HC Deb 27 July 1887 vol 318 cc194-7
MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

asked Mr. Attorney General for Ireland, To state to the House the specific words from the Windgap placard produced on Tuesday by the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland which, in his opinion, make that placard an illegal document, and justify its destruction by the police?


The Question of the hon. Member is founded on a misconception of the answer of the Chief Secretary. He did not say that the placard was criminal. He said it was regarded as inflammatory. It is the duty of the police, especially in a district where social disorder exists, or is likely to take place, to remove placards of an inflammatory character, as tending to a breach of the peace or violation of law. The action of the sergeant in tearing down the placard was approved of by the District Inspector, who is acquainted with the circumstances of the district, and who considered the placard of an inflammatory character. The placard cannot be construed as if it were an abstract legal pleading; but must be regarded with reference to considerations of time and place and the condition of the district. The placard contains language which, in the circumstances, may be regarded as inflammatory, and as tending to social disorder and a breach of the peace. I see no reason for questioning the legality of the conduct, of the police, who must necessarily act in such matters promptly upon their knowledge of the locality and the facts. I do not know whether it would be necessary for me to read the placard in extenso. [Home Rule cries of "Read!"] The composition appears to me to be of a very flatulent kind, and some of the words appear to me to be reasonably capable of being construed as of a character which might be inconvenient and might lead to a breach of the peace. The words are these— Our true and tried leaders are day and night fighting with that indomitable spirit with which the Celt only can fight our cause in staying the hand of extermination, and our duty is to give them what help we can in their hour of trial. The placard does not say what kind of help, and that must always be considered with reference to the circumstances of the district. Are we to stand idly by while such scenes are being enacted? The hon. Member will remember what was stated yesterday with regard to the state of Kilkenny. We can materially aid them by banding ourselves together like clamps of steel under the banner of the Irish National League, and proving to our enemies that coercion has no terrors for us. That description of language might cause no discomfort or alarm to the police in London, but it might be very different in Kilkenny.


Do I understand the right hon. and learned Gentleman to say that the words which he quoted from the placard, and which I alluded to yesterday before I put the Question to him, words which say that the Parliamentary Representatives are fighting day and night in the House of Commons, and inviting the people to join the local branch of the National League and to support their Parliamentary Representatives, are of a character, in the opinion of the Government, so inflammatory as to justify the police in tearing such placards down when they appear in Ireland at the present time?


Order, order! That Question is in itself of a very argumentative character and asks for an opinion, and it is not usual to ask for an opinion from a Minister in the form of a Question. Indeed, it would be out of Order.

THE LORD MAYOR or DUBLIN (Mr. T. D. SULLIVAN) (Dublin, College Green)

Arising out of the answer of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I wish to ask him whether the paper which published the language of this placard, or language of a like kind, will be liable to be seized by the police; and, whether persons who make use of such language in their speeches will be liable to prosecution under the Crimes Act?


Each case will be dealt with on its own merits when it is brought before the Attorney General.

MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)

As the right hon. and learned Gentleman is Law Officer of the Crown, and as I am entitled to refer any question of law to him, and as he has in his answer applied the words "flatulent." "inconvenient," and "inflammatory" to this placard, I would ask him, with reference to his own special Office, whether or not the placard was intrinsically, or because of the circumstances surrounding it, illegal; and whether a placard which would be legal in one part of Ireland would be illegal in another; and whether a placard which may be properly and legally posted up in one part of Ireland may be properly torn down in another?


I think I have explained sufficiently that the nature of the placard must be construed with regard to its surroundings, and that what would attract the attention of the police in one district might not be considered worth intervention in a different locality. The police act on the spot with a knowledge of the facts.


I have asked whether a newspaper publishing the contents of that placard and circulating in the district referred to is liable to be seized by the police?


What class of officer is entitled, in the view of the Irish Executive, to make a complicated construction of the legality, inconvenience, and flatulence of a placard? Can any one of the 11,000 police-constables in Ireland make such a construction on his own authority; or is the power of making this construction confided only to superior officers, such as a Divisional Magistrate, a County Inspector, or a District Inspector?


The law as to the power of the police, as I understand it, is the same in England as in Ireland.

MR. R. T. REID&c.) (Dumfries,

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say that, under the Common Law of England, anything of this kind could be torn down by the police?


Yes, Sir; if there is any danger of a breach of order, I think a policeman, having regard to the locality, would be justified in taking immediate action. In this case, the conduct of the sergeant was approved of by his superior officer, who was intimately acquainted with the district. Of course, if a policeman in any way exceeds his duty complaint can be made in the ordinary way.


I must press the right hon. and learned Gentleman for an answer to my Question. It is a very simple and distinct Question—whether a newspaper publishing the same matter as is contained in that placard, and circulating in the district referred to, will be liable to be seized by the police?


That is a question of law, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman could not answer off-hand; and I doubt even whether such a Question could be put to him properly.