HC Deb 16 March 1866 vol 182 cc440-7

, in calling the attention of Mr. Attorney General for Ireland to the severe restrictions to which the prisoners arrested under the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act are subjected to in the gaol of Waterford, and to inquire whether specific directions were given by Government as to the treatment of these prisoners; and, if so, whether he has any objection to state the nature of such directions; to which of the prison authorities they were transmitted; and through what medium; said, that in bringing before Parliament what he considered the unnecessarily severe restrictions to which the political prisoners confined in the gaol at Waterford were subjected to, he could assure the House that he would not bring the matter forward unless he felt quite sure there was great hardship in the case which he was about to detail, and that it ought to be redressed without delay. He had voted against the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act chiefly from a feeling that so extreme a measure was not required, and that it was more than probable it would be used in a very arbitrary and tyrannical manner by underlings of the Government anxious to show their zeal. What was going on in the city he represented went very far, he thought, to prove he was right in his anticipation. Over a dozen prisoners were confined there on suspicion of complicity with the Fenian conspiracy. The prison was a new building, constructed, he supposed, on the most approved principle for punishment and security. To aid the prison authorities in more effectually guarding the prisoners he alluded to, a military guard was provided, armed sentinels paced up and down before the doors of the cells, and in the exercise yards. Hitherto the Board of Superintendence had the management of the prison, and their directions were carried out by a local inspector and the Governor. He thought the section of the Act of Parliament which he would read was very clear, as to their powers and duties— 7 Geo. IV. s. 3, c. 74.—It shall and may be lawful for the Board of Superintendence to inquire concerning the due performance of the rules and regulations in and by this Act prescribed, and required to be observed in prisons throughout Ireland, and also concerning the due performance of such rules and regulations as may have been, or may from time to time be made, by or under the authority of His Majesty's Court of Queen's Bench in Ireland, and also to inquire into the conduct and situation of the prisoners in every such prison or bridewell. However, as he was informed, from the time the political prisoners were confined, it seemed as if the Board surrendered their power, so far as these prisoners were concerned, or the power of directing their course of treatment was assumed by a Government officer, Mr. Goold, stipendiary magistrate, a highly respectable gentleman, who, he was sure, only did what he was directed by superior authority. The prison was built on the cellular system; and the supposed Fenian sympathizers were each placed in separate confinement Rule 9 of Prison Regulations lays down that— All prisoners shall be admitted, at proper time in succession, to air themselves in the yard, or yards, for at least two hours every day; except prisoners under sentence of death, or such as are disorderly, or when there may be sufficient cause to apprehend that any escape may be attempted. The directions given to the Governor appear to have been that these prisoners should be exercised alone; so that having only two exercise yards, he was not able to have more than two exercising at the same time; and having other prisoners to exercise as well, he could not, as stated, give the political prisoners the two hours a day, so that they were in solitary confinement twenty-two hours out of the twenty-four. The Governor, a retired officer of the navy, was a very humane, upright man, and he had no doubt obeyed his orders as kindly towards the prisoners as he possibly could; and he took for granted that Colonel Roberts, the local inspector, a much respected gentleman, only obeyed some one else's order in directing that the prisoners should be deprived of some of the privileges enjoyed before conviction. Besides being shut up in those cells for upwards of twenty-two hours, these unfortunate men were not allowed to see either their families or friends, or even to consult with the legal advisers, which the former were anxious to send them, in order to prepare cases to submit to the Government with a view to their liberation. It might seem incredible that a prisoner should be deprived of the benefit of seeing a legal adviser; but there was one case of the truth of which he believed, which would surprise them. A blacksmith, named Dillon, was arrested for having arms. His wife employed an attorney to defend him, expecting he would be tried at the assizes. The attorney sought admission to him to get instructions, but was refused; so, also, was the wife. Ultimately, the man was not put on his trial; but had he been he would have appeared at the bar without being allowed to adopt the proper means to defend himself. Whoever was accountable for that monstrous act ought to be exposed, and censured. The prisoners were not allowed, even under the inspection of the Governor, to receive or send out any written communications, so that in many instances their poor families were left without information or instructions how to carry on their business, the consequence of which might be very serious. At night, gas was left lighted in their cells, in order that the sentinels might see whether they were in them, although their only mode of getting out, us the door was guarded, would be to make a hole with their bare hands in the solid stone wall, and another in the outer wall; but since Stephens had outwitted the Government, there was an impression that a Fenian could make light of bolts and stone walls. For some Sundays past the prisoners had not been allowed to go to mass even though a military guard was in the prison. When first he heard those statements he hardly believed so much cruelty, injustice, and absurdity would be perpetrated in the blacksmith's case. He wrote to the attorney, a very leading practitioner, to know if what he heard was true, and he confirmed every word of it. He saw by a local paper that the prisoners had complained of part of their treatment to a committee of the grand jury who visited the prison. The latter reported the matter to the jury on their return, and as it was usual to lay such matters before the Judge, he supposed the Executive had heard of it also; but nothing had been done. He had numbers of letters from trustworthy persons confirming all he stated, and he would now like to know from the representative of the Irish Government in the House what had he to say about it? Was it by the orders or with the knowledge of the Government that the prisoners were treated with all this useless annoyance, certain to prove detrimental to their health, and probably to their reason as well. He was not then going to censure the Government for arresting these men, although he, believing the proof of being engaged in the conspiracy was very trifling, indeed, against some of them. But whatever justification there might be for arresting them, there was none at all for treating them worse than the untried murderer or robber. He begged of the Attorney General to make inquiries into the truth of the statements he had made, and to put a stop to inflicting such severities on untried and uncharged men. He would respectfully ask him were the Government justified when they suspended the Habeas Corpus Act in also setting aside the local prison authorities, and directing a course of treatment towards men whom they had not sufficient evidence to put on their trials, as if they had been found guilty? If the Government were accountable for this they were committing a most unjust and highly impolitic act; and if the act was really theirs, and that they persevered in it, they might feel assured they would only earn for themselves the disapprobation of every well-thinking man, the contempt of foreign nations, and incur the deserved resentment, not only of the prisoners themselves, but of a numerous body of their countrymen at home and abroad, who would be certain to sympathize with them.


said, he thought the manner in which the Government carried out the extraordinary powers conferred upon them ought to be jealously watched. Those powers, however necessary, should be exercised in the way that was in the least possible degree offensive to the people of the country. Persons were now sometimes taken up in Ireland upon very trifling reasons, and they certainly ought not to be subjected to any harsher or more stringent restrictions than were necessary for their safe custody, and the prevention of their carrying on any conspiracy against the Government. It should be understood that the Government took charge of that class of prisoners, and that the magistrates should not be held responsible either for their safe custody or for the mode in which they were treated, and he trusted that orders to that effect would be issued. He would recommend that the Government should send round to the different gaols instructions stating what was the treatment which the prisoners should receive.


said, he entirely agreed with the hon. Members that these prisoners ought not to be subjected to any restrictions save those which were required for their safe custody; and he believed that that rule had been fully adopted in the gaol of Waterford. As soon as he saw the Notice which the hon. Member had put upon the Paper he caused inquiries to be instituted upon the subject, and these inquiries led him to believe that the hon. Gentleman had been misinformed upon the case. He had been furnished with a statement from which it appeared that these prisoners were not subject to any severe restrictions, and in reply to the question of the hon. Gentleman whether the Government had given specific directions with respect to their treatment he had to observe that the prisoners who were taken up under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, who were not arrested upon trifling, but upon grave and serious grounds, were under the control of the Local Board of Superintendence, in common with other classes of prisoners, and the Government, therefore, had no authority to give any orders as to their treatment. The treatment to which the prisoners arrested under the measure for the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act were subjected was no exception to that rule. It so happened that the local authorities applied to the Inspector General of Prisons to know how those persons were to be treated, and the answer of the Inspector General was, that they should be treated as untried prisoners; that they should be allowed to supply themselves if they pleased with food, and that they should not be compelled to wear the prison clothes. He (the Attorney General for Ireland) was further informed that those instructions had been complied with—that the prisoners received through their friends abundant supplies of good food, and that they were not obliged to wear the prison clothing; so that the statements made upon the subject by the hon. Gentleman were not well founded, and he must have been misled by his informants.


thanked the hon. and learned Member for Clonmel (Mr. Bagwell) for having expressed the opinion of every rational man in the country on that matter—namely, that while the Government had a right to be supported in the maintenance of law and order, they would not only deserve censure if they went one jot beyond what necessity required, but would greatly assist in spreading a feeling of discontent in Ireland. These prisoners must be regarded as men who had been proved to be guilty of no crime; and it would be monstrous to treat them with a severity to which unconvicted burglars and murderers were not subjected. When they had got hold of a man like Stephens they did not keep him safely, and now they appeared to be adopting very harsh and severe restrictions against every miserable creature on whom they laid their hands. He had a satisfactory account of the rules enforced in the gaol in the city of Cork, but it was asserted to him that that class of prisoners in the Cork county gaol were treated with greater vigour than ordinary untried prisoners. Many of these persons had been taken up in his own city and in other parts of Ireland, against whom no case could stand for a moment before a Judge of Assize; and out of the 500 they could not fairly reckon upon obtaining verdicts for the Crown against 200. He understood that in the county gaol of Cork the prisoners were allowed but two hours for exercise each day, and that during the other twenty-two hours they were kept in solitary confinement. They were only permitted to see their relatives twice a week, and they could not have free communication with a legal adviser, for the warders were present when friends came to see them. Now, that was a state of absolute and rigorous punishment, which he held to be utterly unjustifiable; and, although he admitted that a satisfactory answer had been given by the Attorney General for Ireland to the statement made by the hon. Member for Waterford (Mr. Blake), he thought that in the case of the county gaol of Cork the powers given by the recent Act had been greatly abused. At the time when the House resolved to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act the Government promised distinctly that the powers intrusted to them should be exercised with prudence and clemency. He contended, however, that the Government had not acted according to its promise, and that persons who had not been proved guilty of any offence by a jury of their countrymen ought not to be treated as the prisoners were at the gaol of Cork. Such harshness and cruelty were not necessary to preserve the peace of the country. He urged the Government to institute a searching inquiry into the antecedents of the prisoners, and, if it, should be found that there was no real reason for detaining them from their families and ordinary employment, to liberate them. Should, however, conclusive evidence of the guilt of the men be found, of course then they should be held in custody.


said, that he did not recollect any promise being given by the Government that the powers vested in the Executive by the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act should be exercised with great leniency. But however that might be, the first object of the Government was to preserve the safety and the peace of the country, and after that to see that no unnecessary hardships were inflicted. As it was a matter of considerable importance, he thought it desirable that there should be no misunderstanding with respect to it. It was obviously right and desirable that no unnecessary hardship should be inflicted on those prisoners. The case of those confined in the gaol of Waterford had been brought under the notice of the House; the Attorney General for Ireland had inquired into that case; and the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Maguire) admitted, after the statement of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that the charge made in that particular instance had not been borne out. But the hon. Gentleman referred to the alleged ill-treatment of prisoners in the county gaol of Cork. Now, upon that point, he (the Chancellor of the Exchequer) could only state that when any such abuse as that of which the hon. Member complained was indicated in any credible manner, the Government would immediately cause an inquiry to be instituted for the purpose of ascertaining whether such proceedings had actually taken place. The Government held firmly by the principle that unconvicted prisoners who were arrested under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act were to be treated in the same manner as all other untried prisoners. He ventured to promise, on the part of his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General for Ireland, that inquiry would be made into the Cork county gaol case, or any similar case; and that was the only assurance he could then give upon the subject.


said, there had been two statements made upon that occasion—one with regard to the gaol of Waterford, and the other with regard to the county gaol of Cork; but the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Maguire) who had alluded to the latter subject had laid before them mere general allegations, and had stated no specific facts. He (Mr. Roebuck) believed that if the Attorney General for Ireland had an opportunity of inquiring into those allegations, as he had inquired into the detailed charges with respect to the Waterford Gaol, he would find that they were equally unfounded. The hon. Member for Cork used a curious expression when he told them that these prisoners had been proved not to be guilty. ["Mr. MAGUIRE: I beg your pardon. I did not say so.] I beg your pardon, you did. I corrected you at the time. These men have not been proved to be guilty; but they have not been proved to be not guilty. [Mr. MAGUIRE: I did not say they had.] I beg your pardon, you did.


Mr. Deputy Speaker, as a matter of Parliamentary—shall I say, practice?—I wish to ask you, whether one hon. Gentleman is to be allowed to stand up and declare, without any knowledge on his own part, that a statement, conscientiously made by another hon. Gentleman, will, on inquiry, prove unfounded? I can only say, that if that is our practice, the sooner we have a Reform Bill the better.


I did not hear any expression fall from the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield (Mr. Roebuck) that appeared to call for my interposition.


I did not understand the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield to say that the hon. Member for Cork had stated anything that he knew to be untrue. He only said that he expected that the statement of the hon. Gentleman would, on inquiry, turn out to be unfounded.