HC Deb 07 June 1880 vol 252 cc1346-8

asked Mr. Attorney General for Ireland, Whether it is a fact that the magistrates of the borough of Belfast invariably inflict a penalty of 40s. and costs on any person brought before them on a charge of using insulting language towards the Pope or other ministers of religion, or towards King William III. of immortal memory; and, if so, whether his attention has been called to the language, reported in the "Northern Whig," and the "Ulster Examiner," to have been used by the Rev. Isaac Nelson on Sunday last within the said borough of Belfast, to the effect that "the greatest curse Europe has had for centuries was the man that called himself the successor of St. Peter;" and "these men"(the Roman Catholic clergy)"are trading on the ignorance of the ignorant, and lording it in the name of religion over the consciences of men;" and, whether, under the circumstances, he considers it advisable that the Irish Executive should direct a prosecution against the said Rev. Isaac Nelson for having publicly used language calculated to cause a breach of the peace within the said borough? I may mention that I hold in my hand a telegram from Belfast which states that the language quoted by me is absolutely correct.


I also wish to ash the right hon. and learned Gentleman, Whether his attention has been called to a statement in The Freeman's Journal that the Rev. Isaac Nelson was presented with an address from the Roman Catholics of Belfast, and also with a purse containing many sovereigns?


I also wish to ash, Whether it is not a fact that the rev. Gentleman has in The Freeman's Journal publicly repudiated the accuracy of the report in question?


Before the Attorney General for Ireland answers the Question, I would wish to inform him that my hon. Colleague the Member for Mayo, the Rev. Isaac Nelson, will shortly be in his place to answer any Questions put by the hon. Member for Louth or anybody else.


Sir, having no very accurate knowledge myself of what was the invariable practice of the Belfast magistrates in the case put by the hon. Member, I had the Question sent over to the magistrates on Saturday, and with the permission of the House I will read the telegram which I have just received from them. It is as follows:— In all cases where language of a party character is used in the public streets—whether cursing the Pope or King William, Papists or Protestants—the almost invariable rule is to inflict a penalty of 40s., as such language is calculated to cause a breach of the peace; and sometimes persons so charged are sent to prison without the option of a fine. The words quoted in Question 31 are so reported in The Northern Whig of May 31. With respect to the words alleged to have been used, I beg to say, in answer to the hon. Member for Waterford, that I have seen in the papers a letter from the Rev. Mr. Nelson, denying the accuracy of the report. As to the second part of the Question of the hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Callan), I must say I do not consider it advisable to direct a prosecution against Mr. Nelson for having "publicly" used language calculated to cause a breach of the peace, inasmuch as the language imputed to him, if used, however objectionable it may have been, does not appear to have been used publicly, but in the course of a sermon delivered to his own Presbyterian congregation, and, I presume, in his own church. A prosecution for that would, of course, be ridiculous.