§ Order for Consideration, as amended, read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill, as amended, be now considered."
§ MR. BIGGAR
said, he had given Notice, in regard to this particular Bill, that he would move, as an Amendment—That it be re-committed to the former Committee: "and" That it be an Instruction to the Committee to lower the qualifications of the Commissioners and electors, so as to make the same in conformity with the qualification for the Parliamentary Suffrage.In moving that Amendment, he desired to offer such observations in support of it as he thought were called for, and no more. It was probably known, in regard to the question of the franchise of Harbour Commissioners, that in many instances, in different places, such franchises were based upon arrangements made in Private Bills; and, of course, Private Bills were promoted by the persons in possession of the Harbour Trust for the time being. The result of that system was, that the gentlemen who now composed the Harbour Board of Belfast deemed it more convenient that there should be a narrow, rather than an extensive, franchise. It was only natural that gentlemen, already in possession of the franchise, should think it was a very good world they lived in, and that there was no necessity for extending it, or for admitting any other persons into their Body. Nor were they at all desirous of extending the vote; and, as a necessary consequence, a great number of persons who were interested in the management of the Docks and Harbours were not represented. Last 344 year, the Harbour Commissioners of Belfast promoted a Bill which gave them borrowing powers to the extent of something like £900,000. On that occasion, he (Mr. Biggar) opposed the Bill in that House, on the ground that these gentlemen were elected upon an extensively narrow franchise; and ho thought it desirable that the inhabitants of Belfast should have a fuller opportunity of expressing their opinion, with regard to the franchise, before the property and rates of the borough wore so heavily mortgaged. On that occasion, a coin-promise was made on behalf of the Harbour Commissioners, that this year they would promote a Bill to extend the franchise, and, in pursuance of that compromise, they had brought in the Bill now before the House; but he considered that that Bill did not at all conform with the spirit of the age. In fact, it had long been the principle of both political Parties in England to extend the franchise in regard to Parliamentary and Municipal elections; but these gentlemen, the Harbour Commissioners of Belfast, still continued to argue in favour of the exploded idea of close corporations. He would not attempt to argue in that House, whether the franchise should be wide or narrow. They all know that it had been the theory of the so-called Liberal Party, for the last 50 years, to extend the franchise very materially in connection with the election of public Bodies. They knew that the lowering of the franchise was used in almost all cases as a Party cry, for the purpose of bringing about an extension of the franchise. Even the late Lord Beaconsfield—an extremely wise gentleman in his generation—thought it was judicious to propose a much more extensive franchise for Parliamentary boroughs. The Harbour Commissioners of Belfast, however, thought themselves much wiser than the late Lord Beaconsfield, or all the reformers of the last 50 years, and they proposed a franchise which was altogether insufficient for the purpose for which it was required. He found upon inquiry that, in the majority of cases, the franchise in regard to Harbour Boards was based, not on the rating of the inhabitants of the places in which the harbour was situated, but on the payment of dues in the port. In Belfast, the principle had always been different, and the franchise, up to the present, had 345 been based on a certain contribution per annum to the police rate, and also upon the ownership of vessels in the port. He did not desire to criticize the qualification of the ownership of vessels; but he would confine himself to that part of the question which related to the qualification of those electors who were ratepayers of the borough. The qualification of a Parliamentary elector of the borough was a contribution of £4 per annum to the police rate. The Town Council of the borough had power to return certain members upon the Board. But the qualification of an ordinary elector to vote for a Harbour Commissioner was the occupation of premises within the borough rated at £50 to the relief of the poor. That was considered an insufficient franchise, and the Harbour Commissioners, in furtherance of their promises, proposed to lower it. He, himself, had always been in favour of a very wide franchise, and he did not see on what ground persons entitled to vote for a Member of Parliament, should not be as competent to vote for the members of any local Board. It was upon that ground ho asked for a further extension of the franchise. It had been argued by the Chairman of the Harbour Commissioners, who gave evidence before the Chairman of Ways and Means in Committee upon the present Bill, that it was desirable, seeing that so large an amount of property was placed under the control of the Board, that the Commissioners should be persons of respectability, and should, therefore, be elected by the large ratepayers. That might be very true; but he failed to see, nor had he seen from past experience, that gentlemen elected on a high franchise managed affairs better than those who were elected on a small franchise. He also failed to see that the Harbour Commissioners of Belfast, who were elected on this extravagant franchise, had been more honest in dealing with the Trusts reposed in them than Commissioners elected on a much smaller franchise. He was able, from personal experience and the knowledge he had possessed all his life of these public Boards in Belfast, to say, without hesitation, that although most of the Boards in that town had made mistakes, and done things which they ought not to have done, yet the worst managed Board, and the one in which the most extensive jobbery had pre- 346 vailed, was the Harbour Board of which he was now taking cognizance. The members of that Board were more or less confined to certain sections of the Conservative or Whig Parties. There was not on the Board, as far as he knew, a single individual who could be called a gentleman of Liberal principles. They were Party men; but he did not mean to assert that they were gentlemen who took an extremely active part in political affairs. So far as the Harbour Board was concerned, they were all of one particular Party, and they were of opinion that it suited their purposes best to get elected upon a high qualification, and that it was desirable for things to continue in their present position. It was also argued by the Chairman of the Harbour Boards, that the Harbour Commissioners had been able to borrow money upon more favourable terms, and that if the franchise were extended, they would not be able to borrow from the public on the same favourable terms. Now, hon. Members knew, from personal experience, that that statement was not founded on fact; because they knew, and he knew, that there were other Boards in Belfast, with much lower qualifications, which had been able to borrow money on the same terms. There was no evidence whatever in support of that contention, and he had not heard any argument in favour of the contention of these gentlemen, who said the Harbour Commissioners should continue to be a thoroughly exclusive Body, elected by a very limited number of electors, and should also be able to declare themselves qualified by fixing a very high property qualification. He would state what the qualification proposed by the Bill for the electors was, and also the qualification proposed for members of the Board. The qualification of an elector proposed by the Bill was of a very peculiar nature. In the first place, he was to be a registered owner of a vessel belonging to the Port of Belfast, engaged in the Coast, Channel, or foreign trade, of not less than 50 tons, net register, or of two or more such vessels, having an aggregate tonnage of not less than 50 tons; or the registered owner of shares, amounting to not less than 50 tons, of vessels registered and engaged in that manner. With that qualification he would not interfere, because he did not pretend to understand the shipping business. But the rating 347 qualification of an elector was, first of all, that he should be rated as the occupier of premises within the borough of Belfast of the net annual value, according to the Government valuation for the time being in force for the destitute poor of Ireland, of not less than £20, which meant a rental of more than £35 a-year. Then, in addition to that, there was a multiple vote. Occupiers rated in respect of premises were entitled to vote according to a scale set forth in the Bill, commencing with one vote for premises of £20, and less than £50 net annual value; of two votes for premises of the value of £50, and less than £100; and so on up to six votes, where the premises were of the net value of £250, and the net value might be made up by joining individual holdings together, and connecting together property situated in different parts of the borough. The consequence of this system was, that it placed the entire control and influence in the hands of persons who were large ratepayers, to the detriment of those who were rated at a lower annual value. He contended that such a franchise was altogether contrary to the spirit of the age, and that it involved a principle which ought not to receive the sanction of the House of Commons, and especially by the so-called Liberal Party, who possessed a majority of votes in that House, Then, again, as regarded the qualification of members of the Board, that also, he contended, was entirely unreasonable. The principle of the property qualification involved in it was of a highly absurd nature. And for this reason. Experience proved that anyone who wished to become a member of a public Board, and desired to evade his obligations in regard to a property qualification, was always able to evade them, and get elected. This question of property qualification was discussed at very great length in that House some years ago, and ultimately the Liberal Party carried the abolition of property qualification in regard to Members of Parliament. Now, he thought that if Members of Parliament, elected without property qualification, were capable of managing the Public Business of the nation, involving the expenditure of many millions of money per annum, and of legislating and making laws to protect the lives and liberties of the people, a public Body whose simple duty was to manage 348 the dock rates on a fixed scale, with no power to go above or below that scale, had no right to claim to be elected upon a high property qualification. He was of opinion that no argument whatever had been adduced in favour of a property qualification in this instance. The property qualification the Harbour Commissioners asked for was of several kinds. First of all, a member of the Board must be rated as the occupier of premises within the borough of Belfast, of a net annual value, according to the Government valuation for the time being in force for the purposes of the relief of the destitute poor of Ireland, of not less than £60; or, as one of several joint occupiers of such premises on a not annual value, according to such valuation, of not less than £60 for each of such joint occupiers; or, he must be seized or possessed in his own right, or in the right of his wife, of real estate in the United Kingdom of a net annual value of not less than £200, or of personal estate of a gross value of not less than £5,000. He had certainly never heard before that a man's means of living should be one of the qualifications for membership of a public Board; but he presumed that the Harbour Commissioners of Belfast considered that they were acting more or less in conformity with the spirit of the age. It would be seen that even the property of a married woman was to form a qualification. It might happen that the wife was very rich, and, at the same time, the husband was nothing more than a ledger, with no personal influence of property whatever. At the same time, he would have power to act upon this Board, and he might abuse the position to the detriment of this public Trust. He could, without much difficulty, point out some of the grave mismanagements of the Board in times past, and he could show what he was disposed to think had been very doubtful operations; but he did not wish to be personal. He was not acquainted with the names of more than one-third or one-half of the members of the Board, and he was not disposed to speak in any harsh manner of these gentlemen; but, at the same time, he said, without hesitation, that their management of public affairs in Belfast had been a perfect scandal, especially in regard to the jobbery which took place. All the sympathies of the Harbour Board were en- 349 tirely in favour of that class who were represented by the Board, and the interests of the small ratepayers and the large mass of the inhabitants of Belfast had been altogether ignored in the transactions of this Body. Now was the time for making a reform, and to make this a much more popular Body than it had ever been before by doing away with the system of close corporations, which now existed, and rendering the Harbour Board more subordinate to public opinion. Hitherto, the Board had possessed a power which had been a scandal—namely, the power of filling up any vacancies which arose in their own number. He contended that that was a most objectionable system, and that it had worked most unfairly. It was not unfrequently the case that a person who was popular was able, along with certain confreres, to carry the election, and to help some two or three other members to seats on the Board. Then, as soon as the election was over, this gentleman resigned his seat, and some person not so popular, and who would not have been elected at all, was put in by the remaining members of the Board. He was strongly of opinion that that was a principle which ought not to be continued, because he thought that nobody but the electors should select the members of a public Board; and for these reasons he would move the Amendment which stood on the Paper in his name.
Amendment proposed, to leave out the words "now considered," in order to add the words "re-committed to the former Committee," — (Mr. Biggar,)—instead thereof.
Question proposed, "That the words 'now considered' stand part of the Question."
§ MR. DAWSON
said, he thought his hon. Friend the Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) was entitled to the thanks of the constituencies in Ireland, and also of that House, for opening up this great question of local government. The great principle the present Government had always put forward as a panacea, not only for evils in England, but in Ireland, was the extension of local government; and hon. Members on the other side of the House had invariably advocated the propriety of giving increased power to the people, by legitimate means, to express their opinions, so that the illegiti- 350 mate use of power should cease to exist He thought the present Bill afforded a very admirably opportunity for calling attention to the evils of the present system, and also to the evils of the existing system of representation in Ireland generally. The constitution of the Belfast Harbour Trust, proposed by the Bill, was entirely at variance with that principle of local government of which they heard so much; and the principle of confining it entirely to a property qualification would inevitably exclude, from a share of the representation, those people who were most largely interested, and who were most entitled to it. The idea which seemed to prevail in the Bill was, that those who were most deeply interested in continuing a course of mismanagement, which might in the end prove disastrous to the ratepayers, should be the arbiters and judges of their own case. It was quite true that the shipping of Belfast might be theirs; but, if the power they exercised was altogether one-sided, it might be wielded in such a manner as to deal most unfairly, not only with the importers and exporters of goods, but with the consumers. They were told by the Harbour Commissioners that it was necessary to have steamboat owners and ship-owners to regulate these matters. He altogether dissented from that assertion, and he thought that what was really desired was the appointment of neutral men. They wanted unbiassed people, who had absolutely no connection with any class—men who would stand between the parties interested, and who could pass a fair judgment upon any case that might be brought under their notice. It seemed that the shipowning interest and the interests of property were fully represented on the Board; but there was no one there to represent the interests of the people. It was only natural, therefore, that the only interests consulted by the Board were the special interests of their own trade and class. It might be said that if Parliament declined to act upon that principle, and gave the power of electing men upon Harbour Boards, who were not great shipowners or great traders, they would have nothing done in the interests of the port and Harbour. Now, what illustration did the composition of the Treasury Bench afford of the truth of that argument? The noble Marquess who presided over the War Department 351 had never been a soldier or a distinguished General; and was it ever thrown in his teeth that he did not possess all the information and knowledge which a connection with the Profession would have given him? Was it contended that the Members of the Government who brought in Land Bills for England and Scotland should be great landed proprietors?
§ MR. SPEAKER
I must call upon the hon. Member (Mr. Dawson) to address himself to the question before the House, which is the Belfast Harbour Bill.
§ MR. DAWSON
said, the Bill provided that one of the qualifications for membership of the Board should be, that the member elected should be a great trader, and should hold property in steam vessels. He had, therefore, thought it an apposite allusion to endeavour to show that a large interest in a particular trade or profession was not a necessary qualification for the administration of public affairs. The present qualification for the Harbour Commissioners was distinctly exclusive. He believed it was, that every person who had a share, to the extent of £100, in a ship or steamboat should have a vote; but here, in this Bill, it was raised to £300, thereby narrowing the qualification in a very important extent. In the Harbour Board of Dublin, which he thought no one could say was a popular Board, there certainly was an extension of the popular element in order that there might be some kind of representation of the interests of the people as well as of the interests of trade. In that case, the Lord Mayor, four members of the Corporation, and the High Sheriff were placed upon the Board; but in the present Bill, with the exception of the Mayor of Belfast, the Corporation had no representation whatever. Upon the Harbour Board of Limerick, the Mayor and five members of the Corporation, or popular Party, represented the interests of the people. There was no such representation here, and he thought it was a matter for serious consideration whether the composition of the Board, as now proposed, would be able to deal properly with the interests of the people of Belfast. It was quite evident that occasions might arise when the interests of the trade would be diametrically opposed to those of the 352 people. He (Mr. Dawson) Ns-as an ex-officio member of the Harbour Board of Dublin, and he had heard very important cases raised in connection with questions of wharfage and quayage. In one instance, an hon. Member of that House connected with the coal trade was intimately concerned. Without any communication with the hon. Member, it was discovered that exclusive privileges were proposed to be conferred upon the Dock Board, to the detriment of the interests of Free Trade, and the advancement of Monopoly. The case was fully looked into, and the flimsy pretext upon which the transaction was based was removed. If that had not been done, an English Company and au English Chairman of a Coal Company would have been deprived of all the rights they possessed, and a monopoly would have been handed over to the Dock Board. That would inevitably have been the case, if he and others had not been present, as members of the Board, to vindicate the interests of the consumers of coal in the City of Dublin, and one particular Body would have been allowed a monopoly of the trade, and there an injustice would have been imposed upon the ratepayers and the people generally. Now, were they going, in this great town of Belfast, to perpetuate monopolies? His hon. Friend the Member for Cavan had drawn the attention of the House to the principle upon which hon. Members were admitted into the House of Commons—namely, without any properly qualification whatever; because, after all, they found that it was the representation of the people which was the title of their Acts of Parliament, and not the representation of property. If they were to make provisions for the representation of property, then let them give up at once all idea of legislation and debate, and of considering the interests of the people, and tell a man to put down his thousands and tens and hundreds of thousands of pounds, and then add them up to show the extent to which his interests should be credited. He believed that no properly qualification was required in the case of elections to the Corporations of Ireland or of England, and it was a most illogical contention to say that the wider they gave the franchise, in the case of Parliamentary and Municipal elections, the narrower and the more closely were they to draw 353 everything which ought to be done towards advancing the material interests of the people of Ireland. Perhaps the House would allow him to turn to the question of Parliamentary elections. The electors of the City of Belfast sent two Representatives to that House, both of whom were Conservatives; and they were returned by electors who were only rated at £4 per annum to the relief of the poor. The men returned by such a franchise were called upon to legislate, not only for Belfast, but for Ireland, Great Britain, and the Empire at large; and yet it was held by the Harbour Commissioners of Belfast that it required five such electors, rolled into one, to constitute an elector for the Harbour Board. Could any logical contention be advanced in favour of the perpetuation of such a state of things? Then, again, take the case of the Municipal Council of Belfast. The qualification in that case was only £10, and it was necessary to roll two such electors into one, in order to produce an elector for the Harbour Board. Considering all these circumstances, he thought his hon. Friend the Member for Cavan was entitled to the thanks of the House for bringing the matter forward. His hon. Friend had shown, most distinctly, the anomalous nature of the extraordinary position in which the Belfast Harbour Board was placed. He (Mr. Dawson) should certainly decline to support a Bill which continued the evils under which the people were suffering considerably, not only in connection with Belfast, but with other parts of Ireland. He objected to anything in the nature of a secret conclave being allowed to deal with the public interests; and he thought that all matters which related to the public interests should be open to the scrutiny of the public. What would be the feeling of the people if the debates in that House were held with closed doors, and if important matters which concerned the welfare of this great Empire were not made known to the public? Yet it was a matter of daily occurrence in Belfast, and the people were utterly devoid of representation. The representation of the people and local taxation formed one of the most favoured themes of Liberal politicians, and this Bill was entirely opposed to any extension of that principle. He should not have been surprised if the 354 Bill had been brought in and supported by a Conservative Government. It was Conservative in all its clauses; and, if brought in by Conservatives, there would have been a logical sequence in their ideas and acts, and they would be acting up to their principles in bringing forward Conservative propositions and carrying them to Conservative results. But it was an extraordinary anomaly to find a measure bristling with Conservative clauses brought in by an hon. Member sitting on the Treasury Bench, and intended to perpetuate a monopoly. He was satisfied that this Conservative anti-popular Bill would prove a severe infliction upon the people of Belfast, if it was not at once repudiated by the House, and if seine Member of the Government did not, in the strongest terms, denounce it as inimical to everything that was liberal and fair towards the representation of the people. He was sure there were many other Members of the House who would be able to contribute criticisms upon the Bill, and to stand up for the interests of the people of Belfast, against whose liberties the present Bill aimed a serious blow. He felt keenly that the Bill ought to be amended, and that a population, of whose good conduct and loyalty they had heard so much, should not be deprived of their privileges as regarded the power of electing members upon the Harbour Board of Belfast.
§ MR. CORRY
said, that if the interference of the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) in the affairs of the Belfast Harbour Board were brought before the inhabitants of that town, they would give a verdict which would not be very satisfactory to the hon. Gentleman, who was certainly very seldom found in the same Lobby as the hon. Members who represented Belfast. The hon. Member took every opportunity he could of interfering with the liberties of the people of Belfast; and, although the verdict of the people of Belfast might not, as he (Mr. Corry) said, be satisfactory to the hon. Gentleman, he imagined, from what he knew of the hon. Member, that that would not make very much difference to him. The action of the hon. Member at present, and also last year, could only create annoyance, and put the ratepayers of Belfast to a considerable amount of expense. Last year, the Belfast Harbour Commissioners came 355 before the House with a Bill to ask for increased borrowing powers, and also to enable them to carry out certain extensive works. When that Bill was before the ratepayers, a section of the ratepayers thought that some clauses should be introduced into it in reference to the franchise; and they went before the Harbour Commissioners, and asked that that should be done. It was found impossible in that Bill to do so; and the Harbour Commissioners made a promise that a Franchise Bill should be introduced in the present year. The ratepayers had had the matter very fully before them; no opposition came from them; and it remained for the hon. Member for Cavan, and those who acted with him, to raise opposition to the Bill, which, it was directly admitted, dealt with the question of the franchise in the way the electors themselves desired. The fact was that several proposals were placed before the Harbour Commissioners, and the franchise was one of them. The present Bill, however, exactly carried out the proposals made by the electors themselves. It was a matter of great surprise to the promoters of the Bill that the hon. Member for Cavan should take this action in the matter; because he (Mr. Corry) understood that, through the courtesy of the hon. Baronet the Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Arthur Otway), the hon. Member was allowed to go before the Committee and state his objections to the Bill. The Harbour Commissioners then appeared before the Chairman of Ways and Moans; but they declined to accept the hon. Member's proposals, and the result was that the hon. Baronet and the Committee, feeling perfectly satisfied that every objection which had been raised to the Bill by the hon. Member for Cavan had been fully met, and that the Belfast Harbour Commissioners had fully carried out the wishes of the ratepayers of Belfast, allowed the Bill to pass through Committee. As he (Mr. Corry) had stated, no opposition had been made to the Bill, either in Belfast or elsewhere. The fact was that the Ratepayers' Committee waited on the Harbour Commissioners, and expressed themselves fully satisfied that the Harbour Commissioners had carried out what the ratepayers wished them to do. Therefore, the Bill came before the 356 House as an unopposed Bill; and he thought it would be an extreme proceeding on the part of the House of Commons, if, at the dictation of the hon. Member for Cavan, and those who supported him, the people of Belfast should not be allowed to manage their own affairs as they thought fit. Last year the hon. Member for Cavan said the qualification of the electors should be £10. Before the Chairman of Ways and Means he proposed £8, and now ho had come down to £4. He (Mr. Corry) supposed that next year, in the opinion of the hon. Member, it ought to be nothing; and he did not know what the end would be. The fact was, there was no analogy whatever between the Harbour Commissioners and the electors for the Harbour Commissioners, and elections for Members of Parliament and members of Municipal Boards. The Harbour Commissioners were trustees for a very large property; and, acting in that capacity, they had important interests to protect. He was one of the unfortunate jobbers connected with the Harbour whom the hon. Gentleman had referred to. He had had the honour to possess a seat on the Harbour Board for the last 13 or 14 years; and, from his own knowledge of what was done at that Board during that time, he was able to give a flat contradiction to the statement of the hon. Member in reference to the jobbery perpetrated by the Board. The assertion was perfectly unjustifiable; and it was not the case that the ratepayers who would be excluded by the Bill were interested in the Harbour Rates in any way. The fact was that the ratepayers included in the Bill were those who paid the rates for the Harbour. One of the matters which the ratepayers were very anxious about was that the number of the Commissioners should be increased from 15 to 21, and that had been done. The Harbour Commissioners had met the ratepayers in every possible way, and the ratepayers were entirely satisfied. He had no wish to take up the time of the House unnecessarily; but he sincerely trusted that they would not adopt the Amendment which had been moved by the hon. Member for Cavan.
§ MR. SEXTON
said, he thought the Belfast Harbour Board deserved some commiseration, if no better defence could be made for them than that which had 357 been made by the hon. Member who had just addressed the House (Mr. Corry). The hon. Gentleman, in regard to this question, was placed in a somewhat peculiar position, and had opened out a wide field of speculation. The proposal of the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) was to popularize the constitution of the Belfast Harbour Board, and to make that body truly representative of the feelings of the electors of that town, by substituting the Parliamentary franchise for the fancy franchise which now existed. The hon. Member was himself returned to that House by the Parliamentary franchise. He was elected Member for Belfast by occupiers who were rated at £4 per annum; and, seeing that a £4 Parliamentary franchise returned the hon. Gentleman to an Assembly much more dignified and important than that of the Belfast Harbour Board, it most illogical, and came with a bad grace, ho thought, from the hon. Member, that ho should object to such a franchise in the case of the Harbour Board itself. He thought his hon. Friend the Member for Cavan, in his present action, had shown a superiority over Party feeling, which stood in agreeable contrast to most of the proceedings of that House. His hon. Friend had not even the hope, if his proposition were adopted, that it would have the effect of securing upon the Harbour Board the election of representatives who would act in consonance with his own feelings; but it would probably consist, as the Parliamentary Representatives of Belfast consisted, of members of the Tory Party. His hon. Friend, however, was quite willing to accept that result; and all he desired was to popularize the constitution of the Belfast Harbour Board, and make it more representative of the feelings of the town. The hon. Member for Belfast said the promoters of the Bill wore much surprised at the interposition of the hon. Member for Cavan. He (Mr. Sexton) would only say that the promoters of the Bill were very easily surprised, because they must be aware that his hon. Friend had opposed another Bill last year relating to the functions of the Board; and ho would take the liberty of saying that it was, in a large degree, due to the action of his hon. Friend that the present Bill had been brought in. [Mr. CORRY: No!] He was entitled to that 358 presumption. His hon. Friend drew attention to the character of the proceedings of the Harbour Board last year; and the action that was then taken by his hon. Friend had, no doubt, led this sluggish body to adopt its present course. His hon. Friend had denounced the mismanagement and jobbery of the Harbour Board; and the hon. Member for Belfast confined himself tersely to a flat contradiction. Now, it had always been the custom, when the Board had delicate affairs to deal with, to conduct them in private by means of Committees. It was well known that, in regard to the tariff they established, and the incidence of the dues and rates, the Board always remembered the interests of individual members of their own body much more than the interests of the public. The Board had most important functions to perform. Only last year it received authority to borrow nearly £1,000,000 sterling, which was to be repaid by levying dues on the trade in the North of Ireland. Belfast was the most important port, or nearly so, in Ireland; and the Harbour Board necessarily exercised a powerful influence upon the commerce and general interests and progress of the Province of Ulster. It was undesirable, and contrary to the spirit of the age, that such large functions should be confided to a Board elected upon a fancy franchise. He objected to three points raised in the Bill. He objected to the qualification of the voter; and if hon. Members would turn to page 6 of the Bill, they would find that a person, in order to vote in Belfast for the election of the members of the Harbour Board, must be rated to the relief of the poor on a net annual value, according to the Government valuation, of not less than £20. In other words, a person rated to the relief of the poor to the amount of £4 a-year could vote for a Member of Parliament, and for persons to transact the business of that Assembly, which, in point of importance, both financially and otherwise, far transcended that of any other Assembly in the country; but if he had to vote for a member of the Harbour Board, a body performing local functions only, he was required to possess a qualification five times higher than that of the Parliamentary franchise. If the Colleague of the hon. Member for Belfast (Mr. Corry) were present, he would ask him to address himself to the 359 rationale of the question, and show why this should be so. The reform proposed by his hon. Friend the Member for Cavan need not be looked upon as radical, revolutionary, or dangerous. The Bill gave a second qualification to the owners of ships. He (Mr. Sexton) did not object to that; but he did object to the multiple vote, by means of which the owners of vessels of 50 tons register had one vote, while the owners of 100 tons had two, and so on up to 1,000 tons, which entitled the owner to six votes. He did not quarrel with the provision for the representation of the shipping interest, because the Board was a Harbour Board, and would have to deal with matters affecting shipping. It was, therefore, not improper that persons connected with shipping should have special advantages in voting. What lie did quarrel with was the fixing of a sliding scale of voting in respect to rating. A person rated at £20 had one vote; while a person rated at £250 had six votes. That was entirely opposed to the principle on which the public life of this country was managed; and he failed to see why a man occupying a £250 house in Belfast had a more direct interest in the proceedings of the Harbour Board than a person occupying a £20 house, or was able to enjoy a more intelligent appreciation of the business of the town. Then, again, the qualification of members of the Board, on page 4 of the Bill, was extraordinary. Not only was the Board guarded by the fence put around them of the fancy franchise, but a second line of fortifications was carefully placed around this precious financial citadel of Belfast. No one could be a member of that secret assembly unless he possessed one of three qualifications. He must be rated to the relief of the poor to the extent of £60 a-year, which meant a rental of about £100, and confined the qualification to what might be called the aristocracy of Belfast. A second qualification was conferred upon the joint owners of property, provided the voter's share amounted to the annual value for rating purposes of £60. There was also a third qualification, which consisted in the possession of landed estate worth £200 a-year, or of personal estate of the value of £5,000, either in the man's own right, or in the right of his wife. He contended that these pro- 360 visions made the Bill altogether illusory; and although the Harbour Commissioners of Belfast, in introducing the measure, might have kept their promise to the ear, they had broken it to the hope; and the Board still remained, to all intents and purposes, a close Corporation, from which the legitimate influence of the town of Belfast was altogether excluded. He was of opinion that the proposal of his hon. Friend the Member for Cavan was a reasonable one, and one that deserved the attention of the House, because it was an attempt to get rid of a jurisdiction, unsuitable to the public interests, and to the spirit of the age.
§ MR. J. N. RICHARDSON
said, he would trouble the House with but very observations. His first point was this—that there was no articulate opposition from the town of Belfast against the Bill. Now, the town of Belfast possessed a population of 203,000, and it was the largest and most important place in the North of Ireland. Nevertheless, no opposition to the Bill proceeded from that town; although it could not be said that the inhabitants were not fully able to take care -of their own interests in the matter. In the second place, the franchise, which the Bill was introduced to alter, was practically reduced by the Bill from a £60 rating to one of £20. In the third place, this iniquitous and scandalous Board, for so it had been alluded to that day—[Mr. BIGGAR: No.] Ho was glad to hear that denial; for he had understood the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) to say that the proceedings of the Board had been of a most iniquitous character. Now, only a few years ago, the Board possessed so much of the confidence of the public, that it was able to withdraw its 4½ per cent Debenture Bonds, and re-issue Bonds at 4 per cent instead—the Bonds being taken up at par. Indeed, many people of the town of Belfast were glad to got thorn. Having brought these points before the House, he did not propose to occupy its attention further than to express his feeling that it must be deeply gratifying to the people of Belfast to see the interest taken in their town by hon. Members from the South of Ireland. The hon. Member for Cavan, as a Belfast man, had, undoubtedly, a right to interpose; but he protested against local matters being 361 interfered with, and discussed by hon. Members who lived at a considerable distance from the place. If his hon. Friend the Lord Mayor of Dublin (Mr. Dawson), or any other hon. Member, introduced a Bill for regulating local matters connected with the City of Dublin or of Cork, he (Mr. J. N. Richardson), and other Members representing the North of Ireland, would give to such a measure a cordial support. He trusted the House would pass the Bill, which came before it practically unopposed.
§ MR. JUSTIN M'CARTHY
said, that his hon. Friend opposite the Member for Armagh (Mr. J. N. Richardson) had contrived to lay down and introduce an entirely novel proposal in legislation—namely, that the interest which an hon. Member took in any Private Bill under the consideration of the House, and his conduct with regard thereto, must be regulated by the radius of the distance of the constituency he represented from the place affected by the measure. He (Mr. Justin M'Carthy) contended that any hon. Member had a perfect right to discuss every Bill brought before the House; and, whether it was a Private or a Public Bill, it was his duty to endeavour to improve it, if possible; and if it was based upon obsolete principles, then hon. Members ought to oppose it as far as they possibly could. His hon. Friend opposite, to whose speech he had listened with some interest, had adduced nothing in favour of the Bill, except that there had been no articulate opposition against it on the part of the ratepayers of Belfast. The same thing was said by his hon. Friend the Member for Belfast (Mr. Corry), whose sole defence of the measure was, that it had not been opposed by the ratepayers of the city which his hon. Friend represented. The hon. Member seemed, however, to forget that the ratepayers could have no locus standi before the Committee for the purpose of opposing the Bill. He (Mr. Justin M'Carthy) doubted very much whether the attention of the ratepayers of Belfast had been called very closely to the provisions of the Bill. Certainly, if the ratepayers of Belfast had had the provisions of the Bill brought fully under their knowledge, they were not so intelligent a body as he supposed them to be. The Bill contained some of the most objectionable and some of the most obsolete principles of the old forms 362 of legislation it was possible to mention. To begin with, he objected to the qualifications sought to be established by the Bill; he objected to the qualification for voting at the election of the Commissioners, as well as the qualification of the electors themselves. The Bill was a measure to amend the constitution and election of the Belfast Harbour Board Commissioners; but it contained the vicious principles which prevailed in the old Corporations, and which had led to nothing but monstrous extravagance, jobbery, and corruption. Powers such as those proposed to be conferred upon the Harbour Board would inevitably degenerate into mismanagement, if not into something worse. Upon all those grounds, and upon others which he would not trouble the House by explaining, he strongly opposed the Bill. It went directly in the teeth of all the principles aimed at by Parliament with regard to Local Government. It proceeded upon the principle that a body of experts—a select body of persons concerned in a particular trade or calling—were the only persons who could properly understand the interests of Belfast, and manage its affairs. He strongly objected to the principle of permitting men to have multiple votes, on the ground that it was opposed to every principle of modern progress. He supposed that, on the whole, the inhabitants of Belfast were the best judges of their own interests. It was not merely the people connected with the trade of Belfast—the exporters, and importers, and the owners of the shipping, who best understood the interests of Belfast, but the whole body of ratepayers. They were the best judges of their own interests, and should control the election of the Harbour Commissioners.
§ SIR ARTHUR OTWAY
said, he thought it was somewhat inconvenient, at a time when they were assembled to dispose of important Public Business, that the House should be led into a long discussion on a Bill of a very humble character, upon the points which had been raised by hon. Gentlemen opposite. He did not propose to follow those hon. Gentlemen, or to take up the time of the House, by entering into the large subject which had been raised. The history of the Bill itself was au extremely simple one, and what it proposed to do might be stated to the House in a very few words. The measure was certainly not of the 363 character described by the hon. Gentleman who had just addressed the House (Mr. Justin M'Carthy). He (Sir Arthur Otway) had been somewhat surprised to hear the Bill characterized as one of an objectionable character, having no advantages whatever attached to it. Hon. Members who so described the Bill omitted to mention that the Bill, for the first time, conferred a very much lower franchise upon the voting for the Belfast Harbour Commissioners than over existed before; that this franchise was exercised under the protection of the ballot; and that there were also other advantages, in a direction which he had supposed would commend itself to lion. Members opposite. One of these advantages was that it increased the number of Commissioners from 15 to 21. The Bill had already passed through the House of Lords, and it had come before this House practically unopposed. He had had some conversation with the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) in regard to the provisions of the Bill and in consequence of that conversation he had requested the promoters to afford further information from Belfast upon the subjects mentioned by the hon. Member for Cavan. The result was that a gentleman came over from Belfast, and gave evidence before the Committee of so conclusive a character, in reply to the observations of the hon. Member, that the Committee had no hesitation in passing the Bill exactly as it stood. In order that the House might not be led away in regard to the necessity of enlarging the franchise, and the iniquitous character of the present restrictive franchise, he would toll the House what had been done. The qualification for voting, before the introduction of the Bill, was based upon the police rate, and really amounted to a £40 or £50 occupation qualification. What was done by the Bill was to lower this qualification down to a £20 occupation franchise, and, as he had stated, to extend the number of Commissioners from 15 to 21. Furthermore, the protection of the ballot was given to the voter; and, therefore, a great stop was taken in the direction which he thought hon. Members sitting on the other side of the House would desire. Objection was taken now to the qualification of the Commissioners, and to the manner 364 in which they conducted their business. As far as he understood, no complaint had ever been made against the action of the Commissioners.
§ MR. BIGGAR
said, words had been attributed to him by the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. J. N. Richardson), which he had not used. He had certainly not approved altogether of the action of the Commissioners; but he had not characterized that action as scandalous and iniquitous.
§ SIR ARTHUR OTWAY
said, that no complaint of the past action of the Commissioners was made to the Committee, either in the House of Lords or in the House of Commons. And the Commissioners themselves seemed disposed to act liberally, because it appeared that they had put themselves into communication with a hostile body appointed by the ratepayers, in order to influence them in their action, and they had entirely adopted the proposal made by that Committee of ratepayers. When the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) complained of the extent of the qualification required on the part of the Commissioners, he omitted to tell the House how very important were the duties confided to the Commissioners. The electors of Belfast had very little to do with the vast property entrusted to the Commissioners. The Commissioners were the holders of Bonds amounting to nearly £1,000,000 sterling; and they had borrowed a sum of £750,000 upon those Bonds, with which the electors of Belfast had nothing whatever to do. And it was a sound principle that gentlemen who had to administer a large fund like this should be themselves men of substance, in whom those who lent their money could have perfect confidence. He would not trouble the House with further observations. The Bill, as he had said, was unopposed. He was far from underrating the opposition of the hon. Member for Cavan; but, up to that moment, the hon. Member was the only opponent who had appeared in any way against the Bill. There had been no complaint whatever on the part of the ratepayers of Belfast. No one appeared to oppose the Bill before the Committee; and he appealed to the House with confidence to support the decision of the Committee, which he was perfectly certain was a just and proper one.
§ DR. COMMINS
said, he thought the thanks not only of the House, but of the inhabitants of Ulster and of Ireland generally, were due to the hon. Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar), for having raised the question he had brought before the House that day. The Bill was one which he (Dr. Commins) thought it would be a great misfortune to the ratepayers of Belfast should be allowed to pass sub silentio, and to the ratepayers and traders of Ireland generally. It had been urged by the hon. Member for Armagh (Mr. J. N. Richardson), and the Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Arthur Otway), that no opposition against the Bill came from the inhabitants of Belfast. He wanted to know if hon. Members were acquainted with the way in which Private Bills, emanating from corporate bodies, were got up? The ratepayers, who wore the constituents of such Corporations, know nothing whatever about such Private Bills. Generally, a Committee of a Corporation was appointed, consisting of two or three members. Recommendations were made by the Town Clerk or the Law Clerk, and considered by the Committee; but the outside public were never informed of them. A Bill was drawn up and promoted; but the public knew absolutely nothing whatever about it, and had no opportunity of expressing an opinion upon it. Some years ago, Corporations were in the habit of introducing Bills containing rating provisions so much opposed to the interests of the ratepayers, that at last peoples' patience was exhausted, and the result was the passing of the Public Funds Act, which required that a Corporation, before introducing such a Bill, should consult the wishes of their constituents; and now that such a provision was necessary, he should like to know how many Bills of this character had received the sanction of the constituencies in England? An endeavour to introduce them had been tried dozens of times; but he did not remember a single instance in which a constituency had given its consent to a proposal in a Private Bill to give additional rating powers to a Corporation. So much, then, for the argument that there had been no opposition to the Bill from the ratepayers of Belfast. If the ratepayers of Belfast, or even the constituency of the Belfast Harbour 366 Board, narrow as it was, had been asked to give an opinion under conditions similar to those required by the Public Funds Act, this Bill would have been condemned, and condemned with such a consensus of opinion that it never would have been brought before the House. What was it that the Bill proposed to do? He was not acquainted with the whole of the provisions of the Bill; but, as far as he was able to judge, especially when he recollected the qualifications for the Commissioners of the Harbour Board, it was, to all intents and purposes, a shipowners' Bill. He had thought they had got beyond the age for giving a monopoly to any particular trade. This, however, was a Bill which gave a monopoly of the management of the Harbour and trade of Belfast to the shipowners, and the shipowners alone. The qualification for serving on the Board was a qualification, practically, of shipowners, and shipowners alone; and so large was the amount of the interest required for admission to the register that the qualification of the electors of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board was not one-tenth of what was proposed to be established in the case of Belfast. In the City of Liverpool, any person who imported or exported goods paying £10 in harbour dues had a vote; and, instead of having a shipowners' Corporation, they had a Corporation upon which the influence of the importer and exporter of goods was allowed to make itself felt. The only qualification was that the person should contribute, as an importer or exporter of goods, the sum of £10 per annum to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board Dues. Of course, any shipowner who was a large importer or exporter obtained due and proper representation on his own account; but, in the case of this Bill, there was no provision whatever to allow an importer or exporter of goods to have a voice in the management of the affairs of the Harbour of Belfast; and oven in the case of a shipowner himself the qualification was nearly 10 times as high as in Liverpool, with its £200,000,000 worth of property, with its debt of more than £20,000,000, and with an annual rating or receipt of Dock Duos to the extent of nearly £1,000,000 a-year. In the case of Liverpool, interests of 367 that magnitude were entrusted to persons possessed of mercantile knowledge, as importers or exporters, and with thorn rested the management of the docks and Harbour; whereas, in this case, they had shipowners, and shipowners alone. Of course, it was only too probable, when any particular trade required regulating, that persons who were interested in that trade would pass regulations in their own favour, and against the public interest. That was the only principle of the Bill, as far as any principle could be traced in it; and he thought the proposal of his hon. Friend the Member for Cavan to extend the area of the electoral franchise, and to secure that the persons elected by the Board should be drawn from a wider field, eminently entitled his hon. Friend to the thanks of the House and of the people of Ireland.
§ MR. T. A. DICKSON
said, that when this Bill was being promoted last year by the Belfast Harbour Board Commissioners, a deputation of ratepayers waited upon the Harbour Board and asked that the qualification should be reduced to £20. The Harbour Commissioners at once acceded to the request of the ratepayers, and the result was the Bill now before the House, which directly represented the views of the ratepayers; and in all its stages it had been an unopposed Bill. It had passed through the House of Lords without opposition; and he need not tell the House that the merchants and traders of Belfast were fully alive to their own interests, and would not have allowed the Bill to pass unopposed if they considered that in any way it infringed upon their rights, or was in opposition to their wishes. He had no direct connection with the Harbour of Belfast; but, as an Ulster man, he was proud of Belfast and its Harbour. His connection with the Harbour of Belfast was that he was called upon to pay heavy dues every week; but, so far as he was concerned, as one of the merchants of Ulster, he entirely approved of the Bill, and considered its provisions fair and moderate. He was also of opinion that, if the views which the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Biggar) proposed were adopted, it was perfectly plain that the Belfast Harbour Board would not be able to borrow £1,000,000 of money and maintain their Bonds in their present position. As to 368 the qualification of £20, that qualification was lower than several Harbour Bills which had lately passed the House. In the case of Dumbarton, the qualification was not a rating qualification at all, but was based upon the payment of Harbour Duos. In order to have a vote in Dumbarton, the ratepayers must have paid £5 in dues; in Greenock, £10 in dues; in Dundee, £10 in dues; and in Leith, £5 in dues. All those qualifications were higher and more disadvantageous than the present Bill provided for Belfast. He should like to tell the House the extraordinary progress which the views of the hon. Member for Cavan had made during the last 12 months. Last year the hon. Member was in favour of a £10 rating qualification. When upstairs a short time ago, before the Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Arthur Otway), he suggested an £8 qualification; and now, only a few days later, he asked for a £4 qualification. He (Mr. T. A. Dickson) only referred to this to show the rapid progress which the hon. Member was making as to the reduction of the franchise in connection with the Belfast Board. He had no political sympathy with Belfast; but he knew that the Harbour Board Commissioners were men of high intelligence and commercial honour—men who had made Belfast Harbour, and Belfast itself, a credit to Ulster and to Ireland. The right hon. Member for Carlow (Mr. Dawson) said he was standing up for the rights of the people of Belfast. He (Mr. T. A. Dickson) advised the right hon. Gentleman to allow the people of Belfast to stand up for their own rights, and to allow the ratepayers of Belfast to have a little of that Home Rule which he (Mr. Dawson) claimed for Ireland. Hon. Members opposite talked about the great abuses and jobbery of the Belfast Harbour Board. Did the House think there was any foundation for such charges, when, as he had just said, the Bill had passed through all its stages unopposed? Had the House no respect for the intelligence of the commercial community of Belfast? Did they think the people of Belfast would have allowed such a Bill to have been brought in by persons who were open to the charge of jobbery and corruption? No such charge had ever been made against them, and such an imputation 369 was utterly and entirely devoid of foundation.
§ MR. PARNELL
said, he was not surprised that the hon. Member for Tyrone (Mr. T. A. Dickson) should take the line he had taken, and that he should have trotted out, for the delectation of the House, all the stale arguments, advanced years ago, on behalf of the old unreformed Corporations. They were arguments which, in the case of these Corporations, had, in many instances, proved useless; and they were arguments which he (Mr. Parnell) trusted would prove wholly useless in respect to this old unreformed Corporation of the Harbour Commissioners of Belfast. He was not surprised that the hon. Member should have taken that line, because it showed the exact amount of confidence ho entertained in the great principle which was supposed to be the future platform of the Liberal Party—namely, the establish-merit of household franchise in the county.
§ MR. T. A. DICKSON
said, he wished to correct the misstatement of the hon. Member for the City of Cork (Mr. Parnell).
§ MR. SPEAKER
The hon. Member for the City of Cork is in possession of the House; and the interruption of the hon. Gentleman is irregular, unless he desires to make an explanation, which, no doubt, the House will be ready to hear.
§ MR. PARNELL
said, the hon. Gentleman (Mr. T. A. Dickson) would have an opportunity of correcting him as soon as he (Mr. Parnell) had finished what he had to say. It was not seemly on the part of the hon. Member to interrupt him before he had finished a sentence. He could only judge, by the public actions of the hon. Member, and the feeling of the present body of electors, which the hon. Member evidently dreaded, that he objected so strongly to the lowering of the franchise, no doubt, from a wholesome fear that it might deprive the county of Tyrone of the hon. Member's valuable services. The Chairman of Ways and Means had complained of the course taken by his hon. Friend the Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar), in introducing this question at a moment when other Public Business was awaiting consideration. Unfortunately, that was the only 370 opportunity hon. Members from Ireland had of directing attention to the very glaring abuses which a Liberal Government and a Liberal House of Commons were asked to sanction by this most useless Bill. The hon. Baronet the Chairman of Ways and Means would recollect that he himself had not scrupled the other day to deprive Irish Members of the opportunity which had fallen to their lot, owing to the chances of the ballot, of carrying a most important Irish measure. [Cries of "Question!"]
§ MR. SPEAKER
I must call upon the hon. Member for the City of Cork to confine himself to the Question before the House.
§ MR. PARNELL
said, that, as an excuse for his conduct, if the House would allow him, he wished to make an explanation.
§ MR. PARNELL
said, he had no intention of continuing to discuss the point, after having been requested by the Speaker to desist; but, in courtesy to the Speaker and the House, he wished to explain that he had considered himself in Order, because the Chairman of Ways and Means had himself referred to the matter. In obedience, however, to the direction of the Speaker, be should not, for a single moment, desire to continue the topic further. He was surprised that a Gentleman of the advanced Liberal views of the hon. Member for Rochester (Sir Arthur Otway), and who had hitherto been so consistent in the advocacy of those views, should lend the influence which his high position as Chairman of the Committees of the Whole House undoubtedly gave him to obstruct and impede the ratepayers of Belfast, and the humbler portion of the community, in obtaining a much-needed reform in the direction in which the Liberal Party had been pledged, over and over again, as deeply as they possibly could be. The Bill, as it stood at present, was practically illusory, as regarded its object of opening up the franchise, and rendering it possible for all classes and persons to be represented 371 upon the Harbour Board of Belfast, who had not hitherto succeeded in obtaining such a representation. What was the position they urgently desired to remedy, in regard to the Harbour Board, and the constitution of that Board, and which they thought the House ought to assist them in remedying, if they had any real regard for the principles of justice and liberty? The position of the Harbour Board of Belfast was that its constitution was of such a character that, although the hon. Member for Tyrone (Mr. T. A. Dickson) did not scruple to appeal to the suffrages of the Catholic electors, at the last General Election there was not a single Catholic out of the 15 members of this Harbour Board Commission. Nevertheless, the hon. Member came forward to support a measure of pretended reform of this kind, which would not, actually or practically speaking, make the slightest alteration in the constitution of that Board. The Chairman of Committees told them that the proposed franchise amounted to about £20, based upon the police rate. But anyone who had the slightest acquaintance with rating in the towns of Ireland knew that a rating occupation of £20, based upon the provisions of the present Bill, would practically mean a rental of £30 or £40. No person would obtain a house rated at £20 in the City of Belfast for a much less rent than £30 or £35; and he would sometimes have to pay more, so that, practically speaking, the reduction of franchise, which the promoters of the Bill put forward as a great concession to Liberal feeling, only amounted to a reduction of about one-seventh in the value of the qualification, at present required for a vote for the Board of Commissioners. Now, who were the people interested in the Harbour of Belfast? It was not only the large merchants, and the largo shipowners, like the hon. Member for the County of Tyrone (Mr. T. A. Dickson)—it was not this class only for whom he specially pleaded; but he (Mr. Parnell) submitted that the tendency of modern thought and modern legislation had indubitably established the principle that everybody who lived in a district governed by local government was just as much interested in the purity and economy of that local government as the rich and the possessors of monopolies, such as the shipowners and the 372 great merchants, for whom the hon. Member for the County of Tyrone had pleaded. He submitted that every shopkeeper in Belfast, who dealt in imported or exported goods, every artizan or mill-hand, who used articles of import, or produced articles for export, was just as much interested, from his own point of view, in the prosperity, good management, and economy of governing the Harbour of Belfast, as the great merchants and the large shipowners and the rich shopkeepers, who had hitherto exclusively maintained a monopoly over the control of this most important port. He could not imagine, for a moment, how the House deliberately, in the present day, could sanction the vicious principles contained in the Bill. The hon. Member for Tyrone said that a deputation of ratepayers came to London on the subject last year, and recommended that the franchise should be lowered to £20. But of whom did the deputation consist? It consisted of the very rich men, whose monopoly they were now trying to destroy. It was a self - constituted deputation, not even nominated by the Corporation, elected themselves by a franchise already sufficiently high—namely, an £8 franchise. It was a self-constituted deputation selected at hap-hazard. It came over to London, and made the most pernicious proposition which had been embodied in the Bill. The hon. Member for Tyrone also made a most startling assertion to the House which was entirely inconsistent with the facts of the case. He (Mr. Parnell) could not imagine how an hon. Member so well acquainted with the North of Ireland, and so much interested in the prosperity of the Port of Belfast, should have allowed himself to have been so much misinformed in regard to matters which ought to come under his everyday cognizance. The hon. Member told the House that, if the franchise wore lowered, the Harbour Commissioners would not be able to borrow money at so low a rate of interest as at present. What were the facts of the case? The Town Council of Belfast, which was elected upon a rateable value of £8, although £20 was the figure named in the Bill for the election of Harbour Commissioners; the Water Commissioners, who were also elected on a rateable value of £10; both of these bodies were able to 373 borrow money at exactly the same rate of interest as the Harbour Commissioners—namely, 4 per cent per annum. Reasoning from analogy and the probabilities of the case, surely if these two Bodies, elected on so much lower a franchise, were able to borrow money at 4 per cent, the Harbour Board of Commissioners, if the franchise were similarly reduced in their case, would be able to borrow money on the same terms. It had always been understood that the Harbour Board of Belfast was elected from the Protestant or Orange section of the community, and that that rendered the lenders of money disposed to consider the security much better, in regard to the payment of interest on the loans which they might advance from time to time. The present franchise given by the Bill would only result in complicating the present state of things. The Bill was altogether illusory. It was no reform at all, but a sham. He would like to have had an opinion from the Government upon the question; and he thought the House were entitled to hear the views of the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Chamberlain). He regretted very much that the right hon. Gentleman was not in his place. He should also like to have had an opinion from the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, who, in the last Parliament, used annually to bring forward a Motion for the reduction of the present county franchise to the level of the household franchise in boroughs. If the Bill had been one dealing with the Port of Liverpool, or any other of the great English ports, he presumed the House would have had the opinion of the President of the Board of Trade; and he regretted that they had not been favoured, not only with the views of the right hon. Gentleman on the present occasion, but also with those of the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant, who, he should have thought, would have considered it desirable to have been present during the discussion of this most important matter. There were very important questions which must crop up from time to time, as Harbour Boards came before the House with propositions for increased powers. Attention had already been called to the example of Liverpool, where the franchise was vastly lower than in the present case. 374 A considerable number of the Harbour Boards in Ireland were very badly constituted, both as regarded the method and the franchise provided for returning the members of the Board. The Bill would perpetuate the old and vicious principle of the multiple vote; and it abounded with many other imperfections. The subject was of so much importance to the people of Belfast, and of such value in indicating the tendencies of future legislation for Ireland, that it would not have been right for his hon. Friend, or for those hon. Members who were associated with him, but, on the contrary, they would have neglected their duty, if they had lost the opportunity, which the present proceeding afforded them, of protesting with all their might, and using all the means within their power, against the passing of a Bill which perpetuated so vicious a principle, and sanctioned so fraudulent a monopoly.
The House divided: — Ayes 215; Noes 21: Majority 194.—(Div. List, No. 131.)
Main Question put, and agreed to.
Bill, as amended considered; to be read the third time.