Operation Demetrius: A Review

od1When George Santayana, made his observation, “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 work Operation Demetrius and its Aftermath. 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 then 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 makeup and complexity is lost. Sometimes, not very often, a historian is able to put a subject in complete perspective. This is what McCleery has achieved in this work: an almost 20/20 vision 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 main supporters of its use. Evidence is produced that shows that GOCNI, Tuzo, and CGS, Carver, were both initially opposed to the introduction of internment. The army believing 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 make every opportunity, 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 on the fact that the two protagonists, making up that pincer, now form the government forty years on.

IRA man Tommy Groman would state that “we wanted to get behind the public reaction” to internment. By the 23rd of August, 1971, Tuzo would state “the other side had already won a propaganda victory.” This victory had been effectively foretold by the RUC Special Branch. When they 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,” which the Northern Ireland regime could not “effectively match,” in the sphere of propaganda.

The work also revealed that there were suggestions that a mole in the Northern Ireland Civil Service tipped off the Provisional IRA to the likelihood of interment. 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 forewarning would lead to an estimated 2000 IRA activists still at large in the weeks after its initial use. Field Marshal Carver was also of the opinion that “poor intelligence” and the “short notice” given for the operation, was responsible for its shortcomings. This was also mixed with suspicion, that the Northern Ireland Government had used it as a tool for political suppression, more than 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.

Interment 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 transcend into political status and, in turn, laid the foundation for the 1981 hunger strike. It would also prove to be the final break between the Roman Catholic community and the British military. The resulting clamour of IRA activists to go to ground, caused by interment, 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, which can leave the reader struggling through the work, as if traversing a bog wearing boots that are too big, this is not the case with McCleery’s work. It is fluent, lucid and articulately written, which drives the reader on. This is something of a talent and a rarity, in the all too often, stuffy and formal literature of academia.

There is of course, one major downfall with the work and that is the price. As with most academic history books it has a hefty price for the consumption of a wider audience. Which is a shame, as it is a work, well worth investing in. But this will not, I am sure withhold a well-researched and well-written work from the shelves of most.

Operation Demetrius and its Aftermath: A New History of the use of Interment Without Trial in Northern Ireland 1971-75. By Martin J. McCleery. Available through Manchester University Press Price: £70.00. Hardcover.

Clifford Peeples.