The Unionist government rarely used the Special Powers Act to intern political opponents between 1945 and its re-introduction in 1956. One of the only occasions on which it did so was in May 1951 to coincide with a visit to Belfast by members of the British royal family. The Unionist government had used internment in a similar way on various occasions in the 1930s. The public outcry in 1951 appears to have determined that future uses of internment would be unofficial, such as during another such royal visit in May 1953, when the RUC instead questioned or put specious charges against leading republicans to detain them during the visit.
In 1951, on the night of 30th May, the RUC carried out a series of raids in which they arrested thirteen republicans and detained them under the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act. Forty-eight hours beforehand, a bomb had gone off outside Cullingtree Road RUC barracks. It had not been planted by the IRA, yet those arrested were mostly involved with the IRA including the Belfast Battalion O/C Jimmy Steele and Adjutant, Joe Cahill, and other prominent members like Joe McGurk and Liam Burke. Sinn Féin in Belfast had been planning a non-violent protest against that royal visit that was to take place on the night of the 31st May.
The RUC then publicly announced that they had issued internment orders for thirteen republicans under the Special Powers Act coinciding with a visit by the British Queen to Belfast. The RUC announced that they were going to hold the men for seven days under the Special Powers Act as a ‘security measure’ (see press on 30th May 1951).
Opposition to both the visit and the reintroduction of internment was not confined to republicans. Harry Diamond (who sat in Stormont as an MP for the Irish Labour Party) sent a statement protesting the detentions to King George saying:
“In face of your Labour Government’s denunciations of Soviet tyranny will you by your presence here countenance these Totalitarian acts?”
Diamond was refused permission to raise the detentions in Stormont but he interrupted another debate to say that:
“This is a police state, because we have seen in the last 24 hours that there is no civil liberty here, and that men can be dragged from their beds and interned without trial.”
The Belfast District Committee of the Gaelic League also protested the royal visit:
“This Committee, representing 5,000 Irish speakers of all denominations in the city, wishes emphatically to protest against the visit of the Royal representative of the country that is holding part of Ireland in subjection. Furthermore we wish to reassert the inalienable right of the people of Ireland to the unfettered control of their own destinies.“
There was also a statement issued under the byline of the Adjutant, Belfast HQ, IRA, that stated:
“In connection with the forthcoming visits of the King and Queen, we wish to make our position clear. We resent this visit but we are not prepared to take any action at the moment. If the police carry out any further raids and arrests and give unnecessary provocation to the nationally-minded people, we shall be forced to take action to stop these raids. We call upon all Irish-minded people to boycott this proposed visit and to support us in any action we deem fit.”
Meanwhile, Jimmy Steele and the other twelve republicans were brought to the prison on Crumlin Road, taken to the reception area and processed into the remand area in C wing. They were photographed and had their fingerprints taken (for some of the thirteen this was the third time this had happened since their arrest). Despite being imprisoned under an internment order, for the seven days they were held there, the republicans were subject to remand conditions. That meant taking exercise with the remand prisoners observing the ‘five yards apart’ and ‘silence’ rules, the number 2 diet and no association or other ‘privileges’. Remand prisoners were also limited to two cigarettes in the morning and two in the evening.
With so much collective experience of the various regimes including juvenile, remand, sentenced, penal and internee, Steele, McGurk, Cahill, Burke and the others quickly objected and notified the prison authorities that they wouldn’t accept the remand conditions. The response of the authorities was to inform them that, if they did not comply with the order, they would be returned to their cells. As they refused to comply with the remand regulations, they were returned to their cells and all privileges withdrawn. It had been early on Tuesday morning when they had been detained and they were to remain confined to their cells once they refused to observe the five yards apart and silence rules. The internees only got out of their cells on the Sunday morning to attend mass in the prison chapel. The next day, Monday 4th June, they were informed that they were being released again, in ten minutes time. As they walked out through the wicker gate of Crumlin Road, at about 12pm a plane bearing their royal majesties had already left the runway at Aldergrove that morning and was half way to London. That evening, Jimmy Steele and Joe Cahill issued a statement on behalf of themselves and Liam Burke, Patrick Doyle, Joe McGurk and Jack McCaffrey.
They put a direct challenge to the Unionist Minister of Home Affairs:
“We challenge you, Brian Maginness, to produce the evidence on and to state publicly:
(a) The nature of the act which you suspect was about to be committed (the Minister’s detention order stated that they were persons suspected of being about to act in a manner prejudicial to the peace and to the maintenance of order):
(b) The evidence upon which suspicion was grounded and the person or persons from whom such evidence emanated;
(c) Why, if such evidence was available, was not that specific charge framed against us?
The nature of your reply, if any, should determine not only the future of our own liberties, both physical and economic, but the liberties of all man and women working towards the ideal of a free, independent Irish Republic for the thirty-two counties.”
There was no answer forthcoming from the Unionist government.