Civil Liberty in Ireland

Under Martial Law and otherwise.

“Martial Law” because of bitter experiences, means very little to an Irishman and its proclamation in December last excited little interest even in the proclaimed districts.

Five-sixths of the whole population of Ireland had been under military rule for nearly five years.

Civil liberty had vanished; nor could the people imagine that anything worse could befall them under a “law” called martial than under a law which for a year past had permitted the British Forces to commit with impunity excesses unknown in civilised war; to burn cities, villages, factories, farms; to murder, flog and terrorise as they pleased.

Now for a moment, dismiss “martial law” from your minds — what is the law under which all Ireland lives? Nearly the whole of it is now contained in one Act, the Restoration of Order Act of August last, which put some final finishing touches to the Defence of the Realm Act. How does an Irish citizen stand under this Act?


Under Regulation No. 14B. a man may be arrested without warrant and transported at five minutes notice to a distant English prison and kept there, if need be, to the end of his life, without knowing why, and without charge or trial. No writ of Habeas Corpus can touch him.

Under this one regulation the whole population of Ireland can legally be deported from its shores. Nor is it a dead letter. It has been in constant use for several years and is now (January, 1921), being used on an enormous scale, as a means of removing local and central leaders of national opinion — Urban and Rural Councillors, Members of Parliament, Merchants, Labour Leaders, Solicitors — as well as a host of humbler people holding Republican views. Some 1,500 persons are now in prison under it, and the number grows every day.

These people are supposed to be treated as prisoners of war — but what of ordinary imprisonment when there is evidence for a conviction?


First, it must be understood that all the criminal law, both for political and ordinary crimes, is now under the control of Soldiers (Reg. 68). A man may be tried by court martial not only for an ambush or a seditious speech, but for trespass, stealing, or murder. Courts martial are a travesty of justice, even if they sit in public. In Ireland they can sit in secret and are not bound to publish their proceedings. On January 14th, it was announced that a Cork court martial had sentenced 60 men to five years penal servitude. On what charge and on what evidence? Nobody knows!

Evidence may be extorted by duress (Reg. 75). A witness, even a child, may be forced to attend and forced to answer questions under pain of six months in gaol. A mother may be compelled thus to incriminate her son on a capital charge.

The “law” strips citizens of all protection against the Crown forces. Hence arson and looting continue unchecked. Coroner’s inquests are abolished (Reg. 81) and the secret military inquiries which replace them serve to shield assassination and reckless murder by the Crown forces. From September to December, 1920, following the stoppage of inquests, 170 murders of civilians occurred, excluding all Sinn Feiners killed in combat.


The “Law” also strips citizens of protection against ordinary criminals. The only courts and police capable of dealing with these are those set up by the Irish themselves. But the Republican judges and police, if not shot at sight, are sentenced to long terms in gaol, while the criminals are released and sometimes used as spies.

With regard to political offences, two Regulations (Nos. 27 and 79) cover most of the ground with sweeping simplicity. They make penal “any act likely to cause disaffection” and any act “calculated to promote the objects of an illegal association.” “Act” includes the publication or mere possession of any statement or document, and a man is presumed to possess a document, unless he can prove the contrary, if it is found in any premises where he has resided at any time in the past.

For any offence, however trivial, under these or any other regulations, a court martial may impose any sentence up to penal servitude for life (Reg. 57).

If it be remembered that Ireland is 80 per cent. “disaffected,” recognising Dail Eireann as its natural Parliament and Sinn Fein and the Gaelic League as its political and cultural organisations — all three “illegal” — it will be seen how difficult it is for any active Republican to keep out of prison, and if his activity cannot be proved he is caught under 14B.


These two regulations by themselves abolish a free press, free speech, free meeting and even free private correspondence. For it is a crime to describe brutal acts by Crown forces even in a private letter to a friend, as in the conviction of Father Dominic on January 8th, 1921.

Savage sentences are meted out daily under these regulations. As much as two years with hard labour is given for documents connected with Dail Eireann. Singing a national song has evoked the same sentence. Hundreds of people are in prison on these and similar grounds. None of this is “martial law.” It is called “law.” In reality it is War.


The differences in Martial Law areas are mainly three:—

(1) The death penalty for possessing arms.

This has had no effect in causing the surrender of arms.

(2) The death penalty for “harbouring” rebels.

There is no precedent for this in civilised history in modern times, and it has had no effect.

(5) Selected houses of Republicans may be burnt by military order near the scene of an ambush.

Since houses, farms and fodder had been burnt indiscriminately all over Ireland without any such order for six months past, and even in areas remote from any outrage, and have continued so to be burnt, the step cannot be considered drastic or exceptional.

To sum up, the civil rights and immunities of an Irishman do not exist.
Under the “law” he is an outlaw. Actually he is the victim of a barbarous war.

Printed by the Co-operative Printing Society Ltd., Tudor Street, E.C.4; and Published by The Labour Party, 33, Eccleston Square, London, S.W.1— 13691.

Source: University of Warwick Library – Digital Collections

Dantonien Journal