“special Powers” in the North of Ireland: Abuse, Repression, and Resistance



In this short text, Fiona McCann retraces the 76 years of colonial emergency in the North of Ireland between 1922 and 1998, during which successive legislations were implemented to construct the repression and incarceration of members of the Irish Republican Army and their supporters. 

At around 4am on August 9, 1971, the British Army, in conjunction with both the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, and the British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, and under the aegis of the Special Powers Act (1922) launched “Operation Demetrius.” Over a period of two days, British troops carried out a wave of extremely violent raids all over the North of Ireland, forcing their way into people’s houses, verbally and physically assaulting them, and smashing doors and windows. Eyewitnesses noted that money was stolen by soldiers, and in some cases all the male members of certain families were arrested and/or beaten, no matter what their politics. They also observed the soldiers firing into waste ground across which many terrified families were running to escape the onslaught. Around 7,000 people, the vast majority of whom were Catholic, were left homeless over that three-day period as their houses were burned to the ground. Of the 342 people actually arrested, many complained of violent treatment during their detention: physical and verbal abuse, sleep and sensory deprivation, being forced to remain naked, in some cases hooded and severely beaten. The raids were carried out in Catholic areas and all 342 people arrested were from a nationalist background. Even though loyalists had been making violent incursions into Catholic areas for some time, burning families out of their homes, not a single person from a unionist or loyalist background was picked up. 

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Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police station in Armagh (2001).

The discriminatory nature of this military operation, based on obsolete intelligence and aimed solely at crushing any resistance, violent or otherwise, emanating from the minority Catholic community against a bigoted state, caused widespread rioting. This in turn generated further repression, most notably, and brutally, by the British Parachute regiment who, with total impunity, killed 11 civilians in what became known as the Ballymurphy Massacre in Belfast. Among the victims of this massacre were at least two people, Father Hugh Mullan and Francis Quinn, who were on their way to help those who had been injured or wounded. Another victim, Daniel Teggert, was shot 14 times in all and several times in the back. This same regiment would, just five months later, carry out the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry on January 30, 1972. The absence of any media footage of the Ballymurphy massacre, contrary to the later one in Derry, has made it much more difficult for the victims’ families to gain any form of justice. The whole internment operation was a fiasco: a failure both in terms of rounding up potential Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, or “terrorists,” and of crushing resistance or ending violence. In fact, the operation was a trigger for more: up to this moment in 1971 there had been 34 conflict-related deaths in the North; after it, in the final four months of that year, there were 140, and the whole military intervention served more as a recruitment operation for the IRA than anything else such was the outrage felt by the Catholic/nationalist community. Although the Troubles had begun a few years earlier, this abusive deployment of the Special Powers Act in 1971 sent the North of Ireland on a violent 30 year trajectory and into an ongoing state of emergency which entrenched its coloniality.

Practically as soon as the semi-colonial statelet of Northern Ireland was formed after the partition of Ireland in December 1921, steps were taken to ensure that the newly-formed entity would safeguard this “Protestant parliament and Protestant State” (James Craig, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland). The passing of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act in 1922 was arguably the single most powerful tool deployed by the Unionist political elite in order to oppress and repress any Catholic/Nationalist opposition to their discriminatory politics, although other practices such as gerrymandering and modifying voting systems also contributed to everyday injustices and bigotry. 

Shortly before the Irish Civil War (June 1922-May 1923) began, the Special Powers Act was approved by the Northern cabinet in March and this marked the beginning of over 50 years of state-sponsored violence and abuse. This bill gave the government sweeping powers such as the death penalty, flogging, arrest without warrant and the prohibition of inquests. Furthermore, it also made it possible for the Minister of Home Affairs to develop further regulations without the consent of parliament and to delegate those powers to the police force. 

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Donegall Pass RUC police station in Belfast. / Photo by Ross (2010).

The Special Powers Act, initially mobilized to uphold a fledgling colonial statelet against a backdrop of civil war, was subsequently renewed each year until 1928 when it was renewed for five years, before being made permanent in 1933. This state of affairs lasted until 1972 when Direct Rule was imposed by the British government in response to escalating violence due to the outbreak of the Troubles. The North remained therefore in a permanent state of emergency which spoke volumes about the state of siege the Unionist majority felt itself in, especially since for most of this period there was no violent resistance to speak of. Concomitantly to the passing of the Special Powers Act in spring 1922, the Northern government considerably strengthened its police force (the RUC – Royal Ulster Constabulary), arming and regularly training its members in the use of sub-machine guns and armored cars. Their violent enforcement of the Special Powers Act (house raids, mass internment, bans on public meetings, physical beatings and so on) meant that Catholics wholly associated them with the government and perceived them as the latter’s military wing. It is here that the colonial aspect of the statelet was at its most obvious — apart from a few exceptions, the majority unionist population had no need to fear the security forces with whom they had very little contact and whom they perceived as protecting them and their lifestyle. Irish novelist Eoin McNamee depicts this colonial situation in intricate details in his Blue trilogy in which the inherently corrupt and discriminatory nature of the state is exposed, and the collusion between the all-unionist judiciary, the government, and the police laid bare.

However, the most potent aspect of the Special Powers Act, and the subsequent state of emergency it enabled and upheld, was undoubtedly the possibility of imprisoning indefinitely anyone who might constitute a military or political threat to the government. To say that this provision was used excessively would be an understatement: deployed during and after the Civil War, it was introduced again between 1938 and 1946, again between 1956 and 1961 (during the IRA Border Campaign) and finally, to disastrous effect, in 1971. 

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Castlederg RUC police station. / Photo by Kenneth Allen (2016).

Massive rioting had broken out in response to violent attacks on the Catholic population by both loyalists and the police in 1969 and the British Army deployed troops in August of that year in an attempt to contain the growing violence. Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, the British soldiers were initially welcomed with relief by the Catholic community who hoped the soldiers would protect them from increasing loyalist violence. This was to prove both very naive and extremely short-lived.

Everything changed in August 1971 when the Special Powers Act was invoked for the last time in order to violently attack sectors of that same community. Ironically, however, it was this deployment of internment without trial in 1971 that ultimately led to the suspension of the unionist parliament in Stormont and the imposition of Direct Rule from Westminster in 1972. The Special Powers Act, designed in 1922 to secure the Protestant/unionist state, actually indirectly contributed to undermining it in the end. Pretexting for 50 years a phantom emergency, that is Catholic/nationalist resistance to a discriminatory state, the unionist establishment contributed to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their own colonial functioning would ultimately backfire when their parliament became defunct, propelling them into a semi-colonial relationship themselves with London. 

Anyone who grew up in Belfast or Derry in the 1970s and 1980s can remember only too well the infringements on citizens’ freedom that the permanent state of emergency engendered: entry into shops was contingent upon opening coats and bags, city centers emptied every evening, different censorship laws meant that Sinn Féin politicians’ voices were dubbed over on television, and identity checks could be carried out at any time, which was not the case elsewhere in either the rest of the United Kingdom or in Ireland south of the border. Crossing the border inevitably meant waiting for anywhere between 10 minutes and over an hour, depending on the mood of the soldiers on any given day, and having to answer a barrage of questions ranging from the disinterested to the highly personal. Over time, the abnormality of all this morphed into normalcy, even when it was contested (discursively or violently), and state propaganda ensured that the blame for all of these restrictions was firmly laid at the door of republican and loyalist paramilitaries, while the British state was presented as a benevolent peace-broker. The narrative of the North of Ireland peddled by the British media was one of atavistic ethno-religious in-fighting that only the rational British government could end with recourse to special powers. The permanent state of exception was thus rendered palatable in this way by villainizing the Irish as irrational and uncontrollable. Thus U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in the midst of the 1981 hunger strike during which 10 men starved themselves to death in protest against an inhumane prison regime, was able to speak of “evil men” and say that the “Government has consistently and impartially sought to eradicate the causes of discontent” (Speech May 28, 1981). 

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Short Strand RUC police station in Belfast. / Photo by Keith Ruffles (2004).

The systematic abuse of the Special Powers Act in the North of Ireland, and the subsequent Prevention of Terrorism Act which replaced it after Direct Rule, can now be clearly seen in retrospect as laboratories for experiments by the unionist and British governments in managing counter-insurgency and in breaching human rights. States of emergency, no matter what the reason (or pretext), always turn the screw on already existing oppression. The North of Ireland was no exception: a growing movement for civil rights was met with a violent curtailment of civil rights. Yet the state of emergency never quite managed to quash the struggle, even within the prisons where previously unimagined forms of resistance by vulnerable prisoners emerged during the blanket and no-wash protests between 1976 and 1981. Responding to the British decision to no longer recognize their political prisoner status, these prisoners refused to wear the prison uniform, remaining naked and covered only by a blanket; when prison guards prevented them from “slopping out” the prisoners, first the men and later the women, began to smear their excrement on the walls of their cells; and when the maximum security prison building, HMP Maze or the H Blocks, was hastily constructed and designed so as to undermine any group dynamic, the prisoners developed ingenious means of communication and smuggling, using all bodily orifices to do so, completely outwitting their oppressors and ensuring that they were less isolated from the outside world.

The fact that the powers-that-be are still being held to account in various legal actions today is significant, notably by the Ballymurphy victims’ families or the 14 “hooded men” who were singled out for “special treatment” during Operation Demetrius, and subjected to the infamous five techniques: hooding, stress positions, white noise, sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and water. These men, who were never actually convicted of any offence, are still fighting today for recognition of the torture they underwent, ever since the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1978 that it was “inhuman and degrading treatment” as opposed to torture. As Amnesty International has pointed out, this ruling has had catastrophic consequences world-wide, with countries such as Israel or the United States relying on the ruling so as to justify an aggressive interpretation of what constitutes “torture.” The European Court of Human Rights decided in March 2018 by 6 votes to 1 not to revise its judgement in this case. In so doing, it has, perhaps unsurprisingly, aligned itself with bullish governments everywhere and sent a negative message to all world citizens about the preservation of their civil liberties. At this moment when we are faced with a world-wide pandemic, and as governments everywhere pass through emergency legislation to deal with it, we would do well to remember past “states of emergency,” as well as the civil liberties that have been crushed in the name of managing crisis situations. The colonial matrix of power, in Ireland, Britain, and elsewhere, will use any occasion to assert its control. ■