HC Deb 10 May 1870 vol 201 cc524-8

in rising to move That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown in Ireland to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Burgess to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Sligo, in the room of Major Knox, whoso Election has been determined to be void, said, under ordinary circumstances he should not have thought it necessary to make any Motion upon the subject, but have left the matter in the hands of the Government. The seat, however, had now been vacant for twelve months; the Report of the Election Commissioners, following the Report of the Election Judge, had been upon the Table for a considerable time, and yet the Government did not seem inclined to move. Accordingly, he thought it right to introduce this Motion, with a view of drawing from the Government a declaration of their intention either to allow the issue of the writ, or to take ulterior measures, with a view of disfranchising the borough. He was one of those who had always looked with suspicion upon the power claimed in these days to suspend the issue of writs, believing that practice to be altogether unconstitutional. Parliament was so jealous as to the completeness of the representation of the different boroughs that it had even authorized the Speaker, at a time when Parliament was not sitting, to issue a writ to till up a vacancy. Sligo was a place of considerable importance at the time of the Union—the town then returned two Members—and continued to elect upright and honourable representatives, until of late years, he was sorry to say, it had been corrupted by English gold and the official influence of a Lord of the Treasury. The Report went fully into the circumstances of recent elections; but it deserved notice that the Report was only signed by two of the Commissioners, the Chairman of the Commission having been allowed by the Government to go off and seek the favours of another constituency—a proceeding which occasioned some little surprise. The result, however, of all their inquiries, and of all the coercion brought to bear upon men to disclose the events of their past lives, showed a very small comparative amount of bribery and corruption—about 3 per cent of the registered constituency. Nobody could object to the disfranchisement of those who had actually received bribes: personation and undue influence had also been reported; but that was no reason why the writ should be withheld. He had no objection to any course the Government might think proper to pursue; but with the present strong Government, when the Prime Minister might be considered master of a hundred legions, they ought rather to employ themselves in purifying the constituency than in destroying the representation of Sligo. He begged to move the Motion of which he had given notice.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown in Ireland to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Burgess to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough of Sligo, in the room of Major Knox, whose Election has been determined to be void."—(Colonel French.)


said, he could not accede to the Motion of his right hon. and gallant Friend. It was not his intention at present to go into the facts of the case; it was enough to say that the matter was under the consideration of the Government, and he hoped in a few days to be able officially to state what course the Government intended to take in reference to the borough of Sligo. But as his right hon. and gallant Friend had made some observations on the subject, he would take the liberty of adding one or two by way of reply. The Report of the Commission of 3rd March, 1870, was a very full and satisfactory document, and as the third Commissioner declined to act in consequence of his standing for Tipperary, the report was made by the remaining two; and if it was any satisfaction to the House to know the fact, one was a Conservative and the other was a Liberal. The Report stated that at the last three elections of Members to serve in Parliament for the borough of Sligo corrupt practices extensively prevailed. At the election of 1859 corrupt practices had not prevailed, one of the candidates, the Conservative, having no money, and the other candidate standing reluctantly. In 1865, when the constituency numbered 372, corrupt practices prevailed to such an extent that 91 voters were scheduled as guilty of bribery by receiving money or other valuable considerations in respect of their votes. The Reform Act had added considerably to the constituency, yet notwithstanding at the last election the Commissioners stated— The bribery proved at this election fell short of what took place on former occasions. We do not, however, feel ourselves justified in reporting that this was due to the increased purity of the constituency, having regard to the fact that in Sligo it was almost invariably after the election that the distribution of money among the electors took place, which (if intended) would have been stopped by the presentation of a petition, and also that a large number of the electors avowed their willingness to take money if it were to be obtained. It appears from the evidence of Robert Stokes (pages 185–188) that, in consequence of the sitting of the Royal Commission, several sums promised to voters had not been distributed at the time of his examination. The Commissioners were two of the most competent men at the Irish Bar. If the Commission was to be of any value it was necessary that the facts stated in the Report should be considered. The subject, therefore, was, as he had stated, engaging the attention of the Government. No step would be taken with regard to the borough of Sligo without having due regard to the facts proved respecting it. If they considered it their duty to proceed against it, however painful it might be, they would perform their duty; but if, on the other hand, they did not find that necessary, they would be very glad to announce their determi- nation to the House. Of course, with regard to those who had been found guilty of bribery it would be necessary that they should retire from that line of business for the remainder of their lives.


said, he would not go at length into the facts of the case; but he thought it was quite clear that the borough of Sligo did not deserve the treatment already meted out to the boroughs of Bridgwater and Beverley. It was perfectly true that at the Election of 1868 the Commissioners reported that corrupt practices had extensively prevailed; but all the evidence they could adduce to sustain that allegation was that out of a constituency of more than 500, 16 had been found guilty of having taken bribes, while only 11 had been found guilty of offering bribes. Besides it was stated by the Commissioners that at the last election there was no evidence that any money had been furnished previously to the election. He asked hon. Members to contrast this state of things with what had been reported in the case of Norwich, where something like one-eighth of the constituency was stated to have been bribed. The Norwich Commissioners had reported that corrupt practices had not prevailed in Norwich, notwithstanding the notorious state of things existing there; but in Sligo, where only one-thirtieth of the constituency was proved to be corrupt, corrupt practices were stated by the Commissioners to have prevailed there. He could account for this diversity of opinion only on the supposition that the Norwich Commissioners were in favour of disfranchisement and that the Sligo Commissioners were not respectively. Accepting the opinion of the Solicitor General for Ireland that the Commissioners were high-minded, he referred to their Report to show their animus. It was the duty of the Commissioners to go back until they found a pure election; they found one in 1859, but went out of their way to state that the reason it was pure was that one candidate had no money and the other did not wish to be returned. Referring to the Election of 1860, which was practically no contest, the Commissioners stated an incident on the authority of one witness, refusing to hear rebutting testimony on the ground that the matter was immaterial—a matter to which they afterwards gave prominence in the Report. Upon the Election of 1868 the Commissioners, desirous of showing some reason for their conclusions, stated that the usual practice in Sligo was to pay the voters afterwards. The circumstances of 1865 were peculiar, and the temptation to the voters almost irresistible. A gentleman, having contested the borough, sent his friends there some six months after, saying that he had a sum of money to dispose of, and desired to share it among the poor voters who I had voted for him. Ninety men came forward to take the money—30 per cent of the constituency, a proportion which would be matched under similar circumstances in any borough in the three kingdoms. But there would be no disposition to repeat this experiment in Sligo, for, beside the fact that the constituency had been increased, the friends of the candidate found the demands upon them rather exceeded their powers. Considering, however, that the Solicitor General for Ireland had promised to consider the matter carefully, he suggested to the right hon. and gallant Member the propriety of withdrawing his Motion and assisting the determination of the Government.


said, he thought the House ought to thank the right hon. and gallant Member for Roscommon (Colonel French) for having produced a case in which the Government actually did not think themselves warranted in recommending the issue of a writ for an Irish borough. There was nothing in this case exceptionally heinous; that 16 persons out of a constituency of 520 were bribed was not at all an extraordinary thing in the case of an Irish borough, unless it was extraordinary in point of moderation. He expressed his disappointment that the Solicitor General for Ireland had not given some idea of the policy of the Government with regard to that very important matter, the redistribution of seats in Ireland. Certainly the Province of Connaught ought not to be deprived of one of its few Members longer than was absolutely necessary, and he hoped the Solicitor General for Ireland would very soon make up his mind on the subject, for already he had taken longer to do so than was usual with his brother Law Officers for England.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.