HC Deb 04 December 1919 vol 122 cc588-95

Can the Minister for War now make a statement with regard to the case of the Rev. Father O'Donnell?

[The following Questions relating to the court-martial proceedings stood on the Paper]

177. Mr. MacVEAGH

To ask the Secretary of State for War whether he is aware that Father O'Donnell, an Australian Army chaplain, after strenuously supporting the Military Service campaign in Australia and after serving in France during the War, was arrested by the Army authorities in Ireland on a false charge of sedition; whether he is aware that the arrest was made without proper investigation by his commanding officer, although such investigation is made necessary by the Army Regulations, and that, in further breach of the Army Regulations, no particulars of any charge were notified to him until application was made to the High Court for a writ of habeas corpus; whether he is aware that when in custody he was prevented from seeing his friends and even from consulting the solicitor and King's Counsel engaged far his defence unless in the presence of an officer; that his military gaolers refused to send any message to his friends; that although he was under the care of a medical specialist they refused to send for his medicine or his dressing-bag; and that when crossing the barrack yard for necessary purposes he was obliged to pass between soldiers with fixed bayonets; whether such treatment is usually meted out to officers; whether on arrival in London he was confined as a prisoner in the Tower; whether he is aware that he was acquitted by a general court-martial composed of fellow Australian officers; whether any representations with regard to this case have been made by Mr. Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia; whether, as sworn by the Dublin Provost Marshal, Father O'Donnell was arrested on his authority and responsibility; if so, whether the provost marshal will be dismissed from the Army; and what steps it is intended to take with regard to Chambers, whose evidence the court-martial refused to believe?

Captain BENN

asked the Lord Privy Seal whether the inquiry he promised on Monday into the case of Captain O'Donnell is yet complete?


The Rev. T. J. O'Donnell, Australian imperial Forces, was arrested in Dublin on the 14th October, 1919, by order of the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Irish Command. The arrest was made on substantial prima facie evidence in accordance with King's Regulations; paragraph 469. This paragraph authorises a competent authority to place an officer under arrest without previous investigation when circumstances require, and lays down that an officer against whom charges are preferred will invariably be placed under arrest.

The Rev. O'Donnell was informed by the officer who placed him under arrest of a preliminary charge—namely, conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.

He was then handed over for safe custody to the Commanding Officer of Ship Street Barracks, as a temporary measure. On arrival at the barracks, the Rev. O'Donnell was placed in a room provided for officers in arrest, and the Commanding Officer personally went to see him and explained that he was making ready the best non-commissioned officers' bunk in the barracks, as all the officers' quarters were then full. The Rev. O'Donnell was treated as any other officer under arrest would have been.

The accommodation consisted of a warrant officer's bunk, which was clean in every respect, having been scrubbed daily. He was provided with four blankets and three pieces of bedding, all of which were clean. The room in which the Rev. O'Donnell was confined was placed in charge of a guard, in accordance with King's Regulations, paragraph 465, which reads: "An officer, warrant officer or non-commissioned officer may, if circumstances require it, be placed for custody under the charge of a guard, picquet, patrol, sentry, or provost marshal."

The non-commissioned officer in charge of the guard personally provided the Rev. O'Donnell with soap, towel, shaving materials, and a washing bowl, and other necessary articles, also newspapers and candles. Pens, ink, and writing materials were on the table for his use. His meals were provided from the officers' mess. Everything for his comfort was provided as far as possible.

The following morning, the 15th October, he was visited by a medical officer, and the same day was transferred to Richmond Barracks, where he was permitted to see visitors in the presence of an officer on the 16th, 17th and 18th October. From the 19th October onwards he was permitted to see his legal advisers in private.

In accordance with the usual custom his baggage was not given to him until it had been examined by a competent officer.

The Rev. O'Donnell did not ask to see a medical officer until the morning after his arrest, and as already stated, this request was immediately complied with.

He sent messages to his friends and had frequent interviews with medical advisers, both his own and Army doctors.

The arrest of the Rev. O'Donnell was immediately reported by the General Officer Commanding in Chief, Ireland, to the War Office, who informed the Headquarters, Australian Imperial Forces, asking what instructions they desired should be sent to the Irish Command. Headquarters, Australian Imperial Forces, expressed a desire to send an assistant provost marshal to conduct the Rev. O'Donnell under arrest from Dublin to London.

Before, however, they could carry out their intention, application was made in Dublin for leave for an order of a writ of habeas corpus to produce the Rev. O'Donnell on Saturday, 25th October, in the King's Bench Division, and Mr. Justice Dodd directed that in the meantime time Rev. O'Donnell was not to be removed from the jurisdiction of the King's Bench. This application was heard in Dublin on the 25th October, and the Lord Justice refused to grant a writ of habeas corpus, stating that he was satisfied (inter alia) that the detention of the reverend gentleman was legal.

On the 26th October the Rev. O'Donnell was conducted under arrest by an assistant provost marshal of the Australian Imperial Forces from Dublin to London. On arrival in London, the Headquarters, Australian Imperial Forces, requested the General Officer Commanding London District, to provide accommodation for the night. This he did, and the Rev. O'Donnell was confined in one of the ordinary rooms at the Tower reserved for officers in close arrest. Here he was given dinner sent down from the officers' mess, and was attended by an orderly.

After spending about fourteen hours in this room he was removed by the Headquarters, Australian Imperial Forces, and placed under open arrest.

The Australian Military Authorities, in taking over conduct of the further proceedings in the case of the Rev. O'Donnell, acted in accordance with the practice which has obtained all through the War and since. After considering the evidence the Commandant decided to convene a general court-martial for the trial of the Rev. O'Donnell on a charge of using disloyal words regarding the Sovereign.

I am not in a position to state why the Australian Military Authorities decided to try the Rev. O'Donnell by court-martial. It may be that they considered that, in view of the nature of the charges, there was no alternative but to go to trial, or they may have acted on the instructions contained in the Manual of Military Law, which read as follows: "A case should not, as a rule, be sent for trial unless there is reasonable probability that the accused person will be convicted; at the same time there may be cases where disgraceful charges have been preferred and where a court-martial affords the only method to the accused of decisively clearing his character."

The Court consisted of officers of the Australian Imperial Forces; counsel for the prosecution being provided by the Director of Public Prosecutions at the request of the Australian Military Authorities, who were advised by the Judge-Advocate General that it was proper for the prosecution to be represented by counsel. The provision of counsel is governed by paragraphs 574 and 574a of the King's Regulations.

I desire to take this opportunity to observe that, as stated above, the reasons which actuated the Australian Military Authorities in their decision to try the Rev. O'Donnell by court-martial do not come within my province. I can only say, however, that had the decision as to whether or not there should be a trial by court-martial rested with the authorities of the War Office, they would have come to exactly the same decision as that taken by-the Australian Military Authorities, that is to say, there was no alternative but that the case should be brought to trial.

From this statement it is clear that the action of the Military Authorities, whether in Ireland, at the War Office, or at the-Headquarters of the Australian Imperial Forces, has been in strict accordance with the provisions of the Army Act and the King's Regulations throughout.


Who supplied the right hon. Gentleman with that tissue of lies which he has just read out? [HON MEMBERS: "Oh!"]


I am quite sure the hon. Gentleman would not suggest that I would wantonly convey such an impression to the House. I have every reason to believe that the statements I have-made to the House are not only furnished in good faith, but are strictly accurate. They are based up-on the statements of the individual officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers who were concerned, every one of Whose statements I have seen, and, in order to make matters perfectly sure, even at the risk of some delay, I telegraphed as soon as my hon. Friend's question was on the Paper to the authorities in Ireland, in order that the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief should go into the matter and make a special report, and it is on the special report of Major-General Shaw, based on a further examination of the original statement of the case of the military officers and subordinate officers concerned, that all the facts I have stated have been laid before the House. In-addition to that, on the question of law and procedure involved, I have taken the advice of competent military authorities at the War Office and of competent legal authorities.


Has the right hon. Gentleman read the evidence, the sworn testimony, of Father O'Donnell after he was arrested and as to his ill-treatment in the cells?


I have seen the statement he has made, and I have also seen the statements of the officers and non-commissioned officers, which controvert that statement.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that every one of the statements contained in the document which ho has just read was contravened by Father O'Donnell in the witness-box, and that the prosecutor specially appointed by the military to carry on the prosecution at the court-martial never cross-examined him in regard to these statements. Is that so?


I have every reason to believe that this statement is strictly accurate and correct.


Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear to the House who was responsible for Father O'Donnell's arrest in Dublin Was he arrested on the responsibility of the War Office or on the responsibility of the Irish Government?


I have stated already to the House that the Rev. O'Donnell was arrested on the 14th October by order of the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Irish Command. Of course the acts of all military officers are a matter for which the War Office is responsible, wherever they are situated, and therefore I am perfectly prepared on that ground alone to defend the action taken. At the same time, of course, the Commander-in-Chief in Ireland naturally in many matters—I do not know whether in this matter he so acted—but in many matters he is guided by the Irish Executive, but I do not know that in this case he acted on any other grounds but purely military grounds.


Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me whether the charge preferred against Father O'Donnell, according to the evidence given by General Ready at the Habeas Corpus motion, was that he used language disloyal to the King and to the Government?


The court-martial proceedings are available, and my right bon. Friend is just as capable of looking into them as I am. I should say, however, that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary assured me that the Irish Executive-were not concerned in this case, but it was purely a matter of military discipline for which the General Officer Commanding in Ireland is responsible, and for which I am responsible on behalf of the War Office.


Can the right hon. Gentleman tell me definitely now was the Irish Executive responsible? I ask him, was the Irish Executive consulted about the arrest of Father O'Donnell?


So far as I am aware, that is not the case, and the answer which I have given to the House makes it clear that it was the General Officer, General Shaw, who issued the order for the arrest.

Captain BENN

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the evidence given in the application for the issue of a writ of habeas corpus differs from the evidence given at the court-martial, and from the statement the right hon. Gentleman has made to-day? May I ask what is the proper opportunity for the House to discuss the statement, which is obviously controversial, and largely controverted by those familiar with the facts?


The hon. and gallant Gentleman knows the rules as well as I do.


The right hon. Gentleman has not answered the questions I have put on the Paper, and which were transferred without my authority from the Prime Minister to him. I want to know whether any representations with regard to this case have been made to the Prime Minister of Australia. In the second place, I want to know whether it is true, as sworn by the Dublin Provost-Marshal, that Father O'Donnell was arrested on the authority and the responsibility of the Provost-Marshal, or whether the truth is, as sworn by General Ready on the occasion of the habeas corpus motion, that he was arrested on the authority of the Commander-in-Chief in Ireland? Which of these statements is true? One or other is perjured, and, anyway, I want to know how it happened that the message sent by the Tasmanian Government to Father O'Donnell was suppressed, and not delivered to him for three weeks?


I do not see myself any essential conflict of facts between the two statements the hon. Gentleman has made. I can quite understand the officer executing the order of a superior authority might be represented as the authority on which he was arrested, and then, on more formal inquiry, the actual source from which that authority emanated might come to light. It is quite likely that in the first case the Provost-Marshal was considered to be the authority, and later on that the Provost-Marshal was acting on a higher authority. So far as Mr. Hughes is concerned, I believe some telegram has passed between him and the Colonial Office, but I have not seen it up to the present. I would suggest that the hon. Gentleman should put a question to the Colonial Office. So far as the Tasmanian message is con-corned, I have no information on the subject.

Mr. DEVLIN (later)

I feel obliged to move the Adjournment of the House in order to call attention to a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, "the intolerable outrage on Captain the Reverend T. J. O'Donnell, a gallant officer of the Australian Imperial Forces, which calls for the immediate reprobation of this House, and for the instant dismissal of all officials who were responsible for this indefensible insult to the brave officer and to the Australian Army and people."

The pleasure of the House not having been signified, Mr. SPEAKER called on those Members who supported the Motion to rise in their places, and not less than forty Members having accordingly risen,

The Motion stood over, under Standing Order No. 10, until a quarter-past Eight this evening.