HC Deb 10 December 1920 vol 135 cc2601-16

May I ask the Prime Minister if he has any statement to make to the House in regard to Ireland?

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Lloyd George)

I desire to make a statement to the House of Commons on the Irish position before we publish certain documents in Ireland. During the last few weeks the Government have been in touch with intermediaries who have been anxious to bring about a better understanding. There have been no negotiations, but certain people who offered their services have seen both sides and have thus enabled the Government to arrive at certain conclusions about the position in Ireland. As the result of their consideration, they have, after a very careful survey of the situation, decided upon the course which I now propose to unfold to the House. They are convinced that the majority of the people of Ireland of all sections are anxious for peace and for a fair settlement. The Government on their side are no less anxious for peace and a fair and lasting settlement, and in this respect I feel confident they represent the views of the whole of the people of Great Britain. On the other hand, the Government are also very regretfully convinced that the party, or rather the section which controls the organisation of murder and outrage in Ireland, is not yet ready for a real peace, that is to say, for a peace that will accept the only basis on which peace can be concluded—a basis which would be consistent with the unbroken unity of the United Kingdom. Their communications are all conceived in the spirit of proposals from an independent belligerent power offering peace to another independent belligerent with whom they are at war, and to whom they are in a position to dictate.

In these circumstances the Government determined on the double policy which I propose now to declare. On the one hand they feel they have no option but to continue and indeed to intensify their campaign against that small but highly organised and desperate minority who are using murder and outrage in order to obtain the impossible and bring peace neither to Ireland nor to Great Britain, but, on the other hand, they are anxious to open and encourage every channel whereby the forces in Ireland which are really anxious for an honourable settlement can find expression and so lead to negotiations which may produce a real and lasting peace. This is the general policy of the Government, and I want the House to understand that this is a considered policy that aims on the one hand at the repression of crime and on the other at preparing the way towards a better understanding between the two peoples. Two very important documents have been received from Ireland in the course of the last few days. The first, and the most important of them, is a document which I have received from the Galway County Council. It is a very remarkable document, and it is remarkable from the fact that the Galway County Council, I be- lieve, is almost entirely Sinn Fein. It has proclaimed its adhesion to the Republican party and I rather think to the Dail Eireann, which is supposed to be the assembly that speaks on behalf of this body.

They sent a resolution, which has already appeared in the Press. This, if I may so put it, is the first area of dry land which has shown itself after the deluge of unconstitutionalism in that part of the country. It is a return on the part of a very important body to constitutional methods—an avowed return. After all, the Galway County Council is a body set up under the authority of the Imperial Parliament. It derives its authority from this Parliament, and it is a constitutional xponent of the views of that particular part of the country. It has a full constitutional right to communicate with the Imperial Government upon any question which affects the peace of that area, and a communication from that body to the Imperial Government couched in these terms is in itself, I think, a very welcome sign of the new spirit coming over Ireland. I think it is our duty to encourage it, because in doing so we encourage a return to constitutional methods in an area which has been one of the most disturbed in Ireland, one of the most difficult in Ireland, and which, if I may use the term, has until quite recently been completely in the hands of the rebel forces in Ireland. It is only a very short time ago that I was talking to the General Officer Commanding that area, and his opinion at that time was that the recognition of authority would be difficult to establish in that county. This is, therefore, a very important and promising episode in the relations between the two countries. The resolution was carried, I believe, against the protests of the Sinn Fein leaders in that area. That makes it still more important. A similar resolution, not in exactly the same terms, but breathing the same spirit, was carried by the Galway Urban Council.

There is also a telegram which was sent to me by a distinguished, a very able and very highly respected Irish priest, Father O'Flanagan. It is true—and one must not forget it—that although he calls himself, in the absence of Mr, De Valera, acting president of Sinn Fein, his action has been repudiated by the heads of the organisation which is responsible, in our judgment, for murder in Ireland. The House must bear in mind, when they come to seek the reason for our adopting a twofold policy, that, although Father O'Flanagan, speaking on behalf, as he thought, of at least one section of Sinn Fein, has indicated the desire for peace, yet the moment he sent that telegram he was repudiated by the heads of the organisation who are responsible for murder. That is why I say that, in my judgment, that organisation is not of the same opinion as the majority of people in Ireland at the present moment. We must base our policy upon a recognition of those two facts. The resolution of the Galway County Council has been very widely advertised in the Press, and rightly so. It condemns the murders. II condemns reprisals, but under the circumstances, I think it is too much to expect a Sinn Fein body not to express some condemnation of that character— they would lose their authority with Irish opinion if they did not. But it requires great courage on their part to condemn the murders committed by the Irish Re public Army, and let us frankly admit their courage in doing so. I may begin with that and it is the first resolution of the kind that I have received from any body. They say that they believe that this unfortunate state of affairs is detrimental to the interests of both countries in such a crisis of the world's affairs. That is quite true. Now they come to a practical suggestion— We, therefore, as adherents of Dail Eireann, request that body to appoint three delegates. They suggest that the initiative lies with the British Government, who should withdraw the bar on the meeting of Dail Eireann for the purpose of appointing delegates. That is the practical suggestion which they put forward. At the present moment that body is not permitted to meet, and of course we cannot recognise it, for to recognise it as a separate body is to recognise that the part of the country which they represent constitutes a separate republic apart from the United Kingdom. That cannot be, and it is right, that although I have said it here once or twice, that should be repeated, because, unfortunately, in Ireland they are apt to emphasise the things that suit them, and not to call attention to the things that do not suit them. I do not think they are any exception in that respect to people in other parts of the world. It is necessary that that should be emphasised, because it is no use encouraging impossible hopes.

We do not, therefore, recognise the body called the Dail Eireann. But when you come to the members individually, they are the people who have been elected, under the constitution of this country to this House. They are the people who have been elected by the constituencies which have been parcelled out by this House, on a franchise which has been agreed upon by this House, at the general election at which this House of Commons was elected. They are not permitted to meet at the present moment, and the question is whether it is desirable that they should be permitted to do so in order to consider the new situation which has arisen in Ireland. There are very practical difficulties in the way. Some of these members have, in our judgment, been guilty of crimes which would make them liable to prosecution and punishment, whether in Ireland, or Great Britain, or in any other civilised country in the world. We cannot possibly grant to those who have been guilty of crimes of violence, of murder, of very brutal murder, a safe conduct which we would not grant to any British Member of the House of Commons in similar circumstances. It is too much to ask of any Government, however desirous they might be for peace in Ireland, that they should ask the forces of the Crown, who have been subjected to all these outrages, and whose comrades have been struck down through the action of these men to permit them to go through under the safe conduct of the British Government. We must therefore make an exception in the case of those men. This is the reply which it is proposed I should send to-day to the Secretary of the Galway County Council: I have received your letter of the 4th instant, forwarding copy of a resolution passed by the Galway County Council, and wish to assure your Council that the Government welcome every indication on the part of representative persons and bodies in Ireland of a desire to co-operate in bringing to an end the present unhappy state of lawlessness and ensuring a return to constitutional methods in that country. The first necessary preliminary to the re-establishment of normal conditions is that murder and crimes of violence shall cease. It is to that end that the efforts of the Irish Executive have been constantly directed, and until it has been attained no progress can be made towards a political settlement. The Government are prepared to facilitate the meeting together for this purpose of persons duly elected to represent constituencies in Ireland or any part of Ireland. There are, however, certain individuals who are gravely implicated in the commission of crime so serious that the Government cannot consent to abandon their elementary duty of bringing such persons to trial. To all members except these individuals a safe conduct would be granted by the Government. It should be clearly understood that His Majesty's Government must insist that effective measures be taken to ensure the cessation of murder and other crimes of violence and the surrender of all arms unlawfully held. Before reading the next paragraph I should say that the Galway County Council did not recognise the authority of the Irish Local Government Board. They have now returned to their allegiance in that respect, and that in itself is a promising incident.

The letter proceeds: I would add that the Government have learnt with satisfaction of the action of your Council in submitting their accounts to audit by the Local Government Board, and that the fullest support can be assured to every local authority which loyally carries out its obligations under the law. It will be clear from this letter that the Government, while anxious to explore every avenue which may lead to peace, and to remove, so far as possible, any obstacle which may stand in the way of persons in Ireland who desire peace, are-determined to use all the forces at their command to stamp out murder and outrage, and to disarm ill-affected persons. With this object the Government has decided to take further action to which I shall refer later. Perhaps I had better, before doing so, read the telegram which has been sent in reply to the communications of Father O'Flanagan— I have received your message. His Majesty's Government does not lag behind any section of the Irish people in the desire that Ireland should enjoy to the full the blessing of peace and prosperity. We are prepared to afford facilities for the free discussion of the whole situation by the duly-elected representatives of constituencies in Ireland or any part of Ireland. There are, however, certain individuals who are gravely implicated in the commission of crime so serious that the Government cannot consent to abandon their elementary duty of bringing such persons to trial. To all members except these individuals a safe conduct will be granted by the Government. It should be clearly understood that His Majesty's Government must insist that effective measures be taken to ensure the cessation of murder and other crimes of violence and the surrender of all arms unlawfully held. I have in the House of Commons on the 16th August and on several subsequent occasions defined the fundamental conditions to which any political settlement must conform. His Majesty's Government adhere absolutely to those conditions, and would be glad to learn that the party which you represent are prepared to accept them. That is the reply which it is proposed to send to Father O'Flanagan.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

Will the right hon. Gentleman give us the names? [HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"]


We are prepared to give a list of those with whom we will treat.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

My request is perfectly fair.


Yes. Let me say at once—I think it is very important to say it—that there should be no suspicion of any breach of faith if they do meet. What I mean is that it would be very unfortunate if the Members came to a conference under the impression that they had a safe conduct, and later the feeling was created that there had been an act of treachery on the part of the British Government. Nothing could be worse than that from the point of view of our honour and of the peace of Ireland. We shall certainly let them know beforehand who are the Members to whom we are prepared to give a safe conduct, and who are the Members to whom we could not possibly give a safe conduct. Due protection will be afforded to those who have a safe conduct by the police, and by the whole forces of the Crown who will be available against any possible attack upon them.

I come now to the second part of my statement. After a good many consultations which the Chief Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal—who is not here at present—and I have had with many individuals who stated that they were in communication with representative men in Ireland, which communications might be utilised in the interests of peace, we have come to certain conclusions. It is very difficult, of course, to know to what extent those persons can really speak on behalf of those they assume to represent in this matter.

That is no imputation upon the good faith of those concerned—not the least. My right hon. Friend opposite (Mr. Asquith) and I during the war had to measure the value of communications of that kind in reference to Germany, Austria, Turkey, and other countries, for there were constant communications with men who came with the very best faith and a certain amount of authority: As he knows very well, in the vast majority of cases, when we pursued the matter we found it ended in nothing. That was disappointing. Therefore that experience made me a good deal more cautious when I came to deal with men who professed to be in a position to make peace so far as Ireland is concerned.

However, it is our business to give them every opportunity, because peace is so very important. But one thing has to be made quite clear. I regret it. But as regards the men whom we know to be directing the murders, I think it will be found that they have not given us any indication that they are prepared to surrender upon the only terms which this country could possibly accept, consistently either with its own self-respect or with a prospect of enduring peace for Ireland. I very much regret that. We must consider that side by side with the encouragement which we are prepared to give to all those who are anxious for peace—and they are growing in numbers, in influence, and what is much more significant, in independence. This means that intimidation is breaking down. We are determined to do all in our power to break up these terrorists who are more or less organised, because I do not think it will be possible for Ireland to recover that independence which is essential to her if she is to make peace, until these men have been brought to justice or at any rate to surrender. We have, therefore, been driven to the conclusion, especially in the last two very terrible years, that we must take stronger action in certain disturbed areas in Ireland. I must say I came to that conclusion some time ago. There were, however, practical difficulties in the way, otherwise action would have been taken sooner.

What is the position, more particularly in the south-west of Ireland? You have got there organised insurgent forces.

Until recently they dwelt, I will not say in complete immunity, but in something approaching it, in their own towns and villages. The very strong action which has been taken has forced them to take to the hills, and there they are organising bands. They attack the police. They ambush the police. They intimidate men of their own race who are tired of this terrorism. It is necessary that they should be captured and broken up. The difficulties in the way are twofold. These men are dressed either as civilians —and therefore it is difficult for the police to identify them and distinguish between them and other civilians in the area—or they are dressed in captured British uniforms. Let me say this to the House, and I think it is right that it should be said: some of the outrages—and I had a special conversation upon the subject only yesterday with the Commander-in-Chief and General Tudor, as well as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary—have undoubtedly been committed by these people dressed in British uniforms. There was one very notable case, and that was the raid upon the Bishop of Killaloe. That was a raid upon the bishop's house by men with blackened faces.

It was supposed that they had raided it in order to find documents, but if so there was no reason why they should have blackened their faces, and certainly no documents have ever been delivered at Dublin Castle. We know absolutely nothing as to who those persons were individually, but we know where that outrage came from. That is an indication of the kind of thing that is going on where the blame is imputed to the forces of the Crown quite unjustly. Further, they have their own private quarrels; they sometimes wish for propaganda purposes to impute outrages to the forces of the Crown, and they have also got their own suspects. They know that information is given to the police and they think the persons that they attack are guilty of giving it. Often it is the wrong person, but they do not know that, and all that figures as if the outrages had been committed by the British soldiers or the police, and that is not true.

In this area an attack was made upon the police by men who were dressed in British uniforms and trench helmets. That has added to the difficulty. There you have men who are armed and are either dressed like ordinary civilians or else are dressed in British uniforms, and it is quite impossible in that area for the police or the soldiers to hunt down these insurrectionary forces who are intimidating the country, and are guilty of murder, unless some very strong action is taken. We have decided to proclaim in that quarter of Ireland martial law and to mete out exactly the same treatment to these people as would be done if they were open rebels. There is no doubt at all that if these men were open rebels with some distinctive mark showing that they were rebels armed openly for the purpose of shooting down soldiers, the soldiers would not only have the right but it would be their duty to shoot back. Treachery should not be a protection. We are only meting out the ordinary rules of civilised warfare. I hope the House will not press me as to the exact area which is going to be proclaimed, because we want to have the notices in the areas before the actual areas are proclaimed. I must therefore very respectfully decline to specify the exact areas which are to be proclaimed.

What is proposed to be done is this. First of all there will be a proclamation of martial law, and then under that a proclamation will be issued. The effect will be to demand the surrender of all arms and uniforms by a certain date within that area. The surrender can be made either to an officer of the Crown, or to the police, or to a military officer, or to the parish priest provided the parish priest surrenders them afterwards to the proper officer in the area. That is in order to facilitate the surrender of arms. You will find men who will say, "We shall be afraid of coming in to surrender because we shall be shot." After all, what we want to encourage is the surrender of arms, and we propose to state that the arms can be surrendered to the parish priest, provided they are handed over immediately afterwards, by a given date.

The effect will be that after a certain date unauthorised persons found in possession of arms in the specified areas to which martial law is applied will be treated as rebels, and will be liable on conviction by a military court to the penalty of death. The same penalty will be applied to the unauthorised wearing of the uniforms of any of His Majesty's forces, and to the aiding and abetting and harbouring of rebels. Reasonable time will be allowed for the surrender of arms before these drastic provisions are put into force. We hope to have the co-operation of the parish priest for these areas in arranging for the surrender Ample notice will be given to enable all persons in those areas who have been so misguided as to array themselves against order and law, and the authority of the Crown, to surrender their arms under the conditions specified. Trial will be by a military court. I deeply regret that it should be necessary to do this, or to declare martial law. I would infinitely have preferred that the control of the administration of the whole of Ireland should be in the hands of the civil authorities, but the recent outrages which have taken place have made it necessary that we should take these steps in this part of Ireland. We are eager for peace. We propose to encourage every authority, every organisation, every individual who is prepared to assist in the negotiations for peace in Ireland. We are, however, also convinced that peace is impossible so long as these forces are perpetrating outrage and intimidating the population, because the people themselves are afraid to talk peace. Where you have men of exceptional courage prepared to take the lead, like Mr. Sweetman in Galway, who, I think, is a Member of this House—and I have no doubt at all that the risk is great —the people follow, as they have done in Galway, quite unanimously. Father O'Flanagan is also a man of great courage, and he has shown that courage in the past. The moment they do so, however, they are repudiated by this gang, who are still endeavouring to intimidate the people and prevent them coming to a peaceable parley. I am sure that it is essential, in order to secure peace in Ireland, that you should convince the whole of the people in Ireland that the authority of the law and the authority of the Empire is paramount, and that we mean to keep it paramount; but that, having established that fact, the British House of Commons and the British nation are willing to parley with the people of Ireland with a view to establishing peace and goodwill and friendship.


As there is no Question before the House, I can only address it by permission. I should like to say—if it be necessary to put myself in order, I will conclude with a question to the Prime Minister—that the statement which has just been made is so grave in character, in both its aspects, that in my judgment and in the interests of both peace and order in Ireland, it would be desirable that the House should have time to reflect upon it, and that then, when that time has been given, the Government should, if the request be preferred, give us an opportunity of debating it. I venture to think that would be a much more expedient course than entering upon a debate now without consideration, when things might be said and probably would be said that might have the effect of injuring the prospect which we all have in view. I think the Government will probably take that view themselves. On the other hand, I am sure that they would desire that the House of Commons, in the consideration which the matter ought to have, should have an opportunity of discussing it in all its aspects. Therefore, the question which I put to the right hon. Gentleman is, whether he will accede to that request, if it be preferred to him?


Before the Prime Minister replies, I should also like to ask him whether, having regard to the fact that an All Ireland Conference of railway men is convened for Tuesday week in Dublin—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—I do not know whether the House understands that it is essential to peace that the railway situation should be cleared up—I merely ask, having regard to the fact that that conference is convened for Tuesday week in Dublin, whether the proclamation of martial law will not interfere with facilities being given for delegates to attend that conference in Dublin?


Does Father O'Flanagan speak on behalf of the authorities of the Roman Catholic Church?


Might I ask a question arising out of the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement? As I understand it, he said that it was proposed to assemble, I think he used the words "a meeting of delegates duly elected by the people of Ireland from all parts of the country"?


indicated dissent.


I wanted to ask whether that is any new body of people or whether it is simply the Sinn Fein members of this Parliament?

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY



I think I had better answer the questions which have been already put to me. If there are any other questions I shall certainly answer them later on. If I might respectfully say so, my right hon. Friend has taken the right course. Having regard to the situation in Ireland, however, and to the fact that I have made the statement to-day, it is essential that action should be taken immediately. If it had not been for the fact that the House might have felt that it was not respectful to it not to make the statement here first of all, we should have taken action and then have given intimation to the House of Commons. We felt, however, that it was right to make a statement here first, but action must be taken immediately for very obvious reasons which will appear to everybody. If the House feels that they desire a discussion upon the subject, well, of course, the Government will grant facilities, because we realise that it is a very grave step; but I would ask my right hon. Friend, and the observation applies also to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Labour party, to consider carefully whether a discussion of that kind would in their judgment be helpful. I put this quite respectfully: whether they would consider that point before they finally make up their minds to ask for a discussion. I am not doubtful as to what they might say, but others would also speak. With regard to the question put to me by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Derby (Mr. J. H. Thomas), there will be no interference with the meeting of the Labour Conference on Tuesday week. With regard to the question put by my right hon. Friend (Colonel Mildmay), I am afraid that Father O'Flanagan can hardly be said to speak for the Roman Catholic Church—I think he has lately had a little quarrel with his own Bishop. Still, he is a very popular and powerful priest in Ireland.

With regard to the question put by my hon. and gallant Friend (Major O'Neill), I did not suggest that there should be any delegates appointed ad hoc. I simply said that the Government would give facilities for the meeting together of persons duly elected to represent constituencies in Ireland.

Lieut.-Commander KENWORTHY

The question that I am going to ask is, I hope, in the interests of peace. I will not put into it one word that will in any way jeopardise peace. If we are in search of peace, and are prepared to give up ideas of vengeance—well, no doubt, with certain limited exceptions, certain bad exceptions—are we prepared, as one of the gifts of peace, to offer an amnesty?


May I ask the Prime Minister, with reference to the re quest made by the right hon. Gentleman opposite for an opportunity for discussion, does he realise there are certain points in the statement which he has just made which are capable, at any rate, of more than one interpretation. There are questions that arise out of it which it would be very desirable, from a good many points of view, to have elucidated, as soon as possible, in view of the consequences that might follow from the action the Government has taken. One thing I have in my mind, which a good many Members would like to know, is what effect the meeting of this body in Dublin may have on the policy of the Government with regard to the Bill now going through Parliament. There are questions of that sort which it is very desirable should be under stood. Obviously, misunderstanding might arise, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman if he will consider seriously the request of the right hon. Gentle man opposite from that point of view.


I quite understand the importance of the suggestion that has been made by the Prime Minister as to the care that ought to be taken when a question of this kind is under consideration. I am going to suggest to him that the matter might be left over until Monday, until we have had time to reflect over it, and then I, or someone on my behalf, can put it to the Prime Minister whether we consider it desirable the matter should be discussed.

Lieut.-Colonel GUINNESS

Before the right hon. Gentleman replies may I ask, if he does yield to this demand for a discussion, which in the opinion of many of us is not likely to lead to peace, will he undertake not to let it delay the carrying out of the policy which he has announced?

1.0 P.M.


I think I made it clear that we could not possibly allow any delay. That would be mischievous. With regard to the question lout by the hon. Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), that would be a matter for discussion when peace is made. It is not a question to be considered at this stage. When peace is made, amnesty and similar questions always come up for discussion. With regard to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. K. McNeill), who I know is very anxious for peace, he will see when he reads the document which I read to the House that I made it clear that we do not depart from the conditions I laid down in the House of Commons with regard to an Irish settlement. After all, the first thing is the consideration, not of the terms of settlement, but of the arrangements that will promote peace and a cessation of violence in Ireland. We cannot get the necessary atmosphere to discuss it unless there is a cessation of this violence. That is the first step. I have already made it clear that if any section of the House is anxious to have a discussion on this subject, although I am in agreement with my hon. Friend behind me (Lieut.-Colonel Guinness) and fear it would not be helpful, yet if, on their responsibility, hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite think otherwise, the Government of course cannot refuse an opportunity for discussion.


We should not think of putting down a formal Motion under the circumstances, and the best way I can suggest would be a Motion for the Adjournment.


May I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman will consider, in order to avoid misunderstanding, publishing the names of those who will be per- mitted to attend this meeting. I am sure, if the House reflects a moment, nothing could be more dangerous, as the Prime Minister said, than misunderstanding; and if they have the names now, surely misunderstanding would be avoided by their being published!


I can assure my right hon. Friend that is one of the questions that is causing us great anxiety. We came to the conclusion that on the whole it was better not at this stage to publish the names. A good deal depends on the spirit in which the offer we have made is received by the other side.


In reference to the answer of the right hon. Gentleman, I understood him to say that when his statement is read it will be found he declared there was to be no change with regard to the essential principles of settlement. I listened very attentively to the statement, and I understood him to say the only thing he laid down as a sine quâ non was the maintenance of the Union, or words to that effect. Listening to him, there appeared to be a good deal of ambiguity, and perhaps that can be cleared up.


I referred in the reply to Father O'Flannagan to the statement I made to the House on 16th August, when I laid down a series of conditions which I am still convinced are essential.


Has the right hon. Gentleman considered, seeing that this matter is of such vital importance to the country, the holding of a secret Session of this House to-morrow, in order that things may be said which, although they might be injurious if they were given to the world, might be useful in coming to a decision?


There is one point which has not been made clear, and it is this: The Leader of the House, the day before yesterday, stated it was the intention of the Government to go on with the Government of Ireland Bill. Is that still their intention?