HC Deb 08 July 1853 vol 128 cc1429-33

then rose to ask the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department when the intention of Her Majesty's Ministers with reference to an Arms Act for Ireland would be stated to the House, and if it was intended to introduce any Bill, when that Bill would be brought in? He had asked the noble Viscount at the head of the Home Office a fortnight previously, and that noble Lord said the subject was under consideration, and that he would intimate to the House what decision should be come to. He believed that the time was now come when he might reasonably expect a definite answer to his question. A very few evenings age he had moved for returns intended to show that this Act was not a dead letter, but was now actively enforced by the Irish Executive for the purpose of maintaining the public peace in many districts of Ire- land. When he moved for these returns, the absence of the noble Lord the Secretary of State prevented him from receiving an answer to the question which he now put. He must once more earnestly intreat the attention of Her Majesty's Ministers to this subject—one all important to the peace and prosperity of Ireland. As he had on a former occasion stated, this Act would expire on the 31st of August. Unless some provision were made to supply the place of its enactments, there would then exist no power to restrict or control the possession of arms by any persons in Ireland. He must again remind the noble Lord the Secretary of State for the Home Department, that, with one exception of one year, Ireland had never been without a law controlling the possession of arms. In 1846, the Ministry of the noble Lord the Member for London attempted, for the first time since the Revolution, the experiment of dispensing with those powers, and permitting to all persons the unrestrained use of arms. The result had been an enormous outbreak of outrage and crime. He saw with great satisfaction the present tranquillity of Ireland. He earnestly implored of Ministers not to risk the permanence of that tranquillity by throwing away the power which they were using to keep the country tranquil. Since first he direct-ed attention to this subject, accounts from Ireland had added to the anxiety which he then felt. Outrages had taken place of a character quite sufficient to excite vigilance —outrages occurring, he regretted to say at a most unusual period of the year, He warned the Government that it they permitted the powers of this Act to expire, the long nights of winter might bring, in some parts of the country, a repetition of the scenes that followed the last experiment of the kind. The result of that experiment the noble Lord the Member for the city of Dublin thus described in that House in the month of August, 1849:— At the very commencement of the present Government we proposed to continue an Arms Act which we found existing on the Statute-book. … It was pressed upon us that the people of Ireland might be Safely left to the exercise of their own discretion, and that the experiment should at least be tried of having no Act of restriction or coercion. We said we were ready t6 see if the peace of Ireland could not be preserved without any such Act, and we consented not to have any such powers. What was the consequence? Why, the open purchase of arms by persons who purchased them for the purpose of disturbing the peace of the county for the purpose of making the highways unsafe—for the purpose of making the home of the industrious farmer unsafe—and for the purpose of placing the whole country in a state of insecurity. I confess that I never felt the weight of responsibility more than when I was brought to consider that our parting with those powers, in our confidence in the disposition of the people, had tended in a great degree to encourage that state of disturbance and insecurity. This, I say, was a lesson to me, not prematurely to part with these powers. This was the description given by the noble Lord of the solitary attempt to govern Ireland without an Arms Act. He might, perhaps, be permitted to hope that the noble Viscount would be able now to give him more explicit information than his former questions had been the means of eliciting. No one entertained a more sincere admiration than he did for that unrivalled felicity with which the noble Viscount had the tact of parrying questions he did not like, and by which he generally managed to make his answer afford more amusement to the House, than information to his questioner; but still he trusted the noble Viscount would feel that this was not a subject to be thus lightly dealt with. After the statement they had heard, it was nothing impossible for the Cabinet of which the noble Lord (Lord John Russell) was a Member, to take upon themselves the responsibility of repeating the experiment of 1846. But he must remind the Government that the Session, at least they might hope so, was drawing to a close. Were they sure that their Bill would not be opposed? It was the resistance offered to the Bill in 1846 in the last months of the Session that led to its abandonment, with all the consequences that ensued. The Bill of 1846 had been abandoned on the plea of the lateness of the Session: the same plea might be put in on the present occasion, if the matter was permitted to rest any longer. Therefore he (Mr. Butt) had asked the question he now put a fortnight previously. This was not all: the moral effect of that legislation depended upon its promptness, and this was no light element in its success. Nothing would be more disastrous to the peace of Ireland than that any impression should go abroad that the Government had the slightest hesitation to arm the Executive with due power to suppress outrage and punish crime. If they intended to give this protection to the well-disposed, never was there a case to which the maxim Bis dat qui cito dat could with more truth be applied. They must decisively show that whatever might be the political opinions of any persons connected with the Government, there was one thing upon which they were resolutely determined that they would not for one moment palter with that hideous system of assassination which had so often stained Ireland with blood; And as prompt legislation on the subject would have move effect, under such circumstances, than delay, he hoped it would be considered that he was justified in again asking the question which he had put to the noble Lord a fortnight previously, without having since received any intimation in reply.


said, he could not see that there existed any grounds for the supposition that there was any, the least, intention on the part of Her Majesty's Government not to use every means in their power to preserve the peace of Ireland, and secure its inhabitants and their property from outrage and violence. The subject had been fully considered by the Government, and their minds were made up on the matter. Due notice, therefore, would be given of the period of introducing a Bill.


said, he held that the House and the country had a right to a distinct answer to the question, whether the Government intended to renew the provisions of the Crime and Outrage Act for Ireland during the present Session.


said, he felt considerable regret at the evasive manner in which the right hon. Baronet (Sir John Young) had treated the question put to him by the hon. and learned Member for Youghal (Mr. I. Butt). The continuance of an Arras Act was the only security for life in Ireland; and every Member in that House must be aware of the serious outrages which had taken place there, and which would undoubtedly continue to take place, if the uncontrolled use of firearms were permitted. In a very short time there were no less than fourteen persons to be put upon their trial for the illegal use of firearms; and he trusted that some measure would be introduced on the subject before the expiration of the present Sessien.


said, he could not possibly understand the hesitatation of the Government to answer the question which had been put to them. Every Member of that House must be aware of the number of assassinations in Ireland, and, but that he feared to weary the House, he could quote the opinion of several eminent Judges, which was unanimous that nearly all those outrages took place in Ireland in consequence of the people of the country possessing firearms.


said, that in answering the question of the hon. and learned Gentleman (Mr. I. Butt), he had not, it appeared, quite understood its import. He had answered it under the impression that it was an inquiry into the provisions of a measure about to be introduced.


said, that it was considered advisable by the Government to examine all the evidence which could be collected on the subject; but, when the state of public business would allow of it, it was intended to bring forward a measure on this subject.

House at its rising adjourned to Monday next.