HC Deb 28 May 1852 vol 121 cc1322-5

said, he wished to call the attention of the noble Lord the Chief Secretary for Ireland to a most important subject, namely, the interference by a military officer with the votes for a Member of Parliament. A statement had appeared in the public press to which his attention was directed, and which had since been corroborated by private letters. It was stated in the Belfast Northern Whig, on the 19th of May last, that General Thomas, the military inspector at Enniskillen, and other military officers there, attempted to exercise an undue influence over the vote of Sergeant M'Kinley, a pensioner, and an elector of the said borough. This was a matter of great importance, involving as it did the liberty of the subject, and the freedom of election. There was nothing which the people of this country were more jealous of, or ought to be more adverse to, than the interference of military officers in influencing votes for Members of Parliament; and that was what General Thomas was charged with having done. He (Mr. S. Crawford) would not say that the charge was correct; but he wished to call the attention of the noble Lord the Secretary for Ireland to the statements which had appeared in the public papers on the subject. [The hon. Member then proceeded to read an extract from the Belfast Northern Whig, to the effect that at the late election for Enniskillen General Thomas asked several of the local pensioners to vote for Mr. Whiteside, and on being told that Sergeant M'Kinley was the only one of them who had a vote, he repeated the request to him; but the Sergeant declined to give him any promise that he would comply with his solicitation; the consequence was that the General shook his fist in the Sergeant's face, and told him that he was a degradation to the body which he belonged. It was likewise alleged that Colonel Code and Captain Beaufoy attempted to influence his vote.] It was of the highest importance that charges of this nature, brought forward against officers holding such high rank, should be inquired into. If such practices were permitted, there was an end of freedom of election. He wished to know whether any information had been received by the Government on the subject. It was most important that the Government, which he hoped had not sanctioned such a proceeding, should repudiate any attempt of that kind to influence an election, especially by a military officer. He (Mr. S. Crawford) thought that he was only doing his duty in bringing the facts under the notice of the Government and of the House—in, order that they might be contradicted if they were not true.


thought he had some reason to complain of the course which had been taken by the hon. Gentleman in the present case. He had in the first instance given notice of his intention to bring the matter before the House in the form of a question; and then, having allowed the proper opportunity to pass, he had suddenly brought it forward at the present moment; and, upon the mere authority of an anonymous letter in a newspaper, had thought fit to make a statement seriously affecting the character of an officer who bore perhaps as high a reputation as any gentleman in Her Majesty's service. The hon. Member had not even given him time to communicate with the gallant General to whom he had alluded. Of course, under these circumstances, he (Lord Naas) could only say that he knew nothing whatever of the transaction; but, from his knowledge of the gallant General, he believed him to be a gentleman who would never be found committing an act derogatory to his character as an officer in the Army; and that, if the subject was not brought under the notice of the Government in a manner more authoritative than it had yet been, he should not feel it to be his duty to take any more notice of it.


said, he was quite satisfied that no military officer, and especially one of the high character of General Thomas, could be guilty of the indiscretion of which he had been accused; but at the same time, as the accusation had been made, he hoped the right hon. Secretary at War would give the House an assurance that it would not be allowed to escape without some inquiry.


begged to observe, that he had a private letter in his possession corroborating the statement he had made.


said, that all the hon. Member had read to the House as the foundation of the statement was the anonymous letter in the newspaper.


said, that if he had any good reason to believe that there had been an improper interference on the part of the military authorities with the votes of the pensioners, he should certainly be desirous to make a strict inquiry into the charge; but he did not conceive that either an anonymous paragraph in a newspaper, or a private communication, where the name of the writer was not given, could be regarded as sufficient to justify him in impeaching the reputation of an officer who had served his country faithfully both in the field and at home. He (Mr. Beresford) was satisfied, from all he knew of General Thomas, that the charge could not be true.


was astonished to hear the noble Lord and the right hon. Gentleman say that they would take no notice of an accusation of this sort. To him it appeared that an investigation was inevitable. He felt convinced that a satisfactory reply could be given, but the case could not be allowed to rest where it was; it was assuredly the duty of the Government to inquire into it.


said, he agreed both with the noble Lord the Secretary for Ireland and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary at War in thinking that it was not the duty of the Government to inquire into accusations founded upon anonymous communications; and he would go further and say, that he did not think it was the duty of a Member of Parliament to prefer such charges. He (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) remembered the gallant officer very well when he was a Member of that House, and he must say he did not believe that he could have been guilty of the conduct imputed to him. But, at the same time, if the charge against General Thomas were brought before them in any authentic manner whatever, and if they thought the evidence of a proper character, the Government would of course feel it to be their duty to order an investigation into the circumstances of the case; but he repeated that he did not think it the duty of the Government, and he hoped no Government would ever think it their duty, to investigate charges which were made solely upon anonymous communications. The private letter to which the hon. Member had referred, was a mere copy of what had appeared in the newspaper.


said, he did not quite agree with the right hon. Gentleman with regard to the duty of Government, and perhaps he could not give a better example of what he considered to be their duty in such circumstances than the practice of the late Duke of York. He well remembered that Sir Robert Peel, in his speech on the death of that Prince, stated that when at the head of the Army he made it his regular practice to inquire into every complaint that he received against an officer, whether anonymous or not. He also believed that it was the practice of the heads of all the Government departments, when they saw even an anonymous paragraph in a newspaper imputing charges against any party under their authority, to institute an immediate inquiry as to whether the charges were true or not. He begged, however, that it might not be supposed for a moment that he desired to throw any imputation on the character of the gallant officer in question. On the contrary, he could not credit that he had done anything unworthy of his character. But when he heard an hon. Member ask whether it was true that a gallant officer had improperly interfered in an election, he must say he did not think it was a satisfactory answer to tell him that the Government did not think it worth their while to inquire into the allegation, because it rested on an anonymous communication.


said, he thought the question of much more importance than the right hon. Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to think. He quite agreed with that right hon. Gentleman that no Member should bring forward questions upon mere anonymous authority. He (Mr. Hume) candidly admitted that he had brought forward many questions which had originated in anonymous communications, but he had never brought them forward until he had previously satisfied himself that the charges rested upon the authority of persons deserving of credit, and then he brought them forward upon his own responsibility. And this was what his hon. Friend (Mr. S. Crawford) had done in the present instance. He understood that his hon. Friend, finding the charges in an anonymous article in a newspaper, had communicated with the writer of the article, and, having confidence in his reply, had thought it his duty to bring the matter before the House. He hoped the Government would see it to be their duty either to make an inquiry, or at all events to take care to prevent any such abuse in future.

Subject dropped.

Motion, "That the House at its rising do adjourn to Thursday next," agreed to.