HC Deb 11 February 1880 vol 250 cc477-84

, in rising to move that the following Amendment be added to the Address:— That while wasting the resources and straining the honour of the State in unjust aggressions abroad, the Ministry have endangered the peace and neglected the interests of the Country at home: That when the attention of Her Majesty's advisers was called during last Parliament to the approaching distress in Ireland, they only replied with insulting mockery; and that when the distress deepened, and the inhabitants of the afflicted districts sought to move public opinion by peaceable meetings, the Government adopted an attitude of provocation, and answered the Petitions of the starving cultivators by arbitrary arrests and displays of military force: That the Ministry seek to stir up evil passions and prejudices between the English and Irish peoples: That they sedulously describe as seditious and disloyal the Constitutional endeavours of the Irish representatives to establish improved relations between Ireland and the other portions of Her Majesty's Dominions, and to bring about a better distribution of the legislative work which now overburthens the Imperial Parliament: That when any English party or English politicians seek to promote the removal of Irish grievances, they are denounced by the present Ministry to the prejudices of the unthinking and unreflecting as bad patriots and enemies of England, and there can no longer be a doubt that this policy has been adopted for the purpose of obtaining a factious and calamitous success at the approaching General Elections: And that, therefore, in face of such misconduct, we have no alternative but to beseech Her Gracious Majesty to dismiss from Her Councils Her present advisers, in order to prevent the further practice of abuses more dangerous than open treason to the State, commenced by referring to the misrepresentations of the policy of the Irish Party, which had been put forward on behalf of the Government, and said he had no doubt that the se misrepresentations were put forward for Party purposes. Her Majesty's Government had raised a new cry. It must be admitted that they were sadly in want of one. The Government had been long appealing to the country, for some years past, on the ground of their vigorous defence of the interests of the country; but now they knew what was the nature of that so-called vigorous defence, and of the misfortunes and dangers into which that policy had plunged the country. He had never supported either the policy of the Opposition, or that of the Government; and certainly no man without prejudice could approve of the policy of the Government on the grounds either of humanity or of honour. On the Eastern Question the Government had supported Turkey in a policy of resistance against Russia, and then made an underhand agreement with Count Schouvaloff; while at the moment when general peace might have resulted by joining in the Councils of Europe, they made a surreptitious agreement with Turkey by which they obtained Cyprus. In South Africa, the policy of the Government had been attended with equally unfortunate results. While the Government were picking a quarrel with the Transvaal, they were encouraging Cetewayo, whom they subsequently turned upon and hunted down. Previous to the war with the Zulus, great outcries were made against the Boers, because they were taking the Swazi people as auxiliaries, on the ground of their barbarity; but now the Government had been glad to avail themselves of the services of the se same savages, notwithstanding their barbarities. In Afghanistan the action of the Government was to be loudly condemned, and every Indian independent organ did emphatically condemn it as evincing a policy which had not hesitated to confiscate even the fund raised as a safeguard against famine. The result of the policy adopted by the Government in India was that every year the people were becoming poorer and poorer, and were gradually sinking into poverty, for which he did not blame the English officials so much as the home authorities, who so constantly distracted their attention with wars beyond the Frontiers. He condemned the action of the Government in enlisting under their banner the wild Afridis, between whom and the Cabulees there were sanguinary feuds, and there were few men who knew India that did not believe that if an escort of White men had been sent with Cavagnari no massacre would have taken place. Now that the foreign and colonial policy of the Government was no longer a sufficient rallying cry for their supporters, they had raised the cry of "Down with the Irish people!" and even English Members who stretched out their hands to help their Irish brethren were condemned without exception. He would defend particularly the policy of the hon. Member for Meath (Mr. Parnell), for it was this policy which was alleged by the supporters of the present Administration as a justification of their vigorous attacks and their charges upon Ireland. The hon. Member for Meath had not taken any action until all the responsible bodies representing Irish public opinion had in vain endeavoured to obtain a favourable response from the Government. The agitation of the hon. Member was a strictly legal and constitutional agitation, and was owing to the dreadful state of a country abandoned to despair and starvation, to all appearance, by the scornful and despotic attitude of the Administration. Last year, he (Mr. O'Donnell) had seized an early opportunity of impressing upon the Government the necessity of taking measures to meet the severe agricultural distress, and had been supported by the hon. Member for Longford and by a number of other Irish Members. The only reply vouchsafed by the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was one which could not in any way be regarded as satisfactory—indeed, the Irish Members considered that it had hardly come within the bounds of Parliamentary decorum. He found in the Irish papers of the 31st May that the Catholic clergy of the extensive deanery of Westport—the present scene of the most terrible destitution—had passed a resolution declaring that such was the misery in which the peasantry, according to their own knowledge, were plunged, that it would be absolutely impossible for the se tenants to pay the full extent of their rents to their landlords during that year. He would ask the House whether any stronger proof of destitution could be brought forward than that a body of Catholic clergymen—the recognized and responsible guardians of the rights of property—should come forward and declare that a large number of tenantry were unable to pay their rents in consequence of the national distress? In the Irish Press of the 7th June, the Catholic clergy of Claremorris, in the same vicinity, each person speaking for his own parish, declared similarly that such was the destitution of the country that it would be impossible for the tenantry to pay their rents without reduction during the year. In the Irish Press of the 21st June, Catholic clergymen of Killaloe, Dungarvan, Galway, and elsewhere, numbering more than 200, and covering a space of territory from North-West right down to South-East—the whole coast of Ireland, and which was now the scene of the gravest distress—all these inflexible guardians of the public weal declared publicly that such was the misery of their people that it would be impossible for the tenantry to pay their rents, and large and generous reductions must be made—that the district, in fact, was on the verge of ruin. Were not these testimonies worthy of the consideration of Her Majesty's Government? Similar declarations were made in the National Press of June 20, and in the Irish Press of the 5th July; and among the other evidences of the public misery he would cite the admirable letter of a Galway landlord, Miss Eyre of Clifden Castle, stating that all over Connemara there were already scenes of harrowing misery, and corresponding announcements subsequently appeared. It was now time to speak explicitly of the policy of Her Majesty's Government. Had this been satisfactory—had it been generous—had it been even respectful for the misery of the Irish people? On the 23rd June, after Westport, after Clare-morris, Killaloe, Dungarvan, and Galway had spoken out on the public misery, he (Mr. O'Donnell) had addressed a Question to the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant for Ireland as to the state of agricultural distress in that country, and whether the Government proposed to take any steps to alleviate it. That was a good opportunity for the Government to act in such a manner as to revive confidence in their intentions and kindly feeling. The right hon. Gentleman, however, had replied that he had no official information—in fact, no knowledge at all—of the clerical expressions which had been communicated to him, but that it was a subject of regret to the Government that agricultural distress existed in many parts of the United Kingdom, and that it was a satisfaction to the Irish branch of the Government that they had reason to believe that that distress, the ugh unhappily prevailing, was less acutely felt in Ireland than in many other parts of the Kingdom. What other parts of the Kingdom, he (Mr. O'Donnell) would ask, were witnessing such distress, and had caused such resolutions to be passed by persons locally in the best position possible for knowing the whole subject? There was to be a discussion, he was loftily informed, on the Motion of the hon. Member for Mid-Lincolnshire (Mr. Chaplin), for appointing a Commission to inquire into agriculture. That was the way he was answered when pleading for people who were approaching a state of starvation; and the right hon. Gentleman had added the insulting flippancy of an observation that "at any rate the Government were not going to bring in a Bill for the reduction of rents." The first Circular of the Government proposing any measures, however unworthy and ineffectual, was dated the 14th November. Accordingly, from the 23rd June to the 14th November—through all these weary and miserable months—the Irish people—and the Irish agitators, if hon. Members wished to say so—were left to their own conclusions as to the reasons held by Her Majesty's Government for withholding a single measure of relief or a word of sympathy for a starving people. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in the previous night's debate, had supplied the House with a reason why the Government did not come forward previously to the 14th November to speak a word of hope to the miserable population. He would be extremely sorry to utter a word to misrepresent the answer which the right hon. Gentleman gave to the Irish Deputies; but hon. Members present would be able to correct him if he should inaccurately re-produce them. The astounding reason why the Government had kept silence even in the face of agitation, why the Government had kept silence even in the face of respectful protestation, why they had kept silence even in the face of acknowledged misery, was that they were afraid that if the Irish people were allowed to believe that the Administration would come promptly forward to their assistance with measures of relief, they would consume much more rapidly any little stores they had in hand. They had now the reason why the Government preferred to allow the people to be plunged into despair, and to be exposed to the seductions and incitements of agitators—why they left them to spin out as long as possible the miserable remnant of provisions which they had left. He did not think that in the history of the British Administration of Ireland any words could be quoted of such unconscious brutality as the se used by the right hon. Gentleman on the previous night. As an individual, no doubt, the right hon. Gentleman was a generous man—everything an Englishman should be. He had simply expressed the policy of the Government; and while the Government had been loftily and scornfully playful with the Chief Secretary for Ireland, the friends of the people had had to relieve their distress and plead their cause. In his references to the Chief Secretary for Ireland—he was sorry to see that the right hon. Gentleman had chosen this time to leave the House—in his references to the ignorance, both official and non-official, so ostentatiously displayed by that right hon. Gentleman, he did not especially blame him, for on the Opposition side of the House they wore not disposed to take too seriously the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland. They were not unaware of his antecedents. They did not know that he had made any noise in the world; but they did know that he had made curious noises in that House on certain occasions. He had matriculated with high honours in the imitation of animal sounds department of Conservative obstruction. They only regarded him as the man—the functionary—the Government had appointed to preside over the maladministration of Ireland. In the face of the Government apathy it was for the friends of the people of Ireland themselves to be up and doing, and foremost amongst them was the hon. Member for Meath. That hon. Member had had pressed upon him the function abdicated by the Government. He had had forced upon him the duty neglected by the Lord Lieutenant for Ireland, and he had to come forward—with the certainty of being misrepresented—to stand in the gap and to lead and support by his presence and ability the agitation of the Irish people. During the weeks of the Parnell agitation, he (Mr. O'Donnell) denied that any illegitimate or illegal sentiment had been put forward, or that they worked for anything except for the welfare of the Irish people. The hon. Member for Meath and his Colleagues had been exposed to much calumny in the great work of protecting the lives of the people. The policy of the agitationin Ireland was two-fold. In the first place, they supported the traditional platform of Irish tenants, they demanded fixity of tenure at fair rents, and they demanded the programme of the Home Rule Party. Secondly, they laid great stress on the necessity of a peasant proprietary in Ireland; but it was false to say that they ever proposed confiscation in Ireland. The hon. Member for Meath simply proposed the purchase of the land by the Government. He proposed not confiscation, but purchase; not spoliation, but the process of law and a constitutional arrangement. There was not the least truth in the statement that the hon. Member for Meath contemplated any measures of confiscation in Ireland. Then, what was the defence of the Government? They said that they did not do anything sooner from the fear of encouraging extravagance amongst the starving population. And what was the action of the landlords? To their honour, be it said, that many of them came forward and contributed to the relief of the distress; but, as a rule, there was no voice of comfort to be heard amongst the proprietors of the land, just as there was no voice of comfort to be heard from the official classes. All that the hon. Member for Meath said was that the people who could not pay their rent, finding that the landlords and the Government were silent, would be justified in keeping their rents back to feed their children; and then, when the law turned them out on to the roadways, they would have a few miserable shillings or pounds to go on with. What was there immoral or illegal in that? If the premises to that argument was admitted, the conclusion could not be denied. The argument was that there were people who were not able to pay their rent, and who knew that even the payment of part of the rent would not save them from eviction. Their legal obligation had its rights, but there was also a natural law; and if they were to be turned upon the roadside they were justified in keeping back the poor pounds and shillings they possessed. Such would not have been the case had the Government come forward and said that they would not allow the people to starve, even if evicted. But the Government was dumb—it was afraid to encourage the extravagance of a starving people. As a heroic remedy, the hon. Member for Meath was right in saying that the people should disregard the law which strangled them; and if they were to go out on to the roadside it should be with something in their pockets to save them from the awful doom of the Famine of 1847. In saying that, the hon. Member for Meath and his Colleagues were neither traitors to their Sovereign nor rebels to the laws. Then the hon. Member for Meath had been accused of the responsibility of an armed resistance—of the armed resistance of the bare hands of starving women to the serving of notices of eviction! Why did not some Member of the Government come forward and say to the landlords—"Although you are right in law, do not press evictions on a starving population." In one village the children threw themselves at the feet of the ministers of the law, and the women threw themselves in the mud and implored for consideration.

And it being a quarter of an hour before Six of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned tillTo-morrow.

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