HC Deb 23 July 1891 vol 356 cc136-41

I wish to ask Mr. Speaker whether he has received any communication from any elector or electors in the East Division of Belfast.

MR. T. M. HEALY (Longford, N.)

Order, order!


Under the circumstances I shall reply to the question put to me by the hon. Member. A communication was made to me this morning by letter.


On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I wish to ask, as this is a matter affecting the constitutional rights and privileges of this House, whether it is proper for persons out of doors to address certain representations to you, Sir; and whether, if there should be founded upon that for electoral purposes a question by a Member of this House, that would not be a gross irregularity?


It is because the constitutional rights of the House are affected that I propose to answer the question. A Memorial was sent to me both in my personal and official capacity from certain electors of Belfast. I do not think it right to lay it before the House. It is, of course, a very different matter indeed from the subject I com- municated to the House the other day, and which directly affected the investigation of the case by the House. This is a communication on behalf of a certain number of electors complaining of the suspense under which the electorate are placed in the present circumstances, but it is a matter entirely for the House. If there is any suspense, that is caused by the action of the House, and I am not the proper medium of communication for information of that sort. If the electors desire any representation of that kind to be made, it should be made in the form of a Petition presented by a Member of the House and laid before the House in the ordinary way. That is the only reason why I have gone out of the ordinary course, in answering a question on the subject.

*MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)

I should like to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether, in view of the practical disenfranchisement of East Belfast, by the course of events which has occurred, he will take that fact into account in considering the course which the Government will pursue?


I was about to move that the Order on the Paper for the attendance of Mr. de Cobain be discharged. I have carefully considered what passed in the House a few days ago, and I have certainly come to the conclusion—and nothing I have heard has tended to weaken it—that I shall be meeting the wishes of the House if, in view of the medical certificate, I move that the Order for the attendance of Mr. de Cobain be discharged. I am bound to add in this matter that it appears to me that we have simply to look to the impartial duty of this House, and that we have to take care that there shall be no assumption of guilt, notwithstanding whatever appearances there may be, one way or the other, and that we cannot allow political considerations, even when connected with so important a constituency, to induce us to move one step in setting a precedent which may be of considerable scope in the future. My hon. Friend (Mr. T. W. Russell) asks me whether I have taken the political convenience of the electors into consideration.


I have not considered their political convenience at all. It simply amounts to disfranchisement.


I did not say Party considerations, and I do not for one moment suggest that my hon. Friend meant Party considerations; he meant the political consideration whether the constituency should remain without its Member or not. That is, no doubt, a very important consideration, but I am bound to say I look also to the fact that we are close to the end of the Session, and I think we are bound not to deviate from the course we consider right, namely, that, in the face of the declarations made, we should not proceed to expulsion. I venture to think that that will be the general sense of the House, and I therefore beg to move that the Order for the attendance of Mr. de Cobain be discharged.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Order be discharged."—(The Chancellor of the Exchequer.)

(4.32.) MR. T. M. HEALY

I desire to say a word with reference to the political or party considerations said to be involved. I have never known Party considerations to be imported into such a matter in the way they have been by a letter in this morning's papers and by the remarks of the hon. Member for South Tyrone (Mr. T. W. Russell). Mr. do Cobain's seat is filled as much as is the seat of the hon. Member for South Tyrone. Is it to be suggested that a Member shall be expelled the House because there are a number of ambitious candidates who desire to have his seat? It is the coolest assumption I ever heard of. With regard to the disfranchisement, which now weighs so much with the hon. Member for South Tyrone, there are two Members in Galway Gaol; and has the hon. Member troubled himself about the disfranchisement of Mayo or Cork? The late Member for Aston Manor was in South Africa for two years, and no complaint was made of disfranchisement. I never heard anything more indecent than the suggestion that this House, which is a High Court of Justice, should intervene for the sake of the convenience of certain candidates for a seat which is not vacant.


The hon. Member has attributed to me a motive which it never occurred to me to entertain, namely, consideration for the candidates for East Belfast. What I had in my mind was this—that for months a great constituency has been disfranchised by Mr. de Cobain's absence from the House, and he now refuses to come to the House to perform his duties as a Member. It is quite true that there are some Irish constituencies that take the non-attendance of their Members very easily. Irish Members who are not in gaol have disappeared almost entirely, and have hardly been seen during the present Session. It does not follow because those constituencies do not care whether they are represented or not that the constituency of East Belfast takes the same view. It never occurred to me to think of the convenience of Sir W. Charley or Mr. James Henderson, who are candidates. I was thinking of the constituency itself. Part of the City of Belfast has been disfranchised during this Session, and it objects to that disfranchisement existing any longer. I quite concur, however, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that it is better in the circumstances to give Mr. de Cobain the further chance that time may give him, and so far as I am concerned, I do not raise any objection to the Motion. Mr. de Cobain might be prejudiced if the House proceeded to his expulsion, but assuredly he has done more to prejudice himself than any one else has.

(4.35.) MR. J. LOWTHER (Kent, Thanet)

I do not wish to intervene in the controversy between the hon. Gentleman opposite, but rather to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what course he intends to pursue with regard to this matter in the future Session. The right hon. Gentleman speaks of postponing the matter on the ground of the late period of the Session. That may be a means of saving time and of promoting the convenience of the House; but has the right hon. Gentleman considered what expectation he has of dealing with this matter at any future time? There is much to be said in favour of the House allowing its Members to be dealt with according to law, and not interfering in their favour or against them when they are charged with offences which have no relation to their position as Members of the House. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer bases the Motion for discharging the order on the late period of the Session, I must enter a protest against its withdrawal on any such ground. The certificate before the House discloses no ground for our waiving for a moment the proceeding on which we have embarked. The certificate does not state that Mr. de Cobain was precluded from obeying the order of the House and that he would be injured by complying with that order; on the other hand, it refers to the possible consequences of Mr. de Cobain appearing before another tribunal with which this House has nothing to do. If an application is to be made for postponement of trial on any such ground as is set forth in the certificate, it ought to be made, not to this House, but to the tribunal before which the case will come. With the exception of the case of Mr. Sadleir, precedents have to be looked for a long way back, and in almost all the cases in which the House has taken action the offences had a direct bearing on the position of the accused as Members of the House. If the House makes an order and allows it to be evaded by such a transparent device as the excuse now put forward, the proceeding will not tend to the dignity of the House. We have not had even a personal assurance from Mr. de Cobain that he intends at any time to return and submit himself to the order of the House or to place himself within the jurisdiction of the tribunals of the land. On the contrary, there is published in the newspapers an announcement purporting to be signed by him in precisely the opposite sense. We shall probably be told next Session that climatic or other considerations precluded him from obeying the order of the House; and then the lateness of the Session or the antiquity of the Parliament may be assigned as a reason for allowing the proposed proceedings to fall into abeyance. We have made an order which has been ostentatiously set at defiance. Whether we were wise in making it is a point on which I myself have great doubt. I hope the House will not make a further order without intending that it shall be obeyed, or, if it be not, that action shall not be delayed except for far more substantial reasons than those now advanced.

*(4.42.) MR. GOSCHEN

The right hon. Gentleman has stated that there is no evidence of the intention of the hon. Member for East Belfast to appear in his place in the House. The certificate entered on the Votes is to the effect that he will not be well enough to appear on July 23, which, by implication, is a declaration that he intends to appear when he is able. Further, his solicitor says Mr. de Cobain states that the charges are wholly without foundation, that they are the result of conspiracy, and that it is and always has been Mr. de Cobain's intention to return to Ireland and meet them. With these declarations before us the best course is to wait and see whether he does meet the charges in the course of the present year.

Question put, and agreed to.