HC Deb 13 April 1920 vol 127 cc1641-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir S. Sanders.]


I should like to ask for some information with regard to what is happening in Ireland to-day. We have had a Debate which is one of the most depressing one has had to listen to in this House. We had the position of the Government stated in a form which leaves very little hope that some attempt can be made at a settlement. There has been a trade union strike called, and the responses to it, if what one hears is true, are extremely grave. There are now out men who are connected with the absolutely necessary services of the sister isle, and I understand that negotiations are going on in this country which may result in sympathetic strikes on this side of the Channel, which may create a situation that many of us would deplore. It seems to me that the House of Commons ought to make a last attempt to get from the Government some word of hope with regard to a settlement. We on this side are altogether out of sympathy with the Government on this question. We resent must deeply the methods they are adopting in regard to the Irish people, and we think they are probably sending us into a course headlong which every one of us will regret. It is not sufficient for the Leader of the House to say that he and the Government have considered the situation, and that there is nothing to look forward to but rank and stubborn coercion. There is, after all, an opportunity in this country at present of contesting the Government's Irish policy, and that, of course, will be done, but the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Henry) ought to understand that this is being done out of sympathy with the large mass of people in this country I say that advisedly, although my right hon. Friend and his colleagues are in a majority in this House, but he knows very well that the experience of the War and the experience since the Armistice of the organised forces of Labour in this country is such that other methods may be used on the other side. That everyone wants to avoid, and therefore we ought to have some information as to the extent of the strike which has been called in Ireland and with regard to the paralysis of the public services, and what steps it is proposed to take to deal with it, in view of the fact that the industrial side of the dispute may spread to this side of the Channel and that we here may be made the sufferers by the folly of the Members of the Government who represent the Irish Office.


The seriousness of the situation is such as to warrant every opportunity being taken to see whether or not there is some way out of the difficulty which has arisen. The situation at the moment appears to some of us to be so grave as to warrant even the reconsideration of what has already been announced as the policy of the Government in this matter. It is exceedingly difficult to induce the working class by the policy of a strike to give their weight and general support to any matter of agitation which can in any way be termed political. The very fact that this strike which has been called in Ireland has, from the reports which have come to hand, succeeded to the extent even of stopping labour in the postal service, is a most remarkable feature. Generally speaking, that branch of the public service is the last to leave work at any time of industrial crisis. In this country that is almost unprecedented. The fact that in Ireland it has taken place is a wonderful manifestation of how much the people of Ireland generally are in sympathy with these unfortunate men who are in prison and how much the mind of the Irish people turns towards some different policy from that which the Government has adopted. My colleagues and myself are very deeply concerned about this matter, because we are fearful that unless some change of attitude is adopted, and if the present state of affairs is allowed to drift, the circumstances in that country in the near future must be considerably worse than they are at the present time. Surely it is worth some point of sacrifice in regard to the principle or the policy which the Government have deemed to be necessary if we are to avoid developments in Ireland which are going to create a state of things which must ring throughout the civilised world. If things do develop, it is possible, so long as the present policy is maintained, for the armed forces to be brought into conflict in a way different from anything that has happened up to the present moment. There is no Member of this House but who would sincerely deplore the possibility of such a thing taking place in Ireland. In view of the fact that this strike has made manifest the solidarity of the Irish people in support of those who are demanding the reconsideration of the Government policy, I hope, notwithstanding the limited amount of time that it is possible to give to a discussion of this kind, that there will be some indication that the Government is willing, in the face of these new and grave circumstances, to give some further consideration to this matter, whereby we may be prevented from drifting into a set of circumstances which will not make the position of the Government easier, which will not make their task of dealing with the Irish question any lighter than it is at the present moment, but which may possibly be the means of embroiling us in difficulties there of a vast character and also the possibility of setting alight a flame which may extend to other parts of the Empire in a way that will make it difficult for anyone to see where the thing will end. I do hope that there will be some indication from the Government that they are willing to review the whole situation, so that more peaceful conditions may be established than, unfortunately, exist as the present time.


I will deal first with the question put by the hon. Member (Mr. Hogge). A strike was declared to-day, and substantially the result of it is that on the railways in the South and West there was a cessation of traffic, but on the Great Northern Railway, which serves the Northern districts, the traffic was substantially the same as yesterday. In the Post Office a very substantial number of employés have come out. With regard to the northern post offices, I am not able to speak at the moment, but I take it that the usual service was substantially maintained there. So far as ordinary business in Dublin is concerned, it is practically held up. I am informed that a great many hotels are closed, and that shops are substantially closed. All that applies to Dublin.

I have not been able, naturally—the strike prevents me to that extent—to get a full reply from the South and West. I think that I am giving a fair summary when I say that in the South and West the strike is operative substantially, and that in the North it is not. As regards the other matter to which my hon. Friend has referred, the House has had the advantage of the Debate in which Members on all sides of the House have taken part. I am not without hope that the Debate will do something to clear the air, and that it may have results for good, and perhaps help to end the trouble which exists. The House will, however, understand that I can give no promise on that score. It is really a matter for the consideration of the persons who are concerned—the prisoners and their friends on the one hand, and the Government on the other—but no people are more anxious than the Members of the Irish Government to see some mode of bringing this terrible difficulty to an end.


Does my right hon. Friend mean that, as a result of the Debate, the Government have begun to try to find a via media between the men imprisoned without trial and themselves?


The hon. Member must not misunderstand me. The Debate concluded some time ago, but communications with the Government are difficult and I am absolutely unable to give an undertaking to that effect, because it is impossible to do so. I was only expressing the willingness of the Government.


What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by clearing the air? Is it simply a pious hope or that something has taken place just now which will make the position easier for those men? Otherwise I cannot see the point of the reference to clearing the air.


I do not at all mean that any negotiations are going on, but I do hope that, as a result of the Debate in this House and the opinions which have been expressed, the people concerned in this strike will see their way to make some effort to meet the exigencies of the law and put an end to this state of affairs.


Can the right hon. Gentleman give any assurance that the Government will consider the advisability of changing their policy, which is simply goading the people of Ireland into rebellion? Can we get some assurance that the Government will change their mode of procedure so that we can get harmony instead of all this resentment? That is what we want to see—a change of policy which will produce contentment among the Irish people instead of all this discontent, which is due to partiality and military interference.


I would not have intervened in this Debate but for two facts. In the first place, I regard it as essential to do everything I can to avoid the loss of human life. I should feel that I was guilty of a gross dereliction of duty, not merely as a representative, but as a man, if I did not exhaust every possible method of saving the lives of those men who are in danger. I have a second reason. I do not want this nation, which I believe to be a humane nation and a nation that loves liberty, to be exposed before all the civilised opinion of the world to the charge of having brought about the death of any of these men. Some modification of policy I am able dimly to see from the language of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I hope I may read that into his words. I beg every man in the Government and every Member of this House to put it to himself whether at the present moment it is worth while on the one hand to sacrifice human life and on the other side to set into a further blaze of feeling the hostility to this country which, I am sorry to say, is raging in many parts of Ireland. Some one told me to-night that there are no fewer than 20,000 people around Mountjoy Prison. There is not a single one of them whose hearts is not torn and whose prayers are not sent to Heaven for the lives of these men. It makes me wonder as a politician to see such a lack of the sense of proportion in the running of the terrific risks which are involved in this policy, both at home and abroad, and it makes mo wonder also what little wisdom there is in the world. I hope we may look for some change of policy and some change of persons. The Attorney-General discharges his duty in this House with courtesy and with efficiency, and I am sure if it were left to his good Irish heart and his knowledge of the Irish people, that we would not be confronted with such a problem as this which is torturing all our hearts to-night. I hope also that the new appointments may mean something like a change of heart. Until you get out of the administration of Ireland the stupid and mad men and the narrow fanatics and bigots who are at present responsible for policy, I despair of a return to anything like peace in Ireland, and still more of this country maintaining, with regard to Ireland, the high reputation it enjoys for its treatment of other nations.

Question put, and agreed to

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.

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