The Prevention of Terrorism Act

Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1974, after IRA bombers killed twenty-one civilians in Birmingham. The PTA illegalised support for proscribed organisations, including the IRA and the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). The legislation also allowed for suspects to be arrested without a warrant and detained for up to 48 hours. With the Home Secretary’s permission, the detention period could be summarily extended for a further five days. Connolly Association activists lobbied their MPs nationwide not to renew the PTA in 1975, but to no avail. Emigrants returning to Britain after visiting Ireland were routinely detained at docks and airports.

The Irish community in Britain suffered especially heavy-handed policing and security monitoring under the PTA. Migrant activists were regularly arrested, held, and later released without charge. After the Irish Civil Rights Association held meetings in Leeds in 1974, for example, a fleet of 20 police squad cars raided the city’s Irish centre. When the legislation passed parliament in 1974, prominent Liverpool Irish activist Tommy Walsh wrote urgently to Roy Jenkins seeking clarity on how the PTA would be implemented: Walsh feared that mere involvement with an Irish community centre could be read as sufficient grounds for suspicion, and he had worked with the NCCL on the matter. Jenkins declined to meet Walsh in person, however.

Between 1988 and 1990, not one of the 738 assault allegations against those arrested under the PTA was substantiated by the authorities. By December 1992, some 7,192 persons had been detained under the PTA in relation to the Northern Ireland conflict – and 6,200 of those arrested were released without charge.

The PTA was a source of major controversy in Britain throughout the Northern Ireland conflict. Many regarded it as a draconian infringement upon civil liberties. Even the Federation of Irish Societies, which generally eschewed overt political pronouncements on government policy, passed a resolution at its national congress in 1980 condemning the PTA. FIS chairman Michael Hogan pleaded with Conservative Home Secretary William Whitelaw to repeal the legislation which caused ‘unnecessary hardship and distress’ to innocent Irish people in Britain.

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Irish emigrants joined forces with British leftists, like the Socialist Workers Party, and liberal organisations such as the National Council for Civil Liberties in opposition to the PTA. The case of the Birmingham Irish doctor Máire O’Shea represented a noted cause célèbre in the controversy over the PTA. A veteran activist of Irish diaspora and British left organisations, O’Shea was arrested in January 1985 under the PTA and charged with conspiring to cause explosions. The Irish in Britain Representation Group, which counted O’Shea among its members – she even served as IBRG president – led the mass campaign for O’Shea’s release, building support in the trade union movement. On the British left, the Irish Freedom Movement – a front organisation for the Revolutionary Communist Party – made opposition to the PTA a campaigning priority in the British working class, picketing and protesting at police stations and courts on more than 100 instances of PTA detentions in 1983 alone. In Liverpool, for example, the IFM petition against the PTA won the support of some 17 left-wing city councillors. The IFM presented the petition, with 500 signatures, to Liverpool City Council chair Hugh Dalton.