Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United Kingdom in 1973 passed legislation that allowed the suspension of the ordinary rules of police and judicial practices in Northern Ireland in response to widespread violence.

Summary of Event

In 1922, Northern Ireland was separated from the rest of Ireland, which had won autonomy from the United Kingdom. The majority of those living in Northern Ireland were Protestant Unionists who favored union with the United Kingdom. A one-third minority of the citizens of Northern Ireland were Catholic Nationalists who had supported the independence movement from Great Britain. The government of Northern Ireland was run by a Unionist majority intent on establishing order. Northern Ireland;Emergency Provisions Act Emergency Provisions (Northern Ireland) Act (United Kingdom, 1973) [kw]Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act (July, 1973) [kw]Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act, Northern (July, 1973) [kw]Emergency Provisions Act, Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the (July, 1973) [kw]Act, Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions (July, 1973) Northern Ireland;Emergency Provisions Act Emergency Provisions (Northern Ireland) Act (United Kingdom, 1973) [g]Europe;July, 1973: Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act[01210] [g]United Kingdom;July, 1973: Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act[01210] [g]Ireland, Northern;July, 1973: Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act[01210] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July, 1973: Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act[01210] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July, 1973: Northern Ireland Witnesses Passage of the Emergency Provisions Act[01210] Heath, Edward Whitelaw, William Compton, Edmund

That same year, the Special Powers Act was passed in Northern Ireland, granting extraordinary powers to the police. Some of the act’s more notable provisions allowed for warrantless arrests, imprisonment without charge, warrantless searches (including forcible entry), denial of trial by jury, arrest for “making false statements,” and prohibition of newspapers, films, and meetings. Although the Special Powers Act was designed to be temporary, it was renewed every year, until in 1933 it was made permanent. Because this act transferred judicial powers to the home minister, it had the effect of creating a permanent form of martial law.

A distinguished panel of British Commissioners for the National Council for Civil Liberties in 1935 examined the Special Powers Act. In its 1936 report, numerous abuses of the human rights of the Catholic minority community were cited, including the searching of homes in the middle of the night, the damaging of property, the rounding up of suspects without warrant, the abuse of the rights of free speech and assembly, the use of violence to coerce confessions out of prisoners, and more. These abuses were directed against Catholic Nationalists, Socialists, and others the Unionist state sought to suppress.

In 1969, triggered by a civil rights movement, violence broke out anew in Northern Ireland. The Northern Irish government responded by invoking the Special Powers Act and sending the police into Catholic areas to arrest, interrogate, and search. As the civil order broke down, the British government sent in troops in 1969. In 1972, the internment provision of the act was invoked, and more than three hundred suspected Irish Republican Army Irish Republican Army (IRA) Catholics were rounded up and detained without warrant. London would no longer support the policies of the Northern Ireland government and in March of 1972 suspended it. The suspension of the Northern Ireland government put an end to the Special Powers Act, but the British government found itself in a situation of intense violence.

In July of 1973, Parliament, at the request of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw, passed the Emergency Provisions (Northern Ireland) Act (EPA). Supported by members of both political parties, it was opposed by a few members of Parliament who saw in the act the continuation of the Special Powers Act that had for so long alienated the Catholic minority community. Although initially considered a temporary response to civil violence, the EPA was routinely renewed without extensive discussion or examination.

The EPA incorporated the recommendations of the Diplock Report of December 20, 1972, which had considered the problems of judicial procedures in the treatment of people charged with terrorist offenses. The report recommended trial without juries, conviction on the basis of the testimony of a police officer, and conviction based on confessions obtained under less than stringent rules. The EPA thus incorporated a large number of the provisions of the old Special Powers Act, including detention without charge, search without warrant, arrests based on suspicion, forcible entry without warrant, and arrest for a failure to answer questions, as well as the Diplock recommendations.

The act detailed a number of terrorist offenses that were seen as requiring a juryless trial. The confession of the accused was sufficient evidence for conviction. In mainland Britain, such confessions were required to be voluntary and could not be extracted by brutality. Under the EPA, however, a confession was inadmissible only if it was obtained from a prisoner by torture or by inhuman or degrading treatment. Thus, a great degree of latitude was allowed in police interrogation; coerced confessions were rarely ruled inadmissible, and confessions obtained by the use of brutality were used to convict.

The EPA effectively encouraged police interrogation and brutality to extract confessions rather than other forms of evidence gathering to prove the guilt of the accused. The legal provisos that a person is guilty until proven innocent and that some justification must be advanced in order to arrest a person were abrogated under the EPA. The act of arrest placed a burden on defendants to prove that the assertions of the police were not true rather than the reverse; defendants were required to prove they deserved the right to bail rather than the prosecution proving that defendants should not be granted bail.

Particularly difficult for defendants was the fact that the shift in the burden of proof was accompanied by an enormously wide latitude in the police’s powers of arrest. On their own suspicion, without a warrant from a judge or magistrate, police could arrest and detain a person indefinitely. On the suspicion that a person had committed an act or was about to commit an act, police could arrest, detain, and interrogate a suspect for up to forty-eight hours. Police could enter any premises without warrant and take property if authorized. Given the historical relationship of the police with the Catholic minority community, these powers provided at the least a means of harassment and at the most a tool for the violation of the rights of privacy and of due process for Catholics. The power of the police to stop and question under the EPA allowed for the conviction and fining of people who failed to answer questioning “to the best of their knowledge and ability.” This led to situations in which a refusal to answer raised police suspicions and made people subject to arrest without warrant. Silence became an invitation to be detained and interrogated, though no evidence of a crime had been produced.

The final area of concern was the elimination of juries for trials based on scheduled offenses. This left most of the judicial process weighted against defendants, who before trial could be arrested on suspicion or for not answering questions, and held for not disproving police assertions. Defendants could then be interrogated up to the point of “torture and inhuman treatment” to induce them to confess. Conviction by a judge, on the word of a police officer who had obtained a confession, would follow in many cases. The ability of defense attorneys to penetrate this closed system was limited at best.


The consequences of the EPA on human rights were noted by numerous critical reports, including an Amnesty International report in 1978, the British government’s Bennett Committee Report in 1979, the Irish government’s submission to the European Court in 1975, and the testimony of numerous defendants, doctors, and lawyers. The criticism of human rights abuses was particularly directed toward the harassment of citizens through the questioning, searching, and detention provisions of the EPA. From 1975 to 1986, 44,273 people were detained in Northern Ireland. Of those held, 3,280 were charged with a crime. The high incidence of detention directed at a minority community of only slightly more than one-half million people and the low rate of charges lodged indicated a form of police harassment protected by the EPA.

In the period from 1975 to 1978, Amnesty International and the Bennett Committee embarrassed the British government with reports that abusive interrogation had been a common practice. The resulting confessions (85 percent of those charged confessed) led to convictions based on maltreatment of defendants. In 1979, two police doctors resigned because they believed that the injuries of prisoners they were treating came from beatings. After the Bennett Committee Report, police turned to rewarding prisoners for turning in their accomplices. These “supergrasses” led to a number of convictions, but most of these cases were overturned on appeal. The use of juryless courts resulted in an increase in the rate of convictions, as judges became accustomed to the well-prepared cases of police being put against the sole word of a person who had been subject to the above-mentioned police procedures.

After five years of practice, the EPA courts had a rate of conviction 7 percent higher than that of courts that used trials with juries. Judges became hardened to the protection of the rights of the accused and more disposed toward police cases for conviction. The cumulative effect of the EPA was a major deterioration in the support of the Catholic minority community for the rule of law. Scholars, politicians, peace groups, and legal specialists called for reform of the EPA, claiming it produced the very attitudes toward law and order that it was designed to prevent. The minority community, subject to detention, interrogation, house searches, beatings, and juryless trials, came to see the law not as a guarantor of equal treatment but as a tool for their oppression. Northern Ireland;Emergency Provisions Act Emergency Provisions (Northern Ireland) Act (United Kingdom, 1973)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyd, Andrew. Northern Ireland: Who Is to Blame? Dublin: Mercier Press, 1984. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 detail the use of the Special Powers Act by the government of Northern Ireland. The act allowed such a wide range of abuse that, Boyd argues, it was used not only to limit the political freedom of Catholics but also to crush labor unrest, thus weakening the labor movement in Northern Ireland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coogan, Tim Pat. On the Blanket: The Inside Story of the IRA Prisoners’ “Dirty” Protest. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. A leading Irish journalist examines the treatment of prisoners by the British in Northern Ireland. The book discusses the denial of human rights that led to an Amnesty International report, a commission of the British government, the Bennett Commission, and a judgment from the European Court that Great Britain had mistreated prisoners.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Faligot, Roger. Britain’s Military Strategy in Ireland. London: Zed Press, 1983. Faligot offers a left-wing interpretation that views the special powers of the police and military as part of a consistent long-term policy to exterminate the IRA. The rights of the accused are seen by Faligot as something that the British were willing to sacrifice without tears in order to eliminate the IRA.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Alfred McClung. Terrorism in Northern Ireland. Bayside, New York: General Hall, 1983. Chapter 3 of Lee’s book examines “Human Rights in the Orange Statelet” and covers the operation of the Special Powers Act of 1922 as well as the British version of 1973. Lee cites earlier reports critical of the operation as a tool of oppression against the minority community.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Richard. Governing Without Consensus: An Irish Perspective. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. In chapter 3 of this superb study, Rose, a scholar of government, examines the “Institutions of Discord”—the structures of government in Northern Ireland that were used to deprive the minority community of their human rights. Chief among these was the Special Powers Act. The entire book is one of the best studies of the divided community in Ulster based on survey research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walsh, Dermot. The Use and Abuse of Emergency Legislation in Northern Ireland. London: Cobden Trust, 1983. This detailed treatment of the emergency legislation pertaining to Northern Ireland includes the Prevention of Terrorism Acts promulgated in both London and Belfast as well as the older Special Powers Act and the Emergency Provisions Act of 1973. The book takes the position that no legislation in the criminal justice area is going to solve the political conflict in Northern Ireland and that certain practices may well exacerbate the conflict.

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Categories: History