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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Operation Demetrius

long-kesh-internment-campOperation Demetrius, a British Army operation in Northern Ireland begins on August 9, 1971, during the Troubles. The operation involves the mass arrest and internment (imprisonment without trial) of 342 people suspected of being involved with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which is waging a campaign for a united Ireland against the British state.

Operation Demetrius, proposed by the Government of Northern Ireland and approved by the Government of the United Kingdom, begins throughout Northern Ireland in the early morning hours of Monday, August 9 and progresses in two parts:

  1. Arrest and movement of the detainees to one of three regional holding centers: Girdwood Barracks in Belfast, Abercorn Barracks in Ballykinler, County Down, or HM Prison Magilligan near LimavadyCounty Londonderry.
  2. The process of identification and questioning, leading either to release of the detainee or movement into detention at HM Prison Crumlin Road or aboard HMS Maidstone, a prison ship in Belfast Harbour.

The operation sparks four days of violence in which 20 civilians, two IRA members and two British soldiers are killed. All of those arrested are Irish nationalists, the vast majority of them Catholic. Due to faulty intelligence, many have no links with the IRA. Ulster loyalist paramilitaries are also carrying out acts of violence, which are mainly directed against Catholics and Irish nationalists, but no loyalists are included in the sweep.

The introduction of internment, the way the arrests are carried out, and the abuse of those arrested, lead to mass protests and a sharp increase in violence. Amid the violence, about 7,000 people flee or are forced out of their homes. The interrogation techniques used on some of the internees are described by the European Commission of Human Rights in 1976 as torture, but the superior court, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), rules on appeal in 1978 that, although the techniques are “inhuman and degrading”, they do not, in this instance, constitute torture. It is later revealed that the British government had withheld information from the ECHR and that the policy had been authorized by British government ministers. In December 2014, in light of the new evidence, the Irish government asks the ECHR to revise its 1978 judgement. The ECHR declines the request in 2018.

The backlash against internment contributes to the decision of the British Government under Prime Minister Edward Heath to suspend the Northern Ireland Government and replace it with direct rule from Westminster, under the authority of a British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. This takes place in 1972.

Following the suspension of the Northern Ireland Government and Parliament, internment is continued by the direct rule administration until December 5, 1975. During this time 1,981 people are interned, 1,874 are nationalist while 107 are loyalist. The first loyalist internees are detained in February 1973.

(Pictured: The entrance to Compound 19, one of the sections of Long Kesh internment camp)

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Death of Hunger Striker Joe McDonnell

joe-mcdonnellJoseph (Joe) McDonnell, a volunteer in the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), dies on July 8, 1981 after 61 days on hunger strike during the 1981 Irish hunger strike.

McDonnell is born on Slate Street in the lower Falls Road of Belfast, Northern Ireland on September 14, 1951 as one of ten children. He attends a nearby Roman Catholic school. He marries Goretti in 1970 and moves into her sister’s house in Lenadoon. There are only two Catholic houses in this predominantly Ulster Protestant housing estate, and their house is attacked on numerous occasions.

McDonnell is arrested in Operation Demetrius and, along with Gerry Adams and others, is interned on the prison ship HMS Maidstone. He is later moved to HM Prison Maze in County Down for several months. Upon release, he joins the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade. He meets Bobby Sands during the preparation for a firebomb attack on the Balmoral Furnishing Company’s premises in Dunmurry. During the ensuing shoot-out between the IRA and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and British Army, both men, along with Séamus Finucane and Seán Lavery, are arrested. McDonnell and the others are sentenced to 14 years in prison for possession of a firearm. None of the men accept the jurisdiction of the court.

McDonnell agrees with the goals of the Irish hunger strike, namely: the right not to wear a prison uniform; the right not to do prison work; the right of free association with other prisoners; the right to organise their own educational and recreational facilities and the right to one visit, one letter and one parcel per week.

Although McDonnell is not involved in the first hunger strike in 1980, he joins Bobby Sands and the others in the second hunger strike the following year. During the strike he fights the general election in the Republic of Ireland, and only narrowly misses election in the Sligo–Leitrim constituency. He goes 61 days without food before dying on July 8, 1981. He has two children. His wife takes an active part in the campaign in support of the hunger strikers.

McDonnell is buried in the grave next to Bobby Sands at Milltown Cemetery in west Belfast. John Joe McGirl, McDonnell’s election agent in Sligo–Leitrim, gives the oration at his funeral. Quoting Patrick Pearse, he states, “He may seem the fool who has given his all, by the wise men of the world; but it was the apparent fools who changed the course of Irish history.”

McDonnell is commemorated on the Irish Martyrs Memorial at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney, Australia and is also commemorated in The Wolfe Tones song, “Joe McDonnell.”