormont was discredited and was suspended by British Prime Minister Edward Heath on March 24, 1972. That was a major military and political coup by the Provos as the leftist Officials had recognised Stormont which they hoped to reform. It was also a huge loss of face for Unionism. The prorogation of the Northern Ireland government laid the grounds for a subsequent IRA ceasefire in June 1972 and direct talks with the British.
The IRA campaign that preceded those talks would never have had the resources and support to precipitate such a seeming capitulation by the British had it not been for internment. Of course, the British state by then had greatly improved its capacity to confront the IRA and the negotiations came to nothing, and led to another quarter century of conflict.
Féile an Phobail which takes place in West Belfast at this time every year is a commercialised vestige of the resistance sparked by the internment raids of August 9, 1971. Ironically, it is mostly under the control of the political party that originated in the Provos and which has been central to the revival and operation of Stormont as the devolved administration of the British controlled part of Ireland.
The years that followed internment were bloody and in the end the violence made no fundamental change to the constitutional position of the six counties of north east Ulster. The achievement of legal civil rights was an unintended consequence of the IRA campaign, but certainly not its objective as some Sinn Féin revisionists appear to argue.
Opportunities in the months following August 1971 briefly held out the hope that there might have been an agreed settlement between nationalists and unionists within the context of a British withdrawal. That opportunity was lost amid the mayhem of the times. Such a consensus based on what the two communities share seems no closer now than it was 50 years ago.