On August 9, 1971, British Army Saracen armored cars rolled out at 4:00 AM onto the streets of Belfast to begin Operation Demetrius, the forcible internment of Irish Catholics suspected of being involved in paramilitary activity without charge or trial. Ironically, the British Army was now interning members of the community that they claimed upon their arrival to be protecting against the violent pogroms of the Unionist community; attacks motivated by protests against the endemic prejudice against Catholics upon which the Northern Irish state was founded. British soldiers had initially been welcomed by Northern Ireland’s Catholic community in the hope that they would be an impartial counter to the exclusively protestant and loyalist Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
However, it soon became clear that the army was not there to provide a peaceful, stable environment in which reform
could occur, but to aid in restoring a prejudiced civil authority and maintaining the status quo. Many of the regiments,
particularly the Paratroopers, were coming to Northern Ireland fresh from dealing with revolts and counterinsurgencies
in Britain’s crumbling empire. As “Queen’s Men,” they had a natural sympathy with those calling themselves “Loyalist,”
even if they used violence to demonstrate their loyalism and a natural antagonism to anyone who could be labeled a rebel. Tensions continue to grow between the British Army and the Catholic community; soldiers became increasingly frustrated in dealing with a civilian population that would “not lie down.” The army had been embarrassed when they attempted to barricade the Falls Road, only to be swarmed by women and children who broke the blockade. One senior British commander complained that “too much deference was being shown to women” protestors. British Military leaders were looking to apply sterner measures
The British Government of Prime Minister Heath was concerned that if a show of force were not made, the current
Northern Ireland Government would fall in a Loyalist backlash. The army was given orders to begin internment, but once again, the bias of British policy was manifest. The army used a list of 450 names supplied by the discredited RUC; on the list for apprehension, 348 were Catholics, the two Protestants were known to have Republican sympathies. Despite ample evidence of violence, there was not a single member of a Protestant paramilitary on the list. As in 1916, when the British Army mistakenly interned members of the cultural Gaelic League, many on the internment list were members of nonviolent Civil rights groups such as the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Worse yet, to implement this flawed and unjust plan, they decided to let loose on civilians the Parachute Regiment, a regiment that prided itself as an elite regiment founded on aggressiveness. The results were as foreseeable as they were tragic.
As the internment operation began, the Catholic enclave of Springfield Park came under violent attacks from loyalist mobs from the adjoining Springmartin housing project. Catholic families began to flee the area, among them Bobby Clarke, who was helping families with children evacuate. This was unfolding under the eyes of members of the Parachute Regiment who had taken an overwatch position from the protestant Springmartin project. As Clarke attempted to cross an area of open ground, he was shot by a British Army sniper. Amidst cries that a man had been shot, Fr. Hugh Mullan, who lived in the area, ran into the field waving a white handkerchief and while Clarke’s wound would not be fatal, was seen anointing him. As Fr. Clarke turned, again waving his white handkerchief, he was shot twice by the same sniper; he would be left there to bleed to death. Francis Quinn, a boy of 19, who had run out to help the priest, was shot in the head and died instantly.
Over the course of the next three days, eight more innocent civilians would be shot by the British Army. Among them was Joan Connolly, a 44-year-old mother of eight. Another was John McKerr, 49, a carpenter working at Corpus Christi Church and who had stepped outside as he paused working while a Mass was being performed. In a tragic irony, Mr. McKerr was himself a former British Soldier who had lost a hand during WW II.
For fifty years, the British government and army have attempted to cover up the actions by some of its soldiers on that
day; inhumane killings arising through the imposition of an unjust act. They slandered those they shot as being gunmen and gunwomen. For half a century, their families have fought to have their day in court. That day finally came.
On May 11, 2021, a long-delayed coroner’s inquiry stated, “What is very clear, is that all of the deceased in the series of inquests were entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question.” The Justice also criticized ” the state’s failure to properly investigate.” Yet, still the British government continues to stall and deflect on its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement and its obligations to basic human decency. Use the pretext of the passage of time, a passage it has created through its prolonged obstruction. The British government is proposing the extraordinary measure of granting a statute of limitations for murder to members of its forces who served in Northern Ireland. The British army continues to obstruct, saying it has lost the cipher list which would provide evidence of who shot these people whom their own courts have found “entirely innocent of any wrongdoing on the day in question.” While thankfully, the families of the victims of Ballymurphy can celebrate the good name of their relatives being restored, justice demands consequences for it being wrongly taken away from them. While we have vindication of the truth of Ballymurphy, we are still waiting on the truth for the massacres at Loughinisland, Dublin/Monaghan, Sean Graham bookmakers, and hundreds of others.
“The dead cannot cry out for justice. It is a duty of the living to do so for them.” – Lois McMaster Bujold
Neil F. Cosgrove, Historian