On this day 50 years ago the old Stormont government launched Operation Demetrius. An attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Catholic community by randomly locking them up. To the surprise of no one, the policy backfired spectacularly and many consider it the best recruiting tool the IRA ever had.
The main failure of the policy (apart from the obvious: locking people up without trial) was they were using old intelligence that was sometimes decades out of date. Many people arrested had no connection at all to the IRA at that time. Of the more than 340 people initially arrested more than 100 were released within 48 hours. They also locked up quite a few figures in the civil rights movement thus annoying the moderates and making them more hardline.
Mark Simpson over at the BBC has a good report on it and he interviews many of the key players at the time. Danny Morrison said:
“I was interned with people who were in the civil rights movement.
“An old man who was interned with me had been interned in 1956 and had absolutely no connection with anything.
“The IRA knew that it was coming – how they knew I don’t know but very few republicans were at home when houses were hit in our area.”
John Taylor, a minister at the time, is unrepentant:
“It was an unpleasant exercise but it certainly took out some of the people who were killing people left, right and centre in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“It was the one way of bringing the IRA to heel, making them recognise that they could not win, and they did not win.”
He accepts that support for republicanism grew after internment.
“I think there were weaknesses in the intelligence – there were some people who were interned who should not have been interned,” he said.
“But overall it did bring the IRA to heel.”
In all, more than 1,900 people were interned, of which 100 were loyalists.
For more background on Internment, this article by Gerry Moriarty in the Irish Times is good. From the article:
Internment prompted serious violence. Over August 9th and 10th 23 people died including the ten people who died in the Ballymurphy Massacre in west Belfast.
The swoops caused huge Catholic and nationalist alienation from the unionist state and also served as a recruitment boon for the IRA, just as Bloody Sunday did six months later in Derry.
Internment ramped up the Troubles. It is estimated that from August 9th, 1971 until the end of that year that close to 150 people were killed, with many hundreds injured. The following year almost 500 people were killed, the worst year of the Troubles.
Fourteen of those arrested, the so-called Hooded Men, were subjected to what was euphemistically named “interrogation in depth”.
This involved the so-called five techniques: wall-standing, hooding, subjection to white noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and drink. It was further alleged that some of the men were made to believe they were being ejected from helicopters from hundreds of feet in the air when in fact they were thrown to the ground from a relatively short distance.
An interesting aside is one of the Hooded Men Joe Clarke won £10 million on the Lottery in 2013.
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