The “Northern Ireland” Police State    [1961]

  • An exposure of the vicious Tory-Unionist régime in the Six Counties

[This pamphlet by C. Desmond Greaves, was published by the Connolly Association and Irish Self-Determination League in 1961 as part of its campaign to expose the misdeeds of the Northern Ireland Unionist Government in British Labour and Trade Union circles and win support in Britain for dealing with them. The Connolly Association, which had been founded as the Connolly Club/Clubs in 1938, adopted its modern Constitution in 1955, largely under the influence of Desmond Greaves, who had been editing its monthly newspaper, “The Irish Democrat”, since 1948 and who was its full-time editor since 1951. This Constitution made clear that the CA was a democratic and republican organisation which had the twin objectives of defending the interests of the Irish community in Britain and winning the British Labour and Trade Union movement to a progressive stand on Ireland. It made clear that the Association was not a socialist body, something on which there had been some confusion during the 1940s, although its new Constitution stated that one of its ways of promoting its aims was seeking to make known “the teachings of the great representatives of Irish democratic republicanism, especially of the socialist James Connolly.”  The Association’s campaign to discredit the Belfast Unionist administration in Britain was actively proceeded with from 1958 onward. Its details can be followed in the monthly file of the “Irish Democrat”, which is now on this website, as well as in the other material on the site. This campaign shows that the late 1960s Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement had a significant part of its intellectual and political origins in Britain, and specifically in the Connolly Association’s  and Desmond Greaves’ work.]

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The year 1961 is remarkable for the number of resolutions on Ireland coming before Trade Union Conferences. This welcome development is due to the work of the Community Association which has been urging Irishmen and women to join and be active in the trade unions, and while doing so to seek to enlist the support of the British workers in the cause of a free Ireland.

So successful has this policy been, that a million-and-a-half trade unionists have gone on record for the release of the men imprisoned in Belfast jail without charge or trial, and over one half of the Parliamentary Labour Party has wired to Lord Brookeborough the demand for their release. Slowly the Labour movement is moving away from the disastrous policy of the “Ireland Act” of 1949 and, granted further organisation and education, the working-class movement may soon once again be the champion of Ireland within Britain.

Most of the resolutions tabled concern the practise of internment without trial, and the Special Powers Acts under which it is possible, and the remedy sought from Westminster under Article 75 of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920.


“Northern Ireland” owes its existence to a British Act of Parliament. There was never any election or plebiscite to find out if the people of six Irish counties wanted to be cut off from the Twenty-six.  Partition took place solely so as to thwart the will of the 80 per cent majority of the Irish people who in the 1918 election voted for complete independence. Roughly speaking, the constituencies forming the main area of the dissident 20 per cent were chosen as the core of a separate administration and another 15 per cent was added in the position of a permanent minority. Thus “Northern Ireland” was in a somewhat shaky position from the start. Two whole counties, two half counties and a quarter of the heart-city of Belfast wanted to be part of an independent Republic.

One result of this was that the British Government – with Lloyd George as Premier – while transferring to Belfast all the powers necessary to suppress the nationalist  minority, whose inclusion in the new State had not the faintest pretence of a justification, kept important safeguards in its own hands. In 1916 Lloyd George had written to Sir Edward Carson:

“We must make it clear that the end of the provisional period Ulster does not, whether she wills it or not, merge in the rest of Ireland.”

In other words the will of the people of the area was a purely secondary consideration, though the contrary is often argued today.

When the Government of Ireland Act was passed in 1920, it therefore contained the following section, numbered 75:

“Notwithstanding the establishment of the Parliament of Northern Ireland, or anything contained in this Act, the supreme authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished over all persons and things in Northern Ireland and every part thereof.”

The purpose of this provision was very simple. If at any time the Unionists – the same party as the Conservative Party in Britain – were to lose their majority, and Stormont vote to enter the Republic, Britain could veto such a proposition under Article 75, in accordance with Lloyd George’s statement. But on the other hand if Article 75 means what it says, then Westminster can, if the necessary motion commands a majority. Intervene at any time and give instructions to the Northern Ireland Government.

Could such instructions be enforced?  Without the slightest difficulty. Firstly, Westminster controls all the key points of the financial and fiscal system of Northern Ireland. Secondly, there are no regular Six-county armed forces in existence, and the British Army is in sole occupation of the area.

It can be taken therefore that Britain has the entire responsibility for the existence and continuance of Northern Ireland, and the power to govern it in any desired direction.

It might possibly be argued that the Ireland Act 1949 limits this power and responsibility. Counsel’s opinion given to the Connolly Association is that it does not. The Ireland Act, 1949, a singularly unfortunate piece of legislation, merely gives an undertaking that the British Parliament will not abolish the border without the consent of Stormont. No Parliament can bind its successors, and the constitutional validity of the Ireland Act, 1949, has been called in question. Some experts consider that it could be completely disregarded as not binding any future Government. But even allowing it its full effect, it does not in any way diminish Westminster’s responsibility while Northern Ireland exists.

Those trade unionists who are demanding action in Northern Ireland under Article 75 of the 1920 Act are therefore on safe ground. Those who ask for an enquiry into the working of the Act are on even safer ground, if that is possible. It is doubtful if even Mr Butler1 will claim that Parliament may not enquire into the consequences of its own legislation.

Results of the 1920 Act

We will now examine some of the consequences of the Government of Ireland Act, and offer prima facie evidence that an enquiry at least is long overdue.

Partition has proved an economic disaster for Ireland. The severance of the industrial North from the agricultural South created two unbalanced economies. The efforts of the Twenty-six Counties to industrialise involved a tariff policy which reacted against Northern industry. The North in turn became excessively dependent on exports, especially to the British market, from which it is far removed and separated by a sea barrier. The result has been chronic unemployment in both parts of Ireland, but more particularly in the Northern area.

Even more serious than the unbalancing of the economy was the placing of the entire country at the mercy of the bankers and commercial monopolies. The banking and monetary system was never partitioned. More than that, it remained closely linked with the City of London. While neither Irish administration could legislate for more than a part of Ireland – The Northern Government’s powers are in any case severely limited – the banks and financial houses could and did, indeed can and do, legislate economically in complete security from interference by the Irish people. The direct consequence of partition was to hand over all Ireland into the grip of the bankers, while reducing the politics which could have opposed them to an almost parochial level. In each of the administrative areas problems were created which can only be solved in conjunction with the other. The only social force left free from this parochialisation was finance.

The bankers’ squeeze has gone on for 40 years. Human population in the Twenty-six Counties has dropped to its lowest ever. By contrast cattle population is at its highest. In the financial climate where big business is a law unto itself, small shopkeepers and capitalists have gone to the wall, even despite real and serious efforts by the Southern Government to build up native industry. In both parts of the country the small farm is disappearing. The rural population has emigrated in hundreds of thousands. British finance is every year strengthening its stranglehold, especially in the North, and the result has been industrial stagnation and the constant draining away of the most vital sections of the people. The vigorous and ambitious tend to depart; the old, the tired and the easy-going remain.


The Irish people have reacted against this situation by means of a national movement which has appeared in several forms throughout the years. The variety of forms does not detract from the essential identity of purpose. The ruined small farmers, the small men unable to keep a business going, the unemployed workers, have all at different times raised the banner of Irish reunification – one good Government for the whole country, so that we can come to grips with the banks, big landholders and other monopoly groups. It is against the nationalist movement in its various forms that the Government of Northern Ireland is fighting its continuous war of repression. Despite the “European” form, the content of the struggle is identical with that in the Congo, Algeria or Kenya. The Northern Ireland administration is faced with constant discontent.

If the working class of Belfast were to join with the Nationalist farmers of the country, the Six County administration could not survive. This is realised by the Government, whose constant preoccupation is to keep these forces apart.

This fact explains part of the significance of sectarianism, which is directed primarily against Catholics. It must be noted as a historical fact that like Hitler’s pogroms against the Jews, the Orange pogroms against the Catholic workers were forced by the employing class upon the Protestant workers who did not want them, the threat of unemployment being the sanction in hand. Naturally sections of the workers gave in, under conditions of chronic unemployment, and even succumbed to the poison of sectarianism. But the proportion so affected has been grossly exaggerated. The split between the working class and the farmers was thus conveyed into the working class, which has been divided on sectarian issues from time to time with great advantage to the employers. It should be noted however, that among the younger generation of workers today, sectarianism is much weaker than at any time in history.

Imagine now the position of a Catholic nationalist worker in the ghetto of the Falls Road, whither the Catholics were driven by the pogroms of 1920-22. (Note in passing, of course, that there are Protestant nationalist workers as well.) The Catholic nationalist is living in Belfast. He knows well that he is living in his own country, Ireland. He knows that he forms a part of the 80 per cent majority in that country. But he is forced by British Act of Parliament to form part of an artificially created minority. He is discriminated against by denial of employment, especially employment of the more responsible and better remunerated kind. The grounds are quite often frankly stated – religion. Is it likely that he will be in love with the administration?

This very insecurity had led it into anti-democratic practises. The Northern Ireland administration is not strong; it is weak. Otherwise why was its first electoral act to abolish Proportional Representation? This was followed by what is called the “gerrymandering” of constituencies. Under this arrangement, to take only one example, that of Derry City in 1954, 11,136 Tories returned 12 councillors, while 17,862 Nationalists returned only eight.

This result was achieved by gross inequality in the sizes of wards and skilful drawing of electoral boundaries. As if that were not enough, there exists the “business vote” system under which the owners of certain premises may get as many as six votes. To cap it all, when Messrs. Clark and Mitchell were returned to Westminster in 1955 as Sinn Fein Members of Parliament, the Courts held their election invalid and a by-election followed. They were returned a second time and their election invalidated again. At the second ensuing by-election a third candidate was put up, who effectively split the vote and thus these embarrassing representatives of the people were got rid of. The Northern Ireland representation at Westminster became 100 per cent Tory.

Under such circumstances, it is understandable that for long periods of the existence the Northern Ireland administration has been virtually at civil war with the nationalist population. The disturbances which arise from time to time are deeply rooted in the soil and system of the area. In 1932, when the unemployed struggles united Catholic and Protestant workers, and hunger marchers from Dublin and Belfast met to fraternise on the border, only to be dispersed by police and troops, Belfast was under something approximating to martial law. Armoured cars toured the streets, and many were the unemployed workers who knew long periods in Crumlin Road jail. Even today the first thing which strikes the visitor to Northern Ireland is that the police are armed. They are not armed in the Republic or in Britain. The administration regards the people as its enemies, refuses to recognise the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Trades Union Congress, and continually harasses anti-Unionist organisations whether they are Labour or Nationalist, though naturally it regards the latter as more dangerous because of their links with the majority beyond the border.

In conditions where the normal processes of democratic life are denied, there are those who think to meet violence with violence. These remember how in the first election after partition nationalist voters had to run the gauntlet of machine-gun bullets on their way to the polls. They recall that members of the Northern Ireland administration were openly advocating armed insurrection against the Liberal Government in 1912-14. It must be emphasised that conditions of life in the Six Counties would naturally encourage a number of people to conclude that nothing was to be gained through ordinary democratic procedures, since these are consistently denied. It is not argued here that that conclusion is necessarily correct; we merely state that it is understandable.

The Special Powers Acts are allegedly designed to meet the problems created by people who reach this conclusion. Most democrats agree that repression of this sort never succeeds against national movements. The way to prevent violence is to remedy grievances. But the Northern Island Special Powers Acts are so all-embracing that the administration is automatically protected against every eventuality. The victim has no redress. There is therefore no reason why care should be exercised in the use of these powers, and there is little evidence that it is exercised.

On one occasion recently, a man was arrested and interned because a person he did not know was caught sheltering from the rain in the same shop doorway with a copy of an illegal newspaper – legal in Britain – on his person. Before he could secure his release he was obliged to sign to the effect that he had been a member of an illegal organisation, but had now given it up, although he had never had the slightest connection with such in his life. Innocent dances are invaded, the young people enjoying harmless recreation being lined up round the walls and searched by armed police and their auxiliary “B-specials”. In country parts these “B-men” are mostly the sons of wealthy farmers who patrol the roads at night, and a few years ago some of them shot and killed Arthur Leonard, a boy of 19 who failed to stop at a road-block when returning from a dance. The Coroner pointed out that had this event taken place in Britain, the constable would have faced a charge of murder. He was protected from this by the Special Powers Acts, which have been in operation since 1924.

Under the Special Powers Act, the police may:

  1. Arrest without warrant. 
  2. Imprison without charge or trial and deny recourse to Habeas Corpus or a court of law.
  3. Enter and search homes without warrant, and with force, at any hour of day or night.
  4. Declare a curfew and prohibit meetings, assemblies (including fairs and markets) and processions.
  5. Permit punishment by flogging. 
  6.  Deny claim to a trial by jury.
  7. Arrest persons it is desired to examine as witnesses, forcibly detain them and compel them to answer questions, under penalties, even if answers may incriminate them. Such a person is guilty of an offence if he refuses to be sworn or answered a question. 
  8. Do any act involving interference with the rights of private property. 
  9. Prevent access of relatives or legal advisers to a person imprisoned without trial.
  10. Prohibit the holding of an inquest after a prisoner’s death. 
  11. Arrest the person who by word-of-mouth spreads false reports or makes false statements.
  12. Prohibit the circulation of any newspaper.
  13. Prohibit the possession of any film or gramophone record. 
  14. Arrest a person who does anything “calculated to be prejudicial to the preservation of peace or maintenance of order in Northern Ireland and NOT specifically provided for in the Regulations.”

To those who argue that all that is necessary is for the Nationalists to win an electoral majority and change all this, there is a very effective reply. Unless the Nationalist candidate signs a paper to the effect that he “accepts the constitution” – which as a Nationalist he cannot – he is not permitted to stand for election.This proviso does not hold in Westminster elections.

Recent events

From 1956 onwards disturbances broke out on the border once again, a circumstance which, deplore it or not, is likely to recur under existing conditions. The Stormont Government used the occasion to seize and imprison about 170 men, and one woman, of nationalist sympathies and to imprison them without charge or trial in Crumlin Road jail. Since at the same time people who had allegedly committed overt illegal acts were being tried, convicted and sentenced, there can only be one reason why this procedure was not adopted in the case of the 170 internees, namely that the authorities had no evidence on which a conviction could be sought.

Challenged in the Stormont Parliament about the detentions the Minister responsible offered the excuse that the imprisoned man could appeal to an “independent tribunal”. But he refused to disclose the names of the men who constituted the tribunal and they are unknown to this day.

A campaign for the release of the prisoners was begun in Britain by the Connolly Association in 1959, and rapid and substantial support came from the trade union movement. In 1960 a most important development took place in the Six Counties. A Council for Civil Liberties was established in Belfast2, and despite the immediate arrest of his secretary, who was however quickly released, it secured the affiliation of the Belfast, Newry and Derry Trades Councils and a number of other working class and democratic organisations. The Government began to yield to pressure in the summer of 1960. Great rallies were held under Connolly Association auspices in Trafalgar Square and Manchester. By December 1960 over one-and-a-half million trade unionists and over half the Parliamentary Labour Party had demanded the release of the prisoners, and by February 1961, the Government had released all but 17. It is noteworthy that none of those released has so far been accused of any illegal act, though police surveillance has been unremitting.

There are also a number of other prisoners who have received sentences out of all proportion to their alleged crimes. In at least two instances there is reason to believe that the confessions on which they were convicted were obtained as a result of undue pressure. The issue of alleged police torture figured largely in the trial of Mallon and Talbot, who were defended by Mr Elwyn Jones MP and acquitted of a charge of murder. 

The Special Powers Acts are still in force, and any day the jails may be filled again with untried prisoners, who may this time be unemployed workers or active trade unionists, as they have been in the past. The existence of such powers breeds temptation to use them. Their existence in any area which is, however artificially, included in the United Kingdom, is a standing threat to the civil liberties of the British people. There is, in short, a Police State in Northern Ireland, and those trade unions who are demanding measures to bring it to an end are doing a service to British and European democracy.

There is no doubt that the Tory government at Westminster will try to shuffle off its legal responsibility by claiming that “Justice” is a transferred power.

Mr Butler has already admitted that Section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act is still in force and that it entitles Parliament to intervene.

He used to answer resolutions demanding such intervention by saying that his Department had no powers to intervene – conveniently ignoring the fact that Parliament could and that he could intervene through Parliament. More frequently now he states that it would “not be proper” to intervene. It is of course natural enough for a Tory Home Secretary to be reluctant that Parliament should use for a democratic purpose a section of a Tory Act that was originally introduced for an anti-democratic purpose.

 His reluctance can only be overcome as a result of mass pressure from the British working-class movement. He should be told clearly that if he is prepared to tolerate the Northern Ireland police state, the British people are not. He can at most delay its abolition till a future Labour Government is installed to operate a different policy. The Irish are traditionally Labour voters, but it would be hard to find any greater inducement to them to go to the polls en masse than a pledge by Labour to end the present situation in the Six Counties.

The Connolly Association is endeavouring to organise the Irish in Britain, and to convince the Labour Movement of its powers and responsibilities in this question. We believe this work will come to its final provision in a United Independent Irish Republic living on good terms with a Britain in which the working class is the leading influence. Speed the day.


  1. R.A. Butler (1902-82), Conservative Home Secretary 1957-62, later Foreign Secretary; had previously been effective Deputy Prime Minister to Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan.
  • This was a short-lived “Belfast Council for Civil Liberties” that was established and led by Sean Caughey, a North of Ireland man of Republican views. He communicated with Desmond Greaves and the Connolly Association in London for two or three years in the early 1960s, until Caughey identified publicly with and became active in Sinn Fein, when the group ceased to be. It should not be confused with the Campaign for Social Justice, founded in Dungannon in 1964 by Mrs Patricia McCluskey and her husband, Dr Conn McCluskey, or with the Belfast Trades Council conference on civil liberties that was held in 1965.