HC Deb 01 July 1869 vol 197 cc950-61

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [29th June], That leave be given to bring in a Bill for appointing Commissioners to inquire into the existence of corrupt practices amongst the Freemen Electors of the City of Dublin."—(Mr. Attorney General for Ireland.)

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.


said, he should endeavour to confine himself as far as possible to the important constitutional point involved. The course proposed was altogether unprecedented, directly opposed to the established usage and custom of Parliament. The Commission was to have powers of inquiry restricted and limited to one section of the constituency, less than one-fourth of the whole. The first step of the Commissioners' inquiry would, therefore, be impeded; it would, probably, be confined to one ward of the town, corruption to a certain extent being localized; and the result would be abortive. There was no precedent that in any respect applied to this case. There was a general Act in force regulating the issuing of Commissions, which was a matter of course in certain circumstances. The House had deliberately passed a general Act to include all cases. This was an instance of exceptional legislation; and he hoped the House would pause before putting it in the power of any Gentleman on either side to get up and on his own caprice initiate special legislation, which would revive those perplexing and irritating discussions of a party character which he had hoped were removed entirely from the floor of that House. He trusted the House would not take this retrograde step, involving them in vexatious discussions, which were calculated to diminish their influence in the country.


said, that if they negatived the Motion of his right hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Sullivan), he presumed it was intended that the Writ should be issued without any consequences following from the Report of the learned Judge. Hon. Gentlemen who opposed the Motion were hardly consistent in the course they were taking, for when the Motion was brought before the House for a statutable Commission, under the Act of 1853, they opposed it on the ground that the inquiry was too broad; but now, when the Motion was for a narrower inquiry, they opposed it because that inquiry would be too limited. But if the Writ were allowed to go, then even the corrupt would be entitled to vote. ["No."] He could assure hon. Gentlemen that what he stated was founded upon a legal decision given in an inquiry which had been held in England. A gentleman occupying a public position, who, according to the Judge's Report, had been guilty of systematic bribery, and who had set at defiance the orders of the Court, would have his conduct ratified, and would be entitled to exercise the franchise again if the opposition to the Motion were successful. They had never hitherto received such a Report as was made by the Judge in this case, and they were obliged to create a precedent to meet it. The great recommendation of the course proposed by his right hon. and learned Friend was that it would narrow the issue and limit the punishment to the guilty. If they allowed those corrupt voters to go unpunished, it would be tantamount to saying to others—"Go, and do likewise."


said, he would admit that if any legislation were to follow with regard to the freemen of Dublin this was the right course to pursue. If the Bill proceeded to a second reading he would, probably, move that the powers of the Commissioners be extended to Youghal, because in that borough above £5,000 had been spent by Mr. Weguelin, which was at the rate of £40 per man for the 127 electors who had supported him, and about £18 per man for every voter in the constituency. That gentleman when he went down to Youghal could not be supposed to have any love for the place, for he stated that when asked to stand for it he did not know where Youghal was. Mr. Baron Martin, in his evidence before the Committee which was now sitting, stated that £9,000 spent at Westminster or Bradford was a most extravagant and outrageous sum, and almost enough to vitiate the election. But if £9,000 was almost too large a sum for such place; as Westminster and Bradford, with more than 18,000 electors, what was the case with regard to Youghal, where £5,000 had been spent on a constituency considerably under 300? Although he did not intend to oppose the first reading, or even, perhaps, the second reading of this Bill, he thought it right to inform hon. Members opposite that he should, in all probability, at the proper time, move that it be an Instruction to the Committee that the operation of the Bill should be extended to Youghal.


said, that the judgment of Mr. Justice Keogh was very precise, and his Report stated that he had reason to believe that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed among the freemen voters for the city and county of Dublin; and the question was whether that decision was to remain a dead letter, and whether the freemen were to be allowed to repeat those corrupt practices. He thought that the House was entitled to take action on the Report of the learned Judge. There could be no practical difficulty in limiting the inquiry to that portion of the constituency pointed out by the Report of the Judge; and, with the Report before them, the House would stultify itself if it did not endeavour to ascertain the extent of those corrupt practices, and act with respect to them when ascertained. If it appeared on inquiry that only a limited number of the freemen were guilty of corrupt practices, the remainder of the body would get the benefit of the investigation.


said, he had great abhorrence of corruption, and if he believed the Bill were likely to check it, he should have given the Bill his hearty support. Measures to prevent corrupt practices had never been regarded in a party light in this country, and if this Bill bore upon its face a party stamp, those who framed it, and not those who opposed it, were to blame. Several attempts had been made to disfranchise the Dublin freemen. The first attempt was made by a private Member, under the sanction of the Law Officers of the Crown, but that turned out to be illegal. The second attempt, which was made under the œgis of the right hon. Baronet the Member for Morpeth (Sir George Grey), turned out to be unconstitutional, and was therefore abortive. Now, Her Majesty's Government had summoned to their aid the able Attorney General for Ireland as a forlorn hope; but he had to complain of the construction placed by that right hon. and learned Gentleman the other night upon Mr. Justice Keogh's Report as unfair. Many hon. Members had been led away by the construction put upon that Report by the right hon. and learned Member, and by the right hon. Baronet the Member for Morpeth. In certain paragraphs of that Report fifty-nine persons were mentioned specifically as having been bribed; but there was nothing in the Report to show that those were not the same individuals who had been guilty of the other corrupt practices alluded to in the other paragraphs. He had to complain most, however, of the construction which had been put by the right hon. and learned Gentleman and by the right hon. Baronet the Member for Morpeth on the paragraph which stated that about "200 persons were induced to sign agreements pledging themselves to give their gratuitous assistance to Sir Arthur Guinness during the election, but that such agreements were colourable only." If this was correct these agreements were not made to evade the statutes against bribery and treating. In the Bewdley case Mr. Justice Blackburn drew this distinction very clearly. It was the practice in that borough to employ and pay private watchers, who rendered no service in return. The learned Judge said that the practice was very objectionable, but he reported that there was no reason to believe that direct bribery prevailed. The Judge in that case drew a clear line of distinction between bribery and treating on the one hand, and "illegal payments" on the other. The penalties for the latter offence were, indeed, quite different from those which attached to bribery and treating. The right hon. Baronet (Sir George Grey) and the Attorney General for Ireland (Mr. Sullivan) represented that between 280 and 290 of the freemen of Dublin were specified, although not by name, in the Report of Mr. Justice Keogh, as having been equally guilty of bribery and corruption. It was upon that statement the Bill was introduced the other night. Although this was nominally a Bill or inquiry, no doubt could exist as to the intentions of the Government with respect to the freemen of Dublin, because that intention was recorded in the measure of the right hon. Member for Morpeth, which they sanctioned. It was a Bill to disfranchise one section of the constituency, who happened to be by four to one opposed to the policy of the Government. Describe it how they might everybody in Ireland would believe that the Bill was simply intended as a prelude to a measure to disfranchise the Protestant portion of the constituency of Dublin. But it was not for that reason he objected to this Bill; such a measure was both impolitic and inexpedient. It was to prevent the necessity for such a Bill that general laws were passed. It was now proposed to return to a vicious system of special legislation for the simple reason that their general legislation did not apply the principle of wholesale disfranchisement to particular classes. And why should it? On what principle of justice was it proposed to tar with the same brush a body of 2,700 freemen because fifty-nine of them had been guilty of corruption? Such a stop was unfair not only to the freemen but to the rest of the constituency. In the case of Bradford, Mr. Baron Martin reported that there was no reason to believe that corrupt practices prevailed, except as stated in his special Report. This was very much the same in the Dublin case, and in other respects he could not agree in the dissimilarity between the cases of Bradford and Dublin on which the Attorney General for Ireland so much insisted. If another opportunity occurred, he could bring under the notice of the House other cases resembling that of Dublin. He also eon-tended that the Bill was unnecessary. The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. James) said that the eleven men named in the Report would not be disfranchised. In England the Judges had given the necessary notice to men in this condition, and if Mr. Justice Keogh had also given notice to these men of the charge against them they would be disfranchised for seven years, and therefore with regard to them the proposed inquiry would have no effect. The inquiry made by Mr. Justice Keogh was of the most searching and exhaustive character, and if Mr. Henry Forster's delinquency had not been fully brought out by him he did not see how the Commissioners were to do it; because, if he were a fugitive from justice, no Commissioners could get at him; and, if he were not, the Attorney General for Ireland might institute a prosecution against him. That was, indeed, the way in which he ought to deal with Mr. Henry Forster's case, because there was this great advantage in Ireland, that there we had a machinery, by means of Crown prosecutors, for bringing persons to justice without partiality, delay, or expense. There were ample materials in the Report of the learned Judge which would enable the Attorney General for Ireland to find out who were the guilty parties and to bring them to justice. He objected to this Bill, because it was, in his opinion, special legislation of the worst class, against a body of men who, as a body, committed no offence, to justify a measure intended indirectly to deprive them of rights which had been secured to them under ancient Acts of Parliament, and which had been recognized in all Reform Bills.


(Mr. SULLIVAN) said, in reply to the observation of the hon. and learned Gentleman that the Bill would abolish the Protestant portion of the constituency of Dublin, he would point out that its object was simply to abolish the corrupt portion, and it was rather strange that the hon. and learned Gentleman should suggest that the terms "corrupt portion" and "Protestant portion" were synonymous. It was said that this Bill was unconstitutional, but the House would remember that a Bill to disfranchise the freemen of Yarmouth passed both Houses of Parliament; and, therefore, if it was not unconstitutional to disfranchise those freemen without inquiry, it could scarcely be deemed unconstitutional to institute a preliminary inquiry before proceeding to disfranchise the freemen in the present case. Mr. Justice Keogh had reported that fifty-nine were bribed, thirty wanted to be bribed, and 200 were willing to make a colourable agreement in order to evade an Act of Parliament. It was asked why was not a Bill introduced to disfranchise or to institute an inquiry respecting a portion of Bradford. The two cases were entirely different. In the Bradford case there was no bribery, though a number of public-houses were open in one ward, and a good number of voters got a great deal to drink without paying for it. But if hon. Gentlemen opposite thought drinking and bribery much the same offence, why did they move the issue of the Writ in the case of Bewdley, where it was proved that corrupt treating prevailed throughout the whole town by the opening of public-houses? The fact was that where treating only was reported no precedent for withholding the Writ could be found. In the case of Dublin, however, the corruption and bribery were not confined to one ward, but extensively prevailed among a large body of freemen who pervaded the whole constituency. The honest portion of the constituency ought only to be too glad to have the inquiry. Again, in Bradford it was the case of a single election, and not of a long series as in that of Dublin, and on all grounds he hoped the House would pass this Bill.


said, that whatever might be the decision of the House upon this question he hoped for the sake of the dignity of the House, it would not go forth that they had decided it upon party grounds. The Act of last Session had been proposed by those who are now in opposition, and accepted by those who are now in power, specifically in the hope, and with the view of removing once and for all the decision of questions regarding electoral questions from the reproach that belonged to a faction fight. There were several provisions of that measure about which he for one had felt at the time doubt and misgiving. But his hesitation, like that of others, had been overborne by the paramount consideration that it was worth making a great sacrifice of privilege and of prepossession, in order to obliterate from the minds of men the suspicion so long, and, he feared, so justly entertained that questions regarding seats, and regarding the constitution of constituencies, were determined by the hope of party gain or loss. They had abdicated one of the oldest and greatest of their privileges in the hope, and for the sake of securing this important result; but if, when the machinery of that Act broke down through some technical flaw, they were to fall back upon the old methods, and by a mere majority of votes decide upon denouncing the whole or a part of a particular constituency, and propose that a Commission should be issued for the purpose of justifying its disfranchisement, all the old evils would necessarily revive, and the sacrifice they had made of their privileges would have been made in vain. He was strongly of opinion, and must therefore say that he regarded this as an ill-advised proceeding. The power of the majority on that side of the House was so great that at all events it ought to be used forbearingly. The hon. and learned Member for Taunton (Mr. James) had supported this Bill on the ground that it was not following old precedents but creating a new one. Now this was just what he deprecated. He would ask the Attorney General for Ireland why he did not avail himself of the power he possessed as a public prosecutor, and proceed against those freemen who by their corrupt practices had rendered themselves liable to punishment. Instead of this, what had been the course adopted? A Bill had been introduced by the right hon. Member for Morpeth (Sir George Grey) which, discarding even the semblance of inquiry, would have disfranchised the 2,700 freemen of Dublin upon the mere allegation or imputation of their being corrupt. As the son and grandson of a freeman he must be permitted to say, as of a matter concerning which he had personal knowledge, that nothing could be more gratuitously or scandalously incorrect than to say of that large and influential body of persons that they had ever done, or that they were ever capable of being betrayed into doing acts which deserved that character. The freemen of Dublin had for generations comprised the wealthiest and the worthiest individuals in the community to which they belonged. They comprised many of the clergy, of the bar, and of the medical profession, resident in the Irish metropolis; most of its merchants and bankers, and a great number of persons possessing private property. They held, no doubt, predominantly the opinions to which he and those who sat on his side of the House were opposed; but that was in his mind rather a reason why, sitting there as judges or jurors, he and his hon. Friends around him should listen with the utmost caution and even incredulity to political charges made against them. Nevertheless, the Bill of the right hon. Baronet, without trial or proof, would have swept away the whole of those 2,700 voters, and thus completely upset the equipoise of parties, which notoriously existed in the Irish capital. There was no man in the House to whose experience and judgment in a case of difficulty or doubt he would not more willingly defer than the right hon. Member for Morpeth; but he must say that in the present case, doubt or diffi- culty he had none. He could not but regard the Bill brought in by him as unjust; and it was palpable that the Bill now before them was but a second edition, carefully revised, of the same measure, in favour of which the first was to be withdrawn. Some hon. Gentlemen had sought to rely on precedents. As far as he knew there were but four which had ever been alluded to, and none of them were really in point. At Gram-pound, in 1819, nearly the whole of an insignificantly small constituency were shown to have been bribed. The purchase was by wholesale, and its shame was so flagrant, that upon an indictment, the sitting Member was found guilty and sentenced to a fine of several thousand pounds by a court of law. Even then the House did not proceed without having before it a copy of the record, and hearing evidence at the Bar as to indiscriminate and universal corruption of the place. Grampound was a libel and a burlesque upon the representation, and therefore Parliament did well in sweeping it away. Did this furnish any example or warrant for dealing with the fifth part of a constituency numbering 13,000 voters? Sudbury was disfranchised in 1844. The whole constituency did not exceed 594; and the Commissioners reported not only many cases of proved venality, but their unanimous opinion "that systematic and extensive bribery prevailed at that election for the borough." St. Albans, with a constituency of only 483 was disfranchised under similar circumstances; the Commissioners reported that "out of a constituency of 483 there usually took bribes 308." Parliament, therefore, wisely and fitly disfranchised these places, because it was palpably impossible to reckon upon a pure election being had in either of them. That was a conclusive reason for general disfranchisement; but did anyone assert a similar reason here? His hon. Friend the Member for Galway had told the House how he had been fleeced at a Dublin election £4,500 under the plea of buying the votes of certain freemen. But that was eight and twenty years ago; and they were bound to believe that his hon. Friend did not know into how many corrupt pockets his money went, so that really his testimony on the issue before them amounted to nothing. Finally, there was the case of Yarmouth, where the freemen only and not the householders had by a special Act of Parliament been deprived of their votes. He (Mr. Torrens) was of the Parliament of 1847, by whom that Act was passed. What were the facts. The Chairman of the Committee of five (Mr. Ker Seymour) was a man still remembered with respect and affection by many within that House. He was of the same politics as the sitting Members who were unseated on proof of a prodigal outlay of money on the purchase of votes. The Committee reported— That gross, systematic, and extensive bribery prevailed at the last and at the previous election; and expressed their unanimous opinion that the freemen of the borough should be disfranchised. On this a Commission was issued, and very properly so. But is this a precedent? The Judge in the present case acts instead of the old Committee of five; but it is not even pretended that he has made any distinct recommendation whatever. On these grounds I must therefore differ from my right hon. and learned Friend, and vote against his Bill.


said, that the Act of 1868 having removed from Committees the trial of Election Petitions, they did not now seek to bring back the discussion of these cases to the floor of the House; but they had not abandoned the power of dealing with the Report of the Judge as they formerly had dealt with the Report of the Committee. That distinction should be borne in mind. This House was the ultimate resort to which the Report of the Judge must come. His hon. Friend the Member for Fins-bury (Mr. M'Cullagh Torrens) asked why the Attorney General for Ireland did not prosecute the guilty, but had his hon. Friend looked at the Return presented that morning? What was the result of the prosecutions? How many convictions had been obtained? It was said this proceeding was without precedent. He said there were good grounds for the disfranchisement of St. Albans, 300 out of 450 electors having been proved guilty. But how were they so proved guilty? By a Commission; yet his hon. Friend objected to the issuing of a Commission. When the right hon. Baronet the Member for Morpeth (Sir George Grey) introduced his Bill, they were told there ought first to be an inquiry; and now when inquiry was proposed, they were told there were no grounds for it. The Judge had gone as far as he could, and expressly left it to the House of Commons to deal with the cases of the freemen and the constituency affected by them. By passing the Act of last year the House desired to make the trial of Election Petitions a reality, and if, when the Judge had reported that gross and extensive corruption prevailed in a constituency, they refused to adopt the proper proceedings, the responsibility would rest with hon. Gentlemen opposite.


said, it had been admitted on all hands that this was a piece of exceptional legislation. He thought it exceptional in every respect. He could not agree with the proposal of the right hon. Baronet the Member for Morpeth (Sir George Grey), which was to brand these freemen outright. Now, another proposal was made to try them, but he (Mr. Henley) was unable to support even that proposition. The number of persons implicated in the Report of the Judge was very limited, with one exception. Even in the case where the Judge had satisfied himself of the names and numbers the evidence did not appear to bear out to the full extent what the Judge had reported. He had carefully perused the evidence to see whether it did or did not bear out the Judge's Report. One paragraph stated that eleven had been bribed in a particular house, and the learned Judge proceeded to say that twenty or thirty others had been bribed in the same place. Any person reading that might fairly infer that forty persons had been there altogether. But of three witnesses who had been examined as to what had occurred in the house two did not carry the number beyond fifteen, and one only said it was not more than thirty. The Judge certainly had put it at the outside; and when a man spoke of twenty or thirty, and eleven had been mentioned beforehand, one would be apt to believe that forty persons had been in the house. Then there was not a title of evidence to prove that the persons who asked to be bribed were not the same persons. Then came a great sweeping drag-net at the end, which included 200 in addition to the former. What was that portion of the Judge's Report founded on? It seemed that a number of persons signed declarations that they would act gratuitously, and the Judge reported that that was colourable and evasive. The evi- deuce was that there were between 300 and 400 in that position; but the Judge took and picked out the number as exactly 385. But out of these 385 no less than seventy were stated, in the evidence, to be solicitors. The Judge spoke of that as "a most portentous birth." But was it really such a "portentous birth" that solicitors on such an occasion should act without pay? His experience of his own county was that solicitors frequently acted in that way. He had read the evidence most carefully, and the conclusion he had come to was very different from that of the Judge. An attempt was made two years ago to get rid of the Dublin freemen, and the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. W. H. Gregory) had said that twenty-seven years ago, to his knowledge, that body was corrupt. There had, however, been one inquiry since, out of which they came with clean hands; and he was sorry that a Motion like the present should have been made, because he believed the more the evidence was sifted the less it would bear it out.


said there could be no doubt that the Bill proposed to be introduced was a purely party measure introduced at the dictation of the masters of the Government. There were some who said that the masters of the Government were the Fenians; but it might be said, with greater truth, that the masters of the Government were the priests. There was no doubt if the freemen of Dublin were disfranchised that the priests would become as supreme over the representation of that city as they were now over its corporation.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 239; Noes 136: Majority 103.

Bill ordered, to be brought in by Mr. ATTORNET GENERAL for IRELAND and Mr. CHICHESTER FORTESCUE.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 189.]

Forward to