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Northern Ireland

Feargal Cochrane—

It is difficult to overstate the chaos, confusion and emotion that accompanied the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921. It was not a smooth transition. At the stroke of a political pen, a legal line was drawn across Ireland, separating six of Ulster’s nine northern counties from the other twenty-six. These were not just any six counties, of course: they contained the majority of the Protestant and unionist population of Ireland and included the most industrialized and wealthy part of the country. Unionists were nervous and anxious, fearing that the new regime had been wrestled out of a reluctant British government, which might starve it of resources and make it politically unviable. The Boundary Commission that had been set up to decide on the final borders of Northern Ireland could have whittled the six counties down to four, which would have turned it into an enclave rather than a viable region of government with a recognizable political identity. Nationalists in the northern counties were predictably furious, having been summarily cut off from their co-nationals on the rest of the island, transformed overnight from a majority into a minority, and delivered on a plate to their unionist foes within a political system that offered them second place in a two-horse race. Violence and sectarianism was the predictable result. By the end of 1920, more than 10,000 Catholics had been expelled from the Belfast shipyard, where they had previously found work during the First World War. They were driven out by force, pelted with ball bearings and bolts (which became known as ‘Belfast confetti’) while the police turned a blind eye. During 1921 and 1922, IRA violence was met with sharp reprisals by the police, and anti-Catholic violence rose sharply during the period. In one notorious case, police searching for members of Sinn Fein raided a house and shot dead five innocent people in their beds, including a seventy-year-old man and his seven-year-old grandson; another member of the family was bludgeoned to death with the sledgehammer the police had used to break their way into the house. The gloves were off and the fight was on between the IRA and its supporters (a category interpreted liberally by the police) and the unionist government. Sectarian attacks were extreme, with bombs thrown at Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren, at people attending church and at people boarding public transport. Some 232 people were killed in 1922, the vast majority of whom were Catholic, as the unionist security forces ‘cracked down’ on what they regarded as an IRA threat to overthrow the new regime. In the two years before partition, 157 Protestants had been killed, but after the unionists got into power the death toll was noticeably higher within the Catholic community.

The Special Powers Act was introduced in Northern Ireland in 1922 as an emergency measure to deal with the sectarian violence that accompanied partition. However, its sweeping powers proved extremely useful to the new police force and the unionist regime, so that the legislation remained in place long after the initial public order problems had subsided, and in fact it became the legal basis for policing and for the criminal justice system. Put bluntly, the Special Powers Act provided a structure for the legal use of violence by the police. It was just as important as any of the political actions taken thereafter, as it provided structural legitimacy for repressive policing and for the defence of unionist political control by force. The act provided the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) with draconian powers, including the internment of suspects without trial; entry to a person’s house without a warrant, for the purposes of interrogation; and a range of other measures designed to evade legal due process. Under its rules, there was no possibility of judicial review of RUC behaviour. It provided the police and the minister for home affairs with what amounted to a ‘get out of jail free card’ with its stipulation that both could ‘take all such steps . . . as may be necessary for preserving peace and maintaining order’. In other words, so long as the police (and their unionist political masters at Stormont) could claim to be acting in good faith to protect public order, they were effectively provided with retrospective legal immunity for their actions, up to and including the use of lethal force. They could therefore kill people within the law, and they did so on numerous occasions, as the Special Powers Act appointed them judge, jury and executioner.

Nationalists hated the Special Powers Act. Their dislike stemmed not from the specific powers it gave the police, so much as from how it was used. It was targeted primarily at the nationalist community rather than at their unionist neighbours, and it added to their belief that they lived within a partial political system that was structurally designed to keep them down. The law (and the interpretation of the law) is not neutral in confl ict situations: it takes sides. The Special Powers Act took sides in Northern Ireland in helping the unionist government to cast itself as acting within the law and nationalist ‘agitators’ as being beyond it. 

Moderate nationalists complained bitterly about the Special Powers Act and about the actions of the B Specials and the RUC, but from the 1920s until the 1960s they were unable to impact significantly on the formal political system. The Nationalist Party was sleepy at the best of times. It carped periodically from the sidelines, but was powerless to effect any real change, or even to challenge the abuses of power perpetrated by the unionist government. It pursued a form of political engagement that cast the nationalist community as hapless victims of circumstance, but it offered few solutions or strategies for action. The party lacked vigour and relevance for an increasingly restless Catholic population that wanted actions rather than words.

From Northern Ireland by Feargal Cochrane. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Feargal Cochrane is emeritus professor of international conflict analysis and senior research fellow at the Conflict Analysis Research Centre, University of Kent. He is the author of Breaking Peace and Migration and Security in the Global Age?, and coauthor of Mediating Power-Sharing.

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