§ Order for Consideration, as amended, read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill, as amended, be now considered."
§ He said that his main objection to the Bill had reference to the franchise under which the Harbour Commissioners held their position. That franchise was one of a most restrictive nature, and resulted in the fact that the ratepayers had no opportunity of having their voice heard; and the consequence of such a state of things was that there was great dissatisfaction on the part of the ratepayers with regard to the conduct of the affairs of the harbour. It was no part of his duty, and he did not intend, to criticize adversely the personal character or the conduct of the Commissioners in their capacity as Commissioners during the past; but, at the same time, the House would be well aware that there was always a tendency on the part of a public Board, which was not amenable to the public opinion of the ratepayers, to act in a high-handed, and, in some respects, an arbitrary manner. He would give an illustration of what took place recently, to show that the Commissioners were not entirely free from giving cause of complaint in their former doings in reference to the interests of the harbour. The Chairman of the Board of Commissioners was a very large shipbuilder, a substantial gentleman in the borough of Belfast, and partner in a large firm of shipowners, who got, from time to time, allotments of land from the Commissioners for the extension of their works. He did not intend to allege that this firm of shipbuilders had not been benefactors to the borough of Belfast, that they had not given a large amount of employment to the people, and that they had not given a fair price for the ground they had taken from the Commissioners. In point of fact, he did not know what price they had given, and he did not imagine that the ratepayers of the borough knew anything about the terms on which the land had been obtained. The fact, how-over, remained that the gentleman who filled the capacity of Chairman to the Harbour Commissioners was also, at the same time, the principal member of the trading firm which had large relations with the Board over which he presided, and a direct interest in obtaining concessions from that Board. It was alleged that another shipbuilding firm, which 853 also did a large amount of business in Belfast, had not been able to obtain similar concessions. The firm in question had obtained a piece of ground from the Harbour Commissioners for the purpose of their business; but they were only able to obtain it as tenants from year to year, without having an opportunity of making a permanent lodgment in any particular place. Nevertheless, they had consented, under the circumstances of the case, to take the land they held as yearly tenants, in the hope, and in the reasonable expectation, that they would be continued as tenants from year to year for a long term of years. On the faith of that expectation they had gone to the expense of fitting up extensive shipbuilding yards, and had entered into large contracts for the building of ships in that locality. He did not allege that this new firm had come at all in conflict with the old firm; but, at the same time, their business had been steadily increasing, their demand for labour had largely increased, and, of course, their prosperity had made the business of the old firm more or less unprofitable. The result was that the new firm had been warned that in less than three years they must leave their present premises, notices having been given and powers asked for in the Bill now before the House to take the ground for the purpose of making new docks within the borough of Belfast, on the identical spot on which the works of this shipbuilding firm now stood. This fact raised more or less a doubt as to the bona fides of the old firm of which the principal partner was the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners. What he was prepared to allege was that there was no proper control over the expenditure of the Harbour Board, and that they were now proposing under this Bill to lay out in improvements and alterations a large sum of money which was not required to be expended at all. Part of their proposed works was, no doubt, desirable and needful, seeing that they proposed to extend and increase the channel in the Harbour of Belfast, and to make large and substantial embankments—improvements which would entitle them to the thanks of the ratepayers. But, on the other hand, they proposed to make a deep water quay some 700 yards in length, for the purpose of accommodating large ocean- 854 going ships. This, he thought, was entirely superfluous, seeing that no oceangoing ships ever sailed from the port of Belfast. The experiment was tried some years ago of making Belfast one of the Transatlantic places of call; but it was found so much out of the way and unsuitable for the purpose that the project had been entirely given up. The Port of Larne, 20 miles from Belfast, was found to be much more suitable, both in regard to the Clyde and the Mersey, and it had been made a regular port of call for some years, not only with perfect satisfaction to all persons concerned, but with mutual advantage. A line of railway ran from Belfast to the quay at Larne, by means of which passengers and goods could be put on board at any state of the tide, and Larne was altogether a more suitable place for business of that kind than the Harbour of Belfast could ever be rendered. Vessels calling at Larne had only to go four or five miles out of their direct course, whereas it required a detour of 25 miles from their direct route if it were made necessary that they should call at Belfast. Consequently, Belfast was by no means so convenient a port of call for oceangoing steamers as the Harbour of Larne. The Harbour Commissioners also proposed by the present Bill to increase very much the floating dock accommodation and the dock accommodation generally. The cost of constructing a deep water quay was estimated by the Commissioners at £157,000, and of the floating dock accommodation at £ 196,000, and these were works which, he contended, were not required in the most remote degree, the present dock accommodation being ample for all of the requirements the port was likely to have for many years to come. The Harbour Commissioners also proposed to make a dry dock for the accommodation of large vessels which might require to be repaired in connection with the shipbuilding trade of Belfast. He did not argue that these large docks—or these large dry docks—might not be required for the purposes of the port; but what he did allege was that the place selected for their construction was one that was much more likely to be convenient to the firm of which the Chairman of the Harbour Commissioners was the head than to anybody else; and, indeed, that it was one which would be exceedingly 855 inconvenient for any other firm which might desire to commence business at Belfast. Therefore, in point of fact, although he admitted that the Bill would not put money directly into the pocket of the Chairman of the Harbour Board, it consulted his convenience in all the improvements that were proposed to be made, and he would indirectly derive substantial benefit from it. It might be said that these were matters which might more properly be argued before a Private Bill Committee; but the unfortunate position of affairs was that if the ratepayers of Belfast had attempted to go before the Committee, they would have incurred a very large expense, and would have had no locus standi in the end to be heard in this particular case. The Town Council of Belfast were heard in their capacity as the Town Council, and the Water Commissioners were also heard, with a view to the introduction of safeguards in reference to the peculiar trusts for which they were trustees; but, in the present instance, the interests of the general body of the ratepayers were very much neglected. As a remedy for this state of things, those on whose behalf he spoke were of opinion that it was desirable that better means should exist in Belfast for the purpose of bringing a more extended public opinion to bear upon those matters, and that, therefore, the franchise should be very much enlarged. The present franchise was one of a peculiar nature, in regard to the Harbour of Belfast. It provided, in the first instance, that the Harbour Board should be elected, and then that the owners of shipping sailing from the port should have a voice in the election. The result of that regulation was that something like 150 persons had votes as the owners of shipping in the port, and the only other franchise was that possessed by the ratepayers, and which required the payment of the police rate on a tax of £4 per annum. That was a very peculiar franchise, for this reason—that it was one of a very fluctuating nature. The maximum rate for police purposes in Belfast was 2s. in the pound, and the consequence was that no ratepayer could vote in the election of the Harbour Commissioners unless he was rated at £40 per annum. At the present moment the local authorities were not charging the full maximum police rate; and the result was that, in order 856 to possess the franchise, it was necessary that a ratepayer should be rated at something like £50 a-year. It would, therefore, be seen that the franchise, which conferred a vote for the appointment of Harbour Commissioners, was most restricted. Indeed, the total electoral body only numbered about 700 ratepayers and 150 shipowners, or 850 in all, and that, too, out of a population of 210,000, between 6,000 and 7,000 of whom had votes for the election of the Town Council. The Harbour Commissioners had already incurred a debt of £745,000. They now proposed to borrow a sum of £900,000 more, and a very considerable portion of this amount was to be expended in the construction of dry docks and other unproductive works. The tolls that were leviable would not exceed the cost of keeping the docks in order and paying proper persons to look after them. It therefore seemed to him, considering the fact that the Harbour Commissioners only nominally represented the ratepayers, it was inexpedient to grant such extensive powers to any Corporation elected on so restricted a franchise. Clause 51 of the Bill provided that the Commissioners should, after 10 years from the passing of the Act, commence to appropriate out of the harbour revenue such a sum as would be sufficient to pay interest and form a sinking fund for the repayment of the principal within 60 years afterwards. But, seeing that the expenditure was extravagant, that it would be practically unproductive, and that the Harbour Commissioners did not really represent the ratepayers of Belfast, but only a very small portion of them, he asked the House to accept the Amendment, which he now begged to move.
To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is inexpedient to grant such extensive powers to any Corporation elected on so restricted a Franchise,"—(Mr. Biggar,)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ MR. BAXTER
said, that, as Chairman of the Select Committee which had inquired into the Bill, he did not propose to occupy the time of the House 857 for more than a moment. The Committee went carefully into all the considerations connected with the Bill. The new docks and the proposed deepening of the harbour were fully inquired into, and, without the slightest hesitation, the Committee unanimously passed the Preamble of the Bill. There was a question as to certain rights which engaged the attention of the Committee, and in regard to which the Committee made important alterations, which were not in accordance with the views of the promoters of the Bill. He did not propose, however, to detain the House by entering into a justification of the course which the Committee pursued. Nor did he think this was a proper time for discussing the question of the franchise. No such question was brought before the Committee at all; and he might add that the provisions of the Bill had received the unanimous approval of all the public bodies of Belfast.
§ MR. EWART
said, the proposals contained in the Bill had been fully brought before the town of Belfast. Notices were duly given before the application was made for the Bill. They attracted a great deal of attention, and received the approval of the town. No ratepayers' Petition had been presented against the proposed works. The Belfast Chamber of Commerce were consulted about it, and they came, he believed, to an unanimous conclusion in favour of the Bill. One of the principal reasons for the improvements which it was proposed to carry out was that, owing to a change in the dimensions of sea-going ships, it had been found necessary to deepen the deep water channel and the deep water quay, and to carry out various other works mentioned in the Bill, all of which had the entire approbation of the town. The hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) spoke of the disapprobation of the ratepayers; but he thought the House would agree with him that their dissatisfaction with the proposed works must have been very slight, seeing that they had not embodied it in a Petition. He admitted that meetings had been held in regard to the franchise, at which it was urged, no doubt on all sides, that owing to the lowering of the rating by the Town Council the suffrage for the election of the Harbour Board was higher than it had been, and everyone felt that 858 an alteration in that respect should be made. At a meeting held on the subject of the franchise early in the year, a deputation was appointed to wait upon the Harbour Board. The Harbour Board received the deputation in the most cordial manner; and a resolution was subsequently come to by the Board, on the 21st of February, to the effect that, having regard to the local opinion and the advice the Commissioners had received, it was not desirable to take any steps in the present Harbour Bill to insert clauses for the alteration of the franchise, but that a Bill should be introduced into Parliament for that purpose early next Session. He believed that that resolution met with the approval of those who had raised the question of the suffrage, and a Bill would be brought in next Session dealing with that question. He did not think it was necessary that he should enter into the several points which had been raised by the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) in regard to the dry docks and the channel. There was one point, however, which he ought to refer to—namely, the charge which had been made against the Chairman of the Harbour Board. The Chairman of the Board was a gentleman of great eminence, and the principal proprietor of the shipbuilding firm which turned out the "White Star" Line of vessels. Mr. Harland, as well as being Chairman of the Harbour Board, was lessee of land under the Harbour Commissioners; but Mr. Harland only obtained possession of the land in consequence of being the highest and best bidder for it by tender; and he (Mr. Ewart) was satisfied that any charge of double dealing or unfairness against the Commissioners would, in consequence, be deprecated by that House. The hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) made another charge in connection with another firm of shipbuilders who had set their minds upon a piece of ground on the town side of the river, which was intended by the Bill to be utilized as a deep water quay. Now, the real fact was that the firm in question took that ground with the full knowledge that they would probably be required to remove from it. When these improvements were made there would be abundant space reserved for shipbuilding purposes; and any gentlemen who established themselves upon the 859 new site would probably be in a position to remain very long in occupation of it. The ground reserved for shipbuilding purposes was exceedingly commodious, but on the other side of the river. He did not think there was any other point it was desirable he should mention, and he would not further occupy the time of the House.
§ MR. NELSON
said, that there was no assumption on his part when he said this—that he believed he knew as much of the feeling of Belfast as the hon. Member who had just addressed the House; and it was a sufficient answer, in the view of the people of Belfast, to say to the hon. Member—"You are a member of that Board." They understood each other in Belfast considerably better than any hon. Member in that House could enable the House to understand their movements. It would be neither instructive nor edifying to make the House acquainted with the gyrations—with the Creton labyrinth movements which characterized the rather famous people of that active town. And they all knew—for it was almost known to the Three Kingdoms—that the people of Belfast were particularly active when the weather was warm, and that not even the cooling breezes introduced by the generous patriotism of the Harbour Board could cool or modify the zeal of that people. They were going on on the same cruise of fanatical inactivity as in time past; and until that House did something effective to put an end to the successful manœuvres of adventurers, they would never do much, either for the prosperity or the morality of Ireland. It was easy to assume patriotism. It was very easy to talk of giving employment to the multitude; but there was a more terrible reality behind all this talk. They were moving in the direction of hissing at each others' charities. If he were obliged to go into the question and give a history, those persons would not rejoice who had urged him on to do it. He had heard the statement of the hon. Member who had just sat down—that if the people of Belfast were hostile to the Bill they would have moved in some direction. Why, in February last a Motion was carried, in this very same Harbour Board, that in the very next Bill they would bring forward they would reduce the franchise to £10. Had they done that? The hon. Mem- 860 ber above the Gangway (Mr. Ewart) spoke as if nothing was sought but the prosperity of Belfast, the progress of its power, and the success of its trade. He would not be tempted even into touching its sores. Out of a population of more than 200,000, there were only some 600 or 700 who possessed a £40 franchise and wore able to vote in the election of Harbour Commissioners; and many of those were prepared for the day of voting. A franchise of such a description spoke for itself. He would press the subject no further at that moment than simply to say to the Board—"Carry out your own measure. Give effect to your own promise in February last that you would reduce the franchise in Belfast for the election of the Harbour Board to £10, and we will allow you to get this £900,000."No doubt it was a big sum for a poor country like Ireland, and it was asked for at a time when every man professed to pose as the defender of the pockets of the multitude. He had heard in that House lately a great deal of talk about the English or British taxpayers; and he hoped it would be borne in mind that if the people of Ireland had, as he trusted they soon would have, the liberty and the power of collecting and applying their own taxes, £900,000 would not be given to the Belfast Harbour Commissioners. If the Harbour Board only carried out their own pledge in February last to reduce the franchise to £10, so as to embrace a reasonable number of the population of 200,000, he would say to them—"Go on and get the ocean steamers as soon as you can." He would rejoice at any time in the prosperity of Belfast; but he did not rejoice in the fanaticism and Party spirit and tyranny by which the best emotions of the people were poisoned, and by which the people themselves were kept in a state of constant hostility to one another.
§ MR. GRAY
said, he was of opinion that if the House were disposed to give a dispassionate consideration to the question, they would deem it requisite to have some stronger arguments in support of the action of the Belfast Commissioners than those which had been put forward by the right hon. Gentleman the Chairman of the Select Committee (Mr. Baxter), and the hon. Member for Belfast (Mr. Ewart). The right hon. Chairman of the Committee con- 861 tented himself with saying that the questions raised with so much ability by the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) had not been brought before the Committee. His hon. Friend the Member for Cavan had explained why they had not been brought before the Committee. The Town Council were represented before the Committee; and, being represented, those of the ratepayers who took a different view were not permitted to be represented. It was totally impossible for those who dissented from the gigantic scheme brought forward by the Harbour Commissioners to have their views laid before the Committee. It was impossible, owing to the Standing Orders of the House, to bring such questions before the Select Committee; and it was, therefore, only natural that the Committee should have passed the Bill without giving them any consideration. Therefore, if there was any weight to be attached to the arguments of the hon. Member for Cavan, those arguments were not to be met by the assertion that the Select Committee did not hear them, because, not having been able to hear them, they had been unable to take them into consideration. This reform in regard to the franchise was loudly asked for, and the Harbour Board recognized the necessity for its introduction at some future period—they said next year. What was it that the Harbour Board said? They said—"Give us all the powers we want, give us this £900,000, which will enable us to incur all this expenditure—much of which is alleged to be extravagant and unnecessary, and some of it improper—give us all these powers and enable us to make our contracts, and then, next year, when there is nothing to decide, we will introduce this new franchise." That was a proposal which did not recommend itself to the hard common sense of the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar). They ought to have the new franchise first, so that they might enable the decision as to the expenditure to be arrived at by those who ought to decide the question, rather than give to a self-condemned body the entire power of committing the public to the whole of the expenditure. Was the House in the habit of adopting such a course as that in connection with its own affairs? If a Reform Bill or an extension of the franchise was acknowledged to be desirable 862 did it proceed with the important work of legislation, or leave it to its successors to carry out? When once an important change was decided upon the work of important legislation was left, so that the new constituencies should have an opportunity of expressing their opinion upon it. The hon. Member for Belfast (Mr. Ewart) proposed a course that was exactly the reverse, and urged upon the House now to sanction the expenditure involved in the passing of the Bill, leaving the new franchise to come into operation afterwards. Some of the improvements proposed by the Bill might be desirable; but it was alleged that a large portion of the contemplated expenditure was unnecessary, and was likely to be unproductive. Indeed, it was said that some of it would be incurred from corrupt motives, and that gentlemen who were on the Harbour Board and the individual firms with which they were connected would derive substantial benefit from the change, while other firms would, on the contrary, be injured by it. It was also acknowledged by the Harbour Board themselves that they required reform. They were not a representative body in the true sense of the word, and, therefore, they should not be intrusted with this large expenditure. If the expenditure were incurred it involved a proposal to levy a tax upon the whole of Ulster. ["No, no!"] Certainly, some persons must pay the interest of this loan. It would be paid by the harbour dues, and who was it who paid harbour dues? The consumers of the produce brought into the port. It was, therefore, proposed that a constituency of 750 ratepayers of Belfast, plus 150 traders directly interested in the matter, should levy a tax indirectly upon the whole of the consumers of the Province of Ulster, by means of a Board which acknowledged itself not to be representative, but to require substantial reform. In view of the fact that the ratepayers of Belfast had been unable to represent their case before the Select Committee, that they were shut out, and could have no locus standi, he thought there should be some arguments in support of the specific proposals contained in the Bill before the House was induced to accept it, and that a mere assertion on behalf of the Select Committee that they had carefully considered its provisions should be regarded as of little value.
§ MR. LYON PLAYFAIR
said, that the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar), in moving his Amendment, was entirely within his right; but the effect of the Amendment, if carried, would be to defeat the Bill. The hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar),the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. Nelson), and the hon. Member for Carlow (Mr. Gray) all admitted that there were points in the Bill which were of great importance, and which would carry out considerable improvements in the port of Belfast. The Bill had already been before a Select Committee as a Private Bill, and the Committee had inquired into the subject with the greatest care. He thought it was the duty of the House to support the decision of that Committee, and not to re-open the consideration of the merits of the Bill, especially when the opposition was directed not so much against the merits of the Bill as to the fact that there was a very high franchise connected with the voters under the Bill. He could only point out that under the Standing Orders of the House it would have been impossible, in this Bill, to alter that franchise. He agreed with hon. Members opposite that a franchise of £40 was absurdly high. But under Standing Order No. 3, no proposal affecting the rights or privileges of the people of any borough could be introduced to the House without a great many preliminary notices and advertisements showing that such privileges and rights were about to be affected. Although the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) was quite in Order at the present moment in moving his Amendment, yet, if he succeeded in obtaining an affirmative to his proposition, it was his (Mr. Lyon Playfair's)duty to point out that the Resolution he submitted was inconsistent with the Standing Orders, and could not be adopted without defeating the Bill. Therefore, the issue before the House was a false issue. They could not alter the franchise of the ratepayers of Belfast by the present Bill without proper notices, which had not in this case been given. In order to accomplish that object it would be necessary to take measures in another Bill. The only matter before the House was whether they ought to support the decision of the Committee, who had carefully looked into the whole question, especially when, even on the hon. Member's own showing, the Bill contained 864 many provisions which would necessarily tend to promote the welfare of the town and people of Belfast. He hoped, therefore, that the House would support the Bill and refuse to accept the Amendment.
§ MR. SEXTON
said, he was glad to hear the Chairman of Committees admit that his hon. Friend the Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) had acted within his right. It was quite clear that his hon. Friend could not have taken any other course in regard to this important Bill than the one which he had taken. Reference had been made to the ratepayers of Belfast, and the Chairman of the Select Committee (Mr. Baxter) stated that the Bill had been sufficiently and amply inquired into. But the ratepayers of Belfast had no locus standi before the Committee. They had been practically dumb, so far as the proceedings in that House were concerned; and, therefore, it did not lie in the mouth of the right hon. Gentleman to say that the ratepayers of Belfast had done something which they had not done. In fact, the rate payers had done everything which it was open for them to do. They held a public meeting, at which they vigorously protested against the continuance of the Belfast Harbour Commission. In consequence of that meeting the Harbour Board took a delusive action. They admitted that the existing franchise was not satisfactory, and they held out a hope, which might hereafter prove illusory, that the franchise might be lowered. He might mention, in view of the past action of the Harbour Board, that it had unhappily maintained its expenditure at a higher level than its income; and in view of the corruption almost necessarily incident to the administration of large sums of money by a close body of this description, it was desirable to take fair security before granting these gentlemen further powers. Suppose this Bill were now passed, what security would they have that a Bill to reform the franchise would be introduced next year, or, if a Bill were introduced, what security had they that the reform proposed would be adequate to the need? He was opposed to the principle of passing a Bill of this kind, leaving it to the discretion of a small body to say what proposals here after should be made. The Chairman of Ways and Means said that the utility of the proposed works 865 was not called in question. He (Mr. Sexton) was informed that not only was one of the proposals contained in the Bill of questionable utility or urgency—namely, the proposal to construct a dry dock, but he was also told that the project for the construction of a dry dock could wait. It was an enormous sum of money—£900,000—the expenditure of which they were asked to intrust to a body of 15 gentlemen, the greater part, if not all of them, having a personal commercial interest in the expenditure of the money, and elected by 750 ratepayers out of a population of more than 200,000. These were circumstances which should induce the House to proceed with caution, especially when they considered, as his hon. Friend the Member for Carlow (Mr. Gray) had justly pointed out, that the borrowing of this sum of £900,000 would occasion a long-continued charge upon the industry and enterprize of Ulster. He thought it was a very vicious principle to allow a body so constituted to administer so very large a sum of money. If there was anything which could possibly approach the definition of corruption in a public matter, it was the proposal to pass this Bill without any clauses in it, or in any accompanying Bill, giving the population of Belfast and of Ulster adequate security for the proper administration of the money. If his hon. Friend the Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) proceeded to a division, he should feel it his duty to support him.
§ MR. MULHOLLAND
said, that what the hon. Member stated was quite correct—namely, that there was some dissatisfaction in Belfast as to the state of the franchise; but there was no dissatisfaction in that borough in regard to the details of this Bill. It was quite true that the ratepayers of Belfast could not appear before the Select Committee in opposition to the provisions of the Bill; but if they had not been satisfied with them, they had a right to petition, and they could have done so. He had never heard the slightest objection made against the proposals of the Bill by any persons competent to form an opinion upon them; and surely the merchants and shipowners of Belfast must be better judges of what was for their advantage than the hon. Members who had spoken against the Bill. He was not alluding to the hon. Member who 866 brought forward the Amendment, because he had opportunities of forming an opinion, but to some other Members who had only spoken from hearsay. It was quite true that the franchise was a restricted one; but it must be remembered that the Harbour Board had no power of imposing rates on the ratepayers. Their income arose from dues, and was paid by the trade of Belfast, conducted under their auspices. Although the expenditure appeared at this moment to be large, the trade and commerce of the town were rapidly overtaking it; and the prosperity of the town of Belfast was very much due to the action and judgment of the Harbour Board. Anyone who could remember the Port of Belfast, as he did, 40 years ago, when vessels could only approach at high water, and there was only a small depth of water up to the quay, and when there were no floating docks, would be astonished at the progress which had since been made. He thought that fact showed that the Administration under which the progress had been made had not been an unwise one. He believed the present proposals were fully warranted by the prospects of the town. They were all supported by those who were interested in the mercantile and shipping prosperity of the town, who were represented in the town by the Harbour Commissioners. Without an exception the local authorities of the town were in favour of the Bill; and after the speech they had had from the right hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter), who acted as Chairman of the Committee, and who had full opportunity of forming a judgment as to the details of the Bill, he hoped the House would not reverse the decision arrived at by the Select Committee.
§ MR. DALY
said, that the Bill proposed no alteration of the franchise in regard to those who were to bear the burden of the expenditure. The hon. Member who had just sat down made rather a curious distinction in regard to the Harbour Board. The hon. Member said they had no power to impose rates. He was surprised to hear that statement, seeing that the 42nd, 43rd, and 44th sections of the Bill gave them power to alter the rates on goods, the rates as to timber, &c, and the graving dock rates. He confessed that the distinction between having power by direct 867 tax to levy so much in the pound, and the power of putting a tax on goods, was to him a distinction without a difference. On the one hand the people would he perfectly aware, when a tax was imposed by the Town Council of so much in the pound, what they had to pay; but under this Bill the proportion of taxation which the people would have to bear would be considerably increased, without their being aware of the exact amount of the increase. He had always understood that the policy of that House was to require that the persons who had to bear the burden should have the right of choosing the persons who were to impose it. It was the duty of the House to say to the promoters of the Bill—"You acknowledge that 750 ratepayers and 150 shipowners electing a Board of 15 persons are not a fair representation of the people of Belfast. You come to us for extraordinary powers to impose taxation on the people of Belfast, and before we grant you the powers you ask, which mean the placing of an additional burden on the consumers of produce, we require you to make the franchise a fair and a proper one." He considered that a more evil principle could not be introduced by the House of Commons than the principle of imposing a burden on people who had no right to protest against it. The ratepayers had had no opportunity of protesting against it in this case. They had no locus standi to appear against the Bill; and, nevertheless, it was provided by the last clause in the Bill that—All the costs, charges, and expenses preliminary to and of, and incident to the preparing, applying for, obtaining, and passing of this Act, or otherwise in relation thereto, shall be paid by the Commissioners out of the Harbour Revenues, or out of money to be borrowed under the powers of this Act.He would put himself in the position, not even of a trader of Belfast, but of a trader of the town of which Belfast was a portion; and he would ask how it was possible, how ever much he felt aggrieved, that he could take action against a powerful Corporation such as the promoters of this Bill, when, if he were defeated, all the costs were to be paid out of his own pocket? What he wished to call attention to was this—that it was unfair to the people of Belfast, that it was unfair, as had been pointed out by the hon. Member for Carlow (Mr. Cray), 868 to the people of Ulster, that the House should allow a body, who were the nominees of a small portion of the inhabitants only, to impose a burden of nearly £1,000,000 upon the people of Belfast and of Ulster.
§ MR. MITCHELL HENRY
said, he had known Belfast for 35 years, and he knew it was the one town in Ireland which had thriven and made advance almost equal to that of an American city, and that its progress was almost entirely due to the sensible and spirited manner in which its docks and harbours had been managed. And now hon. Gentlemen who represented—what should he say?—a number of decaying towns—[Mr. DALY: No, no !]—were anxious to retard its further progress. The reason the commerce of these decaying towns was in a declining state was the perpetual introduction of debates of this kind, which had nothing to do with the practical development of the resources of the country. He trusted the House of Commons would not assist hon. Members opposite in their desire to have a share in the handling of the money required for the further development of Belfast. He hoped the House would not assist them in throwing their blighting influence over it.
§ MR. HEALY
said, it was astonishing that the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Mitchell Henry) could not rise to address himself to any subject before the House, either small or great, without importing into the discussion some of his own venom. The hon. Member talked of decaying towns and declining prosperity, evidently seeing, in advance, that his own departure from the House was rapidly approaching, and knowing that his time there was very short. Probably it was for that very reason the hon. Member availed himself of the opportunity of directing all his malice against hon. Members in that quarter of the House with the full knowledge that the next General Election would send him to a place where he would not be so distinguished. That House had been engaged for many weeks in discussing the course of procedure in regard to the Public Business of the House; but it would appear to him, from the statement of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter), that the manner in which the Private Business of the House was conducted rendered it equally 869 necessary that there should be some reform in the course of procedure. It appeared to him that the way in which Select Committees upstairs did their work in regard to Private Bills made it absolutely necessary that the conclusions they arrived at should be canvassed in the House itself. The right hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter) told the House that the Committee did not consider it necessary to go into the question of the franchise; but they were willing that 15 gentlemen, nominated by 900 persons out of 250,000 people, should have the handling of no less a sum than £900,000. The hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Mitchell Henry) held up Belfast as a model of progress to all the other towns in Ireland. The Port of Dublin would bear favourable comparison with that of Belfast; and the Port of Cork and others had increased at a far higher ratio. The hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Mitchell Henry), with the peculiar acquaintance with Ireland he so often displayed, and which he (Mr. Healy) believed to have been obtained through the City of Manchester, came down to the House and told the Irish Members that if they had the management of Belfast it would fall into decay like every other Irish town. Now, as this was particularly an Irish question, and could not affect the general interests of the nation, he would ask the English Government to leave the matter in the hands of the Irish Members, even including the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Mitchell Henry). He would ask the House if it was fair that a number of English Gentlemen should interfere with the Irish Members in the decision of a question which was peculiarly an Irish and a local one? It was not sufficient for the right hon. Member for Montrose (Mr. Baxter) to tell them that the proposals contained in the Bill had been decided by a Select Committee upstairs. That Committee knew nothing about the matter, because the persons who were really interested in the question were never heard before them at all; and as to Petitions, the people of Ireland were much better employed than in sending Petitions to that House, where they were never regarded or considered. All that was done with public Petitions was to put them into a bag, and what was done with Petitions affecting Private Bills he was not in a position to say. 870 The presentation of Petitions in that House was simply a farce, and it was the knowledge of that fact which prevented the people of Ireland from sending up Petitions. He asked the House to consider the Bill on its merits. Was it desirable to give a close Corporation of 15 persons the power of handling £900,000, when they were only elected by 900 persons out of a population of 250,000?
§ MR. LABOUCHERE
said, he knew very little of the Bill, and nothing whatever of the people of Belfast; but the suggestion of the hon. Member for Wexford (Mr. Healy) was a very strong one—that the House should consider on which side the majority of Irish Members would vote, and should vote with that majority. As far as he could make out, there was an undoubted majority of Irish Members against the Bill. That being so, without troubling himself as to its merits, he, as an English Member, knowing very little about the Bill itself, should vote with the majority of the Irish Members in favour of the Amendment.
§ MR. CHAMBERLAIN
said, he could not but feel that the principle enunciated by his hon. Friend below the Gangway, if adopted at all, should be carried a little further. The hon. Member for Northampton accepted the Irish Members as authorities on this subject; but why should not both he and they defer in turn to the superior knowledge of the Members representing and connected with Belfast. It appeared to him absolutely clear that those who represented the interests of Belfast in that House were strongly in favour of the Bill. Under these circumstances, and considering, also, that the Bill had been fully considered by a Committee upstairs, he should certainly support the Bill.
§ MR. O'DONNELL
said, that if the recommendation of the President of the Board of Trade were carried out, and everybody refrained from going into the Lobby except those who were interested in the question, the defects of the close Corporation of Belfast would find very few supporters indeed. This Bill did not deal really with the interests of the 15 members of the Harbour Commission, but with the interests of Belfast, of Ulster, and the whole of Ireland; and it was the Representatives of Ulster and 871 the whole of Ireland who should be called upon to deal with the question. He thought the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Labouchere) had placed before the House a conclusive reason why they should vote in favour of the Amendment. The Bill was opposed by the majority of the Irish Members, and there should be no other reason required to induce the House to reject the Bill.
§ DR. LYONS
said, he should certainly, as an Irish Member, support the Bill, and he regretted that two entirely different issues were sought to be mixed up in the debate which had been raised. He believed that the state of the franchise in regard to the elections to the Board in question, as to the municipal representation of Belfast, required urgent reform; but he entirely failed to see what that had to do with the question mainly involved in the Bill before them. It was impossible to bring a question of industrial or municipal representation before a Committee simply appointed to inquire into the merits of a Private Bill like this. He regretted very much that the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. Mitchell Henry), in the observations he had made, should have thought fit to attack other Irish cities, such as Dublin, Cork, and Limerick; and he could only say, in answer to the charge of the hon. Member, that there were many respects in which the cities in Ireland referred to had made continued advance during the last 40 years. He trusted that, instead of endeavouring to create unwisely an ill-feeling against the ancient cities of Ireland, that—politics apart—Irishmen would at all times be ready to support the local interests of all parts of the country without mixing up other questions with them. No one was a stronger advocate for the extension of the franchise in Ireland—industrial, municipal, and Parliamentary—than he was himself; but it would only have the effect of bringing about an opposition to the extension of every form of the franchise if they endeavoured indirectly, by a side-wind, to interfere with it in dealing with the great commercial operations of a town such as Belfast, the admirable management of which hitherto had been a source of pride to all Irishmen, and certainly to himself.
§ THE SOLICITOR GENERAL FOR IRELAND (Mr. PORTER)
said, that, as a Member for an Ulster constituency 872 and a native of Belfast, and as one who had been all his life connected with that constituency, he wished to say a few words in reference to the Bill. The Harbour Board was a body of which everybody connected with the community of Belfast was proud. It was a body which had discharged its duty in a manner which had been the admiration of all persons acquainted with it. The improvement of the port under the auspices of the Harbour Board was one of those things which had been pleasant to contemplate in the existing state of Irish affairs. The present Bill had been introduced into the House of Lords, and in the first instance it was opposed by the Corporation of Belfast on account of certain matters in which the interests of the Corporation were concerned. A clause was introduced into the Bill to guard those interests, and the Corporation of Belfast were satisfied. The Bill had now received the approval of every public body and every public interest connected with the borough of Belfast. It had passed Committees both of the House of Lords and of the House of Commons, and it had now reached its last stage before passing a third reading and receiving the Royal Assent. The only objection to it was, he understood, that the franchise of the electors of the Harbour Board was unsatisfactory. The answer to that was, that this Bill did not deal with that question at all. It would be out of Order to deal with it in this Bill. The Harbour Board, in the month of February last, passed a resolution binding themselves to introduce, on the earliest opportunity, a Bill for the lowering of the franchise. The Harbour Board were bound by that resolution; but it was not a matter which could in any way affect the merits of the present application. This was not an application to put any public money into the hands of the Harbour Commissioners. It would only enable them to borrow money, and it was not the attack upon the public purse which it had been represented to be by hon. Members opposite. It was a Bill which would have the effect of helping and furthering the development of the trade of Belfast. It would be, therefore, an unusual and unheard-of thing, if the Bill were now rejected. In regard to what had been stated in reference to the Committee and local interests, it might possibly be sug- 873 gested that the opposition to the Bill had been stimulated to a certain extent by a feeling against other local interests which might come before the House at a later portion of the day.
§ Question put.
§ The House divided:—Ayes 193; Noes 26: Majority 167.—(Div. List, No. 274.)
§ Main Question put, and agreed to.
§ Bill considered; to be read the third time.