HC Deb 21 October 1918 vol 110 cc555-66

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move. "That the Bill be now read a second time."

This is a very short Bill, introduced in pursuance of a pledge given by myself in August last, before the Adjournment of the House. The House may recollect that very serious allegations had been made by certain prisoners in Belfast Prison with regard to the treatment of a large number of prisoners in June and July last. One prisoner incorporated in an affidavit statements as to what was alleged against the prison authorities. These statements were of a very grave and serious nature. On inquiry I found that there was a complete difference of testimony with regard to the truth of those statements, and, as they were so serious, I felt—and it was pressed upon me by Members on the benches opposite—that it was absolutely necessary that there should be a complete investigation which would ensure, as far as it was possible, that the truth would be ascertained, and when the truth had been elicited, if anyone had been in fault or if anyone had been guilty of the grave misconduct alleged, that due and proper punishment should follow; and, equally, if there had been any perjury committed of such a grave and serious kind, punishment should likewise follow. The question of the tribunal was one of some little difficulty. Undoubtedly it would have been well, if possible, that the tribunal should have been set up before now, but unfortunately you cannot get a tribunal which has complete power to administer the oath, to enforce the attendance of witnesses, to enforce the production of documents, and indeed to do all the things that are necessary for realising the truth, without an Act of Parliament and, as the question was raised almost at the time of the Adjournment of the House, it was impossible to get an Act of Parliament passed through this House before the Adjournment.

The Bill provides that a judge of the High Court, of Justice in Ireland shall be appointed a Commissioner. It provides that the Court shall be in all respects as a Court of Law, except in so far as it relates to judgment and execution of costs. The meaning of that is that the learned judge who will preside over the tribunal will be a Commissioner, and will have full control over the proceedings. He will be able to ensure that the complaints and the accusations are properly formulated, that any defence set up is properly formulated, and that the whole issue is thoroughly tried before himself. He can enforce the attendance of any witness, he can administer the oath, and he can call for the production of any document. He can do all those things that are necessary for absolute fairness and absolute thoroughness of investigation. If any witness is asked a question the answer to which might incriminate him, the Bill provides that it shall not excuse him from answering, but it equally provides that the answer shall not be used against him in any other Court. Those are shortly the provisions of the Bill. It is brought in in pursuance of a pledge I gave that a tribunal should be set up which would ensure an absolutely impartial tribunal, as far as it is possible to be impartial, and one which will be thorough in its investigation. I think I have been fortunate enough to obtain the consent of a learned judge of the High Court in Ireland who, I feel satisfied, will have the confidence of everyone concerned in the investigation, and therefore I ask the House to read the Bill a second time, so that the tribunal may be set up as speedily as possible, and that the grave charges which have been made shall be investigated with complete thoroughness.


This Bill is as great a sham as the promise to call in the Ulster arms. The right hon. Gentleman promised to call in the Ulster arms, and he says he has done it. He has brought in a Bill on the pretence of affording an investigation of allegations made by prisoners in Belfast, and I intend to test his sincerity by the simple expedient of providing that the evidence shall be published. The right hon. Gentleman will refuse that, and I will tell the House why. He is the first Chief Secretary who has personally interfered with the Censor in Ireland, and by his direction the Censor has closured his own letters and letters addressed to him. What is his proposed course of action? The gravamen of this matter in Belfast was an insult to the Catholic religion—namely, the compelling of ninety-one men to go handcuffed to confession, so that they were unable to make the sign of the Cross, and the compelling of them the next day and the day after to go to Holy Communion with their hands handcuffed. The right hon. Gentleman on 5th August said: I am told that the suggestions made about the sending of men to Mass still manacled, and without being allowed to relieve the ordinary wants of nature, are absolutely untrue. In another part of his speech he said: Whichever side is right and whichever side is wrong, the natural consequences of what is grave perjury on one side or the other must follow "—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th August, 1918, col. 1024, Vol. 109.] This business in Belfast and the course of the right hon. Gentleman prove that the Orange Ascendancy gang are in complete control of him and of the whole Executive Government of Ireland. In the first place, the Bill provides that the complaints which are to be inquired into are as to the treatment of prisoners in Belfast prison in the months of June and July, but before we come to that surely the first necessity of the case is to see how did the prisoners get to Belfast prison and why, from hundreds of miles distant, did you shepherd these men into a place away from all power of getting visits from their friends and where the Orange justices were in control of the prison. You cruelly punished them because you have had to remit the brutal and blackguard sentences inflicted upon these men for breach of discipline by your visiting justices. The first thing to do was to inquire why was Belfast selected as the venue for the torture of these men? The complaint arose because you selected not merely a Belfast prison but a prison from which you had practically shifted the Catholic warders and where the Governor was an English soldier. Therefore it was not enough to say that you would inquire into the case of the torture of the prisoners in June and July last. We must first get to know why you selected the partitioned area, which you say is separate from the rest of Ireland as the place where men professing extreme Nationalist opinions should be incarcerated. That is the first question, and that is entirely impossible under this Bill.

Next I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman, when he has beforehand made the accusation of perjury—for perjury and the threat of punishment is plainly suggested—what chance will the public have of passing judgment on the truth or falsehood of these allegations unless the evidence is published? Observe where the trial for perjury is to take place. The inquiry, I presume, will be in Belfast, the jury will be purely Orange, there will not be a single Catholic upon it. Even if you held it elsewhere, under your Crimes Act, in a recent case in Cork you challenged eighty-eight Catholics off the panel. In other words, you had a larger number of challenges than the whole of an English or Scottish panel would consist of, and every one of them Catholics. This is a Catholic question. It is a question of an outrage upon our religion. To-day we read that you have sent an Embassy to congratulate Cardinal Gibbon on behalf of the British Government on his golden jubilee. What are we to think of this Protestant Government of England, first having sent an envoy to the Pope, and, not content with that, having dispatched to Baltimore or Washington a bishop to offer on behalf of the King's Majesty congratulations to a Republican Catholic cardinal? I wonder what is to be thought of the sincerity of a Government which congratulates a cardinal in Washington and handcuffs Catholics going to confession and communion in Belfast Gaol? That is one of the main questions which is to be tried. I intend in Committee to propose a very simple Amendment which will be a test of the sincerity of the right hon. Gentleman. It will provide that it shall not be lawful to employ any of the powers conferred by the Defence of the Realm Act to prohibit the publication of any statements made in evidence before the Court, and that it shall not be competent for the military authorities there to apply that Act. The right hon. Gentleman himself is the king of the censorship, and this precaution is essential for this reason, that in three capital cases recently the Government have interfered with the publication of matters arising in a Court of justice. Even in an ordinary seduction case a lieutenant, whom they afterwards had to dismiss the Service by court-martial, was able, when his case was before the High Court of Justice, to set the censorship in motion in order to prevent the facts alleged against him becoming public. In Kingstown at an inquest last week, where the deaths of 500 unfortunate people were being inquired into, the competent naval authority interfered to prevent the exposure of his own incompetence, and that is called "helping to win the War." In a case in Kerry where a constable had been fired at, a certain promise was made to a solicitor to help him professionally if he would betray his client, and when, in open Court, an attempt was made to expose that rascality—

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Sir D. Maclean)

I am not able to connect the hon. and learned Member's remarks with the Bill itself.


I will try to make the connection. I am pointing out what has been the conduct of the Government in regard to public inquiries in censoring evidence given in public Courts, and I am asking if in this case the evidence is going to be allowed to be published—the evidence of the men with the threat of arraignment for perjury hanging over their heads. Will the public have an opportunity of knowing the statements they made? Let me ask this: In India would you appoint a Brahmin to try a question affecting the Mahomedan population where religion is concerned? May I ask the right hon. Gentleman why, when he stated in the public Press that he was going to appoint The McDermot, a Catholic, to investigate this matter and to hold a public inquiry—why he recedes from that position and proposes to appoint a Presbyterian judge in his place? I said a moment ago, on the last Bill under consideration, that even a Midwives Commission must have a majority of Protestants upon the Midwives Board. In this case you have promised that the question shall be investigated by a Catholic, and having made that promise, and having promised also that the inquiry shall be public, you now bring in a Bill appointing a Presbyterian judge to try a question affecting Catholic rites and Catholic practices. I say that you yourselves, on a matter of this kind, saw proper to say that a Catholic should investigate it, and that a Catholic judge should be appointed to try the matter. We hold you to your promise. Who could judge better in this matter on the outrages which have been committed against propriety than one of your own judges of that religion? After all, three-fourths of the people of the country believe in the tenets of the Catholic faith. It is there outrages upon it which are responsible for much of the unrest and discontent which manifests itself so deplorably in instances of which we read day by day. There is no confidence in the administration of justice. There is no confidence in any promise made by Dublin Castle. There is no confidence in the keeping of any pledge made from that bench.

Here you have political prisoners in Ireland taken into an Orange area and subjected to the special discipline which Orangemen inflict in July, and then when the matter is challenged in this House, a promise is given of a public inquiry by a Catholic Commissioner. But the matter is delayed two or three months, and then we get a Presbyterian judge appointed to try this question as to whether Catholics shall be handcuffed when going to Confession or in approaching the Holy Table. Surely the Government which dispatches an Embassy to Cardinal Gibbon can afford in a matter of this kind to appoint a Catholic judge! Therefore I say, in my opinion, this Bill is an absolute sham. It is not intended to allow a public inquiry. If the Press are admitted the intention of the right hon. Gentleman is to strike out anything which is displeasing to his sensitive character, which I repeat makes this Bill an absolute sham. Everybody in Ireland knows that what Mr. Kenny stated was—I do not say in all respects accurate—I never said or even thought so—but what he stated was in this respect substantially true. You have never allowed his affidavit to be printed in any newspaper. You have never allowed any account of what went on in Belfast to appear in any newspaper. But your denial of what went on is forced down the throats of every newspaper so far as the censorship can secure that. You affect a liberality which is not genuine. You say you are going to give a public inquiry into this matter. I want to know whether that public inquiry will be allowed to proceed normally, and whether the Press will be allowed to give both sides of the case. We know what will happen. There is no newspaper in the country which has not, before it goes to press, every line scissored and censored by officials even on matters which have nothing whatever to do with the War. The course you will take will be this—it is one you have already pursued in the past. Your phalanx of prison officials, the gentlemen who have been guilty of these outrages will make their statement, and those statements will be printed in big type. We know how the public get an impression from the Press. It is as simple as lying. But the statements of those who make these charges will not be allowed to appear. Every statement in contradiction of the official statement will be struck out. Is that all? The delay of the right hon. Gentleman in this matter was deliberate. He has apologised for the delay. How has he availed of it? He availed of it in the case of a number of prisoners who have been released to deport them to England. Every man deported is a man of education and weight. Accordingly, at the prison gate, when they had served their time, the right hon. Gentleman met them with the order of deportation. It is curious to see where the powers conferred on Mr. Justice Dodd include powers to bring these prisoners back to give evidence. Thus far they do not, or at any rate, the right hon. Gentleman has not made it plain that they do.


It certainly shall if it does not.


I am satisfied with that assurance. I think if I had not called attention to it the matter would have been left in a somewhat parlous position. When the Government has had three months to draft a Bill, the least one could expect is that the words would be carefully and aptly chosen. Let us see how the Bill is worded. He is to have power if he thinks fit to enforce the attendance of any prisoner who in the opinion of the Commissioners should be examined as a witness. It is news to me that a Court of Record or even a Court of Justice in Dublin has any authority to bring over prisoners from an English goal. It is news to me. If the right hon. Gentleman tells me that it can be done, I will accept his statement as a lawyer. All I can say is that I have always understood that from the Courts in this country the Writ was supposed to run to Jersey, but recent facts have been quite the other way. I certainly know of no case in which an Irish judge could by a mere stroke of the pen bring a prisoner from an English gaol. By mere summons it could not be done. It is plain it would have to be by habeas corpus.What judge in Ireland would issue habeas corpus to discharge a prisoner from an English gaol. He would not do it. He would say that "You must apply to the High Court in England and get it done in that way." The right hon. Gentleman says he will confer this power upon Mr. Justice Dodd, and as he is about to do that I am satisfied on this point.

I wish to ask further—where do you propose that this Commission shall sit? By the lapse of their sentences you have discharged a number of persons who have not been deported to England. They have been scattered up and down far and wide all over the country. Are they to be brought at their own expense? One of the beauties of the Act is that you exclude any power to give costs.


That does not mean the cost of witnesses. The cost of witnesses can be given by the judge.


Where is it in the Bill?


It is not necessary in the Bill.


I say it is necessary in the Bill, with great deference and respect to the right hon. Gentleman. Why is it omitted from the Bill? I am entitled to say of this Bill that it only means what it says. This is a special power conferred upon an individual, and it does not confer power to give witnesses expenses. If it does give witnesses expenses, am I to be told that the Treasury would not ask the judge, "Where is your power? Where is the money to come from?" The thing is absurd, and I say that with great deference to the right hon. Gentleman and his advisers. Where is this inquiry to be holden? Is it to be held in Belfast? No doubt that would greatly convenience the local prison warders. It would also greatly convenience the local prison warders to hold it as close to Shankhill Road as possible. All the prisoners are Papists. You have brought them to Belfast, but that does not make Belfast the proper place for the investigation. If witnesses' expenses are to be provided, as you declare they are, for the men who are to be brought up from Cork, Kerry, Wexford or Carlow, let the Government provide the expenses of their witnesses coming from Belfast to some other area for the purposes of holding the inquiry. The Government with great astuteness leave all this matter at large. They fling their Bill upon the Table. While they provide that the Court is to be a Court of Record, they do not provide more than that. Therefore I describe this Bill as in intention a sham.

Furthermore, I say that the Government, in my opinion, as regards the main purpose which has excited the Catholic people of Ireland are well aware that the statements which they have denied are true in substance and in fact. It is the case that ninety-one prisoners were handcuffed from the Thursday to the Sunday afternoon after Mass. It is the case that many were handcuffed with their hands behind their backs. It is the case that they were put down into the basement cells into a place deprived of all furniture and bedding, and compelled with their hands so manacled either to stand or lie with their hands behind their backs for the night. It is the case that when these men were going to Mass to receive our Blessed Lord, the only release you gave many of them, was to unmanacle them from behind and to manacle them in front. All this is true. I do not say that the right hon. Gentleman knew that it was true when he denied it, but at all events Major Henry Owen Lewis had made his report at the time of the right hon. Gentleman's speech. I presume that report can be called for. I presume that the power will be inserted in Committee providing that no privilege shall be claimed for any documents. The Prisons Board recently claimed to have certain privileges. The right hon. Gentleman promised, or I understood him to promise, that the prison books should be preserved from being tampered with. Is privilege to be claimed for these documents? Is privilege to be claimed for what went on before the visiting justices? Is privilege to be claimed for the facts as to the remission of sentences by the Lord Lieutenant, and whether that was done on petition by the prisoners—which we know it was not—or on the exercise of the Viceregal prerogative? Is privilege to be claimed for the documents in possession of the Prisons Board? Is privilege to be claimed for the report of Major Henry Owen Lewis? These are all matters which to my mind are essential in any discussion in Committee. When ponderous threats of prosecution for perjury are made it is, at least, equally essential upon the other side that the interests of those concerned—and I have some claim in this case, at all events, to speak for one of them—shall be equally safeguarded. Finally, let me tell the right hon. Gentleman, when he threatens these men with prosecutions for perjury, in order to muzzle them and to close their mouths, that his threat will have just as much effect upon these prisoners as the sentences of imprisonment and deportation have had in the past.


I rather expected that we might have had a reply from the Attorney-General to the statement which has been made to my hon. and learned Friend; but discretion is the better part of valour, and silence is much better than a feeble rejoinder. I believe that I was the first in this. House to call attention to what was one of the most disgraceful episodes in connection with the government of Ireland, and therefore I am glad to remind the Chief Secretary that when I first called attention to the matter at the end of June last he pooh-poohed the whole business. It was not true; there was nothing in it; stories of this kind were easily concocted by conspiracies of prisoners and an ignorant and suspicious people who were ready to accept any allegation made against the Government. At that time, when the facts first came up of this horrible treatment of prisoners, which I believe are now admitted by everybody, even by the Chief Secretary—




Well, they will be admitted very soon. He does not deny that. He did not choose to give one word of denial or even to suggest a denial, but anyhow at the end of June last there were distributed through the streets of Dublin leaflets, one of which I hold in my hand, headed: "Stop Press. Inhumanity in Belfast Gaol. Since Thursday night the Sinn Fein prisoners in Belfast Gaol have been handcuffed with their hands behind their backs, even at meal time," etc. That is the way Ulster people would treat their political opponents. I hope that they will never be treated that way when their opponents get the upper hand. "Because the prisoners protested against the breaking of the conditions as arranged by the Lord Mayor of Dublin. This is the freedom for small nations! But our day is coming!" A young boy was arrested for distributing these leaflets. He was kept a whole week in solitary confinement. He was brought up in Dublin before Mr. Swifte, the magistrate, and charged with an offence under the Defence of the Realm Regulations. Mr. Swifte saw that there was nothing in this leaflet which had anything to do with the Defence of the Realm Regulations, and the young lad was let free after undergoing a week's solitary confinement. That is the sort of vindictive illegal way in which the Government has treated this business from beginning to end. I am very glad that it is turning over a new leaf now and is actually appointing a Special Commission to inquire into the matter, but I hope that it will make this Commission a reality. But why is the Government doing this now? Is it because of a love of justice and free inquiry? Nothing of the sort.

The whole reason is that after denying there was any truth in these allegations, after futile and illegal prosecution of persons who were spreading the news, there was published in Ireland the affidavit of a certain Mr. Charles Kenny, who had been one of the prisoners and was released on the expiry of his sentence, and made a sworn statement before the Lord Mayor of Dublin, on July the 19th, more than a fortnight after the incident to which I have first referred. When I first brought this sworn statement to the notice of the Chief Secretary he declared that it was beneath his notice, and that it was not worth attention. This sworn statement was printed in thousands of copies, where I do not know, but from all parts of Ireland I received copies. Of course there is no printer's name upon it, but it is none the less true for that. If you suppress free speech and censor your own letters, which on mature consideration you see it is rather a mistake ever to have written, naturally people must use such means as this, and I respect them for using them. They may be illegal, but they are the only means open to a free-spirited people. But it was because thousands of these were distributed throughout the land, and the matter was becoming the common talk of everybody, and the Government was getting into contempt for its injustice and cruelty, that at last it decided that there should be a Commission, and so on the final day of our sitting in August, six weeks after these incidents occurred, there was a sudden change of front, and the Chief Secretary promised to have a Royal Commission. A Bill was supposed to be drafted. It was not even printed on Saturday. I could only get if in print this morning, showing that from beginning to end the Irish Government simply drifted and moved in response, not to any conviction, but to mere cowardice and compulsion. Now we have this Commission, and I wish it well. Everybody knows the truth, but I hope that now we shall have it stamped and countersigned by a judge of the High Court. I am very sorry for the Chief Secretary. I offer him my sympathy. He is a good man in a bad place. He has a good heart but a weak mind, or, let me say, that he has good intentions but bad advisers and bad men around him.


Come across yourself!


I should be very glad to do so if called upon, but, after all, it is an impossible business for an Englishman to govern Ireland. I admire the right hon. Gentleman's courage in attempting such a task as that which he has undertaken in Ireland, but I fear that he will fail as all Chief Secretaries have failed. We have had a very powerful speech from the hon. and learned Member for Cork, and I do not know whether any reply to his observations or to mine will be attempted, but I would only say, in conclusion, that looking at this story of cruelty and inhumanity, now practically admitted, I pity Irish prisoners. Our prisoners in Germany have suffered horribly, but do not Irish prisoners in their own land suffer just as much brutality and cruelty and inhumanity? Yet the Government, with their cant and hypocrisy, make a flare all over the world as to the inhumanity practised by the enemy against an enemy country. All the cant of the Government, their cowardice and hypocrisy, have been shown from the beginning to end over this Belfast case.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House for To-morrow.—[Mr. Shortt.]

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

Whereupon Mr. Speaker, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 13th February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Two minutes before Ten o'clock.