October 11, 2018

Ed Moloney - The IRA set out in Spring and early Summer of 1971 to exploit circumstances and to force the British into a premature and ill-prepared internment swoop


Operation Demetrius involved the location, arrest and internment of 342 people in three days. These arrests sparked protests and riots in several Catholic areas across Northern Ireland. The worst of the rioting broke out in Ballymurphy in west Belfast. Only hours into Operation Demetrius British paratroopers went into Ballymurphy to arrest suspected IRA volunteers. On their entry into the estate the soldiers opened fire, claiming later that they had come under attack from IRA snipers. Six civilians were shot and killed that day.

Ed Moloney wrote in 2015:

"In early 1971, the Provisional IRA was growing, but only slowly and hardly at all outside of Belfast. What military success it did enjoy was down to the fact that its ranks were being filled by young men and women with no family record of involvement in republicanism and therefore no police file. 
It is easily forgotten now, but the IRA of the 1950’s and 1960’s was largely shunned by Northern Ireland’s Catholics, primarily because to do so risked the unwelcome and hostile attention of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and could lead to problems at work, like being sacked. The IRA was small and its membership well known to the Special Branch. As long as it stayed like that it posed no real threat to the state. 
But the Loyalist-led, attempted pogrom of August 1969 in West and North Belfast in response to the civil rights marches had attracted a new generation of Catholic recruits, driven by the imperative to defend their areas rather than ideology and who were largely unknown to the RUC. 
The old, pre-1969 IRA could be neutralised in a couple of well-directed internment swoops, as had happened in almost every decade since the foundation of the state; but not the new Provisional IRA, whose make-up was largely a blank sheet of paper to the RUC. 
This was a great advantage to the IRA but some of its leaders in Belfast knew this was a likely temporary advantage. Eventually the Special Branch, augmented now by British military intelligence, would get their act together and the post-1969 IRA would become known and therefore vulnerable at some point in the not too distant future. 
The Belfast leadership knew that internment would come – but it calculated that the sooner this happened, the better. A plan was laid to force the British into a premature and ill-prepared strike, carried out before the IRA became exposed; but its success was entirely dependent upon the IRA’s opponents reacting in a predictably intemperate fashion. 
In 1971, Northern Ireland was still governed from Stormont by a Unionist-dominated parliament and government. Led by Brian Faulkner, the Unionist cabinet was under intense pressure from its own right-wing and from a rabble-rousing Ian Paisley. IRA violence and concessions to the civil rights campaign had unnerved the Unionist grassroots, demands to resist Nationalist encroachment were growing and Faulkner’s political survival was questionable. 
While the British government in London had final responsibility for Northern Ireland it was desperate to avoid a closer entanglement. Direct Rule from London was the only alternative to Stormont, but while it was easy to begin, it would be devilishly difficult to end. It was therefore an option to avoid, if possible. 
The British government’s priority then was to prop up Faulkner, even if that meant bending to his right-wing and embracing security measures that might be distasteful and controversial. 
Fully aware of all these pressure points and knowing that the circumstances could not be more propitious, the IRA in Belfast set out in the Spring and early Summer of 1971 to exploit them to the full and force the British into a premature and ill-prepared internment swoop. 
And so, spurred on by a strategically gifted, 23-year-old commander of the Second Belfast Battalion called Gerry Adams, the IRA began a destructive economic bombing campaign in Belfast that soon had Unionists screaming for internment. 
The high point of the campaign, if such it can be called, was a provocative series of bombs along the route of the Twelfth Orange parade that exploded the night before. Belfast Orangemen marching to the field at Finaghy that July 12th morning, had to walk past devastated store fronts, the twisted remnants of car bombs, and wrecked buildings, all testament to this new threat to their supremacy. 
And so, internment without trial was introduced within weeks. Old RUC Special Branch records were scoured for lists of suspects and, as Adams and his allies predicted, the new Provisional IRA escaped largely unscathed when the troops raided homes in Belfast and elsewhere. 
Meanwhile the one-sided nature of the internment operation – only Republicans and Nationalists were targeted – combined with the reality that largely innocent or no longer involved people had been targeted, served to deepen Catholic anger and in protest a wide spectrum of that community withdrew almost wholesale from public life. 
It is now a generally accepted truth that the internment operation of August 1971 was a major turning point in the Troubles. Not only did the communal anger in Catholic districts boost recruitment to the IRA in Belfast and in rural areas where previously it barely existed – and arguably laid the foundations for the subsequent political strength of Sinn Fein – it also marked a point at which the Nationalist population as a whole signaled that there could never be a return to the Northern Ireland of old. 
But all of this was only made possible because the British gave into the demand from Unionists for a response to match the IRA’s violence. Or, to put it another way, the IRA had laid a trap and the Unionists and British had walked right into it."
He wrote in  2018:
"Two months before, on the advice and urging of the Stormont prime minister, Brian Faulkner, the British Army had rounded up hundreds of alleged IRA suspects from Nationalist areas of the North with a view to interning them. 
Faulkner had assured the British that internment had worked when he was Home Affairs minister in 1956 and it would work again. Internment had killed off the IRA’s Border campaign and it would do the same to the new Provisionals. 
He was wrong. The British Army had moved against the IRA before intelligence on the new Provisional organisation was fit for purpose – a strategem credited by the late Brendan Hughes to Gerry Adams in confidential interviews for ‘A Secret History of the IRA’. Adams had advocated an intensification of bombings in the early months of 1971, thereby causing a clamor for action from angry Unionists and an intemperate response from the British. 
And the operation was so one-sided, completely ignoring Loyalist violence, that the effect was to alienate almost the entire Catholic population, leading to resignations from public office and withdrawals from public bodies. 
The SDLP, Britain’s sole hope of Nationalist moderation, was swept along by the wave of anger and vowed not to engage the British until internment was ended. 
Worst of all the violence had not abated, as was evident daily, especially in Belfast where shootings, bombings, killings and attacks on the military and police had escalated alarmingly. 
The purpose of the meeting was to agree on the cabinet’s attitude towards Faulkner, who ministers were painfully aware was the only person standing between the Stormont government and the perilous, uncharted waters of direct rule."

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