Internment, 9 August, 1971

On 9th August, 1971, the Unionist government used the Section 12 of the Special Powers Act to arrest and intern hundreds of men. The arrest policy concentrated almost uniquely on Catholics, targeting those believed to be republicans although it included some other individuals such as anarchist John McGuffin (you can read his book on Internment here on Irish Resistance Books).

Previously the Unionists had used the same powers, the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act to intern large groups of men on a number of occasions. This was done from 1922 to 1924, in 1925 (during the collapse of the Boundary Commission), from 1938 to 1945, in 1951, from 1956 to 1961 and in August 1969. Frequently, individuals or small groups of two or three men were interned. Given that arrest could mean being held in prison for up to four weeks before a formal internment order was served, a policy of administrative detentions was continually operated that meant that the Unionists and R.U.C. could imprison people for significant periods of time without ever formalising their internment, never mind bringing formal charges through the courts. This tactic was almost exclusively used against republicans although it was utilised against socialists and communists on occasions in the 1920s and 1930s. Notably campaigns to highlight the Unionists’ arrest and detention policies, treatment of prisoners and right to assemble (i.e. to protest about these issues) provided a greater contribution to the civil rights movement of the 1960s than many would like to acknowledge.

One outcome of the phase of internments that started on 9th August 1971 was the experimentation in torture that was summarised in the report published by the Association for Legal Justice and Northern Aid in 1971. Entitled, Torture: The Record of British Brutality in Ireland. Torture details the experiences of those taken and physical and psychologically abused by British Army personnel and RUC personnel and is discussed in more detail here. The Irish government took a case against the British government in the European Court of Human Rights over the torture which is still not resolved.

The Northern Aid/Association for Legal Justice book can be viewed below. Anyone wishing to find out more could also read another of John McGuffin’s books, The Guinea Pigs, which can also be read on Irish Resistance Books.

And in case anyone needs a reminder of the catastrophic impact of the phase of internment that began on 9th August 1971, here is the front page of the next day’s Irish Independent.


“a position paralleled only by continental dictatorships”: the abuses that prompted the Civil Rights campaign

Much of the recent commentary has focused on debating the origins and ‘ownership’ of the civil rights campaign. What has been missing from the discussion has been a timely reminder of the actual abuses that prompted the campaign.

At heart, the civil rights campaign was addressing a fundamental democratic deficit created by Unionists limiting the right to vote. This is starkly visible in comparisons of the registered electorate for Westminster elections at which Unionism had no facility to curtail voting rights, and, Stormont and local government elections at which the qualification to vote could be manipulated and controlled. Taking the 1970 Westminster elections and 1969 Stormont elections into account, the former had a total electorate of 1,017,303 while the latter, only one year earlier, was 784,242. This is a difference of 233,061 votes, or almost 22.9% of the electorate. Qualification for the franchise was rooted in eligibility to pay rates and other restrictions that had long been lifted elsewhere. And economic status was the key to eligibility.

Unionism viewed this issue as explicitly rooted in religious identities. But in the United Kingdom, overt religious discrimination was, and is, only formally permitted at the highest levels (in terms of its monarchy and, technically, political offices such as Prime Minister and Lord Chancellor). So this could not be done in public. Instead, Unionism had to curate and exploit economic barriers to acquiring the right to vote, like employment, access to education and training (Catholic schools only received equality of resource allocation in the 1990s) and housing rights. Irish language rights were entirely suppressed. Conveniently for Unionism, the UK as happens elsewhere, happily tolerates overt income-based discrimination while prohibiting other forms of discriminatory practice.

Unionism wasn’t particularly shy in articulating the relationship between economic status, religion and politics. In 1933, writing in the Northern Whig, the Unionist Party’s Sir Joseph Davison neatly links votes, religion and employment: “…it is time Protestant employers of Northern Ireland realised that whenever a Roman Catholic is brought into their employment it means one Protestant vote less… I suggest the slogan should be ‘Protestants employ Protestants'”. Unionist boasts of ‘a Protestant Government for a Protestant People’ were usually in the context of demanding the employment of Protestants over Catholics (who were described as 99% disloyal) to ensure continuation of that same government.

And Unionist language on the issue could be brutal, with little fear of public rebuke. “The Nationalist majority in the county, i.e., Fermanagh … stands at 3,684. We must ultimately reduce and liquidate that majority. This county, I think it can be safely said, is a Unionist county. The atmosphere is Unionist. The Boards and properties are nearly all controlled by Unionists. But there is still this millstone [the Nationalist majority] around our necks.”, this was said by the Unionist MP for Enniskillen, Erne Ferguson, in 1948. Ferguson later resigned as an MP to take up the role of Crown Solicitor for Fermanagh.

When the British government appointed Sir John Cameron, a Scottish judge, to look at the violence that had been used against the early civil rights campaign, he stated (in his 1969 report, Disturbances in Northern Ireland) that: “We are satisfied that all these Unionist controlled councils have used and use their power to make appointments in a way which benefited Protestants. In the figures available for October 1968 only thirty per cent of Londonderry Corporations administrative, clerical and technical employees were Catholics. Out of the ten best-paid posts only one was held by a Catholic. In Dungannon Urban District none of the Council’s administrative, clerical and technical employees was a Catholic. In County Fermanagh no senior council posts (and relatively few others) were held by Catholics: this was rationalised by reference to ‘proven loyalty’ as a necessary test for local authority appointments. In that County, among about seventy-five drivers of school buses, at most seven were Catholics. This would appear to be a very clear case of sectarian and political discrimination. Armagh Urban District employed very few Catholics in its salaried posts, but did not appear to discriminate at lower levels. Omagh Urban District showed no clear-cut pattern of discrimination, though we have seen what would appear to be undoubted evidence of employment discrimination by Tyrone County Council.”
As well as the economic measures, the civil rights campaign also addressed inequities and inequalities in the administration of justice. Back in April 1922, the Unionists had enacted supposedly temporary measures in the Civil Authorities (Special Powers Act) which was intended to ‘restore order’. But the Act was continually renewed until it was just made permanent. It contained provisions to intern individuals without a charge, a trial or a release date. Hundreds were interned from 1922-24, 1938-45 and 1956-62 with smaller groups interned on other, lesser known, occasions (such as 1925 and 1951). Sentencing policy varied relative to your political background. An identical firearms offence attracting a £2-£5 fine for a Protestant would become a ten year penal servitude sentence (possibly including 10 strokes of the whip) for a republican. Habeus Corpus could be suspended, meaning, among other things, that it was possible to take and hold prisoners and refuse to admit they were being held prisoner.

Other measures were continually used to suppress opposition political activity. Public meetings and assemblies could be, and were repeatedly, banned. Individuals could be expelled from the north if they refused to abide by a restriction making them live in either Limavady if they were a republican or Clogher if they were a communist [Ed – No, I’ve no idea why Limavady and Clogher]. Publications including posters could be banned. Anything the Unionists’ deemed seditious, including concerts, memorials, publications, emblems and flags could be banned, seized and the owner prosecuted. In practice, under the Special Powers Act, individuals were detained and held for up to 7-8 weeks without charges or any form of hearing. The RUC could even deny holding them. Nor was there any form of redress once released if they weren’t charged or interned.

After the first ten years of operation of the Act, there were a series of unemployment protests in Britain, culminating in the hunger marches and rally in Hyde Park which was broken up by the police, injuring 75 people. This coincided with the Outdoor Relief riots in Belfast. The long term impact of the hunger marches was the formation of the British National Council for Civil Liberties in 1934. It’s focus was on abuses by the state including the suppression of political opposition, the use of police, and the promotion of democratic norms. After thousands of Catholics were attacked and forced from their homes and jobs in Belfast in the summer of 1935, the Council for Civil Liberties created a commission to report on the use of emergency powers and draconian legislation by the Unionists. It delivered its report on 23rd May 1936 and the main conclusions were:—

  • Firstly, that through the operation of the Special Powers Acts contempt has been begotten for the representative institutions of Government.
  • Secondly, that through the use of special powers individual liberty is no longer protected by law, but is at 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.
  • Thirdly, that 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.
  • Fourthly, that 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.

It believed that the Unionists were “…in a position paralleled only by continental dictatorships…”.

With no sense of irony, the Belfast Newsletter (25 May 1936) dismissed the report as ‘bitter attacks on Ulster’. It then followed the Commission’s conclusions with a response from the County Grand Master of Belfast Orangemen, Sir Joseph Davison (same as above), who stated that “…to the best of his knowledge responsible members of the Protestant community did not give evidence at the inquiry which could, therefore, scarcely be impartial. ‘I have not made a careful study of the report of the Commission,’ he said, ‘but it is clearly very one-sided.’”

The British National Council for Civil Liberties report was regularly cited for the next twenty years in reference to the failures of Unionism to administer justice. None of the political groupings in the north initially embraced any form of rights-based campaign. Certainly individual issues were cited by the likes of the Nationalists and various Labour political factions. Republicans, politically disengaged from the structures of the northern state, highlighted the nature of the administration of justice. As republican meetings, commemorations and publications were regularly banned and led to arrests, the mere act of protest often was restricted by the Unionists’ use of the Special Powers Act. This included campaigning for political status for prisoners and the release of internees and political prisoners. Campaigns to release internees and sentenced prisoners took place from around 1944 to 1950 and again from 1957 to 1962. The end of the latter campaign saw republicans co-operate with the British National Council for Civil Liberties to highlight the Unionists’ use of the Special Powers Act.

In 1950, Geoffrey Bing, a Belfast born Labour MP for Hornchurch who was associated with the Council for Civil Liberties, published a 24 page pamphlet called John Bull’s Other Irelandhighlighting what he saw as the abuses the Tories enabled Unionism to perpetrate.  He wrote that “The outward and visible manifestation of Tory policy in Northern Ireland is sectarianism. The Catholics are, like the Jews under Hitler, to blame for everything. A politician has only to wave the Orange flag and there is no need for him to concern himself with tiresome questions of national welfare.” Several million copies of Bings’ pamphlet were sold. He concluded that “…the creation of Northern Ireland was the greatest of all gerrymanders.” and that the British government and parliament, ultimately, was enabling the Unionists to carry on in this way and needed to take the lead in forcing change to take place.

Later, in the 1960s, at the preliminary meeting in Belfast that agreed on the need to found the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, a Dublin-based lawyer, Ciaran McAnally, identified the range of civil rights that should be upheld by society (as reported in the Irish Democrat, January 1967):

  1. The right to personal liberty and freedom of movement. This should only be forfeited following conviction in a fair trial on known charges;
  2. The right to freedom of expression in speech, writing or publication subjects to the norms of truth and justice. In other words, this right should not be used to the (legal) injury of others;
  3. The right to freedom of conscience to hold and change religious beliefs, and the right to proselytise;
  4. The right to assembly. This right is implicit in the right to free expression and personal liberty;
  5. The right to form associations that not harmful to society. This follows from the right of assembly;
  6. The right of access to courts of law to obtain the enforcement of the aforesaid rights. This entailed the provision of legal aid to people who otherwise would be prevented from having access to the courts;
  7. The right to protection against discrimination in public employment and fair and impartial access to the public services, housing, social security and the other facilities provided today by central and local government authorities.
  8. The right to freedom from conscription for conscientious objectors.

The initial press releases from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association concentrated mainly on the administration of justice, rather than the socio-economic issues. These were: to defend the basic freedom of all citizens; to protest the rights of the individual; to highlight all possible abuses of power; to demand guarantees for freedom of speech, assembly and association; to inform the public of their lawful rights.

But as the civil rights campaign developed, the socioeconomic issues began to be equally stressed drawing together what was to form the two most recognizable strands of the civil rights campaign.

Awful Bomb Outrage on Belfast Children

The bombing of Weaver Street on 13th February 1922 marked a particular low in the violence in Belfast in 1920-22. What hasn’t immediately been recognised is the extent to which it resonates deeply with more recent cases. The Special Constabulary and police are both implicated in colluding with the bombers, forensic evidence was misrepresented and not properly secured, witness statements were not collected, the police refused to take witness statements in some instances, the police failed to identify individuals of significance to the investigation, disinformation was put out by the media, misleading evidence was given to the inquest and when an official inquiry was requested, the request was ignored.


I’ve reconstructed the bombing from the evidence given to the inquest before the City Coroner held on 3rd March 1922. This was reported in most of the contemporary papers at some level of detail. I’ve supplemented this with reports from the days after the bombing. Where the detail conflicts (particularly in the press of 14th February), I’ve used the version given to the inquest.

Weaver Street, 8.30 pm, 13th February 1922

It had already been a violent day in Belfast. Catherine McNeill, who lived at number 6 Weaver Street, saw two Special Constables chase children from the Milewater Street corner of Weaver Street down to the other end of Weaver Street. One Special Constable was brandishing a revolver. And one  of them reportedly told the children to go and ‘play with their own’. The children moved part of the way down into Weaver Street. Around twenty children were in the street, the girls mostly jumping with a skipping rope (which was tied to a lamp-post) and the boys playing marbles on the footpath beside them. Prior to the intervention of the Special Constables, they had been scattered across the two streets. They were now gathered in two groups in front of 20 and 22 Weaver Street.

8.32 pm

A few minutes later, Agnes O’Neill left her house on Weaver Street to look for her younger children. She saw three uniformed police constables coming down North Derby Street from the direction of York Road. At a small gateway on the right hand side of North Derby Street, the three constables met two men in civilian clothing. They stood and talked for some minutes.  Mrs McCaffrey, from Shore Street, was out at the corner of Shore Street and talking to two young men who were neighbours. The young men had been watching two men they thought were very suspicious looking. So when they saw the three constables approach the two men they hoped they would stop and question them. Instead all five appeared to have a conversation. The constables had their backs to Mrs McCaffrey. When they left towards the Black Path at the other end of North Derby Street, they walked so fast Mrs McCaffrey didn’t get a good view of them. She thought nothing of seeing police constables walking around as there was a barracks on York Road (between Milewater Street and North Derby Street, on the opposite side of the road). Despite the fact that there had been significant violence across Belfast already that day, it was later claimed that the local police constables were confined to their barracks that evening.


p style=”text-align:justify;”>Weaver St map.png

8.35 pm

The three constables continued down the right hand side of North Derby Street to the end of the road and seemed to continue on towards the Black Path (which ran parallel to Weaver Street behind the houses). The two men in civilian clothes crossed over then continued down the left hand side of the road, passed the end of Weaver Street and went as far as Jennymount Mill (at the end of North Derby Street), turned and came back to the Weaver Street corner). John Pimley, who had been out in Weaver Street since 6 pm, also saw the movements of the five men. He said that two of the constables had long coats and capes, while the third had only a long coat. The tallest was about 5 foot 8 inches in height. Pimley saw the men walk up and down past the corner of Weaver Street.

8.37 pm

Patrick Kennedy, who lived at 25 Weaver Street, had noticed the two men walking up and down past the end of Weaver Street. He thought they were acting suspicious and so went in to tell Joseph Maguire. They both went to the door to observe the two men.

8.40 pm

All this time, the large group  of children were playing in two groups about 25 metres up from the North Derby Street end of Weaver Street, in front of numbers 20 and 22. Ellen Rafferty, who also lived in Weaver Street, saw one of the two men crouch down and throw something towards the group of children. Patrick Kennedy didn’t see the bomb being thrown but saw one of the men put his hand to his hip pocket. On hearing a huge explosion, he slammed the front door. The windows and furniture in Weaver Street shook with the force of the blast, as it did in many of the surrounding streets off the York Road. The sound of the bomb exploding was heard all across Belfast.

The bomb had landed in the middle of the group of girls playing with the skipping rope. The explosion threw out shrapnel in every direction. The girls took the main force of the blast, and almost all were wounded by shrapnel and flying metal. Many of the boys were injured too as were a number of adults who happened to be standing in doorways nearby. Immediately after the bomb exploded, heavy gunfire from revolvers was directed down Weaver Street from North Derby Street, pinning down the injured and preventing residents coming to the aid of those injured in the blast. When the gunfire finally stopped, people rushed from their houses. Some residents claimed that it had been two of the three constables that had re-appeared and opened fire with their revolvers down Weaver Street.

Patrick Kennedy’s sister Catherine had been hit in the head and body by large pieces of shrapnel. She was covered in blood and unconscious. She was carried into 22 Weaver Street. Their mother Mary Jane had gone out onto the street after the shooting stopped. Another one of her children, 13 year old Barney, had been wounded in the arm. She was then told Catherine was injured and was brought to her. Catherine was only 15, but already worked in the nearby mill. Like the Kennedy’s, Jennie Johnston lived on the other side of Weaver Street to the blast. When the gunfire stopped she ran out onto the street and found her 11 year old sister Ellen lying on the footpath. A boy helped her carry Ellen into a house. She had also received horrific head, torso and limb injuries in the blast. Catherine McNeill had also rushed out onto the street after the firing stopped, to find her daughter Rose Ann lying in the middle of the street. Francis Pimley carried Rose Ann into his house (20 Weaver Street). Elizabeth O’Hanlon had been thrown across the street by the blast and was badly injured in the blast (as were two of her brothers, John and Murtie). She was carried into 21 Weaver Street, where her mother found her.

Annie Pimley, Mary Clinton, Mary Kerr, Suzanne Lavery and Kate O’Neill had been around the skipping rope with Catherine Kennedy, Rose Ann McNeill, Ellen Johnston and Elizabeth O’Hanlon. All were injured in the blast. The two O’Hanlon boys and Barney Kennedy had been playing with Willie John Dempsey, John McCluskey, George O’Connor, Joseph Conway, Patrick Maguire, Robert McBirney and William Connolly. They also received injuries in the blast. Three women who happened to be out on the street at the time were also critically injured, Grace Kelly, Mary Owens and Maggie Smith.

Sergeant Beattie and Constable Boyd, from the York Road barracks, came out onto the road after the explosions and gunfire. After the gunfire ended they went down into Weaver Street. They called for ambulances to come. When two arrived as many of the children as possible were squeezed in and rushed to the Mater Hospital. After the day’s violence, the hospital was already at full stretch as, in great distress, critically wounded children began to arrive on stretchers and in their parents’ arms. The ambulance men carried Catherine Kennedy straight into theatre and told the doctor and nurse in charge that they would need everyone. Quickly Dr Wright, Dr Morris, Dr Robinson, Dr Cavanagh and the nursing staff got to work. The hospital was so crowded that most of the nineteen children who were hospitalised by their injuries had to be put two to a bed (there were also the three women injured).  Fr Clenaghan, President of St Malachy’s College, and Fr Black, from St Patricks, both arrived and gave last rites to those that were most seriously injured and tried to comfort the parents.

Catherine Kennedy couldn’t be saved and died from her injuries almost immediately. By 9.40 pm, Eliza O’Hanlon had also died, followed a couple of hours later by Ellen Johnston.

The next day, the Belfast Telegraph implied that shots had been fired at an armoured car in Weaver Street, before the bomb had been thrown although this incident was not documented anywhere else. The Irish News described it as an ‘Awful Bomb Outrage on Belfast Children’ and said ‘…Last night’s shocking affair appears to have been a part of the plan of campaign carried out throughout the city for the extermination of the catholic population.’ James Craig’s statement on the bombing during the day stated that “…the indiscriminate throwing of bombs over a wall into Weaver Street, a Sinn Fein area, which resulted in the death of two children and the wounding of fourteen others.’ This was sufficiently vague that some press reported it as an attack on Protestants by the IRA. At 3.45 pm that afternoon, Rose Anne McNeill also died from her injuries.

The inquest, before a jury and the City Coroner, James Graham, was heard on the 3rd March. District Inspector Lynn observed on behalf of the police, while a solicitor, Bernard Campbell, represented the families. Two police witnesses, Sergeant Beattie and Constable Boyd were also present. Boyd implied that the gunfire after the blast was directed towards the police and came from the North Derby Street corner of Weaver Street. Lynn then asked Beattie if anyone had told him that there had been shots fired into Weaver Street after the bomb and he said no. Beattie brought along splinters and pieces of the bomb recovered from the scene and empty bullet cartridges from the corner of Weaver Street and North Derby Street. The empty bullet cartridges implied that they had found the position the guns were fired from (but not the bullets which would be found at the target). However, Campbell then produced spent Webley revolver bullets (and more bomb fragments) recovered from the street and houses in Weaver Street, to prove they were the target. Campbell also stated, in response to a question from a juror, that the reason why the police had no record of the actions of the three constables in North Derby Street was because they had refused to take statements from a number of the witnesses. The police were unable to identify the three constables or produce them to give evidence. At this point Lynn denied that they could have been police constables as he revealed that the constables in York Road had been confined to barracks that evening. Why they were confined to barracks during so much violence was not stated.

The jury brought in a verdict that the deaths had been caused by a bomb ‘…wilfully thrown by some person unknown.’ The City Coroner then adjourned the inquest for two weeks and requested that the Minister for Home Affairs in the northern government, Dawson Bates hold an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Catherine Kennedy, Ellen Johnston, Eliza O’Hanlon and Rose Ann McNeill.

The northern government didn’t even discuss it at its next cabinet meeting (although it did discuss the site for a Stormont egg-laying competition). In a telegram to Michael Collins, Churchill (then Colonial Secretary) called it “…the worst thing to have happened in Ireland in the last three years“. Edward Carson wrote in his diary that there was no evidence the bomb was purposely thrown at the children. But his attitude was clear, as he wrote that even if it was it was only “…one among how many on the other side?“.

The only inquiry Dawson Bates called was into the shooting of a Special Constable by the military. By next month, the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act was passed allowing Dawson Bates almost unlimited powers. Margaret Smith had died from the injuries she sustained in the blast on the 23rd March. On 6th April, the day before Dawson Bates’ Special Powers Act came in to force, Mary Owens also died from her wounds.

By the 21st May 1922 the Catholic residents of Weaver Street and the surrounding streets had been forcibly evicted from their homes.

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.