HC Deb 18 August 1871 vol 208 cc1863-9

, in rising to call the attention of the House to the arbitrary and unconstitutional conduct of the Government in attempting to suppress by force a peaceable procession of the Apprentice Boys of Derry to the Cathedral, to attend Divine Service, on the 12th instant, and to move for Papers, said, he regretted that the noble Lord the Chief Secretary for Ireland (the Marquess of Hartington), whose courtesy and general fairness he felt bound to acknowledge, should have been induced to take a step with reference to the recent Derry Anniversary which he believed to be illegal and unconstitutional, but which was certainly an infringement of rights and liberties exercised for a century and a-half. Those who took part in these demonstrations had no wish to create animosity on the part of their Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen, or to provoke a breach of the peace, but their only object was to commemorate the great deeds of their ancestors. Macaulay had said in his history, that the people who took no pride in the deeds of their ancestors were not likely to do any deeds worthy to be remembered by their descendants, and he thought that doctrine correct. He, for one, did not desire to see Protestant ascendancy established in the sense of former days; but, at the same time, he did not desire to see established in its place an Ultramontane ascendancy. That was what they protested against. With regard to those anniversary celebrations, some people thought it would be better to pass a law prohibiting all processions, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic; and others were in favour of giving entire freedom for celebrations, and allowing the Roman Catholics to celebrate the 17th of March, and the Protestants the 12th of July. He held with the latter view of giving entire freedom. The question which they most complained of, and which they were inclined to test, in connection with the recent anniversary, was that the proclamation of the Lord Lieutenant should overrule the law of the land. Three, or even two people were not allowed to talk together in the street, and in common with the Apprentice Boys, he had himself been jostled by the police; but he did not complain of their conduct, as they were only acting in accordance with the orders of their superiors. He had no charge of partiality to make against the Government in the administration of the Party Processions Act until this affair, and he presumed that they were compelled to take measures for the suppression of this demonstration as a set-off against what they had done in regard to the Phœnix Park meeting; but he would say that if such processions were to be forbidden, let them be forbidden all over the country without distinction and under the provisions of an Act of Parliament passed for the purpose; and let it not be said that a Government which could not send 30,000 men to Berkshire could send 1,000 policemen to disperse a few boys peaceably celebrating a national anniversary. He begged to move for Copies of any Papers and Documents in connection with the Proclamation.


, in seconding the Motion, remarked that the procession of the Derry Boys commemorated an historical fact of which all persons should be proud—a fact which lay at the foundation of their civil and religious liberties. When those processions were dealt with by the Government it should be with absolute impartiality, and not as in this case, without sufficient reason being shown. In this instance the action of the Government had at least the appearance of not being perfectly impartial, and was, therefore, to be regretted.


said, he was not sorry the hon. Member for Belfast (Mr. W. Johnston) had thought it his duty to bring that subject forward, because it enabled him to explain the conduct of the Government in the matter, though he imagined that if the hon. Member entertained any doubt as to the legality of the action of the Government, he had the means of testing it before a tribunal perhaps better fitted than that House possibly could be to try a question of law; in fact, he had been given to understand that one of the friends of the hon. Member had already announced his intention of taking legal proceedings on the subject. The hon. Member had rested his case in a great measure on a certain letter written or proclamation issued by a Mr. O'Donnell, calling on the Catholic Association of Derry to stop the procession, and there was nothing that the hon. Member had said on that point in which he (the Marquess of Hartington) did not concur. That letter was a most improper one, and the threats as to a resort to violence could not be too much deprecated. The letter had been submitted, at the request of the magistrates of Derry, to the Law Officers of the Crown, for the purpose of considering whether Mr. O'Donnell had rendered himself liable to prosecution. He did not himself know at present what was the exact state of that matter, but feared that it would not be found possible to take any legal proceedings upon that letter. The hon. Member, however, appeared to think that because Mr. O'Donnell invited the Roman Catholic Association to Londonderry to take an illegal step, therefore the Government were debarred from adopting such a course as was necessary for the preservation of the public peace. Now, that was a course in which under no circumstances could he concur with the hon. Member. The hon. Member did not seem to be aware that informations were sworn and in possession of the Government in which it was distinctly alleged that, if any such procession or celebration as was proposed was held a breach of the peace, and great loss of life would probably ensue. [Mr. W. JOHNSTON said, he had heard of a police information.] He knew of nobody better fitted to swear information on such a subject than the police. What was the conduct of the magistrates responsible for the good order of the town? On the 3rd of August the magistrates held a meeting, and two resolutions came before them. The first had reference to the letter of Mr. O'Donnell, and requested that it might be submitted to the Law Officers of the Crown; while the second asked the Government to send down to Londonderry on the 11th, to be present at the celebration of the 12th, 600 men of the constabulary and two troops of cavalry to keep the peace. What must have been the apprehension of the magistrates of Londonderry when they asked the Government to send a small army to preserve order in the town on the 12th of August? He admitted that the procession in itself, as the Apprentice Boys originally intended to hold it, was not an illegal procession, and might, under other circumstances, have been, perfectly innocent and proper; but a high legal authority, Chief Justice Monahan, had very lately stated the law very clearly in regard to those very Londonderry celebrations. It was to the effect that there could be little or no harm in a number of gentlemen meeting and walking in procession together to celebrate any event in orderly and legal manner; but that if such a proceeding could not be taken without, as might be anticipated, giving great offence and leading to open disturbance, rioting, and perhaps bloodshed, what without that was legal enough became illegal, and justified repressive and coercionary measures in order to prevent such proceedings. It was upon that view of the law that Government acted on that occasion. They had the information of the police and the advice of the magistrates, showing it to be perfectly certain that unless certain precautions of an extraordinary character were taken the holding of that procession would inevitably lead to a breach of the peace, and probably to a serious loss of life. Taking the state of the law to be as Chief Justice Monahan had laid it down, the Government thought such a procession, although it might have been originally innocent in intention, became under those circumstances illegal, and they determined to prohibit it. The hon. Member said the course adopted by the Government in that case was different from that adopted on former occasions; but on former occasions the Government had not, as on the present, any sworn information, without which it would have been difficult to pursue that course, and besides, they could not have taken the extreme step of prohibiting processions not originally illegal in intention until they deemed it was absolutely necessary to do so. The Lord Lieutenant and the late Chief Secretary had hoped that in time the good sense of the people of Londonderry themselves would lead them to abandon, without compulsion, proceedings so obviously calculated to produce ill-will and dissension. Unfortunately those anticipations were not realized. It would have been far more satisfactory if an end had been put to those celebrations by the good sense and moderation of the people than by the strong arm of the law; but as there appeared to be no such intention of giving them up, the Government were obliged on that occasion to consider what they should do, and they came to the decision he had stated. The case was not one in which the Government could have refrained from taking some action. They could not have remained passive instruments in the hands of the magistrates of Derry, and merely complied with their requisition to send them down a small army at great cost to the country to preserve the peace of that town, without considering what were the causes of the necessity for that great display of force and its attendant expenditure. There was no disposition on the part of the Government to interfere with the liberty of the hon. Member for Belfast and his friends so long as they did not proceed to actions that were offensive to others; but the Government were responsible for the preservation not only of liberty, but also of order, and that was a duty which they could not under any circumstances neglect. He did not for a moment believe that the hon. Member himself took part or encouraged those proceedings from any desire whatever to insult or hurt the feelings of his Roman Catholic countrymen; and if the Roman Catholics of Derry would desist from their opposition to those Protestant processions, no doubt the hon. Member would be the first to counsel his friends to let bygones be bygones. But though he acquitted the hon. Member himself of any intention to wound the feelings of others, yet he could hardly say as much for all who took part in and promoted those celebrations. There would be something ridiculous, something calculated to bring the Government into contempt, in having to send down several times in the year a large force at great expense to the country to prevent those very useless, and, as Chief Justice Monahan said, illegal displays in Derry. The Government were extremely anxious that neither party should get a triumph over the other, and he did not think that in that instance either party did have a triumph, for he would remind the hon. Member that the Government had shown no partiality in the matter, having at the same time prohibited a counter procession attempted to be formed by the Roman Catholics; in fact, he thought it was scarcely necessary in these days to vindicate the principles of liberty by any such displays, and the Government had accordingly prohibited them. The Protestant party had no reason to be dissatisfied, for their procession was not stopped by the violent threats of the Roman Catholic party; and, until both sections could tolerate each other's eccentricities, he did hope that no further attempt would be made to hold those processions. If it should continue necessary in future years to incur great expense in taking precautions against such disturbances, the anomalous state of the law which rendered it impossible to throw the cost of those precautions upon the towns necessitating them might have to be considered, for it seemed hard that the taxpayers of the country generally should have to pay large sums of money simply because the inhabitants of particular towns could not keep their anniversaries without breaking each other's heads. He hoped, however, that a better feeling would prevail, and that the animosity between the rival parties would die out. In conclusion, he had no objection to produce the Papers moved for by the hon. Member.


said, that he should not object, if it were necessary, to have these processions declared illegal; but he did object to the Government reading the law in a manner injurious to the liberty of the subject. They had a right to claim from the Government protection in the exercise of their legal freedom, for the law of England gave men the right to do that which was not illegal, and also a claim to protection from the authorities in doing that which was not illegal. If the peculiar circumstances of Ireland seemed to make it necessary for the Government to interfere with the liberties of the people of that country, the causes of such a state of things would well deserve the grave consideration of the House.

Motion agreed to.

Copy ordered, "of the Sworn Informations and other Documents on which the Proclamation was issued by the Government relating to the procession of the Apprentice Boys of Decry to the Cathedral to attend Divine Service on the 12th day of this instant August."—(Mr. William Johnston.)