HC Deb 06 March 1868 vol 190 cc1198-206

said, he would beg to put a Question to the noble Lord the Chief Secretary for Ireland, on the subject of the contemplated Irish Reform Bill. The noble Lord had placed on the Paper for Monday next a Notice of his intention to move on that night for leave to bring in the Bill. He had heard that the noble Lord did not mean to introduce that measure on Monday, and he also found that the Government had fixed the second reading of the Scotch Reform Bill for that night. He believed, however, that the Scotch Reform Bill would occupy but a small portion of Monday's sitting, and therefore he trusted that the noble Lord the Chief Secretary would adhere to his original intention, and enable them to know on Monday at latest what the provisions of the Reform Bill for Ireland were. The discussion on the introduction of the Bill was not likely to take up much time. He had himself no intention to go into the subject at any length, and he thought he could answer for hon. Gentlemen on that side of the House that the discussion would not be long. But after the Bill had been brought in a considerable interval must elapse before its next stage could be taken, in order to allow the House and the people of Ireland to become properly acquainted with its provisions. It was, therefore, all the more necessary that the Bill should be laid on the table with the least possible delay. The right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government had told them that on Tuesday next the noble Lord the Chief Secretary would disclose the general policy of the Government on Irish affairs. But Parliamentary Reform was one important branch of that Irish policy on which the House desired to be informed; and surely that part of the policy of the Government could be most advantageously announced on Monday on the introduction of the Irish Reform Bill itself, instead of being left to form a portion of the general statement to be made by the noble Lord on Tuesday, when the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Maguire) was to call attention to the affairs of Ireland. He hoped his noble Friend—acting as he (Mr. Chichester Fortescue) knew he would desire to do in conformity with the feelings and wishes of the Members for Ireland on that side of the House—would adhere to his original intention; but if, unfortunately, that could not be done, then that he would inform the House on what day the Bill would be introduced?


Sir, as I am responsible for the conduct of the business of the House as far as any measure proposed by the Government is concerned, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. C. Fortescue) will permit me to reply to his Question. I must say that although I am most anxious at all times not to make any assumption which the House might not think justified, I do not think I am unreasonable in asking that as long as I am sitting on this Bench, I may be permitted to regulate the conduct of business in that manner which I believe to be most conducive to the public interest. I can assure the House that there is not the slightest wish on our part to postpone the introduction of the Irish Reform Bill, and the right hon. Gentleman has placed the matter in an invidious light before the House when he seemed to intimate that we were avoiding an engagement we had entered into by not bringing forward the Irish Reform Bill on next Monday. The fact is that the arrangement to which the right hon. Gentleman referred was made under circumstances very different from those in which we now find ourselves. It was always understood, that in any case, the Scotch Reform Bill was to take precedence of the Irish measure; and although it is quite true that Monday next was fixed for the introduction of the Irish Reform Bill, it was because we contemplated at the time that we should have had an earlier opportunity of bringing forward the Scotch Reform Bill and other important measures. The right hon. Gentleman informs us that there will be no opposition to the second reading of the Scotch Reform Bill. He has, of course, advantages in the way of obtaining information which I do not possess; but I must say that I have had many representations made to me that there never yet has been an opportunity afforded for the adequate discussion of the principles upon which a Scotch Reform Bill ought to be based. I shall be very glad, however, if there should be no discussion on the second reading, but I have had to make my arrangements entirely in ignorance of any such intention. On Monday, then, the Scotch Reform Bill is to be brought forward, and, as at present advised, we are prepared for a discussion not very brief, and one which will demand our utmost attention. There are, besides, several other measures of very great importance connected with Scotland to come on for discussion on that night, and I am inclined to think that it would not be desirable that the Irish Reform Bill should be brought on at the fag end of an evening; or that there should be any uncertainty whether the public business would permit it to be introduced within the time usual for the introduction of measures of such importance—at such a time as would enable Members desirous of discussing its provisions to express their opinions. My wish is that the Irish Reform Bill should be introduced, if convenient, as soon as the opinions of the House on the Scotch Reform Bill shall have been given. With regard to the debate upon the condition of Ireland which is to take place on Tuesday next on the Motion of the hon. Member for Cork (Mr. Maguire), it is quite posssible that it may last some days—and I hope that the question, when brought forward, will be amply discussed—but it will probably not be prolonged over the week, though the Government will give every facility for its progress. I think, therefore, we have every reason for believing that on Monday week the Irish Reform Bill may be brought in—unless circumstances occur which I do not now contemplate. The right hon. Gentleman says that we cannot enter into a discussion upon the general condition of Ireland without first knowing the nature of the Irish Reform Bill. I confess I cannot see the force of that argument. There cannot be any great difficulty among sensible gentlemen in forming an opinion as to the principles of the Irish Reform Bill. That measure must in its general character follow the principles already sanctioned by the House in the Bill for England and the one for Scotland which stands for the second reading. Any differences which may arise must relate to mere matters of detail, which it would not be well to introduce into the general discussion of the condition of Ireland. The arrangement of business which I have made is, I really believe for the convenience of the House. Therefore, Sir, we propose to proceed on Monday with the Scotch Reform Bill and the other measures that are on the Paper, several of which are of very considerable importance, and I think that there is every prospect—indeed, I take it for granted myself—that on Monday week the Irish Reform Bill will be brought in.


The right hon. Gentleman claims for himself the right, which I entirely admit, of distributing the business of the House in the way which he deems most conducive to the public interest and the convenience of Members. But at the same time, all the proceedings of the Government are fair matter for the judgment of Members of this House, and it is their right and duty to give their opinions upon the question of the arrangement of business as well as upon other subjects. I think the right hon. Gentleman has really not apprehended the point of my right hon. Friend's (Mr. C. Fortescue's) remarks, which were directed not to any general considerations connected with the arrangement of the business of the House, but to the particular position in which we have been placed by the voluntary and spontaneous declaration of the Government itself. Her Majesty's Government, upon one or more than one occasion, when questioned with regard to subjects of great importance to Ireland, announced that they would produce in a connected form a statement of their policy with regard to that country when the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Cork should come on. And now arises the question, how are they to state their policy, so far as regards one vital and essential branch of it, or how can hon. Members criticize it until they are informed of the propositions of the Government on the question of the Irish Reform Bill? Her Majesty's Government themselves spontaneously fixed Monday, the 9th of March—and in passing I must own I think it a very late day—for the introduction of the Irish Reform Bill, and now we are to have that Bill postponed until the 16th of March. In the meantime, before the 16th of March, the right hon. Gentleman proposes that we shall hear a statement of the Irish policy of the Government, which will include no reference to Reform and no explanation of the provisions of their Bill, and then, after we have considered their Irish policy as a whole, we shall subsequently learn what they intend to do with regard to the Reform of the Irish Representation. The right hon. Gentleman says, that with respect to Irish Reform, we are already in possession of the general character of their Bill—that it will be like the measures for England and Scotland. Well, but if the Irish Reform Bill is a measure of which the main provisions are, as it were, stereotyped already in those proposed for England and Scotland, what difficulty can there be in laying it on the table on the day originally fixed? The right hon. Gentleman says that he must have a whole night for the purpose—that he must give a full and ample opportunity to Gentlemen to declare their opinions of the provisions of the Bill. But why is all this time to be taken up on the very first stage if we are already virtually in possession of its general character? Now it appears to me that the right hon. Gentleman is in a dilemma. When the right hon. Gentleman wants to show that ample time must be allowed for the discussion on the introduction of the Bill, he speaks of it in a manner that must lead the House to suppose that it involved propositions of magnitude and difficulty; but, on the other hand, when he wants to show that the House could discuss the Irish policy of the Government without any knowledge of the provisions of the Bill, then he argues as if nothing but the details of the scheme would require consideration. Now, I put it to the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the question of Parliamentary Reform is a vital portion of the policy which is to be pursued towards Ireland at the present moment. We have heard a formidable demand for the establishment of Irish nationality—that nationality to be incorporated and expressed through a separate Legislature. On the other hand, we have always been accustomed to encourage our Irish fellow-subjects to present their grievances to this House, and to trust to the efficacy of their representative institutions to remedy them. Now, if that be so, the question will naturally arise at the present crisis, what are to be the future character and efficiency of those representative institutions—for they are admitted to be very imperfect at present? We are going, if we can, to develope them further, to put them in such a state that we can boldly call upon our Irish fellow-subjects to trust them. Therefore, at the very root of Irish policy lies the question of Reform. It appears to me, then, that the right hon. Gentlemen will exercise a very unfortunate discretion indeed if he does not accede to the request of my right hon. Friend, and bring in the Irish Reform Bill on Monday night. I am well aware that we are in his hands. The House has no choice but to submit. It is impossible to force the noble Lord (the Earl of Mayo) to bring forward the measure if he does not choose. One man may lead a horse to the water, but twenty men cannot make him drink. But if the noble Lord will not bring in the Bill on Monday, he ought, at all events, to inform the House in his statement on Tuesday, what are to be the general outlines of the measure. In acceding to the desire of the Government I make the reciprocal claim, which is founded on justice and good sense, that they shall acquaint us with the general character of the provisions they propose to embody in the Irish Reform Bill. The right hon. Gentleman says that he has not been apprised that there will be no lengthened discussion on the Scotch Reform Bill. As far as I am aware of the intentions of hon. Gentlemen on this side of the House, I may say that it is highly improbable that any lengthened debate will take place. Of course, if it were found that there would be no time on Monday night for the introduction of the Irish Reform Bill, after the second reading of the Scotch Bill was disposed of, the Government could not be blamed. I would not attempt to interfere with the discretion of the right hon. Gentleman, but I put this point for his consideration, that the Irish Reform Bill is a measure forming an essential element of any policy to be pursued by any Government towards Ireland at this time; and that being so, we are entitled in reason and propriety—I will not say that decency also requires it—to be informed of the leading outlines of that measure before we proceed to the discussion which will arise on the Motion of the hon. Member for Cork.


said, he must express his regret, as an Irish representative, at the course which the Government had announced their determination to pursue. He, with many others, had shared the hope when a new Administration, with the right hon. Member for Buckinghamshire at its head, was formed, that some bold and comprehensive policy would be sketched out for Ireland; but the course taken with respect to Parliamentary Reform for Ireland was not calculated to inspire confidence, and might give rise to the impression that the Government deferred the introduction of the Bill because they did not wish to show their hand. He could not see on what other possible grounds the Government objected to lay the Irish Reform Bill on the table, and have it circulated through the country, or why Parliamentary Reform should be completed for England, and the Scotch Reform Bill should be read the second time before the Irish measure was even introduced. Formerly the custom was that two such measures should be introduced contemporaneously, and he regretted the slight that had been put on Ireland by the precedency accorded to the Scotch measure. He could confirm the statement that it was not intended by the Scotch Members to have a lengthened discussion on the second reading of the Scotch Reform Bill. The chief discussion would take place on its next stage on the Motion to be made by the hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter) respecting the re-distribution of seats in Scotland. Therefore the likelihood of a lengthened discussion on the Scotch Bill could not prevent the Government from laying the Irish Reform Bill on the table. Perhaps, as a compromise, the Government would undertake conditionally—if the debate on the Scotch measure did not last longer than nine or ten o'clock—to bring in the Irish Reform Bill on the same night. If the Government really intended to complete the measure of Reform this Session—which the House ought to insist on—they must not hesitate to pursue this course The Irish Members had a painful recollection of the many promises made and not fulfilled last Session with regard to Parliamentary Reform for Ireland, and he hoped that the same course would not be pursued in the present Session. They could not ignore this fact, that the political organs of the Government in Ireland were calling on the Government not to introduce an Irish Reform Bill on account of the exceptional state of circumstances in that country, and that it was the wish of a number of the leading Conservatives in Ireland that no Irish Reform Bill should be introduced. Under these circumstances, the conduct of the Government should be above suspicion; and they ought not to postpone the introduction of the Irish Reform Bill from week to week so as to render it very possible that the measure would not be carried during the present Session.


said, he wished to point out that when the proposal was first made that the Scotch Reform Bill should be taken on a certain night, and that the Motion of the hon. Member for Cork should then come on, and that on the Monday afterwards the Irish Reform Bill should be introduced, no objection was taken to the proposal. The Government thought that arrangement the best on the whole, and had not departed from it in any way. The general debate on Ireland being concluded on Thursday or Friday, the Government would then be prepared on the following Monday or on the earliest day to introduce the Irish Reform Bill. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Lancashire (Mr. Gladstone) laid great stress on the necessity in discussing the policy of the Government towards Ireland of being informed of the leading outlines of the Irish Reform Bill; but surely it was sufficient to know that the Irish Bill would bear a considerable likeness to the Bill passed for England, and to that introduced for Scotland. There would be ample topics for the consideration of the House in the main question, and he thought the debate would only be embarrassed by the introduction of the details of the Reform Bill. On the whole, the Government were of opinion that it was better to adhere to the original arrangement. He could assure the House that the Government would introduce the Irish Reform Bill at the earliest moment—either on Monday week, or on the first available night after the debate on the general state of Ireland.


said, he must regret the course that had been adopted by the Government. Last Session, the Irish Reform Bill had been kept dangling before the eyes of Members, to be ultimately withdrawn. The same tactics appeared to be now repeated. It was felt—rightly or wrongly—that a pressure was put upon the Government. He thought it was somewhat too hard that the introduction of the Irish Reform Bill should be postponed to allow not only the Scotch Reform Bill to be debated on Monday next, but several other measures besides. It was for the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government to take on himself the responsibility which such a course carried with it; but he (Mr. O'Beirne) was convinced that the feeling now prevailing in Ireland—whieh was by no means of a desirable character—would not be allayed by the course announced that evening by the Government.

Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," by leave, withdrawn.

Commitee deferred till Monday next.