HC Deb 24 August 1881 vol 265 cc857-66

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he had been led into a mistake with regard to the Bill by the Index of the Statutes in the Library. On looking at the Schedule, he found there were six Acts down as forming the Schedule of the Bill. He was informed on high authority, however, that only two of these Acts regulated criminal procedure in Ireland. These were the 15 & 16 Geo. III., and the 1 & 2 Will. IV. He would now move that these Acts cease to be employed in Ireland. On looking over these Acts, one was able to recall some of the very darkest features of the agrarian struggle in Ireland, and which helped towards an appreciation of a struggle not yet concluded. What struck one with astonishment and horror, in looking over these Acts, was the number of offences which a century ago were made the subject of the death penalty. For example, if a man were one of a party of 12 who did not disperse on being summoned to do so by a Justice of the Peace, he was liable to capital punishment. The same penalty was presented for sending a single threatening letter; for assaulting a man in a house; for assaulting a horse, mare, mule, or gelding; for stealing a gun, sword, or pistol; for maiming cattle, or obstructing the exportation of cattle; or, if a man were a Catholic priest, for marrying a Protestant to a Papist, or a reported Papist. The death penalty was also imposed for what he might now call attending a public meeting. It was quite true that some of these offences were liable to similar punishment in England; but in this case there were two distinctions. In the first place, in England the punishment for these offences was made general. That is to say, the statutes were directed against all classes of society; whereas, in Ireland, they were directed always against the peasantry in contradistinction to the landlords. Again, public opinion had insisted on the repeal of all those Acts in England; whereas, in Ireland, they existed at the present moment, and were sometimes actually employed. In England, one of the arguments which had been put forward for the repeal of these statutes was that the very severity of the punishment compelled their repeal, as juries refused to convict. He would recommend that to the House, whether convictions were not sought by the Crown Prosecutors under statutes against which the public conscience revolted. By the provisions of the 15 & 16 Geo. III.—which he would remark was passed by the Irish Parliament, then composed exclusively of Protestants and the members of the landlord class—any person who appeared at night armed with any offensive weapon, or disguised in any unusual garb, was subject to transportation for life; and if anyone shot at, maimed, or disfigured another, he was deemed guilty of felony, and was liable to the punishment of death. The same penalty was applicable to anyone participating in these offences. If a letter were written to a farmer recommending him to give up a certain farm, or a letter written by one workman to another recommending him to quit his employer, the writer of the letter was liable to the penalty of death. Again, if from sunset to sunrise, or before the hour of 6 in the forenoon— although the sun should not have risen by that time, so that no one could possibly escape—any person should maliciously break into a barn or house, or maliciously cause any door to be opened, or forcibly carry away any property, he would be judged to have committed a felony, and, consequently, must suffer death. On the other hand, it was provided, for the protection of the magistracy, that persons supposed to be guilty of any of these offences might be pursued by a magistrate and maimed, and even killed; but in this case the magistrate was indemnified from all punishment. The rescue or attempted rescue of a prisoner guilty of any of these acts was also punishable by death. The Act of Will. IV. was not quite so barbarous, although its clauses of indictment were peculiarly specific. By this Act punishment was incurred by "directing or requiring any person to do or not to do any act." While many of these offences were attempted to be mitigated by subsequent enactments, he (Mr. O'Connor) found that new offences had actually been created. Now, the House would naturally ask whether he was not wasting his time in bringing the obsolete Acts forward? He would ask the House, however, to repeal these Acts, because, as a matter of fact, the hon. Member for Wexford (Mr. Healy) was tried under this very Act, and his hon. Friend, if he had been convicted, would have been liable to 7 or 15 years' penal servitude, 3 years' imprisonment, and to be whipped once, twice, or thrice, if the Court should think fit to order such additional punishment. The third Act to which he called attention was the 5 & 6 Vict., and that was also a mitigated measure. In the recent agitation in Ireland it would be remembered that his hon. Friend the Member for the City of Cork (Mr. Parnell) advised the farmers, in certain circumstances, to plough up their lands. Now, according to recent legislation, the farm was made to some extent the property of the tenant; yet, according to that Act, the tenant who dug up his farm or dug up a ditch would be liable in those times to a term of 7 or 14 years' transportation for doing that which the law now said he had a right to do. He (Mr. O'Connor) would only remind the House that not long since it was rumoured that a prosecution was about being instituted under this Act. He saw that the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor General for Ireland was taking a note of that assertion; and, no doubt, the hon. and learned Gentleman would get up and deny it, so that he might get away from the actual facts of the case. In order to avoid that, he (Mr. O'Connor) would not press the observation, which was meant generally. The hon. and learned Gentleman might consider the observation as unspoken. Under 5 & 6 Vict., the punishment inflicted for the offences were still very severe, as, for example, prescribing transportation for life for obstructing the export of corn. For taking part in tumultuous risings and assemblies the penalty was 15 years' transportation, a similar punishment being enacted for impeding the collection of rates and taxes. He put it to the House whether it was right these Acts should be on the Statute Book? The Government might say it was absolutely necessary to have these Acts in order to preserve law and order. He contended there was no necessity for these obsolete Acts, which no civilized country would now permit to disgrace its Statute Book. If law and order could not be preserved in Ireland without the application of antiquated and obsolete statutes, such as would not be tolerated in any civilized country for a single day, then surely Government had abnegated all the principles of government. It was not very long since a man was sentenced in Belfast, where Party animosity used to run very high, to 10 or 15 years' transportation for assaulting a horse, whereas his punishment now would be so many months. In a Return recently laid before the House, it was shown that a person had been convicted and sentenced under one of the Whiteboy Acts. These Acts could be used even with a well-intentioned Government in an oppressive manner. Now that the Government had sent a "message of peace" to Ireland, which he hoped would prove of large benefit to the Irish tenants, he thought it was absolutely necessary to accompany that message with the announcement that the Government would sweep away all that bad and bitter past by which the lives and properties of the people were placed at the disposal of the landlord class. The hon. Member concluded by formally moving the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. T. P. O'Connor.)


said, he quite agreed in what the hon. Member (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) had said with regard to the hope that the Land Act would in reality be a message of peace, and be a means of restoring peace, order, and prosperity to Ireland. With reference to the present state of the country, he was sure no one would be more ready to acknowledge than his hon. Friend that it would be impossible for the Government to give up what were really not obsolete and antiquated statutes, as the hon. Member had described them, but statutes which had been on the Statute Book for a much shorter period than the Riot Act, which was the analogous statute in England. It would be as absurd and unreasonable for the Government to give up certain Acts that might be found necessary for the preservation of life and property in Ireland—for instance, the Riot Act—as it would be unreasonable to give up the Unlawful Oaths Act in England. He thought that the hon. Member had pushed the matter further than the facts warranted. Part of the Act was found necessary for assimilating the law in England and Ireland, when Lord Romilly succeeded in abolishing Capital Punishment, that noble Lord having succeeded in inducing public opinion to abolish that barbarous punishment for such offences as sheep-stealing. By repealing the Act 5 & 6 Vict. c. 28, they would only be restoring the barbarous punish- ments which were liable to be inflicted for those offences before Lord Romilly's Act was extended to Ireland, and if the hon. Member succeeded, he would reiterate the death penalty.


explained that he would not, of course, wish to repeal that part of the Act.


said, with regard to the other statutes, they were only applicable when it could be established to the satisfaction of the Court that the same condition of things which existed when the Act was passed existed in the place where the alleged offences were committed; it would, therefore, be quite impossible for the Government to surrender now the statutable powers which for 50 years had stood upon the Statute Book. In order to show that the barbarous offences against which the statutes were directed were still committed, he would refer to a case reported in the newspapers on Saturday, which occurred on Friday night at the Half-way House between Mallow and Cork, where a man was dragged out of his bed by 17 armed men with blackened faces, and taken in a semi-nude condition to a field which he had taken, and there compelled, by having shots fired over his head, to swear that he would give up the field.


said, he should like to know the authority of the hon. and learned Gentleman for the statement?


said, that the report of the outrage appeared in the London papers a few weeks ago, and the connection of the hon. Member for Roscommon with the Press should teach him that published statements were generally accurate. ["Oh, oh!"] However, the fact that the statement was published showed the possibility of such outrages occurring, and so long as they were possible, the power to deal with them by law should be retained; and, as he said before, the Government could not be expected to give up their powers of elementary protection for person and property in Ireland. The Act could not be put in force unless the necessity for it arose, and no prosecution under it had taken place since 1832. He only hoped that the necessity for putting it in force should not arise in the future, and he would repeat an appeal which he had already made, most sincerely, that the Irish Members would now bury the hatchet, if he might say so, and do away with the necessity for every description of exceptional legislation, and that they might all pull in the same boat, with the one object of bringing peace and prosperity to the country in which many of them lived and hoped to die.


said, he asked for the authority of the hon. and learned Gentleman, because he thought he was perfectly justified in doing so, seeing that he had often known that manufactured outrages in Ireland had found their way into the London Press. He would give, as an instance, the report which had been similarly circulated with regard to the alleged outrage on Lord Dunsandle's son. He supported the Motion of his hon. Friend (Mr. T. P. O'Connor).


said, it was quite impossible that the Bill repealing these particular statutes could become law during the present Session, and the question before the House was the principle involved in it. The Acts referred to were not passed in relation to the present state of things in Ireland. They were part of the legislation of a time when similar disturbances prevailed; but since then there had been periods of comparative quiet, in which he regretted that no attempt had been made to repeal them. He was one of those who wished to preserve and would strive to maintain the Union between England and Ireland; but his hope of the best success in that endeavour was dependent upon a steady and laborious effort to assimilate the laws of the two countries, for Ireland had a right to demand either separation from this country, or else a perfect equality of government. The principle of such equality between the laws of England and Ireland was always embodied in the great speeches of Sir Robert Peel connected with Ireland. That principle was the same to-day, and if the hon. Member opposite (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) went to a division, he would vote with him. He hoped the day was not far distant when those old statutes would disappear altogether. As his hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General for Ireland had pointed out, it was impossible to wipe them away at present. At the same time, he (Mr. Arnold) hoped hon. Members behind him would by their votes give every encouragement to the Government to efface these unequal laws at the earliest possible moment from the Statute Book.


said, he regretted exceedingly that hitherto, during the present Session, it had not been possible for him to say a word or give a vote in favour of Ireland. He hoped, however, that on the present question he should be able to do so. If he were an Irishman his blood would boil with indignation that such measures as these two Whiteboy Acts were allowed to remain on the Statute Book. At the same time, it must be recognized that it was necessary to inflict some punishments for many of the crimes specified in them. The question really arose as to whether these Acts were now needed. The Solicitor General for Ireland admitted that one of the two Acts was obsolete, and that many of the crimes and punishments in the other Act were now disregarded. Also, the same Acts passed for England provided for several of the cases in the two Irish Acts. Under this explanation, if the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) would bring forward a measure to modify the abominable and disgraceful punishments enacted in these old Irish Acts, he should be glad to support him. No one was more anxious than he to do justice to Ireland, and if the hon. Member went to a division on the present occasion he would vote with him. As the Bill, however, could not, in any case, be passed that Session, he hoped an arrangement might be come to whereby the Bill should be allowed to drop until next Session. In that case he would support the Bill next year.


said, he regretted that the reply of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor General for Ireland was not of a more satisfactory character. He therefore hoped his hon. Friend (Mr. T. P. O'Connor) would go to a division on the question. The same offence punishable under the Whiteboy Act with transportation for seven years was, if committed in England, a penalty of only £20 or three months' imprisonment.


said, he had never known a case where the law had been administered with so much severity.


said, the law was absurd and monstrous, and should not be allowed to remain on the Statute Book. As to false reports appearing in the newspapers, it was not so long ago that it was published that a man in Ireland had been placed naked on a fire and slowly burnt to death. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland denied the statement twice over; but, nevertheless, it was repeated afterwards in the Press, the name and town where the imaginary crime took place being given; although on the strictest official inquiry it had been found that there was no truth whatever in the story, and that no one had been burnt to death.


said, he felt the strongest sympathy with the object of the Bill; but advised that it should not now be pressed to a division, as a little time would be required to separate such portions of these statutes as would be unobjectionable as part of the Criminal Code of Ireland from those barbarous and severe punishments which ought no longer to be preserved. He found in the official speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor General for Ireland an indication of a desire to get rid of exceptional legislation; and though, if the Bill were taken to a division, he should vote for it, he trusted it would not be pressed so far.


said, it was clear from the state of the House that if he went to a division he should beat the Government; and rather than subject his hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General for Ireland, who alone represented the Government, to that humiliation, he would undertake, if the hon. and learned Gentleman would consent to the second reading of the Bill, not to attempt to carry it further this Session.


said, he had no authority to enter into any such arrangement. He was only a subordinate Member of the Government, and did not know why he had been left in charge of Business which it was the duty of the first Law Officer of the Crown to attend to. It was quite impossible for him to assent to such a step as the hon. Member desired being taken.

MR. T. P. O'CONNOR said, in that case, he must press for a division, and regretted that in such a small House he might be the means of defeating the Government.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 25; Noes 44: Majority 19.—(Div. List, No. 411.)

House adjourned at a quarter before Four o'clock.