HC Deb 26 February 1903 vol 118 cc996-1004
MR. O'MARA (Kilkenny, S.)

moved an Amendment representing that the railway charges for agricultural and other produce in Ireland are excessive, and that the general management of Irish railways is such as to require immediate inquiry and reform. He regretted that when attention was called to this matter the Chief Secretary, some time ago, did not see his way to grant an immediate inquiry, because there was no doubt in the mind of the great majority of the people of Ireland that rates and charges were excessive, and that they were strangling the trade and industry of the country. The Government had granted the railway companies a monopoly, and it was their duty to see that the monopoly was conducted in a way fair to everybody. He did not complain of the shareholders expecting dividends, but his complaint was that the whole system of railway management in Ireland was bad. The hon. Member quoted certain rates charged on English and American railways, and contrasted these with the rates in Ireland, in order to show that the latter were greatly in excess. The rate for bacon from Chicago to Liverpool was 22s. 6d. per ton—a distance of 3,000 miles by water and 1,000 miles by rail—while from Ireland to Liverpool the rate for the same merchandise was 18s. 4d. per ton, only a little less for a few hundred miles than the American rate for carriage for 4,000 miles. It had been said by the Chairman of one of the Irish railways that the railway rates in Denmark for agricultural produce were higher than those in Ireland. This he denied. The distance from Copenhagen to Hamburg was 220 miles, and the rate was 10s. 8d. per ton; the distance from Cork to Dublin was about 120 miles and the railway rate was 16s. 8d. per ton. Those figures proved very clearly that there was something far wrong in regard to Irish railways, so very as their charges were concerned, and showed why an inquiry should be made into those charges The Chief Secretary had said that the Irish Board of Agriculture was accummulating facts; but he wished to draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention to what had happened in England. The Minister of Agriculture in England had directed attention to the charges for freights on English railways for agricultural produce, and the Chairman of the Great Eastern Railway, Lord Claud Hamilton, told the Minister of Agriculture that if he minded his own business equally as well as the railway directors minded theirs, the Board of Agriculture would be properly managed. That was his opinion in regard to the Irish Board of Agriculture inquiring into railway rates in Ireland. He urged the right hon. the Chief Secretary to go on accumulating facts in regard to the management of railways in Ireland, and he was sure that the result would be that some improvement would take place. There were no fewer than 300 directors in Ireland for 3,000 miles of railway, or one director for every ten miles. That of itself was enough to show why there should be mismanagement of the Irish railways. The directors said that the reason why they were unable to charge lower rates for Irish traffic was because of the smallness of the consignments; but he contended that they offered no inducement to Irish traders to send more than 10 cwts. in each consignment, for the large traders received little more benefit from the rates than the small consignors. Generally speaking everybody in Ireland was agreed that there was need for some inquiry into railway charges there, and he thought that the Chief Secretary ought to hurry up the Irish Board of Agriculture in getting their facts ready for a Commission of some sort to deal with the matter.


begged to second the Amendment. He confessed he had been very much disappointed by the reply of the Chief Secretary the other day to a question of his in regard to the appointment of a Departmental Committee to inquire into this matter. The right hon. Gentleman had said that the subject was not yet ripe for such an inquiry. He wished to know when it would be ripe, because they in Ireland had been agitating for over half a cen- tury for a Royal Commission, and the same stereotyped answer had been given over and over again to their demand. He had asked for something much more modest than a Royal Commission—a Departmental Committee. He was sure that if such a Committee were appointed most valuable material would be obtained by the Government. This question was of enormous importance to the entire population of Ireland, for everyone knew that the railway rates there were more extravagant than in any other country in Europe.

From the returns prepared by the Board of Trade the average rate per ton of merchandise carried on Irish railways was 38 per cent. in excess of the English rate, and 34 per cent. in excess of the Scotch rate, and this not with standing the fact that the cost of construction of railways in Ireland was remarkably low in comparison with the cost in England and Scotland. England offered to Ireland a market large enough for the consumption of all her agricultural produce, but they knew that Irish industries had been in a languishing condition for a long time, due in the first place to the land system in Ireland, and in the second place to the Irish railway system. He hoped that now that the Chief Secretary was turning his attention to relieve Ireland from the incubus of landlordism, he would follow that up by ridding that country of the incubus of its railway Several steps might be taken towards the solution of this vexed question. It would be useless to urge anything in favour of the nationalisation of the Irish railways, but he thought the Government might consider a practical suggestion for meeting the difficulty which had been made by Archbishop Walsh of Dublin. That suggestion was that, following the Canadian precedent, the Government should induce the railways to reduce their rates by 30, 40 or 50 per cent., subject to a guarantee from the State to provide a dividend in case the experiment should not prove a financial success. But at least a Departmental Committee should be appointed without delay to place all the facts of the case before the public.

He had been reading in the Daily Telegraph an article on the previous day's debate, in which they were informed that all legislation for Ireland seemed to be based on some sort of travesty of the Scriptural injunction "Ask (with a blackthorn) and it shall be given unto you; knock (with a blunderbus) and it shall be opened unto you." Now that all of them who were connected with Irish affairs were in a very good humour with one another, he would appeal to the Chief Secretary to give his personal attention to this question of transit and transport in Ireland, both by railways and waterways, because it was most vital to the prosperity of the country.

Amendment proposed, at the end of the Question to add the words— And we humbly represent to Your Majesty that the railway charges for agricultural and other produce in Ireland are excessive, and that the general management of Irish railways is such as to require immediate (inquiry and reform."—(Mr. O'Mara.) Question proposed, "That those words be there added."


The hon. Member for South Kilkenny, and the hon. Member who seconded his Amendment, have brought forward a subject of great interest and vital importance to Ireland; but they at the same time knew perfectly well that during the present session there was no probability of the House dealing with it. I would be only wasting the time of the House, therefore, if I were to pretend that we could, during the present session, deal with the question of Irish railways. But that does not by any means preclude the desirability of reconnoitring the situation with a view of considering in greater detail what action may be taken in the future. I may say that that is what I have been doing. Through the Agricultural Department and the officers of other Departments, I am at the present time collecting provisionally as many facts as I can bearing upon the question of transit and transport in Ireland. But when I am asked to appoint a Commission or Committee of some sort, I must tell hon. Members that almost everybody in Ireland at the present moment is thinking of, and labouring for another object, and I would get a great deal less information on this subject if I were to call away the attention of any official from it. I think we must concentrate ourselves more or less on the land question. Reference has been made to a statement in a letter by the Archbishop of Dublin in regard to what has been done in Canada; but in April, 1901, I myself referred to the Canadian precedent as one that possibly we might some day follow. Certainly it would be absurd for me to say that it would be at all likely that the Government of this country would consent to deal with the question of Irish railways in the near future. I should have thought that the history of the land question would have warned us that we had better not take up this question by trying to penalise directors. We had better seek to elicit the interest of all classes in transit problems and encourage private enterprise. The hon. Member for St. Stephen's Division of Dublin (Mr. M'Cann) has recently brought about a working experiment in respect of waterways, which is, I think, of supreme interest. The River Boyne may have associations ultimately connected with it other than those which are historical. It had been opened to free navigation by barges from Navan to Drogheda. The boats have been built in County Meath, and they were allowed to pass down this canal for no charges, provided they gave facilities for carrying agricultural produce of convenient, bulk at very low rates, and that has already brought a certain amount of prosperity to Meath, and increased the value of the land all along the sides of the canal. That is a useful work, and if those who are concerned in Ireland, when we have done something to settle the land question, will concern themselves with the transport question, then I think it will be found that such benefit as may accrue from the settlement of the land question will be multiplied, it may be threefold by the settlement of the transit problem. I do not think I ought to detain the House at greater length. I need only quote what I said two years ago. I said then— I am very glad we have had this debate. The subject is one that deserves the consideration of all parties in the House. But I cannot disguise the fact that it is interlocked with other economic questions in Ireland—inter- locked with the land question, and so long as that is in an unsettled state, so long as we do not get either from the landlords or from the tenants, and much less from both combined, the pressure which we would get in England or Scotland upon other economic questions—it is difficult to make progress on other economic questions. If that was true then it was true now, but if the landlords and tenants did combine to settle the land question they would combine also to settle the transport and other problems.

*MR. HEMPHILL (Tyrone. N.)

said that the hon. Member who moved the Amendment had rendered a good service by eliciting a very sympathetic answer from the Chief Secretary. There was no doubt that the cost of transit heavily handicapped agricultural interests in Ireland: and that some remedy must, sooner or later, be found for the. existing state of things. He, however, agreed with the Chief Secretary that all the attention of the House, and all the energies of the Irish Members, should, for the present, be concentrated on the great problem of a good land measure, that would finally settle a question which almost for centuries had been at the root of every Irish trouble. The question of railway rates was one of peculiar difficulty, because it should be remembered that railway companies were not philanthropic institutions, but commercial undertakings; and that it was impossible without doing very great injustice, especially in Ireland, to impose the obligation of carrying goods and passengers at rates below what the principles of ordinary management would require. There were only four really large railway companies in Ireland. What were the facts regarding them? One paid no dividend on its ordinary stock: two paid, for the last half-year, a dividend on the ordinary stock of, he thought, 3½ per cent.; and only one the Great Northern—paid anything like a large dividend. In making that observation he did not at all minimise the importance of the question. The moment the land question was settled, it would certainly be incumbent on the Minister of the day to have a departmental inquiry or a Royal Commission for the purpose of ascertaining whether some remedy could not be applied to the matter. The nationalisation of the railways would be one remedy; he was not arguing in favour of that, but if was worthy of consideration. There was also the question of guaranteeing a certain dividend, as had been already done in the case of small branch railways. But the subject could not be considered by this House during the present session. It would require all their attention to pass a Land Bill that would do justice to all classes in Ireland, and would ultimately be of substantial benefit to the Empire.

MR. NANNETTI (Dublin, College Green)

sad he agreed with the right hon. Gentleman that they should concentrate all their efforts on the settlement of the land question; but while they were waiting for that, (hey found that the development of trade in Ireland was materially harassed by the existing system of railway rates. He agreed with the Chief Secretary that a great deal had been done by the hon. Member for the St. Stephen's Green Division; but still they had to bear in mind what the railway companies were doing all over the country. In a journal published in this country it was stated that it was cheaper to send a ton of mineral ore from Wexford or Clare to England via America than to send it direct. He held that the arguments of his hon. friend who moved the Amendment should receive the attention of the Chief Secretary and the Government. At present it did not pay farmers in inland districts in Ireland to produce agricultural produce for the English market because of the railway charges; and something should be done in the matter while they were waiting for the Land Bill. He thought it was the duty of the Government to see that all the railway rates were of a similar class, and that no preferential rates wore granted on one route over another. They believed, rightly or wrongly, that the question of railway rates was at the bottom of some of the ills they complained of with reference to the non-development of the resources of Ireland, and he hoped an inquiry would be instituted into the matter. He cordially supported the Amendment.

MR. T. W. RUSSELL (Tyrone, S.)

said he agreed that there was very much in what the Chief Secretary had said. It was a large question involving very great interests powerfully represented in Parliament, and a question which could not be settled without a great deal of discussion in this House. He thought the right hon. Gentleman had exercised a wise discretion. He was face to face with a question of supreme importance affecting the country he governed in the settlement of the land, and he had done, he thought, the right thing not to approach another great question in which all the influence in this House would combine against him. If the land question were settled in the new spirit that prevailed they might tempt the railway directors into a conference at the Mansion House.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, "That an humble Address be presented to His Majesty, as followeth:—

" Most Gracious Sovereign,

"We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament."

To be presented by Privy Councillors and Members of His Majesty's Household.

Forward to