HC Deb 03 April 1873 vol 215 cc530-42

I rise, Sir, to draw your attention and that of the House to an article which appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette of Monday, the 31st of March.

Then the hon. Member having delivered in the said paper, and the paragraph referred to, read as follows:— The scene of Friday night shows how lamentably Mr. Gladstone's sense of public propriety has been perverted by his fretful irritation at a rebuke the more painful because it was felt to be merited. It was not surprising that the Irish Ultramontane Members should resort to every quibble discoverable in the technicalities of the law of Parliament to defeat or delay a measure like Mr. Fawcett's, which cuts the ground from under their venal agitations and their traffic in noisy disloyalty.


I rise with considerable diffidence to speak upon any matter touching the liberty of the Press, because I wish to give writers, who have done so much for the cause of liberty in this country, the greatest possible freedom. I feel it my duty, as a Member for an Irish constituency, to illustrate the difference between the law as applied in Ireland and as applied in England, more especially at a time when a severe sentence has just been passed upon the editor of an Irish newspaper at Belfast. The paragraph in The Pall Mall Gazette contains very serious charges against Members of this House—in the first place, that of venality; and, in the second, that of disloyalty—a charge which, apart from its own heinous character, involves-in a Member of this House the additional guilt of breach of oath. I am, however, fortified in the course I am taking by a series of precedents which I have found in the records of the former proceedings of this House. I find that reflections upon the character of the Members of this House, or upon a single Member, have always been considered a Breach of Privilege, when these reflections were such as to be of a libellous character, as I conceive the expressions I complain of are. The course adopted on former occasions has been that a Motion should be made "that the article in question contains a Breach of Privileges of this House," and I am prepared to conclude with a Motion to that effect. If that Motion should be acceded to, I am prepared further to move that the printer and publisher of the paper should be ordered to attend at the Bar of this House to-morrow. On the 5th of August last year a similar case occurred. A letter was written to a Member of this House of which complaint was made, and the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Mr. T. Cave) brought the matter before the House. The debate was adjourned, and on the second day, on an apology being made for the letter complained of, the matter was allowed to drop. I refer to this case because I wish to fortify my opinion by the dictum of the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie), whose authority stands very high in questions relating to the Privileges and proceedings of this House. In the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman the letter then complained of unquestionably contained expressions that were libellous, but the libel did not directly refer to Members of this House. The charge made was one of the two charges made in this case, that of venality and corrupt motives. The opinion expressed was that, had the charge referred to Members of this House, it would have been a Breach of Privilege; but, as it did not distinctly refer to Members of this House, there was no breach committed, and therefore the right hon. Member said he should vote against the Motion. In this case the charges distinctly referred to Members of the House, in their capacity as Members, in connection with their action in the House, and their "resort to every quibble discoverable in the technicalities of the law of Parliament to defeat or delay a measure like Mr. Fawcett's, which cuts the ground from under their venal agitations and their traffic in noisy disloyalty." The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving his Resolution—

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the said article contains libellous reflections upon certain Members of this House in breach of the Privileges of this House."— (Mr. Munster.)


I know nothing more of the words complained of than I could catch as they were read from the Table, and, not having them before me, I speak with diffidence about them; but, as far as I could collect the meaning of the language, a charge was made against certain persons who were described as "Ultramontane Members" of this House. There was no specific allusion to any particular individual, and I do not know who the "Ultramontane Members" are. In order to justify an attack upon the liberty of the Press, and to warrant the occupation of the valuable time of this House by going into a Question of Privilege, there is certain previous information we ought to be in possession of. Therefore, I hope, before the Question is put, some Gentleman who is authorized, will tell us whether there are any Ultramontane Members in this House, and, if there be, who they may be. Having that information, we can proceed to discuss the language which is complained of, and I shall then give it my candid consideration.


I did not intend to take any part in this debate; but I think I should be wanting in duty to my constituents, and in loyalty to my hon. Friend who has felt it his duty to make this Motion, if I did not point out to the House that, whoever may be described as an Ultramontane Member—which is not uncommonly used as a term of opprobrium—at any rate, there can be no doubt as to whom this article is intended to designate. [Cries of Whom?] It designates those who took a particular course on a particular occasion in reference to the introduction of the Bill of the hon. Member for Brighton (Mr. Fawcett). It describes those hon. Members of the House as Ultramontane Members, and it speaks of them as "trafficking in noisy disloyalty," besides alluding to their "venal agitation." There are other portions of this article which have not been read, but which are equally offensive, but probably are not equally open to a charge of Breach of the Privileges of this House. But whilst I am quite aware that the Irish Members present a fair target for the comments of public writers and public speakers—whether in the House of Commons or out of it—yet I think the House of Commons will itself so far interpose as to protect any portion of its Members, from whatever quarter of the United Kingdom they may come, from charges of venality and disloyalty. What can be the meaning of the term "venal," except that their conduct has been actuated by the base motive of desiring to obtain money, or some other material consideration? What can be meant by the term "disloyalty," except to charge their with conduct that would make them unworthy to be Members of this House. I think this House will do well—if it will permit me to say so, to show that it is as careful of the dignity a Members from Ireland as it is of its own dignity. If I were a disloyal Member of this House I should not desire anything better than that this matter should be passed over, and that Lit should go forth to the people of Ireland that when the Members that Ireland returns to Parliament endeavour to do their duty, and maintain the religion of their country and its interests in the matter of higher education, their reputations are left open to attack, and they may with impunity be charged with venality and disloyalty, I assure the House that until this moment I did not intend to take any part in this debate—I only heard of the matter incidentally, and I bought the paper in order to read the article; and when the right hon. Gentleman opposite learns that the so-called Ultramontanes are clearly pointed out and described in this article, I think he will probably be inclined to modify his opinion, and to admit that a Breach of the Privilege of this House has been committed.


begged to say that he also had not the slightest idea of taking any part in this debate, but certainly after what had fallen from the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Disraeli), who seemed to think that there was no Irish Member in that House who would avow that he was an Ultramontane Member, yet, according to the true sense and meaning of the word, he (Mr. Downing) rose to say that he was one. There could be no question that it was clearly intended who the Members in that House were that the article pointed to, because it directed attention to those Irish Members who defeated the Motion of his hon. Friend the Member for Brighton (Mr. Fawcett), and it then went on to say that those Ultramontane Members were guilty of venality and disloyalty. He, as one of those Ultramontane Members, denied that he was a venal Member or a disloyal one. He had no hesitation in saying that if such language were used with reference to any body of Gentlemen in that House, English or Scotch, there would not be a Member who would not pronounce the opinion that it was a high Breach of Privilege in imputing to any number of Gentlemen in that House that they were capable of acting corruptly, because venality meant corruption, whether that venality was purchased by money, or from any other unworthy motive. Therefore he was utterly surprised that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Buckinghamshire should endeavour, in the manner he had done, to prevent this matter from being considered calmly and deliberately in that House; and that the Leader of a great party should have taken this opportunity of saying what the right hon. Gentleman did of observations which he, as an Irish Member, thoroughly despised. It was due, however, to the Members of the party which defeated the Bill of the hon. Member for Brighton, that they should be protected as much as other hon. Members were. To show that the House would be justified in assenting to the present Motion, he would refer to the precedent in the case of Mr. Joseph K. Aston. A Motion was made that that individual should attend at the Bar of the House for having committed a Breach of Privilege by issuing a circular which requested Members to attend in their places in order to prevent a count-out, which would probably "emanate from parties personally interested, as money-lenders and agents, in debarring the Clergy" and others from the benefit of the improvements contemplated by a Bill relating to pensions. On that occasion the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Bouverie) stated that this letter did not apply to any individual Member or Members of that House, but that it had reference to other persons—namely, money-lenders and agents outside that House. The right hon. Gentleman added, however, that there would clearly have been a Breach of Privilege if particular Members had been referred to. The present case was entirely different. The Ultramontane party were distinctly referred to as being guilty of venality and disloyalty. For his own part, he had never been afraid of expressing his opinions, and he now asserted that he was as loyal to the Queen as any English or Scotch Member of that House.


I am sure that everybody must sympathise very strongly with the feelings of any hon. Member of this House who deems his character to have been aspersed and his loyalty called into question; and no excuse or apology is needed on the part of the hon. Gentlemen who have brought this matter forward on account of the article to which they have called attention. "Everybody must sympathise with them if the article were really intended to asperse the motives and characters of hon. Members. Nobody reading the article can sympathise with it, and every Member of the House of Commons must feel that the matter is well worthy of the attention of the House. I agree with the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken, that it is a serious matter if the honour and character of Members of this House are publicly aspersed. Certainly it is a matter which cannot be got rid of by a joke. While, however, the Privileges of Parliament ought to be maintained, and while it is most desirable for this House to assert its dignity when it is called in question, it is also most important that the Privileges of Parliament should not be extended, and that we should not commit ourselves to a course from which, if we happened to be in error, we should find it difficult to retreat with dignity. It is, therefore, most desirable that in any step this House may take it should found itself on Parliamentary precedent and be guided by Parliamentary law. Now, I find it laid down in the clearest terms in the book which is always referred to as the authority on questions of this kind—Sir Erskine May's Law and Practice of Parliament—that in order to constitute a Breach of Privilege, it is not sufficient attach the characters of Members of the House, but the characters of Members of the House must be attacked in their capacity as Members. If they are accused of doing any thing discreditable it does not amount to a Breach of Privilege unless they are accused of doing so as Members of the House of Commons. There might be in the House—although do not for a moment mean to suggest that there are at the present time—Members whose private character and conduct outside the House would become a subject of observations. That would be a fair matter for observations, and if libels were published such persons would have the ordinary means of redress. But such observations are not a Breach of the Privileges of Parliament. The book I just alluded to says— Libels upon Members have also been constantly punished; but to constitute a Breach of Privilege they must concern the character and conduct of Members in that capacity. That is, in the capacity of Members of Parliament. Now, as I followed the language of the article, which, I heard for the first time, it is to this effect:— It is not surprising that certain Members of the House should resort to every quibble discoverable in the technicalities of the law of Parliament to delay or defeat a measure like Mr. Fawcett's. So far, I apprehend there is no Breach of Privilege. It is perfectly legitimate to say that Members resorted to any quibbles in Parliamentary law to which they may be disposed. We should commit ourselves to a very undesirable position if we were to suggest that such an observation as that was a Breach of the Privileges of Parliament. The article proceeds to say that Mr. Fawcett's measure "cuts the ground from under their venal agitation, and their traffic in noisy disloyalty." "As I understand, neither "venal agitation" nor "traffic in disloyalty" could take place in the capacity of Members of Parliament. Neither "venal agitation" nor "noisy disloyalty" can be applied to anyone in his capacity as a Member of this House. As I can lay down no law for myself, I can only appeal to that authority to which we all defer. I venture to submit that matter, Sir, to you, who are, after all, the authority of this House, and to ask you whether the construction which I have suggested, and on which I myself offer no opinion, is, or is not, a tenable construction. If it be, I think everyone will be glad that the Privileges of Parliament, while honestly maintained, should never be extended, and that we should not embark on a course from which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to retreat with dignity.


I am not an Ultramontane, and, therefore, the matter does not affect me. The Attorney-General has told us what he considers to be the law of the matter; but I am afraid we do not all quite understand his law. I think he has come to a conclusion which many of us on the other side of the water do not agree with. We must all agree that the language which has been read from the Table is, to say nothing more, disgraceful. But whether legally it is a Breach of Privilege I do not know. There can be no doubt, however, what is meant by the article; and I do not think the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli) has added much to his laurels by treating the matter as a joke. There are Members in the House who feel the matter most deeply, and if my hon. Friend goes to a division I shall vote for the Motion. 'Under the circumstances, however, I should not recommend him to go to a division.


I apprehend that the House has been as much taken by surprise as myself at this debate, which has been brought on without Notice. I cannot think that the few words containing the legal opinion of the Attorney-General are very satisfactory. It sounded to me very much like Nisi Prius, and I do not think it was the proper way in which to allude to this matter. I hope the House will not be led away by the term "Ultramontane," for I confess I am one of those who do not know exactly what it means. I have heard the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government himself called Ultramontane, and I have heard every Gentleman who advocates religious freedom to the Roman Catholics called Ultramontane. In fact, Ultramontanism is one of those big words which are forged for these occasions. The case is simply this:—A number of Roman Catholic Gentlemen, who sit on this side of the House, who vote as honourably and as conscientiously as their Protestant fellow-countrymen, have been grossly insulted on this print, and I do not think a proper construction has been put upon the few words which fell from the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Disraeli). I am sure that he treats the matter in the same way that I do. He places no sort of reliance or authority on this print; but he gives the best and most friendly advice to the Roman Catholics to treat this attack with the contempt it deserves. I think the right hon. Gentleman has been misunderstood. Whether the law of the matter has been made clearer by the Attorney-General is a different thing. I think he has rather forced a division on the hon. Gentleman who brought forward the Motion. That hon. Member is a young and adventurous man, who has to-day taken his seat in this House after a long tour in America, where, in his absence, he was "killed." As a much older Member of this House, I would advise him to be content with having brought the matter under the notice of the House. They well knew that the Roman Catholic Members for Ireland were as conscientious, as incapable of venal practices, and noisy disloyalty, as any other Members of the House. Let the hon. Member be content with having brought the matter before the House; but let him not bring up the poor printer and publisher to the Bar of the House. That is only a matter of form, for he will not get at the man who wrote this article. It is an insulting article, and let it be treated with the contempt which such articles deserve when they are applied to an honourable body in this House.


said, he was opposed to the introduction of this Motion, because he was opposed to any limitation of free discussion by the Press. They had in Ireland suffered so much from the "gagging laws" passed by that House on their Press that they ought to be the last people to interfere with the freedom of the Press in this country. Being a Home Ruler, he approved of such articles. He thought that the articles which appeared in the leading journals of England reflecting the opinions and prejudice of the English people were the strongest instruments for promoting the agitation of Home Rule and self-government, and he should be sorry to see them interfered with by that House. These articles had done more to promote Home Rule in Ireland than even the injurious and unjust laws which had been recently passed against Ireland. They do for Ireland what they had done for America—there they helped to keep alive the Alabama Claims, till England was compelled to pay them. Here they would promote the demand for Home Rule until England would be compelled to grant it. These things affected Irishmen much, for they were a sensitive and a proud people, and the joke perpetrated by the right hon. Member for Buckinghamshire (Mr. Disraeli) would have the same effect in Ireland that another speech of his had, when the right hon. Gentleman responded to the three cheers which were given for the famine in Ireland by his constituents in Buckinghamshire. Those cheers were rankling to this moment in the bosom of the Irish people, who would never forget them.


I think the House will pardon me for saying a few words in reply to the observations which have been made upon this subject. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Disraeli) raised the question whether there were any Ultramontane Members of the House, and hinted that they were an indistinct body. A good many years back, the great Daniel O'Connell was called to his place in Parliament, and there reprimanded for having committed a Breach of Privilege in a speech delivered outside the House. The people he spoke of were the Tories. He said the Tories had perjured themselves. I might ask the right hon. Gentleman if there are any Tories in this House. But, passing to a more serious point, I would answer the objection of the Attorney General, who said that the Members alluded to are not spoken of in their capacity of Members. I would ask, who are spoken of? The words used are "Ultramontane Members." If it does not apply to the Ultramontane Members I should like to know to whom it does apply? I do not complain of the words "quibbling" and "technicality," but I complain of the expressions "venal agitation" and "noisy disloyalty." I am anxious that the Press should have the fullest liberty, and in bringing forward my Motion I only wished to draw attention to the Press on this side of the Channel in order that the like liberty might be granted to the Press on the other side. I feel obliged to the hon. Member for Waterford (Mr. Osborne) for his jocose advise, but still I feel it my duty to go to a division on the subject.


There is one portion of this article which, notwithstanding it has been alleged to be a Breach of Privilege, as part of the subject-matter of this charge against the editor of a certain newspaper, is clearly not so. I allude to the first two sentences, of which I am the hero. I think that no one will be disposed to assert that this sentence contains any Breach of the Privileges of this House, and I submit that if the hon. Member (Mr. Munster) really intends to persevere with his Motion, he should not include a passage which is entirely distinct, and which is not a Breach of the Privileges of this House. I will venture to go a little further, and join in the representations which have been addressed to the hon. Gentleman not to press his Motion to a division. I have several times heard Motions of this kind made in this House, and have known cases in which the editors of newspapers have been brought to the Bar. The House naturally feels a very great disinclination to refuse a Motion of this kind, particularly when it feels—as I think it does feel—that a charge made perhaps against the hon. Gentleman, and certainly against several hon. Members, is totally unjust and unfounded. There may be some difficulty in refusing his Motion, but if the House feels that difficulty, let me point out to him, with great respect, that it is a real reason why he should not press the House to adopt it. What good can arise from the Motion? If unjust charges of this kind are made—as from time to time they will be made, considering the heat and haste with which the articles of the journals are of necessity produced—they inflict no real injury upon those against whom they are directed. Now, I think it is far better for this House and for the Members of this House to take their stand upon the consciousness of their endeavours to do their duty, and of the knowledge that that endeavour is duly appreciated by the people of this country, who do not lose sight of this fact in reading the intemperate expressions which occasionally find their way into the newspapers. I cannot help thinking that it would be unwise if the House were to act upon this Motion. I have never seen any of these attempts do any good, and, with the fullest sympathy for the hon. Gentleman and those who feel themselves aggrieved, I think, not only that he has done sufficient, but that what he has done has been perfectly justifiable and right, not only on his own, but on the part of his friends in calling attention to this matter. I would, therefore, venture to hope—the more so, perhaps, as his experience as a Member of this House has not largely accumulated—that he will be content with the discussion he has evoked, and wisely forbear to press his Motion to a division.


trusted that, after the speech of the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government, and the very satisfactory expression of feeling on the part of the House, that his hon. Friend would withdraw his Motion. He should not have made that request but for the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, because what had fallen from the Attorney General would, without that speech, have rendered a division almost imperative.


said, that, after the speech of the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government, and in deference to the general feeling of the House, he felt bound to withdraw his Motion. He could not help adding that his satisfaction at the expression of opinion on the part of the House was greater than could be afforded by any result which might attend its passing.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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