Parliament And World War One
IRELAND. 08 August 1918. Part One
Mr. DILLON I have no desire in the least to intervene and deprive the hon. Member of his right to reply, but these Debates upon the Motion for the Adjournment are always of a very unsatisfactory character, and cannot be concluded in the same satisfactory way or with the same procedure as ordinary Debates. We are now asked to adjourn for a period of two months, at a time when the situation in Ireland is more unsatisfactory and more uncertain than I ever remember it in my life. The truth is that in Ireland there is really no Government in the true sense of the word. There is, of course, a military dictator who carries out his own will, and there is really no law except the will of this Noble Lord who has been sent over as a dictator. There is no Government in Ireland which has the confidence of any section or any party in that country, and that is a very terrible condition of things, and one which, if it were necessary, I should be prepared to prove. The country is at present drifting, and as I fear, drifting towards disaster. In face of that condition of affairs there is no party, and there is no man in Ireland who knows what is the policy of what passes for a Government. We are left absolutely in the dark. Two months ago a policy was announced with every form of repeated pledge—since the new Government was sent over to Ireland—and when we questioned the representatives of the Government, we were assured that by that policy, of which in many details we did not approve, the Government would stand or fall. Minister after Minister declared that if they did not succeed in carrying that policy into effect they would resign office. That policy was thrown overboard in all its details after about five or six weeks, and now the people of Ireland are left in a state of blank ignorance as to what the policy of the Government is. When I listen to the speeches of Ministers in this House, and those which have been made in Ireland, it sometimes occurs to me that they have totally forgotten the fact that Home Rule, an Irish Parliament and an Irish Executive, is the law of this land and that, if nothing is done, automatically on the conclusion of the War an Irish Parliament will come into existence—it requires no further legislation—and an Irish Executive Government will take over the control of the country. In spite of that fact the Government is allowing the country to drift into such a condition as will make that great change by no means easy.
I said no man and no party in Ireland knows what is the policy of the Government. A voluntary recruiting campaign has been started, and in respect of that the Government has repeated all the blunders and all those transactions, with what has been described by the Prime Minister on a famous occasion as malignity, which destroyed the recruiting campaign under the late Mr. Redmond in 1914. They have launched the campaign under circumstances which foredoomed it to failure, and they have launched it under a threat of Conscription which has produced all the results which we prophesied and has not done anything to extend the military power of this country. The Government last April introduced and persisted in driving through this House a Clause taking power to conscript the Irish people against their will. I and my colleagues warned them that that power would create a situation which would make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for them to carry out their pledge to set up a Home Rule Government and settle the Irish question; and furthermore, that under the Conscription proposal they would gain no military strength, but, on the contrary, would seriously injure not only the military strength but the moral position of England. That is exactly what has happened. It is not very much to be surprised at that what we said, knowing the country as we do, should turn out to be true. I desire to say nothing against the Chief Secretary, but he underwent a kind of sea change. He was always supposed to be a friend to Ireland, a Home Ruler, an anti-Conscriptionist, and a sound Liberal. He goes to Ireland, spends a week there, and without consulting anyone of those who know the country, comes back here absolutely positive that he knows all about the situation, and treats with contempt and even insult any advice he gets from these benches.
I wish to say a few words on this question of Conscription. You have destroyed at its very outset all possibilities of the success of the voluntary recruiting campaign. Any man who knew Ireland could have told you that was so. You were warned that it was so. You are now leaving Ireland under the threat of Conscription, and I want to warn the Chief Secretary. You can make no step of progress towards the settlement of the Irish question until you abandon that idea. You will never be able to enforce Conscription in Ireland, and if you attempt to do it, so far from adding to your military strength, you will embark on a sea of trouble of which you have apparently very little conception. You will embroil yourself with America and American opinion, you will destroy the moral traditions of this country, you will madden Ireland and embark on a long vista of hate between the two peoples which will spread from Ireland to America, to Australia, to New Zealand, and to Canada, and you will find that that struggle which will result in Ireland will have consequences which will make any Minister who is responsible for it bitterly repentant for the rest of his mortal life. The Conscription of people against their will is, in my deliberate judgment, one of the greatest crimes any body of statesmen could be guilty of. It is the worst form of slavery, and when hon. Members argue in a sophistical way that because we are coerced to come to this Parliament, and because this is called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, therefore the Irish people are not a separate people and must obey the orders of this Parliament even in such a matter as Conscription, that is a foolish, futile and preposterous argument. If ever there was a community of people in the history of the world who bear, as they have been acknowledged by British statesmen to bear, all the characteristics of a nationality, it is the Irish people. When you are, particularly under the aggravating circumstances which exist in connection with this matter, seeking to coerce the Irish people to submit to Conscription, it is, in my deliberate opinion, as great an act of tyranny as has ever been perpetrated by Germany in Belgium. We were told to-day that she has attempted to perpetrate it in Poland, but I do not know about that. She may have induced the Poles to fight for her, but I have not seen that she has attempted to impose Conscription upon the Polish people.
I heard the other day, and I was amazed at it, the Leader of the House, and. I think, the Foreign Secretary talking with great approval and satisfaction because the Czecho-Slovaks, the Bohemians and the Jugo-Slavs had deserted in tens of thousands from the Austrian flag and gone over to the enemy. I want to know by what tie of allegiance we in Ireland are bound more to the British flag than the Czecho-Slovaks or the Jugo-Slavs are bound to the Austrian flag. I have not heard any generous word of recognition spoken of our soldiers who have fought with the most superb valour throughout all the years of this War in the very forefront of your battles, and who were described by Colonel Reppington as the best Infantry troops the British Army ever had, and who when they were taken prisoners and brought to the prison camps in Germany and subjected to all forms of temptation, out of the thousands of Irish soldiers only about thirty were seduced to desert the British flag. Yet we have British Ministers getting up here and holding up as examples to the world these Czechoslovaks and others who deserted their flag and went over to the enemy. I think it is an unwise thing under the circumstances that prevail in Ireland for Ministers to use such language as that and to hold up this action as a fine example. I say that not by any way of condemnation of the Czecho-Slovaks or the Jugo-Slavs. I sympathise with them. I am in favour of all nationalities who are struggling for freedom. I am in favour of the Czecho-Slovaks. I have deep sympathy with the Bohemians, because the Bohemians are precisely on all fours with us. If you read their history you might imagine that you were reading the history of the Irish. They have gone through the same experiences. They have an Ulster question precisely like ours, a German minority in Bohemia, who claim to be a more highly cultured race and who cannot tolerate the Bohemian Government. You might imagine you were reading the history of Ireland, the circumstances are so similar. Yet Ministers pledge the faith of England for the emancipation of this nation from the domination of Austria and, as the Foreign Secretary said the other day, from the domination of a privileged minority in Bohemia. They forget how closely these observations apply to the case of Ireland.
If the Chief Secretary for Ireland is a wise man, I hardly imagine that he will allow the House to adjourn without making some statement on the situation in Ireland and giving us some enlightenment, or attempting to do so, as to his policy and his intentions in regard to the Irish question, on which we have had, up to the present, since the great refusal and the throwing over of the Government policy, not a single word of enlightenment. I beg to warn him with all the solemnity that I can command, that until he abandons the threat of Conscription he can do nothing, and can take no step in the direction of a settlement of the Irish question. I think it is disastrous, inconceivably foolish, and I might almost call it an insane policy, to maintain the threat of Conscription if you do not intend to put it into effect. Nobody in Ireland believes that you do intend to put it into effect, but the threat which is constantly used, both by the Lord Lieutenant and by others in Ireland, keeps up a state of excitement and of bitter feeling, and has a most terrible influence towards throwing the whole population into the hands of the revolutionary party. It has already had a tremendous effect in that direction, and so long as it is kept hanging over the heads of the people that effect will continue.
There are three points which I wish to bring under the notice of the Chief Secretary, and on which I would ask him for a definite and clear statement. The first is the question of permits. I will dismiss that in a few words, because the Chief Secretary said that the methods of dealing with the difficulty about permits to enable us to come here to our Parliamentary duties could be improved, and that if we went to Downing Street we would get a permit authorising us to travel without further application to the police or anybody else. We were told that we should get that permit as a matter of course, and that it would have no limit of time. Some of my colleagues were there to-day, and their permits are only dated for three months. That is not carrying out the promise. The permits ought to be permits which would definitely get over the difficulty of leaving it in the power of the Executive Government to interfere with the attendance of Members of this House. I understood from the Chief Secretary that that is what was intended, and that if we called at the office in Downing Street we should get these permits as a matter of course and not as a matter of grace, and that there would be no limit of time.
Another question is the prohibition of meetings. A Proclamation has been issued recently under the Defence of the Realm Act, prohibiting all meetings in Ireland unless a police permit has been obtained. A most extraordinary thing has arisen under that prohibition. It was interpreted by the police for the first three weeks as applying to all social gatherings and games as well as political meetings Not only was it interpreted so, but it was put into force, greatly to the annoyance of the people of Ireland, where the feeling is extremely bitter and exasperated. Football matches, Gaelic gatherings, dances, and concerts were interfered with and broken up, and in some cases the military were called in with fixed bayonets and threats were used. The question was raised in this House, and the Chief Secretary gave us an evasive and uncertain answer. Then the Gaelic League announced that last Sunday they would hold 1,500 meetings, one in every parish in Ireland, simultaneously. Thereupon Dublin Castle, after considering the situation for some time, announced that the prohibition so far as sports and concerts were concerned was due to a telephonic mistake, and the police were ordered not to interfere. It was a curious telephonic mistake, and it was only discovered when the question was raised in this House and the Gaelic League had decided to hold these simultaneous meetings last Sunday throughout Ireland. I want a clear statement upon that question.
I desire also a clear statement upon another branch of the subject, which is of even greater importance. The Chief Secretary, in answer to a question the other day, affirmed his determination and the determination of the Government to maintain the prohibition on all political meetings in Ireland unless a police permit was obtained. I told him at once that we could not consent to apply for a police permit. We regard this prohibition as a deliberate attempt—there is no other explanation of it—on the part of the Government to throw the whole of Ireland into the hands of the revolutionary party and to kill the constitutional movement. What other motive could there be? The revolutionary party do not depend upon public meetings; they have their organisations which do not meet in public, and when they are attacked they fall back on private proceedings. To a constitutional movement such as ours the very breath of life is public meetings, but if we are to be told that we can only hold meetings as licensees of the Irish police we can hold no such meetings, because, by asking for the permit of the police and then holding the meetings, we would be defeating the whole purpose of the meetings and playing the game of the extreme party in Ireland, increasing its power and influence. Therefore there is no excuse for this proceeding, unless it be the deliberate policy of the Irish Executive—and many of their proceedings point to that as their policy—to throw the whole country into the influence and under the control of the revolutionary party.
I want to tell the Chief Secretary quite plainly that we cannot have this prohibition. It is possible that whenever a meeting which is held to be dangerous to the public peace or of a treasonable character is being organised to have it prohibited, and that is the rule which has been followed in regard to all public disturbances in the past, such as in connection with the Land League and previous agitations in Ireland. And when my right hon. Friend, in reply to me the other day—he sometimes makes these replies very quickly and without thought—said we were not at war in those days, I would ask the Chief Secretary, Was the country at war in 1916, when we had a rebellion in Ireland? This Proclamation, except for a short period after the revolution, was never put in force. Even then, when the country had been in rebellion, the Executive stopped meetings which were of a rebellious or seditious character, but they never dreamed of issuing a general order that no meetings of any sort or kind should be held, and I say that this Government, without anything like the excuse which existed in previous days, has gone to an extent of coercion wholly unparalleled in the course of the history of Ireland, and has embarked upon a policy and a method which can only have one explanation: that it is their deliberate purpose to put down and crush as far as they can all constitutional movement in Ireland, and leave the field perfectly clear for the unconstitutional, extreme, and revolutionary party in Ireland. I, therefore, demand from the Chief Secretary that he should modify or withdraw this Order so that we should be at liberty to address our constituents in Ireland, and so as to enable all meetings in Ireland of a political character, which are neither disorderly nor seditious, to be as freely held there as in this country. I do not think that is an unreasonable request to make. This country is at war, and you have not applied the present prohibition to it. I go further, and warn the Chief Secretary that, instead of promoting the peace of the country and increasing the chances of Ireland moving towards a rational settlement of the question, this policy will hinder it. Sometime or other you will have to settle the Irish question; you cannot wipe the question off the slate as the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Trinity College proposed the other day. It will not be wiped off; you will be bound to settle it, and this policy, so far from promoting the progress and direction of a rational settlement is going right in the opposite way. Every day and every week that this Regulation is in force you will find that the Irish question will become more and more unmanageable, and, to use the words of the Prime Minister himself, more tangled.
Now I come to my third point, and that is the question of the Ulster arms, which is a burning and vital matter. It is now over four weeks since it was declared that there could be no law and no respect for the Government in Ireland so long as this gross inequality existed. In the south and west of Ireland, and in all the Nationalist districts, the most stringent measures were and are being taken to disarm the population; seizures are going on, widespread military activities, breaking into houses, digging up gardens, and so on, in the search for arms. As I say, it has been going on all over the South-West and Midlands of Ireland, and a great many arms have been seized, and not only that, but I have had letters in the last two or three days of bitter complaint from farmers whose arms have been taken away from them and whose crops in consequence are being totally destroyed because they are even refused sporting cartridges. It is a great hardship, and I recommend the matter to the urgent and immediate consideration of the right hon. Gentleman. I only mention it in this connection to indicate something of the extreme rigour with which disarmament is going on all over Nationalist Ireland. Bodies of soldiers are sent out, houses broken into, and searches made of so exhaustive a character that they even go to the extent of looking under beds and searching in every hole and corner for arms. The Chief Secretary declared himself that to his knowledge and to the knowledge of the authorities there were 50,000 rifles in Ulster and twelve machine-guns. I do not know, because he did not say, how many rounds of ammunition there may be in Ulster, but I believe there are upwards of 1,000,000—certainly there is ample ammunition. What must be recognised is that those guns are there for the purpose of rebellion—you must not forget that. Those guns were brought in for the purpose, and not only that, but on the 24th September, 1914, six weeks after the War broke out, the present Leader of the House and the present Member for Trinity College went over to Belfast and they then and there declared that the moment the War was over they would call out the Ulster troops and use those rifles—to do what? To tear up an Act of Parliament and repeal it, not to repeal it through this House, but to repeal it on the plains of Ulster, by an act of rebellion actually announced openly amidst thundering cheers when they were surrounded, let me remind the House, by all the heads of the Presbyterian Church in Ulster.
Yet I heard attacks made on the heads of my Church because they intervened at the request of my people—and in my deliberate opinion intervened to save bloodshed and disorder in Ireland—and the Prime Minister comes up to that Box and sheds crocodile tears over what he describes as the horrible mistake of the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, but never says a word in condemnation of the bishop of the Anglican Church or of the head of the Presbyterian assembly who stood beside the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Trinity College when he announced, while the War was going on, that the first act after the War would be to lead a rebellion against the King and Parliament or this country. But of course we know that these loyal Ulster-men can rebel whenever they like. In their case it is not treason at all, and I say it is a mockery for the Chief Secretary to come down and talk about his determination to get all these arms when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Trinity College defies him, as he defied him openly in the House of Commons the other day, when he told him he had never been approached on the subject. And the right hon. Gentleman said, “Oh, I did not know until now that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Trinity College controls the rifles.” Did the right hon. Gentleman never read the speeches of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Trinity College? Did he read that speech on Belfast when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Trinity College, at a time when every rifle was worth lives to this country in this War, declared: Some men have said, I have allowed some of the Ulster rifles to leave Ulster. It is a lie, and as long as I am the Leader of the Ulster party I will allow all the rifles I can get to come in, but no rifle will leave Ulster. Yet the right hon. Gentleman, our new ruler from Newcastle-on-Tyne, informs us that he does not know, and that it never occurred to him, that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Trinity College had any control over the Ulster rifles. I tell him that he has, and if he will speak to him to-morrow and to the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Down, they can get him every single rifle and machine gun in Ulster if they choose to do so, but I do not believe that he will ever get one, and if we come back in October we shall have some foolish excuse put up. Is it any wonder that people in Ireland when they see such games as that being played do not trust the Government? I would ask hon. Members who are now listening to me to take a note of the matter, and see whether the law is in that one respect fairly and equally administered as between the Orangemen of Ulster and the Nationalists of Ulster and the rest of Ireland. We hear a lot of talk about Ulster, and we must not forget that Ulster is very nearly half Nationalist. But the people in the North-East portion of Ulster are to be a privileged class, like the Germans of Bohemia. They are to be a superior race. They will not give up their arms, and the right hon. Gentleman and Lord French dare not take their arms, and night after night during the last three weeks the right hon. Gentleman has been obliged to get up at that Table and say that he can make no further statement on that question, but that he intends to get the arms. I wish him joy of the task, but he must pardon me for remaining incurably sceptical until I see the 50,000 rifles, the machine guns, and the ammunition collected in Dublin Castle.
Is it unreasonable on these points before we break up that we should get some statement from the Chief Secretary, and that we should also have some statement as to the general policy in Ireland? Do they still maintain the pretence of having any intention of settling the Irish question, or have they the courage to say frankly that they have abandoned that intention? Do they intend to let the law take its course, which would mean that, when the War comes to an end, an Irish Government under an Irish Parliament would come automatically into existence, or do they intend to act on the words of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Trinity College, which I have already quoted—”The first thing we shall do after the War is closed, and we have beaten the Germans, is to tear up your scrap of paper”? Does the Government propose to tear up the scrap of paper and violate the word of the King and of Parliament under the open threat of rebellion, not pretending that they have discovered any new merits of the question or that they are going to undo it because they think they were wrong, but because they have been threatened with rebellion if they do not instantly repeal the Home Rule Act? They have no more moral right to coerce or govern Ireland, and they have no more moral right to condemn Sinn Fein in Ireland as long as they maintain the position which they now maintain, that they are now denying, and intend in future to deny, to Ireland the right which this Parliament gave and to which the King put a signature, and that they are doing so, and will do so, under the threat of rebellion from a minority of the Irish people.
The response to John Dillon’s speech from Edward Shortt, Chief Secretary for Ireland, will appear in the next (June) issue of Labour Affairs.