HC Deb 28 October 1912 vol 43 cc201-8

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of 14th October, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I desire to raise a question of considerable importance upon the Motion just proposed. It refers to a speech which was delivered at Elland, in Yorkshire, by the President of the Board of Agriculture on Friday last. I will begin by reading an extract from that speech which refers to what I have to say:— Mr. Runciman, referring at the outset to the Home Utile question, said the fire-eaters of Ulster had settled down to the humdrum work of the Committee stage of the Government Bill as though it were of no more importance than dealing with the disease of bees. He had not the least doubt that there were thousands of men in Belfast who were taking the Home Rule controversy in grim earnest, and he wondered what their thoughts were now when they found that their representatives, who had threatened to break up the House of Commons, and to interfere with the dignity of our Parliamentary process, were working in a quiet businesslike manner under the soothing influence of Mr Harry Whitley. 'It is a contrast so remarkable,' said Mr. Runciman, 'that I think we must be pardoned for feeling a little suspicious about the fervour of Ulster feeling.' I should like, to say a few words on this matter, for I feel if speeches of that kind are permitted to be made, there is very grave danger attached to them of which I think notice ought to be taken in this House. It raises the whole question of Ministerial responsibility. We have seen lately that the various minor Members of the Government have been in different parts of the country, and have touched on subjects of grave international importance, and the Prime Minister, whom I am sorry not to see here, airily passing it off and saying that that is the hon. Gentleman's own personal opinion. We have always understood that there was such a thing as Ministerial responsibility, and that if a Member of the Government gave forth an opinion, that opinion was shared by his colleagues in the Government. I raised this question in this way by writing to the Prime Minister as a matter of urgent importance. The right hon. Gentleman did not attach the same importance to it which I think the House will attach to it, and he wished to be asked the question in the ordinary course of events on Wednesday. To my mind the matter is of such importance that the sooner we hear what exactly is the view of the Ministry the better.

What has the President of the Board of Agriculture (Mr. Runciman) suggested? Does he suggest that if we are in earnest we are to bring the traditions of this House into disrepute? Does he suggest that the Ulster feeling is not expressed by what is known as the leaders of the Ulster movement, and their representatives in this House because it would be as well that we should know exactly what he meant by his speech, whether he was anxious to amuse a Yorkshire audience, or expressed his own personal view of the Ulster situation. Is it the plan of the Government to do what they can to irritate the men of Ulster? They have done so in the past. We remember quite well that the Cabinet sent over the First Lord of the Admiralty to make a speech there, and selected the one individual in the Government who by his traditions should have given Belfast the widest possible berth. They selected him to come and deliver a speech in contradiction to all those opinions which he had held in the Ulster Hall. Was that intended to irritate the people of Ulster, and to do so from the point of view of the Government, or did the right hon. Gentleman go on his own initiative?

Then we come to the Castledawson episode. That was brushed aside by the Government as if there was nothing whatever in it. If there is any doubt about the feeling which the men of Ulster have I should like to hear it from the Government. Hon. Members on the Nationalist benches have no doubt, and they are prepared to give to the men of Ulster the exact firmness of conviction which they hold themselves. Do they believe that it is all bluster and all brag, that it is got up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dublin University and a few corner boys in Belfast. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am not appealing to hon. Members who sit behind the Government, and I am not surprised to hear their jeers in their ignorance of the circumstances. I make my appeal to the Government to realise exactly the position in which they are. To say that the position of Ulster is unwise, that it is sectarian, or that it does not exist, is playing with realities, as the Government are quite well aware, because I have every reason to believe that they have inquired very closely into the matter. They know there is very inflammable material in Belfast, and we, the minority, have the deep conviction that we are being tyrannically treated. They know perfectly well that we feel these things deeply, and there is no limit to what the minority will do in their determination to defend their liberty. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman, or whoever is going to reply for the Government, to say that speeches of the kind delivered by the President of the Board of Agriculture and by the Secretary to the Colonies should not be made. The Secretary for the Colonies said:— I do not deal to-day with the bombastic threats of Ulster. I am not yet prepared to believe that the Parliamentary mouthings of Orange Members represent the considered opinion of that portion of the nation to which they belong. This sort of attack upon Ulster Members will be reflected in Belfast, and those men who are heart and soul with their representatives here will endure no insults to those representatives. I say that if the Government and right hon. Gentlemen are endeavouring to goad us into a frenzy by the irritating suggestions which responsible Ministers are making—I do not care about the small fry—in different parts of the country, all I can say is their blood be on their own heads. If there is any bloodshed in Ulster it will be due to the action the Government have taken.

The PRESIDENT of the BOARD of AGRICULTURE (Mr. Runciman)

I listened with considerable interest to the extracts read by the Noble Lord from a report of a speech which I delivered in Yorkshire on Friday night, and I wondered out of what sentence he was likely to frame a charge. As he went on the only conclusion I come to was that the sentences, so far from being provocative, were complimentary, for they actually ended up with a climax equivalent to this, that the Opposition in the House of Commons had shown admirable good temper and courtesy. If that be insulting to the Opposition, I am extremely sorry that I cannot think more generously of them. If the Opposition object to my saying that the discussions on the Home Rule Bill have not been exciting, I can only say that nearly every member of the House has formed exactly the same opinion. It is true that they have not been without interest, but they have not been full of that excitement that one might have expected from the threats uttered in the month of September at Belfast and elsewhere in Ulster. So far from underrating the feeling in Ulster, I will read out from the only report I have seen—that in the "Yorkshire Observer"—some of the sentences that I did utter there with regard to Ulster Unionism.

He would not underrate for one moment the seriousness of the feeling in some parts of Ulster about the passage of the Home Rule Bill. The feeling in Ulster was so closely allied to prejudice that no one need be surprised if, in the course of the nest three years, we had speeches as violent as were delivered in August. last, and even if those feelings were expressed perhaps in more violent forms. But in England we had grown accustomed to self-government, and the rule of the majority, and those men who controlled the agitation in Ulster and Belfast were realising, now they had returned to England, that Belfast theories would not do at Westminster, that no one was at all frightened by their aggressive language, and, that whatever happened, the Home Rule Bill was going to become an Act of Parliament. I have read from only one report. There may have been other portions, but there is not a single word omitted from that report which I should care to modify or withdraw. I said nothing ungenerous of the Opposition. I did not underrate the sincere feelings of those who represent Ulster, or one part of Ulster, in this House. I have no intention whatever of suggesting that they are not perfectly sincere in their opposition to Home Rule. All that I think we are entitled to ask is that they should give us credit for being perfectly sincere in our support of it. I have seldom seen a charge made against a Minister on more flimsy grounds. I feel sure of this that had I consulted my colleagues on every word I uttered the other night they could not have taken objection to a single syllabic of it, and as for the suggestion that they are likely to provoke disturbance, either in this House or out of it, I believe that is a pure figment of the lively imagination of the Noble Lord and of no one else.


I must say that I think the right hon. Gentleman has really not realised the seriousness of the position, and I agree with my Noble Friend in thinking that this is a matter more for the head of the Government than for the Minister who has spoken now. I may say also in my opinion, for whatever it is worth, the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, and the humorous trend, if he meant it to be so, was, if possible, an additional insult in the speech from which he quoted. I am sure of this, though the right hon. Gentleman will not agree with me, that while no doubt his colleagues will support him outwardly, he is perfectly wrong in saying that the whole of them approve of such language as was used. What were the actual words used by the right hon. Gentleman, and what is the effect of them. First of all there are these words in regard Co us here in this House:— The fire-eaters of Ulster have settled down to the humdrum of the Committee stage of the Bill as if it wore of no more importance than dealing with the disease of bees. The Government in regard to a subject, the importance of which is beyond question, have passed a gagging resolution more severe by far than was ever heard of in the House of Commons. The Opposition under those circumstances make the best use they can of the opportunities which were given for discussion, and a Member of the Government, a Cabinet Minister, who has imposed this restriction upon us goes down to the country and says because they are willing still to treat the House of Commons as a serious institution therefore there is no sincerity. That is one aspect of it and not the most important, though I do not need to tell the House that our action is not guided by the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman. Unlike the Gentlemen who sit on that bench we still attach some value to the House of Commons. We hope again to see it free from its present position of a machine registering the edicts of a Government which does its best to abolish the House of Commons. For that reason, and not because of any want of reality in our opposition, we are still, against great provocation, doing our best to preserve the traditions of the House of Commons. And this is our reward! The other aspect is far more serious— It is a contrast so remarkable that I think we must be pardoned for feeling a little suspicious about the fervour of Ulster feeling. I cannot see the point, but the words are to the effect that the people of Ulster, when they see the behaviour of their representatives here, would have some suspicion about the way they were fighting their battle. The right hon. Gentleman has no connection with the government of Ireland. The Chief Secretary is present. I have been in Ulster; I have taken a great deal of trouble to find out the reality of the feeling there. The Chief Secretary either knows it, or he ought to know it. The First Lord of the Admiralty certainly knows it. What is the position? I say sincerely, without exaggeration, that I believe there is every moment while this Bill is before the country great danger of the most serious riots in North-East Ulster.

I say further—and I have said it before—that in my belief disorders of a kind we have never seen before have been prevented by the influence of my right hon. Friend (Sir E. Carson). That is my belief, and I have better means of knowing than most hon. Gentlemen opposite. I should like to see the Chief Secretary get up and deny that any single word that I have uttered is not true at the present moment. What have we before us? Here is a gentleman, a member of the Government and a member of the Cabinet, who goes to the country and uses language which, when quoted in Belfast, is a direct incitement to the people there to show by deeds the reality of their opposition to the Home Rule Bill. The words can have no other meaning. They can have no other object, unless they were simply the thoughtless utterance of a man who did not know what he was saying. If there is time I challenge the Chancellor of the Exchequer to verify what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and to say in this House that he approves of an incitement like that in present circumstances.

The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Lloyd George)

I should be very sorry to say a single word that would add fuel to the flame. I very much regret that the Prime Minister could not be present, but he is still suffering, I am sorry to say, from the complaint he has suffered from, and he had to leave early in the evening. I cannot help thinking that the Noble Lord who introduced the subject, and the right hon. Gentleman who followed have rather been seeking offence where no offence was intended, and where it really requires a little straining of the language in order to justify offence. I agree if you take a phrase here and there, without taking the whole of the speech, it is quite possible to make a case against my right hon. Friend. But the Noble Lord has rather omitted one or two phrases by which the correct interpretation was lost. My right hon. Friend fully realises the earnestness and seriousness of the feeling of the Ulster people. I know no charge that hits a community, or a section of a community more than the charge of lack of sincerity in some political conviction which is a deep-rooted one. There is no man in this House. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman and his friends, who for a moment doubts or denies the real intensity of feeling of Ulster upon this question. I am perfectly certain—I am not how speaking of public speeches—but I am speaking of what I know—not merely what my friends and I think—that everybody fully realises that the Ulster people are thoroughly, intensely, and passionately in earnest upon this subject. Nobody doubts it for a moment. The only question is that we, naturally, believe that it is due entirely to a misapprehension in regard to the facts of the present, and fears with regard to the future which are groundless. That, however, is a matter for argument.

When you come to the real fact whether or not they do feel like that, I am certain no man on this side of the House doubts it. I am not at all surprised that there should be a good deal of sensitiveness on the part of Ulstermen whenever anybody challenges their conviction, which is almost a religious one amongst them. If hon. Gentlemen opposite would just look at the speech of my right hon. Friend they would see that he admitted it. These are his words:— He was not underrating for one moment the seriousness of the feeling in some parts of Ulster about the passage of the Home Rule Bill.


He read that himself.


I think that is so important that I do not apologise to the House for reading it a second time, because I would not have hon. Members from Ulster and those who sympathise with them say—I would not for a moment have them believe that whatever line we are taking, we are taking—I will not say in ignorance, but from indifference to the feelings which they have in this respect. This feeling which has lasted for hundreds of years is a fierce and passionate one on both sides. We are trying the best settlement we can. In our judgment it is the best—though hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite think it is the worst. This is a matter for argument. But at least do let us give credit to each other for absolute sincerity of conviction. I can assure hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite that there was no intention on the part of my right hon. Friend to offend in the slightest degree.


Let him withdraw it!

Adjourned accordingly at Sixteen minutest before Twelve o'clock.