De Valera Foxed RUC In Newry Town Hall Coup

EXCITEMENT was at fever-pitch in the Newry area, as the media and local population were on tender-hooks to see if the controversial Eamon De Valera would carry out his threat to breach a huge security cordon, and address an election meeting at Newry Town Hall, 80 years ago.

An immense force of RUC and `B` Specials was on duty inside and around the building. They were enforcing the ban by the Stormont Government on this chief of the Anti-Treaty forces; a leader of the 1916 Rising; MP for South Down, later Taoiseach and President of Ireland.

The Minister for Home Affairs, Sir Dawson Bates had issued a warning that Newry was “within the area specified in the Order, prohibiting Mr de Valera from appearing. If he carries out his threat, then the authorities will take action.”

Journalists from Belfast, Dublin and London descended on the frontier town to report on this unique confrontation. The `Belfast Telegraph` stated: “Newry Town Hall has been provisionally booked for Mr De Valera’s meeting. The announcement by the Republican chief that he intends `kicking off` in the town has created a great deal of excitement. “Speculation is rife as to whether he will carry out his threat, or if he will think twice about invading Ulster territory. In any case, the authorities will brook no interference with the law’s behest. If De Valera arrives in Newry, it will be by a circuitous route, making a dramatic appearance at the meeting, with consequences which will not be to his satisfaction.”

Prior to arriving in Newry, Mr De Valera, as President of Sinn Fein, issued an address to the electorate in the North, warning them to “pay no heed to false counsellors. We will not recognise as binding, any laws made by England for Ireland, and will resist to the utmost any attempt by England to impose its will upon Ireland, or to exploit Ireland, politically or economically.”

Posters had been displayed throughout the frontier town and rural area, inviting the electorate to “come and hear your own representative.” `Dev` had been elected M.P. in the previous Westminster election. The new candidate was Peter Murney, who had been interned.

Also, simultaneous with the election, was a major all-party campaign for the release of political prisoners. They had been detained by the Stormont Government without charge or trial, in conditions which bore an uncanny resemblance with those during Internment, 50 years later.

But back to Newry Town Hall in 1924. Police were stationed on the stairs, the stage and balcony, as well as on the streets. Even the gas-meter was kept under observation, lest there should be interference with the lights. While the meeting was in progress, Dr P.J. Little of Dublin addressed a gathering outside the building.

At this point Mr De Valera quietly slipped into the vestibule, and sauntered towards the stairs leading to the assembly room. A voice called out: `There’s De Valera.” Thereupon there was a rush of police towards the Republican leader, who almost reached the top of the stairs outside the main hall.

A District Inspector approached the M.P., and read out a document, prohibiting his presence in Northern Ireland. Mr De Valera responded: “I have come here to address my constituents, and I intend to do so. I am here to assert my rights.”

Thereupon, `Dev` was placed under arrest, escorted outside to where a Crossley tender had been parked, and taken under a large police escort to Canal Street RUC Barracks. The crowd outside the Town Hall recognised the familiar figure, and cheered loudly. When some tried to follow, they were prevented from doing so by a police cordon, which was drawn across the road.

Miss Mary McSwiney, whose brother, the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence McSwiney, had died on hunger-strike, was one of the speakers at the meeting. She told the audience: “The president succeeded in entering the Town Hall, and was coming up the stairs when the `Specials` surrounded him.

“I went to shake hands with him, and when I did a revolver was pointed at me. Downstairs there were there were three or four men with rifles cocked, - they looked a lot more frightened than the president or myself.”

She read out a statement, issued by De Valera, in which he explained that he had been “going to Newry in order to exercise my right to address the electors of my constituency, of which I am the duly-elected representative. If I am to be denied that right, then it will be in the full light of day. I had intended to speak to my constituents of the need for unity, and the folly of Partition.”

Next morning, the distinguished prisoner was taken by police car to Adavoyle railway station, and put on a Dublin-bound train. The warning was given that, if he re-entered the North, he would be jailed. “I will be back again,” was De Valera’s response. A few days later, he was arrested when attempting to enter St Columb’s Hall in Derry, and was imprisoned for a month in Crumlin Road Jail.

As President of Ireland, Eamon De Valera was back in the frontier town, 40 years later, when he visited the grave of John Mitchel in the Unitarian Cemetery at High Street. Accompanying him was Frank Aiken from Camlough, formerly `Dev’s` right-hand man, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, as well as Feilimi Magennis and Kevin Neary from the Newry Gaelic League.

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008