HC Deb 14 May 1863 vol 170 cc1724-31

said, he rose to present a Petition from Mr. M'Cann, by whom the notice of withdrawal of the Petition against the return of the sitting Member had been forwarded, which notice, together with the disclaimer of that withdrawal, was afterwards referred to the General Committee of Elections. In his Petition Mr. M'Cann asserted that the Committee to whom the inquiry was referred failed to ascertain the truth, because their powers were too limited, and because they were unable to administer an oath, and because they were not assisted by counsel. It further alleged that he was instructed by the persons who had petitioned against the return of the sitting Member to withdraw that Petition, and that he did so as their agent and with their knowledge, and in discharge of what he felt to be his right. The Petition concluded with a prayer that Mr. M'Cann might have the opportunity of substantiating his allegations upon oath, and that no steps might be taken upon the Report of the General Committee till further inquiry had been instituted, and that time might be given to him to take legal advice with a view to the institution of such proceedings as might be necessary for eliciting and establishing the truth of the allegations here set forth.

Petition ordered to lie on the table.


, in moving that the Report of the General Committee of Elections be considered, said, he would remind the House that on the 16th ult. it had been referred to that Committee to inquire into the circumstances under which the document withdrawing the Petition complaining of an undue election and return for the borough of Lisburn was signed by the petitioners, W. J. Knox and Moses Bullick, and whether such document constituted a withdrawal of such Petition under the Election Petitions Act (1848), and to report thereon to the House. The Committee had inquired, and found the document which was referred to them was not a withdrawal of the Petition under the terms of that Act, On ordinary occasions the General Committee of Elections would proceed to nominate the Select Committee to inquire into the validity of the Lisburn Election; but in that case, there having been a special reference to the General Committee, it would probably he convenient for the House to express its opinion upon their Report. He therefore begged to move that the Petition of W. J. Knox and M. Bullick do stand referred to the General Committee of Elections, the document referring thereto not having constituted a withdrawal under the Election Petitions Act (1848).

Report of the General Committee of Elections considered.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Petition of William John Knox and Moses Bullick, complaining of an undue Election and Return for the Borough of Lisburn, do stand referred to the General Committee of Elections, the Document withdrawing such Petition not having constituted a withdrawal thereof, under the Election Petitions Act, 1848.


said, he wished to ask whether in point of fact there had been any withdrawal of the Petition, and whether the recognizances had been discharged. Because, if nut, he apprehended the petitioners were in a position to proceed without any special motion on the subject. He also wished to know whether it was proposed to take any steps in reference to the Gentleman, Mr. M'Cann, on whose behalf a Petition had just been presented, and who had acted in the very extraordinary manner disclosed in the evidence?


said, he was not aware that any intention existed in any quarter to take proceedings against Mr. M'Cann, who perhaps was not very well advised in presenting a Petition complaining of the position in which he had been left by the General Committee of Elections. It was perfectly true that the Petition against the return for Lisburn had never been withdrawn; but bearing in mind that the House had thought proper to refer both the notice of withdrawal and the disclaimer of that notice to the General Committee of Elections, and that, pending that inquiry, the Committee could not have proceeded in the ordinary way to nominate a Select Committee to try the Petition itself, he thought the course proposed was the most advisable. His hon. Friend (Mr. G. Hardy) was perhaps technically right, but he (the Attorney General) was not acting without consultation or authority; and the adoption of the Resolution would, at all events, relieve the Committee from the embarrassment they might feel on account of their functions having been suspended. The terms of the Motion he had submitted were exceedingly well adapted to attain that end, without violating any of the forms of the House.


said, he would suggest the insertion of the word "remain," instead of the word "stand," referred to the General Committee of Elections.


said, he preferred the original words of the Resolution, which had been adopted on consideration.


said, there was a tendency in some quarters in the North of Ireland to get up Petitions against the return of Members, and then to make money by withdrawing them. A Petition, not long since, was presented against a Gentleman sitting on the Opposition side of the House, and that hon. Member, as he understood, was obliged to pay £2,000 to have that Petition withdrawn. ["Name, name! "] No; it would not be right to name him. There was no harm in paying £2,000 to get rid of a Petition. It was, however, desirable to discourage a traffic of the kind. The election for Lisburn took place on the 21st of February. Mr. Moore, a solicitor of Dublin, attended a meeting of the electors of Lisburn on the 9th of March, with the view to a Petition against Mr. Barbour, the sitting Member. It was a suspicious circumstance that Mr. Moore obtained a form of withdrawal in duplicate of the Petition, "to be used if the Petition should become no longer necessary by the retirement of Mr. Barbour, or if they should fail in, getting evidence to establish their case." On the 11th of March the election Petition against the return was presented to the House. On the 24th of March Alexander M'Cann induced the two Petitioners against the return to sign a withdrawal of the Petition. The withdrawal was short and clear. It consisted of only two paragraphs—one stating the presentation of the Petition against the election, the other withdrawing the said Petition. It was clear from the statement of these two men, although they were not examined on oath, that they knew very well what they were about when they signed that document. It was probable, that their terms not being complied with, they subsequently wished to withdraw their withdrawal. But these parties, when they signed the Petition and its withdrawal, were dealing, not with the sitting Member, but with the House. He apprehended that with the view to purity of election, and to stop all traffic in Petitions against the return of Members, the House ought to take the matter up, and not allow its Members to be terrified by Petitions backed by duplicate notices of withdrawal. It was not to be conceived that these two knowing Lisburn men would sign, a Petition against Mr. Barbour's return and then a withdrawal of that Petition, without knowing perfectly well, in both cases, what they were about. He trusted the House would not allow the Resolution to be passed at once, but would give time to Mr. M'Cann to prove the groundlessness of the imputations made against him.


said, the question before them was not as to Mr. M'Cann's character, but whether the House would pass a slight upon the Report of an important Committee, which, by its constitution and the names of its members, was entitled to confidence. The Committee had investigated the case, and found what they believed were the facts. There was no doubt, that whether the persons knew what they signed or not, before the withdrawal was presented to the House they wished to recall it. At present there were two documents in the Speaker's hands. There were the Petition and the alleged withdrawal, and, to prevent confusion, the Motion of the learned Attorney General was intended to be an authoritative declaration that there was no withdrawal, and that the Petition should take its ordinary course. He must say, he thought the course suggested by the hon. and learned Attorney General was the right course to pursue.


said, he believed that what the hon. and learned Attorney General wished to affirm was that the House ought to abide by the decision of the Committee, and the Petition stated as if no withdrawal had been presented. At the same time, he thought the word "remain" should be substituted for the word "stand," and he would therefore move an Amendment to that effect.

Amendment proposed, in line 4, to leave out the word "stand," and insert the word "remain."

Question proposed, "That the word proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, that having had the honour of being the Chairman of the Committee, he must be allowed to say one word with regard to the allegations in the Petition. It was true that great difficulty took place during the inquiry, in consequence of the Committee having no power to administer an oath. The evidence given was so contradictory that it could not possibly be all true; but the conclusion of the Committee was based upon what had been stated by the accused himself; and if he were to be allowed to produce further evidence, it must be to contradict his own statement.


said, he thought the Committee had acted with great discretion. His only object, however, was to prevent its appearing on the Journals that there could be any necessity to refer a Petition which existed, and with regard to which the withdrawal was null and void.


said, he could not see any real distinction between the words "stand" and "remain."


disavowed any intention to cast the slightest reflection on the Committee.


said, he would venture to suggest that, his hon. Friend need not trouble the House to divide.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


said, he did not understand the hon. Member for Wexford county (Mr. M'Mahon) to cast any imputation on the conduct of the General Committee of Elections; and, indeed, it was impossible to look at the evidence given before that body without being convinced that the General Committee of Elections had faithfully performed their duty. There was, however, one circumstance disclosed which was not unworthy' the consideration of that House. There were actually in existence two withdrawals of that election Petition signed by the electors who signed the Petition against the election, and they were documents which might at any time be sent, to the Speaker. On reading the evidence the suspicion arose that the Petition was not a bonâ fide Petition, founded on evidence of illegal practices on the part of the sitting Member or his agents, but got up for a certain purpose, and the fact that two withdrawals of the Petition were signed at about the same time was a most suspicious circumstance. If such a practice were to become general, some change in the law would be necessary to protect Members of that House against possible attempts at extortion. Nothing was more disagreeable to an hon. Member, however pure his election might have been, than to have a Petition presented against his return and kept suspended over his head, to be withdrawn, in many cases, for a certain consideration; and he thought that such a proceeding as was disclosed in the evidence given before the General Committee of Elections should not pass without condemnation on the part of the House.


said, that on Mr. M'Cann refusing to give tip the form of withdrawal of the Petition obtained by him the petitioners wrote to the Speaker disclaiming the withdrawal, and that disclaimer, he conceived, applied to the two original withdrawals, which were likewise intrusted to Mr. M'Cann.


contended that such a transaction as that disclosed before the General Committee of Elections ought not to pass unnoticed by the House.


said, he was of opi- nion, that unless the House expressed a decided condemnation of such a proceeding as that which had been disclosed, the public would believe that it was not serious in its attempts to stop bribery and corruption.


observed, that the only question before the House was, whether the Petition presented against the return of the hon. Member for Lisburn ought to be proceeded with. He did not think that the General Committee of Elections should have inquired whether there was any impropriety in what occurred in reference to the election Petition in Ireland. The Committee purposely avoided going into that point; and had they allowed the parties to go into all the transactions connected with the Petition, he believed that the Committee would have been obliged to sit upstairs fur a month or six weeks longer. The hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Coningham) considered that to be a transaction which the House ought to take notice of; but it was rather one which the Committee to which the election Petition would be referred would do well do take notice of. If it, were found that the Petition was presented, and that at the same time two withdrawals were signed by the same parties whose names were attached to the Petition, they might trust any Committee of the House to deal with those facts ns they deserved. More than that he did not think it right to say. The only question before them was, whether what was called a withdrawal of the Petition really was such. The parties who presented it endeavoured to recall it on the very day on which they signed it; and when they found they could not do that, because it was in the pocket of another person, who, however, knew their desire to suppress it, they sent off a disclaimer, which was lodged fourteen days defore the withdrawal. No one, therefore, could consider that there had been a proper withdrawal. The document which was so called ought never to have been lodged at all. In his opinion these facts, instead of being detrimental to the sitting Member, would tell very much in his favour.


observed, that what the Committee would have to decide was simply the value of the evidence laid before them. The manner in which the Petition was got up or withdrawn had nothing to do with the real question which they had to try.


said, there was a constant recurrence of the most flagrant iniquities in regard to election Petitions. Members were kept for months in suspense as to their position, and Petitions against them were got up on the slightest possible grounds. Such practices affected the honour and dignity of the House, and ought to be considered at the earliest possible period with a view to their prevention.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered, That the Petition of William John Knox and Moses Bullick, complaining of an undue Election and Return for the Borough of Lisburn, do stand referred to the General Committee of Elections, the Document withdrawing such Petition not having constituted a withdrawal thereof, under the Elections Petitions Act, 1848.