HC Deb 14 March 1889 vol 333 cc1664-8
MR. CRAIG (Newcastle-upon-Tyne)

I beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether the Government will consent to the appointment of a Select Committee to inquire into the prison treatment of persons committed under "The Criminal Law Procedure (Ireland) Act, 1887"?


No, Sir. The Government, while seeing no grounds for any investigation of the kind, would have no objection to it so far as they are personally concerned; but they do not think a Committee of the House of Commons consisting of political partizans would be a satisfactory tribunal for determining a question with regard to which there has been and is much envenomed controversy.

MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)

I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has any objection to allowing us any means of finally determining questions as to matters of fact with regard to the prison treatment of Mr. W. O'Brien, as the Chief Secretary for Ireland has questioned the accuracy of the statements which I made in the House yesterday, and the accuracy of which I am prepared to prove?


I should like to know what the investigation suggested by the hon. Member is to be. I think there would be a great advantage in having an investigation into many things in Ireland. For example, I should like to have an investigation in regard to the intimidation exercised on Irish prison officials. I should like to know what sort of inquiry the hon. Gentleman desires.


As the right hon. Gentleman has questioned my veracity, and as I am prepared to maintain it, I will accept either a Committee of the House or a public inquiry on oath.


No; I never questioned the veracity of the hon. Gentleman; but I did question the prudence of the hon. Gentleman in relying upon the statement in the Freeman's Journal.


The question has not been answered. I said that I would accept a Committee of the House or any public inquiry on oath. Which of them will the right hon. Gentleman give?


The Leader of the House has said that he does not think a Committee of the House is a proper tribunal, and I agree with him in that respect; and the constitution of any other tribunal is not an easy matter.


I must put a question to the First Lord of the Treasury, who has said that a Committee of the House is not an expedient tribunal. I understand that there is an issue of fact on a very important matter between the Chief Secretary for Ireland and the hon. Member. The hon. Member has made a statement, and the only answer which the right hon. Gentleman makes is that he has taken it from the Freeman's Journal, which happens to be the authority on which the right hon. Gentleman himself drew up a memorandum. What I wish to ask is whether a Minister of the Crown is entitled to say—[Cries of "Order!"] I am entirely in order. I would ask whether a Minister of the Crown is entitled to give that sort of denial which the right hon. Gentleman has given? [Cries of "Order."] Perhaps the noble Lord (Viscount Cranborne) will allow the Speaker to call me to order, and not do it himself. I wish to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether he will give any method whatever of ascertaining whether the point-blank denials of the Chief Secretary for Ireland are or are not well founded?


The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that it has been the unhappy lot, not only of myself but of most of my predecessors, often to make statements in this House at variance with those made by hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway. I think he will admit that if every time such a collision of opinion occured a public inquiry had been granted, the kingdom would not have sufficed to supply the tribunals. I should like to know what tribunal the hon. Gentleman would suggest before I give any answer.


I appeal to you, Mr. Speaker. The contention is not one as to matters of opinion, but as to matters of fact determinable by evidence. And the right hon. Gentleman having stated yesterday that the declaration I made to the House is untrue, I, being prepared to prove it, ask you, Sir, whether I am not entitled to claim from him some means of proving the statement I made?


That is not a question of order upon which I can be called in. The matter at issue must be decided as the House thinks proper.

MR. CONDON (Tipperary, E.)

Perhaps I may be allowed to say a word or two on the subject.


There is no Question before the House; but if the hon. Member desires to make a personal statement on the point that he informed me yesterday he wished to make he may do so by the indulgence of the House.


That was just what I am asking. I desire the indulgence of the House to make a personal explanation. The Chief Secretary, referring to Mr. Sexton's version of the O'Brien incident yesterday, said, "As he had repeated that calumny, he (Mr. Balfour) took this opportunity of again giving the most emphatic contradiction to every syllable of it." Now, Sir, it is a matter of public notoriety that I, in my capacity of Mayor of Clonmel, have sent reports similar to that which appeared in the Freeman's Journal to hundreds of persons in this country and in Ireland, in reply to inquiries as to Mr. O'Brien's condition and his treatment in Clonmel Gaol. I may also inform the Chief Secretary and the House that it was I who furnished the report to the representative of the Freeman's Journal at Clonmel as to the treatment received by Mr. O'Brien in that prison, and that that report was taken down by myself in writing from Mr. O'Brien, in the presence of Mr. Alderman Hackett, a visiting justice, appointed by the Grand Jury to look after prisoners in Clonmel Gaol, and also in the presence of the chief warder Gough. If the right hon. Gentleman grants the inquiry now asked for, and which I asked for over a month ago in replying to the letter addressed by the Chief Secretary to "My dear Mr. Armytage," and to which the right hon. Gentleman did not deign or dare to reply, I am prepared to prove every syllable that appeared in the report in the Freeman's Journal. I would then show to the country whether the Chief Secretary was more accurate in his denial yesterday than he was in his statement to the Dublin banqueters, when he said that Mr. O'Brien not only threw all obstacles in the way of allowing himself to be medically examined, but absolutely refused to allow himself to be examined.


It appears to me that the personal explanation of the hon. Gentleman is of a somewhat aggressive and argumentative character. I can only repeat to the House what I said before—namely, that, as far as I am concerned, I see a great advantage in having an adequate and independent inquiry which should not merely embrace the particular allegations over which this conversation has spread, but which should also investigate the whole question of the extent and method in which intimidation has been practised upon prison officials in Ireland. There is, however, a great difficulty in constituting a tribunal of such a kind as would meet with confidence on all sides. I have myself given great attention to the subject, and I have always given up the attempt in despair. But if hon. Members opposite make a suggestion that will command the favour of the House, no difficulty will be placed in the way.


Perhaps I may ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether he will propose a Bill for the appointment of a Commission of Judges?


Order, order!

MR. W. E. GLADSTONE (Edinburgh, Mid Lothian)

Sir, as a direct issue of fact has been raised between the Chief Secretary for Ireland and the hon. Gentleman the Lord Mayor of Dublin upon a matter of great consequence concerning the treatment of an hon. Member of this House now in prison, and as a mode of inquiry by a Committee of this House has been proposed by the Lord Mayor of Dublin and has been declined by Her Majesty's. Government, not on the ground that the inquiry is an improper thing, but on the ground that in their opinion that is not a fit organ for the inquiry, I will ask Her Majesty's Government whether, having declined to accept the mode suggested, they are prepared to propose any other mode of inquiry.