§ *(9.3.) MR. WEBSTER (St. Pancras, E.)
The Resolution of which I have given notice, and which there is now an opportunity to discuss, deals with a subject which I have on previous occasions endeavoured to bring before the attention of the House. I wish to 893 have the proper remedy applied to the evils which arise under the present system of dealing with the illiterate vote. The reasons why, when the Ballot Act was passed, provision was made for allowing illiterate persons to vote, are set forth in the discussions upon the Bill, and Mr. Forster stated that all he wanted to secure was that a man should not be disfranchised because he could not read. This I am ready to admit is commendable, but in practice the effect of the provision for the illiterate vote has been to defeat the object of the Ballot Act. Looking over the record of the proceedings of the Committee which sat on that Act, I find that a Motion similar to that in my name was made by an hon. and gallant Gentleman still a Member of this House, and who then was Captain Nolan. He moved—That all special provisions for the assistance of the illiterate voter should be omitted, and that no voters save those labouring under some physical disability should receive assistance in making out their ballot papers.This Motion was put before the Committee which considered the operation of the Ballot Act, and I find it was carried by a majority of nine to six, that majority being principally made up of Members of the Liberal Party. Remembering this, I think I may fairly look for support for my Motion now to the other side of the House. The majority on that occasion included the late Mr. W. E. Forster and the right hon. Gentleman now the Member for Bury (Sir H. James), the only Conservative Member being Mr. Sampson Lloyd. I mention this as indicating that the proposal is not put forward with a Conservative view; the object of the Motion is to purify the source from which we on either side derive our right to sit here—to secure absolute freedom for electors to vote for whom they choose. The then Attorney General declared the purpose of the Ballot Act was to secure electors from coercion and intimidation; but I fear very much that the Ballot Act, good as it is, useful as it is, though no doubt it protects the elector from landlord intimidation, does under cover of this provision for illiterate voters let in influences which detract from the secrecy and security it was the inten- 894 tion of Parliament to confer. I think I can show that, especially in Ireland, the secrecy of the ballot is violated, and the free opinion of constituencies sometimes—I do not say it is general—sometimes, and very often, misrepresented and thwarted. From the Return laid before the House after the last General Election we find that of the total number of electors who then voted the proportions of illiterates were: In England one in sixty-four, in Scotland one in seventy-four only, whereas in Ireland there was the remarkable condition of things that one out of every five voters declared himself illiterate. The actual figures were 194,994 voters, and 36,722 of these claimed to be illiterate. There is a Return of a more recent date which the House was pleased to grant at my request, showing the results in bye-elections since the General Election in Great Britain and Ireland; and here I find that out of 86,470 votes given in England only 870 were illiterate, in Scotland twenty-nine out of 5,142; but in Ireland, according to one Return, there were out of 9,872, 2,173 illiterate votes given, or, according to another Return, 2,500. I may explain two Returns were given because, in the first instance, a Returning Officer at one of the polling stations where the illiterate vote was greatest omitted to return a full list of the illiterate votes. In some parts of Ireland the figures from the General Election Return show a strange position of affairs. Out of eighteen thousand voters in the four divisions of County Donegal, nearly half—7,900—claimed to vote as illiterate. In North and South Monaghan twelve thousand persons voted—2,300 as illiterate. In North and South Berry 9,300 voted—2,253 as illiterate. In Tyrone 26,700 voted, and 6,957 claimed to vote as being illiterate. It is a significant fact which I cannot leave unnoticed—and I have received a letter to-night which emphasises the fact—that from the constituencies where the proportion of illiterate voting is largest, we find hon. Gentlemen returned as Home Rule Members; and on the other hand, in the constituencies returning Unionist Members the illiterate vote is not so large. I do not believe, I cannot bring myself 895 to believe, that these figures represent the true state of education and knowledge among the people of Ireland. If it were a true evidence of the state of knowledge in Ireland, it would point the necessity for a more stringent measure of compulsory education. It would afford a striking commentary on the fitness of the country for Home Rule if the members of the various sections of the Party supporting the principle they were so unwilling to discuss this day week were returned by constituencies a fourth of whom were illiterate. But I do not believe this is the true condition of affairs; this is a pretended illiteracy, and it is due to totally different causes than want of elementary education. I have a number of letters here from candidates for Irish constituencies, and they all show the pressure put upon every doubtful voter to declare himself illiterate. Here is a letter from a Roman Catholic candidate for one of the Midland constituencies, in which he states that the election agent informed the voter that he was to declare himself illiterate, and he was given to understand his vote would be identified. A Leinster candidate says that in every polling booth there was a prominent National League agent or personation agent, and under the provisions for illiterate voting secrecy was destroyed in hundreds of cases. In some places, the candidate writes, the presence of the National League agent beside the presiding officer was sufficient to prevent the illiterate voter from giving his vote with the confidence of secrecy. A candidate in one of the Connaught constituencies says few of the electors knew who they were going to vote for. Some said, "for Parnell," others said, "for the priest." Several were allowed in the booth at one time, and there was very little secrecy. The presence of political agents to whom the voters were well known had an influence, to use no stronger word, over every illiterate voter recording his vote. I could give from the letters of Unionist candidates many statements of this kind, but I may also refer to an authority which hon. Members opposite may consider of more value. The newspaper United Ireland, on January 3rd, 1891, in com- 896 menting on the North Kilkenny election, said that priests acted as agents for Sir John Pope Hennessy at the approaches to the polling stations, and every illiterate voter was obliged to declare in their presence the candidate whom he wished to vote for; priests led the voters to the booth, by priests they were received inside, and in the presence of the clergy did the voter record his vote for Sir John Pope Hennessy. An intolerable state of things. What would have been said if, in an election at Kilkenny before the Land Act of 1881, the landlords had so acted, if they through their agents had ordered tenants to plead illiteracy and declare the candidate for whom they voted? Would not the country have rung with the denunciations from Gentlemen who call themselves Nationalists? On the authority of this same newspaper, United Ireland, it is said that at every polling booth the personation agents were Roman Catholic agents, that there is a complete list of them in Sir John Pope Hennessy's handwriting, and that many of these agents used language towards the voters which, if exposed to the world, would be visited with severe condemnation from the ecclesiastical authorities. Intimidation does not come from one source in Irish elections. At a recent election in Waterford, intimidation by means of this illiterate voters' provision came not from the Catholic priesthood, but from an entirely different source—from the mob. Thus we learn, on the authority of the Daily News of 24th December, 1891, that by noon more than half the expected total had been polled, and at that time large crowds collected round the polling booths intimidating many voters by the display of party feeling, and that this had a great effect on the illiterate voters. So the present Member for the constituency was returned by a large majority. But care not whence the intimidation comes—from the National League, from the priesthood, from the crowd, or from any other source; if it exists, if you allow the illiterate portion of the electorate to be influenced thereby owing to this special privilege, then I say it behoves us to carefully examine the manner in which the privilege has 897 been exercised, and its effect on the representation of the opinion of constituencies. I have some feeling of sympathy with these unfortunate voters. They are driven like sheep to the poll, and in the presence of personation agents, local League officials or priests, they have to vote absolutely, entirely, and completely to order. I have here a statement by a candidate for an Irish constituency that the voters were drawn up in a sort of regimental order, their names were carefully called over in order to mark—hon. Members from Ireland will know what the expression "mark" means—the absentees from the roll call. Then the unfortunate voters were required to declare whether they were illiterate, and they were instructed who to vote for. I fear that in many parts of Ireland electors have to vote in the presence of the returning and personation officers in a manner which renders the intimidation of the voters both possible and practicable. And here I wish to explain that in any terms I have used I have endeavoured to guard against any attack on the Roman Catholic priesthood. I have a very high opinion of the useful work they do, not only in Ireland, but in every part of the world. Their valuable missionary enterprise in India I have myself seen, and my opinion is that there are no better, no more self-sacrificing workers in the evangelistic field in China than the Roman Catholic clergy. While they confine themselves to their honourable and exalted duties I entertain the greatest admiration for them, but I do consider that they depart from their vocation when they lead crowds of people to the polling booth and dictate as to the candidate to be voted for. When that is done my admiration diminishes. I agree with the views of a great speaker on this subject, if I may be allowed to coincide with so eminent a man as Lord Macaulay, who, when the question of the ballot was first discussed in this House, pointed out that his desire for that system was prompted by the wish to secure the voter against intimidation. He further pointed out that the House had done much to rid the constituencies of corruption, and then proceeded to say— 898Corruption has a sort of illegitimate relationship to benevolence, and engenders true feelings of a friendly and cordial nature. …. But in intimidation the whole process is an odious one. The whole feeling on the part of the elector is that of shame and degradation, and hatred of the person to whom he has given his vote. The elector is, indeed, placed in a worse situation than if he had no vote at all; for there is not one of us who would not rather be without a vote than be compelled to give it to the person he dislikes above all others.I venture to say that the dictum that intimidation causes pain is truly and wisely applicable to the case of the man who has to go to the polling booth and tender his vote contrary to his dictates and intention. It may be asked why I, a London Member, address the House on this subject; and, in this connection. May I point out that I do so from no personal motive? Take the Metropolis as a whole, I think I am right in asserting that there is no part of the United Kingdom in which there are fewer illiterate voters. In Marylebone there were at the last election only two illiterate voters; in the constituency represented by the noble Lord the Member for South Paddington (Lord R. Churchill) there was only one such, and I am pleased to allude to the fact that in my own constituency (East St. Pancras) there were only four illiterates. Here I will point out that in the constituency of an hon. Member opposite, the Member for South Donegal (Mr. MacNeill)—a gentleman of great literary and general ability, and whom I respect, though his views are not mine—out of 6,304 voters, no less than 3,200 voters claimed that they were illiterate. And here it may be remarked—as the Education Act was passed 20 years ago—every man now of the age of 30 years ought to be able to affix his mark to a voting paper. In this matter we need not look abroad, but, in passing, it may perhaps be mentioned that in America, where the obtaining of a vote is practically unrestricted, they have no such system as ours. I think that in these days a man ought to possess a sufficient degree of intelligence to enable him to vote under some system. If my Motion is carried, I quite allow the possibility of some system of marks against the candidates' names, in order that the least educated man may 899 detect the candidate for whom he intends to vote. I have seen suggestions in a newspaper called the Pall Mall Gazette in other directions, but I will not touch upon these beyond remarking that they are clever, although I cannot say I entirely agree with them. My wish is not to disenfranchise the illiterates, but to prevent the infringement of the Ballot Act. Instituting a comparison between two cities in Derry and the Borough of Wandsworth, a strange and grave anomaly presents itself. In the former 5,000 electors have two Members of Parliament, whereas in the latter one Member represents 16,000 inhabitants. Can you imagine anything more striking than that nine men should only have the same weight in the Council of the nation as one illiterate voter in the divisions I have mentioned? Reverting to the question of intimidation, I very much doubt whether under the open system of the past that evil was so glaring as under cover of the clauses of the Ballot Act. The privilege of voting as conferred by that measure has, in my opinion, been notoriously and gravely abused. Indeed, I do not think that Parliament can fairly be said to represent the views of the people unless we have each district fairly and equitably re-distributed according to the population, and in such a way that a man may vote just as he chooses. The admirable intention of Parliament in this matter has been degraded, the secrecy of the Ballot has been violated, and it is essential that some remedy should be found. I could say much more on this subject, but I refrain in order that we may have a varied discussion of the expression of other views on a question which is grave and comprehensive, and which ought not to have a party character. My wish is to place the constituencies in the position the Ballot Act intended—that every man should be elected by the free wish of those whom he is sent to represent in this House. I beg to move—That, in the opinion of this House, in the interests of true freedom of election, the clauses in the Ballot Act which permit the Illiterate Vote should be repealed.
§ *COLONEL WARING (Down, N.)
I rise to second the Motion, and I shall 900 do so in a very few words after the exhaustive introduction of the hon. Member who has just sat down. It must not be supposed that my motive in seconding is to disenfranchise any man; and in reference to what has been said regarding the illiterates of South Donegal, I will venture to doubt whether, out of the three or four thousands who voted for the hon. Member representing that constituency, there were more than three or four who could not have dabbed their pencils down in the right spot. I believe the average Irish voter to be a shrewd, intelligent fellow, and am perfectly certain that in nine cases out of ten he can, when called upon, place his vote mark in the right place, unless he deliberately puts it somewhere else. This question is not a new one. For the last five years I have had a Bill before the House aiming at a reform in this matter, and in the earlier stages I deemed it necessary to somewhat modify it in order that those who differ from me might not prefer the charge of disenfranchisement. I also introduced several devices in imitation of tramcar tickets, so that the voters might, by strips of colours, easily distinguish between the various candidates. My Bill provided that no minister of religion, of whatever denomination, shall be an agent in the booth or remain in or about that place. In making that proposition I have not the slightest intention of attacking any particular Church, for I consider the political interference of ministers of religion, of whatever denomination, harmful not only to themselves, but also to the body politic. Though ministers of religion they have a perfect right to their own opinions and a right also to express those opinions, but interference in the polling booth is entirely beyond their sphere. I have said this subject is not a new one. Shortly after the Act was passed an important Commission discussed the general provisions of the measure. The Report of that inquiry has already been alluded to, and I propose further to draw attention to one or two important features of the evidence given. One of the witnesses called before the Commission was Sir Joseph Heron, the Town Clerk for Manchester, who had acted as the 901 Returning Officer for that city. Colonel Nolan said—A member of your Committee stated that the special provision might be used not only to delay voting, but also to facilitate bribery and intimidation.Sir Joseph Heron answered—In some places it seems to me that it would inevitably be the fact that they would arrange beforehand how they were to vote, and they would declare themselves to be illiterate in order that they might prove before the agent that they had voted as they had promised.The hon. and gallant Member for Galway, when he tendered his evidence, was asked—What is your view with regard to illiterate voters?He answered—I think I have had as much experience as any Member of the working of the Ballot machinery in Ireland for this reason, I made a canvass of the constituency before the Dissolution, and explained the Ballot to a great many voters and found that the general opinion among them was that nearly everyone, if he wished, would be able to mark the paper without telling anyone which way he wished to vote. "I found a great fear that if pressure was put upon the illiterate voters it would affect their votes, and that there were very few voters so illiterate that they would not be able to mark their votes in the same way as ordinary voters.The result was, I believe, that Colonel Nolan moved a clause in the Report to the effect that this special provision might be used as a means of discovering whether a man voted in accordance with a promise already made and that it might also be used to encourage bribery and intimidation. That is, as the hon. Member has pointed out, the use that has been made of illiterate voters, and we, therefore, desire to see this provision done away with. We have no wish to preclude them from recording their votes. Our opinion is—and the evidence of those most acquainted with the matter confirms our impression—that this class of voters would have been able, with few exceptions, to accurately give their vote without assistance. Recent experience has proved that a change in the law in this respect is required more than ever. As it was utterly hopeless for a private Member to get a Bill forward for Second Reading, unless he happened to be exceptionally fortunate in the ballot, I have withdrawn my Bill in order that 902 my hon. Friend might bring forward this Motion, which I have much pleasure in now seconding.
To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, in the interests of true freedom of election, the clauses in the Ballot Act which permit the Illiterate Vote should be repealed,"—(Mr. Webster,)
§ Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ (9.42.) MR. MACNEILL (Donegal, S.)
I shall keep the House for a short time only, and indeed I should not have interfered at all in this Debate had not some personal remarks been made as to my own position. I must say that on a Motion of this kind, the tendency of which is to disfranchise a section of the community, the absence of many right hon. Gentlemen from the Treasury Bench is a subject of interest to me.
§ MR. MACNEILL
The Opposition Front Bench do not think it worth their while to attend, and I should not have thought it worth my while, but I chose to ward off slanders from my constituency when I have the opportunity. It is pleasant to see the courage of the hon. Members who have brought forward and seconded this Motion on the eve of a General Election. I should have imagined hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House would have been much more anxious to see how they could catch the votes of illiterate voters than to disfranchise them. This proposal, Mr. Speaker, is not a good one to go before the country with, and accordingly I regard with some amusement the absence of the Gentlemen who are mainly responsible for the course of Irish business. Now, Sir, this question of the non-education or illiteracy of Irish voters is one which lies very deep at the root of Irish misgovernment. Both hon. Gentlemen stated their case with great fairness, but the hon. Gentleman who introduced the Motion seems to have forgotten that Mr. Forster's Act was an English Act, and that the body of men—the Christian 903 Brothers—who have the whole education of the people of Ireland in their hands are not supported by one farthing of public money. It is not the fault of the Irish people that they are ignorant. They owe their ignorance to a system which for years has kept the scales of darkness on their eyes. Mr. Speaker, I have the honour and privilege of knowing many heads of households in Ireland who are illiterate. Long before I entered into politics special circumstances brought me into connection with them, and I can assure the House that many of these men who can neither read nor write are men of extraordinary intelligence and with an extreme zeal for learning. The real aim of this Motion is not to make the Ballot absolutely secret—hon. Gentlemen opposite resisted the Ballot as long as they could—but to disfranchise the men whom they suppose to be most under the power of the popular leaders of the country. I admit that these men are under that power, and why? Because they look with confidence to their leaders for protection against misery and injustice. But I am happy to say that the illiterate voter is dying out; he belongs to the past generation. The men who can neither read nor write are the victims of the atrocious system of government of times gone by. Do hon. Gentlemen who reproach the Irish race with ignorance know that it is the fault of former Unionist Governments in Ireland of which they are the successors? Do they know that every inducement in the way of learning has been held out to the peasants of Ireland to forsake their religion, but all in vain? One of the most wonderful chapters in Irish history is that which relates to the Charter Schools. These institutions were founded in Ireland by the English Government with the object of getting possession of the Irish Catholic child, and giving him a good Protestant education, and if he were a clever boy to send him to Trinity College. All this was done to entice the peasant away from his religion, but without success. The ignorance of the Irish people, having regard to the circumstances under which it exists, is to be admired and respected, for I know of no 904 nation in Christendom where a people who have had such strong inducements to abandon their faith have kept to it. Unassisted as they have been, I maintain that the Irish have done their best to educate their children. Well, Mr. Speaker, blame has been cast upon the Irish priesthood—not directly but indirectly—for bringing the illiterate voters to the poll.
§ MR. MACNEILL
The hon. Gentleman represents an agricultural constituency in England, and would he not be delighted if he could get the Primrose League parsons to take the smock-frocked labourers to the poll to vote in his favour? Well, Mr. Speaker, I have been through many elections and I have seen the action of the Catholic priesthood, and I can conscientiously say that these clergymen do nothing that other good men in their position would not do. They have great influence over the people because they deserve it. They guide the people and tell them how they should vote, and the people to whom these priests, in good days and in bad days, have been protectors and friends, generally act on their advice because it is for their own benefit. I am rather astonished at the absence of the Home Secretary from this Debate. If when a similar charge was made against the Irish priesthood some years ago, when the right hon. Gentleman was Member for Dungarvan and an obscure Member on the Opposition side—obscure men have only to rat and they became eminent on the Front Ministerial Bench—he said it was a social misfortune in Ireland that circumstances had forced the clergy into a position of prominence on political occasions, and had obliged them to become leaders on the popular side, and he added that the landlords must bear their share of blame for this result. The right hon. Gentleman also said that the Irish people had in their clergy "their only advisers and leaders." The idea that the clergy by acting as personating agents have, in the slightest degree affected the votes of these people is absolutely preposterous. 905 The people are only too delighted to show their respect and affection for their clergy—who have never yet led them wrong—by listening to their counsel and advice, and I maintain that the clergy have exercised their legitimate influence in acting at elections as they have done. Now, Sir, I wish for one moment to refer to a personal matter. It has been insinuated that my return was due to clerical intimidation or interference. I was returned by, I think, 4,606 votes, and my opponent was returned by 999 votes—at least that is how many votes he returned to Brighton with. It will scarcely be believed that the man who was put up by Dublin Castle to oppose me never came to the constituency at all. An agent was sent down, however, but for no other reason than to put us to expense. I was not returned as a Catholic, because I am a strong Protestant, while Mr. Munster—the Dublin Castle candidate—is a Catholic and a Liberal Unionist to boot. The true motive of this Motion is not to make the Ballot more secret, but to disfranchise a large number of men whose illiteracy is not their own fault, but the fault of those who, as long as they could, kept education from the people. I congratulate the Tory Party on having brought forward such a Motion as this immediately before the General Election. It shows that in going back to their constituencies they distrust the people. Lord Salisbury was the first to start this notion in a speech he made at the Mansion House in August last, but it has not been taken up by the First Lord of the Treasury. Now we have got a House for this discussion, I hope we shall go to a Division, because I am anxious to see how the Chief Secretary, and the Attorney General, and the First Lord of the Treasury will vote, and I hope the Division List will be a long one. I represent a constituency that is called illiterate, but I represent people who, if I transgressed in the slightest degree the moral code, would quickly call me over the coals. In their households in Donegal purity of life is known, and all the social virtues; the marriage tie is respected, and female virtue is safer than in a first-class carriage in one of your railway trains. If my 906 constituents are illiterate they have probably exercised more intelligence than their more cultured neighbours, and I would not exchange them for the constituents which have returned hon. Gentlemen on the other side.
§ (10.3.) SIR WILFRID LAWSON (Cumberland, Cockermouth)
I rose before to take part in this Debate, but an hon. Friend said to me, "I would not speak till you hear the arguments on the other side." I have waited to hear the arguments, and I am waiting still. The hon. Member who has just sat down made a long speech, but he did not touch the question we are debating. I do not know what this has to do with the persecution of the Irish; the question is, is it a good thing or not that illiterates should be allowed to vote at elections? I congratulate the hon. Member (Mr. R. G. Webster) on having succeeded in getting a House, and I think it would have been a pity if he had not; for what can be more interesting to a Representative Assembly than a discussion on the manner in which it is elected?—and with all its faults this is the noblest Representative Assembly in the world. I venture to speak on this subject to-night, because I have been in the House a good while longer than many Members, and I remember the time when this Illiterate Clause was brought in by Mr. Forster. I forget who proposed it, but I remember that it came on about dinner time when the bulk of the Liberal Members had gone home to dinner. Two or three Liberal Members got up and said they were in favour of the clause, and Mr. Forster said afterwards—Well, I could not do anything else; there was no one here to back me up, and I was obliged to agree to the clause.It was not carried by a very full or a very unanimous House; and after it had been carried I went into the Lobby and found an old friend of mine, a very strong Tory, who was literally dancing with delight. He said, "Now we have got this Illiterate Clause it is all right." He felt sure, as my hon. Friend (Mr. MacNeill) feels sure, of being returned. But whether this clause was right or wrong, I would ask whether it is desirable to make 907 provision for these illiterates now that twenty years have elapsed since we passed the Ballot Act? We have had education—Government education, compulsory education, and now free education—and it seems to me that even if it were necessary then it cannot be necessary now. I do not want to disfranchise anybody, and I do not think it is right to call this a disfranchising Motion. I do not think we can go into the matter as to whether people are very clever or whether they are able to discuss politics. The other day we were told that women were not to have votes because they were too stupid to exercise them. ["No!"] I know nobody said it, but I heard the leader of the anti-women party (Mr. S. Smith) say they are as good as we are; and having heard what was said, I think there is no other argument than that women are too stupid. But I would not disfranchise anybody, not even Peers, and I do not think we can go into an educational test at this time of day. It would be a ridiculous thing to confine the franchise only to those who are sufficiently educated to use it. If an educational test were necessary, I am afraid I should have very great difficulty myself in getting through. I think the whole question is whether the presence of this clause allowing illiterates to vote is, on the whole, an improvement of our representative system, or whether we should be better without it. We have had the Ballot now for nearly a generation to protect the people from a twofold injustice—from undue influence and undue corruption, from undue persuasion and from undue intimidation; and in my humble opinion, and from what I have heard and read, the keeping in of this clause about illiterate voters tends to weaken that system of election which we wished to adopt. It is, I really do think, ridiculous at this time of day to say these people could not vote. They could vote if they liked. With all the advantages we have in this country, and the extreme desire people have to get votes, it is absurd to say that they would not find out how to put their cross in the proper place on the ballot paper. They are not such fools as that. The hon. Member for South 908 Donegal (Mr. MacNeill) said that these illiterate voters were men of extraordinary intelligence, and I think they would certainly have intelligence enough to kown where to put a cross.
§ SIR WILFRID LAWSON
I do not deny that; but what has that to do with the argument? The Member for South Donegal said that these illiterate voters were dying out. Then it is surely not necessary for us to keep up a clause for their protection; we do not want to protect dead men. My own opinion is, that the illiterate voter is a greater humbug than the bonâ fide traveller, and I say do not let us by our legislation confer special privileges on either dodgers or dunces, but put everybody on the same footing, and let all be protected fairly and fully by the Ballot Act. That is the principle of political equality, and, therefore, I shall support the Motion of the hon. Member.
§ (10.12.) MR. T. HARRINGTON (Dublin, Harbour)
If the strong feelings to which the hon. Baronet has just given expression are his real views, it is a pity he did not endeavour, before making his speech, to bring the Motion more closely in accordance with those views. It seems to me that there is a strange inconsistency between the arguments which have been advanced in favour of this Motion and the words of the Motion itself. We are assured by the Mover and Seconder, and by the hon. Baronet, that they are all in favour of the franchise, and that they are all in favour of giving the franchise to the illiterate voter; but it is a singular fact that the combined ingenuity of the hon. Gentlemen has not been directed to find words which would give the means of secret voting to the illiterate, but to deprive him of voting at all. Instead of applying a remedy or devising a means by which the illiterate voter can give his vote free from intimidation and free from influence, the hon. Gentleman is endeavouring to deprive the illiterates of their votes. If the Motion of the hon. Member for St. Pancras (Mr. Webster) had been a Motion to free the illiterates—whether in England, Ireland, or Scotland—from any influence that could 909 control their vote, and to give them the same freedom of voting which the most educated and literate voter possesses, I would record my vote in its favour; but as it stands, it is nothing else, and can be nothing else, but a disfranchising Motion. It is idle for the hon. Baronet (Sir W. Lawson) to say that if the House passes this Motion the vote will be anything else but an attempt to deprive the illiterate voters of any means of recording their votes. We have had some strange arguments from the Mover of this Resolution (Mr. Webster). He endeavoured to be facetious at the expense of our country, and declared that it was the illiterate portion of Ireland which had given its vote solidly in favour of Home Rule. It is quite true; but does not the hon. Gentleman see that there is another side to this question? It is only natural that a body of men, which have been kept in the condition in which the Irish people have been kept under your laws and under your Government, should be extremely desirous of devising a system of government which would bring them better conditions. If the great body of the Irish voters are illiterate, the shame is not theirs; the shame belongs to the system of government which you have practised in that country. The speech of the hon. Member is a libel on Ireland. No body of men have with more difficulty and greater expense to themselves endeavoured to educate the people than the priesthood of Ireland. You have had in this country the advantages of a system of assisted education. In Ireland they have had to educate the people at their own expense; they could not have recourse to the means by which the national system of education was carried on. But I do not want to go back to such things, and it is only because I hear hon. Gentlemen utter such a slander as to say that the Irish priesthood have endeavoured to keep the people ignorant that I feel bound to say it is not true, and that hon. Gentlemen on the other side should be the last persons to make such assertions. We have heard a great deal about the system of intimidation exercised in Ireland; but why, if you wish to be consistent, should you, in order to punish the man who practises that 910 intimidation, deprive the illiterate of his voting power, and allow the man who practises intimidation to go scot free. Is it impossible for Parliament to devise some secret means of voting by Ballot for the illiterate voters and for those who, in consequence of some physical disability, may not be able to record their votes? We have been told how in Ireland the voters are brought up by the priests to the poll. I regret that the priests have found it necessary, in the exercise of their duty, to take so prominent a part in political matters as they have done. But that is not confined to the priesthood in Ireland. I have seen the same thing at English elections. (Cries of "No!") Hon. Gentlemen may give their own experience; I am speaking of mine. I was at Barrow, and saw clergymen exercising the same system. That is not the argument. What we are addressing ourselves to is, Is the system bad? If so, stop it everywhere. What we want in Ireland is equality of votes, and if you find that system good for the government of your own community we shall be glad to follow your example in Ireland, when you give us the right to do so. Now, Sir, a great deal was endeavoured to be made out of the election of the hon. Member for South Donegal (Mr. MacNeill). The figures quoted are undoubtedly figures which, if we did not know the circumstances which brought them about, would be to a large body of Irishmen a source of humiliation. It is necessary, however, to remember that the district is an almost exclusively Irish-speaking district. If you had given them the means of educating themselves in their own language—and you never have—you would not be able to say they were illiterate because they cannot read a ballot paper printed in English. If you take the figures for the whole country, how much do you gain by it? Some hon. Gentlemen say that some Home Rule Representatives would not be in the House but for the illiterate votes cast. Let them point out a single constituency where, if the illiterate voters had gone to the other side, the same Representative would not have been returned. In the constituency where the highest illiterate vote was cast the Unionist candidate 911 polled 900. In one constituency at the General Election the Unionist candidate polled 74; if you were to add to those the whole of the illiterate votes, the Home Rule Representative would still have been returned. Of course, Sir, I admit at once that there is a great deal in the argument that there is a certain number of men who could properly record their votes and yet give illiterate votes, and I admit that there are cases where that power has been abused. But are you, because of that, to deprive every illiterate voter, every man suffering from physical disability, many of whom are intelligent men, of the right to vote? I admit while the present provision exists you give to the weakest members of the community—the men most liable to temptation—an opportunity of being corrupt in the exercise of their votes which you do not give to others. That is an anomaly and a grievance; but when I put that side by side with the question of depriving every illiterate voter—many of them intelligent men—of their votes, I cannot think of voting for the Motion. It is useless for Unionist Members to rely on the arguments put forward with regard to the election in South Donegal. If the votes were cast at the instance of the priests, if the priests came forward and advised the voters and accompanied them to the poll, the votes were cast for a Protestant and a stranger, who was never in Donegal before. When you accuse the Irish priests of bigotry, sectarianism, and a desire to exterminate Protestants, you contradict your own arguments when you point out that they persuaded the illiterate voters in Donegal to vote for a Protestant and a stranger. The hon. Gentleman would have little difficulty in passing his Motion if he would only put in the words of the Motion the principles which he avowed himself a supporter of in his argument. If the Motion passes in its present form it will undoubtedly deprive the illiterate voters of the right to cast their votes. ("No, no!") I must assume that hon. Gentlemen have not read the Motion, or that they do not understand the English language. I would be sorry to accuse any inhabitant of South Donegal of so much want of intelligence, if he could read the Motion, as to say it was 912 not a disfranchising Motion. If the hon. Gentleman desires to prevent any suspicion that the Motion is for the purpose of disfranchising the illiterate voters, let him amend it and put it in a form which will make it clear that he wishes to devise some method by which they can give an uninfluenced vote, and he will then have the support of many Members on this side of the House.
§ *(10.30.) MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)
The Motion has been discussed as if it affected Ireland only. That is an entire mistake. The Motion covers the illiterate voter wherever that illiterate voter may exist, and that he exists elsewhere than in Ireland is abundantly proved by the figures in the Parliamentary Return. At the Election in 1885, out of 3,734,693 votes polled in England and Wales, 80,430 were illiterate votes. In Scotland, out of 447,588 votes polled, 7,708 were illiterate, while in Ireland, out of 450,906 votes polled, 98,404 were illiterate. I admit that there is a preponderance of illiterate votes in Ireland, but that does not justify speakers in attaching a sectional character to the Resolution. It affects illiterate voters throughout the United Kingdom. If the Resolution be passed and legislation is founded upon it, that legislation must affect England, Scotland and Wales, as well as Ireland. There is no doubt that the question must have a peculiar effect upon Ireland, as is shown by contrasting different parts of Ireland. Take Antrim and Cork, for instance. In 1885 there were 29,698 votes cast in County Antrim, and out of that number 2,550 were illiterate. In the County of Cork there were 30,047 votes, and of that number 11,587 were illiterate. That is a tolerable contrast; but, if you take the cities of Belfast and Cork, the contrast is as remarkable. Out of 25,178 votes cast in Belfast, 1,559 were illiterate, 999 being in the Western Division, represented by the hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. Sexton). In the City of Cork, with a vote of 8,376, there were 1,297 illiterates. In the two divisions of County Down, out of 16,010 votes, 2,182 were illiterate, of which number 2,021 were cast in the Southern Division. In the face of 913 facts like these, the Resolution must have a special bearing on Ireland, but it should not be treated as a purely Irish Motion. The facts are not denied. Then what is the answer of the hon. Member for the most illiterate constituency in the three kingdoms—South Donegal—to this state of affairs? I think it was that it is not the Irish priest, and not the Irish peasant, who is to blame; it is the English Government. The English Government is a very convenient packhorse, but I protest against its being made to carry this load. When was the system of national education established in Ireland? It was in 1831, and therefore we have had sixty years during which education has been brought to the door of every peasant, and practically free. I am told in an aside that the Catholics could not accept that education. Who were the men on the first Board of National Education? Archbishop Murray, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland at the time, was one of the leading promoters of the system. Why tell me that the Catholics could not accept the system sixty years ago, when the head of that Church was a member of the Board? It is impossible to put forward that argument. If the Catholics have not accepted the system, as the Protestants have accepted it, the results are seen when you contrast the counties of Antrim and Cork and the cities of Cork and Belfast. I submit, Sir, that the Resolution has been misrepresented to the House. The hon. and learned Member for the Harbour Division (Mr. T. Harrington) treated the Motion as a disfranchising Motion, and said that if it had been as liberal in its terms as the speech of the hon. Mover, he should have felt inclined to vote for it. What are the terms of the Resolution?—To call attention to the provisions of the Ballot Act in regard to the Illiterate Vote; and to move 'That, in the opinion of this House, in the interests of true freedom of election, the clauses in the Ballot Act which permit the Illiterate Vote should be repealed.
§ MR. T. HARRINGTON
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to say that what I contended was that the repealing of those clauses would deprive the 914 illiterate voter of any means of voting at all?
§ *MR. T. W. RUSSELL
I do not think the hon. Member has mended his position by the interruption. The Motion does not disfranchise illiterate voters; it simply withdraws the privilege that this House conferred on ignorance twenty years ago. If it were passed and legislation founded upon it, the illiterate voter instead of being disfranchised would find himself exactly in the position of the voter who can read and write, which is the position of most of the men who pretend to give an illiterate vote. The illiteracy of the Irish voter in great part is a fraud, is contrary to public order; and the priest, as personating agent in the booth, is able practically to control the vote which ought to be given in secret. Voting is not secret while that state of things exists. We have had eulogies of the Roman Catholic priests to-night, and I am not going to say a word against these gentleman as priests, or that they do not deserve the eulogium passed upon them. They may be all that is said of them, but in the eyes of this House they are simply citizens. The hon. Member said that English clergymen acted in the same way, and that he had seen them.
§ MR. T. HARRINGTON
I did not say it in that connection. I was replying to the Mover of the Resolution, who spoke of an instance where he had seen in some county in Ireland the priests accompanying the voters to the poll. The voters were drawn up outside the booth and the priest took their names. He described precisely what I have witnessed in an English constituency. I did not speak of English clergymen being personating agents or going into the booth, nor did I defend the Irish clergymen who did so.
§ *MR. T. W. RUSSELL
I think the hon. Member has publicly and effectually barred himself, in Ireland, from taking that position. But what I want to point out to the House is that any attempt to draw any analogy between Irish and English clergymen in this matter must fall to the ground. I have been at more elections in England than the hon. and learned Member, 915 and I have never yet seen an English clergyman, either belonging to the Established Church or a Noncomformist minister, acting in the way in which I have seen Roman Catholic priests acting in Ireland. I have never seen, and the hon. and learned Member for the Harbour Division has never seen, an English clergyman or a Nonconformist minister inside a polling-booth at an English election acting as a personating agent; and that is exactly the point where the danger comes in. If the Roman Catholic clergyman is not there inside the polling-booth acting as a personating agent, the illiterate vote might be tendered with impunity; and I say that his presence there, acting as a personating agent, invalidates the secrecy of the Ballot and the freedom of the electors, and if it was only for that reason alone, I should vote for the Resolution of the hon. Member. I submit now—because this is not a matter on which I wish to speak at any length—that the prevalence of illiteracy in Ireland must be a much more serious thing there than in this country. But I do not think that this is a disfranchising Resolution. It simply leaves the illiterate voter in the place occupied by every other voter, so that he can do with his voting paper whatever he pleases; and that was the object the Legislature had in view in passing the Ballot Act. I would object to any man wielding the power which a Roman Catholic priest wields in Ireland, being inside the polling-booth, acting as a personating agent. To see him standing there in the presence of the poor, illiterate voter to see how his voting paper is marked, and then to pretend that that is secrecy of the Ballot, is absurd nonsense. For that reason I support this Resolution.
§ (10.44.) MR. SEXTON (Belfast, W.)
I noticed that when the hon. Member or South Tyrone was referring in almost scornful tones to illiteracy in Ireland the most noticeable cheer—in fact, the only mocking cheer—which came from the other side of the House, came from the only Catholic Englishman, except the Home Secretary, who sits upon that side of the House.
§ MR. SEXTON
We are so accustomed to inarticulate expressions of opinion from the hon. Member that I, for my part, should welcome, if only for the novelty of the thing, any articulate expression of opinion from him, whatever may be its import. As I have said, the hon. Member, with the exception of the Home Secretary, is the solitary Representative of English Catholicism in this House. When the hon. Member for South Tyrone makes references to the illiteracy of the poor in Ireland—which has been their misfortune, not their crime, the result not of their own inclination, but of your policy—a mocking cheer comes from the Representative of the class of Catholics of this country, the aristocratic sections of whom have never had any sympathy with the sufferings and the wants of their poor Irish co-religionists. He is not ashamed to utter that mocking cheer, although he knows very well that if it had not been for the sufferings and the struggles of these poor ignorant Irishmen, those illiterate Irish who could not mark a ballot paper in the days of O'Connell any more than they can now—but, of course, there was open voting then—if it had not been that their trials, their sufferings, their shrewd and intelligent perception of political issues, notwithstanding the fact that they could not read and write, the hon. Gentleman and English Catholics whom he represents might be standing to-day outside the pale of the British Constitution. The miserable ingratitude of such conduct on the part of a class of the citizens of a great and wealthy country, who owe their emancipation to their efforts, must strike with disgust the mind of every chivalrous Protestant gentleman, no matter what may be his opinion on the Motion before the House. I confess upon the question of principle it appears to me to be open to discussion whether education, even primary education, is an essential to the intelligent exercise of the vote. I am glad that the First Lord of the Treasury is present. He is disposed to take a philosophical view 917 of political questions, and I would put the point before him with some confidence whether it is so self-evident that a man who may be able to read and write is necessarily a more intelligent politician, or can cast a more intelligent vote, than a person of natural shrewdness and intelligence who has been condemned by circumstances to what is called ignorance, so far as education in schools is concerned? I am perfectly certain, though I have no clear proof of it, that there are Irish-speaking peasants in Donegal who take a more shrewd and intelligent view of their interests upon political questions—and it is for the protection of their own interests that the vote has been given to them—I say that there are Irish - speaking peasants in Donegal who take a more shrewd and intelligent view of political questions that concern them, than the hon. Member who moved this Motion takes on any political question, although he took a first at the University. If it were possible for this House to establish a competitive examination and draw a line across that Bar, and put at the Bar the hon. Gentleman who move this Motion, and beside him an Irish-speaking peasant from Donegal, and cross-examine them both upon Irish political questions, I think the Irish peasant would come out uppermost. We talk about education. This House, I suppose, represents the quintessence of the efficiency of education. The Members of this House are supposed to be the most educated class, taken all in all, in the country. But to what practical use do Members of this House put their education in determining political issues? I think if we take the Divisions every day we shall see how the highly educated Gentlemen who are Members of this House apply their education in determining the issues brought before them. They smoke in one room, and play chess in another, and read the newspapers in another, and when they come to exercise their vote they take their directions from the Whips. I think an English gentleman who is vested with a responsible trust, when he takes his directions from a Whip at the door of this House, acts in a spirit which more requires restraint at the hands of 918 the Constitution than an Irish peasant in Donegal when he takes advice from a priest. And I submit, if the vote has been given to a citizen for his own protection and for the advancement of his interests, that it is not an essential question whether or not that man can read or write. These poor Irish peasants, whether they speak Irish or English, have interests to protect. They follow the course of politics, though they are not able to read or write. What is the true inwardness of the Motion which has been presented to the House? It is simply this—that these men upon whose ignorance you depend for suggesting that they do not understand their own interests, apply their votes so much to the direct advocacy of their own interests that you find it has resulted to your inconvenience. There can be no doubt whatever that if the peasants in Ireland, literate or illiterate, had been found to vote in favour of the hon. Member who brought forward this Motion and hon. Members who have supported it, that that learned Gentleman who obtained such distinction at the University and who moved the Motion to-night would be found to be the loudest advocate in their favour. The Debate upon the Motion has resolved itself into an indictment of Ireland, and into an indictment of illiteracy in Ireland; and I am not surprised to find, from the patriotic services of the Irish priesthood, that the Debate on the Motion on the part of certain Gentlemen has resolved itself into an indictment of the Irish priests. It has been said that there is no analogy between the action of the Irish priests and the English parsons. No, Sir, there is no analogy. I should scorn to admit that there is any such analogy. The English parsons act selfishly, the English parsons act stealthily, and they often act corruptly; they always act in the interests of a social class and of a political party. The Irish priests act in the interests of their country because they love their people. It has been said that the Irish priests have striven to keep the peasants in ignorance. Well, Irishmen have long memories. It is not so long a time since, when the Irish priest endeavoured to teach his people, you 919 set upon his head the same price as you set upon the head of a wolf. You have been 700 years in Ireland. During all that time you have applied yourselves, according to the intelligence and means of successive generations, to forward primary education in this country. When did you begin in Ireland? Until the last generation you left it in the hands of the priest and of the hedge-row pedagogue. Then you established a system of primary education, the design of which was to extirpate the nationality and uproot the faith of the people. Reference has been made by the Mover of the Motion to the designs of primary education as stated by Dr. Whately. Dr. Whately was one of the Commissioners of National Education. His words have not been quoted. I can quote them. He said—The main objects of your primary system to wean the Irish people from the errors of the Romish system and to undermine the vast fabric of the Romish faith.When the Irish priests came to learn, from the words of a Protestant Archbishop, that such had been the design of the system, it would not have been strange if they had not opposed themselves to it as a system which attacked vitally—I will not say their natural prejudices—but their religious faith and their natural sense of right, but I claim without the fear of denial that the success of primary education in Ireland is due to the ardent and continual co-operation of the priests. Without them your system would have failed; with them it has been a considerable success. One of the most astonishing facts in connection with this Motion is that during the twenty years that have elapsed since the Ballot Act was given, the proportion of illiteracy in Ireland has come to be vastly decreased. The Ballot Act was passed in 1870. If any hon. Member will take the trouble to examine the Census of 1871, and compare it with the Census of 1891, he will find that although this primary system of education has scarcely yet penetrated into some of the backward and Irish speaking districts of the country, although the National Board of Education has refused to adopt the intelligent bilingual method of teaching the 920 English language, yet he will find that upon the whole illiteracy in Ireland since the Ballot Act was passed has decreased about one-third. Now, what is to be said of the intelligence of a graduate of the flower of English Universities who comes forward twenty years after this House deliberately passed the Ballot Act at a time when illiteracy in Ireland was known to be much more extensive than it is at the present moment, and who ignores the fact that illiteracy has decreased in such a proportion that in a few years there is reason to believe that it may be extinguished altogether? Why did he not recognise the force of events? It is apparent to anyone—I shall not say to an enlightened politician like the mover of this Motion—but I must say it is apparent to any man who in anything like a statesmanlike spirit applies his mind to the case of Ireland, that this Parliament should rather rejoice that within a period of twenty years the proportion of illiteracy has so much decreased, and that the probability is that in the course of another decade it will have disappeared altogether.
§ MR. WEBSTER
I should like to know, if I am in order in asking the hon. Member, what number of illiterates there were in Ireland twenty years ago in proportion to the number at present?
§ MR. SEXTON
It does not take much experience to know that when an hon. Member, who after prolonged cogitation and who has had many months for consideration, brings forward a Motion in this House the onus of producing relevant facts in support of it is thrown upon him and not upon me. Perhaps the First Lord of the Treasury may consider that excusable, as he is himself an adept at introducing relevant facts that are useful, and leaving out those that are inconvenient. Possibly he thinks the hon. Member has acted upon that principle.
§ MR. SEXTON
At any rate, if you examine the Census for 1871 and 1891 you will find that the decrease, and the disappearance in some cases, of illiteracy is universal throughout Ireland, and that the change from illite- 921 racy to literacy has been more extensive in the course of the last twenty years than in any previous years. Therefore the hon. Gentleman has committed a high Parliamentary crime in ignoring the cardinal facts of the case, because the whole course of education for the last twenty years entitles the House to rejoice at the experiment made in 1870, and to conclude that in the course of a very few years more every man will be able to cast his vote in Ireland under circumstances which will cause no suspicion of undue influence. The people of Ireland are extremely poor. In such districts as Donegal the land system which you established and which enabled the landlords to strip the people bare, and leave them naked and hungry, obliged poor parents to take their children away from school almost before the years of infancy were passed in order to assist them in obtaining the means of living. The ignorance, such as it is, that exists in Ireland now is partly due to the grinding poverty which was the result of your political policy—a political policy which only in the present day we have been able to modify—and partly due to the fact that the system of education in Ireland was not a system in accord with the principles or sympathies of the people; and I respectfully submit that if the question of illiteracy was to be taken into consideration, you ought to regard it rather in a spirit of sadness and of shame than in a spirit of mockery, rather as the fault of your own unwise—I will not say of your own criminal—policy than as any inclination of the Irish people towards ignorance. The way to cure such illiteracy as remains is not to deprive the poor illiterate peasant of the means of recording his vote; but to so reform the system of primary education as to make it accord with the sentiments and feelings of the people of Ireland.
§ (11.3) MR. DE LISLE
The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken did me the honour to lose his temper, and launch a personal attack upon me for what he was pleased to call "mocking jeers." I have read of persons who imagined that they had seen blue devils peeping 922 round corners, and that they had shrieked at those blue devils. I leave it to the judgment of the House whether I am the blue devil the hon. Member sees in this House, or whether my existence was not objective, and rather due to his own diseased imagination. But I did give utterance to an expression which may have been thought to have been a mocking jeer, but it was not intended in the sense in which it was understood by the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend on the other side of the House threw, as it appeared to me, in the teeth of the poor Catholics of Ireland that they had not made that progress under the system of national education for some years which we in England had made under happier circumstances, and if I did give utterance to any sign it was intended to be dissent from the opinion that the national system of education which has been instituted in Ireland is a system which could be cordially and heartily supported by the Irish people. Irish Catholics naturally had demanded, still demand, and will demand Catholic education; and when the British State in its wisdom—I hope in a very few years—concedes to the Irish people the advantages which English Catholics enjoy, I have no doubt the Irish people will improve, and show that they are as intelligent, as quick in learning, and as anxious to reap the advantages of education as any section of the Queen's subjects.
§ MR. DE LISLE
The hon. Gentleman finds he has made a mistake for once in his life, and he will perhaps now feel that on many occasions when he has misjudged me he has done so because of his own ignorance. Now that I have been called to my legs I should like to say one word why I heartily support this Motion. I do not believe for a moment that one person in five of the Irish electorate is an illiterate voter. If they do give themselves out as illiterate voters I believe it is for a purpose. In my opinion, knowing the Irish people fairly well, or, at any rate, a considerable number of the Irish—because I have all my life 923 been accustomed to meet Irishmen, a great many Irishmen live in my own neighbourhood, and I have been to school with many—I believe there is no Irishman who could not be taught in two hours how to distinguish between two names printed upon a paper. I believe the passing of this measure, as I believe it will be passed—I commend it to the Government as a subject to deal with before the next election takes place which, by the way, I think ought not to take place before this time next year—will not disfranchise a single voter in Ireland, because the so-called illiterate voters have sufficient wit and sufficient understanding to learn to distinguish between two names printed on a piece of paper. Only one other word, and it is with respect to the statement made by my hon. Friend (Mr. T. W. Russell), in which he spoke about priests being recognised merely as simple citizens. Now my only wish, in the interests of good government, is that the Catholic priests were recognised as simple citizens, and had the full rights of citizenship. Anyone who knows my constituency is well aware that I have often said I thought one of the difficulties which arise in dealing with the Irish question is that the Catholic priests have not their full rights as citizens, and are not allowed to hold that position which they hold in this country; and one of the best things Her Majesty's Government could do would be to concede full rights of citizenship to Irish priests. I do not know whether right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench are aware that a Roman Catholic priest has not these full rights. He is debarred by his orders—the orders of the Church of Rome, which are recognised by Act of Parliament—from the honour and privilege of sitting in this House.
§ MR. DE LISLE
But his order is not represented in the other House. Now, as has just been said, English clergymen are debarred from sitting in this House, but their order is represented in the other House, and they are consequently brought into touch 924 with the Constitution. My only wish is that the Roman Catholic priests might enjoy the full rights of English citizenship, and be brought into close touch with the Constitution; and I believe that if they were, in a few years the Conservative and Unionist Party would receive their support, for they would see that the only way to prevent such ebullitions of feeling as we have seen to-night is the maintenance of the fair, just, and honourable rule of one united Parliament for the whole of the United Kingdom.
§ (11.11) MR. ROBY (Lancashire, S.E., Eccles)
The terms of the Motion, as the hon. Member for Tyrone (Mr. T. W. Russell) has said, do not apply specifically to Ireland, but are applicable to the whole of the voters in the United Kingdom, and they point to the necessity of preserving the principle of freedom of election. I entirely agree with the object of the Motion in that respect, and the question that I have to ask myself is whether a simple repealing of the illiterate voters' clause is a proper remedy for any defect there may be in ensuring that freedom of election. I do not know that it has been noticed—certainly it has not been by those who have spoken since I entered the House—that this question of the illiterates is really a consequence of the particular mode of taking the vote which is prescribed in the Ballot Act. If a mode had been prescribed similar to what is usual in many other places where the ballot prevails, there would not have been any question about illiteracy. A simple direction to put a ball into the right box for one candidate and another into the left box for the other would, under the present system of single-member constituencies, be almost enough for the purpose. Now, if it be really necessary for the purpose of securing freedom of election that the present rules with regard to illiterate voters should be done away with, then I should be quite willing to join with the hon. Member, but at the same time I should wish to substitute another mode of giving effect to this desire. I am, happily, not in the position of some persons who think they have to defend or to attack either 925 Roman Catholic or English clergymen. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for West Belfast that English clergymen often act corruptly. I do not think that that is the case. Nor, on the other hand, can I withhold at any time it may be necessary or advisable my testimony to the conduct of Roman Catholic clergymen in Ireland, who in a very difficult position have to a very large extent been the supporters, helps, and guides of their people. But if it be found that the presence of clergymen, whether of the Roman Catholic or any other denomination, is fatal to due freedom of election, then that freedom ought to be secured by direct disqualification inserted in the Act. In that case, you must go a great deal further, and disqualify, as personating agents, the recognised agents of landowners and influential persons who know large numbers of the lower classes. Yet I do not think that any disqualification can be wisely or effectually adopted. If you are to secure freedom of election, and you wish, on that account, to do away with illiterate voters, then substitute a different mode of taking the poll, for I think that to disqualify all those who cannot or will not, from a fear of showing their poor scholarship, attempt to write or are unable to trace a word on paper, would be to disqualify a portion of the constituency, which is undoubtedly suffering under a great disadvantage, but which ought not to be disfranchised. In my view, what we ought to do with every question in regard to the franchise is to get every force that exists among the people of England within the electoral roll. What we want is that all those who have opinions, who are exercising their influence upon, and have any weight with, their fellows, should have the opportunity of voting directly, and not of using indirect means—that they should give their votes in the polling-booth, and not be driven to make their voices heard in mobs or assemblies. On that account I should be most unwilling to disfranchise even the illiterate voters. But I go a little further. I decline altogether to admit that the absence of facility in reading or in writing is 926 the right criterion to take as regards whether a person is fit to exercise the vote or not. I have met—I should think most Members have met—very many persons who always say they are no scholars, and consequently are afraid to write, who find some difficulty in reading, and yet who are men of shrewd sense, and quite competent to exercise their voices in their vote. I do not believe—I do not know there was ever a time when I did believe—that the franchise could be based in any sense upon education. I am quite certain that you do not get greater intelligence in politics by having specific forms of distinct education what you do want is that the voters should be alive to what is going on around them that they should take an interest in their fellows; that they should take over the difficulties that are met with; that if they cannot read they should attend and hear what is said—hear both sides, hear all sides. I think nothing can be more important for us than that all those who have influence should exercise that influence under the lines and in the cause of the Constitution; and it is our duty as legislators, if the present mode of exercising their vote infringes on the due freedom of election, to take other measures for that purpose. I shall vote against the Resolution.
§ (11.19.) THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. A. J. BALFOUR,) Manchester, E.
Let me preface the very few words I have to say upon the Amendment which is before us by pointing out that we have not now to discuss a disfranchising measure. If I understand the contention of my hon. friend rightly, he does not in the least desire to disfranchise anybody. He does not intend to impose upon any particular class any special disqualification. All he desires to do is to remove from one class a special privilege to which he thinks they have no right. And, in the second place, let me point out that it is not a controversy, as some speeches that have been made would almost suggest, between the priests on the one side and the parsons on the other. The hon. Member for West Belfast, who, earlier in the debate, made one of 927 his eloquent and spirited speeches, delivered himself of an invective against the clergy of the Church of England, whom he contrasted in a most unfavourable sense with the Roman Catholic priests of Ireland. I utterly fail to gather on what that comparison is based. I have, as the hon. Gentleman knows, never levelled any attack against the Irish priesthood as a class; but, at the same time, I must confess that no facts have been brought to my notice which would lead me to believe that in any public appointment requiring the display of any great quality, the class which the hon. Gentleman has taken under his special protection has any preferential claim as compared with the class which he has made the object of his attacks. The real question the House has to consider is not a question of disfranchising or enfranchising, but a question of how far we are to carry out the principles of the Ballot Act, and how far public policy requires us to remove a privilege which the Ballot Act conferred on certain classes of the community. The hon. Member for the Harbour Division of Dublin—a gentleman quite as well acquainted with the Roman Catholic constituencies of Ireland as even the hon. Member for West Belfast can profess to be—stated that the number of persons who claim to be illiterates is far in excess of the number who actually are illiterates. If that statement be true, it is evident that in Ireland, at all events, the provisions of the Ballot Act are deliberately abused. However, I think the question of principle, apart from all special Acts of Parliament, is one of even greater importance, and the question the House has to determine by this Resolution is, "Ought we, or ought we not, to give special privileges to people who, in spite of all the advantages in the way of primary education which have been conferred by Parliament upon the people of England, Ireland, and Scotland during the last two or three generations, are unable to put a cross opposite the name of the candidate whom they favour? The hon. Member for West Belfast appealed to me as to whether I did not think that a person who can neither read nor write might not, nevertheless, be as shrewd a judge of 928 his own private interests and of any public interest as a person who has profited to the utmost by education? I admit he might be. I think that may happen, and I go much farther, and say that before the advantages of education were as widespread as they are now you would constantly find among the working classes of the population large numbers of persons who, though they could neither read nor write, showed as great a capacity for business and for deciding public questions as anybody, be their education what it might be. But circumstances have greatly changed since the Education Act was introduced. You will no longer find that the largest class of the population are unable to read and write. That, state of things has gone, and under the operation of our Education Acts has, I believe, gone for ever; and now the class of the population who can neither read or write is certainly far from being that from which we should choose those we wish to conduct our private business and to direct our public affairs. The hon. Gentleman has pointed to the constituency of Donegal, where, I understand, a greater number of illiterates exist than in any other constituency in the three Kingdoms, and he has said that that constituency—I will, not say is specially marked by its intelligence—but, at all events, shows great ability. We have no evidence of the special intelligence of any constituency, except so far as we are able to judge of it from the Gentlemen who sit in this House; and, judged by that test, I am far from complaining of the constituency which gives us the benefit of the eloquence of the hon. Gentleman who took part in this Debate earlier in the evening. At the same time, I must recall to the recollection of the House that, if we study statistics in this matter, among the population who cannot read nor write we find the greatest number of recruits to the criminal classes of the country. I have not the figures by me, but I should say that half the criminal classes in Ireland are unable to read and write. If you carry the investigation a little further, and study the proportion of children sent to industrial schools between the ages of six and fourteen, you will find an enormous 929 proportion—I think I should not be wrong in saying three-fourths—are unable to read and write. That is a conclusive proof, I think, that this particular class is not a class upon which this House ought to desire to confer special privileges.
§ MR. A. J. BALFOUR
I am quite willing to apply it to England. I have only dealt with Ireland because the last two or three speeches have been specially addressed to the Irish side of the question; but, so far as I support this Motion, I do not do so specially with a view to Irish questions, but with a view to every constituency in the three Kingdoms. Therefore I think we should feel that it would be impossible for us to touch again the question of the franchise without dealing with this subject in accordance with the principles laid down by my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend is, of course, aware that even if the House assents to this Motion—as I hope it will—it will be impossible in this Session of Parliament, or for many Sessions of Parliament, probably, to introduce a Bill embodying in any practical shape the views which he has laid before us. Nevertheless, I think, it would be well that we should record our deliberate opinion that if and when this House again takes in hand the consideration of what constituencies shall return the Members responsible for the Government of this country this, at all events, will be one of the questions which they will not be able to leave on one side; and it is because I hold that view, and hold it strongly, and because the Government of which I am a Member have shown their earnestness in this direction by introducing clauses in conformity with the views of my hon. Friend in the Local Government Bill for Ireland—of which we shall hear a great deal more next week—that I shall follow my hon. Friend if he proceeds to a Division, it being, of course, distinctly understood that we do not think it possible—indeed, it would be absurd to suppose so—that any Reform Bill embodying my hon. Friend's views can be introduced in the course of this Session, and that we commit ourselves only to the general proposition that when 930 Parliament, in its wisdom, thinks fit to revise the principle upon which our electoral system is based, this will not be the least among the many important questions that will then come up for discussion, and have to be decided, and finally decided, I trust, in the sense of the Resolution of my hon. Friend.
§ (11.35.) MR. JOHN O'CONNOR (Tipperary, S.)
The right hon. Gentleman, with that cleverness which is perhaps worthy of his palmiest days of discussion in this House, has drawn from an apparent conflict of opinion between the hon. Member for Belfast and the hon. Member for the Harbour Division of Dublin an argument in support of his views. He endeavoured to show the House that there is a difference of opinion between those hon. Gentlemen, when there is absolutely none at all. My hon. Friend the Member for the Harbour Division, in alluding to the alleged illiteracy of the Donegal people, was simply repelling the idea that the voters there are as ignorant as many persons in this House believe them to be. The right hon. Gentleman has said that in Ireland the largest proportion of the criminal classes are to be found amongst the illiterates. It follows logically from that argument that the largest proportion of the criminal classes in England are also illerate. Then does the right hon. Gentleman propose to disfranchise the classes in England that are illiterate? No, he does not. The practical effect of the Resolution before the House, if it were carried out, would be to disfranchise a great many persons in Ireland who, notwithstanding their illiteracy, ought not to be deprived of a right, for a defect in regard to education, for which they are not themselves entirely responsible. The primary object of the Motion, indeed, is to deprive the large portion of the Irish people of the vote, and that this is so is attested by the fact that few or no arguments have been addressed to the House during the Debate except such as have been drawn from the state of Ireland. The hon. Member who moved the Resolution said the largest number of illiterates was to be found in the Irish constituencies that supported 931 Home Rule, and he drew the inference that these men supported Home Rule because they were so illiterate.
§ MR. JOHN O'CONNOR
I could draw no other inference from the fact than that it was the desire of the hon. Member, in introducing the Motion, to disfranchise or weaken the vote that was cast in Ireland for Home Rule. Why does not the hon. Gentleman go further and propose to disfranchise all constituents in Ireland who are in favour of Home Rule? That is the logical conclusion of his proposition. I suppose that those whom the hon. Member represents in St. Pancras are all learned men; but he will allow that Home Rule also exists in St. Pancras. If the hon. Member carried his argument to its logical conclusion he would bring forward a Motion to confer Home Rule upon Ireland, when, of course, learning and Conservatism would follow and Members from Ireland would sit on his side of the House. Certain it is that the people of Ireland are not Home Rulers because they are illiterate, but they are illiterate, to some extent, because they have not Home Rule. A good deal has been said about the action of the priests in Ireland in regard to the votes of illiterate persons, and it has been complained by hon. Members on the other side of the House that priests have exercised a certain amount of influence in elections. But who is to blame for the possession of that influence? Hon. Gentlemen have themselves to blame, if blame attaches, for the influence the priests possess. They are responsible, for they have neglected their duties to the people which the priests have performed. They have exercised the rights of property without performing any of its duties; they have allowed the priests to become the only educated class in Ireland who have stood up for the rights of the Irish people. To whom should the Irish people look for advice and counsel in political matters? It is only natural they should turn to those who in the past have stood by the people for the protection of rights attacked 932 and confiscated by predecessors of hon. Gentlemen who sit on the other side of the House. I am one of those who have protested against the exercise of any undue influence on the part of clerics in politics. I am prepared to give the clergy all rights of citizenship and no more. I object to their being allowed to be present in polling-booths to exercise undue influence over voters, but I would allow the clergy of any Church to have the full right of citizenship by vote, and such influence as position and education should have. I draw a line at the polling-booth. That there may be danger of undue influence there I admit. But I would prefer the influence of the priests in polities to the disfranchisement contemplated by this Motion. Reproach has been cast upon the Irish people that they are not better educated; that they have not made better use of the system of national education in years past, and when one of my hon. Friends alluded to the neglect of Irish education in the past he was met with the derisive remark, "Are the old, the ignorant, and illiterate class who voted in old times still alive?" No, they are not, but it is not all at once you can get rid of the evil effects which grew up through centuries. The blight, the incubus of enforced ignorance cannot be removed in a generation or two. But the argument has been used on the other side of the House, and has found support on this, that illiteracy is going to remain in perpetuity in Ireland. My hon. Friend (Mr. Sexton) has shown clearly that illiteracy among the Irish voters has declined enormously in the past twenty years, that it continues to decline, and we may look forward with hope to its entire disappearance in a short time. In considering this question the hon. Gentleman should have thought of some other method of removing this blot on our system of voting. The best way to meet the difficulty is to educate the class from whom come the illiterate voters, and to facilitate the passing into law of the Bill which is now before the House to give to the people of Ireland the full benefit of that principle of general education which has been productive of such good results in this country, and which, if extended to Ireland, would 933 for ever remove the necessity for discussing here such a Motion as this.
§ (12.48.) MR. MARJORIBANKS (Berwickshire)
The state of the Benches near me indicates how little importance is attached to this discussion—what little reality there is in the Motion which has been brought forward.
§ MR. WEBSTER
rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put;" but Mr. SPEAKER said there yet remained time for discussion, and declined then to put that Question.
§ Debate resumed.
§ MR. MARJORIBANKS
I will not delay the House for long. The unreality of the Motion is proved by the argument brought forward in its support, because hon. Members have relied on the fact that after all, if the Motion were carried into law, it would not disfranchise any large number of people, for these people would be able to fill up their papers even if they were denied the privileges allowed under the Ballot Act. It seems to me, if you propose a disfranchising Motion and support it by saying it will not have a disfranchising effect, you cut away the ground from your own feet. I was quite prepared to believe that very few voters would be disfranchised by the Motion; but so far as it has any reality at all it is a disfranchising Motion. ("No, no!") It is not? Why, the whole argument is that voters who are unable to fill up their papers shall have the privilege of having their papers filled up for them taken away. Now, we know that hon. Members on the other side believe that the smaller the register the better is their electoral chance, and so we have this method proposed of reducing the register. But the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House is far too clever to go before the country with a Disfranchisement Bill. He says he looks on the Motion with a considerable amount of favour; it is a good idea, but that it is impossible to give effect to it in this Parliament, or for a future parliament for many years to come to give effect to the ideas of the hon. Member. The right hon. Gentleman 934 sees that if the Motion were carried into law he would in the course of a few months go before the country having disfranchised a considerable section of the people. All I can say from our point of view on this side of the House is, if hon. Members like to identify themselves with a Disfranchisement Motion, we do not object, and shall be only too glad to see them bring forward a Bill to give effect to their Motion, and go to the country a few months hence with the reputation of having disfranchised 150,000 of the population.
§ Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."
§ (11.50.) The House divided:—Ayes 55; Noes 116.—(Div. List, No. 129.)
§ Question proposed, "That those words be there added."
§ It being after Midnight, Mr. SPEAKER proceeded to interrupt the Business—
§ (12.5.) Whereupon Mr. WEBSTER rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put."
§ Question put, "That the Question be now put."
§ (12.5.) The House divided:—Ayes 118; Noes 52.—(Div. List, No. 130.)
§ Question put accordingly, "That those words be there added."
§ (12.15.) The House divided:—Ayes 117; Noes 51.—(Div. List, No. 131.)
§ Words added.
§ Main Question, as amended, put accordingly.
§ (12.25.) The House divided:—Ayes 115; Noes 50.—(Div. List, No. 132.)
§ SUPPLY,—Committee upon Monday next.