HC Deb 26 October 1916 vol 86 cc1481-8

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


Six months have now virtually passed since the rebellion in Ireland, and I have been endeavouring to obtain some humane and proper treatment for the Irish prisoners. I was somewhat inspired to continue my exertions by the speech which was delivered last night by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board (Mr. Hayes Fisher), who said: Everybody in this country ought to be only too willing to give to the full his services for his country in some form or another to rescue his country from the peril in which it is placed, fighting the noblest of all causes, fighting for the poor and the weak, for the weaker nations against the strong, and for the cause of liberty and humanity."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th October, 1916, col. 1263.] The mockery and insincerity of the whole thing as applied to Ireland is very painfully seen in the treatment of the Irish prisoners at Frongoch. There is no humanity, no protection for the Irish. The right hon. Gentleman spoke of our fighting for small nationalities. I agree that it is a splendid thing to do, but I ask hon. and right hon. Members on the Government Benches when do they intend to do a little of what they are preaching in the case of that unfortunate country of Ireland. Since the outbreak of the rebellion in Ireland, the question of the treatment of our Irish prisoners has been brought before you day after day. I will not attempt to describe the inhuman treatment that the Irish prisoners met in the barracks of the City of Dublin. When the matter was brought before the Prime Minister he said it was not his desire or wish that prisoners should be treated in the way it was stated they were being treated. He immediately went over, and the moment after his visit I must certainly say that the improvement in the conditions was wonderful. The least we thought might happen would be that when the Irich prisoners came to this country they would receive the same treatment in regard to food and general conditions as was ensured for them by the Prime Minister when he visited Dublin. There are 570 young Irishmen interned at Frongoch as prisoners of War. They sleep in malt stores. These are close wooden buildingss, very dark and dismal. There is no ventilation—or very little, and I understand that water flows through, sometimes to the extent of an inch or two inches when heavy rains fall. I am informed too that the place is infested with rats, and a letter I have just received—not got through unknown means because it is marked "Opened by the Censor," states that the beds are infested with vermin, which nobody would desire. The conditions at present are that they rise at six in the morning and are locked up at six in the evening. I believe that during the summer months their hours are a little longer. The food is poor and insufficient. In connection with this matter I might refer to the sweeping statement made by the Home Secretary yesterday week, when he said that all my complaints were baseless. The very next day he admitted in this House that 176lbs of meat sent to the Irish prisoners was declared unfit for human consumption. I would ask the Government, as the question of contracts has taken up a little of their time, do they intend to prosecute the contractor who supplied that quantity of meat for our Irish prisoners? I believe that the meat was intended for the guard. The guard refused to accept it, and it was ordered to the kitchen cook, who was in charge of the Irish prisoners. He refused to accept it, and sent to the commandant. The commandant told him that if he made any complaint he would lock him up. He forgot that he had to deal with intelligent men, not prisoners of the common class, for some of these young chaps are the cleanest, brightest, and best of Ireland and know their rights. They insisted upon a doctor coming forward. A doctor came forward and condemned the food. I believe that on that occasion the commandant was most insulting and abusive to the doctor, who sent for his assistant, saying that in case anything further happened he wished to have proof. His assistant came in and condemned the same quantity of meat, with the result that it was thrown out. Previously to that the commandant stated to the cook: I admit it smells bad. Wash it with vinegar and the stench will be removed. I ask is that the way you expect your prisoners to be treated in Germany, that their food should have to be washed in vinegar to remove the bad smell? Not being satisfied with the food they get, their friends send them food—tinned food, and of late it has become the habit of the Commandant to open the tins and the parcels and leave them almost unfit for use. As to the work they were given, I was glad to hear the Home Secretary say only to-day that they would not be asked to do this work any more. They were asked to clean out the soldiers' huts and refuse of a very objectionable nature that no young men with any spirit, especially of the spirit of the fighting Irishmen could do. They refused to do it, with the result that eight a day were put in confinement—what they call "in clink"—and deprived of all the rights and privileges of prisoners of war for one week. They had no visitors and were not allowed to smoke, to get newspapers or receive letters, and every little privilege the Home Office had given them was taken away by a military despot. The Home Secretary, in any special case which I have brought to his notice was most obliging. He tried to relieve, as far as lay in his power, the pressure which is being put upon him. Any time I asked for a pass to see the prisoners he was kind enough to give me one, and he has also been kind enough to get many concessions I asked for granted. This is all caused by the military officer in charge. Ha has a bitter hatred of everything that is Irish. He displayed that hatred on the first day that I had the good fortune to obtain a pass to see the prisoners.

My pass was made out by General Childs to visit all the prisons, and this man kept my pass from me. He said he would send a copy of it to all the various prisons I had to get round. When I went to Stafford prison, that being after Frongoch, I found there was no such thing as a pass sent, and if it had not been for the goodness of the Governor of that prison accepting my word I should not have got in to see the prisoners. To show the hatred that this man has to these Irish boys, one of them once forgot to say "Sir" to him, and he was immediately given twenty-four hours' confinement, on bread and water. If this man thinks that these attempts to break the spirit of these men are going to succeed he has made them more firm and more determined than ever to uphold their principles. The only way to break their spirit is by kindness.

The Home Secretary said my charges were baseless. If so, why does he refuse to allow four Members, one representing each party, to inspect for themselves and see whether my statements are true or not? I guarantee that every word I say will be proved, because it has been allowed out by the censor at Frongoch. If these statements were incorrect he would send the letters back, as he has sent many letters back. I understand that last week the cells, 180 in number, were completely filled up and he resorted to locking ten men up in each hut when he had no more cells for them. If you would place these men under civil authority I believe you would have no further trouble in this House so far as complaints of bad food and ill-treatment are concerned. Is it fair to place them under military guard? After all, these men, to use the phrase of an hon. Member opposite, have "seen red." Having seen red at the hands of the rebels, can those concerned expect any fair treatment or any justice from their gaolers? That also reminds me of the composition of courts-martial in Dublin. Was it ever known before that a section of men on one side fighting a section of men on the other side should be called together to judge the men who had been attacked. I believe if these men who have been sentenced to various terms of imprisonment had had an opportunity of a civil trial, no civil authority on earth, no person with any sense of justice or common fair play would have allowed them to be sentenced to the terms of imprisonment or to meet the death which they did.

My attention has been drawn also to the treatment of some of the men who have been released. One of them is a member of the Dublin Corporation, Alderman James J. Kelly, Justice of the Peace, and an ex-High Sheriff of Dublin. He was arrested and badly treated; his house was wrecked, and his goods were looted. A very eminent firm of accountants in Dublin estimated his loss at£6,000, but the Government to-day have offered him£1,450 as sufficient compensation—all done, probably, with a view of ruining this man. I would ask the Chief Secretary if he will not have the matter inquired into and see why it is, after this eminent firm of accountants have given their valuation, their decision has been questioned so much that the amount is reduced to£1,450. I might also refer, in order to prove my case, to another instance of ill-treatment. I have a letter from a lady, in which she says: My brother was arrested with the Galway prisoners and detained for three months at Richmond, Wandsworth, and Frongoch. He had no charge whatever against him before the Advisory Committee. My poor brother has since died, and on his death-bed he stated that his death was caused by the severe and bad treatment which he met with at Wandsworth and Frongoch. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is the right way to treat those prisoners? They fought for what they believed to be the best interests of their country. Is it not time that he should release them? I believe, if he would go through their cases again, at least half of them would be released during the next week. I think that, pending their release, at any rate we ought to be assured that they will get some fair, humane treatment.


The hon. Member, when he gave notice that he proposed to raise this matter on, the Adjournment, said that he had made a number of charges against the administration of the camp at Frongoch, and that when he had the opportunity in this House he would proceed to prove them all. He laid much emphasis on the word "prove." Hon. Members who have listened to his statement this evening will have been waiting for the proof. There was much assertion but no proof, and the only evidence that he desired to lay before the House in support of his statements was the fact that he had received a letter or several letters from the camp, and that the contents must be true because they had been passed by the censor. If the hon. Member is credulous enough to believe everything he receives in letters and to think that they must have a foundation in fact because the Censor has not stopped them on their way, he must have a very imperfect grasp of the value of evidence. The Censor allows complaints through because there is no desire to interfere with the proper means of communication from persons who are confined in Government camps, and those who desire in matters such as this to speak on their behalf, particularly where these Irish prisoners are concerned. Let me deal with the specific statements which the hon. Member makes. In the first place, he says that these prisoners are confined in a malthouse. In the first place, none of them are now in the distillery that was converted into a barrack. They have all been transferred some little while ago into the North Camp, which consists of huts precisely of the same kind as are provided for our own troops who are in the military camps. Therefore the hon. Member's statement is, from the beginning, incorrect. They were for some time in a distillery which had been converted into a barrack for the use of German interned prisoners, and while so used it was visited by the representative of the American Embassy and declared to be absolutely suitable in every respect. Those who were confined there were far fewer in number than the building was designed to accommodate. The barracks consists of six sleeping rooms, a large dining room, ablution rooms, hospital, lavatory accommodation, cookhouse, and so forth. The hon. Mem- ber says that the rain flows in. I have a report on that, and I am told that it is, quite untrue that there was never any surface water from the ground flowing into the building, and that a slight flooding of a few yards in extent which took place in one of the rooms was caused by the bursting of a pipe. The hon. Member said that the place was infested by rats. It is true that there was trouble from rats, but the use of a rat poison has got rid of the vermin, which are to be found, I believe, in most large buildings, and it cannot be said that the place was made uninhabitable by them.

It being Half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock till Tuesday next, 31st October, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of this day.