HC Deb 03 March 1909 vol 1 cc243-54

rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the following statement, which had appeared in several newspapers, was substantially correct—viz.: "At the weekly Petty Sessions at Ennis, Mr. C. L. Rynne presiding, a number of persons were prosecuted at the suit of the Inland Revenue Commissioners, through Mr. D. O'Connell, supervisor, for carrying arms without a licence. In one case it was proved that Michael Lyons was found lying drunk in a lane off one of the principal streets. In his pocket was found a seven-chambered revolver, loaded in six chambers, with one empty cartridge; defendant said he got the revolver for his own protection; the Chairman said the Court would put down this conduct; every second man coming into Ennis had a revolver in his pocket; it was simply intolerable, and should not exist in any civilised country where the law was enforced. Defendant was fined £2 108. At the same Sessions two men were charged with possessing guns, and another, John Donohue, was charged with having a revolver without a licence. Constable Crowley deposed that he arrested defendant for drunkenness. He had on him a five-chambered revolver and fifty-five rounds of ammunition"; and, if so, whether they saw no risk in allowing the free carrying of arms to continue in Ireland. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I desire to direct your Lordships' attention to a recent instance of the evils which proceed from the unwarranted carrying of firearms. A report has appeared in several newspapers in terms which your Lordships will read in my Notice. The Chairman of the Ennis Petty Sessions said the Court must put down this carrying of firearms; that every second man coming into Ennis had a revolver in his pocket; and that it was simply intolerable and should not exist in any civilised country where the law was enforced. One man had a revolver and fifty-five rounds of ammunition, and another was drunk in possession of a five-chambered revolver. I am quoting only a single instance; I believe many could be produced, but it seems hardly necessary that I should trouble the House with many details on the subject. I may remind your Lordships that the only way by which these evil practices can be arrested in Ireland is in the event, which frequently happens, of the persons who carry the revolvers not having even gone to the expense of taking out the necessary licence.

To give your Lordships some idea of the state of things, I will take the charge of Mr. Justice Kenny to the Grand Jury at the Connaught Winter Assizes, held in Limerick. He said that, when reading the deposition in several cases, he had been— " very much struck by the general and prevailing use of firearms in these several counties, and particularly of revolvers.

He added that— "In the counties Clare and Galway a large proportion of the outrages were accompanied by the use of firearms. In the county of Clare alone there were eleven cases of firing into the dwelling-house and ten cases of firing at the person. He need scarcely impress upon the jury that that was a very terrible condition of things, disorganising society and bringing, as it necessarily would, untold misery to many a home.

The Grand Jury—they were all tradesmen—passed a resolution recording their "unanimous protest against the indiscriminate sale of firearms," and requesting the Judge to report the matter to the Government. Mr. Justice Kenny pointed out that the resolution was a very proper one to pass, but said he thought the foreman of the Grand Jury should make the representation to the Executive Government direct. As I say, I could give your Lordships many more instances of a similar kind. There was one in Galway reported in the newspapers only two days ago, and I may say that other Judges during the same winter assizes made very strong observations with regard to the unwarranted use of firearms.

When this matter was last under discussion in your Lordship' House the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack greatly understated—of course, it was not his fault, because he could merely give up the figures which were supplied to him by the Irish Office—the number of outrages by firearms which had occurred. He said, I think, that there had been something like eighty-one outrages, whereas in the other House it was stated by the Chief Secretary himself that during the first eleven months of the year 1908 there had been 193—I think that was the number. At all events", it is quite clear that this offence is very prevalent and is spreading. What does Mr. Birrell say? Taken to task with regard to this matter, he said that— "If a measure had been introduced applying to all parts of the country, I certainly, on behalf of Ireland, would offer it nothing but a general support; but what Ireland objects to is the invidious singling of it out as if the Irish people were such savages as to be unfitted to carry these arms.

What I have to say, in reply to that, is that Ireland has been singled out, but in exactly the opposite sense, because Ireland alone is free from any restriction as to the purchase of firearms. If a man wishes to buy a revolver, all he has to do is to pay the licence duty, and, provided he does that, he is free to purchase as many firearms as he chooses. In England, Scotland, and Wales there is the law of 1903, which places certain restrictions upon the sale of pistols, upon the ages of persons who may be allowed to purchase them, and other matters of that sort. From that Act Ireland was exempted. Why? Because at that time the Peace Preservation Act was in force, and under the terms of that Act it was not possible for men to purchase firearms without limitation or restriction. Therefore, when the Chief Secretary says that Ireland objects to being singled out, I reply that Ireland has been singled out, and in a way which is most prejudicial to peace and to property. The only check that exists in Ireland on the purchase of firearms is the Excise duty; that is the only thing. It is sometimes argued that the offences are committed by the Irish because of their great desire for Home Rule and because they have not been able hitherto to obtain it. I do not think that argument will be advanced in reference to the use of firearms. I put it to noble Lords from Ireland whether, if they did obtain the blessings of Home Rule, firearms would be likely to diminish in quantity.

Now, do the Government consider this state of things safe? And if they do not, are they prepared to do anything? I much regret that the present Chief Secretary for Ireland shows no disposition to do anything of any sort himself. He encourages the magistrates. He says they are quite right to protest against this importation of revolvers. He says the Judges are quite right. But with regard to the Executive authority, he says he himself is not prepared to introduce any exceptional legislation for Ireland. It is not necessary to introduce any exceptional legislation. All that it is necessary to do—I merely suggest one check; it is a small one—now that you have, by doing away with the Peace Preservation Act and making it possible for anyone in Ireland to obtain any number of revolvers he chooses, produced a state of things not conducive to the safety of life and property, is to introduce a small Bill, omitting from the Pistols Act the clause which exempts Ireland from its operation. I suggest that to the Government as a way in which they could deal with this matter very simply. I beg to put the Question standing in my name on the Paper.


My Lords, in replying to the noble Earl I will, first of all, confine myself to the Question on the Paper. The noble Earl asks His Majesty's Government whether a statement which has appeared in several newspapers is substantially correct. I believe it is substantially correct. But the speech of the noble Earl would seem to imply that the state of things referred to is due to the non-renewal of the Arms Act. As the noble Earl in his Question quotes Mr. Rynne, the Chairman of the Petty Sessions at Ennis, as his authority, I should like to read to the House what Mr. Rynne said on a subsequent occasion on this matter. He said this:— "He would here take the opportunity of stating that the remarks at the last Ennis Petty Sessions made by him as Chairman and by other magistrates had been made use of to an extent not intended. Efforts had been made to show that these remarks indicated a very disturbed and lawless state of the county. He did not for a moment admit that the county was in any way less law-abiding, or more disturbed owing to the repeal of the Arms Act. Therefore I think it is a mistake to infer that these particular cases are due to the non-renewal of the Arms Act.


He said that every second man who entered Ennis had a revolver in his pocket.


But he also said that he did not consider the state of the county affected by the non-renewal of the Arms Act. The noble Earl has made some observations about the non-renewal of that Act. I should like to remind the House that the Arms Act was passed in the first instance in the year 1881 by a Liberal Government; and it was, at all events, intended that its duration should be for a term of five years. It was subsequently renewed; but in 1906 Mr. Bryce and his colleagues, in view of the peaceful condition of the country at that time, thought it undesirable to differentiate between Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom. Consequently it was decided not to renew the Act. Now we are told that there has been a large increase in the number of weapons in Ireland, and that intimidation is due to that increase.


Is facilitated.


Is facilitated by that increase. But, if there has been an increase in Ireland, I should like to point out that there has also been a very considerable increase in other parts of the United Kingdom, and I will quote some figures to the House to bear out that statement. In 1897-98 there were, in England and Wales, 172,321 gun licences issued; and ten years later—in 1907-8—there were 201,247. In Ireland in 1897-98 there were 14,098 gun licences issued, and in 1907-8 there were 19,690. Therefore the House will observe that there has been an increase in England and Wales for these ten years of nearly 30,000, whilst for the corresponding period there has been an increase of over 5,000 licensed arms in Ireland—but of that increase nearly 4,000 occurred in the years between 1900 and 1903, at the time when the late Government were in office. According to the census of 1901 the popula- tion of England and Wales is between seven and eight times that of Ireland, so that it is evident that the number of gun licences in England and Wales per head of the population is considerably in excess of the number in Ireland. I do not quote these figures for the purpose merely of comparison between this country and Ireland, because I think they are quite sufficient to call for very serious consideration in themselves—I am speaking of the figures for England and Wales—although I believe that the extent to which firearms are carried in Ireland is very generally disapproved of by all classes of the community in that country. I do not wish to imply for one moment that firearms are used in this country, as they have been used in Ireland, for firing into dwellings and as aids to intimidation; but I think it must be a matter of concern—in fact, I know it is a matter of concern—to trio police and others that amongst so large a proportion of the population the possession of firearms should have increased in this country to such a very large extent, and I think it must be admitted that what I may term the indiscriminate arming of such a large proportion of the population is not a desirable state of things. Of the large number who have got licences there are, I have no doubt, many who have little experience and little knowledge of the use of firearms, and must on that account be a danger not only to themselves, but to their neighbours; and then there are people of undesirable character, both British and foreign, in whose case the possession of firearms must constitute a danger to those with whom they are brought into contact. Therefore the Government are seriously considering at the present time whether it may be possible to find means to place further restrictions upon the carrying and use of firearms, particularly, I may add, of pistols and revolvers, in all parts of the United Kingdom.


Will the Government, in that consideration, apply their minds to the very obvious expedient of bringing in a short Bill to deal with the present state of affairs? The introduction of the case of England and the suggestion that there is not such a grievance in Ireland because, with a much smaller population and with different laws, there has not been the same increase in the carrying of arms there, is simply playing with the question. The noble Earl, in his clear and temperate statement, drew attention to the fact that the law is not the same in the two countries, and that you have a more reckless want of law in Ireland.

The complaint is that in Ireland there is no check or stint on the possession of firearms. I do not say that each particular crime can be traced to the non-renewal of the Arms Act, but it is obvious to every man of sense that by that action you give facility for crime. Any one can now go to a gun-maker and, lodging two shillings as a deposit, obtain possession of a pistol or revolver. It cannot be denied that such a state of things gives treat assistance for the commitment of crime and outrage. This is really a very important question, and it is not sufficient for the House to be told that the Government are considering the general question of the carrying of firearms. Here is an evil in the living present in Ireland, and the question is—What are the Government going to do to rectify it? The noble Lord comforted himself by saying that there was a large increase in firearms between the years 1900 and 1903, when the late Government were in power. I should be glad if we could have the statistics showing what took place during the period before the late Government went out of office and what has taken place since the Arms Act was dropped.

I am not satisfied with the way in which this question has been dealt with by the noble Lord. The figures as to the increase which he gave are not so very instructive, because before the Arms Act was allowed to be dropped discrimination could be shown in regard to the licences granted. There is no discrimination now, and if a person has a gun licence he can obtain pistols and revolvers at his own will. Can the noble Lord tell the House whether the licence duty is paid by everyone in the possession of arms in Ireland? I do not wish to say a word against the integrity of the Irish people; but, after all, the paying of licence duty is an acquired taste, and I fear they have not yet acquired it. Therefore the payment of licence duty is no check at all as to the number of people in the possession of arms. At these times when the Government are not too well off it might be a useful thing for them to give attention to this matter. I am sure that any responsible police officer in Ireland would say that the duty has not been paid with anything like adequate completeness since the dropping of the Arms Act. The case to which the noble Earl has drawn attention is, as far as I know, the first one that has been reported where persons have been summoned at the petty sessions court for not taking out licences. Have there been any other cases, or is this an isolated case? I trust that we shall have a Return, not only of the number of licences for all kinds of arms issued while the late Government were in office, but continued down to the period when the present Government allowed the Arms Act to drop, and also showing how many licences have been taken out since, and what prosecutions, if any, have been instituted in reference to the matter. I do not wish to use any harsh or unnecessarily aggressive language, but it must be obvious that the Government are dealing with a position of deadly peril when they allow everyone in Ireland who pleases to carry arms; and what is needed is not the general considertion of the matter as it affects the United Kingdom, but prompt action in the particular case of Ireland.


My Lords, the noble Earl who introduced this matter did so, if he will allow me to say so, very moderately indeed. He stated his facts and drew his conclusions in a manner of which we on this side certainly cannot complain, and I have, indeed, no complaint to make of the way in which the subject has been touched upon by the noble and learned Lord who has just sat down. Of course, noble Lords opposite do not agree, and will never agree, with us in our disinclination to apply to Ireland a different code in a matter of this kind from that which we apply to England or to the rest of the United Kingdom. That is a matter on which I am afraid the two sides of the House must agree to differ. It has been' pointed out, with perfect truth, that the Pistols Act, introduced, I think, by the noble Earl now on the Front Bench opposite in the year 1903, does not apply to Ireland. But the noble and learned Lord seemed to be under some misapprehension as to what the Pistols Act is. It does not oblige any person to take out a special licence for the possession of a pistol. In England there is only one form of licence, the gun licence, and that covers the possession of a pistol as well. The Pistols Act deals severely with the vendor of a pistol to a person who has no licence, and it also deals severely with the vendor of a pistol and the possessor of a pistol if he is under a certain age. The Government, in considering the matter, will certainly bear in mind as one possible expedient the application of that Act to Ireland. My noble friend behind me stated that the matter is under consideration. I quite agree with the noble and learned Lord that it is not a subject which ought to be in any way shelved or allowed indefinitely to rest; but I think it is perfectly relevant to say, as my noble friend behind me said, that this is not an Irish question only. The noble and learned Lord spoke of the particular case which the noble Earl has placed on the Paper. That was the case of a man who was found drunk with a pistol in his possession. There were no suspicions, I believe, in any way connecting him with agrarian crime or with crime of any kind. It was an ordinary case of what one can only call this utterly stupid practice of carrying revolvers and pistols.


There is very little stupidity in Ireland.


I am delighted to hear it. The noble and learned Lord will not say for a moment, I think, that all the pistols possessed by people in Ireland, whether they live in the north or in the south, are kept and used for the purpose of committing outrages, any more than that the enormous number of revolvers and pistols carried through the streets of London are kept with the object of committing crime. Personally I should like to see it made as difficult as possible—almost impossible, if it could be done—for any private person to own a revolver or pistol at all. Noble Lords opposite who have had experience of using revolvers know how much practice it takes to be able to use one effectively for purposes of self-defence, and, as a rule, in an ordinary hand a revolver is an infinitely more dangerous object to its possessor than it is to any person against whom he may desire to defend himself. But, however that may be, it is undoubtedly the fact that both in England and in Ireland pistols and revolvers are carried to an altogether improper extent by those who can only use them for purposes of mischief. We are considering carefully how this may best be checked in either country. It might be possible to proceed by way of the revenue. I cannot say whether that would be found to be a feasible method. I note once more the particular suggestion of the noble Earl, that the Act of 1903 should be applied to Ireland. And I believe that what my noble friend behind me said is perfectly true, that this indiscriminate carrying of firearms in Ireland is regarded with great dread and dislike by a very large number of people who are not in sympathy at all with the political views of noble Lords opposite, and that public opinion would support a, stringent measure to render their possession difficult, provided, of course, as I say, that Ireland were not picked out as a specially criminal country for this purpose. I hope noble Lords opposite will be satisfied with our assurance that we are considering the matter very carefully. It is not altogether an easy one, but we are anxious to arrive at a proper solution of it.


My Lords, in these not infrequent Irish discussions we so rarely extract any grain of comfort from the statements made to us from the Bench opposite that I cannot resist rising to express my gratitude for the grain of comfort afforded by the statement of the noble Earl who has just spoken. We take note of his assurance that His Majesty's Government are giving this matter their serious attention, and I hope that my noble friend who moved this evening, or some other member of the House, may before long recur to the question, and that we shall then be able to elicit from His Majesty's Government a categorical statement of their intentions. The noble Earl gave us to understand that whatever measures were resorted to would apply, not to Ireland alone, but to the whole of the United Kingdom. I do not imagine that in the rest of the United Kingdom there will be any general disinclination to submit to rules more stringent than those now in force concerning the carrying of firearms; but I must protest against the assumption that there is no special case for dealing with Ireland. It has been established by this debate that the law at the present moment discriminates in favour of Ireland in regard to the carrying of firearms. Can the noble Earl or anyone else suggest a reason why it should be so? It has been admitted in this House and elsewhere that one-third of Ireland is in a dangerous and disorderly state, and, in spite of that, you submit to a condition of the law under which it is actually easier for persons to carry firearms in these districts than it is in the most law-abiding parts of this country. What has been the result? The result has been that the trade in firearms in Ireland has proceeded at an extraordinarily brisk pace, and you have, been told by the magistrate in the case discussed this evening that every other man carries a revolver in his pocket. Now, will anyone suggest that in districts where cattle-driving is going on it is not infinitely more dangerous that the people who take part in them should carry firearms than that they should be unarmed? The matter is really a serious one. I cannot admit that the English analogy is worth anything; and I wish, in conclusion, to say that no legislation which the Government may determine to adopt can possibly be of a kind which would occasion any real hardship to the people of Ireland. Irish farmers do not want revolvers to drive off crows. They do not want rifles to carry about with them wherever they go; and there really is no hardship in rendering it somewhat more difficult than it is at present for the population in these disorderly parts of the United Kingdom to carry arms.


The noble Earl, Lord Camper-down, referred to some figures I gave in the debate the other day, and said they understated the case. I think the noble Earl will find that my statement of the figures was perfectly accurate; but, if he thinks not and will be so kind as to let me know the part in which he believes there was an error, I will make further inquiry, and, if wrong, will substitute the right figure.

House adjourned at five minutes before Six o'clock, till Tomorrow, half-past Ten o'clock.