Prayers in the rain, Milltown 1935

In 1935 the Easter Rising commemoration at Milltown cemetery was banned by the northern government as had happened in previous years. Some 200 RUC men were drafted in to seal off the cemetery and prevent any ceremony being held. In defiance of both the northern government, and the elements (it poured rain), some 2,000 republicans gathered at the cemetery gates despite the rain. Fr J Bradley, from St Patricks, gave out the Rosary as the crowd knelt in the rain (he can be seen standing in the middle of the crowd in the photo below).

Crowd kneeling in the rain outside Milltown cemetery, Easter Commemoration 1935
Crowd kneeling in the rain outside Milltown cemetery, Easter Commemoration 1935

This public show of defiance was the largest attendance at an Easter Rising commemoration in Belfast to date (and would be until the mid-1950s). The practice of saying the Rosary had become a hallmark of the Belfast commemorations in the 1930s. Since the northern government could not prevent a religious ceremony being held it had been the sole public act of commemoration that Belfast republicans could hold. Notably, this was probably the last major gathering of republicans or nationalists in Belfast prior to the pogrom that summer. Even before the Outdoor Relief Riots in October 1932, An Phoblacht had been warning that there were signs that the northern government would attempt to divide the community by initiating a pogrom. Mini outbreaks followed but a fully-blown violent assault on areas where Catholics were resident, in particular around Lancaster Street, the Docks, North Queen Street and York Street, finally came in 1935. Perhaps the northern government were spooked into action by the defiance seen at Easter in Belfast. Notably, de Valera was too, as he had a Belfast IRA training camp raided on the eve of the pogrom and detained many of the Belfast IRA volunteers who were there. The timing was not believed to be a coincidence.

Despite the apparent religious fervour of the image, republicans were in perpetual conflict with the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland and the attachment to the rosary being said at Milltown was in its symbolic defiance and resistance to the northern government rather than pious devotion. Ironic too, it was not the Catholicism of IRA members that the northern government feared but rather it’s long term co-operation on various projects with left-wing groups in Belfast (there had even been a mini-purge of senior Belfast republicans who were hostile to the left in 1932 and 1933).

In the aftermath of the 1935 pogrom, the National Council of Civil Liberties investigated both what had happened and the Unionist government’s Special Powers Acts. On the 23rd May 1936 it finally presented its report in London. According to the report, Catholics had been denied all lawful means of conducting their political activities or of advancing the cause of a United Ireland. The Commission of Inquiry reported that:

It is sad that in the guise of temporary and emergency legislation there should have been created, under the shadow of the British Constitution, a permanent machine of dictatorship – a standing temptation to whatever intolerant or bigoted section may attain power to abuse its authority at the expense of the people it rules.[1]

The report itself highlighted the origins and uses of the Special Powers Acts. It identified a constitutional irregularity between the powers conferred by the Act on the Executive (effectively the Minister of Home Affairs) and the limitations of the powers given to the northern government under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 to pass such legislation. It goes on to examine the extent to which the Special Powers Acts created new ‘offences’, removed the normal protections afforded by the law, subjected judicial process to political interference (criticising, in particular, the appointment of Resident Magistrates). It emphasised the roles played by the Orange Order and Protestant Leaguers in attacks on working-class and labour organisations (as well as on Catholics). It also highlighted how the Orders were linked to the government, judiciary and policing and never subjected to the use of the Special Powers Acts themselves. The Commission made reference to the ‘electoral reforms’ which gerrymandered various electoral bodies to guarantee a unionist majority.

It summarised this by saying that the Special Powers Acts: “…places the Executive in a position paralleled only by continental dictatorships…”. It illustrated the report with various cases to show typical ways the act was used to target and harass labour activists, Catholics and republicans.

The conclusion of the report is damning and worth quoting in full:

Through the operation of the Special Powers Acts contempt has been begotten for the representative institutions of government.

“Through the use of special powers individual liberty is no longer protected by law, but is the arbitrary disposition of the Executive. This abrogation of the rule of law has been so practised as to bring the freedom of the subject into contempt.

“The Northern Irish Government has used special powers towards securing the domination of one particular political faction, and, at the same time, towards curtailing the lawful activities of its opponents. The driving of legitimate movements underground into illegality, the intimidating or branding as law-breakers of their adherents, however innocent of crime, has tended to encourage violence and bigotry on the part of the Government’s supporters as well as to beget in its opponents an intolerance of the ‘law and order’ thus maintained. The Government’s policy is thus driving its opponents into the ways of extremists.

“The Northern Irish Government, despite its assurances that special powers are intended for use only against law-breakers has frequently employed them against innocent and law-abiding people, often in humble circumstances, whose injuries, inflicted without cause or justification have gone unrecompensed and disregarded.

“Jurists have hitherto regarded the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law as the two cardinal principles of the British Constitution. The Northern Irish Government in abrogating them has ravished the heritage for which generations of Britons have fought and suffered. The Special Powers Acts, the basis of a legal dictatorship, are a vital link in the chain which has been forged around the freedom of the community of Northern Ireland.

“The Commission expresses the belief that the operation of the Special Powers Acts has the most widespread effect upon political life in Northern Ireland. The existing conditions of rule – secured by the supercession of representative government and the abrogation of the rule of law and the liberty of the subject, the basis of Special Powers – cannot be described otherwise than as totally unBritish.

“It is clear to the Commission, that the way to the re-establishment of constitutional government, the prerequisite of law and order in democratic communities, can be paved only by the repeal of the Special Powers Acts. Where the pillars of constitutional rule, parliamentary sovereignty, and the rule of law are overthrown there exist the essential conditions of dictatorship.”

Anyone who believed that the report might have some impact either in Westminster or Belfast was quickly put straight by Lord Craigavon, Prime Minister of the northern government: “… no importance should be attached to a document containing such misrepresentations…”.[2]

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[1] For instance, see The Irish Times, 25 May 1936

[2] McEoin 1997, 372s


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