Parliament And World War One
by Dick Barry
08 August 1918. Part Three
(Final part of the debate on Ireland)
Joseph Devlin (13/2/1871-18/1/1934) was MP for the Irish Parliamentary Party. He was elected unopposed as member for Kilkenny North in the February 1902 by-election. In the 1906 general election he was re-elected to Kilkenny North, and also elected to Belfast West which he won from the Unionists by 16 votes. He chose to retain the Belfast seat and served as its MP beyond 1918. (Source: Wikipedia).
Mr. DEVLIN I would like, if he would permit me to do so, to congratulate the right hon. and learned Gentleman on the tone and temper of his speech. It has been no pleasure to Members on these benches to engage in controversy with him, and though, to judge from his appearance, he seems to think that is not a sincere statement, I can assure him that it is absolutely sincere. He has, he says, diagnosed the Hibernian character. I hope he has learned this lesson, that one of the chief characteristics of a Hibernian is this, that when he is hit on one cheek he does not turn the other. There is one diagnosis I have also made of the English character, and it is this, that neither by military operations can you suppress the freedom of a country nor by insulting the representatives of the people in this House can you get further along the line you desire to go. I have stated that I have noticed gleams of comfort in the speech the right hon. and learned Gentleman has delivered.
In the first place, I disagree with my colleagues altogether that the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not mean what he says when he states that he is determined to get the Ulster rifles. I accept that declaration. I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman will procure these rifles, and I am one of those who quite agree with him that if he is to secure these rifles it ought to be by the most peaceful methods. We have never sought, and we do not seek now, to have any tactless or provocative conflict in securing these rifles, but we want in this matter—it is all we have ever asked for—that if you seize rifles of Southern volunteers, because you believe an army of civilians is a danger to the State, then you have to take precisely the same action against the same spirit manifested in Ulster. That is our position.
We are in this fortunate position, too, that we can congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the fact that he knows the number of rifles in existence, and he knows where he can find them. That is half the work done, because Lord French and the right hon. Gentleman have not manifested any great intensity in carrying out their methods by half measures. He knows where they are, he knows how many there are, he knows where to find them, and I have no doubt, with the force at his back, he will get all these rifles, and in that matter, at all events, he will satisfy what is not only the feeling of Ireland in this matter, but the intense feeling of the masses of the people in this country, because, so far as I can gather from Members of this House from different parts of England and Scotland, they could not for the life of them understand why these raids for rifles were made on the premises of the Irish Nationalist volunteers, why private houses, and even the presbyteries of clergymen, were raided where there were no rifles at all in order to secure them, and yet these rifles are in vast armouries in the North of Ireland. I know one lordly castle in Ulster in which there are over 7,000 rifles. I am not in the secrets of the Ulster Unionist party, but I know what is an obvious and a common fact known to anyone, that you have only to go to one of these lordly castles in order to get 7,000 rifles. In this matter we want equality; that is all we have asked for, and I am very glad, at all events, that in relation to this matter we are going to secure equality from the right hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman gave a lecture this afternoon on the evils of sedition. I think sedition is a very elastic expression. I am no worshipper of words. I regard disloyalty as the highest form of virtue if you are disloyal to a thing that is inconsistent with public liberty. I go not to Mr. de Valera or the right hon. Gentleman the Member of Trinity College. I can go to the right hon. Gentleman’s leader for some lessons as to the best form in which you can be seditious within the law. Sedition is the revolt of a weak people against what they think is a public wrong. Sedition, on the other hand, becomes a virtue if it is preached by the leaders of political parties in this country, backed up by wealth and power in a powerful and wealthy country! I confess that if I were a Unionist statesman and a member of the Coalition Government every time the word “sedition” was mentioned I should slyly slink out of the House and wait behind the Speaker’s Chair until the discussion had terminated. I myself during the past four years have been applying myself to the study of seditious literature, and I confess I have found no more inspiring vindication of sedition than the speeches which were delivered, not by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Trinity College alone, but by many of the eminent constitutional statesmen who sometimes adorn the Ministerial Bench opposite.
I trust the right hon. and learned Gentleman is steadily pursuing his Hibernian studies. He will learn this in Ireland—as, indeed, one can learn it in any country in the world—that what is crime in people in a modest position cannot be other than a crime in castles and cannot be a virtue in people in big position who happen to have great wealth and power behind them. Whatever you do in this House let us not hear these lectures on sedition. You talk sedition! There was no seditious spirit in Ireland until the Ulster movement started, remember that! It took a long time in Ireland for the constitutional party to eradicate that intense spirit of disloyalty that seethed in the minds and the hearts of Irishmen because of the sufferings and persecutions of seventy years. But this party succeeded in doing it. I ask the right hon. Gentleman this question. He is a lawyer: Supposing you find the vast body of the population who believe that this country will never hearten to the cry of justice, liberty, or peace, and that the only method by which they can break the shackles that bind them, or even can win ordinary legitimate public reforms, is by physical force, and you tell them you will not consent to physical force, and they then are taught to walk along the lines of constitutional thought, and they take you at your word and follow you, as the Irish party have followed this party for forty years?
Suppose you tell them to trust to the power of reason and not to the arbitraments of the sword? You tell them to appeal to the spirit of justice of the British people instead of organising rebellion against them. Supposing that, believing you—as they believed us—and supposing that policy so far as the vast masses of the British people is concerned, that that principle was established—as it was, because I have never in Ireland, and never will, stand on a platform and allow the English people to be attacked—I have stood before the most extreme audiences and have resented attacks upon the English people. They are not responsible for all this. All I know about the English people is that for ten years they were loyal to Home Rule, and at General Elections they sanctioned the policy of Home Rule, and this House, which was empowered to express the views of the people of England, registered its faith in Home Rule and passed it on to the Statute Book. This Home Rule Bill, after going through all the vicissitudes of the Parliament Act, reached the Upper House, was forced upon it, and these English people remain faithful.
What the Irish people say—and this is the ground, this has been the reproach upon your own hypocrisy, although you carried it through this House with the consent of England, Scotland, and Wales, though it stands upon the Statute Book, a great English lawyer, backed up by a great British party, a great constitutional party, the Imperial party, the party that stands for the stability of the State and the upholding of law and order, that that party organised the forces of rebellion against that Act, and, what is worse still, those forces succeeded!
How can you expect, from circumstances of that character, that the people can have any faith in moral suasion or even in Parliamentary enactments? You attack the people first for sedition, and then turn round and find out that they have some reason for it. The Unionist Members in this House, in their difficulties and in an attempt to use Irish troubles for the purpose of promoting party purposes in Ireland, go over there and create a physical force and stir up rebellion against an Act of Parliament. Is it any wonder that those who have got that Act of Parliament want to keep it there by physical force? Therefore, I say, if you get down to it the real custodians of constitutional liberty are the Nationalist party, and the great enemies of constitutional liberty are the rebels who rebel against an Act of Parliament. I do not know whether or not that is an Hibernianism, which the right hon. Gentleman can understand? At all events, the ordinary plain man, who can understand ordinary plain things, I think, without asking me to defend everything that has occurred in Ireland, will find it difficult to understand how you can enshrine yourselves in the glass case of Constitutional perfection, while you denounce every one whom you call rebels and whose rebellion is against the rebels that rebel against the Constitutional action of this Parliament.
It is not a very difficult task for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to fashion out his measure against our advice. If you had taken our advice over the three of four years which preceded the rebellion there would have been no rebellion. We have been taunted here with giving advice. It is quite true on many occasions prior to the rebellion we were asked for advice; but it is equally true that all the blunders made were made because those concerned did not take our advice. The right hon. and learned Gentleman need not be in such a tremendous difficulty as he says he is for lack of our advice, because he ought to know—I do not know whether or not he does—whether he has been sufficiently long in his position to know—but he ought to know as a Member of this House that we have had dealings before with British Ministers. We have had negotiations time after time. It was not because we felt there was anything to compromise about. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to pay attention to this. These conferences were not because we had anything to compromise about, because we have made it known unmistakably where we stand in regard to the claim we make for the freedom of our country.
He does not know-the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House knows—and I put to him this question: Has there ever been a single occasion, so far as he knows, when British Ministers have entered into consultation with us upon matters vitally affecting our country and found that Irish Members broke their word? The right hon. Gentleman has had no dealings with us, or even conversations with us, but the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House can contradict me if what I say is untrue. We are the victims of broken promises. Does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that we are to go and consult with him and discuss and decide with him, and then to be told that what has been decided cannot be carried out. Is it any wonder that we do not want conferences with British Ministers, and frankly I say that I do not think any good purpose is served by that course. You know what we want perfectly well, and you know whether you can give it or not. If you are prepared to concede what Ireland wants, Ireland’s representatives will be prepared to carry that out in Ireland, No doubt the right hon. Gentleman opposite has studied the whole question in all its fullness, and when he introduces a large and generous measure of Home Rule which will satisfy the aspirations of the Irish people, he will not need any consultation with Ireland’s representatives here, because their position is clear and unmistakable.
The Chief Secretary stated that we contributed nothing to constructive statesmanship, and that our criticism was always destructive. I say that the right hon. Gentleman ought not to make allegations about things he knows nothing about. We had not only attended to our own business and our public duties in Ireland, but we have attended almost every day for nine months at the great Convention in Ireland, and I do wish Englishmen would not be so constantly throwing in our teeth that Irishmen can never apply themselves to the task of Ireland’s future. What happened in that connection? The position is entirely misunderstood. We set out to create a Constitution for our country, and we succeeded in agreeing upon everything except customs, and the Ulster Members never intended to agree to that. If the right hon. Gentleman had turned to them and said they never contributed one solitary ounce of wisdom or statesmanship to the deliberations of that Convention, he would have been right. That Convention consisted of Nationalists and Members representing Ulster, the moderate Unionists from the North, Labour men and others, and upon every question, except Customs, every Member of the Convention, except the small group of Members from Ulster, were in perfect agreement. How, under these circumstances can the Chief Secretary say that Ireland will not contribute anything to a solution of this problem.
I wish the Convention had been open to the public. It was so eminently a respectable body that it was as orderly as the House of Lords compared with the House of Commons. During the whole nine months we sat on that Convention I do not believe the Chairman was called upon in one single instance to intervene between what the right hon. Gentleman has called the excited Hibernians on one side or the other, and it was an assembly that would have been a credit not only to Ireland, but to any part of the world. With regard to the Chairman of the Convention I desire to say on this occasion that although I have never been a political associate of his and I differ from him profoundly in politics, I say that Ireland and the Empire and all who are anxious for a solution of this question owe a great deal to the tact and judgment and patriotism of Sir Horace Plunkett. Is it right to say that Ireland makes no contribution to the solution of this question when you find Southern unionists, Western unionists, landlords, and men who have come into bitter conflict with the general population, agreeing upon everything except customs? If we did not absolutely agree, can the House not understand how it was that a gathering of that character could not secure complete agreement upon a matter that had so passionately divided Irishmen for centuries when the whole wisdom of the British Empire cannot solve this question? At any rate we came nearer to agreement in that Convention than you were ever able to do in England, and having made our contribution to a wise solution of this problem, it is for those who have the power to see that Ireland shall have the material fruits of the labours of that Convention and the patriotism and statesmanship which was displayed in coming as near to a solution as it was humanly possible to do. I did not intend to touch upon this question, and I apologise to hon. Members and to Mr. Speaker for having occupied the House so long with this aspect of the question.
I come now to a very serious and important matter, and I am glad that the Leader of the House is present. I sincerely appeal to the right hon. Gentleman tonight to drop Conscription in Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon) has pointed out that there was not a single prophecy we made in the course of the Debate upon the question of the application of Conscription to Ireland that has not been fulfilled. We warned you, and I think we stated the case most moderately, as to what would be the consequence of imposing Conscription on Ireland. If Conscription could even secure you material military assistance there might be some justification for it, but it will not secure you the slightest military aid or help. On the contrary, I understand that before Conscription was introduced by this House you were getting 1,200 recruits a month, and since Conscription has been introduced practically you are not getting one third of that amount. That shows that Conscription is not frightening the people, but it has irritated them, it has spread bad temper and bad feeling, and it has created the idea in the minds of the Irish people that you want to exterminate them, because you want to force them along a path which is unrecognised under any constitutional Government in the world by imposing upon them a military law that would not be imposed upon any other country in the world without its consent. So long as you were honest, so long as you intended to do justice to Ireland, the chivalry and loyalty of Ireland, in her devotion to the cause of small nationalities and human freedom contributed her share magnificently.
I challenge anyone to deny the statement that for the first two years of the War, under voluntary recruiting Ireland’s contribution was greater than the contribution even of this country or of Scotland, outside the large industrial centres. What, in heaven’s name, can be the good of forcing this question or keeping it alive? I believe you will never impose Conscription. In the first place, if you attempt to impose it you will create such a condition of things as will arouse a spirit of revolt, anger and irritation, not only in Ireland, but in America, in Australia, in Canada, and in every country where the Irish race have found a home. In addition to that, there are still many Irish soldiers fighting with the superb valour of their race, whose hearts are weary and whose feelings are harrowed at the condition their country is in to-day. If you want to kill their moral, pursue this policy. Those splendid Irish-American troops whom I saw coming from great ships last Saturday in Liverpool, one third at least of whom are sons of men of Irish birth, they love their country, too. They love their country as deeply, and I would say more profoundly, than the Irish at home. They are going out to fight your battles in France. Are they to be sickened, dispirited and disheartened in the task they are undertaking by the memory that Ireland is a welter of discontent and dissatisfaction and revolt against one of the Allied Powers on whose behalf they are fighting? I say you can get nothing valuable, no military strength, by keeping this wound open. Why do you not frankly get up and say: “We will drop Conscription. We will tell the Irish people we will drop it, and we will settle ourselves down to try once again to utilise the best efforts of our statesmanship and apply the highest sagacity we possess to solving this problem.”
I quite agree it is almost idle to talk about settling the Irish question when you create such a pandemonium in the country. You should soften asperity. You want to win the people back to believe in your principles. You should say to them: “We are now going to put one of our chief war aims into operation; we are going to have a Government in Ireland sustained by the will of the people.” Why not drop Conscription and give the people an earnest of your sincerity? Why not show them that you are really willing to try and solve this problem? If you will do that, then, in my judgment, the question will be solved. Do not let us stop until the War is over before we start again to attempt to solve the problem of this racial war between two great nations. You do not want Ireland angry, irritated, indignant and passionate. You do not want England angry with Ireland. But, by your policy, you are creating and fostering mutual hatred between two peoples who ought to live together in friendship and goodwill for all time. The best thing you can have as a foundation for peace in this War will be peace between Ireland and England, and I am confident if the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House is bold enough and statesmanlike enough to make this declaration, that Conscription has disappeared and that something will be done to move along the path of conciliation and goodwill, every blessing will come, not only to the man who does it, but it will come mutually to the two nations, who will rejoice at what he has done.
Mr. PRINGLE I do not intend to continue the Debate which has been engaging the attention of the House, but there is one question I would like to put, either to the Chief Secretary or to the Leader of the House. There was a sentence in the Chief Secretary’s speech which appears to have escaped the attention both of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Cleveland (Mr. Samuel) and my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast (Mr. Devlin). The Chief Secretary, in dealing with the Irish policy of the Government, said that policy now was the policy of the Government when he took office. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman if he adheres to that statement?
Mr. SHORTT Yes.
Mr. PRINGLE Then I wish to remind the right hon. Gentleman what the policy of the Government was when he took office. That policy was declared by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Blackfriars Division (Mr. Barnes) on the 16th April last, when he was dealing with the Conscription Clause, in this sentence. He was answering a question put by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for East Fife, among others—a plain, clear, straightforward question, “What are you going to do in the interval before this Conscription Clause comes into force?” The answer was equally plain, clear, and straightforward, “We are going to bring in a Home Rule Bill and pass it through this House, if it is possible to do so.” Do the Government still intend to pass the Home Rule Bill before they put Conscription into operation in Ireland? That is a wholly relevant question to put to-day, and I think my hon. Friends from Ireland, having got a declaration from the Chief Secretary, should insist on a plain, clear, straightforward answer to it, either from the Chief Secretary or from the Leader of the House, before we separate for the holidays. I hope the Chief Secretary will state now whether the Government policy to-day is the Government policy as defined by the right hon. Member for Blackfriars on the 16th April. Will he do so? I get no answer to that question, either from the Chief Secretary or from the Leader of the House. What, then, is the use of appealing to hon. Gentlemen from Ireland to help? The object of the statement of the right hon. Member for Blackfriars was to get the Clause and the Bill through Parliament. It succeeded in doing it. Is it now to go forth to the people of this country and the people of Ireland that the statement of the right hon. Gentleman was a fraud on the country and a fraud on this House? If the right hon. Gentleman cannot answer that question, it means that it is.
The debate terminated at this point with no response from the government.