HC Deb 03 June 1881 vol 262 cc24-33

I beg, Sir, to move that the House, at its rising, adjourn till Thursday next.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House, at its rising, do adjourn till Thursday next."—(Mr. Gladstone.)


asked what Supply would be taken on Thursday and Friday next?


The Civil Service Estimates.


said, he hoped that it was not too much to ask the Prime Minister to telegraph at once to Ireland, so as that at the Evening Sitting they might know whether a force was sent from Dublin last night to Quinlan's Castle.


asked the Government whether, when the House met after Whitsuntide, they would be prepared to face two important questions as to which information had been sought from them in vain, and in regard to which they had hitherto endeavoured to shelter themselves, under the plea that they were without information? The first of those questions related to the Transvaal. It appeared that the Colonial Office was absolutely ignorant as to what was going on in the Transvaal at the present moment. The Government had assured the world that they had undertaken solemn obligations for the protection of the Natives of the Transvaal; but day by day they were hearing through the ordinary channels of information that these Natives were liable to attacks on the part of the Boers. They were attacked because they were loyal to the British Crown; and the answer of the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies was that the Government knew nothing whatever on the subject, that he did not intend to take any steps for the protection of the Natives, and that he intended to leave the whole matter to the Commission, which appeared to have no power whatever to interfere. The second question had just come up. It appeared from the ordinary channels of information that proceedings were going on in Ireland which amounted to high treason; but the Government did not know what those proceedings were. They did not know whether high treason had been committed. He wanted to ask whether, before the House met after the holidays, the Government would ascertain whether the Natives of the Transvaal had been outraged by the Boers or not, or whether high treason had been committed in Ireland or not; and, whether, if they ascertained that in either of these matters the facts were in accordance with the intimations in the public journals, the Government would take some steps to vindicate the Queen's authority?


said, he remembered a case in which the present Postmaster General (Mr. Fawcett) absolutely refused to agree to the Whitsuntide Adjournment, because information on the Eastern Question was not forthcoming. He proposed to follow that high example. The House had a right to know what was going on in Ireland. They saw what was stated in the newspapers. The police, in attempting to serve processes in the neighbourhood of Quinlan's Castle, were resisted. They were successfully resisted. The people took possession of the castle, and the military and the police retired from the scene. It was said that a flying column left Dublin last night in order to assist the force in that neighbourhood in reducing the peasantry; and when the Attorney General for Ireland was asked a Question on the subject, he simply replied that he knew nothing about it, except from the papers, the accounts in which he was unable to say were or were not accurate. What about other encounters? Were the Government masters of the situation, or were the Land League? Was it the rule of the Queen, or the rule of the hon. Member for the City of Cork (Mr. Parnell)? Could not the Prime Minister get up and say something before the House rose for the holidays? What he had been speaking of occurred only a few hundred miles away. It was not in the far-off Transvaal that armed resistance to the Queen's troops was succeeding—it was within the United Kingdom; and when attention was called to the subject, the Attorney General for Ireland sat like a log and did not say a word. [Cries of "Order!"] That remark was strictly metaphorical, for he had a great respect for the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He did not think the House of Commons would consent to the adjournment for the holidays under these circumstances, and he was afraid he must put the House to the trouble of a division.


I will say a few words with regard to the observations of the hon. and learned Gentleman and the noble Lord. The noble Lord said that my right hon. and learned Friend sat here like a log, and the hon. and learned Member for Chatham said that Her Majesty's Government sheltered themselves under the plea of ignorance. We are too much used to observations of this kind—observationswhich the commonest rudiments of courtesy and good sense would not permit to be used, I will not say between one gentleman and another, but between one man of sense and another. With respect to what is going on in Ireland, the noble Lord has drawn a sound distinction between events happening in that country and events happening in the Transvaal. But the hon. and learned Member for Chatham is totally ignorant of that distinction, for when he sees any rumour which appears in any correspondence in the newspapers describing what is supposed or reported to be taking place in any portion of the Transvaal, however far from post or telegraph, the hon. and learned Member thinks that it is posible to be made the subject of immediate inquiry as to how far the rumour is correct or not. He seems to forget that the transmission of rumour is one thing, and the transmission of authentic intelligence another. Little or no time is required for picking up and transmitting gossip; but for the purpose of bringing this gossip to the test, and ascertaining how far it is correct, a good deal of time may be required. I have the fullest confidence in those who are acting for Her Majesty's Government in the Transvaal, especially in Sir Evelyn Wood, who is principally responsible; and I have the strongest belief that all that is material and interesting to be transmitted to this country, and authentically ascertained, will be given to us without delay; further than that, we can with great satisfaction at once promise to make inquiries with respect to Questions put such as were asked the other day by the right hon. Member for East Gloucestershire (Sir Michael Hicks-Beach). But it is neither reasonable nor expedient for the public interest that in this degree of heat and excitement, and upon the foundation of intelligence in no authentic form, speeches of this kind should be made in this House, that challenges should be addressed to the Government and inferences drawn, the general effect of which is to increase the excitement in the country, which we ought rather to allay, and to weaken public authority in the enforcement of law and order. The noble Lord spoke of disturbances in three parts of Ireland. [Lord RANDOLPH CHURCHILL: Armed resistance.] It might have occurred to him to reflect with regard to what was done last night in Dublin in commencing proceedings for the purpose of enforcing law and order, in a given part of the country, that those proceedings would not be made the subject of official Report to the Government until they had reached a crisis or consummation. What we know is that vigorous measures were adopted by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and by the Executive Government for Ireland last evening for the purpose of dealing with the grave case—if grave case it is—of the occupation of Quinlan Castle. We know that events in that neighbourhood are serious events, and that the Executive Government have adopted what they think the most effective measures for dealing with those events in a satisfactory manner. It is not possible for me, having this information only in a general form—in the form of a private letter from my right hon. Friend—to speak as if I were, giving an official account of these transactions. With respect to the Transvaal, I cannot say when the information asked for will arrive; but if he will be good enough to supply myself or my noble Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies with the particular statements which he wishes to be made the subject of inquiry that shall be done. With regard to the question of the hon. and gallant Member opposite (Sir Walter B. Barttelot) the information has already been asked for.


Sir, I am bound to say that the statement which has just been made by the Prime Minister is by no means calculated to allay our uneasiness. I do not wish, at the present moment, to enter into the question of the Transvaal; but with regard to the question of Ireland, I think there is a good deal of ground for alarm in the statement which the Prime Minister has made. If I understand aright, not only is it thought expedient and right not to communicate to the House in full what they may be doing, and what may be the state of things in particular districts—which is a perfectly intelligible course, the responsibility of which would rest with the Government; but from what has been said by the right hon. Gentleman, by the Attorney General for Ireland, and the Home Secretary; we are to infer that the Government of this country are not themselves aware of what is taking place in Ireland. When the right hon. Gentleman twits us with making statements founded upon newspaper rumours, we would not make statements upon newspaper rumours if we had anything else to go upon. When we ask Questions of the Government we have a right to expect that they will have information on these subjects. Now, with regard to Quinlan's Castle and the attack upon it. It may or may not be a matter of importance; but considering that it was a matter which was made a good deal of a few days ago, and that a Question on the subject was actually addressed to the Government a few days ago, one would have thought that some information would be possessed in the Irish Office, and would be in the hands of those who have spoken for the Irish Office. The fact that necessary business should take the Chief Secretary for Ireland away from this House at the present moment is in itself a cause for some anxiety. We know that matters are going on which, under ordinary circumstances, would call for the presence of the Chief Secretary in his place in Parliament, and we know that he is not here. That is a ground for some additional and unusual anxiety. We hear rumours of an alarming character; we hear about movements of troops, and there is nobody even from the War Office to tell us what these movements are. We do not know whether or not the Secretary of State for War has gone over to Ireland himself. Whether there is much or little in the stories that are told us—whether there is much or nothing in these disturbances—I do not now inquire; but what I consider as very serious and alarming is that there should get abroad an impression that Her Majesty's Government have not a grasp of the subject. If it can be believed that the Government are feeble, uncertain, and ill-informed in their proceedings, that is an element of danger. It may be that it can hardly be expected that they could get information as to what is going on in distant parts of the Empire. Of course, werecognize that plea much more fully than they recognized some of the difficulties that were felt by the late Government, when stories and newspaper accounts came from Bulgaria. [Cheers from the Ministerial Benches, in which Mr. Gladstone energetically joined.] I do not understand the great excitement of the right hon. Gentleman. Of course, I understand that he means that the condition of Bulgaria would be much more interesting to him than that of Ireland or the Transvaal. [Cries of "Oh, oh!"] When, on the strength of newspaper reports from Bulgaria, Questions were addressed to the Government of the day as to the information which they had received, they were expected to give immediate answers; but they were obliged to say that they had not received information, or had. no means of immediately answering the Questions. Fault, however, was found with the Government for taking that course. But I am quite ready to deal very different measures from that to the present Government in reference to the events which are happening in the Transvaal. With regard to the question of Ireland, the matter is really very serious, because we are led by the answers given by the Prime Minister to believe that, though serious events are going on there, they are not communicated by the Executive Government to the Home Government. My own belief is that if there is danger in Ireland it arises chiefly from the impression of uncertainty and feebleness on the part of the Executive Government.


I do not exactly know the object of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. If they are intended to tranquillize the public mind with regard to the condition of affairs in Ireland, I do not think they were so well calculated for the purpose as they might have been. The noble Lord the Member for Woodstock (Lord Randolph Churchill) referred to the precedent of not allowing the adjournment of the House till information was given on a question relating to Eastern affairs, and the right hon. Gentleman has stated that the course of the late Government was very different. That is a fact. I remember the occasion when the Motion referred to was made. The Government was asked if anything of importance was going to happen in the interval. The right hon. Gentleman opposite got up and said he was not aware that any circumstance of importance was about to occur, and the next morning the newspapers announced the despatch of the Indian troops to Malta. That is a precedent the present Government do not intend to follow. When they have information they will always give it to the House. They will not pretend to have information they do not possess, nor would they conceal that which they did possess. The right hon. Gentleman imputes to the Government ignorance as to what is going on in Ireland. That proposition I entirely deny. What occurred yesterday? Alarm was caused by accounts of the killing of a policeman in Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman opposite asked a Question. But the Government were able to make a statement which relieved the feeling of alarm. Therefore, it is not the fact generally, or at all, with the exception of this particular question, that the Government did not know what was happening in Ireland. The Attorney General for Ireland has been asked whether high treason has been committed. I see opposite the late Attorney General, and I have far too high a respect for the wisdom and prudence of that hon. and learned Gentleman to suppose that if he had been asked whether high treason had been committed he would have given an answer without deliberation. That is the sole foundation of the charge brought against the Government. ["No!"] What other circumstance is there? It is the business of the Government—and it has been performed—to make themselves acquainted with all the circumstances occurring in Ireland; and if the hon. Gentleman had thought the case of sufficient importance to put down a Question on the Paper with reference to it, it would have been our business at once to ascertain what the facts were; but they had assumed, as they had a right to do, that nothing critical had occurred. They have confidence in the Lord Lieutenant and Chief Secretary, and they believed that if anything serious had occurred it would have been immediately communicated to them. But that does not prevent the Government, if any Member of the House desires any particular circumstances to be inquired into, from telegraphing to Ireland for the information required. There is no foundation for the superstructure of alarm which the right hon. Gentleman opposite has endeavoured to raise. He is endeavouring to create, in a state of circumstances grave enough, difficulties still greater than those which the Government have to encounter. I confess I was not surprised at the course taken by the hon. and learned Member for Chatham (Mr. Gorst) and the noble Lord the Member for Woodstock (Lord Randolph Churchill); but I did expect that the right hon. Baronet opposite (Sir Stafford Northcote), with his responsibilities, and knowing the difficulties which must beset a Government in the present state of Ireland, would not have endeavoured to aggravate those difficulties.


said, he did not rise for the purpose of taking part in the debate, but to state that the castle referred to was in his county (Limerick), and that many misstatements had been made in regard to what had taken place. The police and military engaged in the Quinlan's Castle affair did not retire because armed resistance was shown, but because they failed to secure the services of a bailiff to carry out the orders for the execution of which the expedition was organized. There was quite enough to put forward in regard to the county without making statements not founded on facts.


said, he rose with three objects. In the first place, he de- sired to inquire as to the course of Business for the evening. In the second place, he desired to give an emphatic contradiction to the Home Secretary's statement with regard to the despatch of Indian troops to Malta. The intended despatch of those troops was, as a matter of fact, and at a time when the House was still sitting, perfectly well known to himself (Mr. Mac Iver), and to everybody having business relations with Bombay. It was not kept a secret, as alleged, until after the House adjourned. In the third place, he wished to appeal to the Government to consider during the Recess whether they could not put on one side the Land Bill—a measure with which they were wasting the time of the House and the country—and then introduce really remedial legislation for Ireland. The question of eviction should receive serious thought on the part of the Government; and confiscation, if resorted to, ought, on the same principle, as when the property of landlords was compulsorily taken for railway purposes, to be accompanied by compensation. But what, he might ask, could one expect from such a vacillating Government as the present one, whose conduct the following prophetic lines, written long ago, might aptly describe:— Ne'er may any craven pilots At my country's helm preside Swayed by mob-tongued agitation, Taking demagogues for guide; Truckling to the voice of faction, Listening for the loudest cry; Gauging passions, measuring noises, What to grant or what deny.


asked what Business would be taken in the evening, as he distinctly understood that no Government Orders would be proceeded with?


said, that no other Business would be taken but the Motion in regard to Ireland.


I have no right to say a word; but as a matter of personal explanation I maybe allowed to take notice for a moment of a reference which was made by the Home Secretary to a transaction of some years ago. I will not now interpose with the statement which I am anxious to make; but I feel that what took place at that period, and could not be fully explained at the time, ought, at some time, to be known to the House. I shall consider it my duty to ask to be allowed to make the statement on a future day. [Cries of "Go on!"] Well, if I have the indulgence of the House, I will state the matter, which I think I can do in a few sentences. The circumstances under which we stood at that moment were these. The Russian Army was close to Constantinople, and the British Fleet was also close to that city. There was great uneasiness lest a collision should take place between them, and in the event of a collision having taken place, or in the event of hostilities, it had certainly been agreed to in principle by the Cabinet that Indian troops should be brought to Europe. But no decision had been taken as to the time and manner of their coming, nor had I any reason to believe at that time that any order for their movement had been given. In fact, I do not think that any order had then been given. A day or two before the statement I made to the House, and to which the Home Secretary has referred, a proposal had been made to the Russian and British Governments by another Power, that, in order to facilitate the negotiations that were going on, and to prevent the danger of a collision, the British Fleet and the Russian troops should simultaneously withdraw to a certain distance from Constantinople. That proposal had been made and had been accepted in principle by the British Government, and on the morning of the day on which I made my statement before the holidays we had just received a telegram to say that it had also been accepted by the Russian Government. I therefore believed that at the moment I spoke the matter was quite at an end, that the two Powers would withdraw their forces, that there was no longer a risk of a collision, and that, consequently, there would be no necessity for moving the Indian troops. It was under those circumstances that I gave the answer which I did. I afterwards explained to the House how it was that the movement of troops was decided upon by action in India; but, in reference to my own statement, I was stating that which I then fully believed to be true—namely, that not only was there no special danger at that particular moment, and nothing inconvenient in adjourning for the holidays, but that I had reason to believe exactly the contrary.

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