HC Deb 16 April 1896 vol 39 cc997-1004

SIR WILLIAM WALROND (Devon, Tiverton) moved:— That Mr. Dillon, Sir James Haslett, Mr. Knox, and Mr. Tomlinson be Members of the Select Committee, with five Members to be added by the Committee of Selection.

*MR. VESEY KNOX (Londonderry)

said, he had to bring before the House a matter he was very sorry to have to trouble the House with, but in the interests of his constituents, and in the interests of the Catholics of Derry and Belfast, he felt bound to state to the House the facts which concerned that Motion. The Belfast and Derry Corporation Bills, as the House would remember, were of a semi-political character. The Catholics of Derry and Belfast opposed these Bills on grounds which he did not, in any way, wish to repeat now. It was thought a hardship by the House that the Catholics of Derry and Belfast, in addition to the costs of promotion, of which they would have to bear their share as ratepayers, should also have to pay counsel to fight their case, which was really a semi-public case; and the Chief Secretary consented that the Committee should be made a hybrid Committee in order that two Irish Members familiar with the legal aspects of this question should be placed upon the Committee, who would be able to express the views of the Belfast and Derry Catholics without their having to go to the large expense of fighting this matter by counsel. It would then have been theoretically possible for the Liberal Party to insist on having one of the four Members nominated by the House to the hybrid Committee. He went, therefore, to the hon. Member for Merionethshire (Mr. T. E. Ellis), and he thought the hon. Member for Louth also spoke with the hon. Member. It was represented to him that if the Catholics' case was to be properly put forward, he (Mr. Knox) should not be left to fight the case as the only legal Member, that it was necessary to have on that Committee also a member of the Irish Bar, who should be familiar with the details of this question, and have practical experience of municipal law. His hon. and learned Friend the Member for Louth having consented, somewhat unwillingly, to go on the Committee, the hon. Member for Merionethshire said that he would have no objection to waive the right of the Liberal Party to be represented on that Committee. He (Mr. Knox) imagined the thing was settled. Already the people of the two places were fully informed about the facts. In both Belfast and Derry there was a Committee elected by public meeting, presided over by the Bishop of the diocese, and fully representing the Catholics of Belfast and Derry respectively. These Committees had previously adopted resolutions asking that he, as the Member for Derry, and either the Member for Louth or the Member for Cork, who were perfectly familiar with the technical details of the question, should be placed on the Committee with him. Those resolutions, he was told, were communicated to the Whips of his own Party. He heard nothing more about what was going on until Tuesday last, when, to his great confusion, he saw upon the Notice Paper the Motion in the name of the hon. Baronet (Sir W. Walrond), which proposed that the name of the hon. Member for East Mayo should be placed on this Committee. The hon. Member for East Mayo, he had no doubt, would wish to serve on this Committee as a politician and an Irish Member from motives which they could quite understand. He did not wish to say anything which he could avoid. All he had to say about the hon. Member for East Mayo was that he was not a lawyer, that he was not familiar with these legal questions, and that he had no knowledge of Irish municipal law. For these reasons the hon. Member could not be expected, on that Committee, to express in the same way as one who had that knowledge the views of the Catholics of Derry and Belfast. It appeared that some information reached the people of Belfast on the Monday that the hon. Member for East Mayo was to be put upon this Committee. The people of Belfast immediately met, and they passed unanimously, as he was informed, a resolution praying that the hon. Member for Louth and himself should serve on this Committee on their behalf, and they did so for the express and very natural reason that they did not want to have to go to the great expense of raising money to appear before the Committee by counsel. The Catholics of Derry, when they had the information, immediately met under the presidency of the Administrator at a public meeting in St. Columb's Hall, Derry, and passed a resolution which he thought it his duty to bring before the House:— That, having regard to the complications and legal difficulties likely to arise in the discussion and amendment of the Derry Bill, it is impossible to dispense with an Irish lawyer acquainted with such matters either on the Committee or as counsel. That, as there are competent Irish lawyers in the Irish Party, it seems hard that we should he put to the expense of employing counsel in opposition to the Bill. That the local solicitor wire at once to Mr. Dillon and Mr. Ellis, and to his Parliamentary agents, representing these views. That the solicitor communicate to Mr. Knox these resolutions and urge upon him the importance of having us saved the expense of counsel. He did not desire to blame the hon. Baronet for putting the Motion upon the Paper; but he thought it his duty to his constituents to bring the matter before the House. He had communicated with the hon. Member for East Mayo to try by every means in his power to induce him to withdraw his name, but he had absolutely refused to do so, and he had deliberately chosen to put this additional burden upon the Catholics of Derry and Belfast. In the case of the people of Derry this was particularly cruel, for they had every year to subscribe for political purposes more than the whole of Connaught. It was quite impossible for him to fight their case on the Committee single-handed against the leading lawyers of the Parliamentary Bar. He had mentioned to the hon. Member the name of Mr. T. Harrington, as well as that of Mr. T. M. Healy, as one who seemed to him (Mr. Knox) to meet all the requirements; but the hon. Member for East Mayo refused to allow his name to be added. He (Mr. Knox) admitted his powerlessness, but he felt it his duty to make his protest against this proposal. He felt it his duty to do so publicly, and to say that he would take no responsibility upon himself, under these circumstances, for the conduct of the case of the Catholics of Belfast. He would do his best, but he did not profess to be able alone to obtain the just rights of the Catholics and to save them from a very heavy expense. He begged to oppose the Motion. ["Hear, hear!"]


said, that so far as he was aware, the course pursued by the hon. Member for Derry City was a departure from the practice of the House. For his part, he did not believe the hon. Member had served the interests of the Catholics of Belfast or of Derry by the speech which he had just made. The hon. Member had adopted a very peculiar course. He belonged, or professed to belong, to a Party in that House, and so long as he belonged to any Party in the House, he was bound to observe the customs and traditions of that Party—[Nationalist cheers]—and so long as he professed before his constituents to support that Party, he ought to confine a discussion of the character which he had initiated there that day to the councils of that Party. What had been the course that had been adopted by the hon. Member? He did not communicate, as it was his duty to communicate, to him (Mr. Dillon) or to his colleagues in the Party any particular desire that he entertained as to the composition of this Committee. The hon. Member communicated with him on the morning he saw the notice placed in accordance with the usual custom on the Notice Paper. Yes, but the hon. Member had forgotten to say that his communication was of a threatening and extremely offensive character. The hon. Member announced that he intended to publish it in the newspapers. He (Mr. Dillon) did not think the House of Commons had any desire, more than was absolutely necessary, to go into this matter. What he complained of was that such a subject should have been inflicted on the House at all. The action of the hon. Member for Derry compelled him to do what he did with the greatest possible reluctance, and that was to state the facts connected with this matter, and also bring under the notice of the House a communication, he had received in connection with the appointment of this Committee, and which he thought constituted a breach of the privileges of the House. After reading the communication which he had received on the previous day he would state, for the information of the House, all the facts, so far as he was concerned, connected with the selection of the names on this Committee. The letter he had received was from a firm of solicitors in the city, who, as he understood, had charge of the opposition to the Bill, and who, as it appeared to him, had sought to manipulate a Committee of the House in the interests of their clients. The letter was as follows:— We have been instructed by our clients, the solicitors to the Derry Catholic Ratepayers' Association, to inform you that in order to avoid the expense of counsel, they consider that the presence of a competent Irish lawyer, such as Mr. T. M. Healy, on the Committee of the Derry and Belfast Bill is absolutely necessary. These instructions were telegraphed to us by our clients as soon as they heard that you had been nominated by Sir William Walrond to serve with Mr. Knox. He submitted that it was a breach of the privileges of the House, for here they had a firm of solicitors seeking to manipulate a Committee, and to nominate Members on that Committee. It appeared to him to be an extraordinary proceeding. He did not, however, think he would be acting justly towards the firm if he were not to state that he received that day from them a letter, which he would describe as between an apology and an explanation, which he he would read:— We are sorry to learn that exception has been taken to our letter of yesterday's date. We certainly thought there could be no impropriety in our conveying to you the views of our clients, who represent the Catholics of Derry. We do not see that, acting on the instructions of our clients we have committed any impropriety. If we did so we sincerely regret it and hope you will pardon us. He did not think that that letter removed the offence that had been committed by this firm of solicitors. He wished now to explain what occurred, so far as he was aware of it, in connection with the appointment of this Committee. It was agreed that the Bills should be referred to a hybrid Committee and four of the Members were to be nominated by the House. He could not accept the version given by the hon. Member for Derry City as to what had passed between him and the Chief Whip of the Liberal Party when this Committee was to be constructed. But he knew what had passed between himself and the Trish Party in reference to the matter. He was told, as one of the Whips of the Irish Party, to communicate with one of the Whips of the Opposition as to whether the latter would be willing to waive their right to a seat on the Committee and thereby allow the Irish Party to be represented by two of its Members, inasmuch as the matters to be dealt in were purely Irish. The Whip of the Opposition sent him a message to say that he was quite willing to do so, and it then remained in his hands, or in the hands of his Party, to nominate two names, and not in the hands of the hon. Member for North Derry. If the Member for Derry City had any particular views to bring forward it was his duty to bring those views to his knowledge, or to the knowledge of his colleagues. He abstained from doing so.


said he was informed and believed that the local people had brought their views, which were also his, before the Whip of the Party.


replied that no such information was brought before him. Acting, therefore, according to his best judgment, he suggested the names of the hon. Member for Derry City and himself, as chairman of the Party, because he thought the Bills were of extreme importance. The invariable practice was followed, any departure from which would involve the House in personal wrangles of the most disagreeable character. He had no notice of any objection to these nominations until the morning of last Tuesday, when he received from the hon. Member a threatening notice warning him that he would institute a personal wrangle in the House unless he withdrew his name. He had not the slightest objection to withdraw his name, but not either at the request of the hon. Member for Derry City nor at the invitation of the firm of solicitors who had charge of the opposition to the Bill. In the interests of decency and order, and for the sake of his Party, he extremely regretted that this discussion had been inaugurated on the floor of the House of Commons instead of in the ranks of the Party, where such a matter ought to be settled. He hoped this was the last time such a thing would occur. The hon. Member said that he was opposing the wishes of the Catholics of Belfast. Well, he was going to hold a public meeting in Belfast the week after next, and he invited the hon. Member to come down to Belfast—[cheers]—


I accept the invitation.


Upon that occasion, because the platform was a much more suitable place than this House to introduce these personal wrangles between Irishmen.

*MR. THOMAS ELLIS (Merionethshire)

thought he ought to explain the part he had taken in this matter. He was invited in the usual way by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury to nominate two Members on behalf of the Opposition. Very soon after receiving that intimation, he received from the hon. Member for Cork a request that, if possible, the Liberal Party should waive its right to nominate one Member upon the Committee on this Bill. Considering, first of all, that this Bill was of a purely Irish character, and, secondly, that, looking to the precedents, there was no probability of an Irish Member being put upon it by the Committee of Selection, he acquiesced in the request Subsequently to that, he had a conversation with the hon. Member for Derry and the hon. and learned Member for Louth upon the two points referred to. He intimated to them that it was not his duty at all to nominate any Irish Member, but simply and solely that of the hon. Member for Cork, who was the Whip of the Irish Party. After considerable delay, the two names of the hon. Member for East Mayo and the hon. and learned Member for Derry City were submitted to him. It was then his duty to hand those two names to his hon. Friend the Ministerial Whip. He handed them over on the day before the Recess; and he believed, in deference to the Irish Members themselves, he was willing to place the Motion on the Paper on a day on which it could be discussed. That was the only part he had in the matter.


said that, as the Whip of the Irish Party to whom the hon. Member for Merionethshire had just alluded, he desired to say that the hon. Gentleman had stated with absolute accuracy the part he (Captain Donelan) took in the matter. He might also state that no suggestion of any kind was received by him or any Whip of the Irish Party, either from Belfast or from any other part of Ireland, with reference to any objection there might be to any names in connection with this Committee.

Amendment to strike out the name of Mr. Dillon negatived; Motion agreed to.