It sounds like a mysterious and enticing thing, Operation Demetrius, so grand…like a top secret cocktail party or a James Bond tryst. It wasn’t – it was just a pretty name for a terrible thing that caused all kinds of problems. It’s better known as Internment and the British introduced it to Northern Ireland on this day in 1971.
The arrests began around 4AM. Witnesses report brutality, abuse, and unnecessary destruction by the police while they searched for their suspects. Other than damage to their homes, the police brought damage to their bodies as well, strapping some to armored vehicles as human shields and wielding batons and other weapons even when they were not resisting. Those arrested were subjected to sleep deprivation, starvation, forced nudity, burns and other forms of torture, all of which were sanctioned by the British government.
Many of the people who were arrested had no ties to paramilitaries but most had Catholic or Nationalist backgrounds. Despite the government’s urging to arrest some of the loyalist squads as well (to save face) the police did not. In fact, it was 2 years into the program before any were detained.
As if that isn’t bad enough, in the process of executing the arrests, twenty civilians were killed. Eleven were killed in Ballymurphy by the Paras – an occurrence that has been known since as the Ballymurphy Massacre. It set off protests and riots in the streets that lasted for weeks. In the uproar and violence that followed, it is estimated that over 7,000 people were either forced out of their homes or willingly fled the area, not sure if they’d have a home to come back to. Refugee camps were set up in the Republic in order to help some of those who were trying to escape the chaos that internment had wrought in the North.
Internment officially lasted until the end of 1975. During that time nearly 2,000 people were jailed. Approximately 1,980 had Catholic or Nationalist backgrounds, in stark opposition to the 100 or so prisoners who were Protestant or Loyalist. The general consensus of historians and scholars is that Operation Demetrius was a failure – the police failed to catch the main Irish Republican Army leaders and all that internment really accomplished was to fan the flames of sectarian violence and escalate the already violent Troubles. Enrollment in the IRA skyrocketed and violent actions only increased due to the discontent and inequality. In fact, the protest in Derry that is forever known as Bloody Sunday, was an anti-internment rally.
Today there is a memorial to the Ballymurphy Massacre victims that includes everyone who has died from that area since the start of the troubles. The lists are long and the most disconcerting thing I noticed there except for the wide variety of ages, was that there’s still room on all the plaques.
I hope they remain blank in the years to come.