HC Deb 06 June 1899 vol 72 cc527-36
MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)

Before the House adjourns, I desire to ask the Chief Secretary for Ireland for some information as to what occurred in the City of Belfast last night. It will be within the recollection of hon. Members that last week I felt it my duty to call the attention of the House and of the Irish Minister to the deliberate organisation of riot and disorder in the City of Belfast which had been going on for several weeks. I then pointed out to the Chief Secretary that if he pursued the course which he pursued under similar circumstances last year with regard to the threats, a similar condition of disorder and scandalous riot would probably take place. The Chief Secretary, in reply, took upon himself the whole of the responsibility of preserving the peace of the City of Belfast on Sunday and Monday last. He said that the Government of Ireland were fully aware of the gravity of the situation, and were determined that peace should be preserved. I desire to draw the attention of the House to the fact that in the present instance there was no question of being taken by surprise, because for weeks the Government had been warned that riot and disorder would occur. In spite, how ever, of the statement of the Chief Secretary and of the warning which was given to the Government, there was last night in Belfast scandalous and violent rioting. I desire to emphasise one point in particular. I took the liberty of pointing out last week to the Chief Secretary that it was idle to expect, according my experience, to preserve the peace of the City effectively, with an insufficient police force, by the action of the military alone. In dealing with a riotous mob the military are very ineffective. They cannot arrest anyone, and all they can do is to charge with fixed bayonets or fire, and that is not a proper way, except in the very last extremity, to protect the police. Now what occurred? Yesterday a large National procession took place in Belfast. Shortly before half-past six a disturbance, unfortunately similar to that of last year, broke out on the Old Lodge Road. The affair originated at Alton Street, where there is a Nationalist arch, and ended in an attack on the police. Stones of all sizes were hurled at the police, and District-inspector Hurst, seeing that affairs were getting serious, blew his whistle, unsheathed his sword, and ordered a charge. The police charged the mob, which was 250 strong, and it fled up the Lodge Road. The police were out-distanced, and stopped about one hundred yards up the road. Stones then began to fly again, and the crash of broken windows was to be heard. The mob remained above the Baths, shying stones for a while, but no person was injured. A detachment of the Dragoon Guards arrived immediately afterwards, and galloped up the road, the crowd dispersing into the side streets. The military turned four hundred yards up the street and walked down, but the crowd, during the absence of the military up the road, stoned eight policemen who were stationed at the corner of Upper Townsend Street. Two ornamental plate-glass windows in the public-house of Edward O'Neill were shattered, and another public-house was also damaged. The Dragoons continued to parade the street, and about seven o'clock the police made a charge under military protection, and arrested three men at the corner of Broadbent Street. They were quickly surrounded by an escort of the cavalry, under Sergeant M'Donald, and removed to Brown Square Barracks. The charges preferred against them were riotous behaviour, and the prisoners gave the names of William Henry Telford, Boyd Street; William Marshall, Tyne Street, Ballymacarrett; and Alexander Harrison, Dickson Street, Grosvenor Road. Meanwhile the stoning at Woodford Street and other points was kept up vigorously, and many of the windows in Brown's Square Barracks were broken. Several more persons were injured, and the Telegraph reporter received a severe blow on the knee from a falling stone. About eight o'clock the cavalry at Townsend Street were withdrawn to scatter a mob on the Old Lodge Road, and, reinforcements being at hand, the crowd on the Shankhill had a clear passage to the police barracks; and they attacked it vigorously. Hundreds of stones were hurled at the windows, but the few police who were about remained in shelter, and no person was injured. Head-constable Buick had assistance telephoned for from the barracks, and District-inspector Hurst, coming up with twenty men, called out the reserves in the barracks. The whole force, along with the reinforcement of cavalry, then charged up the Shankhill, the mob scattering in all directions. The mob retreated to Dover Street, and the original military cordon returning from the Old Lodge Road, the cavalry force was augmented to the number of fifty troopers. The sight of this imposing force of the cavalry awed the crowd, who remained quiet for some time, no police being in sight. On the Old Lodge Road several wild scenes took place, and the police had to charge frequently. At eight o'clock a force of Rifles arrived at the barracks and took up a position in Brown's Square, to which several men who had been arrested on the Lodge Road were now conveyed under a strong police escort. At ten minutes past eight the City Commissioner, who was accompanied by Mr. Seddall, drove up from North Street and had a consultation with the authorities on the spot. The laxity of the police had been condemned so far, and stern measures, it is stated, will be taken, if the rioting continues. The Rifles were wheeled into the Shankhill with fixed bayonets, awaiting orders. The rioting in Upper Townsend Street and Sherbrook Street now became fierce, and a terrible attack was made on the police who had been up the Old Lodge Road. A number of constables had to run for all they were worth down Sherbrook Street. Several constables were injured, but repeated charges by the horsemen scattered the rioters, though only for a few minutes. Quiet was no sooner comparatively restored on the Shankhill than terrible rioting broke out on the Lodge Road. A crowd in Stanhope Street stoned the Nationalist party vigorously, and about 20 police got sandwiched between them and received severe treatment. Pavers were torn up by the women, who along with the men on both sides hurled them to such an extent that for ten minutes the air was black with missiles. The police, shut in between both parties, were badly injured, and they were powerless to either charge or escape. They tried to make their way into Arnon Street by a side thoroughfare, but were repulsed by the crowds who ran after them. Scarcely a window in Stanhope Street escaped, and many heads were cracked by the showers of stones. Matters were so serious that a company of the Rifles were sent for and advancing up Lime Street wheeled into the Lodge Road and charged the Protestant mob with fixed bayonets several hundred yards. On the way back to their starting place the crowd stoned the police with renewed vigour. Sergeant M'Manus, of Glenrave Street, was cut off, and several women went up to within a few yards of them and hurled pavers at them. The Rifles then charged the Catholic crowd in Stanhope-street, and there rowdies pelted the military vigorously, but the Protestant mob left them alone. The police had disappeared for the time being, but the next thing heard was the bugle of a detachment of Dragoons, which rang out the charge, and instantly the red-coats came in sight, and galloped down the Old Lodge Road, the crowd retired into the side streets. Additional Rifles were now despatched to the scene, and charge after charge was made in the side streets. The Riot Act by this time had been read, and matters were assuming a very serious aspect. The police were chased from Stanhope Street, and when again reinforced by the infantry made a charge, and one arrest was made, the prisoner being removed to Brown's Square by ten constables, under Mr. M'Ardle, D. I. At nine o'clock a detachment of Rifles marched into Brown's Square, and orders having been given, they loaded their rifles, and faced up the Shankhill, prepared for any eventualities. Immediately afterwards Constable Norton, one of the wounded policemen in Stanhope Street, was assisted into the barracks with a badly injured leg and arm. He almost fainted on the way to the barracks, and once he got inside his injuries were attended to. It subsequently transpired that the reading of the Riot Act took place near Agnes Street, where a crowd of some 14,000 people had assembled, and so threatening was their attitude that Major Gregg read the Act. O'Neill's premises, already referred to, were badly wrecked by another mob earlier in the evening, and before the Rifles charged with their bayonets. At 9.30 matters looked a little easier; but the streets were still guarded by soldiers. The prisoners so far are still detained in Brown's Square Barracks, and will not be taken to the Central Station till the trouble subsides. At 9.30 the Shankhill Road presented a scene such as even at its worst experiences has seldom, if ever, been eclipsed. Cordons of police and infantry, with fixed bayonets, and dragoons cut off access at every available point, while detachments of cavalry were constantly moving up and down the thoroughfare, keeping the crowds in motion. There seemed to be riot in the very air, and from the most unexpected quarters showers of stones and other missiles were being every moment hurled wherever a police constable chanced to put in an appearance. To crown all, and add to the confusion, dense volumes of smoke intensified the growing darkness. Some dozens of chimneys had been purposely set on fire, showers of burnt paper making it only too clear that the simultaneous outbreaks were no mere coincidence. Now, I ask again, is that a condition of things that ought to be tolerated in a civilised country and after full warning? This kind of thing went on for several hours, and I have heard a rumour about an hour or two ago that a military officer who was struck has since died. Now, I say that in view of what occurred in the House last week, and of the constant repetition of these scandalous scenes, and of the well-known fact, particularly in the present instance, that these riots were organised and meetings held for weeks previously for the avowed intention of getting up these riots, it is a disgrace and scandal that the Irish Government are not better able to preserve the peace of the city. The Shankhill Road and the Old Lodge Road have been turned into a veritable pandemonium. What I specially complain of is that the police were again and again hunted down and driven into the fight before the military came to their aid. This is a monstrous and outrageous thing, and is calculated to inflame and encourage the riotous spirit which has so often disgraced Belfast. I do not wish to be misunderstood. I have not, on this or on a previous occasion, come before the House appealing for protection for the Catholics of Belfast. They are well able to protect themselves, but every citizen of Belfast, Catholic or Protestant, Methodist or Presbyterian, is entitled to the protection of the law. I ask the Chief Secretary if he has any further information, and in particular whether it is true that the military officer who was struck has since died.


I have no information to the effect that the military officer in question has since died. With regard to the general question, the hon. Member appears to be under the extraordinary delusion that the police are to be expected not merely to suppress riots, but also attempts at riots. You might just as well expect the police not merely to check crime, but even to prevent crime from the outset. Such a claim is perfectly absurd, and the hon. Member must know it to be so.


Not at all.


All the precautions which could be taken were taken, and it is impossible in a city like Belfast absolutely to prevent any attempt at rioting. When rioting breaks out, all that the authorities and the police can do is to take adequate measures to suppress it, and in this case such measures were taken. Considering the extreme tension prevailing in such a place as Belfast, I have heard that all the authorities, the military as well as the police, did their duty in an admirable way, and prevented what might have been a very serious riot, resulting in serious loss of life. The responsibility for these disturbances rests with those who got up the processions last year, and this year, knowing perfectly well what the result would be on the peace of this city. As to the occurrences of last evening, I say that as far as I am aware no rioting has taken place. A telegram sent by the Commissioner at 8.30 says:

City remains in its normal state; I will wire at 10 p.m.

At 10 o'clock a telegram was received stating:— City continues quiet, and, as far as I can judge, no danger of rioting to-night.

Adjourned at twenty minutes after Twelve o'clock.