HC Deb 18 February 1887 vol 311 cc106-14
MR. TUITE (Westmeath, N.)

rose to move the following addition to the Address:— And humbly to represent to Your Majesty that it is the duty of Your Government to institute a full and searching inquiry into the means by which convictions were obtained against certain persons at present undergoing penal servitude for an alleged conspiracy to murder at Barbavilla, in the county of Westmeath. In support of his Motion the hon. Member recited at length the circumstances connected with the trial, and reviewed the evidence in order to show that it did not warrant a conviction. It had, he said, transpired since the trial that the evidence of the chief Crown witnesses, —the M'Keowns—was concocted, their statements being nothing short of a tissue of falsehood; and in the whole circumstances he contended that there was an unanswerable case for a full and impartial investigation. In England, whenever a conviction was impugned, the practice was to hold an impartial inquiry; but in Ireland there was no such inquiry. The inquiries held there were of such a character that Irishmen had no confidence in them. If an impartial inquiry was given, he believed that it would result in throwing open the prison gates. He would divide the House upon the question, and, if defeated, would take every opportunity of re-opening it.

MR. D. SULLIVAN (Westmeath, S.)

seconded the Amendment.

Amendment proposed, At the end of the 12th paragraph, to insert the words—"And humbly to represent to Your Ma- jesty that it is the duty of Tour Government to institute a full and searching inquiry into the means by which convictions were obtained against certain persons at present undergoing penal servitude for an alleged conspiracy to murder at Barbavilla, in the county of Westmeath."—(Mr. Tuite.)

Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."

MR. P. M'DONALD (Sligo, N.)

said, he thought that it was a pity that in this Jubilee year of Her Majesty's Reign the Oriental custom which we had adopted in India of releasing prisoners had not been followed in Great Britain, in the gaols of which a large number of innocent prisoners were confined. ["Oh!"] It was the duty of those who held that opinion to bring before that House any evidence of which they had cognizance which would tend to show that those who had been found guilty of a crime had been unjustly convicted; with the object of satisfying the demand for inquiry made by the public, who cried out against these unjust convictions. Seven years ago there was committed in Ireland a foul and most brutal murder—an unjustifiable murder. [A laugh.] Well, all murders were unjustifiable. He did not offer a word in palliation of such a murder. He should be ashamed to say a word in defence of a crime of such a nature. It was an inhuman murder, and it was a crime against the laws both civil and divine. That murder took place at a time when the country was in a state of panic, and when the Government of the day itself was in a state of panic. The consequence was that the Government were anxious to secure a conviction by any and every means. Two ineffectual trials had taken place, and at the third trial the Law Officers of the Crown resorted to that expedient which was becoming so common in Ireland, and which was the scandal to the administration of the law—he meant the system of jury - packing. [Cries of "Order!"]


I must point out to the hon. Member that he is not in Order in going into that subject.


said, that he would, of course, bow to the Speaker's ruling; but, at the same time, it had been stated in the newspapers of the day that the jury had been selected for the occasion, probably from the men of independent thought. Owing to the M'Keowns having concocted a story prepared for the purpose of obtaining a conviction of the men charged with this crime, the jury came to the conclusion that they were guilty, and they were now suffering from five to six years' imprisonment. After the conviction of these innocent men, the wife of one of the M'Keowns made a statement acknowledging that her husband had given false evidence, and that she had encouraged him to do so. The husband subsequently admitted that he had committed perjury. After these revelations had been made, a memorial was forwarded to the Lord Lieutenant praying for an inquiry into the case of these poor men. That had not been acceded to, and he now joined in the appeal of his hon. Friends to the Attorney General and the Chief Secretary to re-consider the matter, and grant an inquiry into the case.


I do not think that the speeches which have been made by hon. Gentlemen opposite have brought forward much that is new. Their speeches seem very strongly to resemble those which were delivered in this House in September last, and I am afraid that I can only repeat what I said on that occasion. One expression has been made use of by the hon. Gentleman who introduced the subject (Mr. Tuite) more than once, which it is necessary that I should notice. He has stated that the appeal which was made to the Lord Lieutenant in the case of the Barbavilla prisoners was decided by persons who had been interested in sustaining the conviction. Now I can assure the hon. Member that nothing can be further from the fact. There were no persons connected with the Irish Government who were interested in maintaining these convictions, or any other convictions which have been referred to from time to time in this House. No Member of the present Administration had anything whatever to do with the Government of Ireland at the time the prisoners in question were convicted. They were prosecuted by law officers nominated by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian (Mr. W. E. Gladstone), and reference was made to the Lord Lieutenant of that period. There was no reason whatever why the present Administration should not come to the consideration of the case with perfectly open minds. I may at once say that I have not the slightest intention of discussing in this House tonight the evidence given at the trials, which was commented on by the counsel on both sides and referred to by the learned Judges who directed the several juries, and which formed the basis of the verdicts of those juries. The prisoners in this particular case were defended by some of the ablest men at the Irish Bar. I have read the reports of the trials, and I can say that no single topic has been brought forward in this House which was not urged before the juries who convicted the prisoners. Nothing was omitted by the counsel who defended the prisoners. Both the Court and the jury had all the facts fairly before them; all the arguments that could be adduced on either side, and all the statements and reasons which could possibly influence their judgment. In the end they came to certain verdicts. Therefore, I am not prepared to re-try here a case which seems to me to have been tried by a proper tribunal who had all the facts before it. All I propose to refer to is what took place subsequently. The first conviction was obtained before the Lord Chief Baron in the month of April, 1884, and the subsequent conviction on the 9th of Juno in the same year. For some months afterwards no application was made to the Lord Lieutenant for the exercise of the prerogative of mercy. But somewhere towards the end of 1884 an application was made to the nobleman who was then Lord Lieutenant to exercise the prerogative of mercy. The case was carefully reviewed, and the result of the investigation was that the law was allowed to take its course.


An application was made a few weeks after the second batch of prisoners was convicted.


All I know is that the case was very fully and carefully investigated by the Lord Lieutenant. I have seen the papers that were before him; I have seen the various subjects into which he inquired; I know the advice he sought, and I am satisfied that no person could have taken more care to see how the prerogative of the Crown could best be exercised than the noble Lord who, at that time, occupied the position of Viceroy of Ireland. The result of the investigation was that the law was allowed to take its course. Now the friends of prisoners have aright to make fresh representations of any new facts which may arise; and they have a perfect right to call on those who represent the Crown to reopen the matter. In this case, the friends of the prisoners were not satisfied, and in the Autumn of 1885 all the facts were brought before Lord Carnarvon. No person could be more disposed to consider a case of this kind with care and caution, and with a strong leaning to the side of mercy, than that nobleman. I can assure hon. Members opposite that he entered into the case in the most full and complete manner; but anxious as he was to temper justice with mercy, he too came to the conclusion that the decision at which his Predecessor had arrived was a right decision, and that the law must take its course. A Viceroy has advantages in making inquiries which no one in this House possesses. He can communicate with the learned Judges who tried the case. In this case he did communicate with the learned Judges, of whom no less than three or four had taken part in the trials, and of course their judgment would guide him very much. If, with all these advantages, the Lord Lieutenant is unable to come to a correct conclusion in reference to a subject of this kind, I think it would be very difficult to ascertain how a correct conclusion can be arrived at. But that is not all. At a later date—I believe in the month of May last year—a different Viceroy of Ireland — Lord Aberdeen—considered the case. He had a right to do so, although the question had been brought before his Predecessor; and the result of his consideration was the same as before—namely, a confirmation of the view which had been taken by two of his Predecessors. In the month of October last the matter was brought under the notice of Lord Londonderry, the present Lord Lieutenant, and the same decision was arrived at. It will, therefore, be seen that the verdicts received the approbation of the learned Judges who tried the cases; and that the subsequent investigation by successive Viceroys disclosed no new facts that would justify the verdicts being displaced. On the last occasion I stated that the case would be brought before the Viceroy. It was so brought, and, after careful consideration, the decision of the Viceroy was announced. In the month of November last the hon. Gentleman addressed a letter to the Lord Lieutenant. The letter contained no new facts; but it referred in particular to a statement made by Constable Fitzgerald.


I did not state that there were any new facts; but I referred to facts which had occurred since the trials.


The fact is that the statement of Constable Fitzgerald was not only before Lord Aberdeen and Lord Carnarvon, but it was also before Lord Spencer. The statement itself has been read by the hon. Gentleman tonight. I have had an opportunity of seeing that statement, and of comparing it with another statement by Constable Fitzgerald contained in a letter written to his superior officer. Constable Fitzgerald was asked if he had ever made the statement referred to by the hon. Member; and, also, whether he had made the statement which is contained in his letter to his commanding officer. He answered both questions in the affirmative. He said that he had made a statement in the month of September, 1884, and that, in the same month, he had addressed a letter containing the same statement to his chief. Now, it so happened that the letter which he had written was forthcoming. I have had an opportunity of reading it, and I find that there is the greatest possible divergence between the two statements. In point of fact, the statements upon which the hon. Member relies are not contained in that letter at all. After careful consideration, we came to the conclusion that Constable Fitzgerald was under the impression that he had made certain statements, but that his letter was written in such a state of mental excitement as rendered it unreasonable to hold the writer responsible for the statements contained in it.


We have the statement made by the constable in our possession, and it is signed with his own hand.


No doubt Constable Fitzgerald made the statement which the hon. Member has referred to; but he always asserted that, at the same time, he had made a similar statement to his commanding officer in November, 1884. We have that letter, and, comparing it with the statement, there is not the slightest resemblance between the two. Moreover, he states in his letter that he has written all he is able to assert. When we find the constable making two statements, in the same month, differing so much in their character, it is impossible to place much reliance on them. They have evidently been written in such a state of mental excitement that it would be cruelty to any man to hold him responsible for them. I do not think it is necessary to say more. We have had precisely the same discussion to-night as we had in the month of September last. I do not think it would be a very useful occupation for the House to indulge in a prolongation of the debate. The facts of the case have been fully considered by the Court and the jury; they were also discussed in the House last year, and it would be most inconvenient to go into these matters again. I believe that whoever occupies these Benches must give the same answer that I have given.

MR. NOLAN (Louth, N.)

I do not propose to occupy the attention of the House for many minutes, while I call attention to another case in which there was not a single drop of blood shed, and yet a dozen men were sent to prison. If there had been anything like a conspiracy to murder, it would have got abroad somehow or other, and somebody living in the locality would have heard of it. But even the Royal Irish Constabulary, who are pretty well acquainted with the feeling that exists throughout the country, when any conspiracy is being hatched, knew nothing of this; and the general feeling of the country is, that there has been a great miscarriage of justice in the conviction of the unfortunate men to whom I refer. I think it is a case in which, upon the recommendation of the Government, the Prerogative of mercy might be exercised by the Crown. We are often told from the other side of the House that it would be becoming, on the part of the Irish Nationalist Members, if they would assist the Government in controlling the affairs of Ireland. Now, I know of no better means by which the Irish Na- tionalist Members could assist the Government in performing the difficult task of governing unfortunate Ireland than by bringing cases of this kind under their notice. It is all very well for the Government to say that it is their duty to maintain the law; the law may be maintained without resorting to harsh and tyrannical measures. There ought to be justice tempered with mercy; and the majority of the Irish peasants are under the impression that in matters of this kind there is very little either of mercy or justice, although there may be a good deal of law. In agrarian matters the Irish people look for neither mercy nor justice from Her Majesty's Courts of Law. It is unfortunate that that should be so; and I think that something might be done to remedy the state of feeling which now exists in Ireland, if Her Majesty's Government would give the matter their careful consideration.

Mr. P. J. POWER (Waterford, E.)

In regard to the Barbavilla case, I would remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General for Ireland that fresh facts have come to our knowledge which are not in the possession of the Government; and there would be great difficulty in putting them in possession of those facts, unless they consent to grant the inquiry for which we ask. I would also point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that one of the jurors who tried the Barbavilla case has distinctly stated that if he had known that the two M'Keowns had had an opportunity of communicating with each other, he would not have been a party to a conviction. We shall be able to prove that the two M'Keowns were in communication with each other, and that they concocted their story in consequence. I can assure the House that we do not go back upon this matter with any amount of pleasure; it is only a sense of duty that induces us to bring it forward. It is a story we cannot look on with anything but a feeling of shame. But we know that at the time the deed was done bribes of an enormous amount were offered which would have had the effect of bringing about perjury not only in Ireland, but in any other country in the world. Under these circumstances I sincerely hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman will use his influence with the Government to enable us to place before them the fresh facts we have been able to obtain.

Question put, and negatived.

Address agreed to:—To be presented by Privy Councillors.