Newry: A look back in time – Newry’s ‘Ghost Town’ makes international news

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Friday, January 17th, 2014
Community, Features, Old Newry
In our new column Newry Times columnist Sean O’Siridean takes a look back through the Newry of old. He takes a step back in time and looks at how history reported on Newry and the surrounding areas through past decades. Today Sean looks at how Newry was reported in The Miami News, dated 10th August 1971.

Hill Street burns in 1971

The headline ‘Feud turns Newry into ghost town’ is filled with references to the wild west, painting a picture like the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a gunfight that took place in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, not a town gripped by riots between the local Catholic population and the British Army and RUC. Of course when The Miami News speaks about a ‘feud’ they are of course referring to ’Operation Demetrius’ – more commonly known as ‘Internment’. In March 1971, Chichester-Clark resigned and was replaced by Brian Faulkner, who re-introduced internment – detaining paramilitary suspects without trial – with devastating consequences. ‘Operation Demetrius’ began in earnest on August 9th 1971 with British troops carrying out lightening raids on republican suspects’ houses, arresting hundreds. Internment was a huge public relations disaster for the British Government for two reasons – its intelligence on republicans was severely lacking, and the fact that instead of destroying the Provisional IRA hierarchy it actually missed all the key personnel and gave the PIRA a renewed vigour and more mass support from the wider nationalist community. The operation was seriously flawed in all its strands, with many of the key paramilitary players being given prior warning of internment. Despite the Official IRA being largely inactive during this period, the vast majority of internment arrestees were infact members of the Officials, which inadvertently helped the Provisional IRA in its aim to become the ‘sole defender’ of the Catholic community.

The Miami News: dated 10th August 1971

Of the 350 people arrested across the country during internment, 104 were released within 48 hours, with Operation Demetrius leaving ten Catholic civilians dead. Internees spoke of horrific beatings while in custody, most claiming to suffer physical and mental torture. As a direct consequence of Operation Demetrius, many otherwise moderate Catholics now felt under siege from the British and Northern Ireland government security forces and increasingly began to view the Provisional IRA as protectors of the nationalist community. The influx of support for the PIRA post-internment was easily identifiable by the increase in anti-internment marches carried out throughout Northern Ireland, one of which was to leave 13 unarmed, innocent civilians dead in the following month in what became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. Newry was not the only town or city affected by this operation, Derry and particularly Belfast were plunged into street violence in protest against the much criticised practice. There was a high human price to this, between 9th and 11th 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.
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