HC Deb 12 March 1875 vol 222 cc1759-69

, who had a Notice on the Paper to call attention to the case of the Irish State Prisoners, and to move— That, in the opinion of this House, it is undesirable to continue the incarceration of persons who are now, and have been for many years, imprisoned for political offences, said, it was not, he could assure the House, his desire to oppose himself to the general current of public opinion within its walls; but the question he had to consider was not what the majority would do, but what, on a full and fair examination of the subject, the majority ought to do. Representing, as he did, one of the largest counties in Ireland, he did not hesitate in the name of his constituents to say that the continued incarceration of the Irish political prisoners was both impolitic and unjust. It would be desirable to know something more of the treatment of these persons while in prison, and he regretted to find so much of Party feeling manifested in treating on the question. The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary said the other evening that they were not political prisoners; but that was not the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman last year when, on a Motion for Returns as to the treatment of those prisoners, he said that some of them were being punished for offences which were not political. Now, however, the right hon. Gentleman had degraded all of them to the level of felons—in accordance with the invariable policy of the British Government, which was to lower the character of those who were their opponents in Ireland. In 1848 the then Viceroy of Ireland acknowledged that he employed a venal Press man to assail with every opprobrious epithet the parties to whom he (Lord Clarendon) was politically opposed. He (Mr. O'Connor Power) was sure the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Disraeli) would scorn to adopt such a line of conduct to wards the unfortunate Irish prisoners. The Returns to which he had referred stated the number of the prisoners in question as 18; whereas, the Amnesty Association stated the number to be 54. That, however, was a point he would not discuss. But, taking the number as 18, he was prepared to show that the offences of the prisoners were of a political character. Two of them, Edward Shore and Patrick Melady, were convicted in 1867 of being accessory to the murder of Sergeant Brett, in Manchester, and had been in penal servitude for eight years. Two others—Michael Davitt and John Wilson—were convicted in 1870 of treason-felony, and had been five years in prison. Colour-Sergeant M'Carthy was convicted with 13 others in 1866 (with the exception of John O'Brien, who was convicted in 1867) of various breaches of the Articles of War. With reference to the affair at Manchester, Sergeant Brett had nobly lost his life at the post of duty, and it was no reflection on the memory of that gallant officer that his death had been avenged. In November, 1867, three young Irishmen swung on the gallows at Manchester on account of his death, and five or six other persons had since endured penal servitude for their participation in the attack on the prison van, whereby Sergeant Brett had lost his life. In the abstract it appeared to him excessive cruelty to punish men whose offence had been expiated by three deaths and five years' penal imprisonment of five or six others. But he maintained that the offence was decidedly political. Two Fenian leaders, Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy, came over from America to organize an insurrection in Ireland. Failing in the attempt, they took refuge in Manchester, where they fell into the hands of the police. A number of their followers, young, brave, patriotic, and enthusiastic, determined to release them. They attacked the police van in which the two leaders were being conveyed as it passed a railway bridge, in broad daylight, and to force open the door, fired a bullet into the lock which most unfortunately, and as he believed accidentally, wounded the sergeant and caused his death. To his mind, it was apparent that the men—however criminal their act, however gross a violation it might he of the law and Constitution—were acting from motives clearly and distinctly political. He (Mr. O'Connor Power) had had no communication with any of the prisoners except one, and he was an upright and disinterested man. Was it right now, after the vengeance already taken, to waste away the flower of that man's youth in a prison? Then with respect to Michael Davitt and John Wilson the Return described the offence as being treason-felony. On what ground was the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary entitled to call the offence felony and not treason, and not, therefore, a political offence? Then as to the manner in which those prisoners had been treated; he had letters in his possession which showed that they had been treated with unexceptional severity. If he were to read these letters he doubted very much whether their authenticity would be accepted. The Committee appointed to inquire into the allegations as to the ill-treatment of the Fenian prisoners had no doubt reported that such allegations were unfounded; but it should be recollected that all the prisoners with, the exception of O'Donovan Rossa, had refused to give evidence, and he had only done so because when he (Mr. O'Connor Power's) predecessor, the late Mr. Moore, referred to the case of that prisoner, the predecessor of the present Home Secretary rose on that bench and denied in the most emphatic manner that O'Donovan Rossa had been handcuffed with his hands behind him for 35 days. He went further, and, however unintentionally, became the means of circulating an atrocious calumny, that O'Donovan Rossa had attempted to carry on a surreptitious correspondence with the wife of another man, for the purpose of carrying on a political intrigue. Yet when a special investigation was held into the circumstances of that case the assertion was proved to be a calumny, and O'Donovan Rossa was acquitted of it, and complimented by the Commissioners upon the manliness and uprightness with which he had acted in the matter. As regarded Davitt, he had himself applied to the former Home Secretary to be allowed to visit Davitt, representing to him that he had not received a single visitor for five years. His request was refused by the Home Secretary in a very curt letter. He was unable, therefore, to judge for himself upon the merits of Davitt's case; but if a letter he had seen in The Irishman, purporting to come from him, really came from him, he would stake his life on the veracity of his statements. He trusted he need not stop to point out to the House the relevancy of his remarks on the subject of prison treatment, for he wished to show that it had been very severe in the case of these prisoners; and he thought the fact that they had been subject to it—some for five or six, and the greater number of them for a period of nine years—supplied in itself a sufficient reason why they should now be restored to liberty. There was a suspicion in the public mind in Ireland that discipline was still enforced with exceptional severity in the case of political prisoners, and he must say the manner in which the Government met his Motion for Returns last year, had not been calculated to allay those suspicions. It might be admitted, perhaps, that Davitt and Wilson were political prisoners, but that the same description did not apply to the soldiers who broke their oaths and abandoned the standard of the Queen in order to join the ranks of the conspirators. He was not there to defend soldiers who broke their oaths, but were they the only soldiers who had done so? Had not Churchill broken his oath to his Sovereign James and gone over to the King whom hon. Gentlemen opposite delighted to honour; and did not the pious and immortal William, Prince of Orange, make him Duke of Marlborough as a reward for his perfidy? In fact, historians referred to that very period as that at which was first to be noted the rising greatness of the British Constitution. The ranks of the British Army were principally recruited from the class of young men who, suffering under the pressure of hard circumstances, make a virtue of necessity by adopting the soldier's glorious trade, and of all the servants of the Crown who might be expected to know the value of an oath, the class of Army recruits was certainly the last. He (Mr. O'Connor Power) could never understand how a civilian could be in any appreciable degree bound to be less loyal than the military subjects of the Crown. Loyalty must surely be traceable to higher sources to be binding on the conscience of an honourable man. He remembered that in 1848 Mr. Smith O'Brien took the oath of allegiance at the Table of the House; but though he subsequently broke that vow he was, three years after conviction, pardoned by the Crown and allowed to return to Ireland. Why, then, should not similar clemency be extended to the soldier M'Carthy? There were many such cases, and he did not see, therefore, why these military prisoners should be treated with so much and such continued rigour. Did not Marshal Serrano and the officers who acted with him in overthrowing Queen Isabella of Spain break their oaths, and yet had not our Government recognized the Administration of which he had been the head? It might be said that the condition of Ireland at the present day did not permit of that; but he wished the House, in considering the question, to agree with him that the motives for insubordination were of no ordinary character, and that the whole circumstances of the case were political in their character. Without doubt the military authorities would regard Colour Sergeant M'Carthy, who was now under penal servitude for life on account of his connection with the Fenian conspiracy, as one of the worst of offenders. Yet of that man there were proofs that in him were united some of the highest traits of character, and that on several occasions he had risked his life in the service of the Queen—not only that, but it stood on record on the authority of the hon. Member for Donegal, who knew the man, that he was one of the most upright and brave of soldiers, and that he was certainly not one of those who had joined the Fenian conspiracy from sordid motives. In England there existed a settled Government and Constitution under which the nation had grown rich, powerful, and contented. The English people had a holy horror of rebellion or of anything that could disturb the existing order of things. He must candidly admit that that was not the case in Ireland. Ever since the Union, the history of Ireland had been a history of Government repression and popular resistance. And it was a fact to be remembered that the Irish rebel, holding in his hand the declarations of Plunket who was made Lord Chancellor, Bushe who was made Chief Justice, Saurin who was made Attorney General, and Grattan whose remains were honoured by interment in Westminster Abbey, could establish before the world his constitutional right to resist unconstitutional laws. That the Irish State prisoners were not regarded as ordinary criminals was proved by the fact that Boards of Guardians and mass meetings had expressed sympathy with them, and that last year some 70 Members of Parliament urged upon the Chief Minister of the Crown the propriety of giving them their liberty. If, then, the incarcerated men were political offenders, their continued imprisonment was a stain on the character of the British Government. The Canadian House of Representatives had recently passed a resolution in favour of an amnesty being extended to political prisoners, and was it to be said that the Parliament of the United Kingdom was afraid to do likewise? The British Government had been accused of cringing to Russia and America, and if they wished to retain any shreds of reputation he called upon them to set the Irish State prisoners free.


said, he must remind the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. O'Connor Power) that he was entirely mistaken in his reading of the history of the first Duke of Marlborough. The hon. Member had stated that Churchill was rewarded for his treachery by having the Dukedom of Marlborough conferred upon him by the Prince of Orange. Now, as a matter of fact, the so-called treachery of Churchill was one of the most disputed historical questions, whereas the treachery of these soldiers was not disputed. The Dukedom was not conferred as the reward of treachery, nor was it conferred by King William, but by Queen Anne, as a reward for his services at the victory of Blenheim. He took that opportunity of advising the hon. Member for Mayo to inform himself of the commonest facts of history before again aspersing the character of heroes whom the country revered.


said, he felt assured that in the observations made by the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. O'Connor Power), regarding the Duke of Marlborough, he in no way meant to detract from the honour and glory of his illustrious name, whose victories on many a field so justly endeared his memory to the English, people. He only, for the purposes of his argument, stated a fact historically true that the Duke of Marlborough, having been in the service of James II., within 24 hours was in the camp of William III. After the able and eloquent speech which they had just heard, he should not have risen were it not that he intended to present some considerations in favour of the Motion different from those they had heard from the hon. Member for Mayo. Apart from the principle of Fenianism, he had always thought that it would end in disaster, and that the many honest, unthinking, and enthusiastic men who joined in the movement would find so to their cost. But how different was the situation in 1864 from the present. Then America had just been terminating a fierce contest, and American politicians, anxious to catch the Irish vote, would be ready to grant the Irish anything. Now, were aid required from them—the pure Americans—they would snap their fingers at the Irish, conscious that within 10 years the German emigration would create a great preponderance in that country. Again, in 1864, in Ireland, he knew that among large numbers of the people an undefined idea of obtaining French assistance prevailed. The late France Prussian War had rudely dispelled that idea. In short, nobody could dream now of creating an insurrection in Ireland. Then, was not that the time for clemency? Not one word had been, or could be said against the moral character of these men. When hon. Gentlemen discussed the actions of men in former times, who were influenced by similar motives, much as they might differ with their principles, they were often objects of their admiration. Well, God knew, these men had suffered enough. Nine years' incarceration with common felons, the scum of English society! At another time it might be urged the Government could be said to be thought afraid; but that could not be imputed to them were they to exercise clemency. The hon. Member for Mayo had alluded to Marshal Serrano being admitted to the Government of Spain; but the case of the Hungarian Army which fought against the Kaiser at Comorn, was even stronger, for they were now received into the special favour of that very Emperor against whom they had rebelled. He believed there were but few in that House who did not feel for these unhappy political prisoners, and he hoped, if not on that occasion, in obedience to the hon. Member's Motion, that very shortly they would be liberated.


said, he would also ask the Government to accede to the Motion. He cordially concurred in the observations which had been made by his hon. Friend the Member for King's County (Sir Patrick O'Brien), and thought the time had come when bygones might fairly be considered bygones, and that great sore might be removed in accordance with the wishes of the people of Ireland. That step on the part of the Government would give the greatest satisfaction.


said, that he could not support the spirit of the Motion of the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. O'Connor Power). Whilst he felt much sympathy on behalf of these unfortunate men, he felt more sympathy for the right hon. Gentleman opposite who had to answer this charge. There was an old saying— Oh! what a tangled web we weave When first we practise to deceive, and that was the case with the present Government and their Predecessors with regard to the question. The Government, influenced, he believed, by what could not be better expressed than by the term cowardice, had refrained from tracing Fenianism to its source and to grapple with it. They had not dared to do that, but had seized the men who murdered Sergeant Brett at Manchester and had punished them. And what for? No doubt, it was a political offence. No doubt, these men were actuated by what they believed to be the interests of their country. But who taught them that? Who were the originators of Fenianism? Who was it held up before these men not merely all the ordinary influence of leaders, but also the high sanction of religion in chapel, in school, and in every form and shape the treason of which these unhappy men were the victims? It was permissively taught and supported by public money in the schools of Ireland, and yet the Government had not dared to grapple with the evil at its source. How long were we to act the part of national Jesuits, pretending to be a Protestant nation, and yet for our own petty convenience ignoring the fact that this treason was organized systematically? Fenianism was undoubtedly nothing more nor less than one of the manifold chameleon-like developments of that organized conspiracy which priests—he had almost said parsons, too,—were ready, to the extent of their power, to bring against society and against the welfare and happiness of the people amongst whom they lived. The contest between the priestly and civil power of the State was unequal, and would have to be fought out now, or at some future day it would have to be fought out under greater disadvantages. He appealed to the Government on behalf of these unhappy Fenians, who were energetic and patriotic, and entitled to sympathy, and asked them to trace the evil to its true source. He had over and over again implored the Government to afford facilities for investigation, and of bringing before the House by means of a Committee the evidence which he had from time to time been able to produce to show that Fenianism was in its origin sustained by the devices of the priesthood of Home. Let them seek out the imperium in imperio, the fountainhead of the organized system of treason and opposition to the civil government. They knew what was passing in Germany just now, and he would appeal to the right hon. Gentleman who now so worthily presided over the Government of this country to place England on an equality with other States and enable us to do our duty. He thought that the hon. Members who talked about the sufferings and wrongs of their country could not really believe anything of the kind——


intimated that such an observation was not in accordance with the usages of the House.


said, he had not finished the sentence—they did not believe anything of the kind in the sense which their words conveyed to the House. There was no desire on the part of Parliament to oppress Ireland, which was more highly favoured in many respects than other parts of the Kingdom. He had some claim to speak on the subject; for years ago, he did as much as any Englishman could do amongst the Irish people in mitigating the evils of the Famine, and then it was he learnt the lesson that the people themselves felt the crushing influence of the tyranny of the priesthood. Therefore it was that he pleaded on behalf of the people for protection against their priesthood, against the tyranny under which individuals and the interests of their country were ground down. He trusted the Government would even at this late hour investigate the origin and nature of Fenianism, and trace it to its source; and if they did, they would find that that same malignant power which was imperilling and destroying, and had destroyed for generations, every true interest in Ireland, was still imperilling the interests and the safety of the land.


said, he gave every credit to the hon. Member for Mayo for his motives and feelings in introducing the subject which he had so very ably brought before the House. He could assure the hon. Member that there was not the slightest wish or desire on the part of the Government to throw either disgrace or dishonour upon any Irishman from one end of the country to the other. In considering this matter, however, he must remind the hon. Gentleman that there was one point connected with the Fenian conspiracy which had not been named by him—namely, that the Government of the day, when they thought they could safely do so, drew a broad line of distinction between the several classes of prisoners convicted during the Fenian outrages, and gave a large amnesty to those who were simply convicted of political offences. There was, however, a class of prisoners—and he regretted to say they were a large class—imprisoned for crimes and offences committed about that time which, in the opinion of the Government, were not political offences. The first two prisoners in the list were those connected, he was sorry to say, with what he had before, and what he must still call, the Manchester murder. Whatever might be the political feeling of those persons who attempted the rescue, and who really caused the death of the policeman, they were living at that time under the protection of the laws of this country, and they attacked the van with such violence that they deliberately killed the constable; by the law of England they were convicted of the crime of murder, and for that crime three of those persons, in his opinion, most justly suffered the punishment of death. It was in connection with that crime that two of the first persons on the list were still kept in prison. Of the next two persons on the list one took an office at Birmingham for the express purpose of buying arms and of providing with arms those who were contending at the time against the English Government, and the other man was a gunmaker, who was employed to make up the arms. They were living at Birmingham at the time. They were convicted for acting in contravention of the laws of the country, and not for committing political offences. The next class were the soldiers. Now, the hon. Member had said that everybody owed allegiance to the Crown. That was true, but a soldier entered upon a special duty; he owed a separate allegiance, and a breach of that separate allegiance by a soldier was a special danger to the country which must be avoided. It would be perfectly intolerable that a person who had taken the oath of allegiance and joined the British Army should when any danger pressed upon the country go over to the enemy and then be held irresponsible for that act. He (Mr. Cross) was bound before he sat down shortly to remind the House that this matter was brought before the House when the late Prime Minister was sitting on the Ministerial Bench in 1873, and the words which he then used seemed so entirely to apply to the present case that, with the permission of the House, he would read one extract from them— I am sorry to say, Sir, that there is a strong and most conclusive reason, one which over rides every other reason, for not extending this amnesty to the men referred to, and for leading us to conclude that these men are not political prisoners at all in the sense in which indulgence might be extended to prisoners of that character. It is a sound principle of modern administration, that when there has been a convulsion in a country and the contagion of strong' feelings has led men to join it—when it is put down by the arm of the law, the individuals who were parties to it should be dealt with very leniently. But, Sir, I know no reason why single individuals, who, without the apology of contagion, have endeavoured to bring about bloodshed, should be so treated."—[3 Hansard, ccxvii. 997–8.] Therefore, it was not from any feeling of terror, but with the deepest regret, that he (Mr. Cross) had still to announce that it was the firm intention of Her Majesty's Government not to release the prisoners referred to.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.