Parliament And World War One
08 August 1918. Part Two
Edward Shortt MP. KC. (10/3/1862-10/11/1935) was elected as a Liberal Party member in January 1910 for Newcastle upon Tyne, and as member for Newcastle upon Tyne West in December 1918. In May 1918 he was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland. He was Home Secretary from January 1919 until Lloyd George’s coalition government was defeated in the general election of October 1922. At that point Shortt retired from politics.
The CHIEF SECRETARY for IRELAND (Mr. Shortt) I will deal first with the two points raised by the hon. Member for East Mayo before I come to the general question. I deal first with the question of permits to travel backwards and forwards between their constituencies and Parliament. Those permits are absolutely necessary for the protection of the good government of Ireland. It is absolutely necessary that there should be some control over those who are able to get in and out of Ireland, and that necessity involves a second necessity, namely, that there should be at Holyhead an officer whose duty it is to see that no person without a permit is allowed to go on board ship. It might be said that there was at Holyhead a Home Office official who did not know the hon. Member, and that the result might be very considerable inconvenience to the hon. Member. In discussing this point, when we first arranged the permits, we came to the conclusion—and I assure the House that we were considering nothing but the convenience of hon. Members—[Laughter]—no doubt they laugh at me, but I am quite certain that they know that we had nothing but the convenience of hon. Members in our minds—and we came to the conclusion that it was better that they should have what was in real effect an identification card to enable it to be known at once that they were Members of Parliament who could go on board. I hope that that matter is now settled, and that hon. Members will appreciate it.
Mr. DILLON Do I understand that without going to Downing Street we will get that permit?
Mr. SHORTT I can only say that I arranged with my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary that that was to be done, that Members of Parliament will be entitled as a right to a permit; but for their own convenience and for better security it was resolved to ask them to carry a permit of that sort, and that it will be available for all time as long as permits are necessary, and that they shall not be required to get their photographs taken.
Mr. HAZLETON Why should I have to get one for three months to-day?
Mr. SHORTT If the officials are not carrying out what my right hon. Friend and I agreed to, I will put pressure on them that they should carry it out. I can only tell what was arranged between my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and myself. So far as I am concerned, I will see that it is carried out as far as I possibly can. With regard to the prohibition of meetings, I am bound to say that hon. Members below the Gangway have an extraordinarily difficult standard as to what is an insult. A perfectly innocent statement made by me is resented as a grave insult, but about as gross a charge as could possibly be made when made against me is mere courteous persiflage.
Mr. DEVLIN Who started it?
Mr. SHORTT The hon. Member suggested that it is the deliberate policy of the Irish Government to ensure that the constitutional party and the constitutional movement shall be destroyed, and that we should deliberately try to set up in Ireland a rule, a party, which goes for unrest, which goes for rebellion, and which plays absolutely and entirely into the hands of Germany in this War. To accuse me of that is no insult, but to accuse them of not doing all they might do to help the Government is an insult which calls for denunciation, and they have denounced me in every possible way, and have accused me of the most dishonourable conduct of which a Minister can be guilty. All that is perfectly fair and perfectly right, and there is no insult contained in it at all. That shows how true it is that the Hibernian character is sometimes inclined to exaggeration, and it shows how true it is that hon. Members say many things which they do not mean. I do not believe that there is a single Member in this House who believes that either Lord French or myself would be guilty of any such deliberate treason to this country.
What is the position? The most dangerous and seditious propaganda was carried on by Sinn Feiners—who had been captured by the advocates of physical force—at their meetings and publicly preached sedition. We are asked whether we could not have taken other steps, but the very first thing that would have happened, after proclaiming Sinn Fein, would have been that the physical force party would have turned their attention to the Gaelic Society, or to some other equally innocent association. We are bound to close every possible avenue that may be open to the advocates of physical force. The means employed is to stop public meetings at which sedition is preached, and the only possible way is to use a system of permits, and to ask the assistance of all reasonable, people. We know that for ordinary meetings which are known to be innocent, permits are obtained as a mere formality. What happens? If a Member wants to address his constituency where is the great insult in issuing a permit? What is the intolerable inconvenience to which he is submitted? All that it means is that the gentlemen who organise the meeting for the Member have to send a postcard to the police, to say where they are holding the meeting at which the Member is to address his constituents, and a permit will be sent by return of post.
Mr. DILLON The right hon. Gentlemen has misinterpreted what I said. It was not inconvenience that I complained. What I complained of was the fact that this system of permits gave a political advantage to our opponents, and we cannot consent to give them that advantage.
Mr. SHORTT I would ask the hon. Members who are the opponents to whom the advantage would be given?
Mr. DILLON I mean the Sinn Feiners.
Mr. SHORTT I am told that I have favoured the Sinn Feiners, and frequently the papers have attacked me for fostering Ulster opponents. What is the fact? All parties alike get permits. There is no favouritism, no differentiation, and if there be a meeting where it is known perfectly well that sedition is intended that meeting can be stopped. But where we know perfectly well that no sedition is intended, as, of course, is the case in any meetings at which hon. Members desire to address their constituents, and where there would be no sedition talked, there would not be any trouble whatever. But it is essential and necessary to control political meetings where it is known that there is intention of seditious speech making, and I myself know of no more convenient method of controlling such meetings than that method which has been established. It only involves a little reasonable acquiescence and assistance on the part of hon. Members in this House. If they would only appreciate the amount of sedition that has been talked in Ireland they would be quite ready to acquiesce and see that we are justified in asking loyal Members of this House to appreciate the circumstances in Ireland.
Mr. SWIFT MacNEILL Does the right hon. Gentleman not know—he is a learned and distinguished lawyer—that the right of holding public meetings is a common law right, and why should we hold our meetings under the permission of some policeman?
Mr. SHORTT My hon. and learned Friend is really a little unreasonable. Here we are in the middle of a great war.
Mr. MacNEILL Let the War alone.
Mr. SHORTT It is all very well to ask us to forget the War, but the Government of Ireland are not going to forget the fact that we are in the middle of a great war and we are bound to take steps to prevent sedition in that country, and they are taken under legislation which has been passed for War purposes only. I know what the common law is perfectly well, but we are living under extreme and abnormal circumstances, in which we cannot help these things being done. I have tried to explain to the House, and I hope I have succeeded, that this is a reasonable and absolutely necessary regulation. It asks very little of hon. Members in this House.
Mr. DEVLIN You are always on the side of the rebels!
Mr. SHORTT Is not that an insult? All we ask of hon. Members is that they should acquiesce in this Regulation, so as to prevent really seditious meetings from taking place. With regard to the question of Ulster arms, I am not going into that, except to this extent: I am taunted, apparently, with having left the control of arms to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Trinity College. I have not, in fact, asked anyone to take control of the arms, and when I say that I mean personal and physical control. I do not acknowledge the right hon. Member for Trinity College or the Member for East Clare, who is now described as the leader of the Sinn Fein party—I do not recognise either Gentlemen as having control over anybody else in Ireland, and I shall only deal with those who have physical control of arms, So long as I am connected with the Administration, I shall acknowledge nobody outside the Government. I have already explained my position in regard to arms, and it is that we mean to get them without trouble if I can, as I am sure everybody in the House would prefer should be done. If we cannot get them without trouble, we will get them.
Let me deal with the general policy of the Government. The policy of the Government is exactly what it was before I joined the Government, namely, the policy which was declared by the Prime Minister in March. It is true that circumstances have to a certain extent altered, but I hope and believe they have not altered to any such extent as will affect that portion of the dual policy which we talk of as Home Rule. What is the position in regard to that? I should like to give what I conceive to be the position in Ireland to-day. Ireland—I think I am justified in saying this—is being restored to a peaceful state in which law and order are being observed. Remember, I have said peaceful only. Ireland is to-day extremely prosperous. There is no material grievance, no grievance financial, no grievance like that which resulted from famine, none of the grievances which one could call material grievances, which commonly give rise to trouble amongst peoples. But, and I admit this absolutely frankly, while you have a peaceful people in Ireland, while you have a prosperous people in Ireland, you have all over the South, middle, and West of Ireland deep and bitter resentment and discontent. I know that perfectly well, and I know as well as any hon. Member in this House what the reason is, and really the problem of Ireland to-day is how to bring about a set of circumstances in which the ground for that discontent is removed. I know it is sentimental; I know the one thing that will remove it as well as any hon. Member below the Gangway, but there are only two ways in which you can get Home Rule. One is by physical force—that is out of the question—and the other is by passing what is necessary through this House. That is the problem with which we are faced. How is that going to be done, and what steps are necessary? Because, although it is true, as the hon. Member for East Mayo has said, that a Home Rule measure is upon the Statute Book, it is suspended for the period of the War, and I am not at all sure that he is quite right when he says that it comes automatically into operation at the end of the War unless something is done.
Mr. DILLON I am sure!
Mr. SHORTT Then the hon. Member is in conflict—and I regret to say it—with some very distinguished lawyers. I am not at all sure about that, but for the purposes of argument—
An HON. MEMBER Mr. Redmond thought so!
Mr. SHORTT So did I until yesterday, but a great lawyer has put to me a proposition with regard to it which I do not pretend to have considered, but which certainly has a very serious difficulty in it. However, let us take it for the purposes of argument to-day that it will come automatically into force at the end of the War. The Suspensory Act was passed because it was felt by the Government of that day, 1914, that something must be done to meet the Ulster party and the Ulster objections. From that time onward every attempt has been made to bring Irishmen together—the Buckingham Palace Conference, the suggestions that were made by the present Prime Minister, the Convention—every time that Irishmen have come together to consider the point the question has been: What is to be done to meet the difficulty of Ulster? That question faces us to-day, and hon. Members talk as though the Government had abandoned Home Rule, as though Home Rule was a thing dead and gone. It is absolutely nothing of the sort. There is a Committee which has been labouring at various schemes dealing with this Ulster question, and I have arranged myself to come back again in the Recess, instead of giving my whole time in Ireland, in order to meet a Sub-committee to go into certain other points. We are doing our best to get a measure into a form which will ensure it passing through this House, and that is the one thing which is absolutely essential before you can take the necessary steps to remove discontent in Ireland. Now I am justified in saying this, and even at the risk of being called insulting I shall say it. We have been accused of the bankruptcy of British statesmanship What sign is there of any Irish constructive statesmanship to-day? What help are we getting? We are getting any amount of destructive criticism, aye, and not only destructive criticism, but there is great denunciation and great abuse of what we are trying to do. What hon. Member has ever made a suggestion, since the Convention failed, of some way in which the labours of the Convention might be brought to fruition and to success? I have been twitted in some of the Irish newspapers, and, indeed, in some of the English newspapers, with being out of touch with feeling in Ireland and out of touch with the Irish people. How can it be otherwise when every single representative of Ireland refuses to see me in public or to be known to have ever come near me, with the exception of, perhaps, half a dozen?
Mr. DILLON That is on account of Conscription. As long as you are going to conscript our people I am afraid that will be the case.
Mr. SHORTT If I am not to get any help, I must do my best to work without it, but is that a reasonable position to take up? Do hon. Members below the Gangway really think they are forwarding the solution of this great question by standing aloof, by refusing to be seen discussing anything with a member of the Government?
Mr. DEVLIN We know how we were treated when we did discuss things with Ministers.
Mr. SHORTT I have not found that the hon. Member has discussed much with me, but perhaps he would rather not. Hon. Members come to me when they have got any trouble with their constituents, like anybody else, and I am sure they will do me the justice of saying that I have invariably done the very best I could to meet that which they desired. I am only too anxious to meet Irish Members, to get Irish opinion. I have done my best, failing the help of Irish Members of Parliament, to get those in Ireland who will meet me and give me their opinions. When I offer an opinion in this House it is not my own—it is the best which I can gather from the best advisers I can find in Ireland. I have done my best to get it, but if hon. Members who are the mouthpieces of Irish constituencies, who represent, or ought to represent, the feeling of Ireland, do not come and help me, if they will not come and say, “Let us see the draft of your Bill and see if we can help you with it,” I am helpless to meet their wishes and desires. But I can assure them that I am only too anxious for their help, only too anxious for their assistance and their opinions, only too anxious to get what help they can give me. That is the position, so far as I am concerned, with regard to general policy. It remains unchanged.
An HON. MEMBER Are you in favour of Conscription still?
Mr. SHORTT I am not in a position to say anything more about Conscription than has been said by the spokesman of the Government on the subject. I have explained my position as well as I can, and I can say no more on that, but I do ask during this Recess that those who represent Ireland should at least give me some assistance in my attempts to solve this terrible problem.
Mr. DILLON You have never asked us before. This is the first time it ever was asked.
Mr. SHORTT Do I understand from that—I welcome the interruption with the greatest pleasure—that if I do ask, the hon. Member will come and help me?
Mr. DILLON I only said you never asked it before.
Mr. SHORTT Do I understand from that complaint that the hon. Member will come and help me? Because if so, I ask him here and now, before I sit down.
Mr. DILLON I make no pledge of that character at all, but undoubtedly the right hon. Gentleman left the House under the impression that he had been asking for assistance and advice from Irish Members. He never did to this hour. This is the first time on which he has approached me or made a hint to me that any advice or assistance would be acceptable.
Mr. HERBERT SAMUEL I desire to intervene only for two or three moments, but the speech of the Chief Secretary has contained two statements of very great importance, and it has also been marked by one omission. The omission was to say anything to the House with respect to the intentions of the Government between now and the middle of October with regard to Conscription.
Mr. SHORTT It cannot be enforced before the House reassembles. If the right hon. Gentleman will look at the Act, he will find that an Order in Council cannot be made unless the House is sitting.
Mr. SAMUEL I know it must come before the House to be discussed, but it is the fact that this threat of Conscription while self-government is still denied to the Irishmen—and that is the essential point—has thrown Ireland into a state of turmoil and has created most of the difficulties with which the right hon. Gentleman and his Administration have to cope. And it is that false modesty, as many of us think it, which is responsible for many of the troubles now in Ireland, while at the same time it has not produced, and appears to me unlikely ever to produce, a single additional soldier to help to fight our battles in this War. The two positive statements that my right hon. Friend’s speech contained were such as I think all of us in this House were very glad indeed to note. The first relates to the arms which are stored in Ulster. The right hon. Gentleman said definitely and specifically that, either with trouble or without trouble, the present Irish Administration is determined to secure possession of those arms.
Mr. PRINGLE He did not tell us when he would take trouble.
Mr. SAMUEL That, I think, is a most wise policy, for there will be no real peace in Ireland, there will be no real sanction to the policy of administration, so long as it can be said, and said with truth, that while one party, which is willing to use physical force to secure its ends, is suppressed by all the power of the Executive, and its weapons taken away from it, another party, which is willing to use physical force for other ends, but equally against the law, is allowed to retain full possession of whatever arms it has been able to accumulate. The other statement is that the Government are still engaged in the endeavour to find a legislative solution of the Home Rule problem, and that he himself during the Recess intends to take part in the deliberations of the Government Committee, with a view to framing a legislative measure. What does that mean? I am quite sure my right hon. Friend would not say that to the House unless the Government intended that those efforts should have some substantial result. He would not make a declaration of that character merely in order to mark time, to keep the attention of the Irish people engaged upon those deliberations, to hold the matter in suspense, while at the end he knew very well that nothing would come of it. I am quite sure that my right hon. Friend is not capable of a policy of that kind. If he tells the House of Commons on the eve of the Adjournment that during the Recess he and his colleagues are to be engaged in endeavouring once more to frame an acceptable Home Rule measure which can pass into law, he means that it is the intention of the Government to produce such a measure to Parliament. That is why, I take it, his speech is of great importance. He could not wish us to draw any other conclusion. I welcome both those declarations—the declaration with regard to arms, and the declaration with regard to a Home Rule Bill. While I welcome them, I do ask my right hon. Friend to beware of such a course of policy as once more will only raise hopes to destroy them, which will only give assurances which are afterwards to be broken. If he tells the Irish people that he means on the one hand to secure complete disarmament of the rebel forces in Ireland, of whatever character they may be, and, further, that it is the intention of the Government to proceed effectively to frame a legislative measure to grant self-government to Ireland, we take note of those undertakings, and let him beware he does not lay himself open to the reproach, so many British statesmen in Ireland have had to bear, of raising hopes only to destroy them afterwards.
The third and final part of the debate on Ireland will appear in the next (July/August) issue of Labour Affairs.