Irish History Live

Civil Authority

The Civil Authority (Special Powers) Act (1922) was a piece of emergency legislation that was passed by the Northern Ireland (N.I.) House of Commons in April 1922, a period, which Alvin Jackson described, as a time of ‘civil war within Northern Ireland’.[1] It empowered the N.I. Minister of Home Affairs, Sir Richard Dawson Bates, to ‘take all such steps and issue all such orders as may be necessary for preserving the peace and maintaining order.’ In addition, Michael Farrell notes that ‘it gave the minister power to make further regulations, each with the force of a new law, without consulting parliament, and to delegate his powers to any policeman.’[2]

The Act was initially composed of thirty-five regulations, which were drawn primarily from the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act (1920) and allowed for the prohibition of public meetings and processions, organisations and seditious literature (including newspapers), and the imposition of curfews in addition to a host of other measures. Further powers were re-enacted in the years after 1922 such as internment (indefinite detention in jail), which was imposed initially in the 1920s but was in operation at various times until 1975 when it was discontinued.

Historians like Michael Farrell and Laura K. Donohue have stated that the Special Powers Act was used to restrict movements that were opposed to the N.I. government, such as nationalism and republicanism and others that were also viewed as a political threat, including socialism and communism. According to Donohue, newspapers like the Irish Workers’ Weekly were banned while regulation 26 was aimed at eliminating the ‘menace of secret Soviet propaganda in Northern Ireland.’[3] However, both scholars agree that the Act was used disproportionately on the minority Catholic community. Indeed, Donohue asserts that ‘from measures aimed at returning civil order, the government increasingly turned to regulations designed to prohibit the expression of republican ideals’ which created a sense of injustice that ‘exploded with the civil rights marches.’[4]

The Special Powers Act (1922) was renewed until 1928 and was eventually made permanent in 1933. It was in operation for fifty-one years until 1973. However, it was not used beyond 1972, the year that ‘Direct Rule’ was imposed, and was replaced by the Emergency Provisions Act (1973). It is interesting that it was introduced at a time of communal violence in 1922 and was effectively discontinued in 1972, a year that was arguably the most violent in terms of the number of deaths connected to the conflict.                

[1] A. Jackson, Ireland 1798-1998 (Oxford, 1999) p. 338.

[2] M. Farrell, Northern Ireland: the orange state (London, 1998) p. 93.

[3] Northern Whig, 24 May 1930 cited in L. K. Donohue, ‘Regulating Northern Ireland: the Special Powers Acts, 1922-1972’ in Historical Journal, xli (1998), p. 1105.

[4] Donohue, ‘Regulating Northern Ireland’, pp 1089-120.


Works cited and further reading:

Bardon, J., A history of Ulster (Belfast, 1992).

Buckland, P., Factory of grievances: devolved government in Northern Ireland (Dublin, 1979).

Donohue, L., ‘Regulating Northern Ireland: The Special Powers Acts, 1922-1972’ in Historical Journal, xli (1998), pp 1089-120.

Farrell, M., Northern Ireland: the orange state (London, 1998).

Hennessy, T., A history of Northern Ireland 1920-1996 (Basingstoke, 1997).

Jackson, A., Ireland 1798-1998 (Oxford, 1999).

Whyte, J., ‘How much discrimination was there under the Unionist regime, 1921-1968?’ in T. Gallagher and J. O’Connell (eds), Contemporary Irish studies (Manchester, 1983), pp 1-36.


This entry was written by John Mc Caul. At the time of writing, John was a second-year History and Politics undergraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast. His main research interests include Modern Irish History especially with regard to early twentieth-century Irish nationalism and republicanism and the Northern Ireland 'Troubles’. In August 2013, John participated in the Study USA programme and is currently completing a business diploma at Warren Wilson College, Asheville, North Carolina. This will help him to further develop his employability skills and build upon qualities already garnered at Queen’s. In September 2014, he will begin the final year of his undergraduate degree and complete a dissertation in Modern Irish History.

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