HC Deb 21 March 1839 vol 46 cc1101-8
Mr. F. French

said, that in calling the attention of the House to the subject of which he had given notice, he assured them no person could be more desirous than he was to do full and ample justice to the report of the railway commissioners, to acknowledge the mass of statistical information that it contained, and the fair and open manner in which the commissioners had placed before the public the data from whence their conclusions had been drawn; and he was fully prepared to admit, notwithstanding the objections to which it was liable, that their report was by far the most valuable that any of the numerous commissions on Irish subjects had produced. The commissioners had shown with great ability the circumstances peculiar to the situation of Ireland and its inhabitants, which rendered the promotion of these works an object of national importance, and their suggestions as to the means and manner in which their projects should be carried into execution, their expose of the evils which had resulted, and which was likely to result, from the exorbitant powers already conferred on the railway companies in this country, and their observations on the principles on which all future railway bills should be framed, were worthy of the most serious attention. Railways were about to become the highways of the nation, and therefore the choice of their lines, their mode of construction, the rules by which they should be governed, and the regulations to which they should be subject, had become matters of paramount national importance. He (Mr. French) had read with deep interest the powerful manner in which the commissioners imposed upon Government the necessity of affording extensive assistance towards developing the now dormant resources of Ireland, and but for the melancholy experience of the past, in all that related to that country, could never have entertained a doubt that their views would speedily be carried into effect; but he confessed until he read the report of the speech of his noble Friend the Secretary for Ireland, he had no expectation that even a portion of the report would have been acted on. Hitherto, although Government had assented to inquiry on all subjects connected with the improvement of Ireland, they had uniformly disregarded all recommendations for that purpose, whether proceeding from commissioners appointed by themselves, or from Committees of the House of Commons, on the subject of the reclamation of the waste lands of Ireland. They had the reports of the commissioners appointed by the Crown in 1809, of committees of that House in 1819 and 1830, all concurring in its practicability and the policy of its being promoted by the State; and notwithstanding that these reports had been backed by the strong argument of national interest, tested and shown by the extraordinary increase of revenue which had uniformly followed such improvements, no steps had been taken towards its accomplishment. They had reports on reports, and recommendations on recommendations, from committees and commissioners, as to the necessity of the improvement of the Shannon being undertaken by the State, a national work, in the words of Colonel Burgoyne, to be accomplished only by national means; if any steps were to be taken towards giving to the nation the benefit of the navigation of this splendid river—the principle to be acted on was one which would, he feared, render the bill, if indeed, it was ever to be introduced, wholly inoperative—a principle which had originated with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and which was in direct opposition to the recommendations of the committee which inquired into and the commissioners who surveyed and reported on the state of the river, the report of the committee on public works, which sat in 1835, moulded as it was to meet the views of the right hon. Gentleman, might, for all the benefit likely to accrue from it, as well never have been made. The intimation of the introduction of an extensive system of public works appeared, until the statement of his noble Friend, to be altogether forgotten. These and other circumstances, which he should not detain the House by enumerating, had led him to the conclusion that neglect would also have been the portion of this report. He (Mr. French) was glad he was irk error as to the intention of her Majesty's Government, and regretted that he could not tender his support to the proposition of his noble Friend, being convinced that Government had but one of two courses to pursue—to give general assistance or none at all. Even the latter course would be more for the advantage of Ireland than the partial measure they proposed. The check which the publication of the report had given to private enterprise would be removed, and the lines which had been for some time before the public would be executed or abandoned, as the prospect of immediate remuneration appeared favourable or otherwise. Since 1817, 6,500,000l. had been devoted to the pro- motion of public works in the United Kingdom. Of this sum, 6,250,000l. had fallen to the lot of England, and but 250,000l. to that of Ireland. Loans to the extent of twelve millions had been sanctioned by the Exchequer Loan Commissioners for Great Britain, whilst from the limited nature of the funds entrusted to the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland, the entire amount in that country was but 730,000l. Great assistance was given to the former country, which, on a former occasion, he had shown possessed in a portion of it equal in size to Ireland upwards of 4,000 miles of inland navigation; Ireland had altogether but 400. They would find by the report of Lieutenant Harness, that she annually forwarded to her ports 2,225,000 tons of agricultural produce for exportation on cars in the primitive fashion of the country. The want of the means of internal communication was universally admitted to be one of the chief causes of her miseries; and yet three-fourths of the country were to be excluded from the benefit of the proposed measure of her Majesty's Government. Was this view politic or prudent? To give assistance and encouragement to public works could not, he contended, be considered on the part of Government an act of grace or benevolence: it was one of justice and sound policy; their own interests called for it. Much as he was disposed to give credit to the commissioners for their ability and research, there were two conclusions at which they had arrived from which he totally dissented, and which, as they appeared to influence materially the motion on this subject of his noble Friend the Secretary for Ireland, he could not pass over in silence. The first was their choice of a port, as a point of departure for America; the second, the policy of excluding one-fourth part of Ireland from the benefits derivable from the introduction of' railways into that country. As to the first, he was prepared to show, did he deem it necessary—which at present he did not—that their choice of a port had not been a judicious one, and that they had passed over in total silence ports possessing far greater claims than Tarbert to the position in which they had so prominently placed it. If there was one portion of Ireland which required the assistance of Government and the advantages of railroads more than another, that portion was Connaught. It was so peculiarly situated, that the voyage from its shores with agricultural produce was most dangerous and difficult, whether northward by the North Channel, or southward by Cape Clear. A vessel sailing from a port in Connaught for Liverpool, and taking the passage northward, had a dangerous navigation to contend with of upwards of 500 miles, if southward, 850, while the distance from the centre of Connaught across Ireland was but 240 miles. A railway from Dublin to Connaught would give to that district the most direct and quickest transit to the first market in the world; its inexhaustible fisheries from Galway to Donegal would be made profitable; and the latter, from its rich pastures, would in all probability secure to it a million of money, now annually expended by Great Britain in foreign countries for that article. He (Mr. French) was aware that it had been urged, and that England had been referred to in proof of the soundness of the theory, that the construction of works for the benefit of the public might be safely left to private speculators, because private interest calculated most accurately the works that were likely to prove successful speculations; that their not being undertaken by private enterprise, was a proof they were not likely to be remunerative undertakings, and that it was the duty of Government to regulate and control rather than to originate them; this might be a proper rule with respect to England, but it did not, he contended, admit of general extension, and to no country in the world was it less applicable than to Ireland, which essentially required the stimulus that Government could alone give to develop her great natural resources. When society would derive a benefit from a great national work, which private interest might not consider a sufficiently tempting speculation, or which it might not possess the means to accomplish, he held it to be the duty of Government which represented the general interest to be the undertaker, and in proof of this position, he could refer to any country in modern times, where civilization had extended—to France, where, by means of the national funds, the Mediterranean was joined to the ocean; to Russia, where in like manner, St. Petersburgh was united to the Caspian, by a complete chain of inland navigation; to Holland, where an opulent state was raised from a marsh; to Germany, the Netherlands, to every state in Europe, to prove that to facilitate the intercourse between district and district, to lessen the expense of carriage, and thus to afford means to develope internal wealth, and distribute the productions of labour, had ever been held to be an object of national concern, and that in each of these countries the national funds had been applied to this purpose to an extent that was only limited by the national resources. Let them for a moment suppose that the different states in Europe had declined to construct common roads until it might suit the interest of private individuals to undertake them, in contemplation of the traffic by which they would be remunerated. How, he would ask, had the march of civilization been stayed? Railroads were as necessary at present as common roads in the infancy of society, and their construction had become as great an object of importance to the community. He could not agree with some hon. Members, that an outlay on public works must, as a matter of course, be an unproductive one to the state: he believed the very reverse to be the fact. He held in his hand several very interesting calculations which had been made by the French engineers, as to the advantage derived by the public compared to that derived by the undertakers, from public works. Having referred to the works of M. Vaille and M. Favrier, he proceeded to say, that occupation, which was now Inaccessible, and almost unknown, was as certain as that it would afford them present employment, with the certainty of such fruits springing from the judicious outlay of public capital. Surely it would be only acting in the true spirit of the professions of her Majesty's Government, and the strict letter of its duty, to devote a portion of the national revenue, and that on no narrow or sordid scale to this great national object; it was, however, necessary that the measure should be a general one, that the benefits derivable from it should not be confined to one district, but that every quarter of Ireland, north, east, west, and south, should equally partake of its advantages, all of which could be considered, by the adoption of a different system, be obtained without a larger advance of money than that proposed by her Majesty's Government. He would at present confine him- self by moving, that an humhle address be presented to her Majesty, praying that she will direct measures to be taken to secure to every province in Ireland the advantages of railway communication.

Upon the question being put, an hon. Member moved, that the House be counted, and forty Members not being present, it was adjourned till to-morrow.