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

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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. 

Article published in The Funambulist 29 (May-June 2020) States of Emergency. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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. 

McCann Funambulist (4)
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.