HC Deb 04 August 1883 vol 282 cc1541-52

Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Trevelyan.)


, in rising to move that the Bill be read a second time that day three months, said, he was surprised that the Chief Secretary for Ireland had not made any observations in explanation of the objects of the measure. The Bill bad passed through many vicissitudes. It was first introduced in 1876, framed upon the Report of the minority of the Select Committee which made an exhaustive inquiry into the subject of registration in 1874. The measure had been hurried through that House in 1880 in a manner which did more credit to the ingenuity of the Government than their fairness as public men; but, happily, it was thrown out in "another place." It was with some surprise, however, that they now saw the Government adopting this Bill at the close of another Session in which they had abandoned a measure for the reconstruction of the Constabulary, to which some importance was attached, because there was not sufficient time. Many Gentlemen interested in the present Bill, notably the two Members for the University of Dublin, were unavoidably absent. The tendency, if not the intended result, of this measure would be to make the appearance of a man's name on the Register primâ facie evidence of his right to vote. It was simply a measure for compulsory registration; and he was aware the Liberal Party believed that every man was a born politician, if not, that it was their duty to made him a politician. In the county he represented many men were very indifferent about having their names placed on the Register; this Bill would enable them to be registered without leaving their comfortable sofas or firesides. The privilege of being allowed to vote was worth seeking after; indeed, what was worth having was worth going to get. If the intention of the Government was to have people registered nolens volens, many would be placed on the Register in Ireland who would not cordially support even the policy of his right hon. Friend (Mr. Trevelyan). They must look at the question in a broad light. These were days when they required to speak plainly. There was no doubt that the Bill, if passed, would place in far greater political power the Party represented by the hon. Gentleman the Member for the City of Cork (Mr. Parnell). He (Mr. Ion Hamilton) and they were diametrically opposed in policy, and he should be sorry to see further power placed in their hands. If the Bill passed a second reading, he hoped it would not be proceeded with without due precautions being taken in Committee. It was, in his opinion, an ill-timed measure to remedy an entirely imaginary evil. It had been introduced as a concession and as a sop, he might say, to those promoters of change and agitation from whom the Government had taken this Bill, and he really thought they had, upon this occasion, taken their policy. He begged to move that the Bill be road a second time that day three months.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. Ion Hamilton.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


said, he could assure the hon. Member that he moved the second reading of this Bill silently, not out of want of respect to him, or those with whom he acted, but because he wished to ascertain the line of objection which was to be taken to it before he addressed the House. Now that he had heard those objections, and had found them similar to the arguments used against the Bill in previous years, he must own he had not yet perceived one argument put forward in either House which was founded on the principle of the Bill. The hon. Gentleman had commenced a sort of historical account of what passed in preceding years; and, arguing from the year 1880 to the present occasion, the hon. Gentleman had again complained of the lateness of the Session, and that the Government was now pushing forward a measure to which they had not seemed very favourable, and he had again described the Bill as a sop to the promoters of agitation. But these were not sufficient arguments to induce the House of Commons to reject the Bill, for which very grave reasons could be given. The hon. Gentleman adduced one argument which was greatly in favour with the opponents of all Reform Bills from the year 1832—he said this was a Bill for compulsory registration, and spoke about sofas and firesides and quiet gentlemen who were indifferent to registration. But the people they wanted to take part in the affairs of this country were the quiet business men—men who minded their own business well, and proved thereby that they could mind the business of the country. These were the men, however, who had not the time to run into the Registration Court at the bidding of every trifling objector; but these were the men who were always pointed out to the objectors. There was no doubt whatever that to the quiet voter, who simply wished to give his vote and nothing more, they would do an immense benefit by this Bill. But what injury would they do to the opposite party—the objector? Was it so very great a grievance that if one man wished to deprive another of his vote he should make out a case? If he could not prove his objection, then he showed that he was actuated by an unworthy motive, and desired to disfranchise that man because he belonged to the opposite Party. In that case the objector deserved no sympathy, and the passing of this Bill could make no grievance to him. The business of a good citizen was not to take trouble to secure his vote, but to take trouble to exercise it. It was the State which ought to take the trouble to give the man the right to vote, and that right to vote had been already given by Reform Bills passed by largo majorities through both Houses of Parliament—really he hoped the hon. Member would find some better argument; but the right of voting was nullified by a bad system of registration. A worse system of registration than that existing in Ireland it would be impossible to find. Any person in Ireland, without making any inquiry except whether his victims belonged to his own or the opposite Party, might, on the eve of the sitting of the Registration Court, make out 200 or 300 objections; and if he had 200 or 300 pence to buy postage stamps might put these objections, not to be always delivered to the persons, but to he at the office of the post town, while those persons, quite ignorant of what was going on, were being deprived of their right to vote. It was not even necessary he should be ignorant of the objection made to exclude him from the franchise. Take the case of a merchant or lawyer with a house at Howth or Malahide. If he did not wish to lose an entire day at the Registration Court he must lose his vote, to which he had as much right as to his house. Everthing which hampered and made registration expensive, encouraged intrigue and all the worst forms of political organization, and discouraged the best sort of political organization. Under such a system they gave a distinct advantage to a Party which was unscrupulous enough to make objections at random, and they placed at a distinct disadvantage a Party that was too scrupulous to take that course. Using no insinuation against any particular Party, he claimed that the present system in Ireland discouraged political purity. If they shifted the onus of proof from the voter to the objector, which was what this Bill mainly proposed, as in municipal elections, they did not necessarily give a vote to a single man who ought not to have it.

Every valid objection would still be upheld. But hundreds and thousands of men would be saved from their present loss of citizenship, and from an immense amount of hardship and trouble which there was no right to inflict upon them. The hon. Gentleman said the time had come when they should speak out plainly. Undoubtedly that was the case; and now, and for some years to come, every man who wished to influence public opinion would have to speak his whole mind. This was not a question of giving strength to one Party or another, but of making genuine that which Parliament had long ago conceded as a right. In his opinion, and in the opinion of the Government, very great political good would be done by this Bill, because it would remove a genuine Irish grievance. Could any man believe that disaffection would be increased by giving to a few hundred men in every county facilities for recording their votes, which at present belonged to them as a right? On the contrary, he believed that petty injustice, such as this Bill was designed to prevent, stirred men to disaffection. On the responsibility of the Government he declared that this Bill would greatly strengthen the Executive in Ireland by their being able to show that an indisputable Irish grievance brought to Westminster, with English and Scotch Gentlemen sitting there, was redressed cheerfully and fully, and so as to leave no sense of wrong behind. As the Bill passed its second reading in 1879 and in 1880 without a Division, so he hoped it would pass without a Division to-day.


said, the right hon. Gentleman had told them that the Executive Government in Ireland required strengthening—it was not necessary the House should be told that. But if the Government considered this measure one that was calculated to render easier the task they had in governing the country, why did not the right hon. Gentleman and his Colleagues take the House into their confidence at a more reasonable time of the Session? He was glad to find the right hon. Gentleman had somewhat tardily arrived at opinions with regard to what he termed arm-chair politicians. He told the House that he placed in that category quiet business men who attended to their own business, and who the Government thought it was desirable should enjoy the franchise. It was a curious thing that when some time ago hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition side of the House endeavoured to obtain facilities for quiet business men to exercise freely and easily the franchise, Her Majesty's Government put every obstacle in the way. The right hon. Gentleman said there was a class who nobody wished to exclude from the franchise. He (Mr. J. Lowther) was very curious to know what that enviable section of humanity could be. The right hon. Gentleman had described them as professional men resident in the suburbs of Dublin. Those suburbs, of late, had not been particularly enjoyable places of abode for professional men, or for any other persons. The right hon. Gentleman took upon himself to say on behalf, he (Mr. J. Lowther) presumed, of all the Representatives of Ireland, that there was no desire to exclude these persons from the Register. He hoped on this subject the right hon. Gentleman had had opportunities of more accurately making himself the representative of Irish popular opinion than he unfortunately had been able to do on many other points. The right hon. Gentleman charged hon. Members sitting on the Conservative side of the House with opposition to the Bill upon the ground that it would contribute largely to the representation of one particular Party in Ireland. He (Mr. J. Lowther) had always said that, in his opinion, the Party led by the hon. Member for the City of Cork (Mr. Parnell) were the Representatives of a large numerical majority of the people of Ireland. He had always said so notwithstanding the vehement contradictions he had encountered on the Treasury Bench—not from the Chief Secretary, who was too well acquainted with the condition of Ireland to denounce as a calumny that simple statement of fact. He did not know which Party in Ireland would be benefited by the change; but he thought, if a large number of new voters were put on the Register, the complexion would be found to be that which was indicated by the right hon. Gentleman. The argument which had been addressed to the House had evidently failed to carry conviction to the mind of the right hon. Gentleman, and when the Division Bell rang he (Mr. J. Lowther) would feel obliged to withdraw from the House. The House of Commons, he hoped, would not accept the doctrine which the right hon. Gentleman boldly laid down—namely, that any time in the Session was time enough to introduce a measure which Her Majesty's Government and their supporters desired. This was a largo alteration — he abstained from using the word reform—of the machinery governing registration in Ireland, which ought to be discussed in a full House. A Saturday's Sitting was deservedly far from popular in the House, and it had been promised that only non-contentious Business was to be taken on that day. Certainly that Bill could not be described as not being of a contentious character. Its importance to the country could hardly be overstated, and he hoped at this period of the Session the House would not read a Bill to which strong opposition was entertained by many Members from Ireland representing the most loyal portion of the community.


said, that as one of the loyal section of the population of Ireland he gave the Bill his hearty support. He had suffered from the present unsatisfactory system. For the last two years he had been dragged from Dublin to Kingstown to prove his right to vote, although there was not the shadow of a reason for serving him with a notice of objection. It was done merely on the chance that his ordinary avocations would prevent him attending to defend his vote. Many Dublin gentlemen were in the same way kept waiting in a Court-house for hours, in order that they might substantiate their claim to be upon the Register. They claimed this Bill as a protection from the manœuvring of Party managers. He looked upon the Bill as an excellent one. It had had many fathers, and it must be an excellent child to have secured so large a parentage.


said, the Bill might have a very innocent appearance, and, looked at in itself, it was, perhaps, not open to many objections. But there was something very extraordinary in the action of the Government in this matter. As was pointed out by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for North. Lincolnshire (Mr. J. Lowther), if the Bill was so important for the convenience of voters in Ireland, why was it not introduced earlier in the Session? As a matter of fact, this was an attempt to resuscitate the Kilmainham Compact. This, taken in conjunction with the recent action of the Government in Irish matters, was an attempt to obtain the support of the Irish Party for Liberal measures. He trusted the Irish Party would not take the bait. The Government had alienated and disgusted public opinion in England and very largely in Scotland by their mistakes, and now they had to fall back upon the Irish Revolutionary Party What had been the result of their administration in Ireland? Mallow and Monaghan supplied the answer. He did not think the Government would, by their present course of action, gain anything in the long run, though with their usual blindness they still hoped that by throwing such sops as this Bill represented they might at a critical time—say at a General Election—purchase the Irish vote. He believed the Irish Party knew their power too well to permit themselves to fall into the trap which was being prepared for them. He hoped the House would reject the Bill.


said, he should support the Motion for the rejection of this wise Bill, which had so many fathers that it was difficult to know who its fathers were. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland had spoken theoretically; but he had displayed great want of knowledge how the Bill would work. He had said that the Government had made up their minds that the Bill was absolutely necessary, that it would remedy a standing and acknowledged grievance, and that he relied upon it as one of those measures which would lead to the general pacification of Ireland. He (Colonel King-Harman), however, objected to the Bill, because it was badly framed, and would not carry out the object in view. As a matter of fact, it was a Bill for the promotion of wrongful claims and the creation of faggot votes. It was not right that frivolous objections should be made to a man who had a right and a wish to possess the franchise; but this Bill would really encourage frivolous claims. The Bill proposed that the claims should be made by the poor rate collectors; but he must point out to the House that the poor rate collectors in Ireland were very different persons from the overseers of the poor in England, who had to do with the making up of the Registers. The overseers were obliged to reside in the parish and were familiar with the status of all the inhabitants, while in Ireland the collectors need not reside in the baronies for which they collected, and had no knowledge of the majority of the householders. Then, again, the majority of the collectors were selected on purely political grounds, and there was every reason to believe that in the future that would continue to be the case. Therefore, the collectors would be elected because they supported a particular Party; and, consequently, he would say that when those men made a claim that certain persons should be placed upon the Register, they would do so as a rule because those persons would vote for the Party to which the collectors were attached. So far as he could see, the Bill would affect two distinct parties—those who were too idle, too lazy to take the trouble to claim their votes, and those who for obvious reasons in the present state of Ireland did not want to go on the Register, and did not want to have votes which they would be compelled to exercise by tyranny and not law. It was perfectly well known that there were men holding respectable positions in Ireland now who placed their houses in the names of their wives in order that they might not be on the Register or placed upon the Jury Lists at the risk of their lives. [Mr. HARRINGTON: To avoid payment of their debts.] Was it well, at the present time, to increase the number of Irish Members sitting below the Gangway whose chief claim to the suffrages of their constituents was that they were opposed to the Union of the Empire, and that they were, in point of fact, the chief champions of disorder in the country? This was not a time for disturbing the franchise, or any portion of the Irish Electorate. This was not a time to increase the opponents of law and to give a distinct triumph to the Party led by the hon. Member for the City of Cork (Mr. Parnell). Were the Government so enamoured of that Party, after the experience of the other morning, when the vituperative speeches heaped upon the Chief Secretary compelled him to withdraw the Police Bill, that they must now introduce another Bill to strengthen that Party? If the Chief Secretary was desirous to bring in a Bill for the welfare of the people of Ire- land, why did the Government drop the Sunday Closing Bill, which was asked for and pressed for by nearly the whole of the people of Ireland? The Bill was brought in, he would not say by a trick, because that was not Parliamentary, but by a surprise. The Government were perfectly well aware that at this period of the Session the majority of the Conservative Members would be absent, and therefore they postponed bringing in the Bill; but, at the same time, they had no hesitation in postponing the Irish Estimates, because Irish Members were not present. It was the old story of doing anything and everything to gain the votes of hon. Members below the Gangway. It was the old story of sop and surrender. It was an effort on the part of the Government to get a supposed advantage by trying to please the Members below the Gangway, and to gain a few votes for Monday. If they passed this measure, they would do away with many Conservative Members, and the certain result of it would be that there would not be a Liberal Member left in Ireland. He had heard that hon. Members from Ireland below the Gangway considered this Bill was directed against the county of Dublin. All he could say was that he was not one bit afraid. He stood there backed by the largest majority that had over sent a Representative to that House from the county of Dublin, and he ventured to predict that when the next General Election took place, if the Party that was opposed to law and order ventured to oppose him, he should be returned by a still larger majority. Yet he believed there were some constituencies that would be very deeply affected by this Bill, and that the ribald section would profit by it.


said, he thought it was rather late in the day to discuss, in an argumentative manner, the principle of this Bill. Up to the present time, in previous Sessions, everything that had been done in connection with this Bill had been done unanimously, and without opposition or Division. In 1874 the system of registration of voters in Ireland being considered a public scandal, the matter was referred to a Select Committee. Two Reports were presented—one in favour of the principle of this Bill, and another, through the casting vote of the Chairman, to contest that principle. A Bill of one clause was in- troduced in 1877, 1878, and 1879, and was agreed to unanimously by the House, the Conservatives then in power not venturing to oppose it. Owing to the obstruction of one of the Members for Ireland, as far back as 1878, that Bill was not passed into law. A Bill precisely like the present one was introduced in the Session of 1880; but the Conservatives then did not venture to argue against its provisions. It passed the third reading without any opposition on the part of those Gentlemen who were now so emphatic in denouncing the same measure. The present system of registration in Ireland was one of the remaining great checks on the freedom of electors in that country. It was, no doubt, impossible in the county of Dublin, or in any other part of Ireland, to intimidate voters, or to prevent them recording their votes; but yet in the county of Dublin and in a few other constituencies where the Conservatives held sway in Ireland the grossest intimidation was practised. [Colonel KING-HARMAN: No, no!] In the county of Dublin a system of the grossest "Boycotting" took place—not to intimidate voters from giving their votes; but to intimidate highly respectable persons from putting their names on the Register.


asked whether the hon. Member could give an instance?


said, he could. In the township of Kingstown respectable tradesmen would not be dealt with if their names were on the Register.


said, he must totally deny that statement.


said, that, at any rate, an explanation was required of the great difference which appeared between the names in the local directories and those on the Register.


said, he wished to express his acknwledgments to the Chief Secretary for having introduced this Bill. He regarded it as the thin end of the wedge of a system of Constitutional government for Ireland. He had no objection whatever to what was in the Bill; but there were serious omissions, which he should endeavour to fill up in Committee.


said, he objected to the Bill, because it was introduced at a time when it would do much to encourage the party of disorder. He did not think the Bill would make much difference in the strength of voters in Ireland; but that difference, even if it was only a slight increase of the popular party, would be unfortunate in the present condition of affairs in Ireland.


said, he warmly supported the Bill. He said that if they desired to have Ireland peaceable and orderly they must give the people of Ireland every opportunity of speaking Constitutionally, and of being represented Constitutionally, according to the desires of the people of Ireland, and in proportion to the population of that country. Irish Members who sat on the Conservative Benches were accustomed to boast of their loyalty. It was easy for them to be loyal. They had held a domination in that country which their numbers by no means justified. It had been necessary to deprive the great majority of the people of Ireland of their rights in order that the Members of the Irish Conservative Party should make a boast of their loyalty. He did not despair, even yet, if by steady steps Parliament proceeded in giving to the great mass of the Irish people their Constitutional rights, that in the end the Irish people would return to Constitutional courses. [Mr. HEALY: Hear, hear!] So far from poverty or disaffection being reasons for depriving people of their rights to representation in the House of Commons, he regarded them as the strongest reasons that could be urged why the Government should persevere in trying to confer upon the Irish people this and other rights of which, for a long period, they had been defrauded.

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 97; Noes 17: Majority 80.—(Div. List, No. 257.)

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Monday next.