seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Passage of the Special Powers Act 1922

special-powers-act-1922The Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, often referred to simply as the Special Powers Act, is passed by the Parliament of Northern Ireland on April 7, 1922, shortly after the establishment of Northern Ireland, and in the context of violent conflict over the issue of the partition of Ireland. Its sweeping powers make it highly controversial, and it is seen by much of the Northern Irish nationalist community as a tool of Ulster unionist oppression. The Act is eventually repealed by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973, following the abolition of Northern Ireland’s parliament and the imposition of direct rule by the British government.

At the start of the twentieth century, the people of Ireland are divided into two mutually hostile factions. Nationalists, the much larger group, are mostly Roman Catholic, identify primarily as Irish, and want some form of Irish home rule or independence from Britain. Unionists, the smaller group, concentrates primarily in the province of Ulster, are mostly Protestant, identify primarily as British (although many see themselves as Irish and British), and are committed to remaining within the United Kingdom.

Partition is formally established with the Government of Ireland Act 1920. This also establishes the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which comes into being the following year. Partition is followed by high levels of inter-communal violence, especially in Belfast. The Irish Republican Army (IRA), although it spends most of these years fighting in the Irish Civil War, aims to use armed force to end partition and compel the United Kingdom to withdraw sovereignty from Northern Ireland.

The Act is presented as being necessary to re-establish peace and law and order in Northern Ireland, and enables the government to “take all such steps and issue all such orders as may be necessary for preserving the peace and maintaining order,” although it is specified that the ordinary course of law should be interfered with as little as possible. Because it is presented as emergency legislation, the Act is initially current only for one year and has to be renewed annually. In 1928, however, it is renewed for five years and when this period expires in 1933 the Act is made permanent.

Despite rhetoric accompanying the Act which asserts that it is for the purpose of restoring public order, its provisions continue to be used for the entire period of the Northern Irish parliament’s existence. Because the Ulster Unionist Party is the only party ever to form a government in this parliament, the Act is used “almost exclusively on the minority population.” Initially, regulations under the Act are used mostly to curb immediate violence and disorder. One of the most controversial of these is internment without trial.

After the troubles of the early 1920s dies down, the provision for internment is not used until the IRA’s Border Campaign of the 1950s, in which several hundred republicans are interned. Following the outbreak of The Troubles in 1968, many within the Protestant community call for the reintroduction of internment. This occurs in 1971 and authorises internment of those suspected to be involved in terrorism. Although there are loyalist as well as republican terrorists at this time, of the 1,981 men interned, only 107 are loyalists. Due to inadequate intelligence-gathering, many of the interned republicans are members of the Official Irish Republican Army rather than the recently formed Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which is much more heavily involved in terrorist activity at the time.

Internment ends in 1975, but is credited with increasing support and sympathy for the PIRA amongst the Catholic community and outside of Northern Ireland. It helps to create political tensions which culminate in the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike and the death of MP Bobby Sands. Imprisonment under anti-terrorism laws specific to Northern Ireland continue until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, but these laws require the right to a fair trial be respected.

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The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (Northern Ireland) 1954

The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (Northern Ireland) 1954, an Act of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, receives royal assent on April 6, 1954. It is repealed under the direct rule of the Government of the United Kingdom, by the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987.

The Act is bitterly resented by nationalists who see it as being deliberately designed to suppress their identity. Although it does not refer explicitly to the Irish tricolour, it does the Union Flag. The Act gives the Royal Ulster Constabulary a positive duty to remove any flag or emblem from public or private property which is considered to be likely to cause a breach of the peace, but legally exempts the Union Flag from ever being considered a breach of the peace. As a result, of all the flags likely to be displayed in Northern Ireland, almost exclusively the Irish tricolour would be deemed a breach of the peace. However the Act is not a wholesale ban on the Irish flag, and it is often allowed to remain flying, especially at Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) grounds.

The Act is introduced at a time of some turmoil within unionism in Northern Ireland, dissent that is viewed with alarm by the Ulster Unionist government, and the legislation is initiated amid the pressure emanating from that dissent. Hard line unionists accuse the government of appeasing nationalists. A more lenient approach by government to some nationalist parades leads to an increase in the flying of the Irish Tricolour. Likewise, the Coronation celebrations lead to the erection of Union Flags, not only in unionist enclaves, but in nationalist areas where disputes erupt and where some Union Flags are taken down and replaced with the Tricolour. Nationalists also organise boycotts of shops which openly celebrate the coronation with the display of the Union Flag, increasing tension and unionist fears. The Act takes over some of the powers of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922.

Violations of the Act are punishable by a fine of up to £500 or up to five years in prison. The enforcement of the Act on occasion leads to rioting, most notoriously during the UK General Election of 1964 on the lower Falls Road in Belfast.

(Pictured: Coat of Arms of the Parliament of Northern Ireland)