Operation Demetrius and its aftermath: a new history of the use of internment without trial in Northern Ireland 1971–75

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Manchester University Press
ISBN 9780719096303

Reviewed by: Clifford Peeples


WhenGeorge Santayana made his observation that ‘history is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten’, he could easily have been making it about the subject of Martin McCleery’s book. The populist thought on the introduction of internment is clear: it was a failed attempt by the former Northern Ireland government which callously targeted the innocent. But history is like observing an impressionist painting. If you are too close, your analysis will only observe how the paint is applied and the hue of the colour. The overall effect of the artist’s work will not be seen, only a mash of colour and texture merging into an indistinguishable mass. It is only when the observer stands back from the subject that they can see the whole work. But if this observation is from too far, the intricate make-up and complexity is lost. Sometimes, not very often, a historian is able to put a subject into complete perspective. This is what McCleery has achieved in this work: an almost 20/20 look at internment. This achievement is made possible through the amalgamation of historical documentation and the personal recollections of some of the protagonists,all of which are set in context by the author’s analytical expertise.

The work also challenges supposed accepted truths: that the British Army was one of the main supporters of its use. Evidence is produced that shows that the general officer commanding, Tuzo, and the chief of the general staff, Carver, were both initially opposed to the introduction of internment. The army believed that the IRA could be dealt with within a period of months if a robust engagement policy was put in place.

The policy had other critics: the Police Federation, the Law Society and even Ian Paisley, who would state that the internees should be brought ‘to a court of law’ and evidence shown. This was ‘the basic principle of British justice’, he would further remark. His friend Desmond Boal would compare the practice to that carried out by Nazi Germany. This was the main problem with such a tactic: the government found itself in a pincer movement between two opponents willing to take every advantage of any situation. This, according to Robin Baillie, was a ‘political fight for survival’—ultimately a fight that would be lost. (The irony should not be lost that the two protagonists making up that pincer now form the government of Northern Ireland 40 years on.)

IRA man Tommy Gorman would state that ‘we wanted to get behind the public reaction’ to internment. By 23 August 1971, Tuzo would state that ‘the other side had already won a propaganda victory’. This victory had been effectively foretold by the RUC Special Branch when it stated in a report that ‘republican, opposition politicians, the civil rights movement and the Catholic Church’ had in their combined front ‘an expertise and a capability’ that the Northern Ireland regime could not ‘effectively match’ in the sphere of propaganda.

Also revealed are suggestions that a mole in the Northern Ireland civil service tipped off the Provisional IRA about the likelihood of internment. Tommy Gorman would state that ‘I was expecting internment as an IRA volunteer’ and that he had ‘been on the run for several months’.Joe Cahill corroborated this by saying that ‘senior IRA members’ had been ‘instructed in late July’—a month before its introduction—‘not to sleep at home’. This forewarningwould lead to an estimated 2,000 IRA activists still at large in the weeks after its introduction. Field Marshal Carver was of the opinion that ‘poor intelligence’ and the ‘short notice’ given for the operationwere responsible for its shortcomings. This was also mixed with suspicion that the Northern Ireland government had used it more as a tool for political suppression than as a precision instrument in the fight against terrorism. Despite this, the figures, as provided, cast serious doubt on the claims that internment did not target IRA members and that it was totally inadequate.

Internment also caused a domino effect on long-term issues. Its failure cost the Northern Ireland government its political existence, causing decades of political uncertainty. The treatment and privileges that were given to the internees would pass over into political status and, in turn, laid the foundation for the 1980–1 hunger strikes. It would also prove to be the final break between the Roman Catholic community and the British military. The resulting scramble of IRA activists to go to ground, caused by internment, spread their network and increased the organisation’s support, spreading violence and ultimately prolonging the Troubles.

Perhaps the book’s best asset is its style. While most academic books have a sluggish and dense writing style that can leave the general reader struggling, this is not the case with McCleery’s. It is fluent, lucid and articulately written, which drives the reader on. The one major drawback is the hefty price tag.

Clifford Peeples, a graduate of the University of Ulster, is currentlywriting a book, Enemy of the State,about District Inspector Nixon and his relationship with the Northern Ireland state.


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