HC Deb 10 February 1922 vol 150 cc555-63

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Colonel Leslie Wilson.]


May I ask the Colonial Secretary whether he can give the House any further information as to disturbances in Ireland?

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

I am glad to say that up to the present no further news has reached me of disturbances in Ireland. The Irish Provisional Government have assured us that they are doing everything in their power to secure the safety, the welfare, and the immediate return of the citizens of the Government of Northern Ireland who were kidnapped or were captured in the filibustering raid the day before yesterday. Mr. Collins, the head of the Provisional Government, sent a telegram yesterday to the Prime Minister, and this telegram, together with his answer, were in my possession last night. As Mr. Collins has published his own telegram, I think perhaps it would be right and proper that I should read also the answer which was sent to him on behalf of His Majesty's Government. This is the telegram from Mr. Collins to the Prime Minister: Information received that special constables under the authority of the North East Parliament are mobilising for action against our people in the North East area. That action can only be carried out under cover and by support of your troops. The Provisional Government are making every effort to get the situation under control. If action as intimated is undertaken the situation will be extremely serious. The following telegram in answer was sent at 9 o'clock last night: 4.0 P.M. Following telegram for Mr. Collins from Prime Minister. Your telegram to myself received at 7.12 p.m. You must bear in mind that there have been serious raids from Southern Ireland across the border into Northern Ireland in the last few days which your Government was unable to prevent. In the course of these raids prominent inhabitants of the Northern area have been kidnapped and forcibly removed into the area in your jurisdiction. In these circumstances the Northern Government is not merely entitled but in duty bound to take every step to prevent a repetition of such outrages. This is the elementary duty of the civil authority. By established rules the military only act when the resources of the civil authority are unequal to the task. We have no information as to what action has been taken by Sir James Craig. We are inquiring, but as long as it is purely defensive and protective you must see that recent events justify such measures. It is just as much the duty of the Northern Government to prevent raids into the area of the Free State as it is for the Free State Government to prevent raids into the Northern area. With regard to your remark about the presence of our troops in Northern Ireland, the necessity for these troops being there is clearly shown by the events of yesterday, and Parliament has been assured that they will be increased to any extent necessary to afford impartial and lawful protection to persons of every class and creed in the area of the Northern Parliament.

Captain CRAIG

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he has any information with reference to the ambush which took place this morning in Clady, County Tyrone, in which one constable was killed, and over 100 persons were injured? May I ask him further, whether he can take some further steps to ensure that these people, who are now in captivity, should be released before the weekend? This is a very serious state of affairs. A large number of the King's subjects are held in captivity, and I would point out to the Government that, beyond these telegrams which have been sent to Mr. Collins, and beyond certain action taken with reference to the troops in the North of Ireland, there do not seem to have been any active steps taken in the southern area to procure the release of these people who are held in captivity. I think that is a very serious state of affairs, and something ought to be done to secure the release of these men.


May I ask if the attention of the right hon. Gentleman has been called to a statement made by Mr. Collins, and which appeared in the Press, that he made special efforts to prevent these acts of violence? If he made special efforts to prevent these acts of violence, it shows that he knew that they were likely to take place, and did he, as head of the Provisional Government, give any notice either to the Government of Northern Ireland or to the British Government in London that these acts of violence were likely to take place? If not, I should like to know who is responsible for the safety of life and property of His Majesty's subjects in Southern Ireland?


Can the right hon. Gentleman inform the House whether he has made inquiries to find out by whom these raids were organised, and who were the persons who took part in them; and has he any information on the subject? Secondly, can he tell us whether the transfer of motor cars, arms and munitions and other military stores to the Provisional Government has now been stopped, or whether it is now going on, and what precautions are taken to ensure that these things are not used for the purpose of organising raids upon the peaceable inhabitants of Ulster? Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether any of the motor cars, rifles, and other stores which were, in fact, handed over to the Provisional Government were actually used in the course of the recent raids for the purpose of attacking the inhabitants of the Northern Province?


There is another point which seems to me to be rather serious. Mr. Collins is reported in the Press to have said that these raids and kidnappings had naturally taken place—"naturally" is the expression he is reported to have used—because certain persons condemned to death by a competent Court in the Northern area had not been reprieved until the last moment. That seems to open up a very serious prospect, and I respectfully ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the Government has given any attention to it. What it means is that in the immediate future, under the new Constitution in Ireland, if anyone in the Northern area commits a murder or other serious crime and is arrested and sentenced to death or any other penalty, a raid may take place across the frontier, and hostages may be taken with a view to preventing the execution of justice in the Northern area. When a gentleman in the very responsible position in which he has been placed at the head of the Provisional Government has said that such action under these circumstances is "natural," it is a matter of which the Government ought to take very serious attention.


With respect to the question put by the hon. Member who leads the Ulster Members in this House (Captain Craig) as to a raid or ambush which is alleged to have taken place this morning, I have no information. I will make inquiries. In reply to the hon. Member for York (Sir J. Butcher), immediately after leaving the House yesterday at question time I caused inquiries to be made both from the Northern and the Southern Governments for any information which would show that arms or motor cars handed over by the British forces to tht Provisional Government had been used in these lawless raids. I have not received any answer up to the present time. There may be two ways in which motor cars have come into the possession of the Irish Sinn Feiners. One is that a certain number of cars have been disposed of by sale by the troops on their departure. As to that, I am not quite clear.


To whom?


They have been disposed of locally.


To the Provisional Government?


There have been certain sales in different parts of the country as the troops were withdrawing. Apart from that, in view of the responsibility entrusted to me as head of the Cabinet Committee dealing with these matters, I directed, at the request of the Irish Government, that certain rifles and certain special stores—particulars of which I shall be ready to supply to the House in detail—should be handed over, a fortnight ago, direct to the Provisional Government, in order that they might equip and organise some uniformed disciplined force capable of giving sanction to their authority in regard to the maintenance of the law. With regard to this task which has been definitely handed over I await particular information as to whether any arms have been used in this lawless manner by unauthorised persons. I should regard it with very great surprise and regret if that were the case, but I do not believe that it is. I believe that all these weapons are being used for the purpose of training a small force of men in order to give the Provisional Government means to make its authority effective over its own personnel. However, I am ready to give further information to the House when it comes to hand.

With regard to the question put by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. R. McNeill), I take his view entirely. Of course we must see where we stand in this matter. Our position is that there has been a. rebellion in Ireland, and that that rebellion has been terminated by a treaty of amity, and that rebellion is retrospectively regarded as having been something in the nature of a civil war. That is our general position. What we want is to get a line drawn between the events which have occurred in that period and the future. The difficulty is that there is an overlapping. At the present time there are persons in prison for things done no worse than what has happened in the past. Then there have been questions, and lawless action has been taken to procure the release of some of these people. We have not got that clear line between the past and the future which we must endeavour to achieve. That is the difficulty at present.

I earnestly hope that the House will see the great importance of being able to make a gulf between the past and the future as far as possible in these matters. But I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I have put it to the Irish Ministers very strongly, when I had the opportunity of meeting them, that accountability for murderous crime must be enforced by any Government professing to be civilised. Persons who commit acts leading to the death of other persons must be held accountable; and the forfeit must be exacted from them which society in every age and among every people has exacted. It is a question for us to try to find a breathing space between the conditions of the past and these new conditions which we hope to see instituted in the future. That is the problem which is causing so much difficulty and embarrassment at the present time.

So far as further measures are concerned at the moment I do not think that anything can be done beyond what is being done. An Irish Government is in office, but it is not formally in office. Until the Bill is passed through the House of Commons and the House of Lords it has not really got the sanction of any reasonably constituted administration in the world. It has a very imperfect control of the police, and it will not use the military forces of the Crown. This Government, we believe, is honestly endeavouring to start fresh and fair, and to maintain order and carry out the processes of government within the limits of the Treaty. We believe that that is its intention. That is our position. If our confidence in it were destroyed a new position would be created, but our belief is that they mean to do their best, and we ask the House to give them, however hard it may be, a fair chance, and that they may be supported and furnished with reasonable means of carrying out their policy.

I feel very strongly that they must be urged to do their duty in this matter, and to return these hostages who have been taken away without conditions of any kind, and by their ability to do that one can judge the extent of the control which they have over their own people and their good faith in carrying out the Agreement. I do trust that the House will give us full support in proceeding on these lines, which are the only lines of advance possible in view of the decisions taken by Parliament in regard to the Treaty which has just been made. I will take every occasion when I am invited to do so to inform the House of what progress is made. I have no doubt that on Monday there will be more information.


Will the right hon. Gentleman reply as to the statement made by Mr. Collins, that he made special efforts to prevent these acts of violence taking place, showing that he knew they were about to take place? He says, "used every effort to prevent these acts of violence taking place." At any rate he knew they were likely to take place. Did he inform the British Government or the Northern Irish Government of his fear>


No. Of course he gave no such information, but I can quite see what was behind what he said. No doubt there is a [...] of wild talk. When people are in his position, with associates who are more violent, no doubt there is a lot of violent talk, and it is quite compatible with good faith that he should have made the statement, though I do not justify the word "naturally." You must not judge these men too narrowly when they are in a very difficult position. In the first few early weeks they have a very difficult tas[...] Our position is a very strong one while we stand by law and right. The posi[...] of Ulster is unshakable. It is these [...]en who are in a difficult position and I hpe they will have the indulgence necessry.


With regard to the appeal of the ri[...] hon. Gentleman, I believe the Hous will always support every Governme[...] that is endeavouring to enforce justice and to maintain law and order. One [...]stion I wish to ask. Who is responsibl[...]for the maintenance of law and order a[...] for the punishment of crime in Sout[...]rn Ireland at this moment? We are [...]sked to extend our sympathy and for[...]ance to the Provisional Government I agree as to that. They are in a diff[...]t position and an almost intolerable [...]ion. But so far as I can see, the[...]have no kind of authority, legally [...] any other way, in Southern Ireland. [...] I understand the position, this House a[...] this Government are still in law respo[...]ble for everything that takes place in So[...]rn Ireland, and these gentlemen who[...]ave been designated by the Gover[...]t as the Provisional Government [...]outhern Ireland are in law nothing but series of private individuals who are car[...] out perfectly unsanctioned acts in [...] part of the country. This is a ve[...]erious matter from the point of [...] of the re- sponsibility of each Member of Parliament. We are all responsible for what is taking place in Southern Ireland at this minute, and we cannot shift our responsibility by saying that the Government have appointed certain gentlemen to be a Provisional Government and they alone are the people to whom we must look to discharge the ordinary functions of government.


The Noble Lord has stated the position with complete accuracy. His speech is a most cogent argument for the early passage of the Bill. As far as I can deal with such matters, the exact legal position is that this Government, the Ministers on this Treasury Bench, are responsible exactly as they have always been for everything that takes place in the area of Southern Ireland, and the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant is the Minister accountable to the House for that. The Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant is discharging his duty at the present time, in this period of Provisional Government, and is devolving functions to the Irish Ministers and the Irish Government, but we have a technical responsibility and we are justifying to the House our devolving of our responsibility upon these men. That is our position and there is no possible doubt or confusion about that, but we wish to terminate this anomalous state of affairs at the earliest possible moment. We wish to place these men in a position of legal, constitutional authority where they really will have an opportunity of making good or not, as the case may be, and where we shall have done our best to equip them with the means of carrying out their task.


Will the right hon. Gentleman answer the question I put to him, as to whether he has transferred motor cars, arms, and ammunition to either the Provisional Government or to other private persons which may possibly be used for improper purposes?


No arms or ammunition other than those I have described, and to which I made special reference, have been transferred to the Provisional Government—no arms or ammunition or munitions of war of any kind. A certain number of motor cars may have been disposed of by local authorities as they left, but I have directed that no more motor cars can be transferred until we know exactly where we stand in these matters. No arms have been transferred except that particular thousand rifles and certain other details which were transferred in order to enable a force to be created.

Lieut.-Colonel ARCHER-SHEE

Will the right hon. Gentleman circulate, in the form of a White Paper, a list of the arms and munitions transferred and also state whether it includes any machine guns?


A question has been put down for Monday on that subject.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.