Today in Irish History 27 September 1922, the Passing of the Public Safety Act

The Free State cabinet at Michael Collins funeral in August 1922.
The Free State cabinet at Michael Collins funeral in August 1922.

The passing of legislation allowing for executions during the Irish Civil War. By John Dorney


On September 27 1922, the Dáil passed, by 41 votes to 18, emergency legislation which allowed for the execution of those captured bearing arms against the State. The legislation passed to the National Army powers of punishment for anyone ‘taking part in or aiding and abetting attacks on the National Forces’, having possession of arms or explosives ‘without the proper authority’ or disobeying an Army General Order.

Military Courts had the right to impose the sentence of death, imprisonment or penal servitude on those found to be guilty of such offences, the sentence only requiring the signatures of two officers.[1] By time the bill was a year old, 81 men were executed under its terms and over 12,000 men and women imprisoned.

The legisation set up Military Courts with the power to impose the death penalty, imprisonment or penal servitude.

Why would the Irish Parliament, so newly established with power under the Anglo-Irish Treaty, pass such punitive legislation? The reason was the dragging on of the Civil War caused by that Treaty. A pro-Treaty offensive against the anti-Treaty IRA in the summer of 1922 appeared to have won the war for the government but the anti-Treatyites or republicans subsequently fell back on guerrilla tactics which the newly formed Free State or National Army had great difficulty in suppressing. Ernest Blythe the Minister for Finance in the Provisional Government later recalled, ‘there was for some time a feeling that the Civil War would speedily end as major resistance was broken, but actually it began to assume a chronic character’.[2]

In the week preceding the Dáil’s motion; on 21 September, six National Army soldiers were killed in a prolonged engagement with Republican fighters near Ballina in Mayo. On the same day, the Free State barracks in Drumshambo, Leitrim was attacked and taken and one soldier killed. On 22 September a National Army soldier was killed and several soldiers and three civilians injured in a gun and grenade attack by Republicans on Free State troops on Eden Quay, central Dublin. And on the day of the Bill itself coming before the Dail, in Kerry several hundred anti-Treaty IRA guerrillas attacked the town of Killorglin and were only repulsed after 24 hours of fighting, when Free State troops arrived from Tralee.[3]


 The Public Safety Bill?


At the time and since, the legislation passed in 1922 was known as the Public Safety Bill. However, no such Bill or Act can be found in the records of the Irish state. The Provisional Government (in place between January and December 1922 to make sure the Treaty was implemented) had no legal right under the Treaty to enact new legislation without royal assent, the King being represented in the person of the Governor General. And in theory the Provisional Government’s powers did not apply after the Treaty formally passed into law on December 6 1922.


The Provisional Government before December 6 1922 technically had no right to pass laws so the ‘Public Safety Bill’ was in fact merely a resolution of the Dail. It was retrospectively legalised in August 1923.

So technically speaking the Public Safety Bill was not a law but simply a resolution passed in the Dáil. However, since there was, as yet no Governor General who could give his assent and as the government felt the situation was too grave for legal niceties, the legislation setting up military courts was passed anyway. It was not until August 1923, when the Free State would pass an Act of Indemnity for all actions committed during the Civil War and also pass new, formal special powers legislation – The Emergency Powers Act – that it would retrospectively legalise what it had enacted in the autumn of 1922. [4].


After an amnesty of two weeks, in which anti-Treaty fighters could surrender without consequences, the legislation came into force in mid October.


If murderous attacks take place, those who persist in those murderous attacks must learn that they have got to pay the penalty for them: WT Cosgrave

Debate in the Dail


WT Cosgrave, the President of the Dáil (in effect prime Minister) told the parliament;

 If murderous attacks take place, those who persist in those murderous attacks must learn that they have got to pay the penalty for them. Just now those people think, and as far as our action is concerned, up to this, it has looked as if they had perfect liberty to attack our soldiers, to maim them, to wound them, to kill them, and to suffer no greater penalty than internment. Those people not alone take part in those things, but go away silently smiling and laughing at the destruction they have wrought. They must be taught that this Government is not going to suffer their soldiers to be maimed and ruined, crippled and killed, without at least bringing those responsible for such destruction before a tribunal that will deal out justice to those people.

The motion was seconded by government minister Desmond Fitzgerald

 Now we are faced with bands of men undertaking a comparatively safe job. Their general lines are to maintain the Republic as long as possible and, when no longer possible, to see they are in a sound financial position. They fight as long as they can inflict damage upon the troops and the civilian population, and as long as they can injure the economic life of the nation; and up to the present it might be said that we have given them every possible encouragement by the fact that we have allowed them to inflict as much damage as they can; and then within a few hours of their surrender they threaten us to go on hunger strike and injure their health unless given every comfort that they think they ought to have. … We are going to make it plain to the people who think that the law is a thing which existed in the past but is no longer going to exist, inasmuch as the reign of law is necessary for this country’s existence, that the reign of law is going to be enforced, and we are not going to be turned aside by any mawkishness or any other consideration. [5]


The Labour Party Thomas Johnson opposed the Bill likening it to a military dictatorship;

 When we are dealing with so serious a matter as doing what is in effect that which has been demanded by the section of the Army that has ceased to be under the control of the Government, that is to say, giving that Army military power over every person in the country— the setting up, by the vote of the Dáil, of a military dictatorship—we should at least have some reasons given us and some thorough examination and disclosure of the military position throughout the country.

He referred also to the perilous state of indiscipline on the part of the National Army, which was already carrying out unofficial reprisals of its own. Four days previously an anti-Treaty fighter, Michael Neville, had been taken from his workplace in Dublin and found shot dead at Killester Cemetery by undercover pro-Treaty forces. Johnson went on;

A certain man was taken out of his place of employment, taken into the country, and shot. An ordinary murder, motive unknown, one might say. He lies in the Morgue; his friends come to visit him; they pray, and military forces come up in lorries and armoured cars and arrest these men and denounce them, and threaten them, and say: “If that man had not ever handled a gun, he would not have lain where he is.” That is what happened in the case of this man Neville.’

He continued;

 We are pretending to govern through this Dáil. We are supposed to have a Government which is responsible to this Dáil. The Government hands over that responsibility to an Army which is not fitted for this particular kind of work—entirely unfitted for this particular kind of work. The British Army, with a long tradition, a long understanding of Military Regulations, has said, through its exponents, many times, that it is the most experienced officers, the most capable of its troops that should be engaged in any question of Military Courts or trials, or jurisdiction over any civilian. That is trebly the case in the present circumstances here, and if we have not got that particular type through the peculiar circumstances of the time, surely it is possible to find some other way of securing the resumption or the taking over of law and power in the country in some other way than handing over all these extraordinary powers to an immature Army. [6]




Republicans at first did not believe that the government was serious about enforcing what its foes termed, ‘the Murder Bill’. It was in practice nearly two months before it was used in earnest.

On 17 November four IRA men who had been captured in Dublin were shot by firing squad. By the end of the week, Erskine Childers, who had served as secretary to the delegation which signed the Treaty but later organized Republican propaganda against it, was also dead. He had been captured at his home in Wicklow on 11 November in possession of a small pistol Michael Collins had given him before he departed for London and the Treaty negotiations. He was sentenced and shot on 24 November. On 30 November another three Republican prisoners were executed in Dublin.

Liam Lynch IRA Chief of Staff issued a general order that TDs who had voted for the Bill be shot on sight. On December 7, in retaliation for the executions, IRA members assassinated the TD Sean Hales in Dublin. In reprisal for that four senior republicans – Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows Dick Barret and Joe McKelvey – who had been captured long before the Public Safety legislation was passed were summarily shot.

The legislation passed on September 27, 1922 may well have helped, as its supporters claimed, to break anti-Treaty resistance and to bring the Civil War to an end. However it also helped to convert the conflict into a feud as bitter and as personal as a vendetta.




[1] Irish Times September 29 1922

[2] Ernest Blythe WS Bureau of Military History (BMH)

[3] Irish Times Setmber 22-29, Anglo Celt September 21, 1922, Tom Doyle the Civil War in Kerry, p 204

[4] Breen Timothy Murphy, PHD Thesis, The government’s Execution Policy during the Irish Civil War, 1922-23, Maynooth, 2010

[6] Ibid.

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