HC Deb 02 May 1872 vol 211 cc140-69

Order for Second Reading read.


Sir, in moving the second reading of the Bill for the repeal of the Act of 33 Geo. III., c. 29, I deem it necessary to offer a few words of explanation. The title of the Act—"To prevent the Election or Appointment of unlawful Assemblies"—is calculated to mislead. Its more correct title would be "an Act to create Unlawful Assemblies," for it renders unlawful any assembly of delegates or representatives, how lawful or constitutional soever the object of such assembly may be. It enacts that— All assemblies, committees, or other bodies of persons elected, or otherwise constituted or appointed, are unlawful assemblies, and all persons giving or publishing notice of the election to be made of such persons or delegates, or attending, or voting, or acting therein by any means, are guilty of a high misdemeanour. The House, then, I hope, clearly understands that my object is not to encourage unlawful assemblies in Ireland; but, on the contrary, to elevate the tone of public assemblies by restoring to my country the right of public meeting, in accordance with the forms prescribed by the Constitution, and sanctioned by the custom of England from time immemorial. This Act was passed by the Irish Parliament in the year 1793. It was vehemently opposed by Mr. Grattan. He said its object— Was not the peace of the country, but reflection on great bodies, the gratification of spleen at the expense of the Constitution, by voting false doctrine into law. His objection to the Bill was that it was a trick, making a supposed National Convention at Athlone in 1793 a pretext for preventing delegation for ever. In the discussion last Session on the Phœnix Park Riots, the allegation that there was one law for England and another for Ireland with reference to public meetings was denied; it was asserted, on the contrary, by occupants of the Treasury bench, that the law on the subject was actually the same in both countries. That was an excusable mistake, for very few hon. Members of this House were then aware of the existence of this Act. The leading journal even was not aware of its existence; but the moment its attention was called to it, it did not hesitate to avow its concurrence with the view of Grattan—that the Irish Parliament would have done more wisely had it originally limited the duration of the Act, and that it was no longer desirable to maintain it. Am I guilty of presumption in now asking the Government and the House to give effect to their own declarations to assimilate the Irish law with reference to public meetings to that of England, and to give to Ireland the benefit of that saving principle of the Constitution—the principle of representation—which, operating through public assemblies, has enabled England, without tumult and without disorder, to repeal her own laws and reform her own Parliament? In that same Park debate the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government complained—and not without some show of reason—that while meetings in England were held for purposes of discussion, in Ireland the object seemed to be to produce an effect by the display of large numbers. The difference is not to be ascribed to any preference of the Irish people for tumultuous assemblages, but to this particular Act, which drove O'Connell to the expedient of monster meetings, and leaves to the Irish people now no other resource. Although asking the House to sanction the formal repeal of this Act, I am free to avow the opinion that the Irish people would be justified in treating it as obsolete and not of binding effect, and I will state the grounds of that opinion. While the Act for the disestablishment of the Irish Church was before the House, a Convention in opposition to that measure, summoned by the Primates of Ireland, the Archbishop of Armagh and the Archbishop of Dublin, of delegates chosen and elected from every parish in Ireland, sat day after day in Dublin. A letter addressed by the Most Rev. Dr. Trench to each of the clergy of the united dioceses of Dublin and Kildare violates in every line the spirit and the letter of the Act which I propose to repeal, and the writer of it, and every member of that Church Convention, rendered himself liable, on conviction, to the penalties of high misdemeanour. These gentlemen exercised—and properly exercised, as I conceive—what they deemed to be a constitutional right, and they held their Convention with the full sanction of Her Majesty's Government. Nay, at the very time the proceedings of that Convention were being published in the Dublin newspapers, the then Attorney General for Ireland, now Mr. Justice Barry, referred in this House to the Act in question, in these terms— By a peculiar law of old standing in that country, and framed for a particular purpose, no persons or body could meet by delegation. I do not mean to censure the Government for their action on that occasion—far from it—they felt, I presume, that the Act was one which either ought not to be enforced, or could not be enforced. Well, the Act which ought not to be enforced, ought not to be upon the statute book; and the Act which cannot be enforced offends against the majesty of the law every instant that it remains unrepealed. This Act, therefore, stands already condemned by the Government, but it stands also condemned by this House. A special clause in the Church Act places this Act in abeyance, in order to enable the Protestants of Ireland to meet by delegation for the organization of their Church—that is, before an influential section of the Irish community can discharge one of the most important duties that could be committed to any body of men, a special Act of Parliament is required to remove the obstruction interposed by this Act. A stronger legislative condemnation than that it would be difficult to conceive. The Act is general in its scope, embracing all sections, all persons, and all objects; I claim, therefore, in the name of justice and of law, that the right reserved by the Church Act in favour of a section of the Irish community for a special purpose, shall be extended to the whole Irish people, for any and every purpose that is legal and constitutional. It may be said that if this Act is repealed, the Irish people will hold representative meetings for Repeal of the Union, or some form of Home Rule. Granted that they may do so; at present they can hold monster meetings for a similar purpose. The only difference that I can see between the two forms of meeting is, that while the representative principle affords a guarantee for order and regularity, the monster meeting is usually attended with excitement. But either one or the other may be prevented, if convened for an illegal purpose. The Act, moreover, is utterly indefensible. No such Act exists in England, and if maintained, it can only be with the intent of preventing the Irish people from deliberating in an orderly and constitutional manner upon Irish affairs, and petitioning with effect the Crown or the Parliament. I hope the House will not commit the fatal blunder of elevating this infamous Act into the position of the Malakhoff of the Union—if it should do so, that Malakhoff will be captured, and no bridge of fire will save the Sebastopol behind it.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Patrick Smyth.)


said, he was sorry that he was unable to agree to the second reading of the Bill, and he need hardly tell the hon. Member who had charge of it and the House that no one would have more pleasure than he should if he could think that this piece of exceptional legislation with regard to Ireland could be safely repealed. The hon. Member had stated that the Act which he now sought to repeal was intended to restrain the right of public meeting, but against public meeting in that country there was no Act whatever in existence, provided it was convened for a legal purpose; the Act in question only prohibited persons who either were, or purported themselves to be, delegates from other bodies, from assembling in Convention. The hon. Member had further carefully abstained from entering into the history of this measure; but he would not imitate the hon. Member in that respect, but would at once tell the House that it was passed not by the English, but by the Irish Parliament at a time when hon. Members of the hon. Gentleman's mode of thinking believed that Ireland was most prosperous and most happy. It would be a mistake, however, were the Government to treat this Act as being altogether obsolete. Doubtless, it had been passed for reasons which he (the Marquess of Hartington) could not altogether approve, and under very different circumstances from those which now existed; but, unfortunately, it had been found necessary in recent times to put it into operation, and had not the Irish Parliament passed it, it might have been necessary for the British Parliament to have enacted some provisions of a similar character. Thus, in the time of Mr. O'Connell, it was proposed to hold a National Convention, which was announced as furnishing a correct representation of the Irish people; and it was only by means of this Act that that Convention was prevented from being held. In still more recent times the Act had been put into operation. Thus, in 1848, the Irish Confederation announced its intention of summoning a National Council, to be elected by the various local national councils in that country, and, of course, such a Council would equally have purported to be the national representative of Ireland. The late Lord Clarendon, the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, believing that such an assembly would be dangerous to the public peace of the country, gave notice that it would not be permitted to meet, and that the Act would be put into force in order to prevent such a Convention being held. Any hon. Member who had read the speeches of Members of the Irish Confederation, in which they announced their ultimate views, would have little doubt that the Government of that day came to a right conclusion in thinking that the permitting of the assembling of such a National Council would not be conducive to the public peace. Those speeches plainly showed that it was the intention of the promoters of that National Council that it should purport to represent the national will and the feelings of the Irish people more completely and fully than Parliament itself, and there could be no doubt that such a Council would have been regarded by large numbers of the people of Ireland as possessing a superior weight to that of the Parliament of England. The hon. Member said that the Act had been condemned by the action of both the Government and of Parliament; but it appeared to him that, in the observations he had made on the subject, the hon. Member had answered himself. The hon. Member had said that the representative Convention of the Church Body in Ireland was an infraction of the Act, and that the Government by proposing, and Parliament by assenting, to a provision legalizing that assembly, had practically condemned the Act in question. But the Government had taken a reasonable and a proper course by asking Parliament to agree to a provision repealing the Act in a special case, which they believed to be a reasonable and a proper one. The general question however they had now to determine was, what would be the immediate effect of repealing the Act at the present time? He was far from saying that the time might not come when this Act might be repealed; but he should not be expressing the opinions which he entertained were he to say that that time had now arrived. The hon. Member was of too practical a turn of mind to wish to repeal this Act without having some ulterior object in view; and, therefore, would not say that in the event of the Act being repealed, a Convention of the Home Rule party would be held; but was it not extremely probable that such an assembly would be held in that event? He (the Marquess of Hartington) did not know whether it would be worth while to preserve the Act merely for the purpose of preventing a Home Rule Convention being assembled; but it was impossible for the Government to shut their eyes to the fact that, although much had not been heard about it lately, and although it was dormant, the Fenian organization was not altogether extinguished. He did not know whether the hon. Member was aware, but he himself was aware, that many members—perhaps not the most prominent, but, at all events, not the least active members—of the Home Rule Association were still connected with the Fenians. ["No!"] Whether the hon. Member who cried "No," was aware of the fact or not, he could inform him that he had not the smallest doubt that many members—perhaps not the most prominent, but not the least active members—of that Association were now or had been connected with the Fenian organization, and their object in taking up the agitation on the subject of Home Rule it was not difficult to conjecture. At the present moment Fenianism was at a very great discount. The failure of the Fenian plans had been complete, and the people of Ireland were fully aware of the hollowness of the proposals and the selfishness of the aims of those who put them forward—in fact, Fenianism might be said to be very nearly dead. But although Fenianism was dormant, it was not altogether dead, and the great object of the leaders of that organization was, that some kind of agitation should be kept up in Ireland, so that, if a more convenient opportunity arose, the Fenian organization might be easily revived. The Home Rule agitation accordingly seemed to open up to the nearly extinct Fenian party the requisite means for keeping up what they called a patriotic spirit, they biding their time till a more convenient season; and he again maintained that, whether the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt) was aware of the fact or not, many members of the Home Rule party did at all events belong to the Fenian organization. [Mr. BUTT: No, no!] He would repeat, in spite of the denial of the hon. and learned Member for Limerick, that if that hon. and learned Member was not aware of it he (the Marquess of Hartington) was, that many of the most active members of the Home Rule Association did at present belong, or had belonged, to the Fenian Association. If that was not the fact, let the hon. and learned Gentleman point out to the House what means were taken by the Home Rule Association to exclude Fenians from their body. Let him institute inquiries, and, if he did it honestly, he would find that the statement now made was not an exaggeration. He sincerely wished, as the whole House must wish, that every trace of exceptional legislation in Ireland could be effaced; but the best way to effect that object was not by moving for the repeal of these Acts before the time had come at which they could be repealed with safety, but by removing altogether the cause for such legislation. If the hon. Member for Westmeath and others would exercise their influence with a view to destroy all disloyal and illegal associations in Ireland, the Government would gladly propose the repeal of those Acts; but so long as they knew that treasonable associations had very recently been rife and active in Ireland, and that many men there were only waiting for the opportunity of reviving plots which a few years ago did so much to check the prosperity of Ireland, and caused so much alarm, it was impossible to repeal laws which imposed checks in the way of these associations. While he hoped the time might come when exceptional legislation would cease, it would not at present be either wise or politic to repeal those Acts. He regretted, moreover, that the discussion had come on at a time when it was not expected, and when, therefore, hon. Members were not very well prepared to discuss it. Among other Members absent was the hon. Gentleman who had undertaken to move the rejection of the Bill (Mr. Leeman). In the absence of the hon. Gentleman, however, he should adopt his Amendment, and accordingly would move that the Bill be read a second time that day six months.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(The Marquess of Hartington.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


said, he rose in consequence of the direct appeal made to him by the noble Marquess. He also regretted that the House was not better attended, because he should have been glad to ask a full assembly of English Gentlemen whether, in the first place, these professions of liberality towards Ireland were a reality or a sham; and, in the next place, whether it was the province of any Minister to bring against Gentlemen as honourable as himself charges that they had taken part in the Fenian conspiracy? He gave the most direct denial to the statement just made. If the noble Marquess was of opinion that "some members of the Home Rule Association are members" of the Fenian conspiracy—mark these words "are members"—[Several hon. MEMBERS: "Are or were" was the expression used.] In that case, he would like to know what was the meaning of the alternative? Would the noble Marquess retract, and say that no member of the Home Rule Association was now a member of the Fenian conspiracy? If such men were now Fenians it was the duty of the noble Marquess to prosecute them. If he forbore from prosecuting, it was the duty of the noble Marquess to be silent in that House; and he (Mr. Butt) protested against the conduct of a Minister who, upon the assertion of detectives and spies—who constituted the real Government of Ireland—brought such charges against Gentlemen who were as respectable as himself. "They were members of the Fenian conspiracy." He denied the statement; but if it were true, it would be one of the greatest triumphs of the Home Rule Association that it had won back to peaceful agitation men who had been driven by such Legislation as this to pursue their objects by illegal combinations. He would take upon himself the responsibility of calling on the noble Marquess to name the members of the Home Rule Association who "are or were" members of the Fenian conspiracy. To the best of his belief the charge was without a particle of foundation. The noble Marquess asked him, individually, what steps had been taken to prevent Fenians from joining the Home Rule Association? Had he received due notice of such a question, or had he expected such a charge to be made, he would have brought over the rules of that association, which declared that the only object contemplated was to gain for Ireland, under the Sovereignty of the Queen, with a House of Lords and a House of Commons, the right of managing in Ireland exclusively Irish Business, leaving still to the Imperial Parliament the task of dealing with Imperial legislation. That was the fundamental principle of the society, and there was a declaration that it was to be accomplished by peaceful means. A Fenian who joined the Home Rule Association under such circumstances, or, indeed, any man who had any reserve, or any disloyal or revolutionary object, would betray every member of the society when he joined; and, further, he had been present at the meetings of that society and had never heard a word uttered inconsistent with these declarations; but the effect of such legislation as this was to drive many men in Ireland into illegal combinations. He did not expect on such an occasion that he should be called upon to discuss Home Rule; but members of that association believed that until Ireland obtained the right of managing Irish affairs in an Irish Parliament, they would never have peace, prosperity, or content there. He was anxious to maintain the Union, and so were those engaged in the Home Rule organization, including men of high position and large property, who were not likely to lend themselves to revolutionary projects. Their proposals might be wild and impracticable, or otherwise; but they were simply as he had said—that Ireland should have an Irish Parliament managing Irish affairs under the Sovereignty of the Queen, with a veto given to Her Majesty upon every Irish subject; and the supreme control of the Imperial Parliament to be exercised in the last resort. He believed that the whole Irish people would make that demand at the next General Election, in such a form that every Englishman would feel it necessary for the peace and for the interest of the Empire that the demand should be granted. He had not, however, come here to discuss the question of Home Rule, nor ought it to have been raised that evening. An Act of Parliament remained on the Statute Book, which rendered it illegal for Irishmen to assemble, if they presumed to represent any portion of the Irish people; and those who took part in it would be liable to penalties. For example, an assembly of medical men sent up by the medical profession in the various counties would be illegal, and those who took part in it would be liable to penalties. The representative assembly of the Disestablished Irish Church would be illegal, if it were not expressly authorized by the recent statute; otherwise, the Archbishops of Armagh and Dublin would be liable to a prosecution for having contravened this Convention Act. The noble Marquess assigned the Fenian organization as his reason for continuing this Act. Did he think that thereby he would prevent the holding of a Fenian assembly? Would he seek to subject the members of a Home Rule Convention to penalties? He (Mr. Butt) would like to ask a number of representative men to meet together in Dublin, and determine upon a plan for an Irish Parliament to submit to this House; believing that if he did so, he should come here with an overwhelming representation of the intellect and property of Ireland. Such an assembly would, however, be illegal. He would hold it, if necessary, in defiance of all the Convention Acts upon the statute book; but if they met, it would not be under the protection of the law, or with the restraints imposed by the law, but more or less as outlaws, evading the law. Under this Act of Parliament the Corn Law League in Ireland would have been illegal, and Mr. Cobden would have been put in prison; while the advocates of Parliamentary Reform would have been put in precisely the same position. On the part of the Irish nation, he, however, maintained that they desired Home Rule; and claimed the same liberty to express their opinions upon the subject as was now possessed by Englishmen and Scotchmen, who were under no coercive statutes, such as that which it was now sought to repeal. And, moreover, he would warn the House, that if this Act was not repealed, it would cause in Ireland an agitation such as would be likely to endanger the safety of the Empire, and the Parliament of Great Britain and Ireland would stand forth before the eyes of Europe, as a body which held and governed Ireland by an unconstitutional system of coercion. Why, if such a system existed in Naples, the indignation of the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government would be stirred, and eloquent and high-sounding despatches would be written upon the subject by the British Minister at Naples, if the King of Italy attempted to hold that province by putting down public meetings. All he wanted, therefore, was that Ireland should be placed under the same law with England; and if the law was violated—if Fenians chose to assemble and to agitate, the common law of the land was sufficient to prevent and punish any such proceeding. The effect of a policy such as that which the Government seemed inclined to act upon in regard to this question must inevitably result in convincing the people of Ireland that they did not stand in apposition of equality under the British Constitution, and that, in order to obtain fair play, they must have a Parliament of their own sitting in Dublin; for nothing was more likely to stir up the inhabitants of Ireland who sympathized in any degree with the Penian movement, to rebellion and acts of violence, than to throw into their face the reproach that the British Parliament was asked by the Government not to repeal an unconstitutional and coercive measure, and to prevent them from meeting to discuss the dearest interests of their own country. He asked the House to believe him, when he said that if this line of policy were persisted in, Ireland would undoubtedly become a scourge for England in days which were not very far distant. God forbid that that should be so. He had struggled long—and should continue to struggle—to prevent such a state of things coming to pass; but the Ministry which would perpetuate an Act of Parliament like the one now under consideration was doing more than any other agency could do to bring about the denouement which he so strongly deprecated. He regretted very much that the noble Marquess the Chief Secretary for Ireland should have opposed this Bill, and he should regret still more to see the Prime Minister taking a similar course; because it would be impossible to inflict a greater blow upon British authority in Ireland, or to throw a greater difficulty in the way of those who, like himself, were anxious to reconcile the Irish people to the authority of the Queen, than would be inflicted by continuing these unconstitutional Acts upon the statute book.


said, he did not intend to follow his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt) into a discussion upon Home Rule—a matter which deserved separate discussion, and would probably receive attention from Parliament in the course of that or some future Session. He hoped when that discussion took place the voice of the Irish people generally would be heard upon the question, for he felt convinced that, when heard, it would show that the great bulk of the people were not under the guidance of his hon. and learned Friend upon this subject. Irishmen held a variety of opinions upon most subjects, and Home Rule was a matter upon which they were by no means ignorant. He came from the Province of Ulster, which was, whatever else might be said in reference to it, the most prosperous part of Ireland, and he assured his hon. and learned Friend that the people among whom he lived in his early life, and some of whom he represented in that House, held, and would express at the proper time, very decided opinions upon the subject of Home Rule. He did not intend to import into the discussion any amount of heat, but he wished to make one observation in reference to a remark which fell from his noble Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland. His noble Friend said that there were in the Home Rule Association—[Mr. BUTT: "Are now" were the words which the noble Marquess used]—he desired permission to finish the sentence before any correction was attempted. He understood his noble Friend to say that there were now or had been Fenians among the members of the Home Rule Association. [Mr. BUTT: No, no!] Then, what his noble Friend said was, that at the present time there were in the Home Rule Association persons who were now or had been members of the Fenian conspiracy. He should like to know from his hon. and learned Friend how many members the Home Rule Association had? [Mr. BUTT: 700.] 700 men, to represent the property, the intellect, and the patriotism of Ireland! Certainly, their number was greater than that of the men who fell at Thermopylæ; but though it was so small—[Mr. BUTT: 70,000]—he certainly should have thought they were more like 70,000—he ventured to think that of the 700 Home Rulers, or at all events of the 70,000, there was some one who at some period of his life had some connection with the Fenian conspiracy. That was substantially all his noble Friend had said on the subject. The real question, however, before the House was, whether in the present condition of Ireland, the Government responsible for the well being of the country ought to give up any of the safeguards that the wisdom of a former age had enacted for the preservation of the country's peace? He was in hopes that the time would shortly come when this Act might be safely repealed; but he did not think—and the Government did not think, it would be safe to repeal it just now. He did not think it would be denied by anyone that a Fenian conspiracy existed in Ireland. It might be dormant, but the Irish were a very lively people, and when asleep it was not very difficult to awake them. No man in Ireland had done more to discourage violence than his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Limerick, who, judging from his speech that evening, was not so far astray as many people thought he was; and he therefore asked his hon. and learned Friend to say, whether it would be wise to give up any of the existing safeguards, in face of a society which boasted its connection with a powerful organization across the Atlantic, openly stated its opposition to the maintenance of the Throne and the British Constitution, and looked forward to nothing less than the creation of an independent Irish Republic as the only means of securing the end they had in view? His hon. and learned Friend had referred to the Act it was now sought to repeal as a somewhat trumpery measure passed in 1793, and said it might be used to prevent certain country doctors from meeting in Dublin to discuss pathological subjects; but so far from this being a correct description of the measure, he (Mr. Dowse) found on reference to the statute, that it was enacted for the purpose, among others, of putting a stop to the holding of meetings convened for factious and seditious purposes. The Act in effect said that all assemblies assuming authority to represent the people of any province, city, town, or district, and elected for, and meeting under pretence of petitioning for or in any manner procuring an alteration of matters established by law in Church and State, should be declared an illegal assembly. It was not the right of public meeting that was aimed at; it was the principle of elections and delegates. He was at a loss therefore to understand how such an assembly of the Protestant Bishops as his hon. and learned Friend had referred to, held in order to protest against an alteration of the law as then established, and not in any shape calculated to effect a violation of the law, or the disturbance of the public peace, could be said to be an assembly convened to procure an alteration of that law. It required all the ingenuity of his hon. and learned Friend—and he (Mr. Dowse) knew how great that ingenuity was—to bring such a meeting under that Act. What that Act however was really aimed at was the assembling of a mock Parliament affecting to represent the people of Ireland, and thus setting up an opposition Business to that carried on in that House. If that were permitted, and a place for the purpose were obtained on College Green, they would doubtless see the county of Cork electing three or four different Gentlemen from those who represented it already in that House. Again, in a borough a different Member would be chosen from the Member who sat for it in that House, and it would be said, "Look on this picture, and on that—here is the real there, the sham representative." It would not be a case of—"How happy would I be with either, were t'other dear charmer away;" but the pseudo-Member would be decidedly preferred. His hon. and learned Friend himself would not be there as really representing Limerick, but would probably be President of the body set up in competition to the British Parliament, and which would go on discussing Bills and measures, in order to show how all those things could be managed in Ireland. In the present state of Ireland, with many ill-affected men in the country, armed to the teeth, and Fenianism dormant or smouldering, he did not think it would be safe to allow a sham Parliament to meet in Dublin. They frequently had Naples and the imprisonment of Poerio and other distinguished men mentioned to them; but there was no real similarity between the case of Naples and that of Ireland, and the reference to the former could only be made in these discussions by way of rhetorical flourish. That Act inflicted no practical grievance upon Ireland, which at the present moment enjoyed as much practical liberty as England or Scotland. ["No, no!"] His hon. Friend the Member for Galway (Mr. Henry) objected to that; but he (Mr. Dowse) defied any man to show that anything but the merest sentimental grievances existed in regard to that subject; and, at all events, he contended that that House was the proper place for the ventilation of Irish questions and complaints, for that House had never turned a deaf ear to anything which Ireland had to say. The grievance was a mere ideal one, for he ventured to assert that till this Bill was brought forward there were not 10 men out of every 10,000 in Ireland aware even of the existence of such a law. It was true there was no exactly analogous statute in England; but there were various enactments in England affecting the right of meeting even more stringent than those in force in Ireland, and yet no one asked for their repeal. The people were aware that no resort would be had to these laws, except on occasions when the whole people would approve of their application. In conclusion, he must say that the Government, having honestly considered that subject, felt it to be a duty to Ireland itself and to the entire United Kingdom not to ask for any change of the law at present; and as a consequence of that, they were bound to resist the proposal made by the hon. Member for Westmeath (Mr. P. Smyth) to repeal that Act. In doing so, however, they wished to give utterance to the sentiment that they were extremely anxious that the time might soon come when there would he no necessity to continue a statute of that description. If all Irishmen were as desirous as his hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Butt) to bring Irish questions to the touchstone of discussion and examination in that House, and abide by the result, the Government would not stand in the way of the repeal of that law; but they knew there were many men in Ireland who would not be offended if he called them the advanced thinkers of Irish politics, and who would not be satisfied with anything short of the separation of the two kingdoms. Being anxious, therefore, to allow Ireland time to heal the wounds inflicted on her in past times, and to encourage her people to come to the right tribunal for the consideration and redress of their grievances—the Imperial Parliament, the Government could not at present consent to part with what they deemed to be one of the safeguards of peace and order in that country.


said, that primâ facie, the case for the repeal of the Act was irresistible, for Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, and it ought to be governed by the same laws as England and Scotland. A case therefore must be made out for enacting or maintaining such exceptional legislation as that, which, in his opinion, would renderillegal the meetings of any representative body of men—say, for instance, the medical authorities from the different Irish counties, if they assembled to petition for a change of the law affecting medical relief. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland had said that no practical grievances had ever been felt under the statute; but under that very Act the committee to obtain the redress of Roman Catholic grievances had been dissolved. That fact overruled the assertion of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. The Attorney General had also thought that an attempt would be made to return Irish Representatives to compete with those now sitting in that House; but was he afraid of the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt) and his 700 adherents of Home Rule? If the friends of Home Rule were as weak as was alleged, surely, it would be wise to let the true touchstone be applied which would test that weakness? The argument of the noble Lord the Chief Secretary for Ireland was based on the assumption that if this Act were repealed the order and stability of the Empire would be endangered. It was because he (Mr. O'Reilly) believed that its repeal and the consequent enlarged freedom which Ireland would enjoy would tend to produce loyalty and contentment, that he advocated its repeal. The same fallacy pervaded the arguments of the noble Lord as had pervaded those of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland, when the noble Lord referred to the agitation that existed under O'Connell's direction, when that hon. Gentleman entertained the idea of assembling a National Council in Ireland in opposition to the Parliament of Westminster, whose decisions and decrees were to be looked upon as equal to or possessing greater weight than those of the Imperial Parliament; but if the question had been brought to such a test, the public would have seen a practical difference between the power and authority of a merely voluntary and irregularly elected body, and the power and weight of the Imperial body. Such an assembly would, no doubt, have had great weight in appealing to the Imperial Parliament; but the attempt to bring its decrees in contrast with Acts of Parliament would have simply shown its inefficiency. Penal legislation in reference to the expression of public opinion had never succeeded in any country in the world; but, on the contrary, it had conferred a fictitious value and a suppositious strength on the power against which it was directed. It did not prevent the meeting of Fenian delegates, because conspirators were not deterred by such Acts; but they used them in their appeal to the people as instances of how unjustly they were treated by the Government. The Imperial Government need not dread the Fenian organization; and he should like to see this legislation swept away, in order that the real feeling of the people might be tested. In conclusion, he must protest against the expression which the noble Marquess had used, when he said that unless a very different state of things were to occur in Ireland hon. Members would appeal in vain to an English Par-lianent to repeal such Acts. Now, if the Parliament of this country were a purely English Parliament, he should not be sitting in it; but it was because it was an Imperial Parliament that he sat in it, and it was to an Imperial Parliament he therefore appealed.


said, that if he had had any doubt before coming down to the House as to the vote he should give, the speech of the noble Lord the Chief Secretary for Ireland would have dispelled it. That noble Lord had fairly told the House that this was an Act of the Irish Parliament, but passed under different circumstances to those in which they now lived, and, instead of basing his opposition on that, he had introduced the subject of Fenianism and Home Rule. He need not remind the House that he (Mr. Bagwell) had never been connected with Fenianism or mixed up with Home Rule. He differed entirely with the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt), and he had no hesitation in stating his belief that Home Rule would lead to the utter destruction not only of Ireland, but of the whole country. It would be a simple act of the dismemberment of the Empire—such an act as was contemplated when the Southern States attempted to separate from the United States, and which led to the unfortunate war which took place between them. England, however, would imitate the conduct of the United States, and would no doubt spend her last shilling and fire her last shot before she permitted the dismemberment of the Empire by the separation of Ireland. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland had spoken of that country as being armed to the teeth; but every Irish magistrate well knew it was really not so, in consequence of the stringent working of the various Arms Acts that had been passed; and when a landlord was shot—which was the only thing that was done—he was shot with some such wretched gun that the man who fired the shot ran as much risk of losing his life as the person did who was fired at. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, therefore, could not have got the information upon which he founded his remark from the police of Ireland. If this Act were so harmless as it had been represented, why keep it on the statute book? But the fact was, that he had noticed over and over again, that what was proposed by independent Irish Members on the Government side of the House was opposed by the Government; and, if, after a time, it was proposed by Irish Members on the other side, it was immediately adopted by the Government. He did not think that was a proper course for the Government to adopt, and he, for one would always deprecate it. Were the Government not strong enough to keep down insurrection, or any meetings calculated to lead to riot, when they had a strong law, with an enormous army of superior police to carry out that law? With all these powers, he maintained that it was unworthy of the Government to continue obsolete Acts, passed in former times, and under circumstances different from the present.


, in supporting the second reading of the Bill, said, the continuance of the Act was an exceptional restriction on liberty in Ireland, and, indeed, was no remedy for the evils referred to, for Fenianism worked in the dark, and would not be affected by an Act against open meetings. Therefore, while it was inoperative as respected Fenianism, the Act strengthened the antipathies of the people, and was therefore injurious. But even if a mock Parliament were to meet in Dublin, he did not suppose the Government would think it judicious to enforce this Act; it was more probable they would regard it as a dead letter, as they had done in the case of the Party Processions Act. He thought, therefore, the repeal of the Act was desirable, for there was greater danger in the maintenance of exceptional restrictions than in repealing them.


said, he felt bound to support the noble Lord the Chief Secretary for Ireland. In doing so, however, he must give expression to the hope and the belief that at no distant period the laws between the two countries would be equal. Before he could consent to the repeal of the present exceptional legislation for Ireland, he must have an assurance from the Executive Government that the country was in such a state as to justify that repeal. It would have afforded him great pleasure to hear that the Fenian movement was no longer in existence, instead of being still dormant, and ready to wake into new life on the first opportunity that might occur, for the House must not forget what it had been obliged to do in order to put down that movement—namely, to suspend the Constitution. He fully believed what had been stated by his noble Friend, that the Fenian movement existed still, though only in a dormant condition, and every Irish Member in the House was, no doubt, of the same belief. With regard to the Act now under consideration, it was worthy of remark that not one hon. Member who had spoken that night had pointed out a single instance in which the Act had been brought into play inconsistently with the perfect liberty of Irishmen as well as Englishmen; and while he should be sorry to see the Government draw the string too tight, and apply this law on a slight transgression of its strict letter, he thought they were justified in maintaining the law, so that they might be enabled to assure themselves that Ireland was now not only in a tranquil state, but that it would continue to remain so for some time to come. There was a disposition in that House to do strict justice to Ireland, and the determination prevailed on both sides to remedy existing defects in that country. Several measures were already before the House for the purpose, and he believed it was not too much to say that within a few years the Government would be enabled to recommend the House to sweep away all that exceptional legislation, and to govern Ireland and England by the same laws.


said, that when the hon. Member for Westmeath (Mr. P. Smyth) introduced his Bill on this subject last year, the general opinion of the English Press was in favour of the abolition of the Act. Had the Act done any good—had it prevented sedition, treason, or rebellion, its continuation on the statute book might be justified. He might, however, remind the House of the fact, that the Act was passed during the Irish Parliament, and at a time of great political excitement, in 1793. Its object was to prevent meetings for political purposes; but what was the result? Treason and sedition still continued; men who would have been known to the Government had they assembled openly, met privately and plotted against the Government, and five years afterwards, when the delegates met in private, a majority of them were arrested in Dublin. That was the commencement of the Rebellion in 1798. The objects of those men were treasonable, and the men themselves might have been seized and tried, and the rebellion nipped in the bud, instead of leading to loss of life and property. They were told that the Act was again put into operation in 1848; but it did not prevent another rebellion then, though, no doubt, it was a rebellion of very contemptible proportions. The Act, therefore, had not been operative or beneficial in preventing meetings for illegal purposes. If people met openly for illegal purposes, the common law was quite sufficient for dealing with them; but if they met in a legal and constitutional manner, they were entitled to do so in England and Scotland, and they ought to be entitled to do so in Ireland also. In no sense of the word could the continuance of the Act give greater security to the Crown, or prevent sedition if people were disposed to be seditious. He was prepared to support the present Bill on principles totally irrespective of Home Rule, because he believed that the Act the repeal of which was sought for was a piece of exceptional legislation, which, while it offended and annoyed, did not serve any useful purpose. If the Government were wise, instead of adopting the Amendment which had been moved, they would repeal a statute which could do no good and which served but to irritate and excite.


Sir, I am glad to observe that this debate has been conducted with moderation; and I am desirous of expressing the lively satisfaction with which I listened to many of the most important propositions contained in the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt). I think it is matter of public importance that the declarations which he has made should have been made at this early period after his reappearance in the House; and that they should go forth as a portion of the debates of this House to the hearing and knowledge of the people of Ireland, because undoubtedly there have been exaggerations—there has been doubt, there has even, perhaps, been either apprehension or irritation on the subject of the views entertained by my hon. and learned Friend and others in Ireland, which, whether we agree or disagree with him, unquestionably the declarations he has made, perfectly explicit as they are, must tend very materially to allay and to remove, My hon. and learned Friend is not satisfied, as Irish reformers or popular leaders have been in former times, by desiring to maintain as the sole link of connection between the two countries the authority of the Crown. My hon. and learned Friend is evidently aware to what risk the authority would be exposed, if upon the Crown alone the whole strain of its continuance were to be devolved. My hon. and learned Friend desires to maintain as explicitly as any one among us the supreme authority of Parliament. What he seeks for Ireland is the management of local affairs, and as Parliament is the supreme and last resort, it follows that with Parliament must rest the definition of the important question as to what affairs are local affairs. That is essentially involved in the declarations which my hon. and learned Friend has made. No doubt he has assumed that that definition would be liberally and fairly made, but he knows very well that you cannot have two supreme authorities in a country; and as in the great American Civil War it was the Federal Government and the Federal Legislature which found it necessary to take into its own hands the circumscription of the liberties of the States, and the solution of the controversy which had formerly been raised on that subject; so it is quite plain that if there is to be an Assembly in Ireland such as he desires, and an Assembly in England also, one of those must be paramount, and the one which has the power of defining and of drawing the line between the provinces of the two will be possessed of paramount authority. My hon. and learned Friend told us explicitly his view of the relations that should exist between the two.


I should be very sorry to be misunderstood on this question. I do not suggest that the Imperial Parliament should have power from time to time of defining what the power of the Irish Assembly should be. I propose that that definition should be made once and for ever. Exactly as in the American Constitution, the separate Provinces of the State Legislatures and of the Federal Union were defined once and for ever.


My hon. and learned Friend does not mend the matter at all by that, for that is just what the American Constitution failed to define; that is precisely the point that is left in doubt, and dispute, and difficulty, and which no man could solve—the point, namely, as to the division of authority between the Federal Legislature and the Legislatures of the States. That was the subject of controversy between American statesmen for two generations, and it was the solution of that question which was the great cause of the American War. My hon. and learned Friend does not mend his argument in the least when he says he would have federal arrangements made once for all. How is there to be a federal arrangement between this Parliament, which is Imperial and supreme to all intents and purposes, and any other body whatever within the area of the United Kingdom? But I will not endeavour to develop my hon. and learned Friend's thoughts further than he developed them himself; but unquestionably he said—and I am sure he said it in good faith—that the Imperial Parliament was to be supreme in the last resort. Those were his words, and with those words I will leave that part of the question. Then he expressed—as warmly as any of us could express—his desire that the Irish people should be induced and habituated to look to the two Houses of Parliament for the redress of Irish grievances, and he told us also the mode in which he wished to deal on the part of his Home Rule Association with Fenianism in Ireland. He evidently regards his Home Rule Association as the means of reclaiming from Fenianism those who unfortunately have been dragged into it. If he has to deal with Fenians they are converted Fenians, and I have no doubt he will labour assiduously in their conversion. I commend the subject of his American illustration to his further meditations, and I am sure he will find I am perfectly right when I say it is idle to suppose you can have existing in a country two separate Legislatures co-ordinate in power. There must lie somewhere in the last resort an appeal to that supreme authority which in case of necessity holds in its hands the solution of every problem that may arise. No doubt it is the virtue of a truly free country to multiply subaltern authorities, and subaltern authorities not with powers granted in a narrow spirit of egotism, but making local government and local institutions strong to the uttermost point of the strength which they can develop, and finding in that strength of local authorities and in that development of local government the surest source of strength for the Central Government. That is the spirit in which the supreme authority of the Imperial authority would always he exercised. Now I come to a point on which I differ greatly from my hon. and learned Friend and from some of those who followed him, and that is their statement of the operation of the Act, the repeal of which is now in question. That is a very simple matter. I may quote the authority of my hon. and learned Friend himself, who says the Act is intended to prevent the people from meeting together legitimately and legally, and that has been the burden and strain of several of the speeches which we have heard to-night. Those who listened to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General for Ireland could not fail to observe that the Act from beginning to end makes no reference to public meetings—it nowhere interferes with them—it does not touch them at all. The nearest approach to it is a declaration to the contrary effect in the 4th section, where it says that nothing in the Act contained shall be construed to prevent or impede the undoubted right of all the subjects of the Realm to petition for the redress of any public or private grievance, and as the right to petition and the right of public meeting are inseparably connected together, it is not too much to say that the right of public meeting is recognized by this very Act. At any rate, let it be understood that we are not debating a question which has any relation to the right of public meeting. One hon. Gentleman said this Act aimed at repressing the expression of opinion; but that is not so. What it aims at is the assumption of authority. The constitution of representative assemblies may be a matter of very small political consequence. I fully admit that; and that when an Act of this kind is passed you may know it is extended to the extreme of its theoretical meaning, and the extension of it applies to organizations which are perfectly harmless. It is not changes in the law which this Act seems to contemplate, but alterations of matters established by law in Church and State. Well, is it really true that political liberty under all circumstances requires that the law should permit of the constitution of these representative assemblies by voluntary delegation? It is plain that assemblies so constituted assume the appearance of rival Legislatures. That is what they aim at; and I think it is too much to state that freedom cannot prevail except where it is possible for individuals to associate themselves by the methods of representation and in the very manner prescribed by the constitution of the Legislature of the country. My hon. and learned Friend says that if there were such a law as this in Naples, we should have the British Minister protesting against it; but, Sir, I am not aware that any British Minister or writer ever made a protest upon such a subject. I believe if he had done so he would have exposed himself to merited ridicule and the interests of this country to serious detriment. Such subjects, however, are entirely beyond our province. The real strength of the case is this—that you have no such law in England, and you say—"If you mean to have equal laws for England and Ireland repeal the law in Ireland." Well, Sir, England is a country where, happily, not only the laws which belong to freedom, but the habits and usages and traditions of freedom, combined with order, are more firmly established than in any other great country in the world, and under these circumstances England can bear laws which, perhaps, it requires more consideration and deliberation to apply to other countries. I do not say that that of itself is a reason why this should be applied to Ireland; but let us see if there is anything open to just exception in the course taken by my noble Friend the Chief Secretary for Ireland. He expressed a hope that the time would soon come when this law could be repealed: is there anything unreasonable in saying that the time has not yet arrived? We are told that we ought to have the same laws in England and Ireland. I rather doubt whether that is a formula which ought to be adopted as entirely secure from danger. That we ought to have laws conceived in the same spirit for England and Ireland is not a formula at all, but a broad and deep principle of policy, and one which leaves you free to take into view the history and exigencies of the country. But when you say there should be the same laws, you almost seem to assent that you will have no regard to those difficulties, but that in a spirit of political pedantry, or with an unworthy regard for popularity, you will literally transfer to one country whatever you find in the other. What have we done in this Parliament? We have not made the same laws for England and Ireland. We have abolished the Established Church of Ireland; we have not abolished the Established Church in England. [Cheers.] Hon. Gentlemen opposite appear to think that I have communicated to them a piece of intelligence of which they were formerly not in full possession. After the Church Act we proceeded to make a Land Law for Ireland. We have no such Land Law for England. I will repeat that the laws for the two countries should be conceived in the same spirit; but it is decidedly unnecessary that they should bear the same shape, and I quote these two great statutes to show that Parliament has not hesitated to give to Ireland laws more popular and liberal than laws which prevail in England. That is an application of the principle of which I speak. With regard to this particular Act, I believe it is too much to say that there is no law in England of the same tendency, and standing on the same basis. But, assuming that this law of Ireland does contain what is not in the law of England, is that unreasonable? Have we been able during the last 25 years, with regard to questions bearing upon public order, to apply the principle of identical legislation? Look back 20 years to the stormy period of Lord Clarendon's rule, when it was found necessary by the Government of the country to apply this law. It has been argued that the law failed because there was a rebellion in 1848; but my hon. and learned Friend (Mr. Serjeant Sherlock) might as well argue that the laws against murder had failed because of the murder in Park Lane. It may be true that there was a rebellion in 1848, and also that this law materially diminished the proportions of the rebellion. Not very long afterwards the Fenian conspiracy was hatched, and from the year 1861 onwards, when the American War gave it additional scope, it assumed proportions of public danger. With that danger the strength of the country easily dealt; but it proved itself to be a reality to our fellow-subjects in Canada. My hon. and learned Friend says we do not want an Act of this description to deal with the Fenian representative body; nor do we, if it would avow Fenianism in all its public proceedings. But the argument is, that a representative body of this kind may be used as a cover under which treasonable proceedings may be concealed. I rejoice that we have in my hon. and learned Friend and his coadjutors and allies assistants as earnest as ourselves in the disposition to oppose this mischievous delusion. Let us consider the course which this House has found it necessary to take. In 1866 it was obliged to suspend the law of Habeas Corpus, and in 1868 to extend the suspension, and since then we have been obliged to pass a Peace Preservation Act, which is still in force, and which deals with matters appertaining to political liberty in a manner which is not recognized in England. Therefore, do not let us hug ourselves with impressions that do not correspond with reality. We must admit, with deep regret, that we have not reached the time when we could safely and prudently venture to apply the entire identity of political legislation to Ireland which I believe every man in this House desires. I think it has been shown in the first place, that the question is not one of the expression of public opinion, or the right of the people to meet; and, in the second place, that that assumption of authority, which is an essential property and characteristic of these quasi-representative assemblies, although it may be safe in certain States of highly advanced civilization, is not to be too hastily and universally assumed to be applicable to every country in the world. These are grounds which I hope will be well understood, and which I believe to be entirely consistent with the absolute demands of duty on the part of the Government in the interests of peace and security, as well as with the firmest adherence to the principle of desiring to remove at the earliest moment possible every provision from the statute book which can suggest to the minds of the Irish people the idea of political inferiority.


, as an advocate of Home Rule, was pleased to recognize in the speech of the Prime Minister the broad principle on which its advocates based their demand, and would at once admit that this law was wanted in the first instance to meet the revolutionary tendencies of a great part of the Irish people; but that, he contended, was not the purpose to which it had since been applied. He wished, in the next place, briefly to refer to the remarks which had fallen from, a former Chief Secretary for Ireland (Colonel Wilson-Patten), who asked for an instance in which the Act which it was now sought to repeal had ever been used for the purpose of suppressing the free expression of opinion. He would inform the right hon. Gentleman that it had been so used in 1812 in the case of the prosecution of Thomas Kirwan for attending a meeting held for the purpose of petitioning Parliament for the repeal of the laws affecting Roman Catholics, Lord Fingall, who was certainly no revolutionist, being in the chair. A resolution was on that occasion moved to the effect that every man had a right to worship God according to his conscience, and that it was wrong for any Government to inflict penalties on him for the exercise of that right. The Attorney General of the day, in commenting on the resolution, spoke of it as an attempt to impress on the minds of the Roman Catholics of Ireland that they were suffering from pains and penalties under the law, and under those circumstances it was that Thomas Kirwan had been found guilty. [Colonel WILSON-PATTEN observed that what he had said was, that the Act had not been put in force for several years past.] But it might be put in force at any time, and he should like to know whether such a law ought to be allowed any longer to remain on the statute book?


thought that that case had happened so long since as to be almost out of date.


said, the present was not the first time that, looking on a question from an impartial point of view, he had come to the conclusion that both sides in the discussion were in the wrong. He had tried to discover, not which was the better, but which was the less worse of the two. On the one side, he saw no opportunity at present of redressing those grievances; and on the other, he felt, from the manner in which the question was regarded, that there was no man in that House but would vote for what was good for Ireland and good for the United Kingdom. He had, however, a reason for voting for the Motion of the hon. Member for Westmeath (Mr. P. Smyth)— though the grievance involved was not one of a practical, but a sentimental character—which had not been yet stated. It was that he was anxious to take away from the Home Rule Association their greatest grievance, for there was nothing on which people in Ireland throve as on grievances. He was greatly pleased at the tone in which the subject had been discussed on both sides of the House, and if any danger should arise, as was suggested, from the repeal of the Act, there need be no hesitation in coming to Parliament and asking for its re-enactment. It was said that this was a sentimental grievance; but the same argument would have equally applied against repealing the Ecclesiastical Titles Act. If the Act which it was now proposed to repeal had done no harm and could do no harm to Ireland, let the Government boldly propose a similar measure for England, so as, at all events, to give both countries equal laws. If it was said that there was disaffection in Ireland there was none in England, he would ask hon. Members who dwelt upon the existence of Fenianism in the former country whether they had never heard of Republicanism in the latter? He believed the proposal now made to be inopportune; but if a division were taken, he must vote for his hon. Friend the Member for Westmeath.


said, that the Motion was a challenge to the House to do away with a law affecting Ireland which did not exist in England, and he thought that a fair proposal. He desired to proclaim his connection with the Home Rule organization, and to protest against the unfairness of any sweeping taunt of disloyalty, come from whom it might, being cast against men who were as loyal as any who sat on the Treasury Bench. They were not Fenians—they were not disloyal men; but the demand for Home Rule was one that they would make, and, with God's help, would in time make successfully. Their efforts might form the subject of the Attorney General's jesting; but if the right hon. Gentleman was kept off the Bench for a few years there was every chance that he would shortly change his tone. That the feeling of Ireland was getting stronger and stronger upon this point the continued exclusion of the second Irish Law Officer of the Crown from Parliament was sufficient to prove. When the time was ripe for the discussion of that question they would meet face to face any man on the Treasury Bench, however eminent. The challenge, however, he had now thrown down was neither unjust nor inopportune. The Irish people were not, as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Dublin appeared to think, mere grievance mongers. [Sir DOMINIC CORRIGAN: I never said anything of the kind.] That, at all events, was the impression which his hon. Friend's speech had left upon his mind. All that they asked now was that a hardship not inflicted upon the one country should be removed from the other, and he could not help thinking that it betrayed a sort of moral cowardice in England to refuse to accede to a claim which was just in itself, and which might be granted without even the slightest shadow of danger.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 27; Noes 145: Majority 118.

Words added.

Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.

Bill put off for six months.