HC Deb 07 August 1875 vol 226 cc683-91

Order for Committee read.


said, before the House went into Committee on the Bill, he wished to make an appeal to the Government, and especially to the right hon. Gentleman who was responsible for its policy. He regretted that the Premier was not in his place to hear what he had to say, because the subject to which he wished to direct attention was of transcendent importance; but, at the same time, he admitted that considering the labours he had lately undergone the right hon. Gentleman might well be excused if he was not in the House at 12 o'clock on Saturday. The country could not fail to be gratified by the extraordinary spectacle that had been presented in Ireland, and especially in Dublin, during the last two days. He would not undertake to say how many thousands had taken part in the procession of yesterday; but the House might form some idea of the depth of popular feeling that had been evoked, from the circumstance that a whole fleet of steamers had been taken up to convoy Irishmen, not fewer than 10,000 in number, back to their native soil to do honour to the memory of O'Connell, in addition to the many, many thousands assembled from all parts of Ireland itself. The whole of the proceedings passed off with an order, a regularity, and a good humour almost unparalleled, and in confirmation of which he would read to the House the description given in the leading English journal of the procession. The London Times said— The conduct of the people, however, was in this instance beyond all praise, and this is one of the most remarkable and gratifying features of their carnival. Throughout the whole length of the procession and the crowds who witnessed it there was not a drunken or disorderly person to he seen. There were very few constables anywhere in view. The vast concourse were singularly quiet and tractable, and the utmost good-humour prevailed. There was no jostling or rude laughing, such as have led to violent encounters on other occasions, but all seemed ready to bear and forbear in a considerate and friendly spirit. So gentle and well-tempered were they that in the thickest parts of the throng, where it was difficult to thread one's way by slow and sinuous steps, women were carrying infants in their arms without the slightest fear. The promoters of the festival had ample proof that their confidence in the people was well founded and their organization perfect. In its material as well as its moral aspect the demonstration was eminently gratifying. Again, the Assizes recently concluded in Ireland with the result that, in many instances, there was hardly any occupation for the Judges at all, and that as regarded crime the country was reported to be not only in a good and satisfactory position, but as contrasted with this country and other parts of Her Majesty's dominions in a marvellously gratifying position. Well, these things being so, there was one black cloud which overshadowed the proceedings of yesterday. At a certain interval in the procession there was heard the music of the Dead March in Saul, and as described in one of the English morning papers— At Carlisle Bridge, the great black flag was promptly taken out and held in a prominent position before the platform, whilst all around at brief intervals men stood waving black bannerets bearing the inscription, 'Still in chains.' A curious effect was given to this demonstration by festoons of chains liberally hung over the tops of each banneret, and cunningly clanked at fitting opportunities. This was the proclamation of popular sympathy with the 40 political prisoners still in. miserable confinement. Last Sunday London had witnessed a great and orderly gathering in Hyde Part, called together to petition for this amnesty. For his own part, he had declined to attend that demonstration on Sunday, not because he thought it wrong to take part in works of mercy on that day, but because he knew that in this country these meetings on Sunday were objectionable to great numbers of our fellow-countrymen. Still the object of that meeting had his heartfelt sympathy, and he wished now to put it to the Government, to the House of Commons, and to the country whether the time had not arrived when all such meetings should be rendered unnecessary by the exercise of the clemency of the Crown. He knew well that nearly all the political prisoners now in suffering were military prisoners, and he at once admitted that such prisoners must naturally expect to be judged by a harsher standard than civilians. If soldiers violated the pledges under which they enlisted and took part in insurrection, they were, if that insurrection was successful, at once raised by historians into the highest ranks of chivalry; but if the movement was abortive, then they must expect a severer judgment, and be prepared to pay a heavier penalty. Lot the House, however, consider for one moment what the Fenian rising was. It was really the outcome of the disbandment of the great American armies in the War of Secession, and for his part he had always wondered that the dissolution of so large a military host, composed as it was of all sorts and conditions of men, should have brought in its trail so small an amount of disturbance to Europe. The Irish insurrection was formidable; but what would it have been, if the great mass of the farmers and people of Ireland had taken part in it? No one could predict the desolation and misery that it might have entailed. But it was put down without extraordinary difficulty, and undoubtedly there was now no active trace of it. But lot the House realize to itself what was being done by the prolonged imprisonment of these 40 men? Throughout Ireland, and in many circles in this country also, those who utterly condemned and abhorred the Fenian insurrection were beginning to feel very intensely the sufferings that were inflicted on them, and during the coming winter there would certainly both hero and in Ireland be great gatherings of people brought together with the object of stimulating and claiming the clemency of the Crown. He thought it most unwise in the present tranquil condition of affairs to give unnecessary occasion for these huge demonstrations. The Irish had intense domestic sympathies, and deeply felt for those who had for seven long years languished in jail, and whose families mourned for them in their affectionate hearts as they would mourn for the dead. Was any good object to be accomplished by a further exhibition of implacability on the part of this country? The might of England had put down with ease the rising of Fenianism; it had inflicted great, even appalling, punishment, on those who had participated in it. Was vengeance never to cease, and a time of mercy never to arrive? He would make but one further observation, and he prayed that the Government might be guided by a true spirit of wisdom and statesmanship in the advice he would give to the Crown. There was—and he thought it a sad and solemn thing—a widespread belief in Ireland that the Administration itself was not averse to mercy, but that its hand was stayed and its arm shortened by the military authorities. Such a feature he looked upon as disastrous, and he was most desirous to prevent any further spread of it. There was no jewel in the Crown of Her Majesty so resplendent as the attribute of mercy and forgiveness, and to that tender spot in the heart of the Sovereign he appealed to say—"Justice is satisfied—go in peace—sin no more."


, in supporting the appeal of the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Mitchell Henry), said, it had frequently been asserted that the feeling of sympathy which existed for these prisoners was confined to those who were favourable to Fenianism, but the proceedings at the O'Connell celebration yesterday showed that another idea predominated even over the feeling of respect for the memory of Mr. O'Connell, and that was the desire for an amnesty. It could not now be doubted that amnesty was the wish of the (entire Irish nation; and when that was the case, surely the British House of Commons would not refuse to pay some attention to that demand. With regard to the prisoners being military prisoners, he would point out to the House that there were many countries where less stable Governments had had to deal with such men. Sometimes they had been executed; but, since 1848, there had been many occasions where countries had been far more disturbed than this country or Ireland had been, and yet the prisoners had been released from imprisonment. Surely it was not too much to ask this country, which was remarkable for its stability, to follow the example of the countries which had no stability, when the men in question had already suffered a considerable punishment. It might be said that any concession made to these men was a concession to Fenianism, and should, therefore, be refused. Well, he could not say at that moment Fenianism existed as a secret society in Ireland. The aspect of the organization had changed recently. It had ceased to be a secret society, and had now assumed the form of a democracy, and now took part in the constitutional struggles of this country, such as elections, in that shape. He would ask the Government to take that view of it, and to come forward and meet this constitutional spirit and grant what the people of Ireland most desired, and give a pardon to the few unhappy men who still remained in prison. All the Irish people had gained this Session was a Coercion Act—of mitigated character, it was true, but of increased length. But even if they had an improved Landlord Bill, a system of University Education, remedying the defects of the present system, and the Poor Laws rectified, he believed that the Irish people, even if conscious of practical legislation of this character, would not remain satisfied so long as these men were allowed to be in chains. He was of opinion that the exercise of clemency towards the Fenian prisoners would lead to a renewal of kindly feelings, and would effectually remove the difficulties which now existed against such a renewal.


expressed his regret that these men should be punished, while the chief actors in their conspiracy, though well known to the Government to be the Romish priesthood, were not only unpunished and unexposed, but, while carrying out their "veiled rebellion," were allowed to tax the public in near £2,000,000 a-year for police, about £1,000,000 for their educational purposes, and to bring discredit on the administration of the laws by the Peace Preservation Act.


said, there was a growing feeling that something should be done to allay the aggravated excitement occasioned in Ireland by the continued confinement of persons who had been imprisoned mostly for political offences. He hoped the House would take the matter into kindly consideration, and carefully consider whether mercy might not be extended to most, if not all, of those who were now confined. He ought to say he could not altogether sympathize with his hon. Friend the Member for Galway (Mr. Mitchell Henry) in the terms in which he had brought the question before the House. The House ought not to be influenced by menaces of agitation. Last Sunday he took the trouble to go to the meeting at Trafalgar Square, and to examine the ranks as they passed through Piccadilly, for the purpose of ascertaining what the classes were who took part in the demonstration. He was impressed with the orderly and resolved aspect of the people, who were, however, not of the better classes. He knew that in his own borough not only Roman Catholics of position, but also many who were Protestants were anxious to see this question in some way or other satisfactorily settled. But though crowds and demonstrations might be very effective as far as concerned their influence on the popular mind, he did not think they ought to be allowed to interfere with the policy of the Government. Apart from that, he thought there was a strong case indeed. The point was simply this, was the Government, by continuing to confine these persons in prison, really doing anything to effect the object they had in view—namely, to deter people from committing similar offences in the future? He thought that when that question came up, it ought to be fairly met and fairly answered by the Government; because, whatever might be the opinion of the military authorities as to the probable consequence of allowing these men, most of whom were military offenders, to be set free, they all knew that it was not the military authorities who dictated public policy. If it were, that policy would be narrow and disingenuous. The question to consider was, whether these men had suffered sufficiently and efficiently, and whether it was not time that the Government should show that in its wrath it could remember mercy. He thought that the time had come when it would be wise to extend leniency to the prisoners. He thought the effect of it would be that in Ireland itself it would be felt, if granted now before greater agitation went on, to be a generous concession not wrung by demonstration from the Government. He thought it would be politic that the Government should endeavour to forecast the future—the time when these demonstrations might assume such importance that it would be considered that the Government had only given way because the concession was forced from them by popular demonstrations. While on his legs, he might be allowed to say that it had been his intention at this time to have called attention to the duel which took place last night between the Leaders of the two front benches, for the purpose of saying that he—and he believed many others besides himself on that side of the House below the Gangway—did not entirely concur in the conclusions of either right hon. Gentlemen. They were not prepared to concur in all the criticisms of the noble Marquess upon the different measures of the Government on the one hand, and, on the other hand, they could not altogether accept, as accurate, some of the strange explanations of the First Minister. They desired it to be understood in the country that as long as the front Opposition bench continued to be, as it was, an unfaithful representative of the opinions of the whole rank and file of the Liberal Party, a divided leadership and an undecided one, it could scarcely expect to receive the support of the country, or be able effectively to oppose, or even to assist the Government in carrying wholesome measures through the House. But, as usual, when important matters were under discussion, the front Opposition bench happened to be empty. It would not, therefore, be proper that, in their absence, he should continue these remarks. He would simply say that he wished it to be understood that there were many hon. Members below the Gangway on that side of the House who did not concur in all the animadversions of the noble Lord on the conduct of Her Majesty's Ministers.


said, he did not take the same view of the matter; but, leaving that question, he was anxious that the House should arrive at some practical conclusion. He was one of those who for some years opposed any release of the military political prisoners; but two years ago he thought the time had come when they might with grace and advantage, and with a view to conciliation to Ireland, release the prisoners, and he had signed a memorial to that effect. He believed there was scarcely ever a time in the history of the country when the Irish people were, as a whole, more prosperous, more generally loyal, or more obedient to the laws, and when there was a fairer prospect of a future for Ireland than the present. He would not counsel the Government to yield to clamour; but in order to prevent an agitation that might become embarrassing, seeing the growing feeling of sympathy for these men, he thought they would do well at once to wipe out what was really the last personal grievance which the Irish people had on this question. There was no doubt that the sympathy of the Irish people was centring around these men, who had already suffered so many years' imprisonment. Before that sympathy became too deeply seated, he would urge the Government, in their wisdom and consideration, to extend the hand of mercy to these men, and release them from their confinement.


, in joining, as an English Member, in the appeal on behalf of the political prisoners, said, he had, as a rule, abstained from taking part in these Home Rule debates; but, at the early part of last year, he became convinced that the time had arrived when these prisoners ought to be released. The year which had passed since then had only tended to intensify his desire for their release, and to demonstrate the propriety on the part of the Government of doing this act of grace and mercy, for he admitted it would be an act of mercy to release these men. We had admitted by legislation that less extreme measures in Ireland were now required, and yet we were allowing these prisoners to languish in their gaol. We had had order vindicated in Ireland. The bulk of the people were loyal to the Queen. It was admitted that they were contented with the English Crown, and with the Queen; and if that were so, he saw no reason for refusing this prayer for an act of mercy. He considered the Government would do well to yield to the prayer at once. The sooner it was done, the more effective would it be in its results upon the affections of the Irish people.

Bill considered in Committee, and reported, without Amendment; to be read the third time upon Monday.