Policing football crowds and the aftermath of Hillsborough: What the new Thatcher papers reveal, pt 2

In my previous post looking at the policing of acid house parties in the late Thatcher period, I noted that the Home Office complained:

No amount of statutory power will make it feasible for police forces to take on crowds of thousands on a regular basis. We cannot have another drain on police resources equivalent to policing football matches.[1]

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In the same tranche of documents released by the National Archives at the end of last year was a Prime Minister’s Office file dedicated to the policing of football hooligans and the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989. The file is primarily concerned with the Football Spectators Bill that was first debated in Hansard in January 1989. This Bill was wide-ranging and had been in development for three years, responding to the recommendations of the Popplewell Inquiry, which investigated the Bradford City fire and the riot at Birmingham’s St Andrews ground in May 1985. As well as proposing new criminal offences related to hooliganism, the extension of exclusion orders for convicted ‘hooligan’s from football grounds under the Public Order Act 1986 and electronic tagging for particular offenders, the Bill included a membership scheme, which meant that only registered members could attend matches and tickets for away fans to be highly restricted.

While this Bill was still in development, the Hillsborough disaster occurred and the Bill was temporarily shelved, although as the Hillsborough Independent Panel has shown, the Prime Minister and some of her colleagues wanted to press ahead with pushing the Bill through parliament, despite the need for an investigation into the disaster.[2]

Justice Taylor was assigned to investigate what happened that day, but only a month after the disaster, sections of the Thatcher government were commenting that ‘there was considerable disagreement over the cause of the disaster’.[3] For the government, the reason for the disaster was hooliganism and unruly crowd behaviour. The riots at St Andrews and Luton Town and the Heysel disaster in 1985, as well as clashes between Scottish and English fans in May 1989, had convinced the government that the number one problem at football grounds concerning public order was hooliganism. The Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley complained:

On May 13, less than a month after Hillsborough, there was a serious pitch invasion at Crystal Palace which resulted in 26 arrests. 16 people were injured, two of them with stab wounds. Serious incidents took place all over the country that weekend with more than 300 people being arrested, inside and outside grounds… The existing powers under the Public Order Act have clearly not stamped out the problem.[4]

Speaking at the Football Writers’ Association Dinner in May 1989, the Sports Minister Colin Moynihan spoke dismissively of ‘supporters having to be herded into grounds and protected every match day for their own safety by 5,000 or more police.’[5] The Minister lamented that the police could only ‘contain the problem’ and ‘could be far better deployed in the local communities and towns upholding law and order.’[6]

Another document reiterated this point, stating:

In spite of the efforts of the Government and the football authorities, over 5,000 police officers are still needed every Saturday to contain the problem, to protect the true supporters and those living near football grounds.[7]

The file shows that the government felt that it had to take action, and that the football authorities could not be relied upon to ensure public order at football grounds. At his after dinner speech to the Football Writers’ Association, Moynihan announced:

The Government is not going to allow hooligans to run the show if the football authorities cannot do it themselves.[8]

Although they believed that the final report of the Taylor Inquiry was ‘flawed’,[9] Home Secretary David Waddington wrote to Margaret Thatcher in January 1990 that they should take advantage of the report’s condemnation of the Football League. Waddington noted that the report:

places the responsibility for complacency about safety, for decline in the conditions of grounds, and for poor facilities for spectators firmly at the door of the football industry. It suggests in effect that if you treat people like animals, they will behave that way.[10]

Even though one could say that the Thatcher government held similar perceptions about football crowds in the 1980s, the government tried to portray itself as ‘cleaning up’ English football and taking responsibility after the ineffective management of the football authorities. Moynihan wrote to the editor of The Times, in response to an editorial in the newspaper, outlining the actions of the government to combat hooliganism, especially as the press highlighted fears about English fans at the World Cup being held in Italy during the summer. Defending the government’s record, Moynihan wrote:

This is a record of action not apathy but the Government cannot cure all of football’s problems for it. The essential message of Lord Justice Taylor’s Report is that football must at last face up to its own responsibilities.[11]

The final report of the Taylor Report warned against the implementation of the membership scheme set out in the Football Supporters Bill (and pushed for by the Association of Chief Police Officers), concluding:

I therefore have grave doubts whether the scheme will achieve its object of eliminating hooligans from inside the ground. I have even stronger doubts as to whether it will achieve its further object of ending football hooliganism outside grounds. Indeed, I do not think it will. I feat that, in the short term at least, it may actually increase trouble outside grounds.[12]

With the release of this report, the government decided to drop the push for implementation of the membership scheme, but the Football Supporters Bill was finally passed in November 1989. The Act, in practice, focused much more criminal sanctions against suspected, as well as convicted, ‘hooligans’, and ensuring that football grounds were considered ‘safe’ for top flight matches. For the Thatcher government in the wake of Hillsborough, the focus was on crowd control and dealing with unruly elements of football crowds. The actions of the police, at this point in time, were never questioned by the government.


An archival photograph of the Disaster from the records of the SYP.

[1] ‘Acid House Parties’, 12 October, 1989, p. 5, PREM 19/2724, National Archives (London).

[2] Hillsborough Independent Panel, Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (London: HMSO 2012) pp. 201-203.

[3] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Roger Bright, 9 May, 1989, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[4] Letter from Nicholas Ridley, 22 June, 1989, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[5] ‘Draft Speech for Football Writers’ Association Dinner’, 18 May, 1989, p. 5, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘Football Spectators Bill: Bull Points’, n.d., PREM 19/3027, NA.

[8] ‘Draft Speech for Football Writers’ Association Dinner’, p. 8.

[9] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Colin Walters, 23 January, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[10] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Margaret Thatcher, 22 January, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[11] Letter from Colin Moynihan to Charles Wilson, 1 March, 1990, PREM 19/3027, NA.

[12] Lord Justice Taylor, The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster – 15 April, 1989 (London: HMSO, 1990) pp. 168-169.

Policing Acid House Parties in 1989: What the new Thatcher Government papers reveal

The latest round of papers from the Prime Minister’s Office have been released, relating to the final years of Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1989-90. While files on several topics have been opened, this post will look at the file dedicated the policing of ‘acid house parties’ (also known as raves) in 1989.


As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the phenomenon of acid house swept across the UK in the mid-to-late 1980s and while a number of clubs, such as the Hacienda in Manchester and Shoom in London, attracted large crowds for their club nights, raves exploded into open areas that were typical venues – warehouses, fields and other places left vacant by Thatcherism. For a number of reasons, including the noise generated by these parties and the use of drugs, these raves started to draw the ire of the police and of the authorities. One briefing note stated that the ‘main problem with acid house parties is the nuisance caused by the noise’ and curiously, stressed ‘[d]rugs are not the main issue’.[1] In a letter to the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the new Home Secretary David Waddington wrote that there was also a concern that ‘criminal elements [were] becoming involved’.[2] This concern, ‘coupled with the need to reassure the public that the existing law can be made effective’, Waddington argued, required a new approach.[3] He also noted that 223 parties had been held in London and the South East in 1989, with 96 stopped by the police and another 95 prevented from going ahead.[4]

And so, after a localised and haphazard response by local councils and the police, in late 1989, the Thatcher government proposed a co-ordinated and nationwide effort to clamp down on these ‘illegal’ parties. The aforementioned briefing note outlined that there were four ways to combat these parties:

  1. Under the licensing law that governs public entertainment;
  2. Under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986;
  3. Under the common law powers available to the police to prevent public disturbances;
  4. Under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.[5]

The note stated that all indoor events were subject to licensing laws (particularly the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982), irrespective of venue, and that in some cases, outdoor events were also subject to licensing laws, depending on the local authorities. However the largest problem for regulating raves through this mechanism, operated by the local councils, was that ‘most organisers of acid house parties are flouting the law by not applying for a licence’.[6] A report produced by the Association of District Councils explained the authorities had tried to prosecute party organisers under the 1982 Act in the past, but there were many ‘practical difficulties’ with the legislation.[7] This report suggested that a ‘national code of standard conditions’ be drawn up, similar to the code of practice for music events that had previously been established by the Greater London Council.[8] Interestingly the same document also mentioned that it might be pertinent to take into account the recent report by Lord Justice Taylor into the Hillsborough Disaster.[9]

All involved in this discussion felt that one of the key reasons that the organisers did not seek to obtain licenses for their events was that the penalty was far too low – a £2000 fine and/or up to 3 months in prison. In his letter to Howe, Waddington wrote that the penalties were ‘so relatively light that the organisers of these very profitable acid house parties can afford to ignore the law’.[10] Waddington proposed fines be raised to £20,000 and a possibility of up to 6 months imprisonment, commenting that the Association of Chief Police Officers supported these stricter penalties.[11]

One of the problems facing the authorities was that because these raves could be held in any kind of space, trying to police them was difficult. As mentioned above, indoor events were subject to licensing laws, but outdoor events weren’t always covered. For the police, indoor gatherings were not specifically within their remit, but outside assemblies were, under the Public Order Act 1986. An extension of the Public Order Act to include indoor assemblies was considered ‘contentious’[12] and at this stage, looked like legislative overkill (although similar legislation was eventually passed in 1994 to combat outdoor raves with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act).

In a letter from Home Office official Peter Storr to Margaret Thatcher’s Personal Secretary Andrew Turnbull, he noted that the police were ‘generally relying on their common law powers to prevent a breach of peace’ and that in the past, the police had ‘been able to persuade organisers to pack up voluntarily’.[13] Furthermore, they had ‘on occasion seized sound equipment on the grounds of preventing a breach of the peace’.[14] The aforementioned briefing note acknowledged:

Strictly speaking the police have no power to intervene to stop a party purely on grounds of noise. But if they receive complaints about the noise, they can intervene using common law powers.[15]

However it was argued that the police were often reluctant to intervene in this way, due to the following two reasons:

  1. mainly to the sheer numbers involved in some of the parties – the risk would be too great;
  2. slight nervousness about relying on common law powers alone – this leaves them open to challenge.[16]

It was believed that what was required were greater police powers ‘to act in flagrant cases’ immediately and at the time of night when these parties were occurring. Turnbull wrote to Carolyn Sinclair in the Home Office saying, ‘It will not be sufficient to give local authorities extra powers if they are not around at 3am to enforce [licensing laws]’.[17] The Association of District Councils also called for the police to be given greater powers ‘to seize and remove and apparatus or equipment’ being used by party organisers.[18]

While the primary problem with acid house parties was identified as the public nuisance caused by the excessive noise generated by these parties, the legislation dealing with noise pollution, the Control of Pollution Act 1974 was deemed ‘inadequate to deal with these parties’.[19] It was noted that noise nuisance was a civil offence and the legislation was aimed at factories and other industrial sites, rather than outdoor events. Thus ‘remedy through the courts [was] slow’.[20] The Department of Environment pushed to make noise nuisance a criminal offence,[21] but Turnbull advised the Home Office that Thatcher was ‘doubtful whether greater use of the Control of Pollution Act would be effective as the need was for action at short notice outside working hours.’[22]

Alongside greater penalties under the licensing laws and more explicit powers to allow the police to break ‘illegal’ raves, one of the key proposals made by the Home Office and other agencies was to establish powers to seize profits from party organisers. Powers to seize the proceeds of crime already existed under schedule 4 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (with a minimum of £10,000 to be confiscated after conviction), and Waddington suggested to Howe that this legislation could be easily amended to incorporate the organisation of these parties into the legislation.[23] On this point, the Home Office’s briefing note stated:

What is needed is a way of hitting at the profit made by the organisers. This should discourage the craze.[24]

It was hoped that these increased penalties and powers of confiscation, as well as more pre-emptive action between the police and local councils, would prevent acid house parties from occurring. The Home Office noted:

No amount of statutory power will make it feasible for police forces to take on crowds of thousands on a regular basis. We cannot have another drain on police resources equivalent to policing football matches.[25]

Incidentally, this was the argument made by Tony Wilson in the final days of the Hacienda – that the police were willing to police Manchester United and Manchester City games, but unwilling to do the same at the famous nightclub to ensure people’s safety.

The following year the Thatcher government passed the Entertainments (Increased Penalties) Act, which increased the penalties for organising an ‘illegal’ party to £20,000 and/or 6 months in prison. As the debate in Hansard shows, these measures were supported by both major parties in the House of Commons. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 was also amended to allow the seizure of profits made by party organisers.

However this did not end the phenomenon of the illegal rave and the Major government introduced the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal specifically with raves, which included the seizure of equipment used to put on events deemed illegal. This Act was opposed by many and led to a grassroots resistance by partygoers and activists. But this was a far way off in 1989. We will have to wait a few more years for the internal government records relating to this.

[1] ‘Acid House Parties’, 12 October, 1989, p. 1, PREM 19/2724, National Archives (London).

[2] Letter from David Waddington to Geoffrey Howe, 2 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 1.

[6] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[7] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, 9 November, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 2.

[13] Letter from Peter Storr to Andrew Turnbull, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[14] Ibid.

[15] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 3.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Note from Andrew Turnbull to Carolyn Sinclair, 4 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[18] Association of District Councils, ‘Response to a Request for Information Concerning Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

[19] Ibid., p. 1.

[20] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Letter from Andrew Turnbull to Peter Storr, 16 October, 1989, PREM 19/2724, NA.

[23] Letter from Waddington to Howe.

[24] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 4.

[25] ‘Acid House Parties’, p. 5.

Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated


To Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins, just over thirty years ago is too far into the past for an inquiry into the events at Orgreave in June 1984, when the police reacted violently to striking workers in South Yorkshire and led to the arrest of 95 miners, as well as a number of people injured. Jenkins argues that “we know” what happened at Orgreave on that day, and that it should be left in the past – even though no one in a position of authority has been held accountable for excessive force used by the police against the striking miners. Anyway ‘[t]here were no deaths at Orgreave’, he says, so an inquiry, like those held into Bloody Sunday or Hillsborough, is unnecessary. But this assumes that the only reason to have an inquiry into police actions is when there is a death involved – isn’t the likelihood of excessive force being used by the police en masse enough of an issue to warrant further investigation?

Jenkins is right in that government inquiries often don’t led to any significant reform or ‘lessons learned’. Even the stand out inquiries of Lord Scarman into the Brixton Riots of 1981 and the 1999 Macpherson Inquiry into the Investigation into the Death of Stephen Lawrence have been criticised for their limited impact upon the policing of ethnic minority communities in the UK (especially in the wake of the 2011 riots). But most inquiries held are short term affairs, announced by the government of the day to placate public opinion and often to appear to be ‘doing something’. A swathe of criminological and public policy scholarship has proposed that public inquiries are foremost exercises in the management of public opinion, rather than missions to find the ‘truth’ behind an incident or to determine accountability. Between the Scarman Inquiry into the Events at Red Lion Square in 1974 and the Macpherson Inquiry in 1998-99, there have been numerous inquiries into the actions of the police (and other government agencies) that have resulted in disorder, injuries and even death. Besides the Scarman Report in 1981 and the Macpherson Report almost 20 years later, most inquiries have left little mark on police practice. There are a number of incidents involving the death of people involved in interactions with the police, such as that of Blair Peach in 1979 and Ian Tomlinson in 2009, where there has been a coronial inquest, but no wider inquiry, even though people have demanded it.


But an inquiry into Orgreave is likely to be much more far-reaching than those held immediately after the fact, similar to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday or the Hillsborough Independent Panel. These inquiries were held after the initial inquiries, the Widgery Report into Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Taylor Report into Hillsborough in 1989-90, were seen to be deficient by subsequent governments. Both of these inquiries were held over years, rather than weeks or months, and had legislation specifically introduced to open many documents that had previously been classified. In the end, these inquiries identified those who should be (or should have been) held accountable for these tragic events and delivered some form of justice to the relatives of the victims. Jenkins suggests that these were merely costly exercises in legal navel-gazing and that the cost of both inquiries could have been better spent on been given to the relatives of the victims and/or to their communities. However what had driven those pushing for the events at both Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough to be re-examined was not compensation, but for those responsible to identified and where possible, held accountable in some way.

This is the purpose of a proposed inquiry into the events at Orgreave on 18 June 1984. Opposite to Jenkins’ argument, we don’t know the full story of what happened on that day. We have footage, we have witness testimony and the paperwork of those who were dragged through the courts, but we don’t have the police side of the story (or at least the full story). Despite thirty years since the event passing, no documents relating to Orgreave have been made open by the National Archives at Kew and the police have refused several previous FOI requests. Like the documents examined by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, all police and government papers relating to the events at Orgreave should be released to an inquiry and at the completion of said inquiry, these documents (with the necessary redactions) should be digitised and made available for public viewing.

Jenkins says there should be a statute of limitations on inquiries into the past, writing ‘History is for historians’. He seems to be proposing that there is a clear line between contemporary politics and ‘the past’, but it is not so clear-cut. Thirty years ago is not that long ago and there are still people who were involved in police actions on that day in 1984 who could be held accountable in some manner. There are still people affected the actions of the police who are looking for some kind of ‘justice’ and official acknowledgment of what occurred, particularly how much was planned and how far the authorities went in the aftermath to absolve themselves of any blame.

Jenkins equates a possible inquiry with Tony Blair’s apologies for the slave trade and the Irish Famine, but this is false. The ‘Battle of Orgreave’ happened within the lifetimes for many of us, not 150-200 years ago. Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated. Let’s hope that enough pressure is put upon Amber Rudd (or her successor) to reverse the decision for an inquiry not to be held.


Photos by John Sturrock, originally from Socialist Worker.


Age disputes and the non-medical use of x-rays in the UK border control system

Tory backbencher David Davies has recently called for dental x-rays to verify the ages of refugees coming from Calais. Although these calls were dismissed by the Home Office and the British Dental Association, this is an issue that has lingered since the 1970s. Below is a post based on an article that Marinella Marmo and I wrote back in 2013, with a lot more historical data included. This case study also features in our book Race, Gender and the Body in British Immigration Control (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).


The motive of suspicion

In the UK border control system, there is a high level of suspicion inherent, with border control practices often starting from the assumption that migrants, visitors and those seeking asylum are attempting to evade or deceive the system. The default thinking of the border control system seems to assume that certain migrant groups are not who they say they are when interacting with the system. As Marmo and Smith (2010a; 2010b) have argued, there has been a long-standing belief in the UK border control system that migrants and asylum seekers, particularly from Asia and Africa, are potentially ‘bogus’ migrants, with constant mention by the authorities about the unreliability of the testimony of migrants and asylum seekers from these parts of the world, as well as a suspicion that documentary evidence provided by these migrants is likely to be fake. The authorities claim to weigh up decisions ‘on balance of probabilities’, but it is often the case that the border control staff begin from a point of total disbelief and shift the burden of proof onto the person applying to enter the country. With this burden of proof placed upon the individual, it is often difficult to persuade the authorities that their reasons to enter the country, as a visitor, a working migrant, a migrating family member or even as a refugee, is genuine, which is made more difficult by the presumption that testimony and documentary evidence provided by certain migrant groups is likely to be falsified. Under the intense scrutiny of the border control authorities, if testimony and documents are not considered to be convincing enough, the focus of the authorities may shift to physical examination, with the body becoming the marker of ‘truth’. As Didier Fassin and Estelle d’Hallunin (2005: 598) wrote about refugees in the French border control system, ‘their word is systematically doubted [and] it is their bodies that are questioned’.

This post examines one particular way in which the body is questioned by the border control system – the use of x-rays for age assessment. The use of x-rays for this purpose is a non-medical use of the technology and is used solely for the administration of the border control system in an attempt to determine whether a person intercepted by the system is telling ‘the truth’ or not. This post will look at how x-rays were used in the UK border control system in the past and the continued debate about whether to reintroduce the practice for border control purposes, particular the decision by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) to trial the use of dental x-rays for age assessment in 2012. Within the UK border control system, the authorities have relied on the use of x-rays in an attempt to extract ‘the truth’ from people whose testimony and documentary evidence is not believed, despite the ethical concerns raised in using medical technology for non-medical purposes and criticisms that x-rays are not satisfactory tools for assessing age.

The use of x-rays in the 1970s

In the UK context, x-rays were used in controlling immigration from South Asia during the 1960s and 1970s. By this time, the largest number of migrants entering the UK was from the Indian subcontinent in the form of family reconciliation. Many young men came to the UK from South Asia in the 1950s and early 1960s before the introduction of immigration controls and with a decline in labour migration from this region in the early 1970s, the majority of migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were the families of the young men who had arrived in the UK in the decades before. Several pieces of legislation had been introduced between 1962 and 1971 to limit mass migration from the British Commonwealth, but the Immigration Act 1971 still allowed the wives and children (under the age of 18) to join their family members already residing in the UK. With the significant number of migrants applying to enter UK under the guise of family reconciliation, particularly as children aged under 18, the UK authorities thought that this was a loophole that could be exploited, often as documentation regarding children was less substantial than an adult (for example, children often did not have their own passports and were simply listed on an adult’s passport). The UK border control staff were especially concerned about teenage male migrants, who, if they were over the age of 18, would not be allowed to enter the UK and who were the least ‘desirable’ (due to their labour capacity) in 1970s Britain. To determine whether teenagers were falsely claiming to be under 18 for migration purposes, the UK border control system, particularly at the British High Commissions in South Asia where applications for entry clearance certificates were first assessed, used x-rays of the wrists of individuals to estimate the skeletal age of the applicant.

Although the practice had occurred for most of the 1970s, it was not until The Guardian published details of gynaecological examinations being conducted on migrating South Asian women in early 1979 that the practice became widely known. At the height of the ‘virginity testing’ controversy in February 1979 (see Smith and Marmo 2011), details also emerged that x-rays were being taken of women and children to ascertain the age of suspected ‘bogus’ migrants, as well as for supposed communicable diseases. It was claimed in The Guardian that these x-rays were being conducted by unqualified immigration officers at Heathrow, as well as at High Commissions abroad, which ‘expose[d] both the passengers and clerks to considerable radiation hazards’ (The Guardian, 9 Feb, 1979: 1). The Guardian (8 Feb, 1979: 1) also reported that at the British High Commission in Dacca, a pregnant woman had her skull x-rayed, ‘despite the fact that Department of Health regulations would prevent such a test on pregnant British women’. A possible indication that the British Government held strict immigration control as a primary concern, rather than providing humanitarian approach to potential migrants, was in the response to these allegations by Eric Deakins, a junior Department of Health Minister, who said that ‘immigration screening cannot be measured against [domestic] NHS standards’ (The Guardian, 9 Feb, 1979: 1). Like the virginity ‘tests’, the veracity and usefulness of these examinations was questioned, with Labour MP Jo Richardson stating, ‘medical opinion… is beginning to query the practice. It is beginning to say that it is an unreliable method of determining age’ (House of Commons, Hansard, 19 Feb, 1979: 216). In response to the questions surrounding the use of x-rays in immigration control, the Labour Government acquiesced somewhat in the face of mounting criticism and Rees announced the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Henry Yellowlees would ‘carry out a review of the objects and nature of all medical examinations in the immigration control context’ (Cited in, Juss 1997: 109).

However there were many who felt that an internal investigation to be conducted by Yellowlees seemed to be an attempt to stem further discussion of the subject and to deflect further criticism of the Government in the lead up to the 1979 General Election. Various critics, from Jo Richardson in Parliament and from the editorial pages of The Guardian in particular, condemned the lack of transparency in the Government’s immigration control procedures. Ms Richardson declared in Parliament, that it was ‘high time that the secret instructions given by the Home Secretary to immigration officers under the immigration legislation were made public’ (House of Commons, Hansard, 19 Feb, 1979: 217). The treatment of legitimate migrants and the scrutiny placed upon one’s application to enter Britain was heavily determined by the discretion of individual Entry Clearance Officers, but the manner in which these discretionary powers manifested were open to any kind of evaluation by anyone outside the border control system. An editorial in The Guardian (10 Feb, 1979: 8) criticised the extent of the discretionary powers of ECOs and the lack of transparency in the application of such powers:

The central issue thrown up by the variety of medical tests remains that of discretion and its monitoring… When the virginity tests first came to light, we said that investigation of a particular case was not enough and that a full debate on immigration procedures was needed… But it cannot begin until the full codes of guidance for immigration officers and their medical colleagues as well, are published and the scope of their practices is clearly and publicly disclosed.

This frustration with the internal inquiry being conducted by Henry Yellowlees led to the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) to propose an independent investigation into discrimination within immigration control, which lasted from 1981 to 1985. The inquiry performed by Yellowlees and his assistant, Dr N.J.B. Evans, on the other hand, was undertaken during 1979-1980, with the final report released to Parliament in April 1980.

Evans travelled to South Asia in 1980 to investigate the broad topic of medical examination within the immigration control system and with his fieldwork, much of the final report was written by him. A draft version of the Yellowlees report (1980a: appendix 1, 2) stated, according to ‘orthodox radiological opinion in the UK and overseas’, it was ‘acceptable to use such bone X-rays to assist in estimating the age of children’, while the final report concluded that x-rays were ‘a potentially more accurate method of estimating the age of children’ than other examinations of the body, such as ‘skin texture, wrinkling or firmness of tissues, and of noting indications of puberty’ (Yellowlees, 1980b: appendix 1, 1-2). Based on North American studies, the report claimed that ‘[t]he accuracy attainable is in the order of plus or minus six months and the radiation exposure negligible’ and while noting that tables of skeleton maturity were based on North American children and there is ‘very little firm data’ on how these tables compared with the skeletons of children from South Asia, the report argued that it was assumed that skeletons matured earlier in South Asian children and were thus still useful (Yellowlees, 1980b: appendix 1, 2). The major finding of the report regarding the use of x-rays for age assessment purposes was:

  1. I conclude that the use of X-rays of the bony skeleton provides a useful, fairly accurate and acceptable safe way of estimating age of children when it is important to do so. (Children in this context means up to about 21 years…) Only one or two X-ray pictures need be taken, of the upper limb or the lower limb excluding the hips. Provided proper shielding is used in accordance with normal radiological practice, the radiation dose to the parts X-rayed is minimal and the scattered gonadal dose is insignificant. These views accord with informed radiological opinion in the UK and overseas (Yellowlees, 1980b: appendix 1, 3).

The report also concluded that ‘United Kingdom radiological opinion holds that X-rays are not particularly useful for estimating the age of adults’, but acknowledged that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had instructed Entry Clearance Officers in October 1979 that x-rays should not be administered on anyone thought to be over 21 years of age (Yellowlees, 1980b: appendix 1, 3-4).

Despite the Yellowlees Report recommending that the border control system continue to use x-rays to assess the age of migrants thought to be under 21 years of age, several other people and organisations criticised this viewpoint. At the AGM of the British Medical Association in 1979, a resolution was passed that stated that ‘radiological examinations, carried out solely for administrative and political purposes, are unethical’ and proposed that the BMA ‘make the strongest possible representation to the Government to ban these practices’ (cited in, Gordon, 1983: 15). A report prepared by Edward White for Lord Avebury, a Liberal member of the House of Lords, cited the past chair of the National Council of Radiation Protection as warning against unnecessary x-rays and claiming that ‘there is no safe level of exposure’ (cited in, Gordon, 1983: 15). White also questioned accuracy of age assessment through the use of x-rays, particularly in relation to the use of generalised data on age/bone ratio based on North American children to assess South Asian children, and concluded:

After a thorough and objective examination of the practice, one must conclude that radiological examinations are a highly inaccurate method of determining chronological age (cited in, Gordon, 1983: 16).

As mentioned before, the Yellowlees Report sidestepped the issue of data on the skeletal maturity of South Asian children and recommended that further research in this area was required. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (1981: 13) stated that the report’s findings on x-rays ‘managed to contradict itself and most accepted medical opinion regarding the reliability of such assessment’. However in FCO briefing notes for answering press questions on the report, it stated that the Home Secretary was ‘not aware that the balance of informed medical opinion is against such tests’ (FCO 1980a: 2) and the government persisted with the claim that x-rays for age assessment purposes was both useful and relatively safe (for example, FCO 1980b).

So the x-raying of children continued throughout 1980 and 1981. In January 1981, the Foreign Minister Lord Carrington stated in the House of Lords that in the last nine months of 1980, around 360 children under 21 had been x-rayed in Dacca and around another 300 in Islamabad (House of Lords, Hansard, 19 Jan, 1981: 336w). The following January, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the FCO, David Trefgarne, announced in the House of Lords that during 1981, approximately 420 children had been x-rayed Islamabad and 262 children in Dacca (House of Lords, Hansard, 28 Jan, 1982: 1114w).

However the following month, the Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw announced that the FCO would no longer be carrying out x-rays on children for these purposes. Whitelaw stated in parliament that Yellowlees had revised his opinion since the report was released in 1980 and advised the Home Secretary that x-rays were now ‘unlikely to provide more accurate evidence of age than the assessment of other physical characteristics of an individual, and therefore can add little to the general clinical examination’ (House of Commons, Hansard, 22 Feb, 1982: 279-280w). The Runnymede Trust archive at the Black Cultural Archives in London has a copy of the letter that Yellowlees wrote to Whitelaw, which concluded that ‘the usefulness of the X-ray method of estimating age must be limited in the immigration context’ (Yellowlees, 1982: 2). Yellowlees maintained that the x-rays were relatively safe, but chiefly found that using the template of the skeletal maturity of North American or European children to assess the age of South Asian children was insufficient to make an accurate assessment of age. Yellowlees (1982: 2) stated ‘the scientific foundation for this when applied – for example – Asian children must be open to doubt’. Whitelaw said that Yellowlees had ‘concluded that such X-ray examinations are of limited value and their continued use in the immigration context can no longer be justified’ (House of Commons, Hansard, 22 Feb, 1982: 279-280w). In its report, the CRE (1985: 40) argued that since the government acknowledged that x-rays were not satisfactorily reliable for estimating age, ‘it should attempt to review previous cases where such evidence was a substantial factor leading to refusal’, but this recommendation was not enacted by the government. In a document outlining the government’s response to the CRE report, held in the Runnymede Trust archive, stated that it was ‘not feasible’ to review all of these cases ‘given the immense amount of work it would involve’ (Home Office, 1985: 12).

The UKBA trial and its critiques

Since Whitelaw’s decision to end the use of x-rays for the assessment of age in migrant children, the topic has been referred to from time to time by parliamentarians. For example, in the House of Lords debate on the Asylum and Immigration Bill 1996, Lord Avebury sought to insert an amendment which would effectively ban the use of x-rays for the assessment of age, but was rebuffed by Lord David Renton who said that, ‘[i]t is difficult for the immigration officers, medical people, or anyone to say what those people’s ages really are. If the X-ray can decide the matter, we should keep an open mind on the issue’ (House of Lords, Hansard, 20 Jun, 1996: 562-563). Aynsley-Green, et. al. (2012: 102) has shown the matter was brought up again in 2006 and 2009, and most recently has been revived by the UKBA in early 2012.

In March 2012, Zilla Bowell, the Director of Asylum for the UKBA, wrote in a letter, reproduced on the website of the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, to various stakeholders announcing that there would be a three month trial of using dental x-rays to determine the age of asylum applicants. The letter said that many would ‘be aware of the difficulties that arise when we are not able to establish, with any certainty, the age of an asylum applicant’ and that the UKBA were ‘keen to utilise any appropriate tool which can increase our levels of certainty (as long as it does not have a negative impact on the individual in safeguarding terms, of course)’ (Bowell, 2012a). The trial was aimed at people assessed as adults, ‘but who continue to contend that they are children’ and the UKBA argued that ‘participation in the pilot is completely voluntary’ (Bowell 2012a).

However this proposed trail received significant criticism from immigration lawyers, medical and dental professionals and the four UK children’s commissioners, who were quoted in The Guardian (30 Mar, 2012) as claiming the proposed actions were ‘a clear breach of the rights of vulnerable children and young people and may, in fact, be illegal’. While talking to some stakeholders, Damien Green, the Conservative Minister for Immigration, admitted in parliament that the UKBA had not discussed the trial with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but had ‘sought legal advice on the legality of the trial’ (House of Commons, Hansard, 30 Apr, 2012: 1081w). A month later, Bowell sent another letter announcing that the proposed trail was being halted, after the Chief Medical officer suggested that the UKBA discuss the trial with the National Research Ethics Service (NRES). According to Bowell (2012b), the NRES ‘concluded that our proposed trail constitutes “research” and that, as such, it requires the approval of a research committee before it can proceed’. Bowell (2012b) argued that this was ‘contrary to their expectations’, explaining that the view of the UKBA was that ‘the trial did not constitute “research” and ethical approval was not therefore necessary’. The Guardian (27 Apr, 2012) called this ‘a profound embarrassment for the Home Office’ and claimed that the Home Office had refused for a month to publicly reveal whether the agency had ever sought ethical permission for the programme’. Both Bowell (2012b) and the Minister for Families, Sarah Teather, said that no x-rays had yet taken place (House of Commons, Hansard, 30 Apr, 2012: 1236w), and the UKBA were looking into whether to proceed with the trial in the future.

With the possibility of the trial still going ahead in the future, the British Medical Bulletin published an article on the various issues surrounding the assessment of age of young people in immigration control, which declared that ‘age assessment practice in the UK remains highly inconsistent’ and was therefore unreliable for border control purposes (Aynsley-Green, et. al., 2012: 23). The authors listed five main reasons for opposing the use of x-rays to assess the age of young people:

  • Firstly, the authors pointed out that x-rays of bones or teeth ‘can never indicate precisely the chronological age of the individual’ and at best could provide an estimate of skeletal/dental maturity compared to an average control subject (Aynsley-Green, al., 2012: 24). Further to this, as x-rays for age assessment were most likely to be used to establish whether a young person was over the age of 18 or not, the authors acknowledged that the most salient group affected by this practice would be young persons between the ages of around 15 to 20 years old and in the article. However, the authors stated, ‘there is no “scientific method” that can provide a precise assessment of chronological age in individuals between 15 and 20 years of age’ (Aynsley-Green, et. al., 2012: 27).
  • Secondly, the authors noted, which the Yellowlees report had sidestepped in 1981, that ‘standards of normality’ in regards to age assessment using physical characteristics are ‘simply not available for children and young people from many countries in Asia, Africa or the Middle East’, with the authors further stating that it would ‘unsatisfactory to assess their images from the standards derived from Caucasian, European or North American children’ (Aynsley-Green, al., 2012: 24).
  • Thirdly, the authors simply state ‘although superficially easy to do, radiography demands expert interpretation by experienced paediatricians, dentists or radiologists’ (Aynsley-Green, al., 2012: 24). What the authors seem to be implying with this statement is in the border control context, x-rays for age assessment might be utilised by border control staff, rather than medical professionals. This was also a concern in 1979 when the controversy over x-rays first emerged.
  • Fourthly, the authors point out that x-rays give a dose of radiation and that the non-medical use of x-rays is not safe or ethical on these grounds, stating that the x-rays are ‘driven solely by a government’s administrative convenience and is without therapeutic benefit to the individual’ (Aynsley-Green, al., 2012: 24).
  • Lastly, the authors propose that all medical procedures should only be conducted with fully informed consent of the individual, but ‘[i]n the immigration context, ensuring that full and informed consent is obtained is complicated by cultural, religious and linguistic factors, often coupled with a general lack of understanding of medical environments’ (Aynsley-Green, al., 2012: 25). Also in the border control context, if a medical procedure is to be used as evidence where the burden of proof falls on the applicant, then the applicant has no choice but to consent or else their application will probably be unsuccessful. This can no longer be considered consent.

As well as listing these concerns, the authors mentioned a number of medical and dental bodies that opposed the use of x-rays for age assessment purposes, stating that growing concern that this use of x-rays was ‘imprecise, unethical and potentially unlawful has led every relevant statutory and professional body in the UK to argue against its use’ (Aynsley-Green, et. al., 2012: 25).

Does the border control system lack institutional memory?

The fact that the UKBA has not completely shelved the idea of using x-rays for age assessment purposes shows two things. Firstly, it shows that the border control system maintains the idea of shifting the burden of proof onto the individual applicant and that physical examination is necessary as the applicant is inherently untrustworthy. Secondly, it shows that while this idea has a long history within the border control system, it also shows that the institutional memory of the system is not as far-reaching in other areas as it attempts to recycle ideas that were dismissed as unsatisfactory thirty years ago. As long as the emphasis of the border control system lies in attempting to maintain the ‘secure’ border and the idea of the border as separating the domestic British population from the threat of migrant ‘other’ is still fostered, there will be strict scrutiny placed upon those who attempt to traverse through the system. In this world, the applicant must prostrate themselves to the interrogations of the system and all available avenues are explored to satisfy the administration of a ‘firm’ border control system. Lord Renton’s quote on keeping an ‘open mind’ on the matter of using x-rays, despite the criticisms, for immigration purposes highlights this. The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants wrote in 1985:

entry clearance procedures abroad are operated on the assumption that they need to be directed towards the detection of bogus applicants even if in the process genuine applicants are refused. This licenses entry clearance officers to behave like a fraud squad, rather than as neutral officials processing applications from the wives and children of British and settled men (JCWI, 1985: 2).

This post would argue that this still seems to be the case now.

Palgrave cover


Aynsley-Green, A, Cole, T, Crawley, H, Lessof, N, Boag, L & Wallace, R (2012) ‘Medical, Statistical, Ethical and Human Rights Considerations in the Assessment of Age in Children and Young People Subject to Immigration Control’, British Medical Bulletin, 102 (14 May) 17-42

Bowell, Z (2012a) Letter to stakeholders ‘Age Assessment – Dental X-Rays’ (28 Mar) (accessed 19 Dec, 2012)

Bowell, Z (2012a) Letter to NASF members (27 Apr) (accessed 19 Dec, 2012)

Commission for Racial Equality (1985) Immigration Control Procedures: Report of a Formal Investigation (CRE, London)

Fassin, D & d’Halluin, E (2005) ‘The Truth from the Body: Medical Certificates as Ultimate Evidence for Asylum Seekers’, American Anthropologist, 107(4) 597–608

FCO (1980a) ‘X-Ray Examinations’, FCO 50/679, NA

FCO (1980b) ‘Notes for Press Enquiries: Yellowlees Review’, FCO 50/679, NA

Gordon, P (1983) ‘Medicine, racism and Immigration Control’, Critical Social Policy, 3(7) 6-20

Home Office (1985) ‘Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) Report into Immigration Control Procedures: Government Comments’, RC/RF/1/01/B, Runnymede Trust archive, Black Cultural Archives, London

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (1981) JCWI Annual Report 1980/81 (JCWI, London)

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (1985) ‘Briefing on Immigration Control Procedures: Report of a Formal Investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality’, RC/RF/1/01/B, Runnymede Trust archive, BCA

Juss, S (1997) Discretion and Deviation in the Administration of Immigration Control (Sweet & Maxwell, London)

Marmo, M & Smith, E (2010a) ‘Racial Profiling at the British Borders: An Historical Overview of the Process of Selection and Scrutiny’, in J. Shantz (ed.) (2010) Racial Profiling and Borders: International, Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Vanderplas Publishing, Lake Mary) 35-69.

Marmo, M & Smith, E (2010b) ‘Is There a Desirable Migrant? A Reflection of Human Rights Violations at the Border: The Case of “Virginity Testing”’, Alternative Law Journal, 35/4 (December 2010) 223-226.

Smith, E & Marmo, M (2011) ‘Uncovering the “Virginity Testing” Controversy in the National Archives: The Intersectionality of Discrimination in British Immigration History’, Gender & History, 23(1) 147–65

Yellowlees, H (1980a) Draft of The Medical Examination of Immigrants: Report by the Chief Medical Officer, FCO 50/676, NA

Yellowlees, H (1980b) The Medical Examination of Immigrants: Report by the Chief Medical Officer, FCO 50/677, NA

Yellowlees, H (1982) Letter to Willie Whitelaw (14 Jan), RC/RF/1/08, Runnymede Trust archive, BCA


New policy paper at History & Policy: Brexit and the history of policing the Irish border

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This is just a quick note to let you all know that History and Policy have just published a policy paper by me on the history of policing the Irish border and the possible impact of Brexit upon how this border operates. It is based on this earlier blog post.

New edited book on 2011 UK riots: ‘Reading the Riot Act’


In 2013, the Journal for Cultural Research published a special issue dedicated to the UK riots of 2011, edited by Rupa Huq. This featured an article by myself on looking at the 2011 riots through the lens of 1981. Routledge has now published this special issue as an edited collection, available here in hardback. Alongside my article/chapter, the collection also features contributions by John Hutnyk, Gargi Bhattacharyya and Caroline Rooney (amongst others). Order it now for your university or institutional library!

Policing the Northern Irish border in the 1970s

Army structures in border town Crossmaglen in early 1970s

Army structures in border town Crossmaglen in early 1970s

With the debate about ‘Brexit’ heating up in the final week before the Referendum, there has been more and more debate about what would happen to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. During the conflict in Northern Ireland, the British, Northern Irish and Irish authorities were also concerned about this border, and how travel across it would be monitored. The British were most concerned about potential terrorists crossing the border from the Republic into Northern Ireland and Northern Irish terror suspects fleeing to the South. Throughout the 1970s, the British, as well as their local counterparts, attempted a series of different tactics to prevent border crossings, starting with an explicitly militarised approach to the experimentation with a more traditional immigration control system. As Vicki Conway wrote, it was not until the Anglo-Irish Agreements in the mid-1980s that the Irish border was effectively controlled from both the British and Irish sides.

Since partition in the 1920s, the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (the Republic of Ireland after 1949) had been porous, with relatively free movement on both sides of the border. Before the outbreak of the conflict in August 1969, the only republican activity seen across the border area in the post-war era was the short-lived ‘border campaigns’ of the Irish Republican Army in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Soon after it began, the border area became a focal point of the conflict – for the movement of republican fighters between the North and the South, and for attacks by Republicans upon the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary patrols situated at the border. A 1971 report outlined the problem as such:

The security problem in Northern Ireland is influenced by the relative ease with which men with subversive intent, with or without arms, ammunition or explosives, can enter Northern Ireland; and wanted men can escape. The movement occurs over the land border with Eire; though normal sea and air points of entry into Northern Ireland; and by illegal movement by sea and air.[1]

In August 1970, a car bomb killed two RUC members at Crossmaglen, which resulted in a partial closure of the border, blocking ‘unapproved roads in South Armagh, Castlederg Salient and Londonderry [sic[ Salient’.[2] According to a 1971 report on the border closure, 51 roads were closed, using spikes, but over the next two months, there were 83 recorded incidents of the blocks being removed from 29 different roads.[3] The report found that:

Resistance to the blocks was so determined and the result so ineffective that it was decided to abandon the operation. Spikes and other blocks were gradually removed during the period Oct – Dec 1970, and the sites tidied up.

As the violence in Northern Ireland increased over the next few years, various sections of the British and Northern Irish authorities attempted to devise ways of preventing Republican fighters from crossing the border, or from attacking border patrols inside Northern Ireland. The British Army attempted to transform the border into a militarised checkpoint, relying on a combination of blocking off ‘unapproved’ roads and vehicle/personnel checks at others. Central to this was an emphasis on vehicle and identification checks. However there were several problems that the Army and the RUC encountered when trying to enforce this policy.

Firstly, they found that there was too much border to guard at one time. A 1973 Home Office report stated:

There are 303 miles of the border. There are 20 approved roads, 187 approved roads and 17 concession routes… The facilities for crossing the border are much greater than the number of cross-border roads. In particular there are 30 miles of water, numerous lanes and smugglers’ pads and border lands which are easily negotiable on foot.[4]

The Northern Ireland Office found that if the entire border was to be guarded, the burden would fall to the RUC and proposed ‘strict control along a limited sector only’, based on where the border was most likely to be traversed by ‘subversive’ elements.[5] Stormont’s Government Security Unit proposed in March 1972 that there were two solutions patrolling the entire border. The first option was a ‘sealing’ of the border, while the second was a partial prevention of entry, particularly along ‘unapproved’ roads.

‘Sealing’ the border was seen as the ‘nuclear’ option as it entailed converting the entire border into ‘a militarized frontier, with a continuous glacis, minefield or other impenetrable barrier under constant surveillance’.[6] ‘The only points of entry’, the Unit then proposed, ‘would then be by the way of the 20 approved crossings, with 100% checks on all persons, vehicles and loads’.[7] This was an extreme option and the Unit warned:

It may be necessary to bring home to members of Parliament and the public what the ‘sealing’ of the Border really implies. Any measures on the lines of those described would be enormously costly in time, money and manpower; they would involve a dislocation of all legitimate cross-Border activities; they would have to be supported by a defensive blockade of the entire coastline; and their political and economic implications would be entirely unacceptable within the context of [the] EEC.[8]

More favourable was the partial prevention of entry, which would mean the blocking of some more difficult to police roads and the interception of vehicles on the remaining roads. However this still presented problems, with the Unit stating that any road closures would need to be weighed against ‘the hardship likely to be caused, the resistance to be encountered and the tying down of manpower to ensure that closures remain effective.’[9] The Unit warned that partial closures still required a large amount of manpower to guard both the closed and open routes. Furthermore, it was warned that ‘[p]ermanent check-points at vehicle crossings [would] also present shop window targets’ for attacks by Republican fighters.[10]

With the focus on intercepting vehicles crossing the border and the use of checkpoints, there was also disagreement over how these interceptions would function. At first, there was a push for compulsory ID checks on all of those who crossed the border, but it was acknowledged that this was ‘a valuable aid to the identification of drivers, but that this did not help in relation to passengers’,[11] as non-drivers in both the UK and the Republic of Ireland were not required to hold identification papers at all times. Adding to this was confusion amongst the different agencies over whether Republic of Ireland driver’s licenses had photographs or not.[12]

A proposed alternative to the checking of driver’s licenses was the checking of vehicle registration papers. However it was deemed that this raised too many obstacles, particularly as numerous vehicles crossing the border (delivery trucks, hire cars, etc) would not necessarily have these registration papers in the vehicle. Furthermore, it was mentioned that there was ‘a well-founded objection to keeping registration books in cars because both can be stolen together.’[13]

To get around these specific problems, it was floated whether all people living or working within a designated border zone could be issued with a special vehicle permit.[14] In the same document, it was suggested ‘if there is a case on security grounds for imposing this requirement, it should be applied over the whole province and not only in a specified border area.’[15] However with both suggestions, it was felt that this would be an onerous requirement and that permits could not quickly issued. The conclusion to these proposed checks was that ‘[t]he imposition of a requirement to carry vehicle documents would not necessarily bring about any substantial improvement in border security’ and that ‘[e]nforcement would present considerable difficulties’.[16]

Alongside the push for a greater insistence on documentation for those crossing the border, the Army also pushed for greater powers of search and seizure of suspected vehicles. As a 1973 Home Office document stated, ‘’[t]he army would like a clear power to seize vehicles so that they could be removed for close scrutiny’, and called for an expansion of the Special Powers Act 1922 to cover this demand.[17] While the requirements for compulsory carriage of documents were not followed through, greater powers of search and seizure were incorporated into the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973.

After much deliberation, it was debated whether the intense scrutiny placed upon cross-border travelling had brought many tangible benefits, particularly considering the amount of manpower involved. For example, one report stated:

In the first four months of 1971, over 200,000 cars have been searched in Northern Ireland and in only about 10 have wanted men, arms or explosives been found; some 25 or more evaded road checks.[18]

However the report also qualified that there were some gains to this approach, adding:

Nevertheless the security dividend from a tighter control of the border area must not be underestimated: a reduction in cross-border explosive attacks and the interception of wanted or wounded men escaping from Belfast are typical potential gains. (My emphasis)

After 1972 (the deadliest year in the 30 year conflict), the Provisional IRA shifted tactics to attacking targets on the British mainland, while Loyalists targeted civilians in the Republic of Ireland. Although there were two bombings at the Old Bailey in 1972, it was not until the following year that the British mainland campaign began in earnest, with retaliation by Loyalists through the bombing of civilian areas in the South. At the same time, the British authorities believed there was an increase in the number of incidents in Northern Ireland perpetrated by Republicans crossing the border from the Republic. The British Army estimated that ‘terrorists based in the Republic have been responsible for at least 497 incidents in 1973’.[19] The spread of the conflict from Northern Ireland to Britain and the Republic of Ireland worried the British and Irish authorities, although there was little Anglo-Irish co-operation at this stage.

The bombing of two Birmingham pubs in October 1974 led to the newly installed Wilson government to rush through the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974. As well as extended powers of detention for those suspected of terrorism offences in Britain, the Act also gave powers to regulate the travel of people from Northern Ireland to England, Wales and Scotland (Great Britain) and exclude/deport those suspected of being involved in terrorism offences (related to the conflict in Northern Ireland – the PTA did not extend to the other forms of international terrorism on the rise in the 1970s). In 1976, the Act was amended to cover people travelling from the British mainland to Northern Ireland, but crucially neither act dealt with suspects travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The British authorities still relied on policing the border though a series of checkpoints.

In the same year, the Northern Ireland Office warned that policing the border in this manner was still involved massive amount of manpower, with a report stating:

Since 1971 nearly 20% of regular Army manpower in the Province has been devoted to maintaining the integrity of the Border areas and the Border itself. Experience has shown that because of the length and nature of the Border, the Army, no matter how many men they deploy cannot ensure total security.[20]

Furthermore, the report argued that border area was not topographically ideal for surveillance and certain technologies, such as radar and unattended ground censors, had limited success in helping the authorities detect subversives crossing the border.[21]

To overcome this, the report revisited the idea of laying mines, erecting wires or some other kind of immovable physical obstacle across the border to restrict illegal crossings. However it was felt that the use of either mines and wires had ‘an unpleasant “East German” connotation and would be indicative of a siege mentality’, with the added problems that ‘[m]ines would be dangerous and wire would be unsightly’.[22]

In 1977-78, Lord Shackleton undertook a review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1976 and despite suggesting that exclusion orders be subject to periodic review,[23] there was little revision on the issue of cross-border terrorism and subversion. At the same time, the temporary provisions of the 1976 Act were up for renewal. At this point, the Home Office briefly considered whether the transformation of the checkpoint system into a more formal border control system across the Irish border would help in the fight against Republican (and Loyalist) violence. However it was soon concluded that, like the checkpoint system, control of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would still require a large amount of manpower.[24] A report prepared by the Home Office stated categorically, ‘A system of full immigration control would be costly, most difficult to administer, and of limited effectiveness’.[25]

Although the conflict in Northern Ireland has, for the most part, ended, it would be wise heed this warning about the difficulty of implementing an immigration control system between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Since the creation of the Republic of Ireland in 1949, there have been no immigration restrictions between the UK and Ireland and the only controls have been applied have been the exclusion orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts (which were made redundant in 2000 by the Terrorism Act). To establish a new border control system at the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be a blow to the peace settlement forged in 1998, and to wider Anglo-Irish relations.

British Army base in South Armagh

British Army base in South Armagh

[1] ‘Control of Northern Ireland Borders: Preliminary Report’, 17 May, 1971, p. 1, CJ 4/424, National Archives, London.

[2] ‘History of the Partial Closure of the Border in 1970’, 17 May, 1971, CJ 4/424, NA.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control: Vehicle Documentation’, p. 1, 1 February, 1973, CJ 4/424, NA.

[5] Letter from Northern Ireland Office to Northern Ireland Command, 30 March, 1973, CJ 4/424, NA.

[6] Government Security Unit, ‘Control of the Border’, p. 1, 30 March, 1972, CJ 4/424, NA.

[7] Ibid,

[8] Ibid, p. 2.

[9] Ibid, p. 2.

[10] Ibid, p. 2.

[11] Central Secretariat (Stormont), ‘Vehicle Documentation in Border Areas’, 13 November 1972, p. 4, CJ 4/424, NA.

[12] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control’, p. 4.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Central Secretariat, ‘Vehicle Documentation in Border Areas’, p. 6.

[15] Ibid., p. 7.

[16] Ibid., p. 10.

[17] Ministry of Home Affairs, ‘Border Control’, p. 7.

[18] ‘Control of Northern Ireland Borders’, p. 1.

[19] Lt. Colonel Reynolds, ‘Border Security’, 30 January, 1974, p. 1, CJ4/810, NA.

[20] Northern Ireland Office, ‘’Picquets and Unmanned Devices on the Border’, 2 December, 1976, p. 1, CJ 4/1758, NA.

[21] Ibid., p. 4.

[22] Ibid., pp. 6-7.

[23] Lord Shackleton, Review of the Operation of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Acts of 1974 and 1976 (London: HMSO 1978) pp. 39-41.

[24] ‘Difficulties Over Proposal for Immigration Control Between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland’, n.d., HO 344/336, NA.

[25] Ibid.