HC Deb 17 February 1916 vol 80 cc378-92

I beg to move, at the end of the Question, to add the words:

"And we, the Commons of Ireland, familiar with the conditions of that small nation deprived of effective power over its own affairs and resources, and subjected to continued increase of excessive taxation for external purposes and to the consequent frustration of its own internal purposes, in spite of the findings of Financial Relations Commission, regret the absence from your Majesty's speech of any expression of purpose to redeem your Prime Minister's pledge of full self-government to Ireland within the lifetime of the present Parliament, or to restore the excessive taxes ascertained by British experts to have been unjustly extracted from Ireland since the Union, or to exempt Ireland from oppressive taxation henceforth, or even to put in operation on the appointed day, 17th March next, the Government of Ireland Act."

In two days' debate on the Address hardly a word has been spoken on the subject of my country. The Government, by closing every artery of free public opinion for the last eighteen months, and leading the public blindly from blunder to blunder, have left no opportunity available to me for the expression of independent opinion but here and now. We have heard Irish Nationalists described as sentimental and unpractical. It does not seem particularly wise to ridicule sentiment at a time when you want, above all things, to cultivate that particular sentiment called patriotism. It is occasionally well to point out that our cause involves the most practical questions that can engage the attention of a people. Ireland should be restored to the position that Nature intended for her as a land teeming with an industrious people—peaceful, enlightened, and prosperous—controlling their own affairs, and shaping their own destinies, which is a vast and varied work crying aloud for fulfilment. In justice, the Power that did the harm should apply the remedy. Justice has never had much connection with English rule in Ireland, and to judge from experience it never will have. So long as we stopped short with the remark that England should restore and repair what England had destroyed, nothing resulted, and the ruin continued. On whom, then, does the duty devolve? Manifestly to restore Ireland in every respect, to make it what it what it can be and ought to be, and to enable people to stay and live in it, is the business of the Irish people, and not of any other people under the sun. What we ask is to be released from irksome attendance here, that we may go home to begin that great task. Theoretically, we are inconsistent in taking any part in legislation here for Ireland, or recognising laws made here, but that discrepancy between practice and precept is the necessary outcome of your policy. While recognising no right of this Parliament to make laws for Ireland, or to tax Ireland, and while submitting to these things as done by force and not by law or justice, since you have the power and purpose to do these things, and are engaged in the work, we are bound, whether illogical or not, to be here to mitigate the evil, to extract from the situation any good it can be made to yield, and to do all we can to make the result, if not beneficial, at least less injurious to Ireland than it would otherwise be. It is impossible to touch Ireland without knocking against the consequences of evil legislation and evil policy. These consequences are the existing facts of the situation which cannot be ignored, and no work of reconstruction is possible without frankly grappling with and making provision for them. For example, that accounts for the exceptional land laws which preceding spoliation rendered necessary. The present condition of Ireland, a disgrace to its rulers, is a result of British rule. Every part of Ireland, town and country, is strewn with wreckage and monuments of long-continued neglect and decay, accumulated during the time, and in consequence of the time, of the taxes now admitted to have been grossly excessive.

So persistent are the effects of the law that killed Ireland's industries, and of the continued control of her affairs by outsiders, neither chosen by nor responsible to her, that even now, with all the boasted reforms, her heritage of oppression blights almost every hope, and foredooms to failure every industrial enterprise. She still drags her chains in the continuing effects of past legislation and policy, and the continued denial of her right to rule herself and exercise her faculties and functions in the development of her resources. So far as regards any advantage to herself she stands to-day as much outside the British system, and has as little share in British trade and commerce and wealth to which she is forced to contribute, as countries which contribute nothing, and which the British Parliament has no power to tax or rule. A nation threatened with extinction in its own country is surely entitled, like an individual, to use whatever measures may be necessary for its own self-preservation. Mankind would rightly regard the people with contempt if they did not. They would be unworthy of the name of nation if they did not. A people slavish enough to submit to such treatment would deserve no better.

What crime have the Irish people committed that they should have been disinherited in their own country? None, except the excessive crime of submission. Consequently they are beginning to ask awkward questions which admit of but one answer. If foreign rule is always oppressive and ought to be resisted, the rule that produces these ghastly results can be no exception. These being the best things that can be got from a policy of peace and constitutional effort, it is for the people whose property, and business, and lives are involved to say whether they can recognise in foreign rulers and their abettors anything but the enemies of Ireland and of everything Irish. These agents of England are called foreign oppressors, and not without valid grounds. This definition fits them too accurately, being men of another nation not chosen by or responsible to us, strangling our national ideals by their multifarious influences, and strangling our industries by monstrous taxation. They are a mean type of foreign oppressors. Some change is absolutely necessary, and hardly any change could produce worse results than the present policy. In every part of Ireland there are numerous purposes, national and local, urgently and desperately in need of money. We own money for these purposes, but it is not in our possession. It is due to us by the nation that assumes the position of our protector, which is the wealthiest nation in the world. It is as much our property as the soil of Ireland. Our most urgent duty is to gather it in, and failure to do this would stamp us as incompetent for ruling our country and unworthy of freedom. The acquisition and the maintenance of the essentials of national life is the first duty of a nation. Many things are essential for the successful conducting of a nation so long grossly despoiled and neglected, and one obvious qualification is the power and will to recover a debt from a solvent debtor. No one desires to go back to the beginning of the debt or to go back further than the actual causes which live to-day in the conditions produced by them. Less than this would be misleading and unjust.

This, however, brings us back further than some superficial people care to recognise. Anyone who takes the trouble to study the subject—and no rational opinions can be formed on it without study—will find that Ireland's financial grievance against England—the root cause of her present backward condition, and the ground of her claim for restoration—go back a century and a half behind the Act of Union. That is two and a half centuries from the present time. They go back to the industrial and commercial restrictions imposed upon Ireland from the middle of the seventeenth century till the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and resumed, in effect, at the Union and perpetuated by excessive taxation since then. That was the time when England laid the foundations of her present industrial and commercial supremacy, one of her means of doing so being by enforcing statutes, rules, and ordinances which are on record, deliberately preventing Ireland from laying similar foundations for herself. It would be difficult now to produce the figures of Ireland's claim for restitution in respect of the pre-Union restrictions. I mention the claim only to maintain Ireland's right to justice in its integrity until practical measures are taken to satisfy the claim in respect of the period since the Union for which period figures enough are available. The Report of the Financial Relations Committee of twenty years ago, signed by eleven members and agreed to by two others who died before the Report was finished, making thirteen out of a Commission of fifteen, was as follows:

  1. "(1) That Great Britain and Ireland must, for the purpose of this inquiry, be considered as separate entities.
  2. (2) That the Act of Union imposed upon Ireland a burden which, as events showed, she was unable to bear.
  3. (3) That the increase of taxation laid upon Ireland between 1853 and 1860 were not justified by the then existing circumstances.
  4. (4) That identity of rates of taxation does not necessarily involve equality of burden.
  5. (5) That while the actual taxed revenue of Ireland is about one-eleventh that of Great Britain, the relative taxable capacity of Ireland is very much smaller and is not estimated by any of us to exceed one-twentieth.
The special report, signed by Lord Farrar, Mr. Welby, and Mr. Currie, says:
  1. "(1) We are forced to the conclusion that the system of taxation which now exists in the United Kingdom, while it may be suited to the requirements of a great and rich nation like Great Britain, presses hardly and inequitably upon a relatively poor country like Ireland.
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  3. (2) The same observation applies in our opinion to public expenditure in Ireland which has been conducted on a scale totally unsuited to that country and is such as few nations would be able or willing to bear.
  4. (3) Where there is comparatively but little wealth, as in Ireland, the main burden of taxation must of necessity he borne by the consumer of dutiable commodities.
  5. (4) The amount so levied appears to us to be in excess of what is required by the legitimate needs of Ireland, and heavier than the masses of the Irish people ought to be called upon to bear.
  6. (5) We must dismiss altogether the notion that the injustice under which Ireland suffers can be remedied by general changes of taxation in the United Kingdom.
  7. (6) Nor do we think that the remedy is to be found in any system of additional expenditure out of the public revenues of Ireland.
  8. (7) We believe that the expenditure of public moneys cannot be wisely or economically controlled unless those who have the disposal of the public money are made responsible for raising it as well as expending it.
  9. (8) One sure method of redressing the inequality, which has been shown to exist between Great Britain and Ireland, would be to put upon the Irish people the duty of levying their own taxes and providing for their own expenditure."
These suggestions have reference only to the future, dating from the proposed constitutional change, and do not touch, or profess to touch, the question of restitution. That is a duty left by the Commission to the Irish themselves to insist upon. The final paragraph of this Report, No. 13, reads:— We wish to guard ourselves against the assumption that we have been guided by any desire to forward any such measures of Home Rule as have been proposed to Parliament. We have been led and indeed forced to the above conclusions by financial considerations alone and by the evidence brought before us on this inquiry. Our task has been confined to a statement of what we believe to be the principles on which reforms must be based, and we cannot find any efficient remedy other than that suggested for lightening the burden of taxation which imposes such a heavy weight on the Trish people. The Irish people of every rank and class have every possible warrant for regarding the British system of taxing Ireland as the most effective contrivance ever devised for picking their pockets and for preventing their country from winning that position to which her intelligence, resources, and geopraphical position entitle her, and which her means, if left to herself, would enable her to win and hold. Apart from the higher interests of freedom, it does appear that the prosperity of Ireland is an utter impossibility when she is ruled and taxed by and for aliens and her money squandered on Imperial or corrupting purposes which give rise to nothing but harm. Such a system is tyranny, and its destruction by any available means is our duty and essential to our progress. What business have we to think of competing with any people or anybody until the excessive taxes of the past have been refunded and effective measures taken to prevent excessive taxation in the future? Every witness examined, without exception, gave evidence of the excessive taxation of Ireland. A Treasury witness alone, while agreeing with all the others that Ireland had been and was being overtaxed, suggested that the extravagant expenditure on the Government of Ireland, though incurred for British and not for Irish purposes, might be regarded as a partial compensation for, or offset against, the excessive taxation; in other words, that the excessive number of officials that misgovernment renders necessary, constituting as it does classic evidence of the misgovernment and oppression with which our country is scourged and her social life poisoned, should be regarded as a blessing for which she ought to pay. The Commissioners unanimously rejected that suggestion. Neither moralist nor economist can justify squandering upon extravagant and mischievous officialdom money urgently needed for reproductive works for the benefit of the country.

This extravagant, wasteful, and corrupting expenditure on Irish administration constituted the thing called "Ireland's financial deficit," by showing a balance on the wrong side. The alleged deficit was false and fraudulent. There has never been a real deficit but always a substantial surplus. It is the absence of Irish popular support that makes an alien Government create, cultivate an illicit support by multiplying boards and officials and by preventing useful work. Such expenditure is clearly for the benefit or supposed benefit of the rulers and not of the ruled. To charge it against Ireland is less just than it would be to charge against Scotland the amount spent constructing the naval base at Rosyth. It is a form of corruption, an aggravation of Britain's guilt, and an insolent aggravation of the tyranny of over-taxation. The English themselves would so regard it if addressed to them by another nation that had seized the Government of their country, taxed them unfairly for its own purposes, spent their money badly, and then made the cost of mismanagement an excuse for refusing restitution and continuing increasing the burden. The fact that Ireland had been, and was being overtaxed, was agreed to by all the members of the Commission except one, and he took the earliest opportunity of declaring, in a speech in the House of Commons, on the 30th March, 1897, that Extravagant expenditure did not, and could not, justify unfair and unjust taxation. Thus the Treasury theory was left without a single supporter. The Financial Relations Commission, the majority of whom were British financial experts, having ascertained as a fact that Ireland had been overtaxed since the Union and was still being overtaxed, as contrasted with Great Britain, if we are dealing with honest people now is the time to prove this by refunding the excessive taxes. The bases of our claims for restitution are three—plain justice, the Act of Union, and the deliberate findings of the Royal Commission after investigation. It is largely the loss of the money that leaves Ireland to-day so backward industrially. Restitution of every penny of it is necessary to satisfy justice and necessary for our imperative requirements, if we are to discharge our duty to our country. We were assured in advance by the present Prime Minister and his Irish supporters, who were entitled to credence since they had power to make their declarations good, that the promised Home Rule Bill would give Ireland legislative and executive independence and full self-government within the lifetime of the present Parliament. A Bill true to that description would have satisfied us, because it would be what they enjoy in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. It would mean full and exclusive control of all Ireland's resources, including land and money, the essentials of wealth and power in any country, and including the £325,000,000 to which the excessive taxes are calculated by Lord MacDonnell to have amounted down to the end of 1914. Concurrently with his promise to us the Prime Minister defined what he understood by full self-government and the minimum equipment for the task when he told the Colonial Conference in 1911 that without absolute control of their finances freedom would be a mockery. It would not be self-government at all. That definition of an essential of self-government is an indisputable standard wherewith to test any measure offered to Ireland in fulfilment of the promise.

Unfortunately the Bill, when produced, if judged by that standard, or by the promise, or by abstract justice, or by Liberal principles, or by Colonial experiment—all of which considerations ought to have had some weight—falls so short in every respect as to amount to a caricature. There was the less excuse for this. There is a good reason for believing that a Bill in honest fulfilment of the Prime Minister's pledge and definition would have passed through Parliament with greater ease than the shabby proposal actually produced. It would have had the additional merit, inestimable in a constitutional enactment, of being durable, a quality it loses in proportion as it recedes from that standard. The shortcomings of the Bill were in no way due to Ireland. During the long time the Bill was in the realm of promise Independent Nationalists welcomed it in the earnest hope that as it was to be an agreed measure between the Irish party and what they called the Home Rule Government, it might be creditable to them both and just to Ireland. We respected the call for silence and the suspension of discussion without being convinced of its wisdom. By us, at least, the alleged English sense of justice was given the fullest opportunity for manifesting itself. We hoped that, if not giving full liberty, the Bill would at least contain no bar to further progress. Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada, said recently, in the flattering mood which the independence and prosperity of his own country warrants, "The principle of autonomous government, applied where-ever conditions permit, and to the greatest extent that they permit, has been and is the cardinal feature of British coherency and success." It is the cardinal feature wherever the people have had the ability and the spirit to insist upon it and in no other part of the British Empire. A perfectly fair question to ask is, would Canadian people accept in exchange for Canadian liberty an Act, most of whose provisions are concerned, not with granting or enlarging liberty, but with checks, limitations, restrictions and disablements, and which gives no power over land or over money. In short, would they accept a mockery in exchange for the freedom Canada now enjoys? If not, why should we?

The disreputable character of the Bill invited attack, and it was probably designed for that purpose. Instead of improving it by amendment the Government allowed it to be whittled away by counter Amendments, so that it was reduced to the present unworkable skeleton Act, giving no power over Ireland's land or Ireland's money, past or future, and therefore, in the Prime Minister's words, a mockery. All this time the Irish people instead of being encouraged to discuss the Bill with a view to amendment, were kept busy passing resolutions in praise of it, while practically forbidden to read it. One of the stage devices under which the whittling down was conducted was the confidence trick, industriously whispered, that the reservations and disablements were common to Colonial Constitutions, were mere compliances with the common form and would never be enforced. There is no similarity in kind or degree between the Acts giving self government to the Colonies and this Act withholding self government from Ireland. No self-governing Colony has any doubt about that. Those who whispered about non-enforcement are the same men who used to tell us that the power given by the Land Act of 1903 to deduct from the rates the amount of losses on land purchase was never intended to be enforced. The present Chief Secretary for Ireland rudely spoiled that whisper by enforcing the law deducting the money and asking what else had the law been enacted for. It is absolutely certain that the reservations in the Home Rule Act and the power reserved to the British Parliament to continue making laws for Ireland and imposing taxes upon Ireland over the head of the Parliament in Dublin will be enforced if the Act is ever put into operation, and that we shall be compelled to pay for every capitalist war of aggression and of trade rivalry in which Britain may engage for British purposes. Why else did the Government prevent the passing of Amendments to cancel those reservations?

Another stage device more disgraceful still was the policy in which the two great English parties co-operated of dividing the Irish people so that a defective Home Rule Bill might be forced upon them, which, if united, they would reject. This plan was practised, amid contemptuous protests of mock sympathy with us in our distractions by party leaders, whose funds were actually being used to intensify those distractions. The rival organisations, the reptile Press on both sides, were kept at work full steam fostering the flame of sectarian rancour in Ireland, waving sectarian banners in face of rival factions, urging on the untutored crowd to fly at each others throats, and in general producing a state of things, giving an artificial justification for the gibes of the late Lord Salisbury, who called us Hottentots, the Celtic fringe, and the dregs of a dying race. A great change has come upon one side, and a greater may be in store upon the other. Fringes and Hottentots are despised no longer. If the Irish people, divided into tools and victims for your purposes, should unite for their own that union of Orange and Green for the common welfare of Ireland would embarrass the enemy of both. In your holy zeal you want us to give each other guarantees about religion, failing to see how disgusting your suggestion is to both sides. Our surest guarantee for all Irish purposes is to get rid of English influence and arrange our domestic affairs ourselves. Throughout the humiliating agony of counter Amendments we dealt with the Bill and with the Government in the most reasonable and friendly spirit, leaving criticising to those whose sole object was to destroy the Bill, ourselves abstaining from criticism that was more than justified, supporting the Liberal party in office to carry through some sort of Home Rule Bill and even abstaining from finding fault with Unionist Amendments destructive of the Bill and injurious to Ireland. The promise of full self-government having been broken, and the breach having been acquiesced in by those who had power to act otherwise, our next consideration was whether the Irish people tempered in adversity might safely accept the wasted and shabby little Bill and use the mock Parliament proposed to be set up as an instrument for the purpose of winning the full self-government promised by the Liberals and essential to Ireland.

This policy was not heroic, I admit, but it was a way to test to the utmost the value of Parliamentary action. Though we know that trade, commerce, industries, and the wealth that accompanies them, are not in themselves the loftiest elements of nationhood, any more than food and clothing are of manhood, yet we know, also, that the nation's own wealth, emanating from its own resources, is the life-blood of her material progress, and that a measure of self-government which does not restore to Ireland all that is her own, with full and exclusive control of her resources and affairs in future, would break down as weakly as a human being without food or clothing. Whatever power controls a nation's financial resources controls also her progress. That power is the essential right of the nation itself. To enjoy it is freedom; to lack it, or to submit to the exercise of it by outsiders is slavery. These outsiders will tax and rule for their own purposes, irrespective of and in antagonism to the purposes of the nation. A nation not having power to impose, collect and administer her own taxes, and to deal as she pleases with her own soil, is in bondage. The Home Rule Act expressly withholds from Ireland control of her land and of her money, and yet contains nothing to make up for these restrictions. It does even worse than that. By definitely accepting it, Ireland would tacitly abandon all her claim of restitution of excessive taxes in the past and renounce all power to prevent excessive taxation in the future. Surely the general dislike to the Act in Ireland shows a truer instinct than the hasty and unauthorised acceptance of it by those representing her. Self-government, indeed! What could the mock Parliament govern? Could it be expected to govern its patience if it is found sitting impotent in Dublin, while the British Parliament continued to control Ireland's land and Ireland's money and make the laws of Ireland and to squeeze everything that is of value out of Ireland as a cook squeezes a lemon? Can it be correctly called even a fragment of liberty? What could a Parliament without power over land or over money do for the farmer, the business man, the mechanic or the labourer? The Parliament of an agricultural country having no power to deal with the land would indeed be a mockery. The Parliament of a country in which industries are dead having no power over the country's financial resources, the life-blood of industries, would indeed be a mockery. A yearly allowance out of our own money from the British Treasury, which is provided by the Act, is earmarked in advance for purposes approved by that Treasury but not by Ireland, and would not be paid to us if otherwise applied and could therefore be of no use to Ireland. That this mockery should have been put by the Prime Minister on the Statute Book and suspended is disgraceful to the giver, degrading with slavery to the receivers, and a base betrayal of Ireland.

It was no loftier motive than resistance to taxes imposed by the British Parliament that bred the spirit of liberty in the North American Colonies, sustained their arms in the field through a desperate struggle and enabled them to shake off the foreign yoke, your yoke, and establish what is now the proud and free Republic of the United States. As every day of our connection with Britain witnesses greater injustice in operation than the North American Colonies endured in the whole period of their connection, our case must be so much worse and more urgent, and our goal must continue to be the same sovereign remedy that they achieved. No Irishman worthy of the name can pretend surprise at that doctrine, and if any Englishman dislikes it, let him just ask himself what right he has in the matter other than the right of a plunderer convicted by his own experts. On the historical facts you cannot deny that England long ago forfeited any right she could ever be supposed to have acquired in Ireland, and if the Englishman has a right to freedom in his own land we have a double right to it in ours. One of the boomers of this tight-fit Act says it is better than the measure of freedom won by Grattan. That is begging the question, because what is called Grattan's Parliament was won not by Grattan, but by the swords of the Irish Volunteers, wielded, I am glad to acknowledge, by Protestant Nationalists. That Parliament was gravely defective in many respects, especially excluding from membership of it all who professed the religion of the majority of the people, but it was Irish so far as it went. It had exclusive control of Ireland's land and of Ireland's money, which enabled it in the brief period of its existence to do more for Irish industries and trade than was done for any other European country at that time. English rule has been ever since undoing that and wiping out the Irish provincial towns in which industries then flourished. The "tight fit" Act reserves power to England and leaves Ireland powerless, because that arrangement seems better for England. The Irishman who says it is better for Ireland is a traitor. The settlement of Ireland is admittedly a great object of British statesmanship. The Home Rule Act, ostensibly intended to accomplish that result, has been carefully conceived and successfully drafted, not to meet Ireland's requirements, but to adapt Ireland to a future. British federation, wholly regardless whether that would be best for Ireland or not. I submit that this initial perversion of the problem is a fundamental defect in the Act.

12 M.

The problem for solution is not what is best for Great Britain in its present or any other state, but what is best for Ireland. The policy of fitting Ireland in advance for a place in a British federal system which may never come into existence, or may come in some form wholly different from any now contemplated, is legislating on a doubtful hypothesis; imposing restrictions which may have no relevancy to the requirements of the future, and is therefore a new and aggravated instance of the old vicious system of legislating for Ireland in disregard of her needs and in accordance with imaginary British needs of the future. Your experience in Ireland condemns that; your experience on a wider scale proves that a true settlement of Ireland on the lines of full self-government, as in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and as promised to Ireland, would not delay but would accelerate her fitness and possibly her will to enter freely into a British federal system when it could be seen what the system was and how a share in it would affect Ireland. The Act is Imperialist and Unionist in the highest sense of those terms. Hence it was secretly agreed to by the two great English parties in advance, and the criticism of the Opposition


On a point of Order. Is it not, Mr. Speaker, a breach of the Rules of the House for an hon. Member to read his speech?


Yes, it is a breach of the Rules of the House for an hon. Member to read his speech. I would also call the attention of the hon. Member to Standing Order 19, dealing with tedious repetition, and I ask him to address himself, if he proposes to move his Amendment, directly to that Amendment. I would suggest to him that he should put away the manuscript from which he is reading.


The speech which I have been trying to deliver is, so far as my ability enables me to judge, strictly relevant, with all respect to you, Mr. Speaker, to the Amendment which I handed in; and I say that most conscientiously.


The hon. Member, of course, has had his attention called to the fact that he is not entitled to read his speech, and I must ask him, therefore, to put away the manuscript he is using and to continue his speech orally.


You ask me to do what is clearly to the knowledge of every Member in the House, and to your knowledge, impossible. If I want a precedent to justify me in reading my speech, which it is quite correct to say that I have been doing, I have it in the highest person in this realm in the person of the King, who not alone reads his own speech.


The hon. Member is violating another rule by introducing the name of the King into the Debate. That is not open to him, and I must ask him to resume his seat.

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