HC Deb 02 November 1911 vol 30 cc1120-7

I should like in the few minutes at my disposal to endeavour to get a more satisfactory answer from the Prime Minister than I received yesterday with reference to the curious entanglement that has arisen as to what the Home Rule Bill is to be. The Chief Secretary (Mr. Birrell), in my humble judgment very wisely, stated that this is a Bill that could not be smuggled through the House of Commons. I respectfully suggest, and I daresay the right hon. Gentlemen will agree with me, that neither is it a Bill that can be smuggled through Ireland. A good Home Rule Bill has nothing to fear from any part of this House—a good one. But the first condition of a good Bill is that is should satisfy Ireland, and I should have supposed that the experience of the Government as to the fate of the Irish Councils Bill would have warned them that the first condition of acceptance by Ireland is that the main proposals of the Government should be fully understood and discussed beforehand, if you want to avoid another humiliating fiasco like that of 1907. The situation is this: The Chief Secretary, at, I think it was Ilfracombe, gave us several very interesting details of the Bill, but there he stopped short. I presume that his declarations are not included in the phrase "guesswork," with which the Prime Minister dismissed my reference to statements that had been made. But the Member for Waterford, at Baltinglass, very wisely in my humble judgment, avowed himself in possession of the remainder of the details to such a degree that he felt justified in guaranteeing that the details would be satisfactory to the Nationalists of Ireland. His words are taken from the "Freeman's Journal." Now I cannot speak to-day with freedom about the terms of the Government Home Rule Bill. That Bill is not only in course of preparation, but it is to-day almost completed (Cheers). I cannot to-day, and you will easily understand the reasons, tell you its details. But I can say this to you, and I do say on my responsibility, that both in its principles and in its details it will be a Bill satisfactory to the Nationalists of Ireland. The Prime Minister was asked to-day the question, Was any communication made as to this Bill to the Nationalist party? and his reply was, "No." Now, I hope the Prime Minister will be able to tell us whether the declaration which I have just read is included in the term "guesswork." At all events, we are left in this rather tantalising position, tantalising possibly for you and for us, that to a certain extent a corner of the curtain has been raised by a Member of the Cabinet, but we are kept in ignorance, and we are to be kept in ignorance until next March, of the point as to which we are desirous to have information. The situation is aggravated by the fact that a forecast of the Bill has been published in the "Daily News," which had the authority of an ex-Member of this House and a Member of the Liberal party, giving pretty full details as to the forthcoming Bill. And, again, the hon. and learned Member for Waterford took it upon himself, from his superior knowledge, in a Press interview, to state that he could say positively that those details did not deserve serious attention. That statement might mean a great deal or very little. At all events, the point is that the "Daily News" has stuck to its guns, and has denied that its forecast is guesswork. To complicate matters still further, the hon. Member for Waterford's own organ— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"] I am not speaking personally of his relations with Mr. Sexton, but the paper is undoubtedly the organ of his party in the Irish Press—was not content with the hon. and learned Member's statement that he knew all about it, and was quite satisfied. But the "Freeman's Journal" wants to know what the Bill really is. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] You may, if you like, add contempt for the "Freeman's Journal" to all the rest of your contempt for Ireland, but the "Freeman's Journal" insists with all its authority that the main lines of this Bill ought to be communicated to the Irish people, so that they may have an opportunity of judging and discussing them, and have them discussed by men who understand Ireland. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Yes, and probably better than either the Chief Secretary or the hon. and learned Member for Waterford. My friends and myself are perfectly determined not to judge this Bill in any hostile sense whatever. [Interruption.] I treat those offensive noises with contempt. I am fighting the battle of my own country, to which I have given some hostages. But the "Daily News" mentions three details, three vital points which have caused the deepest dissatisfaction in Ireland, and at least I should like to hear from the Prime Minister as to them. The first of them is the statement that the enormous charge for old age pensions, some £2,400,000, is to be repudiated as an Imperial charge and thrown on the unfortunate Parliament of Ireland—a monstrous and almost incredible statement if it did not rest with the authority it has, seeing that everybody in this House knows that the Old Age Pensions Act would never have been accepted by the representatives of Ireland and never passed into law except as an Imperial charge. The next point is one that may have a very decisive effect indeed upon the opinion of the vast mass of the Nationalists of Ireland, unless we are to have some general scheme of Federal Home Rule. I refer to the statement that not only the Customs but the Excise are to be withheld from the Irish Parliament—that is to say, that the old vicious principle of taxation without representation is to be substituted by some new extraordinary principle of representation without any power of taxation. It is stated that there is to be certain power of taxation on other matters, but what other matter is there to be taxed unless you put on land taxes that will strip the farmers of Ireland of the benefits of the last twenty or thirty years. The third point is the vital question of completion of land purchase, and as to that there is a halfhearted hint that the Imperial Treasury still will continue to finance land purchase. But there again, that is in direct conflict with the statement made by the hon. Member for East Mayo (Mr. Dillon) at Trim the other day, when he said:— I tell these men (meaning the landlords) that the sands in the hour glass are running out because Home Rule is coming, and we will get it whether they like it or not, and when Home Rule has come, and when the Irish Parliament is sitting in Dublin, I do not think they will get English Ministers to trouble about their votes. As to all these matters, I would ask the Prime Minister to say whether or not it is all guesswork, or whether they have hit the mark. The situation is an exceedingly complicated one. I venture to say the only solution is the one the "Freeman's Journal" has suggested, and it is that the Prime Minister should make a disclosure of their principal proposals in time to have them considered before the Bill assumes its final cast-iron shape. The Prime Minister stated that the suggestion that I made that a preparatory memorandum should be issued was entirely unprecedented. I do not think it differs very much from the practice of Ministers of the Army and Navy, who issue a memorandum before the Votes are discussed. At all events, even if it was necessary to create a precedent, really this House has been creating revolutionary precedents, and I do not think they need stop to create a new one in the case of a tremendous Bill of this kind. So far as the Unionist party is concerned—well, if they know the facts their discussions now might very well enable them to blow off a great deal of steam before the Debates of next year take place, and might also quite possibly lead to some possibility of settlement upon some general broad principle of Federal Home Rule hereafter. I cannot believe that even the folly on our own side, which has driven them, and is driving them, to fight for their lives against any great national settlement in Ireland, has altogether succeeded as yet at all events. Be that as it may, the all-important point is that unless the Irish people are satisfied with this Bill you might as well light your pipes with it. Except by a full disclosure of the present arrangements of the Bill in time to have the Government warned of any weaknesses in their measure and in time to have them remedied, I know of no way of avoiding a long winter between now and March of angry and uninformed newspaper discussion in Ireland, with the possibility of some explosion of disappointment and indignation when the Bill is actually introduced.


I have listened with interest and respect to the observations of the hon. Member, but I confess myself at the end of them somewhat at a loss to appreciate the character of his grievance or the tendency and effect of his actual suggestion. I think we may dismiss all newspaper forecasts on this subject as exercises of a more or less ingenious and inventive character. As to what was said about the statement of the hon. and learned Member for Waterford (Mr. J. Redmond), I only know what I have seen in the newspapers. I gather that the sum and substance of it was that, so far as he could forecast the probable proposals of the Government, he thought they would be likely to be satisfactory to the great mass of the Irish nation. Let us come to the hon. Member's own position. We are now in the first week in November and no Bill, as he has pointed out, dealing with the problem of Irish Government can be introduced into Parliament at the earliest before a more or less advanced date in next February or possibly in March. The governing principles to which such a measure must and will conform have been clearly and repeatedly stated by myself and others both inside and outside the walls of this House. I cannot for a moment countenance the suggestion, if it is seriously made, that the actual framework, and still more its detailed provisions, should be doled out piecemeal in advance for public criticism and debate before the time when they are collectively expounded in the only appropriate place, namely, the House of Commons. I must, therefore, with all respect to the hon. Member, state quite categorically that between now and then I feel under no obligation to say who has or who has not been, who may or who may not be, communicated with or consulted in regard to the framing of this Bill; or what are, or what are not, or what may be, or what may not be, its provisions and proposals with regard to this or that part of the subject-matter to be dealt with. Let me add this. I speak with all respect and courtesy to the hon. Member—I assume it would be most unfair, and unjust not to — that the hon. Member is sincerely desirous for the promotion of a satisfactory settlement of the problem of Irish self-government. Upon that assumption I offer him this invitation. Let him state his own plan. Let him bring forward any suggestions, not merely of a negative, but of a constructive character, and I can assure him, in the name and on behalf of His Majesty's Government, they will be most welcomely received, and be treated not only with respectful, but with sympathetic consideration.


This is a very in forming Debate. The Prime Minister's last observation was to invite the hon. Member who introduced this discussion to state his own plan. Whether the plan stated be that of the hon. Member or that of the Government, or that of which the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Waterford has stated, he knows the details—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Whether it is one or the other, apparently the Government are prepared to consider them all. And side by side with that proposition they inform us and the country that at the last General Election the constituencies irrevocably pronounced upon the details of the measure. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not details."] I am repeating what the Prime Minister has himself said. [HON. MEMBERS: "Not details."] The Prime Minister has himself said that of this Bill all the governing principles were laid before the country. Is it or is it not a governing principle whether Home Rule is to be part of a general federal system, as hon. Gentlemen from Scotland have been insisting during the last few days it should be? Is that a principle or is it a detail? Is it a principle or is it a detail whether Irish Members are to continue to sit in this House or not? Is it a principle or is it a detail whether the police and the judiciary are to be committed to the Irish Parliament? [HON. MEMBERS: "A detail!"] A detail upon which the constituencies have already pronounced! Is it a principle or is it a detail whether or not tariffs and customs are to be left to the Irish Parliament? These are all details! They may be details, but there is one principle, and the Prime Minister was the authoritative mouthpiece of that principle in the old days in this House, and in the country. It was this: That no Liberal Government, without dishonour, could undertake to introduce Home Rule while they were dependent upon the Irish vote.


I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman the Member for Cork. Of course I quite understand the attitude that the Prime Minister has taken up. I venture to draw the attention of the House to the changed attitude of the Prime Minister in the last twenty-four hours. I put a supplementary question to the Prime Minister yesterday, in which I asked him if he could not see his way to invite the Irish party to frame a measure in regard to Home Rule in the same way that the Scottish Members framed theirs. The Prime Minister gave me no answer. When I asked what suggestions we were to consider, he gave this interesting answer: "I never held out any encouragement to the hon. Member." Now he comes to the House of Commons and invites the Irish party to put forward their views. I certainly welcome that change of attitude to-night. It very conclusively strengthens my point of view as regards what I very strongly feel in regard to Scotland. We have put in our claim persistently and constantly, and we have framed a Bill. I am speaking for many of my colleagues, and I hope my colleagues of the Scottish National Committee will allow me to speak for them. It is no pleasure to me to put myself forward, but as no one else rose I felt constrained to do so. I venture to say, therefore, that we have, put forward our claims constantly, and that they deserve every consideration, and I hope they will get it, from the Government. There is another reason why our claim should get their sympathetic consideration. The reputed framer of the Irish Home Rule Bill is the Chief Secretary for Ireland. I remember when I was a very young Member of this House the Chief Secretary for Ireland was a Scottish Member and many Members on the Government Bench owe their beginnings to Scotland, and Scotland has a very considerable claim to their gratitude and to their recollection, and should not be slighted. Coming back to these days, I remember the time when the present Chief Secretary took a hand in framing a Scotch Home Rule Bill. I only venture to hope, even now, although that day may be somewhat long past, that he has not forgotten his former adherence to Scottish Home Rule. I venture to tell the Government, with all respect, that unless they take this question up on the principle of the delegation of powers to provincial or national assemblies — a scheme which I venture to remind Gentlemen opposite there were many of them heartily in favour of about a year ago—I am as certain as anything that a Home Rule Bill upon any other principle than that is bound to fail. I for one, and my Scottish colleagues, will do our best to kill any other measure.


I wish to say this in regard to what the Prime Minister has said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Cork City, that it was the Prime Minister who set the example and the precedent that my hon. Friend has followed to-night, because when the right hon. Gentleman was a young Member of this House, and hardly more than a year in it, and when Mr. Gladstone was in his greatest difficulty after the Bill of 1886, it was the Prime Minister who went down to the country—I think to Yorkshire—and made a public demand upon Mr. Gladstone, years before Mr. Gladstone was in office, not on the eve of Home Rule, and years before he had any chance of being returned to office, and asked for details of the Home Rule Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Five minutes after Eleven o'clock.