HC Deb 10 July 1916 vol 84 cc57-64
The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)

I have during the last fortnight asked many hon. Members to postpone questions in regard to the proposed Irish settlement, and what I am now about to say will, I hope, be taken to be a comprehensive reply to those inquiries. The House will, I am sure, excuse me if it is a reply which exceeds the dimensions of an ordinary answer.

On the 25th May I informed the House that I had come back from Ireland impressed not only with the breakdown of the existing machinery of Irish government, but with the strength and depth, and I think I said even the universality of the feeling that we had now a unique opportunity for a joint effort to attain agreement as to the way in which the government of Ireland is in the future to be carried on. I said that His Majesty's Government were anxious to do everything in their power to facilitate that result, and I added that with that object my right hon Friend, then Minister of Munitions (Mr. Lloyd George), at the unanimous request of his colleagues, had undertaken what I described as a mission of peace and reconciliation and of possible unity. I think I indicated with clearness what was the scope and character of my right hon. Friend's effort. It was not to invite the assent of the various parties and sections of opinion in Ireland to proposals put forward by or on behalf of His Majesty's Government. It was, upon the assumption that the Government of Ireland Act is on the Statute Book, though its operation is, for the time being, suspended, to see whether, under the existing conditions, they might not be disposed, by a process of give-and-take, to come to an agreed settlement. Such an agreement, if and when arrived at, would, of course, have to be submitted to the Cabinet, and, if approved by them, to Parliament.

In pursuance of that purpose my right hon. Friend proceeded at once to make himself an intermediary between the different sections of Irish opinion. I think there is no section representing any substantial body of opinion whose view he did not invite and receive. I may say—and I am glad to say—that at every step in the negotiations my right hon. Friend was in close consultation with me. He very soon discovered that, as between the leaders of the Nationalist party and of the Ulster Unionists there was one basis, and only one, upon which a settlement was possible. It involved, on the one side, the bringing into operation, as soon as possible after Parliamentary sanction had been given to the new arrangement, of the Government of Ireland Act as so modified. It involved, on the other side, the exclusion from the operation of that Act of an area consisting of the six counties, Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry, and Tyrone, and the three Parliamentary boroughs, Belfast, Londonderry, and Newry. The negotiations proceeding upon that basis developed agreement on a number of other important but relatively subsidiary points, and in the end the rough heads of a settlement were drawn up. I think it right to observe at this point that none of the parties to the agreement was in the position of a plenipotentiary with power to bind those for whom he was-acting. It was, with all of them, an arrangement adreferendum—in the case of the right hon. and learned Member for Dublin University (Sir E. Carson), to the Unionists of Ulster; in the case of the hon. and learned Member for Waterford (Mr. J. Redmond), to the Nationalists of Ulster and subsequently of the rest of Ireland; and in the case of my right hon. Friend and colleague, to the Cabinet. That assent was secured by both the Irish leaders. It is only fair to some of my colleagues in the Cabinet to say that, owing to reasons for which I think we all of us here agree, none of us was to blame, there was some misunderstanding as to the point in the negotiations when they should have come under Cabinet review. But, in view of the agreements which had been publicly come to in Ireland, and of the supreme importance of preserving the unity of the Government in this great crisis of our history, we are all willing to share the responsibility of now submitting them to this House and recommending their acceptance by Parliament.

Let me say here at once—and most emphatically—there has been one dominating factor which has induced—or, if you like, compelled—acquiescence at the present juncture of men who have fought against one another upon this domestic battlefield for the lifetime of a generation, and have never yet laid down their arms. There are features in the proposed settlement which hone of us, voluntarily, would have chosen; one or another of which, for different reasons, all of us dislike. That was inevitable in any arrangement which did not involve the complete triumph of one set of ideas over another. It was this fact which hitherto, and notably at the Buckingham Palace Conference on the eve of the War, baffled and frustrated every effort at accommodation. What is it, then, that has made Irishmen of the most divergent views, and members of the Cabinet itself-none of whom, in either section of the Coalition, has surrendered his convictions in this matter-what is it that has made them willing to become parties to, or sponsors of, this new experiment? There is one simple and, I think, sufficient answer—it is the War! If i may for a moment digress—I hope the House will pardon me—from my theme to look at what, at this time, is going on in the region of the Somme, where the gallant Ulster Division has covered itself with undying fame, and Irish regiments from every province are vieing with one another in a splendid rivalry and devotion to the Empire and the cause of the Allies—which we all alike know and feel is the cause of justice and freedom—there is not a patriotic Irishman, I do not care to what section of Irish opinion he belongs, who does not feel that these common sacrifices and glories in themselves create a new bond between themselves and between them and ourselves.

This, then, is the moment to remove, if we can, the future peril of domestic strife, that we may be free in every part of the United Kingdom to concentrate our whole thoughts and energies upon the achievement of victory. It is in that spirit that both Ulstermen and Nationalists have conducted and continued these negotiations, and that we as a Government are going to offer to the House proposals embodying in substance the heads of their agreement. Those proposals, of course, must take the form of a Bill, which will in due course be introduced. Therefore it would be in the highest degree in- convenient if I were at this stage to anticipate its detailed provisions, for which at the proper time there will be abundant; opportunity both for explanation and debate. I will only indicate in the broadest terms that the main changes contemplated in the existing Act, apart from those which are consequential upon the exclusion of the six counties, are that the Irish House of Commons is to consist of persons who, for the time being, are Members returned by the same constituencies in Ireland to serve in this Parliament, and that the Appeal Court in Dublin is to consist of judges appointed by the Imperial Executive. Up till now we have not received any specific proposals from the Unionists of the South and West of Ireland, though they have been invited by my right hon. Friend—and by me—to make them. Any such proposals will, of course, receive our most careful and sympathetic consideration.

Finally, there are two points which, before I conclude, seem to deserve special mention. The first relates to the powers of the Imperial Government in Ireland during the continuance of the present War. The Government of Ireland Act was drawn, and its Clauses were framed and passed, without any reference to the struggle in which we are now engaged. The Act contains a general provision which reserves for the exclusive authority of the Imperial Government and Parliament, not only the Navy and the Army, but all matters arising out of war. I myself believe—I speak my own personal opinion—that that general enactment would suffice to cover the exigencies of the case. I am certain it is not the intention or desire of any of those who can conceivably be members of the Irish Executive during the currency of the War to encroach in any way upon the undivided power and responsibility, in all that appertains directly or indirectly to its successful prosecution and conduct, of the Imperial authority. To avoid, however, any possible doubt, words will be proposed—in my opinion they are a mere exposition of what is already implied, if not expressed, in the Government of Ireland Act—to make this abundantly clear, especially with reference to emergency legislation which Parliament has found it necessary to pass in the Defence of the Realm Acts and other Statutes in temporary operation, which arise out of the state of war, and are needed thereunder for the defence and safety of the Kingdom. The other point to which I think it right to refer before I sit down is that, under these heads of agreement, it is provided that the Bill is to remain in force during the continuance of the War and for a period of twelve months thereafter; but that, if Parliament has not by that time made a further and permanent provision for the government of Ireland, the period for which the measure remains in force is to be extended by an Order in Council for such time as may be necessary to enable Parliament to make this provision. In other words, in a sense and in a very true sense, the Bill is a provisional measure. But I see all sorts of possibilities of misapprehension in the use of the term. To relieve any possible doubt oi that point, let me say, speaking for those who, like myself, look forward to and are anxious for a united Ireland, "we recognise and agree in the fullest and sincerest sense that such union can only be brought about with, and can never be brought about without, the free will and assent of the excluded area.

4.0 P.M.

I believe I have been engaged in this controversy myself, like some of those who sit here, for nearly thirty years, and I have never altered my view. I believe we have now the golden opportunity, brought upon us by circumstances which we could not have foreseen—urged upon us by the exigencies of the War—to arrive at an arrangement already approved by the representatives of the two leading Irish parties, though in many of its features it is distasteful to both of them, and in some of its features, I know, distasteful to my colleagues, and, I will add, to myself—we have here an arrangement such as would never have been possible before. Though, of course, I am not now dealing with the Bill to be introduced, or inviting debate, I venture to make one more appeal to the House and to the country to take advantage of an opportunity which may never recur to provide, at any rate, the seed and germs of a lasting settlement of this question.


I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. He talked of the arrangement as a "provisional arrangement,"I understand. I also understand, from what he said, that the six counties will be definitely struck out of the Act of 1914. Of course, at any time afterwards they could be included by a Bill?


They could not be included without a Bill.


Another thing I should like to ask is, I assume that the Bill to be brought in will contain the provisions with reference to the future government of the six counties, or, at all events, we will have, before the Bill goes through the House, the provision for the government of the six counties laid before the House?


The machinery will be suggested.


I am obliged.


Will the right hon. Gentleman say how soon the provisions of this Bill will be laid before the House?


I cannot give a date, but, of course, there will be no avoidable delay.


This week or next week?


I should not like to give an exact date.


Can the right hon. Gentleman say at all in detail what will be the authority in Ireland which will have the administration of the Defence of the eRalm Act and the other emergency laws to which he refers?


The representative of the Imperial Executive.


Who will that be I do not mean what individual, but what office he will hold?


I should like to consider that.


May I ask whether any provision will be made to resolve differences which may arise between the British authority controlling the Defence of the Realm Act and the Irish Executive as to the enforcement of those Acts; and, further, whether there is any proposal to disarm the rival Volunteers in Ireland?


That is rather a matter of Executive action, and I would appeal to hon. Members not to ask me for details. These matters are still being most carefully considered, and I think it would be very foolish of me to commit myself or the Government to specify proposals at this moment.


Might I ask a general question? Will the Nationalist Members continue to vote in this House after the Parliament in Dublin is set up?


Yes, Sir, under the provisions of the Home Rule Act.


Might I ask the right hon. Gentleman what will be the effect as regards finance upon the United Kingdom—whether the point of finance will be considered?


I deprecate a question of that kind at this time. The hon. Member will have a most ample opportunity of considering that later on.


Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the provisions in the existing Act in relation to the powers over Customs and Post Office are to continue?


There again I must deprecate these questions.


Does the right hon. Gentleman not think it would be better to give Members of the House an opportunity to discuss them before the Cabinet matures its proposals in a Bill, so that we may not have division at a time when he wants unity; and may I also ask him if he will not, after the differences the Colonial Secretary found in his own party, call a meeting of his own party, and see if we are united?


I am always glad to meet my own party. If they wish to see me, I will see them, but I have no reason to think any such need has arisen. I would once more, if the House will allow me, ask hon. Members to postpone these questions. A Bill will be brought in, and there will be every opportunity of discussion.


Will the right hon. Gentleman give an opportunity of discussing Lord Hardinge's Report?


I have answered that question already.


I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that he would, if a sufficient number wished it?


If the Noble Lord looks at my answer, he will find that I did not say that. What I said was, if a specific Motion were put down with regard to the Report, I would consult my colleagues.


I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman, not a question of detail but with regard to something I took down when he was speaking. I understood all members of the Cabinet share the responsibility of recommending this proposal to Parliament. Later on, in pointing out the difference of views of one section of the Cabinet, he said they were all sponsors of this new experiment. Do I rightly understand that the Cabinet as a whole are jointly and severally responsible?


The hon. Gentleman did not do me the compliment of listening to the statement I made, and if he will read it to-morrow he will see what I said.


As my questions were postponed for this occasion, and yet have not been answered, perhaps the Prime Miniser will be good enough to answer me now on a very definite point. He has said that he desires this settlement to be arrived at by the free will and consent of the Irish people. Will he explain how it is that martial law and the Defence of the Realm Act have been used to suppress a meeting in opposition to his present proposal, and to facilitate a meeting in support of that proposal; and will he inform the House whether he has received from any statutory elected body in Ireland a request for such a Bill as this for the partition of Ireland, and whether all the elected bodies that have voted at all on the subject have not voted directly against partition?


Does the right hon. Gentleman propose at once to set up two Houses of Parliament in Dublin, and, if so, how will the second House be nominated?


When the hon. Member sees the Bill he will find that question will be answered.

Colonel YATE

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of "the Irish House of Commons."May I ask if he will give an Irish name to the Irish House of Commons?