HC Deb 01 March 1886 vol 302 cc1652-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the transfer of the Ulster Canal and the Tyrone Navigation or Coal Island Canal from the Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland to the Lagan Navigation Company, and for other purposes."—(Mr. Henry H. Fowler.)


This is a very extraordinary Bill to be brought in by the Government without some consultation with the Irish Members, who have, if I am not mistaken, opposed a similar proposal in two other Sessions of Parliament. It is not only opposed now by new Irish Members, but by at least three Members of the Commission which sat to consider the subject five years ago—namely, myself, the hon. Member who sat for County Leitrim and who now sits for an English constituency (Mr. Tottenham), and Mr. Dickson. And I should like to know if Lord Mouteagle approves of the measure, because formerly he was opposed to its principle? I should like to say a few words in explanation of the measure. There is a sheet of water in the North of Ireland called Lough Neagh, of which the neighbouring farmers complain, as it injures their farms. Well, the Government propose to hand over a Canal to a Company with £3,000. The offer is a very generous one, and I do not complain of it; but I complain that in the Bill in which it is proposed to carry out this arrangement, a clause is inserted declaring that Lough Neagh should be kept up to its summer level, which is its technical Parliamentary level. It is possible by doing this to injure the people in the neighbourhood of the Lough to the extent of £100,000 or £200,000. I should be perfectly ready to assent to the Bill, if this clause having reference to the keeping up of the level of Lough Neagh were omitted from it. The passing of such a clause, besides doing present harm, may do much injury to those who may want to reduce the level of the Lough at some future time. The Ulster Canal is a valueless concern; but there is another one which is still worse. The Ulster Canal, I believe, is of some little use, though a very little; but if, for the sake of this and the other Canal I mention, this clause is inserted, whilst doing a vast deal of harm to the farmers on the shores of the Lough, very little good will accrue to anybody. As having been a Member of the Commission, and as never having found any of the Irish Members support the Bill—not even those through whose localities the Canal passes—I conceive it desirable to offer this protest. I want Her Majesty's Government to promise to omit this clause of which I speak.


It is rather unusual to offer opposition to a Bill of this kind at this stage. It seems to me that the title of the measure sound like the refrain of a very old song that we have heard year after year and seen put off night after night. My desire in bringing it in so early in the Session was to obtain the judgment of the House upon it, one way or the other, as soon as possible, and finally to dispose of it. If the Members from Ireland are of opinion that the measure should be referred to a Select Committee, I shall be happy to concur in that view, and have it carefully considered in that way; but I must say it has been represented to the Government that there is a strong feeling in favour of the Bill in the neighbourhood which will be affected by it. It is said that the Bill will operate to the advantage of the people living on the banks of the Canal. The Canal is 40 miles in length, and is costing £1,100 a-year, whilst earning nothing. It has been thought that if, by handing it over to a Navigation Company, it could be rendered more useful, it would be well to make the experiment. The Government do not propose to give the Company more than £3,000; but if we hand over the Canal, we shall, of course, put those who receive it under a strict obligation to put it under thorough repair, and make it efficient for the navigation of the district through which it runs. The question is one on which we should wish the House to be free to express an opinion; and all I would say is that this is hardly the time—before the measure is printed and is in the hands of hon. Members—to enter into a discussion of its details. If it is now read a first time, I would take care not to put down the second reading at an hour when it would be inconvenient for hon. Gentlemen opposite to deal with it. As I have said, after the second reading, if it is desirable to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, I should be glad to assent to it. A large portion of the Irish people say that the measure is one which will operate greatly to their advantage. I am not here to say whether they are right or wrong; but I think Parliament should pass judgment on it, so as to dispose of it one way or the other.


I hope the hon. and gallant Member for Galway (Colonel Nolan) will see his way to the withdrawal of his opposition to the introduction of the Bill. He takes a deep interest in the development of the industrial resources of Ireland. I had the pleasure of working with him on the Piers and Harbours Commission, and am in a position to say that the interest he took in that matter and the ability he displayed have greatly benefited the fishermen of Ireland. This Bill which the Secretary to the Treasury wishes to introduce to-night will largely develop the industrial resources of Ulster, and I therefore trust that it will not be opposed by those hon. Members who really desire to develop the industrial resources of the country. I regret that I am almost alone here to-night on this side of the House; but it was not expected that opposition would be offered to the first reading of the Bill. If it had been known that this opposition was to be offered, hon. Gentlemen who are interested in the development of the industrial resources of Ulster would have taken care to attend in order to say something about it. I trust the House will listen to the views of the Secretary to the Treasury, and that the Bill will be read a first time now. I beg hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway not to throw obstacles in the way of developing the resources of Ireland; and I assure them that this measure happens to be one which will largely develop the resources of the Province of Ulster, which they say they would like to see at one with the rest of Ireland.


The hon. Member for South Belfast (Mr. Johnston) has spoken about developing the industrial resources of the Province of Ulster. Well, I should like to point out to the House the extent to which the Province of Ulster is benefited by the Canal he wishes to hand over to this Navigation Company, at a cost of £3,000 to the State. At present the Canal has an income, derived, I believe, from coals, of something less than £50 a-year, whilst the cost of putting it in something like decent order and looking after it amounts to something over £1,000 a-year. If that is the way in which the industrial resources of the Province of Ulster are to be developed, I think the sooner the development of the industrial resources of the Province of Ulster is given up the better. The hon. Member says he is very sorry that he is the only Tory Member from Ulster present at this moment. I also am very sorry that that is so, because I should have liked to hear some of them express their opinions upon this matter—I should have liked to have heard some of those who went the other day with an ex parte statement to the Secretary to the Treasury. And here I would protest as strongly as I can against this system of private ear wigging. Any representations that have to be made to the Government on subjects of this kind should be made here—any pressure which it is thought desirable to put upon them should be attempted on the floor of this House. The hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury has made no defence at all for this Bill; or, if at all, one of a very weak nature. What he says is, that the measure is one that has often been before the House, and which has often been opposed, and opposed successfully. No doubt, he thinks it only right that he should have an opportunity of trying his skill to effect that which his Predecessors have hitherto failed to do. This may be all very well from his point of view; but to my mind it is a serious waste of the time of this House. It seems to me that no more effective system for wasting time could be devised than that of persisting, Session after Session, in the introduction of a Bill which is thoroughly indefensible. But, as I have said, the hon. Member has not offered a word in favour of his measure. In opposition to the Bill we have heard the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Galway (Colonel Nolan), who was a Member of the Royal Commission which investigated the facts, in connection with this project, on the spot, and which saw that the proposal was untenable. We are told that this Canal is one of those links in the chain of water communication which is to lead from the North of Ireland to the Shannon; but it is a useless link, like that one lower down, upon which a former Government spent £200,000. The link to which I refer, for which a former Government were reponsible, was so utterly useless that no boat could navigate it; it was so stupidly constructed that no Canal boats could go below the bridges without being rebuilt. That is an example of the way in which the Board of Works in Ireland carries on its business. There is no doubt that some few people—some few resident in the locality of the Canal—may be more or less satisfied with this Bill, and probably a coal dealer or two, non-resident in the locality, will be benefited by it; but I would point out that the whole district, through which the Canal runs, is at the present moment uncommonly supplied with railway accommodation. The railways do not charge a higher rate for the carriage of produce along their route in the absence of competition than they would 1d. if the Canal competed for the traffic. We have no reason to suppose that the railways would raise their rates a single 1d. if the Canal were done away with. Whilst, therefore, there are no advantages to be gained by the passing of this Bill, I would point out that it may have a very mischievous effect, because it would render it impossible for all time to come to lower the level of Lough Neagh. Even at the present moment people living on the banks of Lough Neagh periodically suffer injury from floods. There is another objection to Bills of this sort; there are no Local Authorities in Ireland who are competent to superintend their operation. I think it is fatal to any Bill of this kind if there is no Representative Body by whom it can be carried out. It is all very well for irresponsible people, who, in some cases, know nothing of the facts of the case, to promote such Bills as this. I know that several of the hon. Members from the North of Ireland have no local knowledge whatever, and that, in point of fact, they know nothing of the merits of this case. I maintain that until we get a Local Representative Body in the North of Ireland, who can represent the ratepayers fairly and honestly, no Bill dealing with questions of taxation for drainage and other matters of that sort should be allowed to pass. I trust my hon. Friends will divide with me against the Bill even at its present stage; and I think that hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway on the opposite side of the House, who are in favour of economy, will see it would be very much better to sell the land of the Canal for the £5,000 which it would bring than to expend any more money upon it. The hon. Gentleman the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. H. H. Fowler) told us that this Canal Company had entered into a certain undertaking. It is no use to talk about the Company entering into undertakings. We know what a shady public Company will undertake. In point of fact, it will undertake anything; but to get it to fulfil its undertakings is a very difficult matter. I think that, unless the Government is able to offer very much stronger reasons than they have done yet why this Bill should pass, it is right that the House should insist upon a postponement to allow of further consideration.


On behalf of my constituents in South Derry, who have great interest in the drainage of the Bann, I wish to offer this Bill my strongest opposition. We often hear it said that the Irish people regard the English Exchequer as a cow from which they are continually drawing. But I wish to point out to hon. Gentlemen representing English constituencies that what we are doing in this case is to oppose the absolute throwing away of £3,000 of the taxpayers' money into the waters of the Ulster Canal. Now, the most astonishing thing to me is that some of the Members of the Opposition who approached the Treasury, in the form of a deputation, on Friday last, should have the hardihood to put forward some of the statements they did. The hon. Member for Mid Armagh (Sir James Corry) had the superb audacity to say that our opposition to the development of this Canal was due to our having an interest in Railway Companies in Ireland. Any argument, of course, against a Parnellite Member is good enough. At one time we are represented as being in a state of the most wretched and depressed poverty, and at another time we are represented as having such great interests in Railway Companies that we are opposed to Canals. I am surprised the hon. Baronet (Sir James Corry)—because he was made a Baronet by the late Tory Government for value received—is not here to-night, in order to defend the unjust attack he made upon Gentlemen below the Gangway for their action in connection with this Canal. I will read, for the instruction of English Members, one statement made by a member of the deputation to the Secretary to the Treasury. Hon. Gentlemen will then understand the value of this Canal to Ireland. The Canal is now making a total of £50 per annum; what chance, therefore, is there of the Company ever repaying the £3,000 proposed to be advanced by the State? The secretary to the Canal Com- pany—and I take this from the report in The Belfast News Letter, which was sent by a special reporter and across a special wire—said— There were 26 locks on the Canal, and it would take £10,000 to put the Canal in working order. £10,000 to begin with! At £50 a-year the House can imagine how many years it would take to make up £10,000. Two proposals had been made for raising this sum. The first was that the (Government should lend it to the Navigation Company; —that was a most cynical and delightful attempt to offer adequate security for the repayment of loan and interest— And the second proposal was that £3,000 should be given by the Government, the Company being left to borrow the other £7,000. the hon. Gentleman's Predecessors were prepared to accede to the latter proposal. The first proposal was that £10,000 should be expended, and when that would not wash the Company were content with £3,000. Yes; I venture to say they would have been satisfied with £2,000, or £1,000, or £500, or anything they could squeeze out of the Government. I will not say they wanted to share it amongst themselves; but, no doubt, they wished to make the pretence they were going to do something with these 26 locks, and then become bankrupt in the face of the public. The whole question of the Canalization of Ireland is a very difficult one. In my judgment, the number of Canals in Ireland is much too large. On this Lower Bann you are at present taxing the farming population of Ireland £15,000 a-year for the maintenance of these navigation locks, some of which locks were so objectionable to the peaceable population generally—to the non-Catholic population along the banks—that they blew them out with dynamite. The people argued that not a single boat passed along the Canal but hundreds and thousands of acres of their land wore being flooded. What a farce it is to pretend to go on with navigation when you have nothing to navigate. There are railways on each side of the Canal to take all the traffic the districts produce. There is no boat upon the Canal, and yet you tax the people thousands of pounds to make useless works for the purpose of navigation, instead of letting the rivers do what God intended, and that is to drain the land of Ireland down to the sea. You keep, by means of these useless locks, Lough Neagh to a level three or four feet higher than was ever intended; but the worst of all is that when you appointed a Government Commission to inquire into the whole subject—a Commission consisting, as it did, of the late Member for Tyrone (Mr. T. Dickson), the hon. and gallant Gentleman who, in the last Parliament, represented County Dublin, but who now sits for the Isle of Thanet Division of Kent (Colonel King-Harman), and the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Galway (Colonel Nolan), and that Commission condemns the thing root and branch— which has also been done by many men of independent character—the Government still comes forward and proposes to cast the money of the ratepayers into the fœtid waters of the Ulster Canal. On behalf of my constituents, who are deeply interested in the drainage of Lough Neagh, I join my hon. Friend the Member for Cavan (Mr. Biggar) in his opposition to this Bill. I think it is a monstrous thing that gentlemen should be allowed to come over from Ireland and pretend to the Treasury that they are entitled to borrow £3,000, when they admit that to do properly what is suggested an expenditure of £10,000 is necessary. For them to say they can over pay the interest on the borrowed money is a sham and a delusion, and if my hon. Friend goes to a division I shall certainly support him.


This is a matter which a number of us now sitting on these Benches have persistently fought against a series of Financial Secretaries to the Treasury, and I know for a fact that one of the Predecessors of the present Secretary to the Treasury, in his own mind, did not approve of the Bill which his official position compelled him to support in the House. I put it to Members opposite, who have manifested a much greater desire than I have ever witnessed before to give effect to the wishes of the Representatives of Ireland, that this is a matter in which we have reached practical unnanimity, and that in no assembly in Dublin would such a project as this have the least chance of success. If carried at all, the Bill will be carried against the unanimous wish of the Representatives of Ireland. It is supported by a very small number of men, who do not appear to have really studied the case in all its bearings, and therefore cannot be alive to the very serious and joblike character of the measure proposed. I do not wish to quote extensively from reports of the Commissioners appointed to examine this question; but I venture to call attention to the fact that so far back as 1861 Sir John Maclean, who was certainly very unbiassed, reported that the only plan he could suggest by which the Canal could be made useful was to take off the lock gates, drain the Canal, and convert its bed into grass land which might be let for grazing; that gentleman adding that the banks and waste land, which in many places were of considerable width, might be let for tillage. Later Commissioners had reported against any further expenditure of money—they showed it was perfectly useless; and they also showed that the loss of money taken at the lowest rate of interest charged by the Treasury for any advances of this kind must amount annually to over £6,000. Now we are asked to make a drain on the Treasury of a very considerable amount, and to hand that sum over to a Company which undertakes to do something. What that something is is not very clear; but the inevitable result will be that in a short time the Treasury, as mortgagees, will be obliged to foreclose because they will not be able to receive either their interest or principal, and then they will be in precisely the same position as now, with a worthless security on their hands, and have to come to the House with another Bill in order to induce some other Company to take it up. And so the game will go on. Public money will be wasted, and, as the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for South Derry (Mr. T. M. Healy) has said, injury will be done to the agricultural land in the neighbourhood. They have done the same thing here as in many other parts of Ireland; they have dammed up the watercourses and prevented the watercourses doing what they ought to do—namely, carry off the surplus water to the sea. I have, myself, seen tens of thousands of acres in one stretch under water, which, if these rivers were only allowed to do what they were intended and made to do, might never have been flooded at all. I do not know whether the Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. H. H. Fowler) recognizes the evident sense of the majority of the House; but perhaps he would prefer to have time to consider his position. He may possibly be prepared to assent to the Motion to adjourn the present debate. If it meets with his view of the present situation, I will move that this debate be now adjourned.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. Arthur O'Connor.)


I assure my hon. Friends that I have no wish to force on this Bill against the opposition of the Irish Members. Of course, there is to this, as to every question, two sides, and I should like the House to hear the other side. I may add that the Treasury are to be relieved from £1,100 a-year, and that is, perhaps, the bait held out to us. But I am quite willing to assent to the adjournment of the debate, on condition that ample Notice be given of its resumption in order that all Members from Ireland may have an opportunity of expressing their views upon the Bill.

Motion agreed to.

Debate adjourned till Monday next.