Monday, 2 November 2009

Context of the times (No.3)

Internment In The Six Counties

In the early hours of the 9th August 1971 British soldiers launched operation Demetrius, the introduction of internment without trial.

Relying on outdated lists containing 450 names provided by the RUC Special Branch, the British Army swept into nationalist areas of the north and arrested 342 men. The RUC intelligence, however, was hopelessly outdated and many of those arrested had no connections with the IRA.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 Indeed, so out of date were the lists that within 48 hours 116 of those arrested were released.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.

The reaction 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.

The public 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.
* deceiving 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.
* forcing detainees to run an obstacle course over broken glass and rough ground whilst being beaten.

In Derry 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.

In 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. This march was blocked before reaching its destination on the M1 motorway and dispersed. On the 22nd January another protest march took place at Magilligan Strand, not far from Derry City. This 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 took place in Derry on Sunday 30th January 1972, this day now remembered worldwide as 'Bloody Sunday' when 13 people were killed by the British Army.

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