29 MAY 1936, Page 5


THE official reply which the Government of Northern Ireland has made to the report of a commission appointed by the National Council for Civil Liberties, to enquire into the nature and working of the Special Powers Acts in Northern Ireland, increases rather than diminishes the force of the com- mission's findings, for it leaves the principal strictures undiseussed. The report, it is true, discloses a state of things very difficult for anyone to defend. When the Government of Northern Ireland set up house originally, it was confronted, of course, with the terrorism of the Irish Republican Army, a -body which organised murder and called it war. The rest of Ireland had for years been convulsed by it, and remained so for some years after. In such circum- stances the Protestant community of Northern Ireland, fighting with its back to the wall, was constrained to take, through its Government, strong emergency measures , to . secure life and property and crush the murder,clubs. It may be that the Special Powers Act of 1922 did not at. thetime go beyond what the, circumstances, warranted ; at any rate- one would be chary of •critieising men who liad„Oc. formidable responsibility of keeping the peace in a great city like Belfast; and who did, against vast- obstacles, win through. The gravamen of the charge in the report is different. It is that an emergency system has been retained in force long after the emergency has ended ; and that tem- porary despotic controls over the lives and rights of citizens, justifiable, perhaps, during a state of siege, have been allowed to ossify into a permanent tyranny, exercised by faction-leaders over the rest of the community.. • • The decisiVe step in the transformation was taken in 1933. From 1922 to 1928 the Special Powers Act was avowedly temporary, and - came up for renewal every year. An Act of 1928 renewed it for five 'years. But in 1933 it was prolonged indefinitely - until Parliament otherwise determines." No doubt the alarm created by Mr. de Valera's rule in Southern Ireland rendered this possible. But it cannot justify it ; since any temporary disorders which might have been occasioned (but in fact were not) could still have been adequately dealt with under a temporary measure.

In • point of fact the original measure of 1922, so far froni having been in any way relaxed, 1184 been progressively -stiffened-and supplemented. 'This has beefl done through the power -Conferred On the Home Minister of the Northern Government to make new Regulations, which have the -same validity as the thirty Regulations originally scheduled to the Act. The power has been used extensively, and down to recent dates. The legislature of Northern Ireland retained no right to disallow a Regulation ; it can only petition that it be revoked, the actual decision resting with the executive. Thus it has effected an almost complete delegation of its law- making power to the executive, within a sphere defined as " the preservation of peace and main, tenance of order," and the modification of the Regulations themselves. Can this be squared with the United Kingdom's Act of 1920, whereby the Parliament at Westminster devolved such powers as it did devolve in Northern Ireland upon the elected representatives of the people ? The Com- missioners, all of whose members save one were lawyers, regard the constitutional la ilia. as doubtful.

Meantime the • Home Minister •enjoys practically unlimited power to govern by decree. Next, he Intl unlimited power to delegate his authority. The arbitrary courses which he is entitled to take may equally be taken in his name by anyone whom he designates. They are in fact taken by departmental officials and by officers of the police. The Act and its supplements create a large number of offences additional to those under the ordinary law, and drastic penalties are pnivided, including in some cases death and flogging. Despite the number and variety of charges which may thus be brought, the Act contains an amazing provision against the unforeseeable. Section 2 (4) runs : " If any person does any aet.of sueh a nature as to be calculated to be prejudicial to the preservation of the peace or inaintenaneo of order in Northern Ireland and ii. it speeifieally provi,lef I fm. iii the regulations, he shall be deemed to he guilty of ail offenee agancit. the regulations."

On this the report very justly comments that it not only gives the exeCtitive carte blanche to prose- cute anybody (however innocent Of crime) whose activities it may dislike, but it violates the foun- dations of public law. ." In countries where the rule of law prevails it is recognised by all jurists that no man may be prosecuted and punished unless for the contravention of some specific provision of the criminal law."

Besides being enabled to convict a prisoner without proving a specific offence, the Home Minister is given the right to detain or intern persons for an indefinite period without trial. In the view of the Com- mission, " the effect of these Regulations is emu- pletely to abrogate the principles of Habeas Corpus," and "coupled with the .disestablikhraent of the rule of laws in he Six Counties. putt the executive in a position paralleled only by continental. dictator- ships." Further, the police are given power to arrest without warrant upon suspicion, to search premises. without warrant, to stop and search persons and vehicles anywhere, to stop, and interrogate any person, and to seize property. When it is added that these and other drastic powers belong not to the Royal Ulster Constabulary only, but extend to the multitude of auxiliary lay police known as the B Specials and drawn from the Government's most fanatical par- tisans, some idea may be formed of how the whole system works out. •What does the coercion amount to in practice?

The answer to that depends to some extent on the credibility of witnesses. The report gives details of stringent repression exercised by the. Government against both political and economic movements. But the Acts carry their own condemnation_ in their text: Such legislation might be defended, as a sort of martial law during a state of .siege. As permanent mechanism for the Government f part of the United Kingdom it is beyond any defence at all.