Ireland Revisited – Week Two
September 21, 2010
By Paul Malone
Against a backdrop of early violence in 1969, both the IRA and UVF continued to grow in strength, arming themselves for what both perceived as an inevitable war, as the frequent Civil Rights turned into riots. In August 1969 the Apprentice Boys’ march in Belfast created three days of ferocious Nationalist rioting in Derry. Known as ‘The Battle of the Bogside’, the sheer intensity of, and level of violence, only ceased when new Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark deployed British troops on to the streets. This itself, was another epoch in the early days of the ‘Troubles’ as it was an acknowledgement by the British government that the Northern Ireland Stormont government was losing its grip on security in the country.
Under increasing pressure by the British and Irish public to find a lasting settlement before this early violence turned into something more serious, the British governments’ political response came in the form of the Downing Street Declaration, which stated the British Governments’ support for equality and anti-discrimination. It also allayed Unionist fears, by reasserting that Northern Ireland would remain an integral part of the UK “as long as that was the will of the majority of people”. A succession of reforms quickly followed, to investigate the allocation of council houses and review the policing debacle.
The reforms led to the possibility of the despised ‘B-Specials’ being disbanded, the disarming of the police and the setting up of the Ulster Defence Regiment, which was to be under the control of the British Army. However, such plans did little to placate the Unionist and Nationalist communities. The Nationalist community believed small reforms like those mooted, simply did not go far enough. Instead, a whole restructuring and reform of all of Northern Ireland’s local and national political institutions was needed to ensure gerrymandering to create deliberate inequality never came to the fore again. Unionists were outraged at the reforms, claiming that the British government was giving too many concessions to Republicans and thus Loyalists created more unrest, followed swiftly with an escalation in the intimidation of Catholics and many of their homes burned.
The Provisional IRA remained largely inactive during 1969 and 1970, instead focusing on building up its arms, support and personnel. Loyalist paramilitaries, despite their consistent level of violence, were also organizing themselves and in 1971 the UVF was joined by the UDA (Ulster Defence Association), which swelled with numbers and boasted a membership of tens of thousands. In March 1971, Chichester-Clark resigned and was replaced by Brian Faulkner, who re-introduced internment (detaining paramilitary suspects without trial) with devastating consequences.
‘Operation Demetrius’ – as internment was defined by the British Government, began in earnest on August 9th 1971 with British troops carrying out lightening raids of Republican suspects houses, arresting hundreds. Internment was a huge public relations disaster for the British Government for two reasons – its intelligence on Republicans was severely lacking, and the fact that instead of destroying the Provisional IRA hierarchy it actually missed all the key personnel and gave the PIRA a renewed vigour and more mass support from the Nationalist community. The operation was seriously flawed in all its strands, with many of the key paramilitary players being given prior warning of internment. Despite the Official IRA being largely inactive during this period, the vast majority of internment arrestees were infact members of the Officials, which inadvertently helped the Provisional IRA in its aim to be the sole defender of the Catholic community.
Furthermore, and perhaps significantly in the perverse and seedy world of Northern Ireland politics, not one Loyalist paramilitary suspect was arrested, further angering the Nationalist community amid calls of a conspiracy against the Catholic population. Many became disillusioned with the British and Northern Ireland governments’ inability to deal with such Loyalist paramilitary groups like the UVF, who had carried out several bombings and killings yet had still to be brought to justice. Of the 350 people arrested during internment, 104 were released within 48 hours, Operation Demetrius leaving ten Catholic civilians dead. Internees spoke of horrific beatings whilst in custody, most claiming to suffer physical and mental torture.
As a direct consequence of Operation Demetrius, many otherwise moderate Catholics now felt under siege from the British and Northern Ireland government security forces and increasingly began to view the Provisional IRA as protectors of the Nationalist community. The influx of support for the PIRA post-internment was easily identifiable by the increase in anti-internment marches carried out throughout Northern Ireland, one of which was to leave 13 unarmed, innocent civilians dead in the following months…