§ Considered in Committee.
§ (In the Committee.)
§ [MR. CALDWELL (Lanark, Mid.) in the Chair.]
§ Motion made and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £124,215 801 be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1907, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Office of the Land Commission."
§ Whereupon Motion made and Question proposed, "That a sum, not exceeding £124,115, be granted for the said service."—;(Mr. John Redmond.)
§ MR. MEAGHER,
continuing his speech, said that from beginning to end the tenant class of Ireland had had no material improvement in their condition in comparison with the fall of prices. It was too costly to take cases into court, besides which the results were too unsatisfactory, fie maintained that unless compulsory powers were given to the commissioners to purchase untenanted lands the question of the evicted tenants would never be solved. He had asked the Chief Secretary how many evicted tenants in the county of Kilkenny at the date of the passing of the Land Act of 1903 were entitled to be restored to their holdings, and how many were restored to their holdings. The answer he received was that 153 had lodged applications and three tenants had been restored to their holdings. But his question was how many evicted tenants were in Kilkenny at the passing of the Act who were entitled under that Act to be restored to their holdings. A Return showed him that there were 301 instead of 153. He did not for a moment insinuate that the right hon. Gentleman wished to mislead him, but what he (Mr. Meagher) wanted to call attention to was the fact that half of the evicted tenants were so down-hearted and had so little confidence in the Act that they absolutely refused to lodge applications for reinstatement under the Act. In his own county there was a case in which 375 people had been turned out of their holdings to make room for sheep and bullocks, and the owner was living in Washington, in the United States. In the case in question 1,600 acres of land had gone into wilderness through want of cultivation. Compulsory powers of acquiring these untenanted lands were necessary if the question of the evicted tenants was to be dealt with successfully. Unless there was some 802 vital amendment of the Act he failed to see by what means the evicted tenants could be restored.
§ SIR THOMAS ESMONDE (Wexford, N.)
congratulated his hon. friend upon his maiden speech. He had spoken very feelingly upon a detail of the Irish land question, in which he also took a very deep interest. It was a question which vitally affected the whole settlement of the land question as well as the peace and well-being of the country. They all expected when the Act of 1903 was passed that it would have brought about a speedy solution of the difficulty, but in that expectation they had been to a large extent disappointed. In his own county he was glad to say they had done somewhat better than was the case in his hon. friend's county. At the passing of the Act they had, he believed, 189 evicted tenants, and they had succeeded in settling seventy nine. That, so far as it went, was satisfactory, but it had not yet settled the question, and his reason for rising in the debate was solely to urge the Government to take every means in their power to expedite the settlement of this burning question. They believed the Government were actuated by a sympathetic feeling towards Ireland, and hon. Members from Ireland asked them to utilise their opportunities and powers especially for the evicted tenants. He did not quite agree with his hon. friend that they could not make satisfactory progress under the existing measure. He thought that within the confines of the existing Land Purchase Act there were great opportunities for the settlement of the question, but what was wanted was more energy and more courage in the administration of the Act. What they wanted was that the sympathy of the Government should translate itself into action, and that no opportunity should be missed of settling the case of any evicted tenant. It was purely a question of administration. The Estates Commissioners had ample power to clear any farm or estate, and they could declare any parcel of land an estate, with a view to settling on it the evicted tenants. No opportunity should be missed to remove this great social sore which had proved such a great drawback to the social peace and prosperity of Ireland, and without a satisfactory treatment of which the land question could 803 never be settled. In this time of returning prosperity, when they were told that their exports were greater than they had ever been before, surely it was possible for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to find a sufficient sum of money to settle this question. He joined with his colleagues in pressing upon the Government the immediate necessity of dealing with the subject.
§ MR. O'SHEE (Waterford, W.)
said he desired to join in congratulating the hon. Member for North Kilkenny upon the excellent maiden speech which he had just delivered. With regard to what had been said he was inclined to think that the hon. Member for North Fermanagh and his friends preferred the backstairs influence of Dublin Castle to secure appointments, to open criticism in Committee of Supply of the appointment and of the qualifications of the men who had been appointed sub-commissioners. They all knew what had gone on ever since the Land Act of 1881 was passed, and they knew, above all, what had gone on during the past ten years of the Tory Government with regard to appointments in Ireland. If the archives of Dublin Castle could be searched, and if the correspondence which had passed between Lord Londonderry and the late Chief Secretary for Ireland could be perused, he thought they would be able to trace a number of those appointments to the influence of Lord Londonderry and Lord Donegal. Many of the public bodies in Ireland had passed resolutions against the appointment, under such influences, of men who were utterly unfit to give a fair decision with regard to rent fixing, and because they had done this they had incurred the indignation of the hon. Member for North Fermanagh and his colleagues. It was a very difficult thing to find men qualified for these positions who could be regarded as impartial arbiters between landlord and tenant. He would much prefer that the Irish Government should come over to England, Scotland, or Wales, and find Englishmen, Scotsmen, or Welshmen to perform the duty of fixing rents. It was the duty of the Irish Government to look very closely into the personnel of the Land Commission. He had had a long experience practising before the Land 804 Commission, and no doubt it would be thought a delicate thing for him to criticise the members of that Commission. He had known the Chief Commissioner, who was appointed under the influence of a particular landowner, go down to the chief Commission Court and adjudicate upon the cases brought forward by tenants of the very landlord whose influence had secured him the appointment. That kind of thing had gone on all over the country. Mr. Justice Fitzgerald had for many year the duty of selecting sub-commismissioners who had to fix the rents in the various parts of Ireland, and he could change them at any moment. Not only this, but he also had the duty assigned to him in consultation with Mr. Justice Meredith of selecting the tribunal to revise the decisions of those sub-commissioners. He was not going to criticise Mr. Justice Fitzgerald, but the tenant farmers had the deepest mistrust of him in regard to the fixing of rents. No one doubted that that mistrust existed, and it was an outrage upon justice that a man who was so distrusted should first of all have the picking of the individual men to fix the rents on the sub-commission, and also the picking of the men who were to revise the rents of the men he had first selected. That was the position of things in Ireland to-day. The hon. Member for North Kilkenny had said that he should not deplore it if rent fixing were abolished altogether in Ireland, and he was of the same opinion, because the rent fixing tribunals were being used simply to keep up prices. The tenants, could not go on much longer paying such high rents, the result of which was to make tham ready to snatch up anything in order to get relief. The system ought to be abolished root and branch. As a matter of fact, fifty of the sub-commissioners were described as tenant fanners. If their claims to call themselves tenant farmers were investigated, it would be found in most cases they had no proper right to be so designated. In making applications they naturally desired to put the best colour they could on their previous occupation, and, having done that, they obtained appointments by backstairs influences at the Castle. Hon. Members from Ulster who represented the landlord interest complained 805 of the criticism which had been directed against the reappointments as unreasonable and unjust. They said in regard to these men who were removable that their appointments should be permanent, but they had not in the past said that the removable magistrates should hold permanent appointments. Why should they be so indignant because Sub-Commissioners were only appointed for one year? In the comity he represented and a great many other counties in Ireland there was hardly any untenanted land to be acquired. That being so, how were the labourers to be provided for? He should be glad to see holdings enlarged, and he hoped the Chief Secretary would, in dealing with the untenanted land, assent to some of it being allotted to the labourers. When the Act of 1903 was passing through the House an Amendment was moved with the view of including the labourers in the benefits of the measure, but the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dover, who was then Chief Secretary, intimated that he intended to deal with the labourers in the following year. On that promise the Amendment was withdrawn. The pledge had not yet been fulfilled, and he hoped that the Chief Secretary would deal with the matter in the forthcoming Bill. He knew cases in the counties of Limerick and Waterford where the labourers had taken strong measures to prevent people who held large quantities of land from getting portions of untenanted land. The labourers protested against farmers, who already had sufficient land, getting more; they wanted a little for themselves in order that they might be able to eke out a subsistence at periods of the year when they were unable to get employment from the farmers. He would point out one way in which untenanted land could be acquired under the Act of 1903. It was not contended that there was anything to prevent the Commissioners from buying land which was offered for sale in the open market. He knew of cases in Waterford where land was offered for sale in the open market, and he believed it could be acquired for a moderate sum. That land would be very useful for distribution among evicted tenants whoso farms had been grabbed. There were several of those farms. The same remark applied to other lands in Leinster and Minister. He asked the Chief Secretary to direct the 806 attention of the Commissioners to the Nugent Thomas estate in Waterford where the landlord had made his own brother the tenant of a largo area of land. They held between them 2,000 acres of land from which a large number of tenants were evicted ton or fifteen years ago. The majority of the Judges had decided that the Land Commission might advance money to the brothers for the purpose of the acquisition of this land by one of them, and it was admitted that he became the tenant of the land for the purpose of buying the fee simple from his brother and paying for it with money borrowed from the Estates Commissioners. On this estate at the present moment there were at least five evicted tenants some of whoso farms had been grabbed by outside persons and some by the person whose title to the land was in question fifteen years ago. He suggested that it should be represented to the Estates Commissioners that they ought not to countenance this and they should not deal with a case in which the brother of the landlord became the tenant of land which would otherwise be unoccupied and thereby oust the claim of the evicted tenants to return to the land. They ought not to advance the landlord any money so long as he hold, or his brother hold, this land which ought to be given back to the evicted tenants. He should like to refer to the subject of the purchase of their holdings by the tenants of town lands. The Estates Commissioners gave the owners of town lands, who were willing to sell, to understand that they could not see their way, considering the stringency of the conditions of the money market and the amount of money at their disposal, to make advances for the purpose of the purchase of these town holdings. He saw nothing in the Act itself, however, which compelled the Estates Commissioners to make any distinction at all between those town holdings and an estate which was mainly agricultural, and he hoped in future they would treat town tenants who applied for advances upon a different basis, and that they would make it clearly known to the owner of the land that they would have no hesitation in advancing money in the ordinary way to those tenants for the purchase of their holdings. Dealing with the question of returns he said that Mr. Porter who revised them was in a 807 class by himself in the Land Commission. The returns were not altogether satisfactory, and as his hon. friend had said in the last fifteen years they did not show any great change; but what made the figures in them much higher was the froth of Mr. Porter. As a matter of fact the returns were not properly prepared. He knew some of the gentlemen who went round to the fairs, and he knew the class of men that they belonged to. They were striplings drawn from the landlord class, and they only went for their information to dealers in the best class of cattle and did not trouble about other dealers at all. Then they sent in reports to Mr. Porter and from them he prepared the returns. None of these young men were qualified for their positions, they did not know how to speak to a farmer, and none of the farmers would understand them because of their highly Anglicised accent. In order to be qualified they ought to be able to speak Irish, but he did not think that any one of these gentlemen had been within a stone's throw of an Irish-speaking peasant before his appointment. In regard to the zone system, he would like to refer to a case which excited the merriment of Mr. Justice Meredith. It was a case of a landlord who had one tenant, who was his sister-in-law; and when the Act of 1903 was passed they thought it was a good opportunity of getting some money. They made a judicial agreement the day before the Act came into operation, because under the zone system the Court might deal with tenants whose rents had been fixed by agreement at that time, and had never been decided in the Courts, and he himself knew of a great many cases that had come before the Commissioners where the tenants were induced to sign judicial agreements the day before the Act became operative. Those agreements in no sense, however, dealt with judicial rents, but the landlord said to the tenant, "You must sign this agreement," and accordingly it was signed. The agreement he was dealing with between this landlord and his sister-in-law fixed the rent at £110, while the landlord was paying a rent of £104 to the head landlord. After three months a judicial agreement of this kind took effect and became absolute; but, unfortunately, those people were incautious, and did not wait the three months, but lodged 808 an application for purchase at twenty-seven-and-a-half years purchase before the period expired. The Land Commissioners said that they were entitled to have the property inspected, and the inspector put the fair rent at £90. Then the Land Commissioners said they would not advance twenty-seven-and-a-half years purchase at £110, because they had lodged their application before the three months had expired; but they said they would advance twenty-seven-and-a-half years purchase at £90. That was about £2,500, and the landlord got a bonus on that of £300. This middleman, who was selling to his sister-in-law, had no interest at all, and the whole of the £2,500 went to redeem the head rent; but he got £300 out of the estate, because he had made this arrangement with his sister-in law, and if they had waited for three months he would have got twenty-seven-and-a-half years purchase at £110 instead of at £90, and would have received £550 as a bonus. Mr. Justice Meredith referred to the case as one of the absurdities of the zone system, and that was a typical case of what occurred every day under that system.
§ MR. THOMAS O'DONNELL (Kerry, W.)
said the hon. Member for North Fermanagh had tried to show that the Assistant Sub-Commissioners were selected because they were skilled in land values, and were likely to be impartial, but his hon. friend who had just sat down had, he thought, shown that they were neither impartial, judicial, nor competent. This debate had been initiated because the people of Ireland, having got rid of twenty years of Tory Government, and a Liberal Government being in power, expected, at least, that the men who fixed rents should be impartial; and that those whom the Tory Government appointed, and who after twenty years experience they found to be most unfair, inexperienced, and incompetent, should be replaced by men who should, at least, be fair, qualified, and competent. It was because the Chief Secretary had not been able during the short time that he had occupied his office to ascertain the enormities of the system under which these officials were appointed, and the wretched manner in which they had done their work, and had been unable 809 to replace them by better men, that this subject was brought forward for discussion, and they trusted that in the near future the Chief Secretary would revise these appointments and appoint more competent men. Dealing with the evicted tenants, the hon. Member said he came from a district where 400 men had been turned out of their homes, and many of them had died. But some remained, and he had asked time after time since the passing of the Land Purchase Act of 1903 that something should be done to reinstate these men in their former holdings. So far, however, although two and a half years had passed since that Act came into operation, he did not know of one single tenant who had been replaced owing to its operation. It was true that some of the landlords themselves had replaced evicted tenants, but so far as he had been able to find, the Estates Commissioners had not done anything to reinstate the evicted tenants in the county of Kerry. He would advise the Chief Secretary to send down one of his best inspectors to the county to make inquiry into the largo number of cases which now remained, and to see whether the landlords, though not inclined to sell the whole of their estates, would sell that part of the estate which an evicted tenant had hold, and where a man had grabbed the land to see if he could not be induced to leave the holding and give it into the possession of the former holder. If the right hon. Gentleman would do that he would confer the greatest possible benefit upon the district and do something to allay the strong feeling which prevailed upon the subject. In his county there was very little untenanted land, and in the case of an evicted tenant whose holding was occupied by another there was considerable difficulty in settling his affairs.
§ MR. O'MALLEY (Galway, Connemara)
said the hon. Member for Northampton had pointed out that the success of the various Land Acts depended a good deal upon their administration. He thought that that had been proved by the administration of the Land Act of 1903, which had not been in favour of the Irish tenant and which should not be satisfactory to the Members of this Committee. The hon. Member for South Tyrone had pointed out how, in Monaghan and in other parts of the North of Ireland, 810 the Sub-Commissioners had been raising rents, but he wished to call attention to the method adopted by the Land Commissioners in the west of Ireland. He remembered a Commissioner after the passing of the Act of 1881 stating that it was astonishing that people should live in such wretched holdings as these people had. The Commissioner having expressed his astonishment at these people living on holdings of six or seven acres of rock and bog, for which they paid rents of from 15s. to 25s. an acre, in Kerry and Connemara, he the next day at the court house only reduced the rents by from 10 to 20 per cent. He admitted that if these people had these holdings for nothing they could not live out of them, and as a fact they did not. But his contention was that they were uneconomic holdings; that they were worthless and could not sustain life, and that the Commissioners if they acted justly should have reduced the rents by 75 or 80 per cent. The same spirit which actuated the Commissioners twenty years ago in fixing the rents in Connemara actuated them in the fixing of the rents all over Ireland. Until what was known as the western problem was solved the land question could not be settled. When in Galway during the general election, he saw on the counter of a village post office a pile of papers, and was told by the clerk that they were money orders from Great Britain and abroad sent by the friends and relatives to the people living on these wretched holdings; that no less than £5,000 a year reached that village in that way from Irish people who had been forced to leave their country. It was by money that came in that way that these people were enabled to pay their little debts and live upon their holdings. It was a monstrous shame and a scandal that the whole of the tenants on the western sea-board should have to pay £1 an acre for land that was not worth 1s., and until some means was found of giving the millions of acres of grass lands now untenanted to the tenants the Irish land question would never be settled. The sooner the Government tackled this question the hotter it would be for themselves and the people of Ireland.
said he did not think that any one not acquainted with the jumble of legislation that formed the 811 Irish Land Acts and the large number of rules and regulations relating to their administration could appreciate the extreme difficulty of attempting to deal with all the points raised during the discussion and of presenting to English Members the points upon which reform was demanded. The difficulty to himself wais increased by his short tenure of office. He really had not had time with all the work to be done in the House and arrears of reform in Ireland to make himself master of the details of land legislation and the present condition, and therefore he asked indulgence if he did not deal satisfactorily with all the points raised. He admitted the extreme importance and gravity of the subject, and rejoiced that instances had been brought forward to show deficiences in legislation or administration. But he must also observe that hon. Members seemed greatly to exaggerate the amount of power possessed by the Irish Executive; it was really very limited. One would think from the questions put in the House that it was in his power to be continually giving directions to the Land Commissioners and Estates Commissioners; but Parliament, rightly or wrongly—;on the whole he thought rightly—;had taken the matter from the Executive and inserted minute provisions in the Acts passed. Most of the points raised, or a large number, described as faults by the various speakers, were really points upon which the Legislature had given directions, and these it was not possible for the Executive or the Commissioners to override; they could only be varied by legislation. In the second place, these tribunals were entirely independent of the Executive, with specified statutory functions. He was entitled, of course, and constantly did so, to bring forward grievances or defects alleged to have arisen in administration and to ask them to go as far as possible to remedy them; but, even if he thought in his own mind that they were not taking the way to give effect to the intention of Parliament, he had no right to attempt to exercise any control. Therefore he begged hon. Members, especially English and Scottish Members, to understand that some of the charges alleged to be defects in the system were not defects with which the Irish Government had anything to do or could amend. Only one charge had 812 been made against the action of the Irish Government, and with that he would deal, though he had not much to add to what he said a month ago. The charge on the one hand from Tory Members from Ireland was that he did not re-appoint five temporary assistant Commissioners, and on the other hand from other Irish Members came the complaint that all but these five temporary assistant Commissioners were appointed. He would toll the Committee how he proceeded. Time was limited, and it was not possible to ascertain the merits of all the candidates. It would have been entirely wrong if he had judged by whom they were appointed or whether they had raised or lowered rents. That would have been to constitute himself a Court of Appeal from the assistant Commissioners with functions for which he was not qualified. Furthermore, if he had proceeded on the basis of whether an assistant Commissioner had raised or lowered rents, or if he had inquired who appointed or recommended him, he would have been departing from the principle that should guide a Minister. It would have been to indicate that because an appointment was made by one Government that appointment might be annulled by another, that a change of Government should moan a change of offices irrespective of the merits of holders of offices, and that would destroy public confidence in the Commission itself. He hoped the Committee would understand it was not upon any such basis he approached the question of appointments to the Commission. He endeavoured to ascertain the qualifications of the assistant Commissioners, and at the same time he had the qualifications of candidates who appeared most competent examined, and the result showed that some of the temporary assistant Commissioners—;of whom he wished to say nothing disparaging—;were not so competent, so experienced, so capable as some of the candidates, and accordingly those gentlemen who were less competent were not reappointed, and the more competent candidates were appointed in their place. He might perhaps have gone further and have superseded others; but at the same time he must entirely differ from hon. Gentlemen who had spoken of the temporary assistant Commissioners as being all partisans or incapable. There was 813 no foundation for that charge being brought against the whole number.
§ MR. T. W. RUSSELL
said he had not spoken of the whole number, but he repeated that the majority were blind partisans.
said he was specially referring to the hon. Member, but, judging from the information that reached him, and he had not personal knowledge, it would not be true to say that a majority were blind partisans.
said it was not possible for him to say, but that afforded no ground for dismissal; it was a matter of history. The hon. Member for South Tyrone suggested that there had been unwillingness to displease Ulster Tories, but the hon. Member must think him very simple if he supposed he hoped to conciliate them in any such way. No; the reason that moved him was the competency of one man more than another; but where a case was doubtful he thought the occupant was entitled to the benefit of the doubt, and, though he could not legally claim reappointment, if he wa3 fairly competent and of long experience, he prima facie was entitled to the benefit of the doubt. He did not say that experience always made a man better. He remembered the case of an eminent counsel of whom it was said, when he was appointed a Judge, that he was not a very good Judge. One of his former friends at the Bar replied that he thought that with a little practice he would make the worst Judge on the Bench. But if a man was prima facie competent, he thought experience ought to count in his favour. The only possible principle on which to proceed was to endeavour to discover who were the best men, with the largest experience, the greatest capacity for judging land, and the most freedom from any kind of bias or partiality. It was quite possible that it would be necessary to make further changes. The temporary Commissioners had been appointed only for one year under an order issued by the Land Com- 814 mission itself, which had his entire concurrence. As the year went on it would be his duty to study more and more carefully the competence and impartiality of those performing these important functions and to endeavour by degrees to bring the body of temporary Commissioners up to the highest possible point. But in doing that it would be necessary to retain the confidence on both sides in Ireland. A question had been put to him by the hon. and learned Member for Waterford on the subject of inspectors under the Land Purchase Acts. The Irish Government had selected one gentleman as an assistant Commissioner, two others to act as sub-inspectors, and six as inspectors in the matter of evicted tenants to negotiate for their restoration. All were men of practical experience and acknowledged competence and capacity. It was also contemplated to appoint some additional officers who the Estates Commissioners thought were wanted, and when the negotiations with the Treasury on the subject were complete he hoped to be able to make a further statement. It was said that a good deal of the delay in the land purchase system had been removed by having additional persons to do the work of examining titles. There was an additional Vote for them this year and there were now two first-class examiners at a higher salary and twelve at somewhat lower salaries. That was more than double the amount charged last year for that item, and it was hoped that, with the additional staff, the work of the Estates Commissioners would be greatly accelerated. He admitted that there had been some disappointment at the progress of land purchase, but difficulties had arisen which could not have been foreseen. He believed it would be possible, however, under the new arrangement to accelerate very much the working of the scheme. Some hon. Members had spoken severely of the judicial staff. He was very sorry to hear these things said about Judges; and he thought it was a little hard that Judges who had no opportunity of defending themselves, and who, as they did not know beforehand what cases would be criticised, could not supply him with material for their defence, should be subjected to this criticism. Mr. Justice Meredith was a man of the highest character.
said he was glad to have elicited from every Member who had spoken a disclaimer of anything but respect for Mr. Justice Meredith. As to the assessors, they were entirely outside the control of the Irish Government. They were appointed by the Judicial Commissioners with the consent of the Lord-Lieutenant, but the latter had no power to remove them. The Commissioners, however, had power to revise the list, and their revision also required the assent of the Lord-Lieutenant, and he could and would, if a new list was presented to him, scrutinise the names. Several Members had asked whether it was proper that rents should be raised on tenants' improvements. They ought not to be raised on tenants' improvements. Nothing was clearer than the intention of Parliament as to the assumption that improvements were made by the tenant; and, if he was put to the proof, sometimes difficult, and had his rent raised on his improvements in consequence, he should like to alter a system which he believed to be unjust and would take any means that might be in his power for doing so. With regard to the criticisms passed on the slow working of the Land Commission, it should be borne in mind that, when the Act of 1903 came into operation, a number of questions arose for judicial interpretation. There were many questions coming before the Estates Commissioners raising difficulties which had to be settled by the Judicial Commissioners. These difficulties having been now largely adjusted, he had every reason to believe that the work would go on at a much more rapid rate. The delay in purchasing congested estates had arisen from a most unfortunate blunder in the Act of 1903. A clause was inserted by the House of Lords which had practically the effect of tying the hands of the Estates Commissioners. The result was that they had been barred altogether in many cases from making any purchase because the loss incurred would be so high. He did not know how this could be remedied without 816 legislation, but, if the Government were able to got legislation, this was one of the first things to be attended to. He could understand why the view was held that the land purchase prices were too high. The only answer he could make by way of explanation, if not of consolation, was that the tenant was more apt than before to pay prices which many would think to be exorbitant because the time for redemption was much longer, and he grasped at this relief. Complaint was made that not enough had been done for the evicted tenants. That was perfectly true. The provision regarding them was one of the most important of the Act of 1903, and it was the prospect of relief to these tenants that made hon. Members accept some things in the Act which they would not otherwise have accepted. He said this not for any purpose of recrimination. There was nobody on the Front Bench opposite at the moment to hoar recrimination.
§ MR. LONSDALE (Armagh, Mid.)
asked what the right hon. Gentleman meant by relief to the evicted tenants.
said he was coming to that. He was now endeavouring to explain why relief had been retarded. It was owing to two regulations made by the late Government. By the first it was hold that the evicted tenants could only be reinstated by operations in connection with the estate from which they had been evicted; and by the second it was held that the Estates Commissioners could not buy untenanted land apart from the purchase of tenanted estates. This prevented the Commissioners from getting hold of land on which to put the tenants who could not be restored to land from which they had been evicted. The present Government cancelled these regulations altogether, and set free the hands of the Estates Commissioners. When so many criticisms were passed it was fair to remember that one of the first things the Government did was to endeavour to accelerate these operations. A further step taken was the provision of additional staff for the purpose of dealing with the evicted tenants and allowing the process of restoration to go on. He heartily sympathised with the view that the acceleration of the land purchase 817 scheme was perhaps the most important thing to which the efforts of the Irish Government should be directed—;next, of course, to the reorganisation altogether of the Government of Ireland. The Irish Government could not do much, but it had already done something. There were two particular objects to be kept in view by the Estates Commissioners—;the restoration of the evicted tenants and the creation of small arable tenancies. The existence of evicted tenants had been one of the very greatest evils in Ireland. According to figures which he had recently seen, the number of tenants evicted between 1849 and 1882 exceeded 2,000,000. There had been no case of human suffering and hardship within memory which ought more to touch the heart than the case of the evicted tenants, Remembering the way in which these people were turned out of their homes after the famine, many of them loft to starve, and many obliged to beg their way round the country until they could get off to America, he was astonished that past generations should have been able to look on with so much composure. That was why they were bound to do all that they could for those evicted tenants who remained. There was nothing which would conduce more to the social peace and order of Ireland than the restoration of the evicted tenants, who had been centres of discontent and of a sense of injustice wherever they had gone. He hoped that under the new arrangements the Estate Commissioners would be able to see an end to this question within a very few years. [NATIONALIST cries of "Months."] He did not wish to be too sanguine, but at any rate within the life of the present Parliament. [Cries of "Oh."] The other object to which he hoped the Estates Commissioners would specially direct their attention was the creation of small arable farms. Much had been said about the desirability of cutting up the large grazing farms—;many of them of rich soil—;and of setting people to till the land in places where it was formerly tilled and supported an industrial population. It was true that in the past many of the holdings were too small and were 818 uneconomic. He did not desire to restore the condition of things existing before the famine. The attempt must be to settle people in tenancies large enough to enable them to live in decency and comfort according to the higher standards of the present day. But in some cases the soil was so rich that, with additional facilities for reaching market, the position of a tenant with twenty or forty acres would be incomparably better than, and he would belong to a different social class from, the same tenant in the days before the famine. There used to be an economic school that considered that because the tendency had been to substitute grazing for arable farms, that tendency ought not to be interfered with. He did not believe that that was true, even on economic grounds. Taking into account the stimulus to industry and thrift, which was given by the possession not only of land, but of a holding on which it was possible to live in comfort and decency, it was possible to get far better results than were obtained by the present system of grazing farms. The change would be very greatly for the benfit of the country as a whole. It was a dismal thing for a country to see itself steadily depopulate d not only by eviction, but by the turning of arable into grazing farms. In thirty years much more than a million acres bad passed from arable to grazing. That process he wished to stop, and nothing would be more in the interest of Ireland than that these rich lands in the west should be settled with people holding farms of twenty or forty acres. The stoppage of emigration and the encouragement of the people were political objects of the highest possible moment; and he pledged the Government to do all they could to make the people of Ireland owners of their own land, to reduce the sufferings of those who had hitherto suffered from having uneconomically small holdings, and to replace in Ireland—;or rather to place in Ireland for the first time—;a prosperous industrial population.
§ MR. DILLON (Mayo, E.)
said that it was not an agreeable task to find fault 819 with the right hon. Gentleman so early; but the Irish members would not be doing their duty if they did not let him know the feelings of the people with respect to certain administrative acts in Ireland. He must express his own great satisfaction at some of the announcements which the right hon. Gentleman had made. But when the Chief Secretary spoke of years being occupied in the settlement of the evicted tenants' difficulty he did much to dash the pleasurable hopes which the other part of his announcement had created. The Irish Members were convinced that the whole business could be completed within one year, and the bulk of the tenants could be reinstated within six months.
I said that, having heard of the difficulties sometimes experienced in getting the particular piece of land the tenant desired, I did not want to raise false hopes. If it can be done within the year, so much the bettor.
§ MR. DILLON
was quite content if the right hon. Gentleman would throw himself into that work, as he knew he would, in the spirit of the speech he had just made. There was one other announcement which the right hon. Gentleman had made which was extremely gratifying and that was that a sub-commissioner had been appointed specially to take charge of the estates which were to be purchased for division amongst small farmers. He would now turn to some points in regard to which they had to find fault with the administration. The reappointment of the temporary Assistant Commissioners could not be regarded as satisfactory. The hon. Member for Waterford did not contend that Civil Servants should change with a change of Government. These men were in no sense permanent Civil Servants. They were men appointed temporarily for a specific job, and were allowed to retain their ordinary moans of living. The Commission set up for fixing rents was no ordinary Com- 820 mission. The Commissioners had to deal with the means of existence of a whole people. They had to adjudicate between an aristocratic landowning class, who for generations had maintained a hold upon the government of Ireland, and a poor, persecuted, and impoverished tenantry. In that conflict, which was one of life and death, all the advantages lay with the landowning class. They had all the social influences that wealth could secure, they had the best legal advice, and even if the tribunal was a fair one all the advantages lay with the landowning classes. But what had been the history of that tribunal? For the first five years after it was instituted whilst the Government of Mr. Gladstone remained in office an unsuccessful attempt was made to hold the scales evenly. In the year 1886 the Liberal Government disappeared from power, and practically speaking, for an unbroken period of twenty years the whole control of Irish government passed into the hands of the Tory Party and the landlord class. Without the smallest pretext, and without endeavouring to maintain a shred of decency, that Commission had been packed against the tenants in the most barefaced way. Every one of these sub-Commissioners had been the nominee of a landlord or some agent of the Tory Party. In many cases they had been bailiffs or hangers-on to one of the great houses in Ireland, and came with letters of recommendation from the Duke of Abercorn or the Duke of Devonshire. How could these men be impartial to the tenants? It was said that the fixing of rents had ceased to be a subject of importance. That was not correct, for as long as purchase was in process the fixing of rents became more important than over. In the past, rents were fixed for fifteen years, but now the rent of the tenant fixed the price of his holding. There had also been a serious increase in the price of laud in Ireland. It was unnatural, forced, and based on no improvement in the profits of farming. Within one year the price of land had risen from a 821 general average of eighteen years purchase of all rents, paid in depreciated land stock at about £90, to twenty-three-and-a-half years paid in cash, with a bonus of 12 per cent, added. This rise was purely artificial and was due to three causes, all dangerous to the stability of land purchase—;(1) the operation of the zones abolishing inspection; (2) the extension of the term for redemption; and (3) the temptation offered to the landlords to put on pressure by proceeding; for arrears of rent and then calling on the tenants to sign an agreement for an excessive price. Why did that temptation arise under the new system? Because under the old system of the Ashbourne Acts there was a Government inspection, and the landlord had no temptation to squeeze out of the tenant a higher price. This system of pressing the tenant by suing for arrears had become a danger not only to the future prosperity of the tenant but also to the security of the State. The process of fixing fair rents was more important than ever, and therefore it was that they felt deeply aggrieved that the right hon. Gentleman did not take advantage of the opportunity he had the other day of making a substantial step towards giving an impartial tribunal in Ireland, which would command the confidence of all classes. In analysing the composition of the body reappointed by the right hon. Gentleman as temporary Commissioners for the fixing of rents the first test to apply was the religious test. The population in Ireland connected with agriculture was composed in the proportion of six to one of Roman Catholics, whereas the land-owning class were in the proportion of five to one of Protestants. The tenant and labouring classes were ten to one Roman Catholic; so that if the Commissioners had been selected impartially the proportion should have been six or four Roman Catholics to one Protestant. But the Commissioners had been selected because they could be relied on as being the friends of one class. Twenty-two sub- 822 Commissioners were reappointed by the right hon. Gentleman, and if they had been selected impartially there should have been six Roman Catholics to one Protestant. But there were, as a matter of fact, seventeen Protestants to five Roman Catholics, and those Roman Catholics were either land agents or landlords. The assessors, who sat in the Court of Appeal and reversed the decisions of two sub-Commissioners, were the crême de la crême of partisans. There were nine assessors, of whom six were Protestants and three were Catholics. The three Catholics were respectively a grazier, a landlord and barrister, and a land agent. This was what the right hon. Gentleman called impartiality. In Ireland the permanent officials—;the Civil Servants of the Crown—;were almost to a man Tories. During the past twenty years the Tory Government had staffed the public service with partisans of their own. Tories were not so tender in their consciences as Liberals; that was one of the troubles of his life. He had passed through many vicissitudes of Tory and Liberal Governments, and he had always found that a Liberal Government suffered from what was called—;he did not use the term in any invidious sense—;the nonconformist conscience. Tories were never troubled with "nonconformist conscience." They acted on business principles. The right hon. Gentleman had given an explanation of why he could not interfere with the assessors. They were an important body of men set up by the Act of 1903, to make the whole system steel clad. These partisans, sitting with the Judicial Commissioner in appeal cases, could reverse the judgments of two skilled sub-Commissioners. Mr. Commissioner Fitzgerald admitted before a Royal Commission that he knew nothing at all about the value of land. The whole of this business was a humbug and a fraud. The appointment of Judge Meredith straight from being the standing counsel of the landlords to be the head of the Laud Commission was a glaring and gross scandal. There was no greater partisan 823 than Mr. Commissioner Fitzgerald. He had packed his Court and arrogated to himself a power for which he believed there was no legal sanction, and he harried and worried the sub-Commissioners until they did his will. They were justified in looking to the Government, from whom they certainly did expect some consideration for Irish ideas and for their poor people, who had groaned for years, almost for generations, under the worst form of government, the government of the ascendency class, and in hoping that the right hon. Gentleman would show strength and courage and not allow his conscience to have such domination over him. Twelve thousand appeals were pending. God knew when they would be heard. The average time in which they could get an appeal heard was four years. But sometimes they were expedited. The case of the Marquess of Downshire was an instance in point. He was trying to screw up the poor part of his estate to twenty-three and a half years' purchase. The tenants were refusing to pay. They had gone into the Land Court in 1902 and had got very substantial reductions. Down came the Appeal Court, last month, and one of the assessors, accompanied by Mr. Meredith. They went over the rents which had been settled four years ago, and obliged the Marquess of Downshire by raising eleven of the rents, confirming three, and reducing none. They would not get the Irish people to believe that that was conscience or fair play. He assured the Chief Secretary that there was bitter disappointment and anger in Ireland over this proceeding, and they hoped and trusted it would not be repeated in the future.
§ * MR. BARRIE (Londonderry, N.)
said the speech of the hon. Member for East Mayo gave the Committee an insight into the ways and manners of the United Irish League. A highly judicial department had been characterised as "a fraud" by one of the leaders of the Nationalist Party. The Chief Secretary had a most difficult 824 duty to discharge when so many conflicting interests were arrayed against him. He congratulated the right hon. Gentleman on his speech in which he had got over the difficult and delicate points with great diplomacy. He congratulated him also on the promise he had given with respect to expediting the examination of titles. The trouble arising in that connection had been the cause of much of the congestion of which they had been complaining. He hoped the result of the arrangements which had been promised would be to expedite substantially the work of land purchase. The Act of 1903 had been one of the most beneficial ever placed on the statute book. [A NATIONALIST MEMBER: For the landlords.] He represented an agricultural constituency, and it was not difficult to see a marked improvement in the prosperity of the farming industry as the result of the security of tenure which was now enjoyed by many of the tenant farmers. It was because he was anxious to see the number of tenant proprietors steadily increased that he rejoiced in the announcement made by the Chief Secretary to-night. The hon. Member for South Tyrone had criticised the work of the Land Commissioners. He could assure the Committee that in the opinion of his constituents they performed their onerous and highly judicial duties in a careful and satisfactory manner.
§ And, it being Eleven of the clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.
§ Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Monday next.