The Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act (Northern Ireland) 1922, often referred to simply as the Special Powers Act, was an act of legislation passed by the Parliament of Northern Ireland shortly after the formation of the Northern Irish state and in the context of violent conflict over the issue of the partition of Ireland. Its sweeping powers made it highly controversial, and it was seen by much of the Northern Irish nationalist community as a tool of Ulster unionist oppression. The Act was repealed by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.

Context of Act's passage:

At the start of the twentieth century, the people of Ireland were divided into two mutually hostile factions. The much larger group (Irish nationalists) were mostly Roman Catholic, identified primarily as Irish, and wanted some form of Irish home rule or independence from Britain. The smaller group (Ulster unionists), concentrated primarily in the province of Ulster, were mostly Protestant, identified primarily as British (although many saw themselves as Irish and British), and were committed to remaining within the United Kingdom. In the years before World War I, both groups established armed militias intended to enforce their aims and protect their communities from the other side's militias. A compromise was reached whereby the island of Ireland would be partitioned, with the six most Protestant counties of Ulster becoming the state of Northern Ireland while the rest of Ireland achieved self-rule. This was accepted by most unionists as the best deal they were likely to get, but bitterly disappointed many nationalists, especially those who lived in the six counties which became Northern Ireland. Many nationalists on both sides of the border felt that their country had been unjustly divided, and for many decades the Irish government claimed that Northern Ireland was rightfully their territory.

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

The Act:

The Act was presented as being necessary to re-establish peace and law and order in Northern Ireland, and enabled 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 was specified that the ordinary course of law should be interfered with as little as possible. The Home Affairs Minister was empowered to make any regulation felt necessary to preserve law and order in Northern Ireland. Any who broke these regulations could be sentenced to up to a year in prison with hard labour, and in the case of some crimes, whipping. A special summary jurisdiction (court with no jury) was enabled to hear cases involving such crimes. The Home Affairs Minister was also permitted to forbid the holding of inquests, if he felt this was required to preserve order and peace.

The Schedule to the Act specified actions which the government could take in order to preserve peace, although the body of the Act enabled the government to take any steps at all which it thought necessary. Actions specified in the Schedule included the closing of licensed premises; the banning in any area of meetings and parades in public places; the closing of roads; the taking of any land or property; and the destruction of any building. The Schedule also forbade the spreading by word of mouth or text any 'reports or... statements intended or likely to cause disaffection to subjects of His Majesty'.

Because it was presented as emergency legislation, the Act was initially current only for one year and had to be renewed annually. In 1928, however, it was renewed for five years and when this period expired in 1933 the Act was made permanent. According to John Whyte, this happened because, from 1925, nationalist MPs began sitting in the Stormont parliament which they had initially boycotted. Unsurprisingly, they objected strenuously to the renewal of the Act, and it was felt by the (Unionist) Minister of Home Affairs that it would be better to make the Act permanent than for Parliament annually to 'wrangle' over it.

Use of the Act:

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

Paragraph 23 of the Schedule allowed for the indefinite internment without warrant or trial of 'any person whose behaviour is of such a nature as to give reasonable grounds for suspecting that he has acted or is acting or is about to act in a manner prejudicial to the preservation of the peace or maintenance of order'. In the period from May 1922 to December 1924, 700 republicans were interned under the Act.

Political violence had declined dramatically by 1925, and the government gradually shifted its emphasis from broad measures designed to return civil order to the province to more preventative regulations aimed at suppressing the threat posed by republican aspirations.' Regulations such as internment and the establishment of curfews were used far less, and those such as the banning of meetings and parades, and restrictions on the flying of the Irish tricolour became more common. Between 1922 and 1950, the government banned nearly 100 parades and meetings, the vast majority of which were nationalist or republican. No loyalist gathering was ever directly banned under the Act, although a few were caught in blanket bans against parades or meetings in a particular area. From 1922 until 1972, 140 publications were banned, the vast majority of which expressed republican viewpoints. The Act was also used against communist publications and recordings. Likewise the vast majority of groups banned under the Act were republican; the 1960s incarnation of the Ulster Volunteer Force was the only loyalist group to be made illegal in this way.

After the troubles of the early 1920s had died down, the provision for internment was not used until the IRA's border campaign of the 1950s, in which several hundred republicans were interned. Following the outbreak of the Troubles in 1968, many within the Protestant community called for the reintroduction of internment. This occurred in 1971, and authorised internment of those suspected to be involved in terrorism. Although there were loyalist as well as republican terrorists at this time, of the 1,981 men interned, only 107 were loyalists. Due to inadequate intelligence-gathering, many of the interned republicans were members of the Official IRA rather than the recently-formed Provisional IRA, which was much more heavily involved in terrorist activity at the time.

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

The Act and the Army:

The Act encountered further controversy in the 1970s due to the deployment of the Army in Northern Ireland and its role in maintaining order and similar policing-style duties. In 1972, the government was forced to amend the Act in order to legalise the detention of internees arrested by soldiers. Martin Meehan had been arrested after escaping from Crumlin Road Jail and charged with escaping from lawful custody. At his trial he successfully argued that under the Special Powers Act a soldier had no power of arrest and, as such, he had the legal right to escape, and was awarded 800 in compensation for being illegally detained for twenty-three days.

Related legislation:

Public Order Act 1951:

This enabled the Home Affairs Minister to ban or re-route any 'non-traditional' procession if it was likely to lead to disorder. It was used primarily against nationalist parades, and took over the function of controlling parades and processions from the Special Powers Act.

Flags and Emblems (Display) Act:

This made it an offence to interfere with the display of the Union Jack on private property, and enabled the police to remove any other flag if it was likely to cause public disorder. This act was primarily directed against displays of the Irish tricolour, although contrary to popular belief, it did not ban it. This was because it would have been legally very difficult for the Northern Irish government to ban the flag of another sovereign state.