HC Deb 20 December 1916 vol 88 cc1566-84

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 22nd February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."


I endeavoured to explain at Question Time to-day the reason why I felt constrained to refuse to assent to the appeal of the Leader of the House not to bring forward on the Motion for the Adjournment to-night the question of the release of the interned Irish political prisoners in this country. I need not therefore go over that ground again, with the exception of this one point, that this matter has been under the consideration of the Government constantly for two months, and when the late Government left office we were under the impression—I do not for a moment desire to say it was anything further than that—for which we had good ground, that the policy of immediate release would prevail. When the right hon. Gentleman, in replying to me to-day, based his appeal on the fact that the new Government had only just come into office, and were wholly unable, in the time which had elapsed, to deal with this question in face of the many important questions which we all recognise confronted them, I replied, I think with great force, that the case of this new Government could not for a single moment be judged to be on all fours with that of an ordinary Government coming into office after the defeat of another Government by an opposing party, who might be presumed to have on this question new minds and probably a different policy and therefore, naturally, would be entitled to demand some time to consider what action they would take. In this particular case you have a Government of which the leading Members are the same. They have not come into office as the result of any conflict of parties or the defeat of one particular party in the House, while the men who undoubtedly would be mainly concerned in arriving at this decision, namely, the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and the Chief Secretary for Ireland, have all been in the late Government, and have all taken part—an active part—in considering this question for the last two months. Therefore, I am entitled to say that there is no force in that argument as a reason for not coming to any conclusion.

As I have stated already, a Motion has been on the Paper in my name for two months making this demand. Many private interviews have taken place between us and Ministers, into the nature of which, of course, I am precluded from entering. Let me state in a sentence the nature of our demand. There are still in this country interned over 560 untried Irish political prisoners, against whom no charge has been formulated, and who, as I understand the law—I have heard it laid down very carefully by the late Home Secretary in Debates on the Defence of the Realm Act—can only be legally held in this country if it is proved to the satisfaction of the Home Secretary in every case—he specifically said that every case should be considered on its merits—that they are of alien enemy association. There is no other charge on which you can intern a man in this country unless he is an alien himself or is of alien enemy association. In this particular case the Defence of the Realm Act has been severely strained, strained far beyond the interpretation laid down by the late Home Secretary in those Debates. It would be impossible for the Home Secretary in each of the individual cases of these Irish prisoners, or in the majority of them, to say that they are actually of alien enemy association. It is a matter of very grave doubt as to whether, if a writ of habeas corpus was applied for in respect of these prisoners, they would not be released. I myself have been consulted on one or two occasions, and, judging from the proceedings that took place, I could not undertake the responsibility, in the present state of popular feeling in this country, of advising the resort to a writ of habeas corpus. In view of some of the dicta of the judges that I have read, I advised that it was better to trust to a better feeling arising in this country than that in the circumstances a writ should be applied for. If the Government to-day or yesterday had given us any substantial ground for the belief that they were favourably considering this matter and were going to settle it, I should certainly not have taken the course I am now taking. If it had not been for the fact that at Question Time to-day the Government, represented by the Leader of the House and afterwards by the Chief Seeretary, absolutely refused to give us any positive pledge that before the end of this Session a statement would be made, although it was indicated that it might possibly be made to-morrow evening, or on Friday, or that a Saturday sitting might be held—no positive pledge was given that before this Session closed a statement would be made on the subject of these prisoners—


The hon. Member is entirely mistaken I read a positive pledge and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House repeated a positive pledge.


All I can say is that it is very unfortunate that that was not the impression conveyed even to myself or to any Members sitting on these benches. I believe I speak for all my colleagues. The impression left upon us was that no positive pledge was given, and that when the Leader of the House spoke of a Saturday sitting in the present conditions of transport to Ireland, it was really rather a piece of mockery. That is the reason why I raise the subject to-night. The truth of it is that it would be very difficult for us, after all that has occurred and after the encouragement which was spread in Ireland—spread abroad by rumour—I do not hesitate to say that by private letters of my own written to many of the anxious relatives of these people—that Christmas or the New Year would see them released, and I had good grounds for that belief, although I was not given any pledges, it would be impossible for us to go over this Christmas season and face our people in view of the belief as to the action of the Government without making some protest against the delays that have taken place. I want to disclaim, in the most emphatic language any intention of attacking the Prime Minister in this matter. From my long acquaintance with the Prime Minister and also from my knowledge of his own feelings, I have not the slightest doubt in my own mind that if he were to exercise his own unbiassed personal judgment on this matter, and if no obstacles or difficulties to which I will refer in a moment were in his path, there would be no question about the immediate release of these prisoners. I was under the impression—again it is an unfortunate misunderstanding—that we should have heard from him on this subject in his speech yesterday. I came into the House under that impression, and certainly from the beginning of the Session I expected to hear from him some statement as to what the Government proposed to do. In that speech there occurred a sentence very significant, very important and which will be carefully scanned in Ireland. It was to the following effect: That is why I have always thought and said that the real solution of the Irish problem is largely one of a better atmosphere. I entirely agree. I am speaking not merely for myself but for my colleagues when I say we shall strive to produce that better feeling. We shall strive by every means and by many hazards to produce that atmosphere, and we ask men of all races and all parties and all creeds to join us. 8.0 p.m.

When I read that language, which I think was very wise language and applicable to the present situation in Ireland, I expected to find it followed by a concrete statement of the action taken by the Government to improve the atmosphere in Ireland. What better action could have been taken to improve the atmosphere than to announce to the Irish people that all these prisoners at Frongoch and the gaols in England would be released by Christmas. Apparently the policy of delay and exasperation is going to be pursued or may be pursued in this matter just as it has been pursued in the last five or six months, with disastrous results not only in Ireland, but, as the right hon. Gentleman pointed out yesterday, far beyond the shores of Ireland.

So far as I know, the opinions and the feelings of Ministers on this subject there can be no doubt that all these prisoners will be released in the course of a few-months, but can anything be imagined more analogous than the policy pursued by the War Office, which the present Prime Minister described in this Houst as a policy of blundering so horrible that he was obliged to apply the words "malignant" to it—the policy which killed recruiting in Ireland. I am afraid the words may become applicable to this policy if it is pursued, as I fear it is going to be pursued, namely, to let these men out in driblets. What is the difference in policy between letting these men out now in a way that will conciliate Ireland and improve the Irish atmosphere and letting them out in the course of the next three or four months slowly, apparently reluctantly, in driblets or small groups in a way that will do little or no good and will convey to the people of Ireland that this concession has been dragged out of the Government, with the result that you will not obtain the good effect which might be obtained by bold and generous action of the moment.

I say again my conviction is that, so far as the heads of the Government are concerned, their own view is this, that these prisoners ought to be released. The time has come when they ought to be released, in the best interests of Ireland and of this country also. I ask myself what is the nature of the obstacle, the mysterious hand, the hidden hand which is holding back the Government from this first act towards creating a better atmosphere in Ireland. I cannot conceive of any obstacle except what I may describe as the Castle gang in Dublin. I think the real obstacle which has to be overcome by the War Council and the Prime Minister before they can consent to release these men is to get the consent of Dublin officials. That is a monstrous thing, if true. I put it to this War Council who have such vast powers, are they going to allow this great question, which the Prime Minister described as an all-important War problem apart from the condition of Ireland—are they going to allow their hands to be tied, their judgment to be warped, and their instincts to be set aside and falsified by the advice of these officials in Dublin who have been largely responsible for all these misfortunes which have kept these two peoples apart and poisoned the relations between these people so long? If it is not the Dublin officials, who can it be? I cannot imagine any influence in the Government which has the power to prevent them embarking on this course. I would strongly urge upon the Government the vital importance of doing this thing in a way to strike the public imagination of the Irish people, and I warn them that if they refuse to do that and to allow 100 out to-morrow and 100 out after Christmas—actually allowing them out in groups—they will lose all the good effect which it is now in their power to achieve.

The Irish problem is still a very difficult one, and it is one of those which the War Council, as the Prime Minister admitted yesterday, must face and must solve within the next few weeks. At all events, they must make a beginning. Three times since War broke out you have had an opportunity of securing the friendship of Ireland, of the overwhelming majority of the Irish people, and of securing all the recruits Ireland could possibly afford to give, and on each of the three occasions you have struck her across the face, insulted her, driven her back, and done everything in your power to encourage the forces of revolution and Sinn Feinery in that country. The Prime Minister himself characterised the action of the War Office in the early days of the War, when Ireland was only too eager to stand by your side and the whole country was enthusiastic from one end to the other, but you destroyed that condition of feeling by the operations of the War Office, an operation which we in vain appealed to the Cabinet of that day to correct and which the Cabinet itself was unable to correct because the War Office defied the Cabinet and carried out its own policy in absolute defiance of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. That was the first opportunity.

The next opportunity you had was when the rebellion took place. We need not go into the cause of that rebellion, but it was another great opportunity. That was only a rebellion of about one-twentieth part of the people of Ireland. The rest of the people of Ireland were heartily with you. What was the result? If you had trusted us there would have been no rebellion, and if there had been we could have easily dealt with it ourselves without asking the aid of a single English soldier to cross the Channel. When the rebellion did come, only one-twentieth of the Irish people sympathised with it, and nineteen-twentieth of the Irish people were with you. You treated the entire population as if they were unanimous and put the whole country under martial law, swept into prison crowds of men who had no more connection with the rebellion than you had. You set the whole country mad, and people said the hand of friendship held out to you by Ireland has been struck and insulted.

Now comes the third opportunity of July, when Lord Lansdowne destroyed the negotiations and again Ireland was thrown back. Now comes the fourth opportunity to undo all the blunders of the past. Yesterday the Prime Minister spoke of the blunders in Greece; they are very bad, shocking, incomprehensible. But not half so bad as the blunders in Ireland, and you have not lost so much by them. Now are we to see that again I That is the reason I think it necessary to have this Debate to-night. I make a last appeal to the Government, a strong appeal, nob to lose this fourth opportunity. The Leader of the House, when he listened to the admirable speech of the Member for East Clare (Major W. Redmond), which moved us all, spoke in a sympathetic spirit, and said his object was to improve the relations of the two countries. How can you improve the relations when this kind of thing is going on?

Look at what is going on at this moment. Ireland is being deluged by letters from Frongoch prisoners. The camp is in a disgraceful condition. I was amazed to sec that the Home Secretary ordered an inquiry into the conduct of the commandant. Why, I thought his conduct was condemned. The camp was going on perfectly harmoniously. The men were under their own leaders, what are called but leaders. Then the War Office, the evil genius of Ireland, tried to get hold of five alleged Irish rebels to force them into the British Army to put on your uniform and fight for you, although they had been taken in Ireland against you—these enlightened military men who control the camp ordered five hundred and sixty men to turn informers in order to get their comrades into the Army. They regarded that—I do not express my own opinion—as an odious and detestable thing, just as if the Prussians had forced the Belgians to fight for them. What did the British Army stand to gain by getting these five men who are technically, I am told, liable under the Military Service Act? They have thrown the whole camp into the wildest confusion. I have myself got letters from prisoners smuggled out of Frongoch describing the sufferings of these men.

You have three hundred men in punishment in the Southern Camp, which, in spite of what the Home Secretary said to-day, is not considered desirable for habitation. They have been put down into this Southern Camp and deliberately denied all their privileges—letters, parcels, etc. The food sent them from Ireland has also been allowed to rot. The Home Secretary says, no doubt in an answer manufactured by the commander, that the reason why they did not get food and letters was because the commandant could not identify them and they would not answer to their names. As if that is an honest answer, as if they could not send down to the hut commanders, their own leaders who had always acted for them, the food and parcels if they were in punishment—and I say they were in punishment, and it was admitted by their predecessor in the House of Commons that they were. Then there are other men sentenced to hard labour by court-martial for refusing to act as informers. Anybody who knows Ireland knows that they could not be expected to perform such an act. It is exasperating our people to think that they should be debarred from communicating with relatives and sending at this Christmas time letters to poor people in Ireland. They have many relatives, and relatives, mark you, who do not sympathise with them. There are many men in Frongoch to-day who have brothers, some of them two brothers, out in the trenches. It is quite common. These families are all divided. I have known several instances of men who were out in the rebel army and had one or two brothers fighting, and I remember an old lady of eighty years who came to me, broken down with sorrow, because her grandson, a very handsome boy, from the photograph she showed me, had been sentenced to ten years' penal servitude, and she told me she had two sons and three nephews in your Army and Navy.


In accordance with the custom of the House, I have to interrupt the hon. Member at a quarter-past eight. I presume he does not wish to recommence his speech now, but will be satisfied with the opportunity he has got of raising the question.


Thank you; yes. I have no desire to keep the House for a long period. I am quite satisfied with the opportunity given me by the ordinary hour. These are really serious considerations, which ought to influence the Chief Secretary. This irritation which I am complaining of, and which is now extreme, affects not only Sinn Feiners, but, far outside the boundaries of the Sinn Fein sympathisers, it affects hundreds and thousands of people in Ireland who have no sympathy whatever with their policy, and you are spreading all this trouble and making impossible the beginning of creating that better atmosphere which the Prime Minister so truthfully described as the really essentially thing in order to have an Irish settlement. I recognise that to be a difficult and troublesome task, though I trust the Prime Minister will give great proof of his courage, and he can give no greater proof, by tackling this question completely, because I know that nine-tenths of the British people will be deeply grateful to him if he takes hold of it firmly and settles it, and he is in a position of great power to do it now. But not only is he, by not meeting us in this matter rendering impossible the chance of a settlement of the Irish question, but it is ruining the chances of recruiting in Ireland. The question of recruiting in Ireland is a question of atmosphere and temper, just as much as the question of settlement. You cannot bully the Irish people into the Army. It cannot be done, and any attempt to do it will bring a condition of things that one shrinks from contemplating, and it will undoubtedly be one of the greatest disasters and hindrances to this War. If you want to bring about that condition of things which we brought about and maintained in Ireland, increasing day by day, and risked our whole political position and our political lives to maintain until the War Office crushed and destroyed it, it will take time, and you must make a beginning by treating people in a manner which will impress them as being generous and being somewhat of a spirit of reparation on your part.

But this question and this issue have wide connections. I do not know whether hon. Members have seen the last copies of the Australian papers which have come over. Everyone now knows that it was the Irish in Australia who defeated Conscription for that country, and I am convinced, from what I have heard from private sources, that the majority is far greater than Australian Ministers have let the public know. Here is the really important thing, that when on the eve of that election Ministers made the most urgent appeals to this country to get the Leaders of the Irish party to come to their rescue, what did they do? I do not say that Ministers did it, but some of the wirepullers who were endeavouring to carry that vote in Australia. They put in all the Australian newspapers a Reuter's telegram stating that when Mr. Hughes, the Prime Minister of Australia, was in this country the Government of the day had withdrawn the Proclamation of martial law in Ireland, and the whole of the Australian Pres3 is now engaged in a controversy as to who forged that telegram. Is there not a great lesson to be read in that? I believe it is perfectly true that Mr. Hughes, when he was in this country, entreated the Government to withdraw the Martial Law Proclamation, but the Government would not do it, and we see the effect of it. I am told by friends of mine who have returned from Canada lately that you are losing hundred of recruits there because of the condition of exasperation amongst our people in that country, who were at the beginning of the War most loyal and most eager to rush into the ranks, as the Irish always are when they have got a fair show. The other day we Irish were deeply moved by the action taken very late in the day by the Commander of the Irish Division in France, after the magnificent deeds which those soldiers had achieved, winning to themselves the admiration of the Army, and of the French Army also. The Commander in France, I understand, has allowed them to wear a special badge with the same inscription as their forefathers wore when they served in the ranks as exiles in the French Army in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when 450,000 of them laid down their lives for France. These half-million men, from a population far smaller than Ireland is now, when they went to fight for France required no Military Service Act to bring them into the ranks. They went amongst men who appreciated them and loved them, and treated them as equals and honoured them, and I am glad to say—I think it is due to the fact of a genuine Irishman getting to the head of the brigade who knows how to deal with Irish soldiers—that he gave them that famous and immortal badge to wear, semper etubiquc fidelis, a testimony which they won on those bloody fields in France 200 years ago. If you want Irish soldiers—if you want to create a better atmosphere in Ireland and to settle the Irish question, and to win, by doing so, what was described by the Prime Minister lately and by other Ministers as one of the greatest victories that Britain should achieve in this War, treat the Irish people generously and show that you are now-anxious to make some amends for the way in which you treated us on those occasions to which I refer, and that you appreciate the Irish people, and when they hold out the hand of friendship again you will take it warmly and not throw it aside.


I think the hon. Member, who levelled so many reproaches against us, will concede to me that during all the period I have been in office at any rate I have endeavoured to promote that settlement in Ireland, and that settlement between Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, which he regards and I. and I believe all my colleagues, regard as one of the most vital interest to this country. I must not pretend to complain of the tone of his speech at all or of the occasion on which he has made it, or of there being discussions on this matter. I have always wished that this matter should come into the open and be understood, but I could not help thinking, during one or two passages in his speech, of the observation of the lady who in domestic quarrels found herself in a position in which this reflection occurred to her: "There is nothing good I say and there is nothing right I do." One would suppose if one judged the situation by the hon. Member's speech to-night, that that was his judgment upon the Government and upon those who are responsible for the administration of Ireland. He said, in a spirit which I entirely appreciate, that he was not making an attack upon the Prime Minister. If any man in these days could set himself deliberately to make an attack upon the Prime Minister in the situation in which he stands, and in face of the tremendous difficulties under which he has undertaken a task which would overwhelm an ordinary man, I confess that I could not discuss the attitude of mind of that man. This, we are assured, is not an attack upon the Prime Minister. The other person who is most concerned with these transactions is the Chief Secretary, and he is very glad to discuss this matter.

I wish it to be publicly understood that there is no analogy which I can discover between the case of the 500 or so Irish prisoners who are detained in internment camps and the men who are fighting with such brilliant valour with the Irish Division at the front, or the Irishmen who fought with the same historic valour in the Irish Legion of the French Army which, as the hon. Member said, and he naturally said it with pride, rendered great and invaluable service to the Kings of France during a period of something like three generations. I want the House to appreciate, and I want the people of Ireland more particularly to appreciate—there is no need to stir up feeling in this country about a matter of this kind—what is the true position in regard to the men who remain interned in Frongoch, and why it is that grave deliberations have necessarily marked the conduct of those who had to answer the question, "Has the time come when these men can be released?" There were originally 3,000 arrests. These were arrests in the course of a rebellion which, as the hon. Member truly says, was regarded with indignation by nineteen-twentieths of the people of Ireland, but which was, nevertheless, a rebellion for which insidious preparations had been made from north to south and from east to west. It was a rebellion marked by an outbreak in Dublin, by an armed rising in various parts of Ireland, and by the preparation for a rising in various other parts of Ireland. Some 3,000 men were arrested, and there were, unhappily, shootings, and there were imprisonments under sentences of courts-martial. I deplored, and we all deplored, the necessity there was for that. When the people of this country said, "Stay, do not shoot; do not, unless there is no escape from it, maintain trial by court-martial; hold your hand," there were nearly 2,000 men who had been arrested upon what was regarded by those who were responsible for their arrest as evidence of direct participation in the rebellion


made a remark which was not audible in the Reporters' Gallery.


The hon. Member (Mr. Dillon) spoke of the rebel part of the population as representing perhaps one-twentietn. The population of Ireland is more than 4,000,000. I do not want to aggravate these matters. I would have given much—although I would have liked to justlly the Administration—had it not been necessary to run the risk of reviving any old bitterness by discussing now this matter, which is on the eve of decision; when a decision has been promised. Of the 2,000 men or there abouts, nearly 600 were left, after the sifting of the cases by the Advisory Committee, which comprised a distinguished Irish judge, two distinguished English judges, and three Members of this House, one of whom was taunted with rendering service to his country and the United Kingdom when, on behalf of mercy and leniency, he sat upon that Committer. I deplore that he was taunted with it. I think it was a misfortune that such a thing should have taken place. That hon. Member's conduct to my mind—and I speak with humility in discussing the conduct of any hon. Member of this House—seemed to me to reflect honour upon the hon. Member and upon the party with which he acts, because he would not have been there except with their consent. He was taunted with being? here and I much regret that. I am thankful that he was there. I know the judges and the hon. Members of this House who constituted that Committee looked at the matter with every desire to release every man they could safely release. At the time when I took office the Committee had not completed their deliberations, and when they had completed their deliberations, 562 men were left, as to whom the Committee were unable to advise the Government that they could safely be released. I had not been in office one week—at any rate I had not returned as a Member reelected a week, before I had to deal with this matter. I got the best knowledge I could of the facts. I examined a great many of the cases. I discussed them with various people and I consulted my colleagues. I said this: "If there is any man in this party who is ready to give an undertaking, a simple undertaking, against acts of sedition during the War, his case shall be considered. If it is possible he shall be released on his own undertaking. If it is not possible to release him on his own undertaking, then if any decent neighbours of his would go surety for him to the same effect for the period of the War, his case again shall be considered." For a moment it looked as if that course, which I thought was probably the most lenient course ever taken in the world with regard to upwards of 500 men who were held by the Advisory Committee to be involved in actions of treason.


No, no!


They were held by the Advisory Committee to be so implicated in the rebellion that it was not safe that they should be directed to be set at large. I thought it was a lenient course for me to suggest. I do not complain that, after consideration, there was a set determination not to make an undertaking. It really was, I think, an undertaking which a man might have given if he was in earnest in a declaration that he would not repeat or would not engage in any conduct which would hamper the prosecution of the War in which his countrymen were as greatly interested as any of us. It was a simple undertaking against future sedition, and I could not help feeling that when that was by common consent rejected it made the situation much more difficult, because the door in many of these cases was locked from the inside. Nevertheless, I got from the families of these people heartbreaking letters. I do not think I have ever read sadder letters than I got from the families of some of these men. I opened up communications with the men on the strength of the appeals their mothers, sisters, and other relations had made. No! They would do nothing. I am describing a state of things which began immediately I took office. I went to Ireland and I spent the Recess there, at work about this matter. I travelled through the counties which had been disturbed counties, and made inquiries upon the spot. I cross-examined people upon whose judgment this decision had been taken, and I came to conclusions of my own about it. I returned to London, and I think it was on the 18th October that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Waterford demanded among other things the instant release of these men. I probably knew more about them individually than the hon. and learned Member did. I probably knew more than any other man about them—I am speaking of the collective body of them. I cannot conceive that there is any other man who has had the opportunity of examining these cases one by one, and I tell the House that I have examined the whole 560 of them, or, at any rate, the 560 subject to the number by which that is diminished owing to releases which have taken place, because there have been releases, and this has been improving in the course of the last few weeks.

Does anybody suppose that if I was in a position to say in reply to the appeal of the hon. and learned Member, "Unlock those doors; it is an act of public generosity and a pledge of goodwill to Ireland to release these men," that it would not be a thing which would give me almost immeasurable satisfaction to have done? My duty, as I conceived it, in Ireland has been to take care that order and peace in Ireland and the better atmosphere, without which a settlement in Ireland would be an utter impossibility, shall not be disturbed by any means against which I can take precautions. That is the spirit in which I dealt with this matter, coupled with a sincere desire that these men should be released, if possible. I had to say at that time, after travelling these districts and examining a great many cases, "in my judgment the time has not come when they could be indiscriminately turned loose on the countryside of Ireland with any reasonable expectation that their presence there would be consistent with public safety." I never ceased, as my right hon. Friend (Mr. H. Samuel) who now sits opposite me knows, to exercise the most diligent care whenever a case was presented for consideration that it should be considered with the determination that, if it appeared that the fact of this man being at large would not clearly conduce to ill-order then he should be let go. I can appeal to my right hon. Friend. He and I very often discussed this matter. I am not committing my right hon. Friend to a defence of any conduct of mine; I am merely trying to explain to the people of Ireland what the situation has been, and was just over two months ago. I am happy to say that during the past two or three months there has been a steady course of improvement and appeasement in Ireland, which will always be a gratifying recollection, and hon. Members opposite did labour manfully that that should be so. Do not let me, because my conduct is impeached here, fail in justice to the hon. Member for Waterford, and those who act with him.


Give us a chance in our efforts.


In ways known to some extent to the public, and known even more to the House, the hon. Member for Water-ford and those who act with him have run great risks to their popularity in actions which they have taken with the steadfast view of arriving as soon as possible at these results which they have desired for a lifetime, and which many, I believe the great majority, of people in this country desire. There have been that improvement and that appeasement. I am glad to think that this course is not necessarily checked by anything that takes place here to-night. The hon. Member satisfied me as soon as he had risen that this course which he has taken was taken under a misapprehension. He thought that there had been no pledge to make a definite statement about this matter, on which I took the liberty of interrupting. This was the statement which I read. The hon. Member had given me notice of his question, and I had prepared an answer to it: "After consultation with the Prime Minister, the statement which has been promised will be made before the close of the Session, at such time as to leave opportunity for discussion, if discussion should then be thought necesary." There has been a manifest improvement in Ireland. I say it with satisfaction, because Ireland is bedevilled and slandered in part of the Press of this country—often—




I thought we had a, censorship.


When I tried a month ago or so, and succeeded, in preventing the circulation of some of these statements by means of the censorship, I thought I might almost be impeached by the indignant advocates of freedom of the Press. But there has been that improvement. The last consultation I had with my right hon. Friend the late Prime Minister, under whom I shall always be proud to have served, was with regard to this matter. With that freedom of approach that has always existed, and I hope always will exist, between Ministers and those who represent great interests in the country, hon. Members consulted with the Prime Minister, and it was necessary that he should speak with the Chief Secretary. If there had been no change of Government, some definite decision would have been arrived at probably within a few days. Then the change of Government took place, with a new Prime Minister. The present Prime Minister has been engaged in creating a munitions industry, in organising Armies, and in sending them forth. I did not take upon myself to go to the present Prime Minister and to say, "Secretary of State for War, what do you think about these matters?" I should have wasted his time. When he came into office my first consultation was with the Prime Minister on this subject. It was interrupted by an Army Council. While he was at that Army Council he fell ill. As soon as he was well enough I met him again. I met him before work this morning and I left him just before seven o'clock this evening. The responsibility of the release of 560 prisoners—




Who appeared before a lenient committee, and whose release the committee could not recommend, when one knows what Ireland was in April, what it remained during the summer, and what the improvement has been since then, is not a light responsibility. You cannot make a wholesale Order of that kind, which is irrevocable, without making sure of your ground. You cannot do it in that airy way to improve an atmosphere, or to make a pledge of conciliation. The peace of Ireland has to be considered. I left the Prime Minister, as I said, just before seven o'clock. The Prime Minister authorised me to approach this subject with the desire that these men shall be released. He said to me, "You approach this subject with the desire that these men shall be released." When I have told the House the chapter of events during my experience as Chief Secretary for Ireland, I am content, as I shall always be content, with the judgment of the House, but I do assure the House that I desired, and I desire, the release of these men. There is no effort I would spare to make sure whether or not it was safe that they should be released. The position in Ireland has improved. The Prime Minister will bring a new mind to this matter. I shall communicate to the Prime Minister honestly and fearlessly all the knowledge I have upon it, and a decision will be arrived at—I hope it will be arrived at, in fact, I am confident it will be arrived at—before this time to-morrow night. But I cannot help regretting that the risk has been run of magnifying once more the spurious reputation for heroism and martyrdom of a body of men who did one of the worst disservices to Irish Nationalism, and to appeasement between Ireland and Great Britain, that ever has been done in the chequered history of that country.


In the few moments before the House adjourns I should like to say a few words, as all these men are interned under an Order made by myself when Home Secretary, and it will require an Order of the present Home Secretary to release them. At the same time, the matter has never been regarded as a Home Office question. These men are interned for the security of Ireland, and it has been for the Irish Government to speak the last word on the question. My right hon. Friend, who has just spoken, is well aware that for some time past I have myself expressed a very earnest hope that it might be found that the conditions in Ireland would allow of the release of these men. The House would gladly have welcomed a definite pledge from the right hon. Gentleman tonight on the subject, but I think it has gathered from the general tone of his remarks that he will certainly approach this matter in the most sympathetic spirit, and since he has told us that there has been a marked and definite improvement in the condition of Ireland, in appeasement, and in the attitude and demeanour of the population, we are not without hope that it may be found possible to release these men at the present time. There are about sixty or seventy men who were tried by court-martial and sentenced, not to penal servitude, but to twelve months' imprisonment. These men, allowing for remission of sentence, will be due for release next March. I cannot conceive that it will in any case be possible to keep in interment men who have not been tried for a longer period than the worse offenders who were presented for trial and sentenced to imprisonment by the Court. Taking these facts into consideration, I hope my right hon. Friend's examination of the matter will enable him to find that the conditions in Ireland permit, as a broad act of wise policy, the release of these men, and the closing of this chapter in the history of our relations with Ireland.

And, it being one hour after the conclusion of Government Business, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 22nd February.

Adjourned at Ten minutes before Nine o'clock.