MR. MAC NEILL
, Member for South Donegal, rose in his place, and asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, viz., the destitution of the people in North West Donegal, and its perilous aggravation by reason of the failure of the Government to institute works for the relief of distress in that district; but the pleasure of the House not having been signified, Mr. Speaker called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than 40 Members having accordingly risen:—
(4.15.) MR. MAC NEILL (Donegal, S.)
I must express my thanks to hon. Gentlemen for having supported me in bringing forward this Motion at a time when a most important Bill is about to be discussed, and in which they are vitally interested. The matter which I wish to bring before the House is, however, of such great importance that I hope I may be excused for any temporary embarrassment I may occasion. I trust that I shall show my appreciation of the indulgence of the House by occupying its attention for a very short time. My attention has been directed to the question of distress in North West Donegal by a letter in the National Press from the Most Rev. Dr. O'Donnell, a most distinguished Prelate, and the friend of everyone in the community in that district of Ireland. The Right Rev. Prelate has felt it his duty to call attention to the destitution which exists among a population of 21,561 persons, and to the fact that that enormous dis- 1078 trict has been exempted from the relief works, although it is one of the most congested to be found not only in Donegal but probably in all Ireland. The Government have received many notices of the impending distress in Ulster. I myself have frequently addressed questions to the Government with reference to the failure of the potato crop; and last autumn the Chief Secretary received an official Report on distress in Ireland, which stated that North West Donegal was threatened with great distress on account of the total failure of the potato crop. In September last the clergy of Letterkenny and the district met first at Letterkenny, and subsequently in Dublin, and passed various resolutions calling attention to the impending calamity; but in a letter written on October 3 the right hon. Gentleman declared that there was no distress, and that such as might occur the Poor Law was abundantly able to meet. The right hon. Gentleman added that the country was not seriously to consider a panic that was obviously got up for political purposes. For my own part, I have never discussed these questions from a political point of view, and I think the right hon. Gentleman will not seriously suggest that Dr. O'Donnell is likely to be actuated by political motives. At the same time, I think there ought to be a strong feeling of indignation against any Government which fails to discharge the primary duty of a Government, the protection of the lives of the people from starvation. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle (Mr. J. Morley) went to Ireland to investigate the matter personally, and he wrote to the Chief Secretary suggesting that he should examine the condition of affairs for himself. In his answer the Chief Secretary rather reproved the right hon. Gentleman for dictating what the conduct of a Chief Secretary ought to be; but surely the man who has practically despotic rule over Ireland is bound to look after the welfare of the population he governed. But a change soon came over the spirit of the dream of the Chief Secretary. After the right hon. Gentleman had declared that there was no distress except what was got up for political purposes—[Mr. A. J. BALFOUR: I never said anything of the kind]—the 1079 right hon. Gentleman received an application from Mr. Hamilton, a landlord's agent in the centre of the North West Donegal district, telling him that the potato crop had absolutely failed; and the hon. Member for South Tyrone (Mr. T. W. Russell), who had been travelling there, and was filling the position since occupied by the noble Lord the Member for South Paddington (Lord R. Churchill), namely, that of correspondent to a London daily paper, wrote to the public Press about the distress in the locality. He said there could be no doubt that the potato, as the source of the people's food, had collapsed. That was early in November, and the hon. Member pointed out what we all saw, that distress in the locality was imminent, and that it was likely to be most acute. Then came the question what ought to be done, and the remedy that was pointed out as adequate to provide support for the thousands of distressed people was the construction of a railway from Letterkenny to Gweedore. The hon. Member for South Tyrone, addressing an Unionist meeting, referred to this very railway, and urged upon the Government the necessity of constructing it. He stated that the railway system in Donegal was absolutely incomplete, unless there was a line in the northwest of the county—meaning thereby a railway through the congested districts from Letterkenny to Gweedore. There were Petitions for the rail way, which was sanctioned by the Privy Council; and a deputation from the Grand Jury waited on the Board of Works and on the Chief Secretary in support of the railway, and received favourable assurances. When the Chief Secretary was in Gweedore, Mr. Olphert strongly urged upon him that in the interests of the community at large this railway should be constructed. The Bishop of Donegal, in the discharge of his duty, recently issued a pastoral to his clergy, and in the strongest language urged that some works should be instituted; that, in order to keep up habits of industry among the people, and to ensure a proper and healthy tone of self-respect, an opportunity should be held out to them to maintain their independence by hard work. The construction of a railway would have relieved these numerous and unhappy people. Then, I ask, why 1080 were not piers and harbours constructed so that the people might get an opportunity of reaping the harvest of the sea? Take the parish of Gweedore, which the right hon. Gentleman was only in a few hours and left in the gloom of the morning. The parish contains 1,000 families, or about 5,000 persons. I find from Father M'Fadden's statement that no fewer than 800 families are supported by credit, or four-fifths of the whole number, and that the outstanding debts of the people come to about £10,000. I find that the average valuation of holdings in this country is £1 per individual, whilst the average valuation for each individual in Father M'Fadden's parish is about 3s. If a pier were built out into the sea it would enable deep-sea fishing to be carried on in rough weather. The construction of a harbour there was recommended by the Board of Works in 1888, but not a single pound has been expended upon it. I should imagine that of all places in the world Gweedore would be the place the right hon. Gentleman would be most anxious to help. It is a place where the right hon. Gentleman's administration has been characterised by terrible horrors, by the degradation and prostitution of justice, by armed military occupation, by passports, and by domiciliary visits. I have simply summarised what has taken place, and I am sure many Members of the House will testify that I have not exaggerated it. Take the question of the roads in Gweedore. Father M'Fadden is a practical engineer, and he made this offer to the Government early in January last—that he, by the use of his own skill and experience, would construct 20 miles of road for £5,000, and would out of that sum keep alive and well some 300 families for six months, whereas no Government contractor could do it for less than £15,000. Of course this offer was rejected because it came from a Catholic priest who had the interests of the people at heart and was acquainted with all their wants. I am inclined to meet the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary in a fair spirit on this point, because I am bound to say that since he went to Donegal himself there has been a very considerable change in his spirit and tone when talking of the distress. He now admits 1081 that distress exists, and says he will personally examine into any cases that are mentioned. I come now to the question of mortality. Dr. Smith, the medical man of the parish of the Rosses, has under his charge no fewer than 13,000 people, and he says that the illness in that vast district has, during the last year, more than trebled, and the mortality has increased 2½ times. I have obtained a great deal of the information I am using from the letters which have appeared in the National Press from the Commissioner of that paper. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will endeavour to get another dispensary doctor appointed in the district, because Dr. Smith is seriously overworked. The Castle Relief Fund is being distributed there, but the right hon. Gentleman very well knows that that Fund ought only to be an auxiliary to the larger work of relieving distress. The Castle Fund is a charitable fund, pure and simple, and we are not satisfied, unless it be in very exceptional circumstances, that any of our people should accept charity. The fund is distributed in accordance with a very peculiar system. The right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary stated, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for West Belfast (Mr. Sexton) that no family is entitled to any relief from the fund if it contains one healthy member able to work. That, no doubt, is a very proper rule, but the difficulty is that there is no work for them. It is pitiable to see a strong', healthy man with his hands in his pockets, and his poor miserable children gathered around him, and to hear him say, when he is asked why he is not working, that there is no work for him to do. I gave the right hon. Gentleman a statistical record respecting every family in that parish, with the amount of debts due from each, and how the head of the family was employed, and so forth. There is one poor creature called Harvey, who, when the Castle Fund was being distributed, was working away from home. There was, in consequence, no able-bodied member of the family at home, and relief was given. Harvey, however, came home sick; and directly he did so, the relief given to his family stopped. The family would now be absolutely destitute except for the few shillings 1082 given to them by the parish priests and the charitable people in the neighbourhood. Certainly, if one wishes to see real charity and generosity, one must go amongst the poverty-stricken Irish peasantry. I do not think it was right or fair that any political complexion should be given to this Castle Fund. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Mid Lothian was a most liberal subscriber to that fund, and as large a sum as £1,200 was on one occasion subscribed to it at a meeting presided over by the hon. Member for Carnarvon (Mr. Rathbone), and at which the hon. Member for Flintshire (Mr. S. Smith) spoke. I was very much surprised to notice that Lord Salisbury spoke of the fund as if it were a political organisation got up for political purposes by the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary. The hon. Members for Carnarvon and Flint, in handing over the subscriptions to which I have referred, urged that the fund should be distributed by persons having some local control, and possessing the respect and sympathy of the people, and not by police officers or resident magistrates. I am very sorry that the right hon. Gentleman could not give the distribution to the Poor Law Guardians or the parish priests, or to some person having the confidence of the people. The quarter-acre clause has worked in an awful way. Every poor man who has in his own possession—in physical occupation—a quarter of an acre of land is unable to get out-door relief, but must go into the workhouse, and the moment he does so the landlord has a free hand to deal with his property. On the eve of the famine the tenants went into the workhouse, and no fewer than 55,800 men in this way were driven by stress of circumstances out of their holdings, for on coming out of the workhouse they found their farms in the possession of their landlords. This quarter - acre clause has paralysed the hands of the Poor Law Guardians, and no matter how much they desire to give out-door relief to the poor tenants they are unable to do so. They see before them the small farmer to whom temporary relief in the shape of food would be of the utmost importance, and they see him pause in making his choice of alternatives—either to lose his holding or to die of famine. In connection with Donegal 1083 there is a painful state of things which the English people cannot realise at all, that is to say, the physical condition of the place. Go into any congested district of North Donegal and you will find what I have witnessed with my own eyes—and, mark you, a "congested district" here does not mean what it would mean in England. Very frequently there may seem to be a sparseness of inhabitants in a district, but the sustenance for the people is so small that the congestion may be severe though there may be only one man, or, at the most, two or three men to each square mile. The cottages are of the most humble description. You enter one of them, but for two or three minutes you are unable to see anything. You have a smarting feeling in the eyes produced by the smoke which rises from the miserable peat fire which is smouldering, not in the hearth—for there is no hearth—but in the middle of the floor of the but. Then, when you have become to some extent accustomed to the smoke and can see, you observe in the cabin a tall, gaunt man and woman, in rags, with an absolutely hopeless expression of countenance, pallid and hungry looking. You see besides several miserable specimens of humanity in the shape of children huddled together. In Donegal you see less joy written in the people's faces than you see in any other part of the world. The children seem prematurely old. I have never seen a child smile in any of the miserable, famished districts of Donegal. They are wizened, dejected, pitiable creatures. Lord Salisbury once in one of his speeches—a speech which ought never to have been made, as it was unworthy of a person in his position, and of his antecedents—compared these poor Irish peasants to Hottentots. All I can say is that they are worse fed than the Hottentots, whom I have seen in their own homes. The food they have when the potato fails them is Indian meal—a dreadful mess—and seaweed. This seaweed I have myself seen in use, and out of courtesy when it has been offered to me I have myself endeavoured to eat it. But it is like leather. Such is the normal condition of these people when things are bright. They are not educated in the English language; they have no idea of reading or writing; they have little knowledge 1084 of public affairs, and they are unacquainted with matters affecting their neighbours as they do not read the newspapers. Their condition is hopeless, and their constant endeavour merely to stave off famine, and famine comes whenever the potato crop fails. That is the condition of 21,000 human beings in Donegal at present. I thought I should not be discharging my duty to the country if I did not place these matters clearly before the House. I am fully sensible of the kindness and attention with which I have been heard by Members of the House on all sides. What I plead for is a mere matter of justice and humanity. I ask the right hon. Gentleman who replies to me to deal with these people, not as machines from whom rent must be extracted, but as beings with the same feelings and affections as ourselves—even though they may express them in uncouth language. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to give us some hope with reference to the condition of these people. I claim on the ground of Christianity, justice and mercy for people whose lot is extremely miserable, and I trust I shall not appeal in vain to the right hon. Gentleman to exercise his power in order to bring them some relief in their great necessity.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Mac Neill.)
§ (5.0.) MR. A. O'CONNOR (Donegal, E.)
I venture to think that however much hon. Members may be disappointed by the displacement by this Motion of the first Order of the Day, they would, had they personally witnessed the condition of this district, readily admit that the Members for Donegal are justified in the action they are taking. After all, the saving of the lives of the people should be the first business of this House, and I venture to assert that special and prompt steps must be taken if the lives of the people of Donegal are to be saved. This is the most remote and inaccessible part of Ireland; on the one side it is bounded by mountains; on the other side by two arms of the sea. It is in area about 330 square miles; it is a bare, barren, waste district, and yet its population numbers 25,000. The representations which we have made from our places in the House, the representations which have been 1085 made by the Bishop of Raphoe, and the clergy, and by large numbers of people who have visited the district, ought to have secured active and practical relief for the terrible distress now prevailing there. The distress is prevalent not only in Gweedore, but also in the Rosses and other parts of the county. Gweedore itself is not a small out-of-the-way parish. It is a district 68 square miles in extent; it has a population of 5,600, and these people, at the best of times, can only manage to make a bare living. But when their staple food fails they are immediately reduced to great destitution, and to the danger of starvation. The valuation of the land in the occupation of the tenants is only £1,283, and as there are 960 families, this gives an average of about 3s. 6d. per head. The average valuation of land in the occupation of tenants is 7d., and of that 7d., at least 5d. has been created by the industry of the people themselves. A generation back the state of things was not so bad, because in those days the people had every inch of the 44,000 acres. But the landlords have appropriated for themselves much of the most fertile land, they have turned the people off 24,000 acres, and have relegated them to rugged barren lands, for which they have to pay £1,600 a year as rent, compared with the £660 they formerly paid for the whole 44,000 acres. If it had not been for this wholesale robbery by the landlords, the tenants would not to-day be in this deplorable condition. The only thing which has saved 800 families in the Gweedore district from starvation has been the generous and charitable credit extended to them by the shopkeepers. But the shopkeepers can no longer afford to give credit; they cannot afford to furnish the means of subsistence on credit, and I know of instances in which people in the last few days have tramped miles and miles in order to get on credit a small bag of meal for their children and themselves. The debts owing to the shopkeepers in the district amount, I am told, to £10,000, or more than £10 per family, and those families literally possess nothing in the world. Not only did their potato crop fail last year, but so also did the oat crop, and whereas in an ordinary season 120 tons of oats are ground at the mills in the 1086 district, and considerable quantities sent away in addition, this year none could be sent away and scarcely any was ground at the mills for consumption in the district. Every year these people have to draw upon credit to a certain extent, but this year, instead of beginning to get credit only in the month of May, they have been living on credit since October last. Now their resources are totally exhausted; their credit is at an end, and the situation is extremely grave. These people do not ask for charity; they are too proud to wish their Representatives in this House to adopt a tone of beseeching charity; they are desirous of paying with the labour of their hands for food which they need, and they ask that in the next two months they may be employed on works which could be carried out: with great advantage to the district. That would carry them over the most critical period. In other places, which have not been visited so severely by the destruction of the crops, and where the people have a variety of means of occupation, public works and railways have been promoted, but absolutely nothing has been done for Gweedore. Yet the people have had reason to hope that something would be done for them. You have sent Inspectors, engineers, police, and relieving officers to take stock of the district and to report on it. But no result has followed their visits. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary will tell us that the accounts of the distress have been exaggerated; but I have been there myself; I have seen the condition of the people, and if words have not told the story, it has been visible in the pinched and drawn faces and tattered clothing of the population. I feel impatient when I hear it asserted that the reports are exaggerated. Look at the very nature of the country. Why, it is a wonder how people can live at all in such districts as Loughamona, Derrynamoncha, and Rathanatas. The people cannot be kept alive without some great effort. A man had to carry home from school the other day a little girl who had fainted for want of food. Surely it is not too much to expect the Government to take steps to relieve the distress. The right hon. Gentleman says that from information supplied to him he has no reason to believe there is any extreme 1087 or dangerous distress. No doubt he believes that to be the case; but we say that he has been seriously misled. He must not imagine, because he drove through the country once over one of the two roads which run through it, that he had an opportunity of judging from the highroad the misery and destitution which lurk in the cabins among the rocks two, three, four, and five miles away. He might just as well attempt by a survey of Piccadilly to appreciate the distress in the East End of London, as to judge from the neighbourhood of the Gweedore Hotel the condition of the people living on the broken rocky lands of Rathanatas. The Government are, no doubt, full of good intentions, but the people cannot live on the assurances and solicitude of Governments; they must have food, and I abjure the right hon. Gentleman not to refuse the inquiry we ask for. Some of his subordinates are unwilling to let the real state of things be known, because it would be at variance with their previous reports. Why should a relieving officer say to the representative of a newspaper, "I will not give you information, because you are associated with Father Sweeney." Father Sweeney is the very man upon whom a whole population has been dependent for subsistence from week to week. I have here a letter in which the writer describes the case of a woman and her child on the tramp. The child actually died of starvation before assistance could be obtained. What is asked for is sworn inquiry by an independent person, and if that is conceded I am prepared to go over the district, and walk every step of the way from house to house, in order that the truth of the allegations made may be tested. I believe if the right hon. Gentleman will only send an independent officer he will see the necessity of taking prompt and effectual means of relieving the distress.
§ (5.25.) THE CHIEF SECRETARY FOR IRELAND (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR,) Manchester, E.
I have no reason to complain of the action taken by the hon. Members for Donegal, nor of the tone in which they have laid their case before the House. Their action is not animated by any motive of hostility to the Government; they evidently desire to bring before the House what they believe to be the true state of the case; and I will endeavour 1088 to meet them in the spirit in which they have addressed themselves to this difficult and important question. The hon. Gentleman has told the House that the North-West of Donegal is one of the poorest and most congested districts in all Ireland. Undoubtedly there are spots in that district where the poverty and the congestion are as great as are to be found in any part of the West of Ireland; but I am not prepared to admit that the poverty is greater in the North-West than in the South-West of Donegal. If all the resources of the population are taken into account—what they make out of their holdings, out of fishing, out of labour in Scotland, and out of agricultural labour during the summer months in the East of Donegal—it will not be felt that the population stand much in need of special assistance from the House or otherwise. If I consulted my own personal convenience I should be prepared to start relief works wherever there is any strong local demand made for them, made through Members who will take Parliamentary trouble on the subject. It is not my own convenience, it is not for the sake of ease in the position I occupy, that I have felt myself compelled steadily to resist in certain cases the starting of relief works, but it is simply because I believe we should never lose sight of the fundamental axiom that relief works should never be started in any district in order to deal with chronic poverty, but should be started only to deal with serious and exceptional poverty. Therefore I have felt it my duty, where otherwise I should have set works on foot, to refuse the relief asked for. There is no foundation for the statement that I have refused to provide relief against destitution resulting from the failure of the potato crop. In August last I asked the House of Commons to sit up one whole night for no other purpose whatever than that of providing by Bill for the starting of relief works where such failures might occur; but it is true that I did what every man in my position would have done—I refused to accept the conjectures of various persons not in responsible positions with regard to the possibility or probability of destitution from this cause. It was not possible so early to say what the potato crop would 1089 be, nor to estimate the extent of failure until the end of October or the beginning of November. Indeed, it was not always possible to say so even then. I stated that it was my duty to discourage appeals based upon anonymous representations, but I took every possible precaution, should there be a failure in the potato crop, to guard against a catastrophe in the winter or the spring. The hon. Gentleman stated that I indicated a promise of a railway which I have not fulfilled. There is not the slightest foundation for that statement. I was met by a deputation at Letterkenny asking me to promote a line, and I told that deputation, and another which waited upon me since, that I hoped the time might come when the Imperial Parliament would grant this railway; but I did not conceal from them that by other railway schemes, of which Donegal would have its full share, we had exhausted the not illiberal grants already made, and that I could not hold out any hope that further grants would be made. There have been only two specific cases of distress brought before the House. In one of the cases a man named Condy Harley had deserted his wife and family by going away to Scotland. The man returned, but did not remain long at home; he departed for Scotland again a few weeks ago, and his family were again placed on the relief list. The other is the case of a beggar woman, whose name and residence have not been given, who was found about 30 miles away in very destitute circumstances. But these eases afford no indication of the general condition of the poor in the district, nor would they be a justification for starting relief works. It is perfectly true that there has been scarlet fever in the district, but on May 25 a Medical Inspector, appointed to make inquiry, reported that he could find only two cases of scarlet fever. Everybody who knows anything of the West of Ireland is aware that, while at first sight it seems a very easy thing to discover the true condition of the people, nothing is more difficult. Even the most sceptical are constantly deceived by obvious signs which they would be inclined to interpret in the first instance as indicating very serious destitution indeed. In the parish of Gweedore, for instance, no less than 1090 £500 has been spent on the purchase of seed potatoes, £250 has been paid in ready money by the people, and £220 was, I believe, obtained by Father M'Fadden. By this large expenditure of ready money the people obtained the full advantage of the percentage which accrued on the purchase of seed potatoes out of the Church surplus to those who bought for ready money. Since the end of October, last year, £112 had been contributed by the people on the occasion of 15 successive funerals. As the House is aware, it is the custom in that district to show respect for the dead by making contributions in the case of funerals. Again, the other day a purse of £124 was given by his grateful parishioners of Templecrome to Father Magin.
MR. MAC NEILL
That did not come from the starving people, but from the prosperous shopkeepers of the town.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
Yes, but the shopkeepers existed simply by the custom of the starving people. I believe Father Magin's services obtained beyond the limits of the town substantial recognition. In the same parish of Templecrome there existed a large trader, who, in the last few weeks, became bankrupt. I have done my best to investigate this case, and some very curious facts have come to light. This trader, a lady, was in the habit of receiving deposits from the people, and a list of her creditors was given in a well-known Irish circular, issued by Stubbs. Out of £9,000, the total amount of liabilities, some £2,300 was in respect of deposits made by small farmers of the district, for which they were to receive 5 per cent. And while these people were depositing money at 5 per cent., they were obtaining goods from shops on credit. It does not appear a paying transaction to deposit at 5 per cent. and pay 20 or 30 per cent. to the shopkeeper for credit. But that seems to be the financial principle in Templecrome. Two more facts. There is the Stranorlar Railway, on which the Directors of the line have expressed their willingness to give employment, but not a single demand for employment has come to them from the district in question since the works were opened.
§ MR. A. O'CONNOR
The right hon. Gentleman might as well talk about their going to work on a railway in Asia Minor.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
These able-bodied men go to Scotland in the season, and workers go to the east of the county in search of employment. Why should they not seek this labour market on the line of Stranorlar, which is nearer? Some light is thrown on this question by the Poor Law statistics. In the district we are considering there are two Unions—Caroonagh and Dunfanaghy. In the latter in 1890 the indoor relief was 24, and in 1881 29; the outdoor relief in 1890 was 1, and in 1891 6; the provisional relief was 24 in 1890, and 65 in 1891. In Caroonagh the indoor relief in 1890 was 24; in 1891 29. The outdoor relief in 1891 was only 5. Therefore, by looking at the Poor Law statistics the indications are similar to those derived from other sources available—that the distress is not of a kind which ought to be described as approaching famine point. I may remind hon. Gentlemen with reference to the Irish Distress Fund relief in this district that 2,465 persons are actually at this moment being supported out of the fund, and I think we may confidently say that this number includes every family which has no able-bodied breadwinner to work for it. I find that the children have already gone to the eastern counties, where they earn summer wages; and that wages in respect of hiring engagements—wages on which credit is given by the shopkeepers—will probably this year be above what they have been during some years past. Besides, 550 heads of families have already gone to Scotland, and I believe that the remainder will go this week or the following week. I think I have shown to the House that I, at all events, have done my best to make myself acquainted with the condition of this district, and that I have made out a good case for the course which the Government have adopted. It would be absolutely fatal to the future of those districts to start relief works where they are not absolutely required, and I am convinced, great as the pains are which I have taken in every part of Ireland with reference to this subject, that I have erred by excess rather than by defect. 1092 The independence of a district cannot be kept up by starting relief works at the public expense, and there is a danger, unless in case of dire necessity, of making those districts chronic beggars of the Imperial Government. I implore the House not to put any pressure on the Government to start works unless the necessity for them is conclusively shown. It would, no doubt, ease my position were I to feel that my responsibility was shared by the House of Commons. Though I should be grateful to hand over to hon. Members opposite the administration of these public funds, I am convinced that a worse course for the future interests of Ireland could not be conceived by Ireland's worst enemies.
§ (5.50.) MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)
The hon. Member for South Tyrone (Mr. T. W. Russell) cheered the concluding portion of the statement of the right hon. Gentleman. Why, the hon. Member, in one of the series of letters to which reference has been made, said that this was not a case of tubers being diseased, but that the tubers were not there at all. His testimony must be regarded as conclusive, yet I find it difficult to reconcile what he has said with what he has cheered to-day.
§ MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)
At the time the relief works were proposed, I objected to them as most demoralising, and where they have been set up they have done infinite mischief already.
§ MR. SEXTON
The hon. Gentleman, in his published letters, advocated the construction of railways, piers, and harbours to develop the fishing industries on the West Coast, and said the Government would be guilty of criminal neglect if they did not execute these works. They have done nothing, and the evidence of the hon. Gentleman against the Government is, therefore, most conclusive. The right hon. Gentleman has quoted Poor Law statistics. I decline to take the administration of the Poor Law as a test of the condition of the district. Out of 960 occupiers in Gweedore there are only six who have holdings above £4 annual value. Besides, the Board of Guardians is in the hands of Mr. Olphert, an evicting landlord, who would have to pay the rates if relief were given. I maintain that the distress in this district is not only 1093 exceptional bat chronic. In this district in the first week of November last the right hon. Gentleman delivered a speech which encouraged hopes, now cruelly disappointed. The right hon. Gentleman said it would be some consolation to reflect that these works would not only conduce to improvement in the permanent condition of the people, but that they would administer to their immediate necessities as well. Bat the relief works which have been promised have not been carried out. According to the right hon. Gentleman, the works were to be directed to exceptional, and not to chronic necessity.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
My proposition was this: that if you are going to start works for the sole purpose of relieving exceptional distress, of course, if those works permanently ameliorated the condition of the districts as well as relieved exceptional distress, so much the better.
§ MR. SEXTON
It was a speech delivered in the true spirit of paternal philanthropy at Letterkenny on the 17th November. The right hon. Gentleman was then arranging a railway scheme for Donegal.
MR. MAC NEILL
The right hon. Gentleman was replying to a deputation of his own friends, who urged him to construct a railway in North-West Donegal.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
What I said then, and what I said before, both here and out of the House, was that while the railways would be for the permanent benefit of Ireland, they would do much to alleviate the present distress.
§ MR. SEXTON
A fact I feel bound as a matter of duty to throw into the foreground to-day is, that whilst money available under the light railways and relief works scheme has been liberally expended in other districts, not a penny has been expended by means of relief works in this particular district, although I believe there is no district in Ireland which has a better claim to consideration. Will the Chief Secretary deny that 1094 Donegal is a most congested county? Will he deny that the County Inspector has borne testimony to the fact that this is the most congested district of the county? Will he deny that another expert, Mr. Hammond, has testified that this is probably the most congested district in Ireland? The right hon. Gentleman has attempted to institute a comparison between the North-West and the South-West of Donegal. The average valuation of holdings in the different townlands in South-West Donegal is from £2 to £5; while the average valuation of holdings in the North-West is £1 to £2. The annual value of the land in North-West Donegal per head of the population is lower than 3s. 6d., and it is in regard to such a district that the right hon. Gentleman has thought it decent to quote such facts as he has narrated. It is argued that there have been no applications for employment. I always thought it was regarded as a fundamental condition that relief should be brought to the doors of the people. How can the right hon. Gentleman expect that these men will go 30 or 50 miles to work? What wages does he pay them? I think they are about 6s. a week. [Mr. A. J. BALFOUR: 12s.] Assuming they are 12s., when a man is obliged to leave his home, live in lodgings, and provide separate maintenance, the earnings are valueless for the support of his family. [Mr. A. J. BALFOUR: Lodgings are found.] I do not know that the people have been aware of that. The fact that the work is miles from the people is sufficient reason why the people have not gone to it, especially as a line of railway was actually scheduled which would have run through a most congested district, a line which would have developed the fisheries, and have conformed to every condition laid down by the right hon. Gentleman. The Chief Secretary has spoken of men going to Scotland and children going to the Laggan. I can inform the light hon. Gentleman that the men have not gone to Scotland and that the children have not gone to the Laggan. I have information from the clergyman of the district that to take a child from this district to the Laggan would cost 4s. or 5s. Where is that to be had? To take a man to 1095 Scotland costs 15s. or £1; and I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the bulk of the population have this year remained in the district, and that it will not be possible for the men to go to Scotland or the children to go to the Laggan unless some work is provided out of the earnings of which they will be able to save something for the journey. I affirm on the evidence of witnesses whose credibility is not open to question: firstly, that a large percentage of the people is invalided through hunger; secondly, that serious sickness is prevalent; and, thirdly, that the death-rate is more than doubled. On one day a priest attended 21 persons who were seriously ill, and gave nine of them the last sacraments of the Church. That indicates a terrible state of things. Now, challenged as he has been, will the right hon. Gentleman be willing to institute forthwith a sworn inquiry into the condition of the public health of the district, as to how many persons have been invalided, how many are seriously ill, and what has been the death-rate in the past year as compared with former years? I may also lay claim, after the semi-sarcastic allusions the Chief Secretary has made to the bankruptcy of a female trader and the income of the parish priest, to an inquiry at his hands into the condition of the people of the district in regard to the amount of stock and moveable property in their possession, and in regard to the amount of debt they owe. I have a Return carefully prepared by competent persons on the spot, and in regard to it I have to-day received a telegram from an excellent clergyman in the district, a man who is spending his life in the service of the people, and the rev. Gentleman assures me that the statements in the Return can be verified on oath—a Return which, taking the case of ten householders at random in every town-land throughout the whole of the district, shows that the amount of debt which they owe to the shopkeepers, not for luxuries, not for comforts, but for the rudest and poorest article of human diet. Indian meal, is double, treble, quadruple, and in some cases actually ten times the utmost value of the stock and of the moveable property in their possession. In the face of one crushing, overwhelm- 1096 ing fact like this, what is the use of the right hon. Gentleman attempting to conceal from these countries the true state of the facts, and to mislead the judgment of the House of Commons by observations as to the amount of money found on the plate at a funeral months ago, or as to the sum given for seed potatoes? Such arguments are evasions, and I must say in frankness they seem to me to lend force to the feeling which certainly exists in the district, that the reception of the right hon. Gentleman has tended to produce in his mind an indisposition to respond to the demand of the people. The question is a limited one. The whole population is only 50,000. Ail of them are not in want of relief, but the bulk of them are. The period, too, is brief. There are only two months to cover. The potato will be ripe in August, and if the right hon. Gentleman chooses to help the people in the next two months he will find the task easy. A railway is, perhaps, too heavy a work to undertake, but there are two piers which have been recommended; they were recommended years ago by a Royal Commission. A moderate sum placed in the hands of Sir Thomas Brady would enable that gentleman to do the greatest good in assisting the people, Nothing would be easier for the Government than to make a subvention in aid of this wretched district, and which, by giving them the means of work, would not destroy the self-respect of the people. I greatly regret the callous and pedantic tone the right hon. Gentleman has thought proper to take in regard to a question of real and cruel misery, and I can only tell him that if he persists in his refusal to apply some remedy to the case moderately laid before him, he will incur the guilt of which the hon. Member for South Tyrone has warned him of criminal neglect of what, in my judgment, is the primary and most imperative duty of any statesman, and that is the duty of preventing the destruction of the lives of the people by the want of the necessaries of life.
§ (6.15.) SIR J. SWINBURNE (Staffordshire, Lichfield)
I am sorry to interpose between the House and a discussion upon national education, but I would point out that at this moment 1097 there is no compulsory education in Ire land, and children of eight and nine years of age in North-West Donegal are going to a district called the Laggan to find work in order to keep themselves from absolute starvation. I have asked the parents how they can send their children away for six months at a time, and they have told me it is not for the sake of the shilling or two they bring home, but it is simply to keep the children from absolute starvation. I can quite understand the Chief Secretary finds some difficulty in dealing with Government money. Donegal, I believe, has had more than its fair share of the money voted by Parliament, but the great bulk of the money given to Donegal has gone to the south-west, a district of a totally different character to the northwest. In the latter district the potato crop has totally failed, and I appeal to the Chief Secretary to consider whether immediate steps cannot be taken to spend a small sum of money in improving the facilities for fishing. There is great need of piers on this coast, and I think we may reasonably ask the Chief Secretary to undertake the construction of at least one, and thus do much to develop the fishing industry.
§ (6.19.) MR. H. J. WILSON (York, W.R., Holmfirth)
I think we ought to bear in mind what the proposal made by the Mover and Seconder of the Motion is. It is simply that a sworn inquiry should be held by some impartial person to get at the actual facts in this case. This is not the first time a proposal of this kind has been made in reference to this very district. What I cannot understand is why the Chief Secretary should refuse a suggestion of this sort, because, supposing the result of the inquiry is to prove that hon. Gentlemen below the Gangway are wrong, what will become of them and the people on whose behalf they speak? The Chief Secretary has on previous occasions failed to submit the testimony of his own informants to this impartial tribunal which is asked for. That which we see now has happened again and again. The right hon. Gentleman prefers to believe the evidence of the constables of Gweedore and Donegal to that of hon. Members of this House.
§ (6.21.) MR. T. P. O'CONNOR (Liverpool, Scotland)
I rise for the purpose of 1098 insisting upon bringing this Debate to a definite issue. Are the Government, or are they not, going to submit the evidence in this case to a sworn inquiry? We make statements on evidence that we believe to be reliable, to the effect that there is a considerable amount of sickness, and that there have been a large number of deaths, and that there is a great need of relief in these districts; and the right hon. Gentleman acting, no doubt, on information which he believes to be credible, meets us with denial and contradiction. We tender evidence on oath, and I think it scarcely respectful to the House that a proposal like that should be passed over in silence from the Treasury Bench. For our part, we have no desire whatever to put the House to the trouble of a Division. My hon. Friend would be quite willing to withdraw his Motion if we got an assurance from the Government that they would accept our challenge. I agree with my hon. Friend that if the Government are confident of their case, the best thing they can do is to submit it to an inquiry. If our allegations are disproved, so much the better for the Government. If, however, they are confirmed, so much the better for the Government also, as it will relieve the right hon. Gentleman from the responsibility of refusing relief, where relief is required, for the purpose of saving life and putting an end to acute distress. The Debate is closed on our part, but I hope it will not be closed on the part of the Government without some answer being given to our challenge.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I may, with the leave of the House, point out that a Bill would be required to appoint a Special Commission for an inquiry of this kind, and we could hardly under take, in the present condition of business, and at this period of the Session, to propose such legislation.
§ (6.25.) The House divided:—Ayes 116; Noes 191.—(Div. List, No. 303.)