Analysis: the latest round of coronavirus measures are a reminder of how the state operated during the Second World War

By Bryce EvansLiverpool Hope University

In addition to earlier controls such as school closure, the government's latest round of measures to combat the spread of coronavirus include the closure of non-essential retail and the restriction of social gatherings, accompanied by the overriding message "stay at home". These extraordinary directions have been described as "unprecedented", but that's not so.

In the history of the independent Irish state, the strongest parallels lie in the Second World War period (1939-1945) and the measures exerted under the Emergency Powers Act of 1939. Although neutral during the conflict, the state was not immune to wartime privations and a Cabinet Emergency Committee consisting of Taoiseach Éamon de Valera and key ministers was formed at the outset of the crisis to streamline decision-making. Its brief was to ensure the survival of the state and its population. Measures from this committee would stray considerably from the liberal centre and several examples are comparable to the restrictions on daily life that we are now experiencing.

From RTÉ One's Six One News, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announces new Covid-19 emergency measures

Public health was a key concern. While coronavirus provides a new threat, the Emergency was marked by the return of older public health nightmares. Typhus, the quintessential disease of the Great Famine, made an unwelcome reappearance in the country. Fears of bubonic plague led a nervous health administration to order the mass examination of rats to determine if they were plague-carrying.

While the landmark Health Act of 1947 provides the current legal justification for the detention and isolation of infected individuals by force, it was based on restrictive measures passed under the Emergency Powers Act during the war years. These included Order Number 46, which ordered the detention and isolation of anyone considered a threat to public health, and the Public Health (Infectious Diseases) regulations of 1941, which made infectious diseases compulsorily notifiable. This latter act covered an extensive range of ailments and amendments made to the legislation in 1943 even made it compulsory to report cases of childhood diarrhoea.

A pre-echo of the current instruction for those suffering coronavirus symptoms to stay indoors is to be found in the defeated Public Health Bill of November 1945. A typically illiberal piece of Emergency legislation aimed at combating tuberculosis, it demanded that those suffering from an infectious ailment keep out of the public sphere (streets, hotels, shops). It also gave the state the right to inspect people against their will and to impose compulsory long-term hospitalisation. Future Minister for Health Noël Browne described it as a "draconian and jackboot" act.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Bryce Evans and Conor Mulvagh discuss past national emergencies in Ireland and how they compare to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The recent restrictions on social gatherings and outdoor activities have their precedents too. de Valera's Emergency cabinet possessed few qualms when it came to restricting movement, especially when it came to efforts to curb emigration. Emigration embargoes were exercised, especially in the west of Ireland, and emigration from towns of less than 5,000 was prohibited in 1944. Seán Lemass was a proponent of labour camps and many were forced to undergo what amounted to paid imprisonment on turf camps.

While the Trade Union Bill of 1941 brought in limitations on freedom of association, and private motoring all but ceased, those who decided to defy the government’s censorious pleas not to leave the state were submitted to added indignities. Several leading doctors established delousing centres in Dublin where male emigrants were stripped, shaved of all their body hair, and doused all over in blue disinfectant.  

Meanwhile, restrictions on private enterprise and consumption were also wide-ranging. As Leo Varadkar recently reiterated, private property is guaranteed by the constitution conditional on the public good and new controls aim to prevent evictions. But during the Emergency, evictions and requisitions in the name of the state (of private land, mostly) were relatively common.

From RTÉ Archives, a 1979 episode of Eye Witness recalls the May 1941 bombing of the North Strand in Dublin and the impact of the Emergency on Ireland

As now, panic buying broke out at the start of the crisis and rationing was introduced as a consequence. Although the state resorted to executing republican political dissidents, Lemass’s proposition that large-scale black marketeers face the same fate was opposed at cabinet. Profiteering in a national crisis was, however, met with hefty fines and prison sentences. While few businesses were ordered to close, many were dogged by rapidly changing maximum price orders policed by an over-zealous inspectorate. 

Today’s restrictions are similar in some respects but, quite obviously, operate in a very different context and in a markedly less authoritarian manner. A pronounced difference is the absence of a national supply shortage at the moment, a grim backdrop which informed nearly every measure outlined above. To ensure fair shares for all, a rationing system had eventually to be introduced, supplanting the unheeded calls for the public to voluntarily curtail their consumption.

Nonetheless, the Emergency provides a case study in how voluntary measures soon give way to compulsion as a crisis becomes prolonged. And compulsion, in the long view, can work. Although the manner in which some people were detained and isolated during the Emergency grossly infringed personal liberty, these measures successfully resulted in the number of deaths from infectious diseases in the state undergoing a steady decline from 1941 onwards.

From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Bryce Evans talks about Ireland during the Emergency

It is worth remembering that the Emergency provides the blueprint for the introduction of extraordinarily illiberal measures to guarantee the survival of the state over a prolonged period. Discussing emigration in 1948, de Valera conceded "we cannot corral the people and say 'you must not go out'." This, he said, was "an interference with public liberty" only justifiable "in terms of grave emergency". That grave emergency and that corralling of people came between 1939 and 1945. Remarkably, and albeit in the vastly different context of the current crisis, it has now returned. 

Dr Bryce Evans is Associate Professor in History at Liverpool Hope University


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ