HC Deb 06 February 1913 vol 48 cc215-22
Captain CRAIG

I wish to raise a question of very great interest at the present moment, especially in Ireland, and I thank the right hon. Gentleman the Vice-President (Mr. Russell) for attending to answer the question I am about to put to him. As the House is aware, for some time past considerable disturbances have taken place in Ulster, especially at Belfast—in the shipyards and other large works. In every instance those disturbances were traced to the resentment felt by the work- men in the large shipyards of Belfast at the treatment meted out to some school children who were on a trip, and travelling from Whitehouse to Castledawson. On that occasion some twenty-three prisoners were arrested and tried at the Assizes, and were ordered to be imprisoned for three months—a sentence which I am quite sure every Member of this House, in the circumstances will consider extremely lenient. I do not wish to enter to-night into all the particulars of the cases tried before the learned judge, but one particular outstanding fact of that trial makes it all the more extraordinary that these prisoners should have now been released after undergoing only about five weeks of their sentence. I may be wrong as to that; I think it is five weeks, or perhaps six, but the right hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong. The point to which I wish to refer is that while the trial was being conducted the Crown Prosecutor would not allow any reference to be made throughout the case to the injuries which were inflicted by members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians when they attacked the Sunday school procession. He would not allow any evidence to be produced in any way to show the injuries actually inflicted upon small children and the school mistress. The whole case was perhaps better explained by the clergyman, I think a Scotch clergyman, who happened to be in Whitehouse at the time, and who attended this excursion. The Rev. Mr. Barron wrote to the Press a few days ago, I think on 31st January, as follows:— Sir,—As the subject of the Castledawson outrage has been revived by the recent trial in Dublin, and by the speech of the Rev. Dr. MacDermott, it may be expected that I should make some statement. At present I only wish to point out that the attack on our Sabbath school excursion party has never yet been investigated. There has been a trial of twenty-three Hibernians for riot, and those men have been found guilty and sentenced to three months imprisonment with hard labour. Tint at the trial of those Hibernians no evidence was given, nor permitted to be given, of injuries received by any member of the Sabbath school party. None of the teachers, none of the parents, and none of the children were examined by the Crown. And this is the gravamen of our charge: none of those people were examined by the Crown to establish the fact of the injuries to those Sunday school children. When I was examined I tried to give evidence that many men, women, and children were injured, and I desired to enter into particulars and explain the nature of the injuries inflicted on each, but my evidence on this point was objected to by the counsel for the prisoners, and it was not received. Thus the truth with regard to the injuries to the men, and the women, and to the children has been kept back. I do not wish at present to go into the particulars on this point, or to give a list of the injured, though I can do so. I have got this evening, after I gave notice to raise this question, a telegram from the Rev. Robert Barron, the clergyman at Whitehouse, which says:— Rev. Mr. Barron sends list of children injured at Castledawson. Amongst them are the following:—Pearl McKelvey, of Whitehouse, aged 12, struck with stone and seriously injured; Maggie Birney, Greencastle, aged 16, struck with a stone and injured; Sarah L. Brennan, Whitehouse, aged 16, knocked down and kicked, severely injured; Margaret Humphreys, Whitehouse, knocked down and fainted; Lizzie Chancellor, Whitehouse, struck on the head; Annie Lamour, Whitehouse, aged 16, knocked down and severely injured; Mary Brennan, aged 5, knocked down; her hat was covered with blood. Those are a few of the names, and since then I had a telegram confirming those names from a local paper to whom the clergyman had also supplied the names in order to substantiate any statement I might make to-night. Those are some of the cases in black and white which I ask this House to bear in mind when they consider that these twenty-three men were found guilty of riotous conduct or whatever the exact charge was. At all events, that is what happened. They were sentenced to three months imprisonment, and we all know it shocked everybody to see in the "Freeman's Journal" a few days ago a statement as follows. This is not from the "Freeman's Journal," but another paper had this paragraph:— Two days ago 'The Freeman's Journal' informed its readers that Mr. Joseph Devlin, M.P., had been 'actively interesting himself' on behalf of the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians convicted at the Ulster Assizes in connection with the Castledawson outrage, and that it was understood that as the result the Lord Lieutenant was about to exercise his prerogative of clemency in their favour. 12.0 M.

That appeared in the "Freeman's Journal," and was copied into other papers to show that although these men had served only a short part of their sentence they were at the instigation of the president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians to be permitted to go out of prison. I would be just as severe in my condemnation if any other class of person was concerned. Until this attack by the Hibernians the peace in Belfast and Ulster was practically unbroken, and good feeling prevailed. It has set on foot retaliatory methods by the other side. The gravamen of my charge is that you are reviving the old spirit, because you show that if men are caught red-handed and convicted before the tribunes of the country all that is necessary is that the president of the Ancient Order of Hibernians should say to the Lord Lieutenant and his advisers, "You must let these men out of gaol," and they are let out. Where is this to stop? It is not an isolated case. A man convicted in another part of Ireland, belonging to the other branch of the Hibernian Order also received a pardon a few days before. It is most regrettable that the authorities of Dublin Castle should have done this. I shall not refer to the reports that the Derry election had the effect of bringing pressure to bear. It is far more serious. It simply means that you encourage men to break the law. You say to every vagabond and ruffian, no matter who he may be, "Do not hesitate to go on and do whatever mischief you like. You may cause great harm, throw stones at little children in a Sunday school procession, take the Union Jack and trample upon it, and do what you like, because if subsequently you are convicted, it does not matter, for your friends have the key of the gaol and will let you out." Whilst party feeling in Ireland is such as it is, while it is running higher now than in the memory of living man, while the situation is grave in the extreme, I say that the Government are deliberately lending themselves to keeping the feeling of distrust in the authorities at such a pitch that everybody now says it is only giving us what is called a touch of Home Rule. It is regrettable that the Government should have lent themselves to aiding and abetting those who ought to know better. I can only say that if this goes on, and in the case of persons convicted by the judges simply for the Government to take the part of a strong party man, and the president of the order to get them out, is bringing justice in Ireland to a very low ebb.

Mr. T. W. RUSSELL (Vice-President of the Department of Agriculture, Ireland)

If the hon. and gallant Gentleman is correct in stating that the disturbances that affected Belfast quite recently were due, or almost entirely due, to this Castledawson affair, then I do not know any disturbance had ever a smaller basis to rest upon. The Chief Secretary is unable to be present, for, as everyone knows, he is elsewhere. I will try and explain to the hon. and gallant Gentleman the real facts of the case, which appear to be as follows: A Sunday school excursion party went from Whitehouse, Belfast, to Castledawson on 2nd June. They numbered about 500, of whom two-thirds were children under sixteen years of age. About five p.m. they set out for the station to get their train home. On their way they met a large party of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, consisting of four contingents, with a band. Ten or twelve men with pikes accompanied each contingent—[Interruption]—The hon. and gallant Gentleman was listened to without interruption—

Captain CRAIG

We have no chance of answering.


Half the time has already been occupied, and I hope I may continue without further interruption. The women and children were terrified and ran away. Some of the adults of the Sunday school party received injuries, mostly from the pikes. Several of the members of the Hibernians were also injured. Justice Wright, in his charge to the jury, said, "he was glad to know that the women and children had not been struck by the pikes. What was absolutely proved in Court was that no injuries had been inflicted on the women and children: he was glad to hear that proved. He was glad to think that nothing so dastardly or so unmanly had taken place." Now I think after a statement like that made by the judge who tried the case, really we ought to have heard the last of these attacks upon women and children.


Does the right hon. Gentleman doubt the letter read by my hon. Friend, from a minister of religion?


I am quoting a statement, not challenged by anyone, made by Mr. Justice Wright, a judge of the High Court, who tried the case, and who was quite familiar with the whole of the facts.

Captain CRAIG

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman does not want to misrepresent us, but is he aware of the fact that the Crown prosecutor was not allowed to go into these things?


I am not a lawyer, but I think it would be a most extraordinary trial I ever heard of where a riot took place if the prosecutor was not allowed to prove the injuries. Really the House of Commons has not come to such a pass that a statement like that should affect it in any way whatever. Mr. Barron, who is a minister of my own Church, admitted at the Assize Court that he was greatly excited, and that his evidence given before the magistrates might differ somewhat from the evidence at the Assize Court. I can quite understand that. But as a matter of fact, I must ask the House to believe the statement of the judge who tried the case, that no woman or child was assaulted, and that if that had happened it would have been a most disgraceful thing, and he was glad to say no Irishman had been guilty of it.

Twenty-three men were convicted, as the hon. and gallant Gentleman stated, of riot in connection with this affair at the last Winter Assize, and each was sentenced to three months imprisonment. These sentences would have expired—and this is important in view of what the hon. and gallant Gentleman has said—in the ordinary course on the 16th instant. The prisoners having been well conducted and having therefore earned the maximum remission, and his Excellency having carefully considered the influential memorial presented on their behalf, and the report of the learned judge who tried the case, decided to order their release on the 4th instant, thereby remitting twelve days of their sentences. His Excellency, in communicating this decision, did not state the grounds, and it would be contrary to the established practice to give the reasons which actuated him in the exercise of the prerogative of mercy. In these matters he represents the Sovereign and his conduct cannot be questioned either on a Motion for Adjournment or in Debate. Now let me say that this memorial, on which the hon. Gentleman opposite seemed to throw some suspicion, on behalf of the prisoners, was signed by clergymen and laymen, Protestant and Catholic, and at least one-third of the signatures were those of Protestant Unionists. Let me say that the statement that the promise to release the Castledawson prisoners was made before the Derry election may be emphatically contradicted. That is a statement which I have to make on behalf of the Government. I deeply regret this occurrence, and I am sure there is no one in the House who does not regret it and who would not do everything in his power to put an end to all this bitter feeling. I have had a pretty long experience, but I wish to say deliberately that I do not know a case which has been so grossly misrepresented and out of which so much has been made. If it be true that the troubles in the Belfast shipyards arose out of this occurrence, then there is a grave responsibility resting upon those who circulated the idea that women and children were treated in this way when the judge who tried the case has declared after hearing the whole of the evidence, that there is not a particle of truth in it.


I am very sorry that the official responsible for the unexpected release of these prisoners, the Vice-President of the Department of Agriculture, has gone the length of doubting anything from a minister of the Church to which he and I belong. Mr. Barron has been most reluctant to make statements to the Press or to any other public official. Undoubtedly Mr. Barron was prevented from presenting to the Court a list of the injured children which he intended to furnish. I do not know who is responsible for the contents of the statement which has been referred to, but it is not the statement prepared by the Crown Prosecutor, and it is not an official statement by those who were present officially at the trial. I am bound to say that it is a partisan statement presented for the purpose and an attempt to justify the action of the Lord Lieutenant in connection with these prisoners. I can only express my regret that this is another of a series of cases in which the Lord Lieutenant has, probably unintentionally, but directly by his action in reference to this occurrence intimidated the administration of justice in Ireland. It has now come to be known, from one end of Ireland to the other, that whatever sentence a judge of the High Court or a county court judge inflicts upon a Nationalist prisoner, inevitably that sentence will be substantially reduced in every case in which political pressure is brought to bear. There is one fact which the Vice-President did not think it necessary to tell us, and that was that Mr. Barron after these men were convicted, so far from feeling any resentment against these misguided men, immediately the verdict was recorded, got up and said he had no resentment against these men, and appealed to the judge to pass a most lenient sentence upon them. Mr. Justice Wright was greatly impressed by the appeal, and he said he would give it due weight. Personally, I am convinced, if that had not been made, on the merits of the case as disclosed to the judge, these men would have got at least twelve months in gaol instead of only three months. This remission of these sentences is so unjust and so inequitable that it has created a bitter feeling in the whole of the North of Ireland and is only adding fuel to the flames which have been so hard to suppress for a considerable time. I am not surprised hon. Members below the Gangway should jeer at what has happened. I am sorrry justice should be cast down in this way in Ireland. It is one of the few remaining safeguards we Protestants have there, but even now men who have never been associated with politics are forced to the conclusion that if the present proposal of the Government ever came to have effect there would be absolutely no security left for those who are not by their own right arm able to defend themselves.

It being half an hour after the conclusion of Government business, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put.

Adjourned at Twenty-one minutes after Twelve o'clock.