The Free State’s Provisional Government puts the “Public Safety Bill” before Dáil Éireann on September 27, 1922, which passes by 41 votes to 18. This is emergency legislation which allows for the execution of those captured bearing arms against the State. The legislation passes to the National Army powers of punishment for anyone “taking part in or aiding and abetting attacks on the National Forces,” having possession of arms or explosives “without the proper authority” or disobeying an Army General Order.
The legislation gives the Military Courts the right to impose the sentence of death, imprisonment or penal servitude on those found to be guilty of such offences, the sentence only requiring the signatures of two officers. By time the bill is a year old, 81 men are executed under its terms and over 12,000 men and women imprisoned.
The reason for such punitive legislation is the dragging on of the Irish Civil War caused by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. A pro-Treaty offensive against the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the summer of 1922 appears to have won the war for the government but the anti-Treatyites or republicans subsequently fall back on guerrilla tactics which the newly formed Free State or National Army have great difficulty in suppressing. Ernest Blythe, the Minister for Finance in the Provisional Government, later recalls, “there was for some time a feeling that the Civil War would speedily end as major resistance was broken, but actually it began to assume a chronic character.”
In the week preceding the Dáil’s motion, on September 21, six National Army soldiers are killed in a prolonged engagement with Republican fighters near Ballina, County Mayo. On the same day, the Free State barracks in Drumshambo, County Leitrim, is attacked and taken and one soldier is killed. On September 22, a National Army soldier is killed and several soldiers and three civilians injured in a gun and grenade attack by Republicans on Free State troops on Eden Quay in central Dublin. And on the day of the Bill itself coming before the Dáil, in County Kerry several hundred anti-Treaty IRA guerrillas attack the town of Killorglin and are only repulsed after 24 hours of fighting, when Free State troops arrive from Tralee.
At the time and since, the legislation passed in 1922 is known as the Public Safety Bill. However, no such Bill or Act can be found in the records of the Irish state. The Provisional Government have no legal right under the Treaty to enact new legislation without royal assent, the King being represented in the person of the Governor-General. And in theory the Provisional Government’s powers do not apply after the Treaty formally passes into law on December 6, 1922.
So technically speaking the Public Safety Bill is not a law but simply a resolution passed in the Dáil. However, since there was, as yet no Governor-General who could give his assent and as the government felt the situation was too grave for legal niceties, the legislation setting up military courts was passed anyway. It is not until August 1923, when the Free State passes an Act of Indemnity for all actions committed during the Irish Civil War and also pass new, formal special powers legislation – The Emergency Powers Act – that retrospectively legalises what it had enacted in the autumn of 1922.
After an amnesty of two weeks, in which anti-Treaty fighters could surrender without consequences, the legislation comes into force in mid October. Republicans at first do not believe that the government is serious about enforcing what its foes term “the Murder Bill.” It is in practice nearly two months before it is used in earnest.
On November 17, 1922, four IRA men who had been captured in Dublin are shot by firing squad. By the end of the week, Erskine Childers, who had served as secretary to the delegation which signed the Treaty but later organized Republican propaganda against it, is also dead. He had been captured at his home in County Wicklow on November 11 in possession of a small pistol Michael Collins had given him before he departed for Treaty negotiations in London. He is sentenced and shot on November 24. On November 30 another three Republican prisoners are executed in Dublin.
Liam Lynch, IRA Chief of Staff, issues a general order that Teachtaí Dála (TDs) who had voted for the Bill be shot on sight. On December 6, in retaliation for the executions, IRA members assassinate the TD Sean Hales in Dublin. In reprisal for that four senior republicans, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey, who had been captured long before the Public Safety legislation is passed are summarily shot.
The legislation passed on September 27, 1922 may well have helped, as its supporters claimed, to break anti-Treaty resistance and to bring the Irish Civil War to an end. However it also helped to convert the conflict into a feud as bitter and as personal as a vendetta.
(From: “The passing of legislation allowing for executions during the Irish Civil War” by John Dorney, The Irish Story (www.theirishstory.com), September 27, 2013 | Photo: Richard Mulcahy, shown inspecting soldiers in Dublin, argued that permitting official executions would prevent National Army troops from carrying out unofficial killings)