Operation 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:
- 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 Limavady, County Londonderry.
- 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)