HC Deb 12 April 1878 vol 239 cc1220-6

Special Report [11th April], from the Select Committee on Public Petitions read.


said, he had now to move, in conformity with the Report of the Public Petitions Committee, that the Order made on the 21st of January last, that a Petition purporting to be presented from working men and other inhabitants of Dublin— Against the Sale of Intoxicating Liquors on Sunday (Ireland) Bill, and containing the names of John Macgusty and W. A. Exham, do lie upon the Table, be read and discharged. The House would remember that when this Petition was remitted to the Committee on Public Petitions for further inquiry, he (Sir Charles Forster) stated that, although the Committee were perfectly ready to conform with the general opinion of the House, and to undertake any duty which might be imposed upon them, yet he believed it would turn out that the matter was a very small one. That view had been fully justified by the result. The Committee made a minute and careful examination of the signatures, and the result of their inquiry was, although they had certainly to report— Several cases of addresses, which either do not exist, or at which the persons professing to sign do not reside, they were of opinion that there was no sufficient ground to call upon the House for any ulterior action, with the excep tion of discharging the Order for the reception of this particular Petition. There was one circumstance which had unfavourably impressed the House and the Committee, and that was the discrepancy between the alleged number of signatures and the Census Returns for Dublin. The Petition purported to be signed by upwards of 92,000 male adults, whereas the last Census Returns for Dublin did not contain a register of more than 79,000 male adults. It was only fair he should state that it was shown to the Committee that Dublin was a place of frequent resort for business and pleasure; and it was suggested that the signatures were obtained from persons frequenting the fairs and markets of Dublin, and by persons who happened to be passing through the city, but who could not be said to be inhabitants of Dublin. He had said that the Committee did not recommend that any ulterior action should be taken, except in regard to the Petition which was referred to in his Motion. In respect to that Petition, the Committee resolved unanimously that there had been a deliberate attempt to mislead the House as to the signatures of W. A. Exham and John Macgusty. The Committee were also of opinion that, as it was manifest the Petition had been tampered with, it was their duty to report the facts as they found them to the House; and they further instructed him to move that the Order that this Petition do lie upon the Table be discharged. He trusted that that Motion would be adopted, and that the House would then be of opinion that sufficient had been done to vindicate the right of petitioning. He had only now to express his own opinion, and he hoped the House would agree with him, that a matter of that kind was better fought out on the floor of the House than in the Committee of Public Petitions. He begged to move that the Order be discharged.

Moved, "That the said Order be discharged."—(Sir Charles Forster.)


thought the Report of the Committee on Public Petitions fully vindicated the course he (Mr. Meldon) took in moving that the former Report of the Committee should be sent back to them. It had been suggested that the better course would have been to move for a Select Committee to investigate the charges which had been brought against all the Petitions. But he did not think that that was at all necessary. Having regard to the facts of the case, and seeing that the Report before the House distinctly alleged forgery, it would not have been consistent with his duty as a Member of the House, having a knowledge of the facts, to allow the Report of the Committee to remain on the Table of the House without further investigation. There were several names appended to the Petition without addresses; but there was no power to send for persons, papers, and records, and the Committee could not fully follow up the inquiry with respect to the allegations of forgery. There were forgeries that were distinctly proved to be forgeries, and he did not think the House would have been justified in allowing a Report of that nature to pass unchallenged. It turned out, on further investigation, that, although these signatures were attached with the intention of misleading the House, yet that it was not a case of forgery clearly and distinctly proved. If it had been, he should have considered it his duty to submit a Motion for other action on the part of the House besides the rejection of the Petition. There was one part of the Report of the Committee to which he desired to call attention. The Committee recommended that, in future, the addresses, as well as the names of the persons signing Petitions, should be set forth. There was no Member of the House who would not be of opinion that, if a Petition was to have any value whatever, there should be some means of tracing the authenticity of it. When no address was given hon. Members had no means of ascertaining whether the signatures were genuine or not. He thought the House was deeply indebted to the Public Petitions Committee for their valuable Report; and he hoped that, at an early day, it would be carried into execution, and the recommendations of the Committee adopted by the House. So far as ho was personally concerned, having moved that the first Report should be referred back to the Public Petitions Committee, he thought the Resolution now moved should be accepted by the House.


presumed that the Report would be adopted by the House, and he hoped that the retaliatory measures with which the supporters of the Sunday Closing Bill had been threatened would be taken; and he was quite sure that the Petitions on the other side would receive the same attention at the hands of the Committee as the Petitions against the Bill had received. He would only say, in addition, that he quite agreed with what the hon. and learned Member for Kildare (Mr. Meldon) had said in regard to the addresses being in future added to the names of persons signing Petitions. It would be a very valuable addition, and he ventured to hope that his hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee would take an early opportunity of bringing some Resolution to that effect before the House.


understood the Chairman of the Public Petitions Committee to say that the Petition to which the Report referred was signed by 92,000 male adults; whereas there were only 79,000 registered male inhabitants in Dublin, and that the difference was made up from incomers. If that statement were correct, it would appear that the whole male population of Dublin signed the Petition, without any dissentient; and that, in addition, 20,000 more, who happened to be passing through the city, also signed it. All he could say was, that if that was an accurate statement, when his Irish friends did agree their unanimity was wonderful.


wished to explain. He had only repeated what had been stated to the Committee, and the House must take the statement for what it was worth. With regard to what had fallen from the hon. Baronet the Member for Carlisle (Sir Wilfrid Lawson), he (Sir Charles Forster) might say that the recommendations of the Committee could only be considered upon Notice; but, of course, it would be brought under consideration at the proper time.


said, that he was the Member who had presented the Petition; and, having examined it since, he was of opinion that the signatures referred to in the Report of the Committee were undoubtedly fictitious. It was not pretended, however, that these names were appended to the Petition with the intention of deceiving the House or anybody else. His own opinion, and he was bound to declare it, was that these signatures were appended by the promoters of the Bill, and that they were, in fact, a weak invention of the enemy.


said, that was a fine defence on the part of an hon. Member detected in the act of presenting to the House a Petition which the House was obliged to spurn.

MR. M. BROOKS rose to Order. The words "detected in the act" would imply that he had done some act that was censurable. He submitted that he had not done anything of the kind.


Of course not; what he meant was that the House had discovered—he would not say detected—that the Petition which the hon. Gentleman had presented was one that was unworthy of its acceptance, and the hon. Member for Dublin (Mr. M. Brooks), when the forged signatures were called attention to by the Committee, undertook, with the fertility of imagination he now displayed in defending a weak cause, to suggest to the Committee that Mr. Exham, whose name had been forged, had a son who might have signed it. [Mr. M. BROOKS: Hear, hear!] Exactly so; and Mr. Exham, a highly respectable citizen of Dublin, was put to the pain and trouble of coming here to prove that not only did he not sign, but that the suggestion that the signature was his son's was entirely baseless and without foundation. He would suggest to his hon. Friend that when he had so bad a case to defend, he should not give quite so much scope to his imagination, or strain it to such an excess. He had been let down very easily on this occasion. Nothing had been said about Brian Boru, W. Smith O'Brien, Aurora Floyd, and others who never existed, or who had been dead and gone for years.


thought the speech which the House had just listened to from the hon. and learned Member for Louth (Mr. Sullivan), savoured of that species of intimidation which was continually practised in this agitation for closing public-houses on Sunday. The hon. Member for the chief city of Ireland presented a Petition very numerously signed, and it turned out that a few of the signatures to that Petition had been appended, either as intentional forgeries, or humourously, or with a design to discredit the Petition. If the object was to discredit the Petition, the fact of the signatures not being genuine would naturally be made known to those who had called their attention to it. And yet the hon. Member for Dublin was accused of being detected in the act of presenting a Petition which the House was obliged to spurn. He (Sir Joseph M'Kenna) had no wish, nor did he like, to use parallel phraseology; but he would use the hon. and learned Member's own phraseology, and would say that this was a sample of that fertility of imagination which was exemplified from time to time by the hon. and learned Member on many other subjects as well as that with which the House was now concerned.


said, he was one of those who were most anxious jealously to guard the right of petitioning in every possible way; but, in this case, it appeared that every hon. Member of the House was entirely agreed that the action suggested by the Chairman of the Public Petitions Committee was the proper one to take. He would, therefore, suggest that, as the matter had been fully discussed, and as there was no dispute upon it, not to waste any further time, but to proceed at once to other and more important Business.


said, the Government appeared to be very anxious not to waste time, but they forgot that they had deliberately lent themselves to a Party who wasted a considerable amount of time the other night, when the Sunday Closing Bill was last discussed. He asked the Government how long these scenes were to go on; and, whether on every occasion when a Petition was presented to the House, they were to get up an amateur debate in this impromptu fashion? He greatly regretted to have witnessed the scenes which had occurred among the Irish Members on the question of Sunday closing. Although he was not in favour of the Bill, he wished the Government would take steps to settle the question one way or the other. If not, they would run the risk of having these Petitions brought up from time to time at those Morning Sittings, when they desired to proceed with other Business, and of having their time wasted or used, whichever they chose to call it. He thought the Irish Members attached too much importance to these Petitions. Petitions were sent in with the utmost confidence that the House would weigh carefully every signature attached to every Petition, and, indeed, everything connected with the Petition; whereas, in point of fact, the House had no cognizance of any Petition whatever, except when it was discovered that someone had forged somebody else's name. A great deal of prominence had been given to this particular Petition; but, as to the practical value of the presentation of any Petition, he contended that it possessed none, and the people of Ireland who signed these Petitions might spare themselves the trouble of signing, and refuse to send in any more Petitions at all. It was very easy to get up Petitions, especially in Ireland, no matter what the subject was. Any Association, with sufficient means at its command, could get up an unlimited number of Petitions. The Irish were a good-natured and willing people, and they did not like to say "No" to anything. The consequence was, that when the agent of any society went round and asked any man or woman to sign a Petition, in nine cases out of 10, the person asked complied. The temptation to discredit a Petition was too obvious, and too open and unguarded, and the result was that persons appended such signatures as Brian Born, Smith O'Brien, and Aurora Floyd. He was afraid that they would have the time of the House wasted over and over again on these Petitions, unless the Government made up their minds to deal with the question of Sunday closing in one way or another.

Motion agreed to.

Order discharged.

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