HC Deb 06 March 1896 vol 38 cc310-7

Order for Second Reading read;

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

MR.VESEYKNOX (Londonderry)

said, that in rising to oppose the Second Reading of this Bill he had in the first place to express his regret that it had become necessary to trouble the House in some little detail with the circumstances of the local affairs of some Ulster towns. He had made an appeal to certain hon. Members opposite in the hope that they might avoid that Debate. Unfortunately, they had refused any sort of terms, and it was therefore necessary to bring the whole matter before the House. He did not think it necessary to apologise to the House if he referred to this matter somewhat in detail, for after all the question involved was not a small one—it was a question of the deprivation of civil rights of a population who, in Belfast, Derry, and a few other Ulster towns, numbered over 100,000. It was true that these men had votes for Imperial purposes, but in the local affairs in which they were interested the Catholics had absolutely no power. On the First Reading of another Bill he referred to the analogy in the case of the Transvaal and in the case of the people of Johannesburg. Although they were denied votes for Imperial purposes, they had local votes, and he ventured to say there was no parallel in any part of the world to be found for the state of things he had to disclose that day to the House. This Bill proposed to largely extend the boundary of the city of Belfast, and to redistribute the wards within the city. There were at present five wards, and the Bill proposed there should be fifteen wards. It also proposed to give largely-increased powers, which might be described as police and sanitary powers, and also borrowing, to the Belfast Corporation. The contention he had to bring before the House was that no Bill of this sort should be allowed to pass into law unless some provision was made in it for representation of the unrepresented minority of the people of Belfast. He admitted that that contention of his was that he could only support if he was able to show to fair-minded Members of the House on both sides that there exists in Belfast a very unusual state of things. Therefore, he would state the facts. According to the census of 1891 there were living in the Parliamentary boundary of Belfast 202,000 Protestants and 70,000 Catholics. The Catholics were, therefore, exactly almost one-fourth of the population, but yet they were not represented by even a single Member in the Corporation. This was not a chance matter. Since 1855, or ever since the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act, there had been only five Catholics as members of the Belfast Town Council, and they were allowed there on sufferance during excited days. There was not the slightest chance within the lifetime of any of the Catholics of Belfast of any of them getting into the Corporation. They lived as men who, on account of their religion, could have no hope of ever taking part in the municipal affairs of their city. He was not going to say anything against the City of Belfast. Its citizens might take pride in it as a great city, but the greater it was, so much greater was the deprivation of the Catholic minority, who could have no part or share in its municipal life. Not merely had this system of exclusion been carried out in regard to the membership of the Corporation, but it had been carried out in remorseless detail in reference to offices of emolument in the city. In fact, one would think the Test Acts had never been repealed. The Catholic officials received £290 a year in salaries, while the Protestant officials received £18,467 per year. The same principle was observed even in regard to the rate collectors, for there was not a Catholic rate collector in Belfast. He did not want to labour the reasons for this state of things, but still he wanted to meet the objections which he knew would be raised by hon. Gentlemen opposite. They would say that the objection to give representation or any office to Catholics was not due to religious feeling but to political feeling; that the Catholics were not proscribed as Catholics, but because they happened to be Nationalists. Frankly, he could not credit that view. There were a few Catholic Unionists in Belfast, but they were very few. How was it that those men had been just as unfortunate as the Nationalist Catholics in failing to obtain any municipal representation? There were also a few Protestant Home Rulers in Belfast—not very active or violent, but still men who supported Nationalist candidates at elections, and these men were some of them members of the Belfast and Derry Corporations. Therefore, it was proved to demonstration that this exclusion was not an exclusion of Nationalists, but an exclusion of Catholics as Catholics. Before the last Hybrid Committee in 1892, on which he had the honour of sitting, representatives of the Belfast Corporation, one after another, admitted that under present circumstances there was no reason to expect that any Catholic could be returned to the Belfast Corporation, unless in some ward within the city there happened to be a majority of Catholic voters. This was peculiar and extraordinary, and ought to be removed. ["Hear, hear!"] They had the fact that 70,000 people had no hope of obtaining any share in their municipal life. Many attempts had been made to cure this state of things. In the years 1886 and 1887 an attempt was made to remedy it by extending the franchise in Belfast. It was thought necessary to give by private Bill an extension of the franchise such as had not been given in any other part of Ireland. This Act was passed in 1887, and it was undoubtedly the intention of Parliament by that Act to give the same franchise to Belfast as prevailed in English towns. But by the astuteness of the legal Gentlemen who represented Belfast, they were able to get into that Act words which had not given so wide a suffrage as that given to other towns. This might be a small point, but Parliament ought to avail itself of this opportunity to correct it. But, even if that mistake were corrected, it would be impossible for the Catholics of Belfast to obtain a representation at all adequate to their numbers. This Bill proposed to create 15 wards, to be sketched out by a Commissioner who was to be appointed by the Lord Lieutenant. That Commissioner might do his best to give the Catholics representation, but it would be impossible for him to so carve out the city as to secure to the Catholics more than one representative. Those who were acquainted with the city had worked out the Bill and come to the conclusion that one ward was all the Catholics could get. Now, one ware would give these people, who were one-fourth of the population, only one-fifteenth of the representation, and that would not be an adequate redress of their long-standing grievances. [''Hear, hear!"] Further, the system of ward representation might have one very unfortunate result. Formerly nine-tenths of the Catholics lived in one quarter of the city, but these circumstances had been recently changed, and it was most undesirable that the House should do anything to perpetuate a condition of things by which the people of one religion should be huddled together in any one part of the town. ["Hear, hear!"] He wished to lay before the House a proposal which he believed would relieve the people of Belfast, and at the same time would not conflict with any settled principle of our legislation. The only cure for this state of things was that they should introduce into Belfast the system of Cumulative Voting as applied in the English School Board Elections. [''Hear, hear!"] The Cumulative Vote had been demanded time after time in Belfast. This was the only way the Catholics could remedy their grievances, and it had been supported by various Conservative Ministers. So long ago as 1877 the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was then Chief Secretary for Ireland, moved an Amendment in Committee in favour of the adoption of the Cumulative Vote, and it would be within the recollection of the House that in 1892 Mr. Balfour, in the Irish Local Government Bill, proposed that the Cumulative Vote should be applied for local purposes throughout the whole of Ireland. Therefore the two leading Ministers of the present Government had both supported the adoption of the Cumulative Vote system to Irish local affairs. It might be asked, how was this system to be applied to Belfast? His proposal was that the four parliamentary boroughs in the city of Belfast should be taken as the four wards. This would not destroy the ward system, and it would be possible with these four wards to get a full representation of all sections of the Belfast population. He thought it would even be possible to divide each of these four divisions into two, and still get a representation of all the people, but it was quite clear that if Parliament once adopted the system of 15 wards, they could not by any chance get a representation of all the people of Belfast. [Cheers.] Even supposing by a subsequent Act to this the Cumulative Vote was applied, it would be impossible for any minority less than one-third to obtain any representation in any ward. Consequently, if this House, by passing this Bill, adopted the system of 15 wards for Belfast, it would be impossible by any subsequent legislation to give a representation to the Belfast Catholic minority. This was his proposal. He did not ask the House to pledge itself to the details of the proposal; all he asked at this stage was that a Committee should be empowered to go into these matters and make provision, if it should think fit, for the adoption of the Cumulative Voting for the representation of the Belfast minority. He left it in that way in the absolute confidence that any Committee, though it might have a majority of Unionist Members in it, would, after inquiring into the facts, find that the case of the Catholic minority was a just one, and that their claim ought to be met. ["Hear, hear!"] This Bill ought not to be allowed to go to Second Beading until the House had made provision for the representation of the minority of Belfast.


Order, order! The hon. Member is now dealing with the instruction to the Committee which he proposes to move later on. The question now before the House is the Second Reading of this Bill.


continuing, said, as the Bill now stood it made no provision at all for the representation of the Catholic minority. For his own part, he should be perfectly ready to see this system applied to Ireland everywhere, when occasion offered; but at the present moment there was no minority in any single town in the South of Ireland which was not reported at least up to its number. He quite admitted that, if the Franchise were extended, there might be such a minority. He would make this appeal to hon. Members opposite. They had said they would never desert their brethren in the South, and they had a chance now of helping them in a practical way, because, if they assented to the application of this principle in the North of Ireland towns, it would be quite impossible for any Government Members sitting on his side of the House to object to the application of the same principle in the southern towns so soon as the Franchise was extended. He did not like to speak on behalf of his friends in this matter; but if any of them did oppose such application after Parliament had applied it to the northern towns, their contention would be so hopeless that it would never be listened to by the vast majority in the House. For himself, he had no doubt if this was done for the northern Catholics, they would be ready to give at least the same advantage when the occasion arose to the southern Protestants. Therefore, he asked them to seize this as an opportunity of doing justice to their southern brethren while they were doing justice to the northern Catholics. In brief, his contention was that this Bill was not one which the House should pass unless it saw its way to make provision by some system for the representation of the now unrepresented Catholics in the North. He admitted that the proposal to do this by a private Bill was a novelty, but the circumstances of Belfast were novel. He brought forward this proposal with the more confidence because he believed it was the general feeling among a large section of the Protestants of Belfast that this occasion ought to be embraced in order to make the change which he had suggested. The hon. Member for North Belfast was a leading member of the Belfast Corporation, and he would remember that when the proposal to insert the Cumulative Vote in this Bill was brought before the——


Order, order! The hon. Member is now transgressing the ruling. This is an argument for the Instruction, which is not now before the House.


said, his contention was that there was actually a large proportion of the Belfast Corporation who wished to have the Bill amended as he suggested, and that that was a reason why the House should not pass the Second Reading in its present form.


That would be a ground for arguing every possible Amendment to a Bill on a Motion for the Second Reading, however many Amendments were on the Notice Paper.


said, he would reserve that point until afterwards. He would only say at present that this was a matter in which a large section of the Protestant people of Belfast were of the same opinion as himself, and the hon. Member for North Belfast found the other day, by the very small majority by which he was returned to this House, that a large section of the Protestants of Belfast did not think as he did on this question. Reserving, until the subsequent Motion, what he had to say on the details of this proposal, he would, in the meantime, ask the House not to pass the Second Reading unless they had some assurance from those in charge of the Bill that no opposition would be offered to the just proposal he was going to lay before the House. He begged to move that the Bill be read this day six months.

MR. JOHN REDMOND (Waterford)

formally seconded the Motion.


said, it was usual when opposing the Second Reading of a Bill to deal with the Bill itself. The opposition here had been directed exclusively against minors or other matters connected with the Franchise that might fairly be dealt with in connection with the Instruction. The Bill in its simplicity was a Bill simply to extend the borough of Belfast. That extension had been rendered necessary by the unprecedented growth of the city. It was not a question that the Corporation of Belfast had dealt lightly with or for Party purposes. It was a question forced upon them by the growth of the city.