HC Deb 15 June 1866 vol 184 cc494-9

in calling attention to the effects of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland, said, that while he attributed that suspension to the policy of former Governments and Parliaments, he had no wish to complain of the attitude towards that country of the present House of Commons, for since he had enjoyed a seat in the assembly every subject connected with Ireland had received the fullest and kindest consideration. But the wildest imagination could hardly conceive the consequences which had followed from one of the measures which it was thought necessary to adopt. A Return which had been obtained with regard to Limerick Gaol showed that thirty-nine political prisoners had been subjected to the silent system from the time of their committal; that they were debarred from communication with the outside world; that they were not allowed to communicate with their professional advisers, friends, or relatives; and that, in fact, it required an order from the Lord Lieutenant himself to enable the professional adviser of one of the prisoners to obtain access to him in gaol. In no other case that he was aware of bad untried men been subjected to a class of punishment ordinarily reserved for hardened criminals after their conviction. The Government were not authorized by the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, affecting only the method of arrests, in inflicting punishment of this nature upon political prisoners, who ought to be treated with signal lenity. The whole proceeding was utterly unauthorized. The prison to which he was referring was not established under the solitary and silent system; but even had the separate principle been introduced there, the officials had no right to confine those prisoners for twenty-two hours out of the twenty-four in separate cells, and to prevent them from speaking during the remaining two hours. He believed that in their proceedings under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act the Government had acted with a kindly hand and in a conciliatory spirit. He did not mean to impeach the motives of the Government or of the local authorities; but as he wanted to know what had been done since he gave his notice in April last, he begged to move— That, in the opinion of this House, the treatment of Prisoners in the County Gaol of Limerick, under the Habeas Corpus Suspension (Ireland) Act, has been unnecessarily severe and unconstitutional, and that is is the duty of Government to prevent the continuance of the same.


in seconding the Motion, said, he could not concur with the hon. Gentleman who had brought forward the Motion in acquitting the Irish Government and the local authorities of blame in this matter. The case of the prisoners in the Limerick Goal was almost analogous to that of the prisoners in the Waterford Gaol which he had brought under the notice of the House some time since; and yet the treatment of which the hon. Member complained had been continued in respect of the Limerick prisoners, after he (Mr. Blake) had brought the facts of the Waterford case before the House and the Government. Up to the time when the Return was laid upon the table those unfortunate prisoners had not been enabled to communicate with their legal advisers for the purposes of defence, or with their friends for the purposes of their business affairs. If such things were told of the most tyrannic Government in existence, they would scarcely be believed; and as the Irish Government had well-paid Inspectors Ge- neral of gaols to inform them as to what was going on in the various Irish prisons, they ought not to have remained in ignorance of the harsh and illegal practices in the prisons of Waterford and Limerick.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, the treatment of Prisoners in the County Gaol of Limerick, under the Habeas Corpus Suspension (Ireland) Act, has been unnecessarily severe and unconstitutional, and that it is the duty of Government to prevent the continuance of the same,"—(Mr. Synan,)

—instead thereof.

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


said, there was no ground for the statement made by the hon. Member for Waterford to the effect that the committals under the warrants of the Lord Lieutenant had taken place on the ipse dixit of a stipendiary magistrate, but such a committal had never taken place. The parties referred to were committed after careful examination and on grounds that made their committal imperative. As to the course pursued by the Irish Government, the hon. Gentleman seemed to think that the Superintendents of Irish Prisons were the mere servants of the Crown. [Mr. BLAKE denied that he had said anything of the kind.] He said that, at all events, the tone of the hon. Member's remarks led to that conclusion. He was happy to be able to give his hon. Friend the Member for the county of Limerick information and assurances which, he believed, would be deemed satisfactory. He confessed that some delay had taken place in the production of the Returns moved for by the hon. Gentleman, but still that delay had made no difference with regard to the object which the hon. Gentleman had in view, because the attention of the Government had been given without any delay to the subject which the hon. Member had brought before the House. He would give the House an account of what had occurred. In the beginning of April the hon. Gentleman addressed a letter to the law adviser of the Chief Secretary, calling attention to the treatment of the political prisoners which he had himself visited, and pointing out several respects which, as he considered, that treatment was objectionable. That statement was at once taken into consideration by the Irish Government, and the Inspectors General of Prisons, to whom it was submitted, addressed a letter to the local inspector of Limerick, directing his attention categorically to the several allegations made by the hon. Gentleman, and calling for a reply. The reply duly arrived, and it certainly confirmed the statement of the hon. Gentleman. But there was one important exception. It was alleged in the statement forwarded to the Irish Government, that the prisoners were not permitted to sign memorials to the Government, and that allegation was denied. With regard to all other points the hon. Gentleman's statement was substantially correct. He might mention that in March a circular letter had been sent by the Inspectors General to the various prisons, containing instructions to the effect that political prisoners should receive a proper and reasonable amount of food, malt liquor, bedding, clothing, and other necessaries; that they should not be required to wear the prison dress, though they might be supplied therewith if they wished it; that they were not to be compelled to work, and that they should be kept apart from convicted prisoners. With regard to the complaint that at Limerick the prisoners were confined in separate cells, he might remark that the gaol there, though originally constructed in the old fashion under the associated system, had been recently converted into a separate and cellular gaol, and it was impracticable to keep prisoners in it unless they were confined in separate cells. The next important point was the refusal of the Board of Superintendence to allow prisoners to communicate with their friends. On that and other points the Inspectors General of Prisons had given directions to the local inspectors to the following effect:—That the prisoners should be allowed not less than two hours' exercise daily, that they should not be prevented from speaking to each other at exercise, provided the conversation was not on political subjects, that they should be allowed the fullest privilege, afforded by the bye-laws, of seeing their friends, and that whenever practicable the bye-laws should be relaxed in their favour; that they should be allowed to write and receive letters; and that they should not be treated with greater strictness than was necessary for their safe custody. The letter containing these instructions was taken into consideration by the Board of Superintendence, who objected to the third suggestion on the ground that one of the avowed objects of the Fenian movement was to seize upon the prisons. The Government objected to the course taken by the Board of Superintendence, but that body was beyond control as long as it acted within the limits of the bye-laws. It was determined, therefore, to remove the prisoners, and he believed there was not now a single prisoner in Limerick Gaol under the warrant of the Lord Lieutenant. He trusted that the statement he bad made would be deemed satisfactory, and that it would not be thought necessary to carry the matter any further.


said, he was glad to hear the explanation that had been given by the right hon. Gentleman, because it confirmed his belief of the kindly intentions of the Government, though he did not think they exhibited vigour enough in controlling the local bodies. He understood that the political prisoners placed in Belfast Gaol were treated with the utmost rigour. He was informed that untried political prisoners in Belfast Gaol were punished as severely as if they had been found guilty before a Judge and jury of a criminal offence. He had heard that for twenty-two hours they were kept in a solitary cell; that they were allowed less than two hours for exercise, and that silence was rigidly maintained. He submitted that this matter required the immediate interference of the Government. They might get out of the difficulty by releasing many of those men against whom only a primâ facie case had been established. There were different degrees of criminals amongst those persons. He believed that many of them were anxious to be restored to their families, and to resume their lives of industry; they were sick of Fenianism, and the Government might allow them to go out of prison on getting a pledge that they would not take part in illegal objects again. The Government might thus diminish their responsibility. He asked the Government to inquire into the statement he had made respecting the condition of the political prisoners in Belfast Gaol.


promised that inquiry should be made with reference to Belfast Goal, and said that the circular which bad been read by the Chief Secretary for Ireland had been sent to the autho- rities of every gaol in Ireland. In expressing a wish that the prisoners should not be treated with more than necessary severity, the Government had almost exceeded their legal power. It was the most anxious desire of the Government that no prisoners should be detained a single hour longer than was absolutely necessary for the safety of the community.


who was gratified by the statement that had been made, thought that the Governor of Limerick Gaol could be indicted for misdemeanor for having refused to allow prisoners to be seen by their professional advisers, said that solitary confinement was unknown to the law except for convicted prisoners, and complained that prisoners who had been removed to Mountjoy Prison, which was a convict gaol, and, therefore, was subject to the regulation of convict prisoners, could not be Been by anyone without a special order from the Castle, which was given only to a legal adviser or to an immediate relative.


said, he was satisfied with the explanation of the Chief Secretary, and would withdraw his Motion.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question again proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."