HC Deb 03 April 1922 vol 152 cc1841-4
64. Colonel NEWMAN

asked the President of the Board of Trade whether his attention has been called to the capture of a British-owned tug by supposed members of the Irish Republican party at Queenstown; its disappearance to sea and subsequent recapture by the naval sloop "Heather"; has he any reasons to give for the occurrence; and to whom have those found on board the tug and not members of the crew been handed over for custody?

The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. Churchill)

I must ask the indulgence of the House to permit me to make a full answer to this question. The facts of this incident have appeared in an exaggerated form. The vessel in question (the "Upnor") contained under 400 rifles, and not 20,000 as I have seen stated. There were in addition 700 revolvers and 39 machine guns, about half a million rounds of rifle ammunition, and certain other naval stores, including a small quantity of explosives. These munitions were being transported by the Admiralty from Haul-bowline Dockyard to Devonport in the usual way. The "Upnor" was piratically captured upon the high seas by a gang of Republican conspirators hostile to the Provisional Government who had previously seized a tug in Queenstown Harbour. The "Upnor" was taken to Ballycottin, about ten or fifteen miles from Queenstown, where the greater part of the arms and munitions on board were unloaded. At the same time about a hundred motor lorries were commandeered by the anti-Treaty Republicans in Cork and brought to Ballycottin Bay with several hundred men. The munitions and arms stolen from the "Upnor" were removed in these lorries, about sixty of which returned empty.

As soon as the British naval authorities were aware of what was taking place, one of His Majesty's ships proceeded in search of the "Upnor," and found her in Ballycottin Bay. The Republican raiders had dispersed on the news of the British warship leaving Queenstown, but the local population were engaged in looting the contents of the vessel.

The incident is a very serious one. It constitutes a gross and dishonourable breach of the truce. I must remind the House that the truce was entered into, not with the Provisional Government alone, but with the duly elected representatives of the Irish people, who were and are parties to it. The fact that such an elaborate conspiracy could be set on foot in Cork without the Provisional Government obtaining any previous or even early information of it shows that their control over Cork and this district is practically non-existent. This is all the more remarkable in a city in which opinion has overwhelmingly declared itself on the side of the Treaty.

I am communicating with the Provisional Government in this sense. At the same time, I am bound to admit that an inalienable responsibility rests upon the British Government to safeguard in all circumstances arms and munitions of war which are in their hands. The Admiralty are instituting an inquiry into the circumstances, with a view to ascertaining whether any neglect of reasonable precautions has occurred, and I need scarcely say that naval escorts will be employed in future in regard to all movements of munitions from Ireland by sea.

Lieut.-Colonel ASHLEY

Are the military authorities in Ireland now taking extra precautions to see that arms and ammunition belonging to the troops are not stolen from the troops in barracks?


Yes, Sir, the most stringent precautions are being taken, as they were before the occurrence of this incident.

Lieut.-Colonel J. WARD

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this conspiracy was discussed in certain clubs in London last week, and how is it that officials of the Government, or their Intelligence Department, were not in a position to acquaint them with what was going to happen?


If my hon. and gallant Friend will give me information now indicating what persons had previous knowledge of this, I will take it up at once.

Rear-Admiral Sir R. HALL

Will adequate naval precautions be taken to protect passenger ships going into Queenstown or other ports, so that they may not be piratically raided?


I do not think there is much danger of that.


In view of the right hon. Gentleman's statement that a state of anarchy reigns in Cork, what steps are the British Government, who are responsible, now taking, the Provisional Government having no powers?


My statement was not that there was a state of anarchy in Cork. On the contrary, the great bulk of the daily life of Cork is proceeding in an ordinary, orderly manner, and the over- whelming mass of the population are believed to be on the side of the Treaty. There is no doubt, however, that there is very lax control over the actions of the mutineers against the authority of the Provisional Government.


Are you aware that there is a member of the anarchist crowd in this House?


Apart altogether from any action of the Free State, what steps are this Government taking to recover their own property and bring these pirates to justice? Have they no power?


I do not think it would be useful for me to make any statement about that.

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