1960s >> 1969 >> no-775-march-1969

Special Powers in Northern Ireland

A Socialist from Belfast outlines some of the repressive powers at the service of the Unionist government of Northern Ireland, powers which have been used not only against republicans but also against Socialists.

“Troubles”, almost a euphemism when applied, as it frequently has been, to the violence and brutality that is our history, is never too far removed from the Northern Ireland scene. The state itself, comprising six of the north eastern counties of the Province of Ulster, is officially known as Northern Ireland but the government party (Unionists), who have ruled with a large majority, slightly and quite unnecessarily swollen by electoral malpractice, have a fondness for the term “Ulster”.

Since the inception of the state the Unionist government have had an Act of Parliament known as the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, despised generally by the most mildly liberal under the title ‘Special Powers Act’. The excuse given for the Act is the continued existence of an armed threat by the IRA, though members of the government, when it suited their purpose and their audience, have derisively relegated the military prowess of the IRA to the mere ability to chop down a few trees.

In the early twenties and forties and again in 1956 the IRA did engage in armed attacks but only the most partisan could claim that they represented an effective threat to the state. Unionist apologists claim that the Special Powers Act rendered the IRA threat abortive but it is perhaps more pertinent to ask whether the IRA is responsible for the Act or the Act responsible for the IRA. Indeed it could almost be said that the SPA is the government’s way of reciprocating the IRA’s service of helping to keep it in power for, just as Government spokesmen preface their declaration with a reminder of ‘the threat’, so the IRA in turn, can cite the continued existence of the SPA as proof of their contention that Northern Ireland is an undemocratic, totalitarian state, maintained by force and coercive legislation.

It would need a very lengthy article to set out the powers of the government under the Special Powers Act. It is briefer, and as accurate, to say that there is little that they can not do within its provisions — or, indeed, outside those provisions — for a clause in the Act makes it an offence to commit an ‘offence’ not specifically covered by the Act but deemed by the ‘Authority’ to be contrary to the Act! The ‘Authority’ is the Minister for Home Affairs but he has powers within the Act to delegate his ‘Authority’ — thus making it possible for part-time policemen or ‘B’ Specials (exclusively Protestant para-military police) to become practical ‘do-it-yourself’ legislators.

Habeas corpus, right of trial by jury, rights of property, even post-mortem right to coroner’s inquest, in fact all the sacred cows of what passes for freedom in capitalist society, are ridden over roughshod by the Special Powers Act. Small wonder that the South African Prime Minister said recently that he would give all the repressive power of his ‘Suppression of Communism Act’ for one clause of Northern Ireland’s SPA.

It is typical of the Unionist Party’s lack of political sophistication that the SPA has become a permanent feature of law in Northern Ireland; that this mailed fist is constantly on display on Unionism’s political counter to shock the conscience of ‘democrats’ and reformers who begin their protest, not with an absolute denunciation of such power in the hands of government, but against the maintenance of such powers when they are unnecessary.

The reason the Unionist Party has not in the past been able to remove the SPA as an obstacle to its political respectability is that its membership is rooted in organisations like the Orange Order and the Royal Black Preceptory, both Ku-Klux-KIan-like in their opposition to anything other than Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, both mentally standing still since the days of former ‘troubles’. These are the people whose pronouncements can make or break even Unionist politicians, a political Mafia to whom the merest departure from the thinking of the last century is treason.

Despite its ‘justifications’ of the Special Powers Act, the government, is obviously embarrassed by the Act and, while they do not wish to incur the wrath of their more militant supporters in—and out of—the Orange Order, neither do they in this age of mass communication seek the further embarrassment that must follow the unsparing use of the Act. Hence, the vision of tyranny conjured up by the Act is a good deal wide of the truth and, indeed, the government is presently considering legislation to deal with problems arising out of the present disorders despite their almost unlimited powers under the SPA though, of course, it could be claimed that they (the government) are introducing legislation in order to avoid using the merciless SPA against their own extremists who are so obviously the architects of the present disorders.

But if the Act is used sparingly today it has not always been so. Given the excuse of a few IRA explosions the government has in the past shown no reluctance to use the SPA brutally and unsparingly. Police bullies—and, naturally, given such powers and answerable only to their own superiors, many policemen behave like thugs (as the graphic pictures taken during the police-sponsored Derry disorder in October last showed)—raided homes and showed faint regard for the occupants or their possessions; men and women were arrested and held indefinitely without trial and anything ‘deemed’ by the ‘Authority’ (‘delegated’) of course, to be possessed for an ‘unlawful’ purpose was confiscated.

But the Act has not only been used against those accused of militant republican activities: on one occasion four trade union officials were arrested and imprisoned during a strike under the powers given to the government by the SPA and members of most parties opposed to the Government have been harassed to a greater or lesser degree with its authority.

On the humourous side—and the ‘conspiracy-orientated’ mentality of the political police has been known to create humourous situations!—the writer can recall an incident that occurred many years ago. A motor vehicle which he had parked was stolen and recovered some hours later by the police. Some weeks later he was “pulled-in” for questioning by the political police. After some verbal fencing with the Head Constable and Detective Sergeant who were conducting the congenial interrogation—they were anxious to know if the Socialist Party was making progress —the sergeant remarked that he had heard about the writer’s car being stolen whereupon the Head Constable suggested the possibility of the theft being the work of members of the Communist Party in retaliation for attacks made on that organisation from our outdoor platform.

More serious were the occasions when members of the political police contacted a party member’s workplace repeatedly leaving ‘messages’ for the member to report at the local police barracks. On yet another occasion a party member’s employers were contacted anonymously by telephone, and advised of the members political associations—coincidentally, he had been questioned by a political detective on the day previous to the telephone call and had been asked the name of his employer!

Still more serious was the case of a young man who, some years ago, became interested in the World Socialist Party. A somewhat timid young man, he was pulled in by the political detectives of Glenravel Street Barracks, in Belfast. He was advised that he was being foolish in having anything to do with the Socialist Party and that he should steer clear of our local office. Later he was again pulled in and the same political cop who had ‘advised’ him against attending our meetings suggested that he should now resume attendance at our meetings and let him know what was ‘going on down there’. The unfortunate man was assured that his services would not leave him out of pocket. He was given the impression that he had fallen foul of a dangerous conspiracy and, such was the fear transmitted by the police officer, that for a time he tried playing both ends against the middle, all the time fearful of what we might do to him if we discovered he was a police informer. In fact, we used him to feed back the most remarkable stories! In the end he emigrated to America.

These and many more incidents that could be cited are of interest insofar as they demonstrate the repressive political climate in the Province and the attitude of the authorities to almost any form of organised opposition to Unionism, Every group or party, however, ‘constitutional’ in their political approach, is suspect and its activities curbed either by legal bans or police intimidation or by the authorities giving free rein to the hooligan element among the government’s most rabid supporters. A good example of the last was when a visiting speaker of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, speaking on behalf of the WSP in Belfast, was attacked by Paisieyites. The police, made no attempt to prevent the attack or apprehend any of the attackers but instead immediately arrested the Socialist speaker—while the mob was breaking up the Party platform—and put him overnight in the police cells. A solicitor briefed to defend the speaker, being familiar with the local form, advised him to plead ‘guilty’ to the charge as he would most likely be sent to prison ‘if’ found guilty by the Court. The following day an incurious magistrate fined the Socialist £10 on condition that he return to England immediately!

All this, however, is the mere reporting of events in one more of world capitalism’s trouble spots. For the Socialist the tragedy of the Northern Ireland situation is in the fact that the working class are under the illusion that the outcome of the present struggles will in some way affect their condition. It does so but only insofar as it demonstrates the futility of yet another approach to the solution of their problems.

Like all reforms pressed forward to the point where resistance proves too costly or embarrassing to a capitalist government, the reforms demanded by the Civil Rights movement will be granted—and with them the illusion of change. More years of disunity and perhaps fratricidal strife will remain to confuse the workers and make easier the job of exploiting them. The reforms themselves, however justified, will be virtually meaningless for the working class for they leave untouched the real cause of the problems they are meant to solve.

Doubtless many of the very capable people who have come into prominence in the Civil Rights struggle will go into politics and it is even likely that a new political party will be forged in an attempt to unite the forces of opposition to Unionism. Regrettably, and confidently, we can say that such a party will be just another pawn in the game of capitalist politics, urging the working class to mortgage their most valuable possession, their votes, for the promise of the reform of capitalism and not its abolition.

This is why the World Socialist Party urges the young workers and students who have demonstrated their courage and organisational abilities in carrying through the struggle for reform to recognise the emptiness of their victory and turn their attention to the basic problem afflicting our world —capitalism.

We would indeed welcome them in the struggle for Socialism!

Richard Montague