HC Deb 20 December 1916 vol 88 cc1473-7

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether the Commandant of Frongoch Camp has yet been changed; whether the Government propose to continue the punishment of the prisoners now confined in the Southern Camp and to carry out the sentences inflicted by the courts-martial; and whether it is true that the doctor in charge of the camp has committed suicide, and, if so, whether he can state what led to this tragedy?


The answer to the first part of the question is in the negative. In consequence of a number of complaints made by hon. Members from Ireland against the Commandant at Frongoch, and at the express request of the Commandant, I decided some time ago to institute a careful inquiry into the conditions at that camp, and my hon. and learned Friend, the Member for Wigan, was good enough to undertake to conduct the inquiry on my behalf. The inquiry would have been concluded by to-day, but for an unfortunate illness which has kept him in London for a few days.

As to the second part of the question, the circumstances attending the transfer of a number of the prisoners to the South Camp, not (as I understand) by way of punishment, but in order to separate them from the remaining prisoners, will be one of the subjects of the inquiry. The sentences imposed by the Military Court on certain of the men will expire on the 24th instant.

With regard to the third part of the question, I deeply regret to say that the senior medical officer of the camp, who had carried out his duties very efficiently and had shown much kindness to the prisoners, was found drowned near Bala on the 14th December. I have asked for a full report of the proceedings at the inquest, and at present can only say that according to a brief report which I have received the medical officer had been much worried by certain unfounded charges made against him and his staff. A verdict of "Suicide while of Unsound Mind" was returned.


With reference to that part of the right hon. Gentleman's answer in which he says the men in the South Camp are not detained by way of punishment, but simply for the purpose of separating them from the remaining prisoners, will he explain why they are denied the right to receive letters and parcels and other privileges which their comrades in the North Camp enjoy?


The hon. Gentleman knows the difficulty in regard to this camp. These men decline to give their names or answer the roll call, therefore their letters and parcels cannot easily be handed to them.


I wish to ask the Chief Secretary for Ireland whether he is in a position to make a statement as to the intentions of the Government in regard to the release of the Irish political prisoners still interned in Great Britain?


The Prime Minister promised to deal with this matter in a couple of days. Questions before the War Cabinet are occupying the Prime Minister's whole time to-day, and he will require part of to-morrow. I may say that the statement which has been promised will be made before the close of the Session, and it will be made in such a way as to leave an ample opportunity for discussing the question if a discussion is thought to be neeessary.


That is an exceedingly unsatisfactory answer, because, so far as I can gather, the so-called opportunity for discussion will be no opportunity at all, partly because all the Irish Members will be obliged to leave London tomorrow, or they will not be able to get out of London at all for Christmas. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because there will be no space in the trains, which will all be engaged by soldiers after tomorrow. I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House in order to call attention to a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the refusal of the Government to release all the untried Irish political prisoners still detained in Great Britain.


May I make an appeal to the hon. Member in regard to this matter. It is not the case that this matter is being neglected in any way, and it is obvious that the Prime Minister must attend to his day-to-day calls in connection with the War. The right hon. Gentleman has undertaken that if necessary, in order to enable a discussion to take place, he will have a Saturday Sitting.


I am very anxious to meet the right hon. Gentleman, but I wish to state my reason for adopting this course. Two months ago I asked the late Prime Minister for a day, which he promised very kindly, and at the request of the late Government I adjourned the discussion of my Motion from day to day and week by week on the understanding that this matter was going to be settled in a favourable way. I was assured that it would be settled, and I think the House will agree with me that it is not fair treatment of the Irish party to ask us to be content with a discussion on Saturday, because, as I have pointed out, we cannot be in London unless we sacrifice the whole of our Christmas Recess. [Hon. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because we cannot get out of London. After we had pressed on the Government that if they would give us any indication of an intention to deal with this matter on the lines which we suggest, and which Ireland demands, we would abstain from a discussion altogether, not one single word came from the Chief Secretary or the Prime Minister yesterday indicating that they were giving favourable consideration to this demand. For what we know, on Saturday we may be met with a blank refusal or by the offer of the release of half of these men, which would be just as bad.


I can do no more than appeal to the hon. Member, for obviously he has it in his power to take the time of the House, but I would point out that it is not really reasonable to make a Government which was only appointed a week ago yesterday responsible for anything that happened under the previous Government. I would also point out that he is proceeding on the assumption that a discussion would take place on Saturday, but, if necessary, it could take place on Friday, and the final stages of the Session could take place on Saturday. We are anxious, if possible, to meet the hon. Member.


Will the right hon. Gentleman see that there are special train facilities arranged to enable the Irish Members to go to Ireland if it is necessary to sit on Saturday?


Yes, if necessary.


Could it not be arranged that the intention of the Government could be announced to-morrow?


I hope that that may be so, but it is obvious that the Prime Minister cannot decide a matter of this kind by himself. He must have time, and obviously his day-to-day calls must claim first consideration.


Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake that it will be taken to-morrow and an answer given tomorrow?


I am sure the Prime Minister is as anxious as anyone not to have any delay, but I know that tomorrow matters connected with the War must occupy to-morrow's sitting, and I cannot hold out any hope of a reply at Question-Time. Later in the day it may be possible.


May I ask whether it is not a fact that the late Government had this matter under consideration for two months, and whether it is not also a fact that the present Prime Minister was a member of the Cabinet as well as the present Leader of the House, and why are they not now in a position to give some information to the House as to what the intentions of the Government are instead of leaving it to the tail-end of the Session.


I am sure the hon. Member who has just put that question does not wish to be unreasonable, but he will see that, although the Ministers he mentioned were members of the late Government, their responsibility is quite of a different order now.


Might I refer to the answer given by the Home Secretary in connection with the death of the doctor at Frongoch?


I am exceedingly anxious to meet the right hon. Gentleman, but really the House must make an allowance for the way we have been treated. I notice that even as regards to-morrow the right hon. Gentleman has given us no promise nor even a strong indication that we shall get a definite answer on this question. Really this question, to my own knowledge, has been the subject of long and careful consideration, and something like an understanding between us and the members of the late Government had been arrived at; and when the right hon. Gentleman talks about the new Government not having had time to consider it, then I must remind him that it is a continuous Government to a large extent. This matter has been under discussion, it has been carefully considered for two months, many interviews have taken place, and we have been put off and put off from week to week. Even now, at the eleventh hour, we cannot get any certainty of a decision, therefore I am reluctantly compelled to proceed with this Motion, and I ask permission to move the Adjournment of the House.

The pleasure of the House having been signified, the Motion stood over, under Standing Order No. 10, until a quarter-past eight o'clock this evening.