The banning of An Phoblacht, January 1926.

On 7th January 1926 the northern government made possession of An Phoblacht an offence under Regulation 26 of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. The dual purpose of censorship and criminalisation was to provide the northern government with a recurring method of repressing political opposition, starting as soon as An Phoblacht was banned.

The publication of An Phoblacht had started again from June 18, 1925 and was, at that time, the sole official republican newspaper in circulation. It was published weekly from 12 St Andrew Street in Dublin and was then edited by Patrick Little. By January of 1926, An Phoblacht had come to the attention of the Home Affairs department of the northern government and it was banned for a year from the 11th January (the ban was renewed, annually, up to 1945).

The first significant case relating to An Phoblacht arose on the 20th January during routine searches of letters and packages that had been posted in the Free State (see PRONI H.828/2531 and contemporary newspapers). A package containing 110 copies of An Phoblacht intended for Cumann na mBán was found and seized by the Post Office (under Post Office regulations). The package had been addressed to Mr James Steele, 57 New Lodge Road. A number of short-lived republican publications like Éire, The Irish Nation, Poblachta na hÉireann and Sinn Féin had been banned between March 1924 and January of 1925. Possession of a copy exposed the owner to the possibility of facing prosecution under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. But the exact protocols to deal with illegal publications under the Special Powers Act weren’t always clear. When the publication was intercepted in the post – could the intended recipient be prosecuted for someone else sending them a copy of an illegal publication? And if an illegal publication was seized by the Post Office the Special Powers Act might not even be applicable. This type of issue absorbed the attention of the northern government in early 1926.

The future direction a case against Jimmy Steele might take wasn’t immediately clear. In the interim, the obvious response was for the RUC to search the address. A melodramatic secret Department of Home Affairs memo of the 23rd January states:

Secret Memo: 23.1.26 (20042)

Subject: Search of 57, New Lodge Road 

Information from a reliable source has been received that copies of the newspaper “An Phoblacht” prohibited from circulation in Northern Ireland is being received at 57, New Lodge Road, for circulation to the members of Cummna-na-mBhan (sic).

The occupiers of this address are named Steele, whose sympathies are well known to favour the IRA.

Please have a careful search of this house carried out to-day (Saturday) at about 3.30 pm if possible for any copies of the papers names, or other seditious documents.

Please report result of search.

Clearly, the department of Home Affairs was at pains to appear in the know, even to the RUC and its own employees since it doesn’t reveal the mundane details of the circumstances of the discovery of the copies of An Phoblacht. The specified timing for the search, about 3.30 pm, implies that Jimmy Steele was under surveillance, if not being directly informed on, but it could be pure chance to also reinforce the impression that the northern government was acting on intelligence rather than good fortune. Seemingly, it badly felt the need to try and impress its own employees. The memo gives the clear impression that the Department of Home Affairs went in for melodrama and presenting itself as ‘in the know’.

Unsurprisingly, the sympathies of the whole family, the memo observed, ‘are well known to favour the IRA’. Jimmy had joined the North Queen Street slua of Fianna na hEireann in 1920, been arrested in 1923 and imprisoned for three months as a 16 year old in 1924, when he was arrested alongside Mary Donnelly of Cumann na mBán. His brother Bill and other family members had been active in the IRA during 1920-22 in Belfast. Cumann na mBán and Na Fianna were active with the IRA in the re-organisation in Belfast that was kick-started by Joe McKelvey’s funeral at the end of 1924 and given added importance by the failure of the Boundary Commission at the end of 1925. Jimmy Steele had joined the IRA in 1925. IRA volunteers in the north of the city were part of an independent unit, and Steele appears to have been liaising with Cumann na mBán in Belfast, whose membership at the time is presumably reflected in the 110 copies that were sent to him.

As directed in the memo, a search was carried out the same day (Saturday 23rd January). Between 3 and 4 pm in the afternoon, RUC Constables Blackburn, Porter, Clarke and Cremin arrived at Jimmy’s aunt Mary Ellen’s shop at 57 New Lodge Road. The only people in the house at the time were Mary Ellen and Jimmy’s youngest brother Dan. When they entered the house, Constable Blackburn asked Mary Ellen if there were any copies of An Phoblacht in the house. She said there wasn’t as she didn’t sell newspapers.

Constable Blackburn then informed her that they were going to search the house for copies of An Phoblacht.

When she was asked if she minded, Mary Ellen said “Not in the slightest.

When the RUC searched the shop and house, they found five copies of An Phoblacht under a cushion on a seat in the kitchen. They showed them to Mary Ellen and Dan who both denied all knowledge of them. The issues found under the cushion were dated 25th December 1925, 1st January 1926, 8th January 1926 and there were two copies dated 15th January 1926. The banning order for An Phoblacht only applied from 11th January, so technically only the issue dated 15th January 1926 could be deemed as illegal. The RUC Constables confiscated all the copies of An Phoblacht and returned to their barracks, despite not having talked to Jimmy. Constable Blackburn submitted a report on the search which was forwarded to the Minister of Home Affairs for further instructions.

On the 26th January, Major Shewell wrote to the City Commissioners Service to advise them that the 110 copies of An Phoblacht had been seized by the Post Office. As they hadn’t actually been seized under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, Shewell sought advice on their disposal. This raised a problem for the Ministry of Home Affairs. Technically, no offence had been committed since the Post Office had seized the copies whilst in the Post Office’s possession (since they were in transit). As they weren’t in Jimmy’s possession, nor was the sender resident in the area under the control of the Northern government, they had no guilty party to prosecute.

The lack of a victim to repress clearly irked the northern government. Someone in the City Commisioners Service office then added a note to Shewell’s minute suggesting that they relieve the Post Master of responsibility for this area so that seizures, and prosecutions, could be made under the Special Powers Act in future. The note suggested there should be a parallel with how possession of firearms was treated under the Special Powers Act. Shewell received advice from the Ministry for Home Affairs on the 29th January, ordering that the 110 copies of An Phoblacht be destroyed. The Minister of Home Affairs, R Dawson Bates, signed the order on the next day. Bates secretary also wrote to the Inspector General of the RUC on the 1st February saying “Will you please report what is known concerning the address?

Shewell’s report said:

Report (Minute)

On 23-1-26 the police searched premises at 57 New Lodge Road Belfast of which the occupier is Miss Mary Steele (aged 50) who carries on a small grocery and confectionary business. Her 2 nephews James Steele (18 yrs) and Daniel Steele (14 10/12 years) live in the house with her.

The police asked Miss Steele whether there were any copies of “An Phoblacht” in the house. She said there was not as she did not sell papers. On searching the house 5 copies of this paper were found under a cushion on a seat in the kitchen. 1 dated 25/12/25, 1 dated 1/1/26, 1 dated 8/1/26 and 2 dated 15/1/26. Miss Steele denied all knowledge of them. Her nephew Daniel also denied all knowledge. James Steele was not in the house at the time. The police believe that Miss Steele knew nothing of these papers and that probably they were brought there by James Steele.

IG [Inspector General] 73 Submits the case for instruction.

On the 2nd February Shewell went further, offering guidance on how they might proceed. He pointed out that while An Phoblacht was banned from the 11th January, Jimmy was guilty of possession. Shewell went on to write a note encapsulating the creative bureaucracy that underpins repression: “Although there seems no evidence of ‘circulation’ presumably the possession would constitute an offence under Sect 2 (2) CA SP Act74 as an “an act preparatory to” a breach of the Order.” This is the relevant text from the Act:

The schedule of the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act include sections on the banning of newspapers:

25. No person shall by word of mouth or in writing, or in any newspaper, periodical, book, circular, or other printed publication —

(a) spread false reports or make false statements; or

(b) spread reports or make statements intended or likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty, or to interfere with the success of any police or other force acting for the preservation of the peace or maintenance of order in Northern Ireland; or

(c) spread reports or make statements intended or likely to prejudice the recruiting or enrolment of persons to serve in any police or other force enrolled or employed for the preservation of the peace or maintenance of order in Northern Ireland, or to prejudice the training, discipline, or administration of any such force; and no person shall produce any performance on any stage, or exhibit any picture or cinematograph film, or commit any act which is intended or likely to cause any disaffection, interference or prejudice as aforesaid, and if any person contravenes any of the above provisions he shall be guilty of an offence against these regulations.

If any person without lawful authority or excuse has in his possession or on premises in his occupation or under his control, any document containing a report or statement the publication of which would be a contravention of the foregoing provisions of this regulation, he shall be guilty of an offence against these regulations, unless he proves that he did not know and had no reason to suspect that the document contained any such report or statement, or that he had no intention of transmitting or circulating the document or distributing copies thereof to or amongst other persons.

26. The civil authority may by notice prohibit the circulation of any newspaper for any specified period, and any person circulating or distributing such newspaper within such specified period shall be guilty of an offence against these regulations

The part of the letter where it says “an act preparatory to” was underlined by JRM (the judge John R Moorhead) on the 2nd February and marked ‘Yes’. Moorhead then directed that a prosecution should be brought. This was authorised by ‘AWD’ on the same day. In a memo written the next day, there was an instruction to Inspector O’Beirne of the RUC to prosecute Jimmy Steele under the Special Powers Act. The instruction was signed EWS (Shewell).

On 15th February Inspector General RUC reported that on 3rd of February, Steele was summoned to appear before the Belfast Summons Court on 11th but failed to appear. A warrant was then issued for his arrest and he was brought to court. Solicitor John Semple Osborne represented Steele at the court and entered a guilty plea on his behalf (given that IRA members typically refused to recognise the court, to enter a guilty plea was unusually pragmatic). When asked by the court how the issues of An Phoblacht had come into his possession, Osborne noted that he was a newsagent and habitually kept papers, in this case copies of An Phoblacht. Osborne went on to inform the court that he had those copies of the journal in his possession out of curiosity. The court was not impressed and Steele got a 40s fine (two pounds) or a month imprisonment.

Following Jimmy Steele’s case, the possession of banned publications was to become a favoured method of imprisoning political opponents of the northern government, including some left wing activists. Mainly, though, it was to be used against republicans. As well as An Phoblacht, the list of publications to be banned through to the 1970s included newspapers such as An Síol, The Critic, War News, Republican News, Resurgent Ulster, Glor Uladh and others produced by the Belfast IRA and now only known by a handful of surviving copies, mainly buried in files in PRONI.


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