Parliament And World War One
by Dick Barry
STATEMENT BY MR. BONAR LAW. 21 March 1918
Arthur Lynch (16/10/1861-25/31934) Irish Parliamentary Party Member for Clare West 1901- 1918.
William O’Malley (Feb 1853-Sept 1939) Irish Parliamentary Party Member for Galway Connemara 1895-1918.
Captain Daniel Desmond Sheehan ((28/5/1873-28/11/1948) Irish Parliamentary Party for Mid-Cork 1901-1918.
Mr. McKENNA May I intervene for a moment to ask whether my right hon. Friend has any statement to make with regard to the Front?
Mr. BONAR LAW As I have no doubt is known to many hon. Members of the House, an Infantry attack was launched by the Germans this morning upon our front. The attack covers almost the whole of the front from the Scarpe to the Oise — a front of something over 50 miles. This, I may tell the House, is an attack on a larger scale than any that has been made at any stage of the War on any part of the front. We have not yet received any information which enables us to give the House any indication whatever as to what the result of this attack is. We know that on part of that front our outpost troops, where the line was very lightly held, have withdrawn to the battle zone. That was exactly not only what was expected, but what instructions were in the event of such an attack.
Perhaps some hon. Members may recall that in discussing the military situation a week or so ago I pointed out that it was certain that if an attack of this kind did take place the attacking party would gain a certain amount of ground. Our information so far does not lead us to suppose anything beyond that has happened. I am sure of this, that, with the knowledge beforehand of what has happened in every similar attack on either side, the House and the country will not be unnecessarily alarmed by information of that kind. I should like also to say that there is absolutely nothing in the nature of surprise in connection with what has happened. Our Staff and the Versailles Council have naturally been considering what would happen in the event of an attack taking place, and I may tell the House that this attack has been launched on the very part of our line which we were informed would be attacked by the enemy if an attack were undertaken at all.
I may say, also, that only three days ago we received in formation at the Cabinet from Headquarters in France that they had now definitely come to the conclusion that an attack was going to be launched immediately. I am sorry, as the House will understand, that in regard to an event, the importance of which we all realise, it is impossible for me to give any information whatever as to what the result is; but I do feel justified in saying that, as it has not come as a surprise, and as those responsible for our Forces have foreseen and have throughout believed that, if such an attack came, we should be well able to meet it, nothing that has happened gives us in this country any cause whatever for additional anxiety.
Mr. LYNCH The statement to which we have just listened is of such grave import that I will make no further reference to that subject than to express a hope, and even an ardent vow, for the success of the arms of the Allies, trusting in this juncture, in what seems to be rather a soldiers’ battle, to the tenacity and dazzling courage which the Allies have more than once manifested already. But despite, or perhaps because of, the very gravity of the situation, I propose to say a few words on matters which directly deal with the progress of the War. One is with reference to the speech which we had recently from the First Lord of the Admiralty. That speech, to me, was disappointing for more reasons than one—disappointing even on the basis of his own arguments. What we have to consider in judging of the nature of the present situation is not an elaborate computation of curves having reference to world’s tonnage, and being so chosen by the experts in the Admiralty as to lead to a false conclusion, even in cases when each actual statement may be true. In estimating the character of the present situation we have to consider, not the construction of the world tonnage or even the construction of British tonnage, but whether, in view of the fact that the sustenance of these Islands depends in great part on sea-borne traffic, we have reached the point when we can say that the arrivals are such that, however the transport may be diminished by actual sinkings, the country has been placed beyond the danger of starvation. Placing that simple question before the First Lord of the Admiralty, and following his own course of argument, so far from finding his statement reassuring, I have come to the conclusion that that statement, if this country is capable of producing no better plan, has defeat stamped upon its face—ultimate defeat within a certain definite limit of time. When a man holding the high position of the First Lord of the Admiralty deliberately puts forward a plan and declares that is the plan on which he intends to rely, and when that plan is found in itself insufficient, then I declare that he has already condemned himself.
I speak with no personal animus what ever against the First Lord of the Admiralty, whose advent to office I was inclined to hail not without hope, but, judging him at the work, judging him by his own statements, and judging him by results, I say that he has failed. What was required in his position was not what the Government seem to have searched for, a man of what is called driving force. Driving force may be admirable up to a certain level of the hierarchy, but when a man reaches a position that by his commanding situation alone he is able to obtain all the driving force that he requires, then what the Government should seek—and I insist on this—and what the Government has neglected, is a high intellectual power, the stamp and character of a man who will envisage all these great problems and bring great qualities of intellect to bear upon them until he has obtained the solution, and who will then, by virtue of the strength and faith which he derives from his own solution, obtain all the driving power that he requires. Simply to look for what is called driving power without that great intellectual power is to condemn that office to failure. Therefore, dealing with that, I invite the First Lord of the Admiralty to send in his resignation. I will not now touch upon the military side of affairs on account of the gravity of the events which are now before us. We can only hope and offer up our vows to Heaven. On the side of the Foreign Office, I will not for the moment add anything to what I have said repeatedly in this House to bring home the argument which ought now to be clear and patent to all that the Foreign Office has signally failed and that even now, if it is not too late, there should be a complete clearance of those who, having had their opportunity, have misused it in so extraordinary a manner.
I will touch, however, on one or two questions of Irish administration. I have very grave forebodings with respect to Ireland, and those grave forebodings are brought to my mind by what I see plainly to be the mishandling of the Government of a dangerous situation. The great panacea of the Government was the Convention, and I believe that an order has gone forth recently to all the newspapers to refrain from any comments on the Convention. It must be remembered that the Convention has been in existence now for many months, and, if it were a real, valid, and honest institution, that Convention would be ready with its Report. There is something suspicious in the attempt of the Government not to obtain the result of its deliberations, but to keep it alive by a sort of artificial respiration, knowing that as long as the mere name of Convention is kept alive the Government can avoid what for months has been their plain duty, namely, to look the Irish problem straight in the face. Their tricks, if they have been tricks, are at an end, and they must make up their minds to adopt one of several alternative policies which have been presented to them. One of the policies with which I have heard they are toying, in their usual insincere, helpless, or drifting style, is that of Federal Home Rule. Federal Home Rule was at one time looked upon as a possible solution, not merely of the Irish question, but of various questions affecting the mutual relations of all those Condominiums. If it be really the intention of the Government to arrive at a solution of the Irish question which would give them merely the name of self-government without the reality, maintaining the great influence of this Parliament, not merely in the larger issues affecting Ireland, but even in very many details of the local government of Ireland, then I say that the time has passed by adopting that solution.
Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Sir Donald Maclean) I would remind the hon. Member that he is now discussing matters of legislation which are not in order on the Motion for the Adjournment.
Mr. LYNCH I thank you for that re minder, and I will drop that question. I will come to one or two matters of pressing interest in Ireland. It has been thought necessary to introduce martial law in a severe form into certain places in Ireland and into my own Constituency. It is always a mistake in Ireland to have resort to force, especially in a case where it is quite possible to ascertain definitely the causes of the unrest and where the Government have, by their present action, shown no disposition to remove what I call the root causes of all these disturbances. We have had today the subject of food debated. That question is becoming more and more pressing throughout the country, and we are face to face with this position: that Ireland is capable of producing a far larger quantity of food than it has yet turned out. That food may be necessary for the very subsistence, therefore for the very existence of this country. The possibilities are there, the labour is there, not merely available, but the tenants adjoining big cattle farms or ranches now untilled are not merely willing but anxious to enter upon those lands, to till them and make them fruitful to the last degree. The Government have prevented such a step. They have prevented it in the face of the fact that an Act was expressly passed so far back as 1909 to deal with these very evils. That Act should have been in complete operation years ago. Its application was retarded wilfully by the Government, and now, even under the menace of great privation, the Government is still with holding the application of that Act, defeating, even cheating, the hopes of those for whom it was framed and protecting those Irish landlords who have been thought to be the buttress of one of the great parties in this House, but whose action for generations has been detrimental to the best interests of the Irish people. Therefore, I say that the remedy for the present state of unrest in Ireland is not the brutal application of military force but the resolute removing from the path of the people of all the evils from which they unjustly suffer.
I will touch very briefly on quite another aspect of the question of public policy to say that, whereas the Prime Minister declared that unity of command on the Western Front was essential, in face of these grave events of which we do not now know the issue, that unity of command has not been obtained, a fact that already condemns his whole policy. A Government takes the spirit of its leader, just as an Army takes the spirit of its commander. We saw that clearly in the example of France. Before the arrival of M. Clemenceau the country was beginning to hesitate and doubt. Immediately after his arrival, as by magic, a new strength, a new force, and a new spirit were inspired in the French nation. We had all hoped that the Prime Minister would have given that spirit of force and faith when he arrived himself at supreme power, but almost from the first he began to wilt and fade, failing to justify his own great reputation. The times are far too serious for us to abdicate our own judgment or our own criticism, however severe, in the face of great temptations. I declare that the Prime Minister, too, has failed. The best service that he can render to the country now is to retire and to allow, I will not say the formation of another Government within this House, but something which, however remote from Parliamentary practice it may now seem, will, I feel sure, within the next few succeeding months, be brought more and more insistently upon the attention of the country itself, that is, the necessity for the formation of a Committee of Public Safety.
Mr. O’MALLEY I am anxious to direct the attention of the House to a matter which very seriously affects my own Constituency and also all the districts on the Western seaboard of Ireland. My hon. Friend who has just spoken has referred to the unrest which at present exists in the West of Ireland. He has very properly pointed out that that unrest cannot very well be dealt with adequately except by removing its cause. We all know that that unrest exists. The general opinion in this country is that it is political unrest, and that the outrages we read about are caused by the Sinn Fein movement. I have no doubt that some of the outrages, such as the seizing of guns and entering houses and all that kind of thing, have been the work of the Sinn Feiners, but the unrest to which I should like to direct the attention of the House is of a different nature altogether. I have, in this House and outside it, and my colleagues also for a good many years have been pointing out to the Congested Districts Board the necessity of acquiring the untenanted lands in the congested areas. There is some unrest in my own Constituency, and it is directly traceable to the fact that these poor people living on their uneconomic holdings, who have the greatest possible difficulty at any time in making a living, are face to face every day of their lives with large grass farms in the possession of strangers, who are generally shopkeepers. For the last twenty-seven years, since the establishment of the Congested Districts Board, there have been some people in my own Constituency who have been waiting all these years to get relief from that Board. They are waiting still. What I want to point out is that where they have bought estates in Connemara they have not divided up the grass lands among the tenants, but have continued to let those grass lands to the shop keeping graziers. The War has made this a very urgent question. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Board, in view of the urgent necessity for food, have not used their compulsory powers to purchase these small estates with grass farms, and divide them up among the poor tenants, who are only too anxious to have them cultivated.
I heard of one case in my own Constituency the other day, where, I believe, the Board have bought an estate. The untenanted land has remained in their hands for some considerable time. Some few weeks ago they offered some of the land on the conacre system for tillage to the tenants. The only part that they offered was the very worst and most unproductive part and the tenants declined it. The Board in this case actually gave to a man who does not depend upon the land at all the only decent part of that little estate which could be useful to the tenants and would be very productive. I understand that some of the tenants, I think very foolishly, entered upon the land and attempted to cultivate it. They are now, I believe, in jail or under remand, and their case will come on very shortly, and I shall say no more about it, but if hon. Members or the people of this country could fully realise the conditions of the peasantry along the Western sea board, pressure would be brought to bear upon the Board to bring this to an end. I hope the Chief Secretary will take some steps to carry out an improvement on the lines I have suggested.
Captain SHEEHAN I wanted to follow on the lines of the two previous speakers and to develop some arguments bearing upon the issues which they raised and also dealing with the problems of Irish reconstruction. I feel that the manner in which the Minister of Reconstruction and the Chief Secretary for Ireland have been dealing with that issue is not at all satisfactory, but since neither of those right hon. Gentlemen is present it would be largely a waste of time to develop the issue at any length. I will content myself with saying that I will take the earliest opportunity of raising this question when they are here and insisting that the separate conditions and considerations which apply to Ireland must be considered and dealt with. I have the fullest sympathy with the demand which my hon. Friend (Mr. Lynch) voiced. I regard these so-called outrages in Ireland as legitimate efforts of the people to acquire the right of free Access to land which is not properly used. The denial of that right is at the root of most of the mischief in Ireland at present. I believe if the Government only tackled the problem properly of distributing the grazing ranches and the uncultivated areas in Ireland among the landless people they would be capable of using them to the national advantage, and you would have an end of a lot of the trouble in that country at present. I hope the matter will be earnestly considered on an early and a suitable opportunity. In every country, particularly where the peasant population is the mainstay and the backbone of the nation, the demand for utilising the land properly will always be the strongest national demand the people can make. I think in the highest Government quarters they will be exceedingly well advised if they remember that the agricultural labouring population, regard themselves as the dispossessed tenants of the land of Ireland and will never be satisfied until they get back to it on equitable conditions. As to the question of re-housing, we are not satisfied with the statements which have come from the Ministerial Bench. It is in a backward condition. You have already your schemes of preparation in England, Scotland and Wales, but you have done nothing for Ireland, and our demand is that we should have a separate Irish Reconstruction Council to deal independently with the separate conditions which exist in Ireland, so that we should be able to frame schemes suitable to the needs of our people, and particularly I want for reasons which must be obvious to everyone, to see that the Irish soldiers and sailors who have given their services in this War, when they are being demobilised, must have conditions prepared for them so that they shall go back to useful occupations.
Question put, and agreed to.
IRELAND (ASSIZE REPORTS). 12 March 1918
Major NEWMAN asked the Prime Minister whether he has received from the county high sheriffs and grand juries of counties in the West and South of Ireland representations as to the continued prevalence of agrarian Bolshevism, raiding for arms, and assaults on isolated members of the forces of the Crown and members of the Royal Irish Constabulary; and has he been able to assure them that the full authority of the executive will be used to restore order?
The CHIEF SECRETARY for IRELAND (Mr. Duke) My right hon. Friend has received the representations referred to, and has asked me to reply. His Majesty’s Government has been well aware of the extent to which crime was occurring in association with the existing state of political unrest and anxiety in Ireland, and before any of these representations were made had taken measures whereby without any intentional interference with political controversy occurrences such as are mentioned in the question would be guarded against, and, if not prevented, would be punished. Resolutions such as the hon. and gallant Member mentions must not be accepted in all cases as evidence of local conditions. I observe to-day that the grand jury of county Fermanagh unanimously resolved on Saturday last that the disgraceful state of the country at the present time is entirely due to the neglect of the most elementary obligations of government by the present Irish administration. I observe, however, that the learned and very experienced judge who presided at the assize in Fermanagh is reported to have stated in his charge to the same grand jury that there were two cases for trial, and there was nothing in the returns to suggest that the country was in anything but a satisfactory condition. A decrease of three was noted in the specially reported cases.
Perhaps I may add that specially reported cases are cases which the police think it necessary to bring to the attention of the executive.
Major NEWMAN Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the grand jury at Fermanagh referred to the West and South of Ireland?
Mr. DUKE I ask the House to beware that these representations come from gentlemen, although they are of the highest respectability, who are drawn entirely from one class of the community.
Mr. LYNCH Have the Government considered the effect of using coercive measures simply, without removing the root causes of the unrest?
Mr. DUKE Nothing of what is ordinarily called coercion has occurred in Ireland. If it is desired to challenge that assertion, the proper opportunity must be taken to challenge it. But where there was an organised outbreak of crime which threatened to overturn the ordinary administration measures were taken without the interference of anybody who did not desire to break the law, and I am happy to say that they appear likely to have the desired effect.
Mr. LYNCH I will raise this question to-day.