I can’t seem to focus on my regular, historical content these days and I apologize for the sporadic nature of the last couple of months. My state of mind can be summed up in a brilliantly tragic tweet by a certain Tim Grierson who says: “Being angry all the time is exhausting and corrosive. Not being angry all the time feels morally irresponsible.” He’s right – this is life in America (and other places too I’m sure) these days. But before I attempt to return to my regularly scheduled Irish history program, I have to publicly lose my mind for a minute so that my little corner of international readers understands one very important thing. Americans are not OK.
Operation Demetrius was the fancy name the English used when they started rounding up people in the north of Ireland and imprisoning them without charges or trial. It was more commonly known as internment and it was the root cause of many of the worst conflicts and atrocities during the long period of the Troubles in the north of Ireland. The British government insists that the practice was officially ended in 1975 but the citizens of the region know better. Operation Demetrius may have ended but the practice of internment continues to this day and the most blatant proof of this is the continued imprisonment of Tony Taylor, a Republican activist from Derry. Today marks nearly two years that he has been held in the notorious Maghaberry prison, without public charges, bail, or trial.
Forty-five years ago today the Parachute Regimen of the British Army was sent to Belfast to take part in Operation Demetrius, the fancy codename the government used for internment. They were to detain and arrest anyone who they thought was either involved in or supporting the Provisional IRA, but sending the Paras in to do this was rather like setting off a grenade to stop a fist fight. Over the next few days in the Ballymurphy area alone, eleven civilians were killed. Many who were killed were just trying to get away from the trouble and some were shot while helping others.
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.