Parliament And World War One
15 June 1917
The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law) The Adjournment of the House has just been moved for the purpose which I indicated at Question Time to-day—in order that I might have an opportunity of reading the following statement to the House:
His Majesty’s Government, after giving long and anxious consideration to the position of the Irish political prisoners, have arrived at the decision which it is now my duty to announce. They have felt that the governing consideration in the matter is the approaching session of a Convention, in which Irishmen themselves will meet to settle the difficult problem of the future administration of their country. This great experiment will mark a new era in the relations of Ireland with the United Kingdom and the Empire, and it is beyond measure desirable that the Convention should meet in an atmosphere of harmony and good will in which all parties can unreservedly join, and nothing would be more regrettable than that the work of the Convention should be prejudiced at the outset by embittered associations, which might even hinder the settlement to which we all look forward with hope.
In these circumstances, His Majesty’s Government have decided that they cannot give a better earnest of the spirit in which they approach this great experiment than by removing one of the main causes of serious misunderstanding with which it is in their power at this stage to deal. They have decided, therefore, upon the release, without reservation, of the prisoners now in confinement in connection with the rebellion of 1916. They have not, however, arrived at this decision without giving careful consideration to two aspects of the case which it is impossible to ignore. They have satisfied themselves, in the first place, that the public security will not be endangered by such an act of grace; and, secondly, that in none of the cases concerned is there evidence that participation in the rebellion was accompanied by individual acts which would render such a display of clemency impossible. In recommending to His Majesty the grant of a general amnesty to the persons in question, the Government are inspired by a sanguine hope that their action will be welcomed in a spirit of magnanimity, and that the Convention will enter upon its arduous undertaking in circumstances that will constitute a good augury for the reconciliation which is the desire of all parties in every part of the United Kingdom and the Empire.
Mr. DEVLIN I am sure that the House has listened with the deepest interest, as we have listened with the most profound gratification, to the statement which has been made by the right Hon. Gentleman. My only regret is that the Government did not take an earlier opportunity of deciding on the course which they have now adopted, as in my judgement that would have created at an earlier period that good temper and freedom from internal rancour which are now so eminently desired, and which might have been secured at an earlier stage. Nevertheless, I am quite prepared to express a feeling of deep satisfaction that the Government have seen their way not only to grant a general amnesty to the Irish political prisoners, but to do it without the slightest reservation. I am well aware that there was in the mind of the Government, and I believe in that of many of their advisers, the feeling that there ought to be a discrimination made between these imprisoned men. We have pointed out repeatedly to the Government, in the representations which we have made to them, that any discrimination whatever would be regarded as a hostile act upon the part of the Government, and that it would be better to take no action at all if they were prepared to release some and not to release all. The Government have recognised the wisdom of the advice which the Irish party have given them, and they have now decided upon a complete release without any exception being made. To have retained any of them in prison would, in my judgement, have been a blunder of the greatest magnitude, and I am delighted that the Government have decided not to add that to the many other blunders that have been made. It is, I think, an earnest upon the part of the Government that they were prepared to deal with this problem in a sincere and full-hearted fashion, and we recognise the spirit in which they have acted.
For my part, I am just as anxious as the right Hon. Gentleman or any Member of this House to see that this great Convention will be a success. We are anxious that it should be a success for many reasons. We want to see Irishmen, assembled on Irish soil, endeavouring, by the application of those high qualities which have enabled them to contribute so largely in other parts of the world, to create institutions of liberty; we want to see them apply themselves in a wholehearted and patriotic spirit to the great task of bringing peace and union and liberty to their country. We are anxious also that the Convention may evolve a Constitution which will bring satisfaction and contentment and peace to all Ireland, so that Ireland may work in a spirit of good will and partnership with this country. It was for that purpose that many of us have laboured for nearly twenty years in this House, in the English constituencies, and in Ireland.
We want to see good relationship, kindly feeling, mutual democratic operation between Great Britain and Ireland, and we are anxious to see that in the future and to destroy the rancours that have sprung up out of the incidents of the last twelve months, and to obliterate the bitter racial feelings that have been created by the unfortunate and tragic incidents, and that, instead of those feelings of racial hatred, we may have a spirit of understanding and good will and evolve a spirit that will make Ireland not a black mark upon a British Imperial system, but a great and bright example of good government and of successful democracy.
That is the purpose which we hope to achieve by the holding of this Convention in Ireland, and that purpose will largely be served—it could be served in no higher manner than by the complete and unreserved way in which the Government has acted in this matter, and by their action in releasing these prisoners from British gaols and enabling them to return to their own country to do, what I trust they will do, lend a hand in the softening of racial acerbities and the creation of that better feeling which will bring peace and blessings to Ireland.
Mr. H. SAMUEL I may say that the whole House has heard with the deepest satisfaction that the Government, after a careful review of the whole situation, have come to the conclusion that it is consistent with order and security in Ireland to accept this measure of liberation, and I may say, also, that we all agree with the action they have taken as wise and politic action. We shall concur with the Government also in the opinion that if any are to be released, then it is right to release all, particularly since the review of individual sentences leads to the conclusion that none of the prisoners has individually committed offences which would make discrimination inevitable. The release will, I hope, be received in Ireland, as it is intended in this country, as an earnest of good will, and that it will strengthen the hope which prevails throughout this House, as it is the earnest desire of the whole House, that the Convention which is now set up may lead to some effective result—may have the result of ending this long and unhappy quarrel between the two peoples.
Sir H. DALZIEL As one of those who welcomed the action of the Government in calling an Irish Convention, I desire to say a word in support of the decision which they have announced. I think, if I may say so, that the Government have acted wisely in what they have done, and I do not think that there will be one dissentient voice in any part of the House. It is not only the consideration of the Irish Convention, at which we hope all sections of the Irish community will be represented, which is the consideration in the decision at which they have arrived. I think the House ought to keep in mind that the men who are to be released are men who have been in prison for the greater part of the year without trial. I confess that my view of British justice always has been, no matter how serious the crime alleged against any man, that he ought always to have the right of placing his case before those appointed by the State to try him. We know that in this case there were considerations which made it advisable that probably that course should not be adopted; nevertheless, the fact remains that these men have never had an opportunity of replying to the charges made against them, and I think that fact ought to be kept in mind by some who are disposed to judge them harshly, and especially by the British public. There is another thing which we ought to keep in mind, and that is that there was really no criminal intention, so far as those men were concerned. I believe every one of them thought in what they did they were acting on behalf of the country which they loved. I have always thought that a distinction should be drawn between the deliberately criminal act and the act, however criminal, which was carried out from the point of view of patriotism, however ill-advised or unjust.
I think that everyone who understands the history of Ireland will understand the action of these men at the time of the rebellion. They had been brought up to believe that England was the enemy of Ireland, and, Heaven knows, they have had reasons during the last few years to refuse to have confidence in British administration. They had seen the great Irish party coming here year after year for ten years and supporting a Government which had promised to give them self-government for Ireland. But for the support of the Irish party the Liberal Government could not have existed a single day or a single hour. They saw their representatives keeping that Government in office, and after all those long weary years they saw they were disappointed in their expectations.
I would say with regard to the offences for which these men were tried the late Liberal Government had a great responsibility. They allowed all this training to go on, they allowed them to have firearms, and they allowed them to prepare for the revolution under their very eyes. With all their secret service, with all their constabulary, and with all their representatives at Dublin Castle, when the revolution broke out they expressed surprise that it had taken place. I say that the late Government in allowing this condition of things to prevail, without taking any protection against them, were as responsible for the revolution as any man who has been in prison in Lewes or elsewhere. [HON. MEMBEES: “Oh, oh!”]
Therefore, the responsibility is to be divided in this case. I am glad that the Government have announced their decision. I agree with the right Hon. Friend who has just spoken that the Act comes a little late and lacks some of the graciousness which would otherwise have been associated with it. I could have hoped that this announcement would have been made at least two weeks or a month ago. I believe its effect would have been even more far-reaching in its character than it can be at the present time. It is a case of better late than never. I rejoice that the Government have come to the decision which they have announced. I rejoice particularly that in deciding on this policy they have done it in no half-hearted fashion and that there is a general amnesty which will apply to all prisoners of war. I say, personally, I do not believe that any great country ever loses anything by being generous. We have seen in South Africa what the result of the policy was there. I do not believe that in the action we are taking to-day there is any danger, and I believe there is much reason for hope. I thank the Government for their announcement, and I hope it may give us even more solid reason than we had before that the Irish Convention will be successful.
Mr. WARDLE I am sorry not to have been present when this very interesting announcement was made, but I do not think there is any necessity for me to apologise to the House for my absence, because I have been working on Government business elsewhere and I have had to leave it for the purpose of coming here. I think the announcement which has been made now, and made so generously, is one that brings once more a new ray of hope in regard to the situation in Ireland. So far as the party with which I am associated is concerned, we have always from the very beginning expressed our sympathy with the Irish party, and, though I cannot go quite so far as the last speaker in attributing blame equally between the late Government and those who took part in this rebellion, I do feel that the circumstances of the time in which that rebellion broke out do mitigate to some extent the criminal nature of their offence. I would like to add that their sympathies and their aspirations for freedom with the desire to bring about a real settlement between this country and Ireland must be taken into account in judging of the facts.
I am, however, much more concerned about the future than I am about the past. I wish more than ever to-day that it were possible that bygones should be bygones. I know we cannot wipe out the past entirely. Surely, however, this act of clemency on the part of the Government, in face of the proposals for the Convention, should, at any rate, do something to demonstrate that there is a large mass of opinion in this country favourable, and that even the Government of the country itself is desirous of seeing this Convention begin with a fair chance of success, with the past obliterated and wiped out so far as it can be wiped out, and that a real opportunity for reconciliation between the two peoples is afforded. So far as I am concerned, my whole heart’s desire is that this Parliament, this Convention, and this Government may see this problem, which has been baffling us for so long, brought to a settlement. I am quite sure of this, that the action of the Government to-day will take us a long stride forward in that direction. My uttermost sympathies are with the Irish people in this matter, and I am glad the Government have taken the action they have taken.
Mr. E. WASON I have only risen to say how heartily glad I am that the Government have taken this course. I feel, in speaking here this afternoon, that I am not only speaking for myself, but as Chairman of the Scottish Liberal Members, every one of whom would, I believe, endorse what I am saying. Perhaps it may be of interest to the House to know that I do not think there is a single Member in the House now here, as I was in 1885–6, when I supported Mr. Gladstone in his first endeavour to do justice to Ireland. From that time to the present I have laboured in season and out of season to try to get a settlement of this question. I was privileged to accompany the Prime Minister to Dublin when we had that great meeting. I shall never forget the magnificent reception he got when he spoke there, and we all hoped and believed that at last, after long, we were going to have a settlement of this question. People talk about Home Rule for Scotland, for Wales, and for other parts of the country. In Scotland we have practically got Home Rule. [HON. MEMBERS: “No, no !” and “Yes!”] We have got our own laws—
Colonel J. CRAIG What about the Treasury?
Mr. WASON Our laws are Scottish laws, our jury system is different to that in England—everything is different. Hon. Friends round me dissent, and I know there are things that need remedy; but one thing at a time. We in Scotland feel deeply the injuries which have been inflicted upon Ireland. With all my heart and soul I hope that the action of the Government will lead to us all seeing at last a happy and a contented Ireland.
Mr. ELLIS GRIFFITH As Chairman of the Welsh party, perhaps I may be allowed a word or two. I will not follow the right Hon. Gentleman who has just spoken into controversial matters of Scottish history, but I am sure, on behalf of my Welsh colleagues, who represent a Celtic people, that I may be allowed to say how glad I am that the Government has found itself able to come to this decision. Naturally I do not wish to strike anything but a concordant note, but we must all recognise that the Executive of the day has a very grave responsibility in this matter. We know perfectly well what happened in the Rebellion, and, however anxious the Government might be to show mercy, yet they had other duties to consider and other obligations and considerations of law and order. No doubt the Leader of the House has taken all these matters into consideration and I am quite sure my Irish friends on the benches below the Gangway will recognise the spirit in which this has been done. It really does give this Convention a chance. After this sign and symbol of goodwill from Great Britain, it cannot be said that this Convention is not beginning under the very happiest auspices. Without saying there will be any responsibility in the future on anyone, I think we can say the House of Commons and the Government have done their full share to make this Convention a success, and, in thanking the Government for what they have done, we can all hope for good results in Ireland.
Mr. GINNELL The Government are to be congratulated on their prudence in this matter. They acknowledge quite candidly that it is for their own purpose of holding a Convention, rigged by themselves, and thereby placating American opinion that they have released these men. I repeat that they are to be congratulated on their rather belated wisdom. The Leader of the House did not omit to seize the opportunity to limit the scope of the Convention to the administration of Ireland. The Irish people will carefully mark that the purpose of the Convention is limited to—
Notice taken that forty Members were not present.
Mr. PRINGLE Very foolish!
An HON. MEMBER What a mean thing!
Mr. KING May I appeal to my Hon. Friend to withdraw his request for a count? There are only a few moments left. It has been allowed on previous occasions.
Mr. GINNELL This is English fair play!
Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER I am afraid that I am bound by the Rule to take notice that forty Members are not present.
Mr. GINNELL I have only to put a few practical questions to the Leader of the House, and if you allow me to do that, the forty Members need not be troubled, because I know the party Whips will take care not to let them enter.
Mr. KING I was appealed to just now out in the Lobby, and was told that a count had been arranged; and you can see behind the Chair a score of Members.
HON. MEMBERS Order, order!
Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER This is quite disorderly. I am bound by the Rules.
Mr. GINNELL On a point of Order. May I ask whether it is in order for Members to accost and solicit other Members of this House so as to prevent fellow Members from speaking?
Mr. KING Might I enforce that? Is it in order when we are here to do the business of the country for Whips and others to implore Members not to come into the House, so that there may be a count, and is it not altogether outside the usual courtesies, even if strictly in order?
Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER There is no point of Order arising there. Hon. Members of all parties have at times interested themselves in this matter.
Mr. GINNELL May I ask your permission to address—
Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER Order, order ! I am about to count.
House counted, and forty Members not being present,
The House was adjourned at Ten minutes before Five o’clock, till Monday next.