HC Deb 08 February 1900 vol 78 cc1003-16
MR. CLANCY (Dublin County, N.)

, in rising to move, as an Amendment, to add at the end of the Question the words—"But we humbly represent to Your Majesty that the over taxation of Ireland, which promises to become greatly aggravated by the expenditure on the war in South Africa, is a most serious and pressing grievance, and demands the early attention of Parliament with a view to its removal," said: Mr. Speaker, the subject of the Amendment which stands in my name has been before the House several times in recent years, but I make no apology and I offer no excuse for bringing it forward on the present occasion. The first reason why we think it necessary at this stage of the session to bring under the consideration of Parliament once more the financial relations between Great Britain and Ireland is that all Ireland is practically united on this question. There was some doubt, I believe, as to one particular part of Ireland being in disagreement with the rest—I mean the city of Belfast. That stood apart in what Lord Salisbury would call "splendid isolation" on this question. I believe, however, that the hon. Member for South Belfast now occupies a sort of political Spion Kop, where he stands alone in resistance to the assaults of modern degeneracy.


The four Members for Belfast are united on the question.


I refer to Belfast for this reason. A short time ago a deputation from the All Ireland Committee waited on the Corporation of Belfast, and, although the hon. Member for South Belfast represents the city on most questions, the Corporation agreed to take a stand with the rest of Ireland on this matter; and when I am told by the hon. Member that the four Members for the city have taken up the same position as he has I would remind him that one of the Royal Commissioners on whose report we base our claim was one of the four Members for Belfast, and as far as I know he has never since recanted his opinion on the question. Ireland is therefore practically united in believing that it has a grievance, and, feeling a grievance, it has naturally forced on the attention of its representatives in this House the absolute necessity of pressing its claim for redress upon every occasion that offers itself, whether it is pleasing to the Government or to the House or not. I am sorry to say that there was ground for disappointment and dissatisfaction last session because an opportunity for ventilating this grievance was not found, and I have only to offer for myself the explanation that the mishap occurred owing to some misunderstanding. The fact that Ireland is united on this question, as well as the frequency and urgency of the demands made upon us to bring it forward, are ample reasons for my standing here tonight in the name of the united Irish party to propose this Amendment. There is also another reason. We have as the basis of our demand an unexampled verdict in our favour. I think it is a most remarkable circumstance — indeed the most remarkable of its kind in political history—that a Commission constituted as the late Royal Commission on the Financial Relations between Great Britain and Ireland was, should have reported by so overwhelming a majority in favour of the case made by the representatives of Ireland. The House may rest assured that, until redress is afforded, that verdict of the Royal Commission will be heard of session after session. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House has rather sneered at the Commission; he spoke of it as "this intelligent Commission." The phrase was not used in a complimentary sense, and I think it was a very inappropriate sneer to address to a body composed of the first financial experts of the Empire, most of whom were Englishmen, and many of whom had been actually employed in high positions in the financial departments of the State by different Governments. The third reason why I move this Amendment will obviously occur to the minds of hon. Members. If the present system of indiscriminate taxation results in injustice being done to Ireland, as Ireland contends it does, it is plain that that injustice will be aggravated by every addition to the sum levied in accordance with that system. Of course, I am alluding to the present war, which will probably add tens of millions to taxation of the country. If you bore burden yourselves, as you alone are responsible for the war, and you alone will benefit by it if any success accrues from it, I would not have anything to say in the matter; but for every £1 added to the taxation of the country by reason of the war, the injustice done to Ireland by the present indiscriminate system of taxation will be proportionately increased and aggravated. Under these circumstances it would be preposterous if the representatives of the overwhelming majority of the people of Ireland allowed even the preliminary stages of the session to pass without making a stand against that system. For these reasons we have brought forward this question to-night, and I propose to offer neither apology nor excuse for so doing, but I may perhaps relieve the House with the assurance that I do not intend to enter into this question in detail. The reason is perfectly plain. The speeches of the hon. Member for North Longford and the hon. and learned Member for Waterford, and, certainly not least, the speeches of the hon. and learned Member for Plymouth have so stated our case, and proved it so conclusively, that I am relieved from going over ground so frequently trodden and with such effect. I do not intend, therefore, to do more than glance in outline at our case; and answer, if I may respectfully say so, some points in the last speech delivered on this subject by the First Lord of the Treasury. We take our stand upon what the Unionist Members of this House seem to regard as almost an Ark of the Covenant—I mean the Act of Union, and especially on the seventh article of that Act. I do not know whether hon. Members on the other side, who speak so glibly on this subject against our case, have ever read that article. If they have not, I would, in all humility, advise them to read it, because they will find there the whole justification not only for our action, but for the verdict of the Royal Commission. At the time of the Union Ireland and England had certain debts, and the debt of Ireland was very much smaller in comparison than the debt, of England; not only that, but the circumstances of the two countries were very dissimilar, and accordingly the authors of the Union—Pitt and Castlereagh—voluntarily declared that it would be unjust to tax Ireland and England on the same level, and they, consequently, provided that the countries should not be taxed on the same level until their circumstances had become similar and until the debts of the two countries had approached a certain proportion to each other. That seemed a fair offer, and probably would have been a fair offer, if the proportion which Ireland was to pay to the Imperial expenditure had been fixed at a proper figure. But it was fixed at a figure which the Irish House of Lords and all the patriotic party and all unpurchased intellect of Ireland declared would prove the ruin of the country. The natural consequence was that your taxation, owing to your foreign wars, having risen by leaps and bounds, our taxation rose similarly. You broke the treaty as soon as ever it was made, because one of its conditions was that you were to borrow not on the separate credit of each country, but on the joint credit of both, and instead of that, when Ireland could not pay the preposterous sum you demanded, of her, you broke the treaty in the first year or two after it was made by borrowing on the separate credit of Ireland. The result was that the provision in the Act of Union that the debt of Ireland should reach a certain proportion of the debt of England before taxation could be equalised occurred in 1816, and then you took advantage of your own wrong. [An HON. MEMBER: After Waterloo.] Yes, after Waterloo, where the Irish soldiers had saved you, you taxed Ireland on the high level of your own country. What the 7th article provided was that the two countries were to be treated as two separate entities for finance; they were legislatively united, but in finance they were to receive separate treatment, and as a matter of fact, as everyone knows, they did receive separate treatment, to a certain extent, for the first half of the present century, for it was not until 1853, when Mr. Gladstone began his policy of plunder, which was followed impartially by his successors, that the present system, under which Ireland is robbed of £3,000,000 a year, was instituted. But under the Act of Union the two countries were not to be taxed on the same level unless, not only their debts approached to a certain proportion the one of the other, but also unless their circumstances had become similar. Does any hon. Member in this House believe that the circumstances of Ireland and England have ever been similar during the last ninety-nine years? Instead of becoming similar they have been growing more and more dissimilar every year, and consequently never, during the last ninety-nine years, have you been justified in carrying out the transaction of 1817, which, let me observe, cannot supersede the Treaty of the Union. The Act of Union was a treaty made between two nations; the Act of 1817 was made by yourselves. It destroyed one of the fundamental articles of the Act of Union; you had no moral authority to do such an act, and you have no moral authority for continuing it now. Well, but, if all this be so, the Act of Union, as we contend, answers every criticism made in reply to our case. Take the first: the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury says that no injustice is done because everyone is taxed alike in England and in Ireland. Why that is our grievance, that is the very thing we complain of, because we have a right according to the Act of Union to be taxed lower than you are, and merely to put us on an equality is doing us an injustice. Take again the suggestion of the late Leader of the Opposition—I don't know what position he occupies now. He says, "I cannot agree to discriminate in the matter of taxation, but if you Irish Members will only help me to reduce the duty on tea and tobacco and put it on the income tax, I will be quite ready to take that course." He does not see that the benefiting of the poorer classes in England and Ireland equally—which would be the result of such a course—is absolutely shutting his eyes to our case. I say if you reduce the taxation of tea in England and Ireland to-morrow, if you abolish it altogether, it will not abolish our grievance or diminish it one atom, because the poor in Ireland are entitled to be taxed less heavily than their brethren in England. Then again we are told that it is only the individual who is taxed; that it is all a mistake to think that Ireland is taxed. That is the argument of the right hon. Gentleman the First Lord of the Treasury. Well, Sir, I think it is time to give up that sort of argument. I again say that the answer to it is to be found in the 7th Article of the Act of Union. It is the individuals living within a certain prescribed area who were to be taken into consideration, and again I say that the 7th Article is my answer to the right hon. Gentleman when he talks of the individual and not the country being taxed. Then the right hon. Gentleman asks, "Are the existing taxes injurious to the industries of Ireland, or oppressive to the individual?" There is nothing in the Act of Union about taxation being injurious to Irish industries or oppressive to the individual. The Act says that it is Ireland that is to be taken into account. Lord Castlereagh, speaking on this subject, said— As to the future it is expected that the two countries shall move forward together and unite as to expenditure in the measure of their relative resources. Ireland has in the 7th Article of the treaty the utmost possible security that she cannot be taxed beyond the measure of her comparative ability, and the rate of her contribution must ever correspond to her relative wealth and prosperity. That is the Seventh Article explained. It is not whether taxation is injurious to any particular Irish industries or oppressive to any particular individuals in Ireland, but whether Ireland, as a whole, is taxed beyond her relative taxable capacity. At the same time, it is obvious that not merely some industries, but all industries, and not merely some individuals, but the whole people, must be, if the country as a whole is overtaxed. The arguments on this subject are so plain that I will forbear to go through them. I should like, however, to refer to one or two authorities who will be respected in this House. The First Lord of the Admiralty was, I believe, the first to appoint a Committee to enquire into this question in 1890. The right hon. Gentleman was responsible for the reference to that Committee, and none of the arguments we now hear were raised in that reference. It was not the grievance of the individual that was to be enquired into, but of the country, and when I am told that we are not now to be treated as a fiscal entity, I ask whether the Government have any sense of consistency. Another gentleman who is very much before the public at present—Sir Alfred Milner—wrote a very remarkable article in the Edinburgh Review, in which he answered all the statesmen and politicians who say that Ireland is not now to be treated as a separate entity in matters of finance. He said that the separate consideration of Ireland was recognised in the Act of Union, and to refuse so to regard it, even if defensible, would be in the highest degree cowardly and impolitic. I have no hesitation in saying—I do not mean to speak with disrespect of anybody—that our case has been met by a series of puerilities and inconsistencies, of which their authors ought to be ashamed. Take some of them. The First Lord of the Treasury made a famous speech at Manchester—I do not think he has repeated it in this House—in which he said— Where is the grievance? All this taxation is raised from duties on commodities. Stop using these commodities and there is no taxation. It is within the ower of the Irish people to put an end to their own grievance. If this is so, the whole case for Free Trade is gone. Put a tax on food and the right hon. Gentleman would answer in defence of such a policy, "You need not eat bread or bake flour; you have, therefore, no grievance." The case for an income tax is gone too. The taxation of incomes is intended to equalise the difference between the burthens on personal and real property, but if you tax commodities sufficiently, according to the argument of the First Lord of the Treasury, there is no reason for income tax at all, because, if persons choose to buy dutiable commodities, they tax themselves voluntarily. When the right hon. Gentleman says that we need not consume these articles, the answer is, as every man knows who examines his own conscience in the matter, that a man buys articles voluntarily, but pays the duty involuntarily, and perhaps sometimes with the help of the policeman and the excise officer. Then there is another puerile argument. The First Lord of the Treasury says: "Tax Ireland sufficiently, and you remedy all its financial grievances." He was ridiculing the idea that the taxation of Ireland ought to be regulated by the comparative taxable capacity of the country. He says that's all nonsense; if Ireland pays 2½ millions in excess, and if the taxation raised on tea, tobacco, and spirits is increased by that amount, it would be impossible for the poorer classes in Ireland to enjoy these three articles, which they would then cease to consume, and the Irish grievance would disappear, because Ireland would pay nothing if it did not consume any of these articles. Let me present another reductio ad absurdum. There is a better and more effective way of remedying the wrongs of Ireland. Kill the people altogether. Wipe them out. Send over your Nordenfelts, if you can spare any from South Africa, turn them on the Irish people, and all Irish grievances will disappear. Ireland would, according to the argument of the right hon. Gentleman, pay no taxes, but the real fact is that a number of poor people would be deprived of the comforts and necessities of life without any public advantage, and the burden would be changed from a financial into an economic one. Then the First Lord of the Treasury gives us another reductio ad absurdum. He says reduce the duty on tea, tobacco, and spirits, and you may find that the amount paid in taxation will increase. There would be no grievance in that; you would be simply getting tea, tobacco, and spirits cheaper, and if you were paying more duty you would be drinking more tea and spirits and smoking more tobacco at less cost. I now come to the last point made against us. It appears we get a set off. The First Lord admits the findings of the Commission, but he says that there is, after all, no injustice, because there is this set-off. Although I have been accustomed to expect that sort of argument from him and others, he astonished me when he made out in this House that we were getting about £355,000 a year more than we gave. I want to make two or three remarks upon this question of set-off. In the first place I say there can be no such thing according to law. The Act that you yourself here passed in 1817 declared in the most express language that the expenditure out of the Consolidated Fund of the United Kingdom should be made indiscriminately wherever it was required. I have authority here for stating—although I hope I shall not be called upon to read it, because it would delay the House—that the provision in the Act of 1817 regarding indiscriminate expenditure has always up to the present, in the opinion of all your leading statesmen, cut at the very root of the theory of a set-off. You cannot have a set-off according to law. I say, moreover, that theory is intrinsically ludicrous. Suppose it was carried out, then, what are you going to do with Gibraltar? What taxes do you get from Gibraltar? I do not know that you get any at all, but I am perfectly certain that you do not get one thousandth part of what you spend there. Will you, nevertheless, say that, if the inhabitants of Gibraltar complain of over-taxation there is a set-off? Or again, take Portsmouth. You have a tremendous case of a set-off against Portsmouth. Portsmouth must have millions a year spent upon it, and I doubt if it gives you £10,000 a year in taxation. But do you say that set-off applies here? The absurdity of the theory was, however, best demonstrated by the answer of the hon. Member for Plymouth. He says— Double the police force of Ireland, and you will remedy Ireland's grievance, because you will give back the money that you take from her. All the complaint we hear about over-taxation in France, in Italy, in Turkey is all bosh if this theory of a set-off is allowed at all. I have heard question after question asked in this House about the way the Fellaheen of Egypt and the Christian subjects of the Porte in Armenia and elsewhere used to be plundered by excessive taxation. But they get it all back—sometimes in the shape of lead to shoot them, sometimes in the shape of halters to hang them, but at all events they get it back. The money extracted from them is all spent in the country. Every penny that is raised out of Armenia is spent in Armenia. Armenia, therefore, according to the First Lord of the Treasury, has no financial grievance. What compensation is it to the Connemara peasant, who pays for his tobacco and tea a good deal more than his rent every year—what compensation is it to him to hear that the police force in Ireland is doubled? What a great consolation it is to him to hear that the Chief Secretary has spent another £1,000 upon his lodge, or that £100 has been spent in decorating St. Patrick's Hall in Dublin Castle! The thing is too ridiculous to argue. Even if you bought the hay for your troops in Kildare, what would the people gain? They would only get the extra profit which the increased demand for hay would give, that is all. I say that this theory of set-off is therefore not only contrary to law, but is in theory absolutely and intrinsically ludicrous. But it is not merely puerilities, but inconsistencies that are resorted to in order to make up the budget of the First Lord. Sometimes the position taken up is that the place of expenditure is the test; that is when you want to prove a set-off. When you want to establish a set-off you say the place of expenditure benefits, and consequently you have an overwhelming case. There is so much that goes to Ireland, and Ireland gets the benefit of it, and where, you say, is your grievance? But I observe that when you come to find out what is Imperial expenditure, the place of expenditure is not the test at all. For instance, here are items which I think everyone in the House will regard as being of an Imperial character: Volunteers—they are Imperial; War Office—that is Imperial; ordnance factories—that is Imperial; military education, shipbuilding and other things of that kind—all that is Imperial. But it is not Imperial according to your own principle, because all of it is spent in England. If you say that the cost of constabulary is to be charged to the debit of Ireland because the money is spent in Ireland, then I say you ought to deduct the £19,000,000 expended on the items I have pointed out, and debit them to the local expenditure in England. Have some principle, and act upon it; but for Heaven's sake do not go for two principles—one to suit yourselves in the one country, and the other to defeat us in the other country. Let me now take two or three items which in the budget of the First Lord make up the great account against us. There is the constabulary vote. The right hon. Gentleman is quite satisfied to put half of that only to the debit of Ireland. But not even half the constabulary grant ought to be charged against Ireland, because the half which he would now debit us with was expressly made an Imperial charge as compensation for the ruin inflicted on Ireland by the repeal of the Corn Laws. Now you want to take it off the Consolidated Fund to establish, forsooth, this set-off. Then take the Agricultural Grant. The right hon. Gentleman assumes that that is to be treated as local expenditure in Ireland. I deny it. Not a penny of it ought to be treated as Irish local expenditure. It was given as part of a scheme for relieving agricultural distress in the three kingdoms. It was given to Scotland on the same principle; it was given to England on the same principle, and it is plainly an Imperial charge. And, by the way, two years' arrears of this grant is due to us, and I am very much afraid that we may never see the colour of the money, for we have not even got the interest on the insufficient Agricultural Grant. Then the produce of the local taxation licences spent in Ireland is considered again as Imperial expenditure. Why should it be? The very same sort of licences exist in England, and their produce is earmarked for England, and they do not go into the Imperial accounts. The same thing happens in Scotland; they are regarded there as outside the Imperial account. By what audacity can you assume to treat the proceeds of the local taxation licences in Ireland in a different manner? One item really astonished me. The cost of the collection of Imperial taxes comes to about £241,000 a year in Ireland, and actually the First Lord of the Treasury, in order to make up the astonishing budget to which I have already referred, and which makes it appear as if there were an Irish deficit every year of £360,000, debits Ireland with the cost of collecting the revenue, part of which is used for the support of the troops in South Africa. A more preposterous idea I have never heard, and I do not think anybody in his senses ever dreamt of. There are several other items of expenditure which are distinctly Imperial, but which you choose to treat as Irish expenditure in the face of all reason. Take the cost of stationery; you use stationery for your Government offices in Dublin, and you do not buy a sheet of paper in Dublin. In my constituency there are excellent paper mills conducted by a political opponent of mine, a very successful and enterprising business man—a Mr. Drury. Yet you do not get a pound of paper from him; his mills may go idle although he makes excellent paper. You do not buy a single sheet of paper in Ireland, and yet you charge the cost of your stationery to the local expenditure of Ireland, although it is all used for the purposes of the Imperial Government. It is a fraud and a humbug to talk of a set-off at all. Now I have only a few more words to say. We have been met in this matter by puerilities, inconsistencies, and meannesses throughout the whole of this century. You began your series of thefts last century when you increased the Irish debt by palming off all sorts of doubtful characters, whom you dared not provide for in this country, on to our pension list. The Irish pension list, to use the famous words of John Philpot Curran, contained every, description of man, woman, and child, from the exalted excellence of a Hawke or a Rodney to the debased situation of the lady who humbleth herself that she may be exalted. Then you endowed Maynooth from Imperial funds, and when you were paying off Maynooth you charged the compensation on to the Irish Church Fund. And then what is it you do? You ask 22½ years' purchase from the Irish tithe-payers, and at the same moment you value your own security—the security of the British Government—for the payment of this annuity at fourteen years' purchase. You robbed Ireland of £370,000, and you robbed Maynooth of £400,000 by this financial trick. And you did not treat the Roman Catholics exceptionally, for there was a grant made to the Presbyterians, your faithful followers in Ireland, and they were treated in the same way—robbed of half their grant, and Ireland robbed of the rest. You are going on in the same way still. The money in the savings banks in Ireland yields to investors only 2½ per cent.—I do not think it gives so much; the Chancellor of the Exchequer will probably correct me—but what have you been doing? You have been lending it through the Board of Works to the Irish local authorities at 3½ per cent. You get the produce of the sale of quit rents in Ireland, and what do you do with that? It is Irish property. A Parliamentary Return contains on its face the unblushing statement that it is used for the purpose of a certain profit to the Treasury of England. Yet the First Lord of the Treasury tells us that England is to treat Ireland because of the past with British generosity and British benevolence. I wish to God she would show it by ceasing to rob us. I for one would prefer to have my own property left to me than to have to taken away and be compensated by your alms. At the same time, I have to say this: that you have robbed us of so much, that you are robbing us still of so much, you are bound to make restitution; and I warn you that, no matter what restitution you make, unless you cease the system of robbing, you will never get any thanks from the Irish people. We do not know what will happen during the next few years, but for my own part I should be untrue to myself and untrue to my constituents and to the interests of my country if I did not say that we regard our case as proved. We are thoroughly convinced that you are robbing us of at least several millions a year; and whatever be the result of this debate in this House, we will go on year after year making this motion and that motion, disturbing your arrangements, and, if necessary, discrediting your Parliament, until we make you stop this system of robbery, which is a disgrace to you, as well as an injury to us. Sir, I beg to move the Amendment.

Debate adjourned till to-morrow.

Adjourned at Five minutes before Twelve of the clock.