§ The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Asquith)
It has been indicated more than once during this week that to-day, on the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund (No. 3) Bill, which stands first in the Orders of the Day, I hoped to say something on behalf of the Government in regard to recent events and the present situation in Ireland. The appropriations made by the Consolidated Fund Bill, which gives effect to the Vote of Credit passed during this week by the House, are confined entirely to the military, naval and ancillary war services, and I find, after consulting and taking the judgment of Mr. Speaker, that the Rules of Order will prevent anything in the nature of a general Debate and review of what has taken place during the last month in Ireland. The purview of the Bill—the Consolidated Fund Bill—does not concern and, so we are advised, cannot be stretched to include any criticism or defence of the Civil Executive, which comprises the action of the police, and for this reason alone no discussion of the general situation on the Second Reading of that Bill would be possible on the present occasion. I must, therefore, appeal to the indulgence of the House to allow me, before the Orders of the Day are reached, to say a few words.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
There will be no opportunity of debate on that part of the statement which relates to the civil Government of Ireland. There will be such opportunity in regard to the military.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
I am not altogether sorry that is the case. It is not the desire of the Government to burke any general discussion. On the contrary, they are most anxious that it should take place.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
But I am certain that such a discussion, even under untrammelled conditions, would not be effectual or fruitful until the inquiries which are now going on—and which I can assure hon. Members are as searching and impartial as it is possible to be—have been concluded In the meantime our primary duty as the Government in Ireland is to restore order and to prevent the possibility of a recurrence of disorder. We rejoice, as the whole of the country rejoices, in the overwhelming evidence that the great bulk of Irish opinion, of all creeds and parties, have no sympathy of any sort or kind with the recent ill-advised undertaking.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
As I have said, order and peace must be restored, and that task is for the moment the main preoccupation of the Irish Executive. Martial law is continued as a precautionary measure. We hope that its disappearance will be speedy and complete.
§ The PRIME MINISTER
The composition of the Irish Executive itself must, for the time being, be of a provisional character. I have another reason for appealing for the indulgence of the House to allow me to intervene now. I fear that general Debate at this moment might tend to create an atmosphere unfavourable to appeals which my colleagues and I unitedly feel it our duty to make without any delay. I thought it my duty more than a week ago to go myself to Ireland to get what I may call a first-hand view of the whole situation. I saw with my own eyes the heartrending desolation which unhappy and misguided men wrought over a large area of the City of Dublin. I visited, and talked with the utmost freedom to, a large number of those who have been arrested and detained. I put myself in direct communication with all such representative exponents as I could meet of the various shades and schools of Irish opinion. I kept, I hope, not only my eyes and ears but my mind open, without any cloud of prepossession or prejudice, with the single desire to get at the truth. There were two main dominant impressions which were left on my mind. The first was the breakdown of the existing machinery of Irish Government; and the next was the strength and depth, and I 2310 might almost say I think without exaggeration the universality, of the feeling in Ireland that we have now a unique opportunity for a new departure for the settlement of outstanding problems, and for a joint and combined effort to obtain agreement as to the way in which the government of Ireland is for the future to be carried on.
As I said, and I repeat, the moment is felt in Ireland to be peculiarly opportune, and one great reason that has led to that opinion both there and here is our experience in the War. Irishmen of all creeds and classes, north, south, east, and west, have responded with alacrity and with self-devotion to the demands of the cause which appeals to them. They have shed, they are shedding to-day, their blood; giving the best of all they had, sacrificing what they prized most, without stint and without reserve, in the trenches and on the battlefields, which will be for ever consecrated to the memory of Ireland, as of Great Britain and of the Empire at large. Sir, can we who represent Great Britain, can they who represent Ireland, tolerate the prospect that when this War is over, when we have by our joint efforts and sacrifices, as we hope and believe we shall, achieved our end, here at home Irishmen should be arrayed against one another in the most tragic and the most debasing of all conflicts—internecine domestic strife? I say to the House of Commons and to the country and to the Empire that the thought is inconceivable. That can never be. It would be a confession of bankruptcy, not only of statesmanship, but of patriotism.
I venture now to make an appeal to the House. The Government of Ireland Act is on the Statute Book. No one, so far as I know—I have said so repeatedly myself in the past—no one has ever desired or contemplated its coercive application by one set of Irishmen to another. What is now in this great domestic and Imperial emergency of paramount importance is that if it be possible—and I hope it is possible—that an agreement such as we sought, and sought in vain, before the War should be arrived at between those representing different interests and parties in Ireland. I believe, as I have already said, that in Ireland itself there is a deep and genuine desire to obtain such an agreement. The Government—I speak for all my colleagues—some of us in the past have taken the most diverse possible views in regard to questions of 2311 Irish government — the Government are anxious and more than anxious to do everything in their power to facilitate such a happy result. At the unanimous request of his colleagues my right hon. Friend who sits beside me, the Minister of Munitions (Mr. Lloyd George), has undertaken to devote his time and his energies and his power to the promotion of that result. He has already put himself in communication with the authorised representatives and exponents of the views of the different Irish parties. And if there be, as I believe there is—I do not underrate the difficulties in the least degree—if there be, as I believe there is, among Irishmen, no less than among the people of Great Britain, an honest and resolute desire to take advantage of this opportunity for the obtainment of that which, to us as a nation and an Empire I do not hesitate to say is the greatest boon that could possibly be achieved, I cannot but hope that my right hon. Friend in his mission of peace and reconciliation and of possible unity will not only carry with it the good wishes, the ardent hopes, of all Members in every quarter of this House, but something more—I believe that such a result can and ought to be attained. I venture to make this appeal to all sections of the House to abstain, even under the limited and fettered conditions which the Consolidated Fund Bill will afford us, from any immediate discussion of the Irish situation, and from the use of any language, in any quarter, calculated to increase the difficulties—serious, but, in our hope and in our belief, not insurmountable—in the way of a great and lasting settlement.
§ Mr. JOHN REDMOND
May I, with the indulgence of the House, say two or three brief words. The Prime Minister has made a very serious and a very solemn appeal to this House. The net effect of his appeal is that, even on the Consolidated Fund Bill, upon which it would be possible to discuss military affairs in Ireland, Members should remain silent for the moment. That is applying, to my colleagues and myself, a very severe test. There are things going on in Ireland that we think, under ordinary circumstances, ought to be discussed at the earliest possible moment. But I regard the appeal of the Prime Minister as 2312 a test of the genuineness of our desire for a settlement now of this great problem, and for my part I could not for a moment take the responsibility of not responding to that appeal. Further than that I say nothing, except that if this new effort on the part of the Government, placed as it now is in such able and energetic hands, fails, as I hope and pray it may not fail, the fault will not lie on unreasonable conduct or action of my colleagues or myself.
§ Mr. O'BRIEN
Perhaps I may be allowed to say one or two words on the subject. We are prepared to avoid any one word that would discourage any effort to save the situation, no matter from what quarter it came. We are not going now to debate the question within the limits within which I hold it is right to have it discussed. I say at once that I will bow, that I must bow, to the appeal for silence which the Prime Minister has made. But I feel bound to say that what has happened here to-night will be received with profound disappointment in Ireland, as a proof of the continuance of the policy of organised suppression of free speech which is responsible for three-fourths of the guilt of the recent rebellion in Ireland.
§ Sir EDWARD CARSON
I only desire to say one word, and it is that I willingly adopt the suggestion of the Prime Minister that we should not enter into any discussion which might lead to anything of a provocative nature. Indeed, if you enter into these discussions at all, it is very hard to draw the line, the border line, as to where a provocative speech commences and ends. May I say this, if the House will allow me, that I think the Press do a very ill-service to the cause that the Prime Minister has in view in trying to raise provocative questions in relation to Ireland at the present moment. Since this terrible calamity came upon Ireland I have found great difficulty myself in restraining my own feelings as regards attacks that are daily made, and challenges that are daily made, in the Press, and, whenever I have felt inclined to answer them, I have always said to myself, "Remember that there is a War going on, in which your country is involved."
§ Mr. GINNELL
rose— [HON. MEMBERS: "Order, order!"] May I ask, Mr. 2313 Speaker, whether you expect the House and the public to consider your action impartial?