The Emergency Powers Act 1939 (EPA) was an Act of the Oireachtas (Irish parliament) enacted on 03 September 1939, after an official state of emergency had been declared on 02 September 1939 in response to the outbreak of the Second World War. The Act empowered the government to:
make provisions for securing the public safety and the preservation of the state in time of war and, in particular, to make provision for the maintenance of public order and for the provision and control of supplies and services essential to the life of the community, and to provide for divers and other matters (including the charging of fees on certain licences and other documents) connected with the matters aforesaid.
The EPA lapsed on 02 September 1946. The state of emergency itself was not rescinded until 01 September 1976.
Refer to Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939 (UK).
As enacted in 1937, The Constitution of Ireland stated (Article 28.3.3°):
Nothing in this Constitution shall be invoked to invalidate any law enacted by the Oireachtas which is expressed to be for the purpose of securing the public safety and the preservation of the State in time of war or armed rebellion, or to nullify any act done or purporting to be done in time of war or armed rebellion in pursuance of any such law.
The Constitution also provided that, during a “war or armed rebellion”, military tribunals may try civilians, and the Defence Forces are not bound by habeas corpus.
The Anglo-Irish Trade Agreement of 25 April 1938 was motivated in part by a desire by both countries to remove the distractions of the Anglo-Irish Trade War to preparations for an expected European war. After the agreement the British government shared details of the emergency laws it was preparing. The Sudetenland crisis prompted the adapting of the British “war book” for Ireland’s purposes; draft legislation was already finished by 18 September 1938.
The First Amendment of the Constitution of 1939 allows an emergency to be declared during wars in which the state is a non-belligerent, subject to resolutions by the houses of the Oireachtas. This was rushed through the Oireachtas on 02 September 1939, the day after the German invasion of Poland, because the state would remain neutral in the ensuing war. Immediately after the constitutional amendment was passed, the required emergency resolution was passed, in turn enabling the passage of the EPA in the early hours of 03 September. WWII itself was never referred to officially in Ireland as “The Emergency” as is often claimed but this is a myth that grew out of the emergency powers act.
The Act gave the government the ability to maintain Irish neutrality during “the Emergency” by providing it with sweeping new powers for the duration of the emergency situation; these included internment, censorship of the media, postal censorship, and additional government control of the economy. The powers given to the government by the EPA were exercised by statutory orders termed Emergency Powers Orders (EPOs) made by ministers. During the Dáil debate on the Emergency Powers Bill, Fine Gael TD John A. Costello was highly critical of the proposed increase of powers, stating that
… we are asked not merely to give a blank cheque, but, to give an uncrossed cheque to the Government.
According to Tony Gray, the EPOs “were so draconian that they effectively abolished democracy for the period, and most aspects of the life of the country were controlled by the dictatorial powers the government acquired”. The Garda Síochána received extended powers of search and arrest. Compulsory cultivation of land and compulsory queuing for buses were a few topics for which EPOs were made. One aspect of the EPOs was that, once they were laid before the Oireachtas, TDs could only annul or accept an EPO; they could not scrutinise or amend them as they could with legislation. John A. Costello condemned the fact that EPOs could be judicially noticed in court without being introduced as evidence.
Media censorship of radio broadcasts was effected by having news bulletins read to the head of the Government Information Bureau for approval before being broadcast by Radio Éireann. Weather forecasts were forbidden; this inconvenienced farmers and fishermen.
In 1946, Frank Aiken told the Dáil that a total of 7,864 orders had been made. Of these, 522 were made directly under the EPA, and the rest were subsidiary orders made under one of the primary orders, including about 5,330 under the Wages Standstill Orders. The total excluded orders made by local authorities for compulsory purchase of land for turf production and allotments, which Aiken said would take too much effort to enumerate.
Amendment and Expiry
The EPA originally specified a duration of one year. Amending acts, passed annually, continued the principal act until 02 September 1946, when it was allowed to lapse. There were also substantive amendments to the act’s provisions; those of 1940 and 1942 increased the emergency powers, while that passed in 1945, as the war was ending, reduced them. The first 1940 amendment extended the power of internment from foreign nationals to Irish citizens, and the second 1940 amendment allowed juryless court martial of civilians. These were in response to increased activity by the Irish Republican Army (IRA); many IRA members were interned, and five were executed by firing squad after courts martial. Media censorship prevented much public backlash at this.
Under the 1941 Second Amendment of the Constitution, an emergency ends, not automatically when the war does, but only by Oireachtas resolutions. The EPA finally lapsed on 02 September 1946. However, the state of emergency itself was not rescinded until 01 September 1976.
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