Irish History – Col. Bob Bateman
The Emergency Powers Act of 1939
The Emergency Powers Act (EPA) was an Act of the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) enacted on 3 September 1939, after an official state of emergency had been declared on 2 September 1939, in response to the outbreak of the Second World War.
As enacted in 1937, the Constitution of Ireland stated, in Article 28.3.3,: The Constitution also provided that, during a “war or armed rebellion”, military tribunals may try civilians, and the Defense Forces are not bound by habeas corpus.
After the agreement the English government shared details the emergency laws it was preparing.
The Sudetenland crisis prompted the adapting of the English “War Book” for Ireland’s purposes.
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 Oireachtas on 2 September 1939, the day after the German invasion of Poland. The war period in Ireland was referred to as “The Emergency”.
The Act gave to the government the ability to maintain Irish neutrality during “the Emergency” by providing it with sweeping powers for the duration of the emergency situation: these included internment censorship of the media, postal censorship and additional government control of the economy. During the Dail debate on the Emergency Powers Bill, Fine Gael TD John A. Costello was highly critical of the proposed powers, stating that “the Emergency Powers Orders (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”. 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 Eireann. Weather forecasts were forbidden; this inconvenienced farmers and fishermen.
The EPA originally specified a duration of one year. Amending acts, passed annually, continued the principal act until 2 September 1946, when it was allowed to lapse. However, the state of emergency itself was not rescinded until 1 September 1976.
Historian, Division 18, A.O. H.
Peekskill, New York
(Sources: web site: Emergency Powers Act, 1939: Book: Emergency Powers Order – 1939)