HC Deb 29 July 1912 vol 41 cc1637-9

I wish to ask the Chief Secretary for Ireland a question, of which I have given him private notice, Whether he has any information with regard to the grave situation now existing in Belfast; whether it is the case that 2,500 workers, including some 500 Protestants, Liberal in politics, have been driven off the Queen's Island; whether many of those workers have been injured, some of them seriously; whether any arrests have been made in connection with those outrages upon inoffensive workmen; whether it is true that practically no protection has been afforded to these workers by the police authorities; whether he is aware that the most profound indignation exists amongst all sections of the people of Belfast at the neglect by the authorities to provide protection for the workers, and what steps the Government propose to take in regard to these appalling matters?


There is no doubt that owing to a number of cowardly and dangerous assaults on workmen employed in the City of Belfast shipyards, a great majority of the Roman Catholics there employed, and a number of Protestants also, are being compelled by this intimidation to stay away from their work, thereby reducing themselves and their families to want, and endangering the whole shipbuilding industry in Belfast. I am also aware that great dissatisfaction exists with the measures hitherto taken for the maintenance of order in the city and for the protection of the workers. I assure the House that it is the intention of the Government to take every possible step to maintain order and afford the fullest possible protection to workmen anxious to fulfil their contracts. With regard to the particular information which the hon. Member asks for, although I am in possession of a great deal of it, I shall be in a better position to give him a fuller account of it to-morrow if he will renew his question. I am glad to say that two persons, at all events, will be brought to trial for the most serious assault yet made upon Mr. McIlroy, and that various other persons will be made amenable to the very long list of assaults that have unhappily taken place. I believe this matter is one of great importance, and I shall be in a better position to give full information if the hon. Member will repeat his question to-morrow.


May I ask whether the Chief Secretary is aware of the fact that quite a number of these men driven from their work are not Irishmen, but they are Scotchmen, Welshmen, and Englishmen who go over to the yards when the work is on, and they are included in the chasing out of the yards as well. If that be so, what is going to be done to protect the workmen there, specially when the pressure of the work occurs again when these men who come from England, Scotland, and Wales, and who have been driven out, will go back again?


I believe it is undoubtedly the fact that a number of workmen in Belfast, finding the conditions of work so intolerable, have shaken the dust from their feet and left the city. I quite recognise that that is one of the features of the case, and that is a matter which I should like time to deal with. It is a difficult thing to secure absolute protection to workmen in these large shipbuilding yards which are private property, when at any moment they may be in a quiet corner made the subject of a cruel assault, it is not very easy to secure them complete protection. Even in the Queen's Road when 20,000 men turn out, it is a seething mass of humanity, and it is even there very difficult to prevent a cruel assault being committed in some portion of the crowd that neither the police nor the military can reach. I assure the House that this matter is engaging the full attention of the Government, and every possible step will be taken to secure the workmen the full protection.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a large number over there who have not shaken the dust from their feet, but are there now, are in receipt of unemployed benefit out of the various British trade union funds, who are thus involved in very considerable expense? Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that the grave dissatisfaction alluded to by my right hon. Friend is also shared by the British trade unions involved in this expense, and will he take some further and more drastic action to have protection given to those men?


I am quite aware of everything the hon. Member has pointed out.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he expects order will be restored so long as gentlemen of influence inside and outside of this House—


This opportunity after regular questions have been completed is confined entirely to urgent matters, and supplementary questions come under the same rule.


May I ask the Chief Secretary whether he will be in a position to-morrow to definitely state what are the precise arrangements he will make to protect these people, and whether, in view of the absolute inactivity of the police authorities and those in charge, he will make a definite statement to-morrow?


I cannot allow that statement about the absolute inactivity of the police authorities to pass unnoticed, but I may say that I do intend to-morrow to give a full and complete account of what has happened, what is happening, and what the intentions of the Government are.


I wish to put a question to the Chief Secretary for Ireland, of which I have given him private notice: Whether his attention has been called to the statement of Messrs. Harland and Wolff announcing the closing of their shipbuilding yards owing to attacks made upon their workmen by organised bands of roughs from the yard of Messrs. Workman and Clark; whether he is aware that by the closing of Messrs. Harland and Wolff's yard 12,000 men will be thrown out of employment, and what steps the Government are taking to protect the workmen of Messrs. Harland and Wolff against intimidation and attack? If the right hon. Gentleman prefers not to answer my question now I will repeat it to-morrow.


I have seen the printed statement in the newspapers to-day as to the announcement made by Messrs. Harland and Wolff on Sunday night, and I will deal with the matter to-morrow.