HC Deb 03 March 1882 vol 267 cc13-25

asked Mr. Attorney General for Ireland, If he has any objection to laying upon the Table copies of the warrants issued against the senior and junior Members for Queen's County, and the Member for Wexford Borough, under the Coercion Act?


Sir, I am informed that there is no warrant against the senior Member for the Queen's County. With reference to the rest of the Question, the copies asked for cannot be given.


I think, Sir, I have a right to ask, as a matter of Privilege, whether Her Majesty's Government have thought fit to issue a warrant for my apprehension? I think I can ask this as a matter of Privilege; because, as a Member of this House, it is necessary that both me and my constituents should know whether I am at liberty to proceed to the county which I represent in this House for the purpose of addressing them, and of obtaining from them an expression of their feelings on any subject before the House. I wish to ask you, Sir, whether I have not the right to put this Question as a matter of Privilege; and whether the refusal of the Government to answer it would not be a breach of the Privilege of this House?


I consider the Question proposed to be put by the hon. Member is governed by the same Rule as other Questions put to Ministers of the Crown.


I do not understand that, practically, any answer was given to the Question of my hon. Friend.


It must be obvious to the hon. Member that an answer cannot be forced from a Minister; and that if a Minister thinks that, in the interests of the Public Service, no answer should be given to a particular Question, he has a right to refuse to give one.


I consider it of very great moment to my constituents that I should endeavour to obtain an answer from the Government on this point, and to put myself in Order I will conclude with a Motion. I am sorry that this question has been, to a certain extent, sprung upon me, for I did not anticipate that the answer my hon. Friend had received would be given; but, under the circumstances, I think I am justified in interrupting the course of Business this afternoon until I have obtained some statement from the Government as to whether I am at liberty to go to my constituents as every Member of this House goes to his. I have reason to believe that there was a warrant issued against me in Ireland, and I received an intimation of it only a few nights ago.


Allow me to explain that the Question that the hon. Member put was one which involved what he wanted to know. ["Order, order!"] What is out of Order? The hon. Member asked whether he could have a copy of a particular warrant. I merely told him he could not have a copy. Of course, the warrant must have existed or there could not have been a copy.


Then, Sir, I would ask what that warrant is, and what is the charge which is brought by Her Majesty's Government against me? I care not what that charge may be—I am prepared to meet it anywhere—and if Her Majesty's Government say that any charge can be preferred against me only in Ireland, and can be tried by law in Ireland, I am perfectly prepared to abide by the verdict of an English jury if any such similar charge shall be brought against mo in England. On my return from Ireland some months ago there was, as I am informed on good authority, a warrant issued for my apprehension in England by the Home Secretary, or the Home Office; and I am assured that warrant was in the hands of the police in Scotland Yard for some time. I had an inkling of something of the sort at the time, and I accordingly returned from Paris to London, at great inconvenience to myself, to give the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary, or those who act with him, an opportunity, if they thought fit, of arresting me. I remained in London for some time, at great inconvenience to myself, in order to afford the Government an opportunity of arresting me. I was anxious that they should do so, and for this reason. I knew if they did so they would be obliged to do what they are not obliged to do in Ireland—substantiate that charge, if they could, before a jury of 12 men; and I was not only willing, but anxious, to go before a jury and abide by the decision of any 12 men with whom the Government might pack a jury-box. I knew a jury would be obliged to acquit me of any charge that might be brought against me; and I knew also that if I were acquitted the whole foundation of misrepresentation on which the Government had obtained the Coercion Act from this House would fall through. It would have been proved that there was not sufficient evidence of treasonable practice on the part of any of those who had been arrested under the Act, and there would then have been no justification for the further detention of the three Members of Parliament and the 500 other persons who are in prison. Now, the Government has been challenged to say what charge they have thought fit to bring against me in Ireland. They dare not state it. They know they have no ground whatever for charging me with treasonable practices; and, therefore, in the face of this House, I challenge them to proceed against me by any means in their power. I am perfectly willing to go over to Ireland to-night if they will guarantee that they will proceed against me in Ireland and bring me to trial. If they accept that challenge, well and good; we shall see what sort of case they are able to make against me or against anyone in Ireland. If they refuse the challenge, then I impeach them for double dealing. I say they are utterly unfit for the position they occupy; and I say the people of Ireland will be perfectly justified in maintaining their present opinion—namely, that every charge on which these 500 men and more are imprisoned in Ireland is a false charge, known to be false by those who have signed the warrants. I beg to move the adjournment of the House.


, in seconding the Motion, expressed his astonishment at the answer which the Government had given. He had asked for copies of the warrants issued against himself and his hon. Friends, and the Attorney General for Ireland had informed the House that he could not lay copies on the Table; but he (Mr. Healy) supposed they only contained the usual charges that A induced B to intimidate C not to pay his rent to D. What injury could be done to the Public Service by allowing those warrants to be produced? He was surprised at the want of candour shown by the Government in refusing to satisfy the legitimate curiosity of those against whom charges were brought. The Easter Recess would be upon them in a few weeks, and it was part of the Constitutional procedure of Members of the House to go down to their constituents and take the opportunity of addressing them on public affairs. He was desirous, as he had intended to do, to visit his constituency in Ireland, and to address it on various matters of public interest; and he was anxious to know what precise charge the Government had against him in the pigeon holes of Dublin Castle. He was in London when Mr. Parnell was arrested, and he took the train to Holy-head; but he was met as he was going to the steamer by a messenger from Mr. Parnell, who told him not to go to Ireland. He should be perfectly happy to be in Kilmainham; as far as he was personally concerned he did not care a row of pins whether he was in gaol or in the House of Commons. What he did conceive, in the interests of the public, was that it was an important matter that they, the Constitutional Representatives of the Irish people, should be deprived of the opportunity of going before their constituencies and consulting with them on the various important matters that came before the House. There was a Constitutional crisis before the House just now, and there were other important Constitutional matters which it was desirable that they should discuss with their constituents. In these circumstances, they were entitled to ask what was the precise nature of the charge against them. He could hardly think that the Attorney General for Ireland had conceived the importance of this question, and that he had asked the opinion of his Colleagues with regard to it. He had given the answer furnished him from Dublin Castle. He should, therefore, on a future date, renew the Question to the Attorney General for Ireland, in order that he might have the opportunity of consulting his Colleagues; and he (Mr. Healy) would ask him whether Members of that House, in the exercise of their Constitutional duty, who might desire to go before their constituents during the Recess, were to be subjected to the provisions of the Coercion Act by the right hon. and learned Gentleman?

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Arthur O'Connor.)


I rise to take notice of what I understood the hon. Member for Queen's County to say. He was under the impression that there had been some warrant in existence in England affecting him of which the Home Office and the police had cognizance. [Mr. ARTHUR O'CONNOR: So I was informed.] The hon. Member has been misinformed on that subject. I have no cognizance of anything of the kind; it is the first time I have heard of anything of the sort; I have no cognizance of any proceeding in. England against the hon. Member.


said, he hoped a distinct answer would be given to the serious Constitutional question that had been raised, and in which he was personally greatly concerned. During the past Recess he was anxious to address his constituents. A Member of the House, an unflinching supporter of the Government, aware of his wish to go to Ireland, advised him not to go, and said—"If you go Forster is sure to arrest you." He replied that the arrest, if made, would be due to personal pique, and the answer was—" In the present state of the country the House of Commons could not enter into the question; it would be quite sufficient if we were told that you were arrested for reasons of State." Not exactly wishing to be incarcerated during the cold weather in Kilmainham, he abstained from visiting Ireland. He believed discretion to be the better part of valour, and thought that even a unit in the House might be of importance in administering blows against the coercive and unconstitutional Executive in Ireland. Were the Representatives of the Irish people to be prevented from addressing their constituents during the Easter Recess by a covert threat that if they did they would be arrested and put in Kilmainham Gaol, while the Chief Secretary went with armed escorts to the West of Ireland? He had a natural objection to detention under any circumstances, and more especially under "reasonable suspicion," for Dublin Castle had "reasonable suspicion" of every honest man, and of every man who had the courage of his opinions. He thought it behaved independent Members on both sides of the House, in addition to the Irish Members, to ask the Government and the Prime Minister whether he would, with the authority of his high station, tell them that they were safe to go to Ireland, and that if they went to Ireland now, they would not be arrested because of the "reasonable suspicion" of the Chief Secretary? He believed that every Irish Member who had not eternal hostility to the present Irish Administration was unfit to represent an Irish constituency; and he believed, further, that no Irish Member could go to Ireland at the present moment, except at the risk of the "reasonable suspicion" of Dublin Castle. He hoped the Prime Minister would avail himself of this opportunity and challenge to make some statements as to the position occupied by Irish Members in the view of the Government.


I accept the challenge of the hon. Member who has just sat down. I am sorry I can only accept it to the extent of stating on my responsibility that no further information on the subject of the Question can, or will, be given. The tendency of this conversation appears to me to lead towards the setting up of some description of privilege or immunity for Members of Parliament, as compared with the rest of Her Majesty's subjects—either an immunity—an absolute immunity—from being made the subject of a warrant under the Protection of Person and Property Act, or else having an immunity to this extent—that if a warrant should be issued against a Member of Parliament, and from any circumstance it should not take effect, that warrant may be called for, and produced, and made a matter of public and Parliamentary cognizance, although no such thing could take place in the case of any other less favoured individual, not being a Member of Parliament. Now, Sir, we are not prepared to accede to any proposition, or to give an answer to any Question in the direction of setting up such an immunity; and in so doing I apprehend we are giving effect to the clear intention of the House. I have not had time since I took my place on this Bench to refer to debates on that Act, when it was a Bill under discussion in this House; but, according to the clear recollection of myself and of my Friends near me, we did debate this very question, whether there was to be an immunity of any kind on the part of Members of Parliament, and the judgment of the House was—and the Bill was framed on that judgment—that they were to stand in the eye of that law, as in the eye of other laws, in precisely the same position as the remainder of the subjects of Her Majesty. I have never heard of any claim made upon the Government to state whether there is a warrant out against A B or C D, not being Members of Parliament, and whether such warrant can be produced, which is the challenge now made. [Mr. HEALY: I have raised the question.] Well, that has escaped my memory; I do not doubt the correctness of what the hon. Member says; but I think he will bear me out in my saying that not the slightest concession has been made to that claim. Consequently, the statement he has just now made is confirmatory of what I have been saying, and shows the consistency of the former proceedings and their conformity with the letter and spirit of the law, and obliges me to adhere to the declaration with which I commenced—that, whatever course natural courtesy may dictate to my right hon. and learned Friend, we are not able to enter further upon this matter, or to give any more information with regard to it.


said, he did not propose to discuss with the Prime Minister the question of the immunity of Members of Parliament, although he believed there were some immunities given by law which distinguished a Member of Parliament from any ordinary member of the community. As regarded this question of arrest, there ought not to be any distinction whatever in favour of any class. He would not claim for a Member of Parliament any immunity under the law which he could not also claim for the very humblest of his countrymen. He would suggest to his hon. Friend the Member for the Queen's County (Mr. A. O'Connor), although he had that day made to that House a most manly and straightforward statement, that it would be as well for him not to enter into any compact whatever with the Government. He would suggest to him, and, indeed, to all his hon. Friends near him, that if they had business to transact in Ireland they should go to Ireland, without making any suggestion or offering any compact to the Government. It was perfectly certain that no amount of consciousness on a man's own part of his innocence of all conspiracy, or of his want of sympathy with crime, could save him from the chance of a warrant issued under the Coercion Act; just as no clear consciousness in a man's own mind that he was not guilty of any conspiracy could save that man from being denounced in that House again and again by the Prime Minister as a conspirator. He would therefore advise his hon. Friends to take those two liabilities as part of the difficulties and responsibilities which were attached to an Irish Member of Parliament now, and to go across to Ireland and to return from it when business made that necessary, with, a manifestation of total indifference as to what Her Majesty's Government might do.


said, he was not in the least surprised that Her Majesty's Government had refused to lay those warrants on the Table of the House. The reason of their refusal was perfectly simple. It was this—that if those warrants were laid before the House the Members concerned would have an opportunity of defending themselves, which was the ordinary right of any accused person. It was much more convenient for the Government not to produce those warrants. It would be much more convenient that they should first arrest the person, and then, with his mouth closed so that he could not defend himself, they would be perfectly safe from having their statements challenged or refuted. The Irish. Law Officers of the Crown could then come into that House and try the person they had imprisoned, behind his back. They would make cowardly charges against him; they would make charges which were extravagant and absurd. They would tell the House, as he had heard them allege, that this prisoner and that prisoner, whose mouth they had shut, was steeped to his lips in treason. Gentlemen opposite were not ashamed to come before an assembly of English Gentlemen and make such, serious charges against absent men, having first taken care they should not have any opportunity of defence. Was that what was called "English fair play? "Would it not rather be English fair play to give a man an opportunity of saying what he could in his defence? But there was not to be any fair play shown to the Irish people. Throw a man into gaol, shut his mouth, prevent him communicating with his friends, and then charge him with being steeped to the lips in treason. And how were those charges made out? By a system of giving meanings to language which that language did not bear. By a system of "reading between the lines." By attempting to establish a connection between a perfectly harmless and legal speech delivered in one place, and some outrages committed in another. If they were to be treated by that system, he wondered how any one of Her Majesty's Ministers would stand a similar ordeal. They had the Solicitor General for Ireland defending himself last night against accusations based upon speeches which he made during his election campaign. He said—"I did not mean this, I did not mean that." He denied that he said some of the things imputed to him, or that what he did say bore the meaning put upon it. Suppose they tried him on the system which the Government had adopted towards the Irish. Members—of reading between the lines, and saying "meaning thereby"—how would he stand? They did not care, because they could defend themselves, and could not be put into Kilmainham. But the balance of power might vary some day, and then how would they like their successors to say to them "meaning thereby?" He protested against the unfairness, the unmanliness, the cowardice—if he was in Order in saying so—of this system of treatment which, was dealt out to Irishmen. That was justice! That was what the Irish people were expected to have regard for. That was what was dignified in Ireland by the name of the law of the land. If the law of the land was an outrage upon justice and reason little wonder was it that the Irish people had no respect for the so-called law of the land.


said, he rose for the purpose of suggesting to the hon. Member for Queen's County that he might now withdraw his Motion for the adjournment of the House. Hon. Members in all parts of the House, whatever their political opinions, would agree that his hon. Friend the Member for Wexford (Mr. Healy) had acted perfectly within his right in putting his Question; and natural feeling and public right were on the side of his hon. Friend the Member for Queen's County when he endeavoured to obtain an answer to the Question which he put. Nothing could have been more natural than that Question, or more manly than the challenge which he laid before the Government. It was a strange and sad commentary on Liberal rule that they must listen in that House to talk from Ministers about immunity and special rights and privileges in connection with the Question put by an hon. Member—" Have you a charge against me? If you have, what is it? and will you put me on my trial before a jury? "The man who made that statement was to be taunted by the Prime Minister with having claimed special immunities! The Irish. Members in that House claimed no immunity, and asked for none. They were willing to take all the risks and perils of their situation. They were willing to stand upon perfectly equal ground with the rest of their countrymen. They would accept that situation, he believed, with a self-respectful silence, so far as they were individually concerned; and they would not, by any complaints, or by any opportunities for such speeches as that which they had just heard from the Prime Minister, endeavour in the eyes of ignorant English public opinion to diminish the heavy and crushing burden of shame which laid upon their shoulders. The Question asked was, would the warrants be placed upon the Table? The reason he asked his hon. Friend to withdraw his Motion was, that even if the warrants were laid upon the Table he would know very little more than he knew now. The hon. Member for Wexford wanted to see one warrant, the hon. Member for Queen's County wanted to see another. He was in a position to state that one of the subordinate officers of the right hon. Gentleman came into his bedroom and gave him two warrants; and he could also state, after studying the two, his stock of legal, or political, or personal knowledge was not very much increased. This he could certainly say—that they contained charges, one of which he knew to be preposterous. And when those charges came up for substantiation, even though they were supported by the lurid eloquence of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland, they could not command the attention of the House. He could assure the House, from personal experience, that the warrants of the right hon. Gentleman told nothing. He wished his hon. Friend, therefore, would withdraw his Motion, and give up his chase after this "Will-o'-the-Wisp" in the shape of Government warrants, which explained nothing, which contained nothing clear or intelligible, which only threw into legal phraseology the hateful policy of suspicion and silence, under which the liberties of the Irish people had been abolished.


said, he concluded with a Motion for Adjournment simply to put himself in Order. He did not wish to press his Motion to a division; but he wished to say that he knew perfectly well there was a warrant issued for him, and that in that warrant he was charged as being reasonably suspected of treasonable practices. That was a false charge. He knew there was such a warrant, because those who held it made themselves known to the servant at the hotel where he was stopping, which hotel the police searched in order to find him. Their search was not complete, and he remained in blissful ignorance of what was going on until the search was over. As soon as he knew there was a warrant, he sent word to some friends who were in Dublin at the time. He made every arrangement for his removal to Kilmainham; and after he had settled in the hotel whatever Land League business he could on the spur of the moment, he went into Sackville Street with his hon. Friend the Member for Roscommon (Mr. O'Kelly), who was now in Kilmainham. Somehow, he did not know why, he was not arrested. He had at that time an appointment in Kilmainham, and he kept that appointment. In the meantime, between that and his return from Kilmainham, his friends had come to the decision it was much better for their purposes that he should remove himself from Ireland, and continue to do the work he had in hand, because, of course, it would have been impossible for him to carry of that work had he been put into Kilmainham. That was the whole explanation of his removal from Ireland at that time. The charge which the Government thought fit to make and to sign in that warrant was a false charge; and he was anxious, if it were possible, to have that charge brought against him in England. If it was brought against him in this country, and he was tried and found guilty, the result would be that he would be liable to imprisonment with hard labour for 15 years. The result of his being arrested in Ireland under the Coercion Act would be imprisonment, without hard labour, for some months. Therefore, in inviting the Government to take proceedings against him in this country—and he challenged them with every word and taunt which he could command to induce them to take such action—he was not endeavouring, the House would perceive, to escape the most unpleasant consequences of his action. But if the Government were not prepared to bring him to trial, or to state what the charge was which they had hanging over him, they were acting a cowardly part, and the charge against him must be a false charge. He believed those individuals who put it forward were conscious it was false; and if he knew any language sufficiently strong to drive the Government, either through exasperation or shame, into taking action against him, he would use that language. As it was, he wished the Government to understand that he thoroughly defied them. He begged to withdraw his Motion for Adjournment.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.