HC Deb 26 March 1920 vol 127 cc766-9

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he is aware that Alderman O'Brien, Secretary of the Irish Trade Union Congress, has been arrested and imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs without trial, that Mr. O'Brien's friends and relatives express absolute ignorance of any reason for his arrest, that Mr. O'Brien has been on hunger strike for some time, and his condition has become so weak that the authorities conveyed this information to his friends and relatives in Ireland, and whether he will give instructions for Mr. O'Brien to be released before it is too late and then, if necessary, bring him to trial on whatever charge may be preferred against him?


It is the fact that Alderman O'Brien, among others, has been arrested and deported for reasons which convinced the Irish Government that this action was necessary. He was, indeed, arrested on suspicion of being implicated in a murderous conspiracy that has resulted in the deaths of so many loyal servants of the Crown in Ireland. It is true, also, he has been on hunger strike for some time, and that he is, in consequence, in a precarious condition. His Majesty's Government have given careful consideration to the subject, and they have definitely decided they will not release him, even though he should in consequence commit suicide by refusing to take food. Let me add, I have only this morning received information that while a Resident Magistrate in Dublin was proceeding by tramcar four men stepped in and took him off and shot him in the street.[HON.MEMBERS:"Shame!"]


I may say the answer of the right hon. Gentleman with regard to the nature of the charge of suspicion against Mr. O'Brien comes to me by surprise. He is a gentleman whom I personally do not know, but it is quite contrary to all that I have ever heard either of his character or his policy. The Government must take the responsibility of making the charge, and I must leave it there. I would like to put it to the right hon. Gentleman whether, among other effects, he has considered the effects on the Irish people of this treatment and possible death of an Irishman who has been incarcerated without trial, and the effect on any proposals that the Government may make with regard to the question of Irish self-government?


Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, may I ask is he aware that Mr. O'Brien, against whom this very serious charge is now made for the first time, was at the time of his arrest a member of a Coal Commission of the Irish Government set up by the Irish Government, and up to the time of his arrest had been most diligent in carrying out the enquiry in connection with that commission?


I regret that the event which I have just announced as to what has happened to-day shows what the condition of Ireland is. It is obvious that this is a grave responsibility. The Government as much as any other member of the House would deplore that anyone should commit suicide under such circumstances. The first duty of any Government is to protect the lives of the citizens, and the Irish Government have taken the responsibility of deciding that the arrest of this man was necessary to carry out that object. As to the question put by my hon. Friend, I do not believe for a moment that there is any chance whatever of self-government for Ireland on the basis that outrages of this kind are to be allowed.


I beg to ask the Leader of the House why Mr. O'Brien has not been brought to trial if there is any charge against him, and why has not proof of the charge been produced. May I ask also if he is aware that if Mr. O'Brien dies under such circumstances as have been described, it will have a considerable effect on the trades unionists of this country as well as in Ireland?


The supplementary question does not really raise any point with which I have not already dealt. It is well known that the Government have taken the responsibility for arresting people on suspicion with a view to the prevention of crime. They have taken that responsibility and they intend to go on with it. As to the effect of this man dying, it will be deplorable, but the Government have a responsibility which they must take, and it is one they have decided to take.


Will the Leader of the House not remember the reply the other day that Alderman O'Brien had committed, or was suspected of being about to commit, an offence, and those were the terms of a reply to a supplemeatary question as to why he is not being brought to trial. This is a reversion to the practice of imprisoning people in the Bastile.


That raises quite a different question. The Government are either justified or not in taking steps quite outside the ordinary law to deal with the situation in Ireland. We have taken those steps and we intend to adhere to them.


Whilst sympathising with what the right hon. Gentleman has Said with regard to the outrages, may I ask if the Government have considered the possibility of removing this man to a civil hospital?


I believe that has been considered. There is no objection whatever to removing him to a nursing home if he decides to take food, but the decision will not be altered by the place where he is staying.


May I ask two questions? The first is this: We have had the statement made for the first time of the real charge in the mind of the Government with regard to this man. I must say that the charge comes upon me as a great surprise, but surely, may I not suggest that, when a charge of connivance at murder is made against a man who is a public man in Ireland and who, I should say, was never suspected of any such ideas, in justice an opportunity should be given to him of a trial, so that the charge might either be proved or disproved? My second question is this: In the case of the suffragettes who went on hunger strike, did any Home; Secretary, however strongly he might resent the conduct of the suffragettes, not release the hunger-striking suffragette before she could die?


As regards the first question, it is only putting in another form questions which have already been put. I said he was arrested on suspicion, and I said the Irish Government are arresting on suspicion where they think it necessary to do so in order to prevent crime. That is the answer to the first question. As regards the second, I do not think the experience of the suffragettes is one which commends itself to the House, and certainly it is not reasonable to say that if people are rightly interned they are to be allowed cut because they hunger-strike.

Viscountess ASTOR

May I say that the suffragettes were not planning to murder people.

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