Operation Demetrius was a British Army operation in Northern Ireland on 9–10 August 1971, during the Troubles. It involved the mass arrest and internment (imprisonment without trial) of 342 people suspected of being involved with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was waging a campaign for a united Ireland against the British state. It was proposed by the Northern Ireland Government and approved by the British Government. Armed soldiers launched dawn raids throughout Northern Ireland, sparking four days of violence in which 20 civilians, two IRA members and two British soldiers were killed. All of those arrested were Irish nationalists, the vast majority of them Catholic. Due to faulty intelligence, many had no links with the IRA. Ulster loyalist paramilitaries were also carrying out acts of violence, which were mainly directed against Catholics and Irish nationalists, but no loyalists were included in the sweep.
The introduction of internment, the way the arrests were carried out, and the abuse of those arrested, led to mass protests and a sharp increase in violence. Amid the violence, about 7,000 people fled or were forced out of their homes. The interrogation techniques used on the internees were described by the European Commission of Human Rights in 1976 as torture, but the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on appeal in 1978 that while the techniques were “inhuman and degrading”, they did not constitute torture.
It was later revealed that the British Government had withheld information from the ECHR and that a policy of torture had in fact been authorized by British Government ministers. In December 2014 the Irish government asked the ECHR to revise its 1978 judgement.
The policy of internment was to last until December 1975 and during that time 1,981 people were interned; 1,874 were nationalist, while 107 were loyalist. The first loyalist internees were detained in February 1973.
Background and planning
Internment had been used a number of times during Northern Ireland‘s (and the Republic of Ireland‘s) history, but had not yet been used during the Troubles, which began in the late 1960s. Ulster loyalist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had been engaged in a low-level violent campaign since 1966. After the August 1969 riots, the British Army was deployed on the streets to bolster the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Up until this point the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had been largely inactive. However, as the violence and political situation worsened, the IRA was divided over how to deal with it. It split into two factions, the Provisional IRA and Official IRA. In 1970–71, the Provisionals began to retaliate against the British Army and the RUC. The Officials’ policy was one more defensive.
During 1970–71 there were numerous clashes between state forces and the two wings of the IRA, between the IRAs and loyalists, and occasionally between the IRAs. Most loyalist attacks were directed against Catholic civilians, but they also clashed with state forces and the IRA on a number of occasions.
The idea of re-introducing internment for Irish republican militants came from the unionist government of Northern Ireland, headed by Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. It was agreed to re-introduce internment at a meeting between Faulkner and UK Prime Minister Edward Heath on 5 August 1971. The British cabinet recommended “balancing action”, such as the arrest of loyalist militants, the calling in of weapons held by (generally unionist) rifle clubs in Northern Ireland and an indefinite ban on parades (most of which were held by unionist/loyalist groups). However, Faulkner argued that a ban on parades was unworkable, that the rifle clubs posed no security risk and that there was no evidence of loyalist terrorism.
It was eventually agreed that there would be a six-month ban on parades but no interning of loyalists and that internment would go ahead on 9 August, in an operation carried out by the British Army.
On the initial list of those to be arrested, which was drawn up by RUC Special Branch and MI5, there were 450 names, but only 350 of these were found. Key figures on the list, and many who never appeared on them, had got wind of the swoop before it began. The list included leaders of the non-violent Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association such as Ivan Barr and Michael Farrell. But, as Tim Pat Coogan noted,
What they did not include was a single Loyalist. Although the UVF had begun the killing and bombing, this organisation was left untouched, as were other violent Loyalist satellite organisations such as Tara, the Shankill Defence Association and the Ulster Protestant Volunteers. Faulkner was urged by the British to include a few Protestants in the trawl but, apart from two republicans, he refused.
In a subsequent case brought to the European Commission of Human Rights by the Irish government against the government of the United Kingdom, it was conceded that Operation Demetrius was planned and implemented from the highest levels of the British government and that specially trained personnel were sent to Northern Ireland to familiarize the local forces in what became known as the ‘five techniques‘, methods of interrogation described by opponents as “a euphemism for torture”.
The internments were initially carried out under Regulations 11 and 12 of 1956 and Regulation 10 of 1957 (the Special Powers Regulations), made under the authority of the Special Powers Act. The Detention of Terrorists Order of 7 November 1972, made under the authority of the Temporary Provisions Act, was used after direct rule was instituted.
Internees arrested without trial pursuant to Operation Demetrius could not complain to the European Commission of Human Rights about breaches of Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) because on 27 June 1957, the UK lodged a notice with the Council of Europe declaring that there was a:
“public emergency within the meaning of Article 15(1) of the Convention.”
Operation and immediate aftermath
Operation Demetrius began on Monday 9 August at about 4AM.
The operation was in two parts:
- (1) Arrest and movement of the detainees to one of three regional holding centers: Girdwood in Belfast, Ballykinler in County Down, or Magilligan in County Londonderry
- (2) The process of identification and questioning, leading either to release of the detainee or movement into detention at Crumlin Road prison or aboard HMS Maidstone, a prison ship in Belfast Harbour.
In the first wave of raids across Northern Ireland, 342 people were arrested. Many of those arrested reported that they and their families were assaulted, verbally abused and threatened by the soldiers. There were claims of soldiers smashing their way into houses without warning and firing baton rounds through doors and windows. Many of those arrested also reported being ill-treated during their three-day detention at the holding centres. They complained of being beaten, verbally abused, threatened, harassed by dogs, denied sleep, and starved. Some reported being forced to run a gauntlet of baton-wielding soldiers, being forced to run an ‘obstacle course’, having their heads forcefully shaved, being kept naked, being burnt with cigarettes, having a sack placed over their heads for long periods, having a rope kept around their necks, having the barrel of a gun pressed against their heads, being dragged by the hair, being trailed behind armoured vehicles while barefoot, and being tied to armoured trucks as a human shield.
Some were hooded, beaten and then thrown from a helicopter. They were told they were hundreds of feet in the air, but were actually only a few feet from the ground.
The operation sparked an immediate upsurge of violence, the worst since the August 1969 riots.
The British Army came under sustained attack from Irish nationalist rioters and gunmen, especially in Belfast. According to journalist Kevin Myers:
“Insanity seized the city. Hundreds of vehicles were hijacked and factories were burnt. Loyalist and IRA gunmen were everywhere”.
People blocked roads and streets with burning barricades to stop the British Army entering their neighbourhoods. In Derry, barricades were again erected around Free Derry and “for the next 11 months these areas effectively seceded from British control”.
Between 9 and 11 August, 24 people were killed or fatally wounded: 20 civilians (14 Catholics, 6 Protestants), two members of the Provisional IRA (shot dead by the British Army), and two members of the British Army (shot dead by the Provisional IRA).
Of the civilians killed, 17 were killed by the British Army and the other three were killed by unknown attackers. In West Belfast’s Ballymurphy housing estate, 11 Catholic civilians were killed by 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment between 9 and 11 August in an episode that has become known as the Ballymurphy Massacre. Another flashpoint was Ardoyne in North Belfast, where soldiers shot dead three people on 9 August.
Many Protestant families fled Ardoyne and about 200 burnt their homes as they left, lest they “fall into Catholic hands”. Protestant and Catholic families fled “to either side of a dividing line, which would provide the foundation for the permanent peaceline later built in the area”Catholic homes were burnt in Ardoyne and elsewhere too.
About 7000 people, most of them Catholics, were left homeless. About 2500 Catholic refugees fled south of the border, where new refugee camps were set up.
By 13 August, media reports indicated that the violence had begun to wane, seemingly due to exhaustion on the part of the IRA and security forces.
On 15 August, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) announced that it was starting a campaign of civil disobedience in response to the introduction of internment. By 17 October, it was estimated that about 16,000 households were withholding rent and rates for council houses as part of the campaign of civil disobedience.
On 16 August, over 8,000 workers went on strike in Derry in protest at internment. Joe Cahill, then Chief of Staff of the Provisional IRA, held a press conference during which he claimed that only 30 Provisional IRA members had been interned.
On 22 August, in protest against internment, about 130 non-unionist councillors announced that they would no longer sit on district councils. The SDLP also withdrew its representatives from a number of public bodies.
On 19 October, five Northern Ireland Members of Parliament (MPs) began a 48-hour hunger strike against internment. The protest took place near 10 Downing Street in London. Among those taking part were John Hume, Austin Currie, and Bernadette Devlin.
Protests would continue until internment was ended in December 1975.
The backlash against internment contributed 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 took place in 1972.
Following the suspension of the Northern Ireland Government and Parliament, internment was continued by the direct rule administration until 5 December 1975. During this time a total of 1,981 people were interned: 1,874 were from an Irish nationalist background, while 107 were from a unionist background.
Historians generally view the period of internment as inflaming sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, while failing in its goal of arresting key members of the IRA. Many of the people arrested had no links whatsoever with the IRA, but their names appeared on the list of those to be arrested through bungling and incompetence. The list’s lack of reliability and the arrests that followed, complemented by reports of internees being abused far in excess of the usual state violence, led to more nationalists identifying with the IRA and losing hope in non-violent methods.
After Operation Demetrius, recruits came forward in huge numbers to join the Provisional and Official wings of the IRA. Internment also led to a sharp increase in violence. In the eight months before the operation, there were 34 conflict-related deaths in Northern Ireland. In the four months following it, 140 were killed.
A serving officer of the British Royal Marines declared:
It (internment) has, in fact, increased terrorist activity, perhaps boosted IRA recruitment, polarised further the Catholic and Protestant communities and reduced the ranks of the much needed Catholic moderates.
In terms of loss of life, 1972 was the most violent year of the Troubles. The fatal march on Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972) in Derry, when 14 unarmed civil rights protesters were shot dead by British paratroopers, was an anti-internment march.
Interrogation of internees
All of those arrested were interrogated by the British Army and RUC. However, twelve internees were then chosen for further “deep interrogation”, using sensory deprivation. This took place at a secret interrogation centre, which was later revealed to be Shackleton Barracks, outside Ballykelly. In October, a further two internees were chosen for deep interrogation. These fourteen became known as “the Hooded Men”, or “the Guineapigs”.
After undergoing the same treatment as the other internees, the men were hooded, handcuffed and flown to the base by helicopter. On the way, soldiers severely beat them and threatened to throw them from the helicopter. When they arrived they were stripped naked, photographed, and examined by a doctor.
For seven days, when not being interrogated, they were kept hooded and handcuffed in a cold cell and subjected to a continuous loud hissing noise. Here they were forced to stand in a stress position for many hours and were repeatedly beaten on all parts of their body. They were deprived of sleep, food and drink. Some of them also reported being kicked in the genitals, having their heads banged against walls, being shot at with blank rounds, and being threatened with injections. The result was severe physical and mental exhaustion, severe anxiety, depression, hallucinations, disorientation and repeated loss of consciousness.
The interrogation methods used on the men became known as the ‘five techniques‘. Training and advice regarding the five techniques came from senior intelligence officials in the British government. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) defined the five techniques as follows:
- (a) wall-standing: forcing the detainees to remain for periods of some hours in a “stress position”, described by those who underwent it as being “spreadeagled against the wall, with their fingers put high above the head against the wall, the legs spread apart and the feet back, causing them to stand on their toes with the weight of the body mainly on the fingers”;
- (b) hooding: putting a black or navy coloured bag over the detainees’ heads and, at least initially, keeping it there all the time except during interrogation;
- (c) subjection to noise: pending their interrogations, holding the detainees in a room where there was a continuous loud and hissing noise;
- (d) deprivation of sleep: pending their interrogations, depriving the detainees of sleep;
- (e) deprivation of food and drink: subjecting the detainees to a reduced diet during their stay at the centre and pending interrogations.
The fourteen Hooded Men were the only internees subjected to the full five techniques. However, over the following months, some internees were subjected to at least one of the five techniques, as well as other interrogation methods. These allegedly included waterboarding, electric shocks, burning with matches and candles, forcing internees to stand over hot electric fires while beating them, beating and squeezing of the genitals, inserting objects into the anus, injections, whipping the soles of the feet, and psychological abuse such as Russian roulette.
When the interrogation techniques used on the internees became known to the public, there was outrage at the British government, especially from Irish nationalists. In answer to the anger from the public and Members of Parliament, on 16 November 1971, the British government commissioned a committee of inquiry chaired by Lord Parker (the Lord Chief Justice of England) to look into the legal and moral aspects of the ‘five techniques’.
The “Parker Report” was published on 2 March 1972 and found the five techniques to be illegal under domestic law:
10. Domestic Law …(c) We have received both written and oral representations from many legal bodies and individual lawyers from both England and Northern Ireland. There has been no dissent from the view that the procedures are illegal alike by the law of England and the law of Northern Ireland. … (d) This being so, no Army Directive and no Minister could lawfully or validly have authorized the use of the procedures. Only Parliament can alter the law. The procedures were and are illegal.
[The] Government, having reviewed the whole matter with great care and with reference to any future operations, have decided that the techniques … will not be used in future as an aid to interrogation… The statement that I have made covers all future circumstances.
As foreshadowed in the Prime Minister’s statement, directives expressly forbidding the use of the techniques, whether alone or together, were then issued to the security forces by the government. While these are still legally in force and the use of such methods by UK security forces is not officially condoned by the government, the five techniques were still being used by the British Army in 2003.
European Commission of Human Rights
The Irish Government, on behalf of the men who had been subject to the five techniques, took a case to the European Commission on Human Rights (Ireland v. United Kingdom, 1976 Y.B. Eur. Conv. on Hum. Rts. 512, 748, 788–94 (Eur. Comm’n of Hum. Rts.)). The Commission stated that it
…unanimously considered the combined use of the five methods to amount to torture, on the grounds that (1) the intensity of the stress caused by techniques creating sensory deprivation “directly affects the personality physically and mentally”; and (2) “the systematic application of the techniques for the purpose of inducing a person to give information shows a clear resemblance to those methods of systematic torture which have been known over the ages…a modern system of torture falling into the same category as those systems applied in previous times as a means of obtaining information and confessions.
European Court of Human Rights
The Commissions findings were appealed. In 1978, in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) trial Ireland v. the United Kingdom (Case No. 5310/71),
the court ruled:
167. … Although the five techniques, as applied in combination, undoubtedly amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment, although their object was the extraction of confessions, the naming of others and/or information and although they were used systematically, they did not occasion suffering of the particular intensity and cruelty implied by the word torture as so understood. …
168. The Court concludes that recourse to the five techniques amounted to a practice of inhuman and degrading treatment, which practice was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights Article 3 (art. 3).
On 8 February 1977, in proceedings before the ECHR, and in line with the findings of the Parker Report and UK Government policy, the Attorney-General of the United Kingdom stated:
The Government of the United Kingdom have considered the question of the use of the ‘five techniques’ with very great care and with particular regard to Article 3 (art. 3) of the Convention. They now give this unqualified undertaking, that the ‘five techniques’ will not in any circumstances be reintroduced as an aid to interrogation.
In 2013, declassified documents revealed the existence of the interrogation centre at Ballykelly. It had not been mentioned in any of the inquiries. Human rights group the Pat Finucane Centre accused the British Government of deliberately hiding it from the inquiries and the European Court of Human Rights.
In June 2014, an RTÉ documentary entitled The Torture Files uncovered a letter from the UK Home Secretary Merlyn Rees in 1977 to the then British Prime Minister James Callaghan. It confirmed that a policy of ‘torture’ had in fact been authorized by the British Government’s ministers—specifically the Secretary for Defence Peter Carrington—in 1971, contrary to the knowledge of the Irish government or the ECHR. The letter states:
“It is my view (confirmed by Brian Faulkner before his death) that the decision to use methods of torture in Northern Ireland in 1971/72 was taken by ministers – in particular Lord Carrington, then secretary of state for defence”.
Following the 2014 revelations, the President of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, called on the Irish government to bring the case back to the ECHR because the British government, he said, “lied to the European Court of Human Rights both on the severity of the methods used on the men, their long term physical and psychological consequences, on where these interrogations took place and who gave the political authority and clearance for it”.[
On 2 December 2014 the Irish government announced that, having reviewed the new evidence and following requests from the survivors, it had decided to officially ask the ECHR to revise its 1978 judgement.