HC Deb 20 February 1922 vol 150 cc1674-82
The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Mr. Churchill)

I beg to move That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the circumstances connected with the affray which took place at Clones on the 11th day of February. The object of this inquiry was explained to the House during the Debate on the Irish Free State (Agreement) Bill on Thursday last. The House is fully in possession of all the facts relating to the situation on the border between Northern and Southern Ireland out of which the affray at Clones Junction arose. Both the Northern and the Southern Government of Ireland have put forward what they honestly believe to be the true version of what occurred on this occasion, but it is very difficult for anyone to ascertain exactly who, in a case like this, fired the first shot or where the balance of blame really lies, and a great many assertions and counter-assertions have been made on this point. But neither the Northern Government nor the Southern Government have any other interest in this matter than the elucidation of the truth. Neither have any desire to shield brutal violence and the slaying of men, and both Governments have agreed to and even press for an impartial inquiry into the affair. The only reason why it is necessary to bring this matter before the House at all is that at the present time there is no machinery existing in Ireland which can authorise the holding of an inquiry upon oath and the summoning of witnesses compulsorily. This Resolution, passed in this House and confirmed at the other end of the passage, will have the effect of arming the personage who is chosen to undertake the inquiry with the necesary power to take evidence on oath and to summon witnesses. I am in communication both with the Northern and the Southern Government as to the person who should be chosen, and I have had suggestions from both Governments. At the present moment I am not in a position to announce the name of the officer chosen, but the suggestions which have reached me from both Governments show beyond all doubt or question that only one view prevails, namely, the choosing of some really impartial man of high character, high position, and adequate judicial attainments who will be able to unravel this affair.

You may say, when so much is happening in Ireland, when so many new and, in some cases, shocking things are happening from day to day: "Is it worth while to set up the whole apparatus of this Committee in order to go into the affair at Clones Junction?" I think it is well worth while. What we have got to do in Ireland at the present time is to endeavour, as far as possible, to reassert the value of human life, to make everyone realise that the period of brutal violence, of reciprocal reactions of injury and retaliation is over, and that we are entering on a period where all such matters are going to be meticulously and patiently and perseveringly investigated. We may fail. [A laugh.] The hon. and gallant Member laughs in a sneering manner. We may fail, but it will at any rate set matters on a secure foundation. Let us endeavour, at any rate, to get on a basis that is clearly understood, that Irishmen on both sides of the border are henceforth going to unravel patiently the causes that have led to the violent death and slaughter of any human being.

This is an inquiry which will go on, no doubt, for some weeks, and which will, as it proceeds, make everyone feel that the consequences of actions of violence are going to be carefully investigated without any desire other than to affix the true responsibility. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. R. McNeill) has an Amendment, the object of which is to widen the scope of the inquiry.


It might save time if I say that I have looked at the Amendment, and that, in my view, it is not relevant to the matter brought before the House. The Statute under which this Motion is made is very strict. It requires the matter to be a definite matter of urgent public importance. I do not deny that the other matter mentioned in the Amendment is also of urgent public importance, but, clearly, if I were to permit one Amendment of this kind, there might be proposals to add to this inquiry a number of other matters. For instance, I might have from the other side of the House an addition proposed for inquiry into certain events in Belfast. That would obviously defeat the purpose for which this Statute was passed, and under which these proceedings are taken. Therefore, I think it my duty to disallow an Amendment of this character.


That relieves me of the necessity of adding to the remarks I was making. I think that this is a proposal of value in that it is agreed upon between the two Governments. I could not add to it except by agreement between the two Governments, which might take a great deal of time. I anticipate that there will be no difficulty in agreeing upon a suitable person to hold the inquiry, and I hope the House will clothe the inquiry with the necessary means to become fully effective.


I beg to move, "That the Debate be now adjourned."

11.0 P.M.

I do not think that the ruling just given by Mr. Speaker was at all expected by my hon. Friends, and it only strengthens the doubt I had as to the wisdom of the inquiry which the Government are to institute. I can assure the House that, although all these matters are mixed up with very strong party feeling, I do not approach this particular point with any party feeling whatever; but I am very doubtful whether the course that the Government are taking will have any appreciable effect in the direction which they desire. The right hon. Gentleman said truly that the thing more necessary now than almost anything else is to reassert the sanctity of human life, and to do anything we can to get over the prevalent violence. But will the proposed inquiry have any such effect? After all, it is only a proof of the terrible condition of the country that, unquestionably, this particular incident at Clones is only one of a great many acts of almost equally detestable violence. What is to be gained by singling out one particular act of violence in order to make it the subject of inquiry? The hon. Member for South Antrim (Captain Craig) had intended to enlarge, if possible, the scope of the inquiry so as to include some, at all events, of the other almost equally detestable acts which have occurred within the last few days or weeks in order that it should not have been such an exceptional matter as the Secretary for the Colonies has proposed. I am greatly afraid that under present conditions there is not the slightest prospect of arriving at any satisfactory result. To begin with, the right hon. Gentleman cannot protect witnesses. In the present state of affairs it is impossible to imagine that in a matter of this sort you can get at the names of persons who are in a position to give evidence and induce those persons to come forward and give a really true and reliable account of what took place. It is out of the question. Anyone who knows anything about what is going on must recognise that. What is the object of holding an inquiry in those circumstances, when you start with the hypothesis—or the acknowledgment—that it would be impossible to get the evidence upon which alone you could find a verdict of any value? In addition to that in all these matters—this matter of Clones is merely an example of it, as the right hon. Gentleman has said—you have conflicting accounts, and unfortunately these conflicting accounts are not simply the conflicts of evidence to which one is accustomed in ordinary courts. They are conflicts which directly take party sides, and the only effect of setting up an inquiry of this sort will be to excite recriminations on one side or the other. If a witness gives a true account of what he saw it is almost certain to provoke animosity against him personally, and particularly against the evidence which he gives. Therefore the object which the Government themselves have in view, will be defeated rather than furthered, by setting up this inquiry. I want to know what the tribunal is to be. I do not know from the Motion which has appeared on the Paper, exactly what is the nature of the tribunal proposed. Is it to be a tribunal set up under the Act which was passed during the War? If the inquiry is held before a tribunal of that kind, will it be held in camera? I do not know whether it is possible to hold it in camera, but it appears to me if the right hon. Gentleman is going to subpœna people to give evidence, he is probably imposing a death sentence on some of them, unless they are able to give their evidence confidentially so that it will not be known to their enemies on the other side, that they have taken what might be regarded as a party point view. I hope the Government will tell us whether it would be possible that the evidence should be given in the only possible way which can protect the witnesses. The right hon. Gentleman said he was not in a position at the present moment to give the name of the person who was to preside at this tribunal. May I ask him whether it is to be a single judge—a single individual—or is the tribunal to be in the nature of a Commission consisting of more than one person


A single individual agreed on between the Northern and Southern Governments. Of course, if they both prefer a larger number of persons we are entirely in their hands.


May I ask another question? The right hon. Gentleman speaks of a person agreed upon between the Northern and Southern Governments. Has he any reason to believe they will agree or have they already agreed upon the name of any person to serve in that capacity? Unless the right hon. Gentleman can tell us that they have so agreed, I must confess myself as being extremely sceptical about whether such agreement is likely to be arrived at. I urge strongly that the right hon. Gentleman should tell the House of Commons to whom he proposes to entrust this very onerous duty before he asks us to sanction the setting up of this tribunal. If he is not in a position to-night to announce to the House the person whom he proposes to name as judge, I urge that we should adjourn consideration of this Motion until he is in a position to do so. It would be most unsatisfactory if, without knowing anything of the person to whom we are going to entrust this duty, we should proceed to set up the inquiry in the dark. Therefore, unless the Government can tell us who the judge is to be, I would propose to adjourn the Debate.

Captain CRAIG

I beg to second the Motion for adjournment of Debate.

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. McNeill) has said. On the question as to whether or not the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland would like the scope of this inquiry extended so as to include the matter of raids into Northern Ireland, I have a telegram from the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, sent off at 10 this morning, dealing with this Motion which was to come on to-night, and at the end of it he says: Have also urged that all kidnapping cases be brought within the scope of the inquiry. That is to point out to me that he has actually addressed the Government, asking them to enlarge the scope of the inquiry, and I think that unless that is done, the inquiry will be of very little value to anyone. I honestly cannot see, unless the whole question of the matters which led to these murders or these regrettable incidents at Clones is gone into, what good would come out of this inquiry. Therefore, I would add my arguments to those of my hon. Friend and ask the Government if they cannot see their way to adjourn this Motion now until they have had further communications with the Prime Minister of Ulster and Mr. Michael Collins on the subject as to whether they would not both prefer to have the scope of the inquiry made larger than is at present proposed.


I must confess I am somewhat surprised at the two speeches to which we have just listened I understood that great objection was taken in the North of Ireland to the version of this affray which I read out on the authority of the Southern Government. I also read out the version of the Northern Government, and it was clear that there was a definite conflict of testimony. I understood that both Governments were earnestly desirous of having an impartial inquiry into the matter so that the truth might be elicited. The Southern Government, whom I addressed on the subject, were most eager that this matter should be thoroughly inquired into. They have proposed the names of two gentlemen. If my hon. Friends had not pressed the point I would not have mentioned this now. They proposed Sir Dunbar Barton, who was Unionist Member for one of the divisions of Armagh and was a Judge of the High Court in Ireland, or, alternatively, Mr. Justice Wylie. I have transmitted these two names to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, and I must say—whether they are suitable names or not I do not presume to pronounce; it is not my business—that their choice showed an absolutely sincere desire on the part of the Government of Southern Ireland for an impartial inquiry. I had received some expression of the opinion of the Government of Northern Ireland on this case. We had rather been proceeding on the basis of some English Judge being chosen, but after all it is much better that this should be considered by Irishmen for Irishmen without the intervention of persons from this side of St. George's Channel. It is clear that the Southern Government have not in any way shown any disposition to avoid this inquiry. My hon. Friend, who seconded the Motion for Adjournment, and other hon. Gentlemen have touched upon the subject which you have ruled out of Order as an Amendment to extend the scope of the inquiry. It is true that the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland communicated with me yesterday indicating that it might be desirable to extend the scope of the inquiry. I am powerless to do that without the approval of the Southern Parliament. It is obvious that if you start to extend the scope of the inquiry there are very elastic limits. It might be said that it should include the case of the Unionists who were kidnapped by a ridiculous and outrageous proceeding ten days ago. But that is hardly the subject of an inquiry. Obviously those who made a raid into the Northern territory were entirely wrong. There is no question of dispute as to facts. It is admitted that they were wrong, and the Southern Government is prepared to release all the kidnapped men without any condition attaching to that. If one went as far as that one would have to go a step further, and there would be questions and inquiry into all the different rights and wrongs as to the terrible things that have been happening in Belfast, which, thanks to Sir James Craig and his Government, has now been reduced for the time being to a state of order and comparative quiescence. There is no limit.

We do not presume to dictate to any Irish Government except in matters which concern the Imperial interest. Here we offer our good offices. We offer them our procedure and machinery, in order that these matters can be investigated. That is all we have done, and if the Leader of the Ulster party in this House, speaking as he does, no doubt, with full responsibility, says, after what I have said, that the Northern Government do not desire that this matter should be carried further to-night, I shall certainly not force it upon them in any way, but we shall stand here ready to serve the interests and the hopes and wishes of both Irish Governments, having ourselves only one—that they may be in accord together.


Perhaps, by the leave of the House, I may be allowed to say one word in asking leave to withdraw the Motion for the Adjournment. I would like to tell the right hon. Gentleman that, so far as I am concerned, I have had no communication of any sort with the Northern Government, and did not know what their view was one way or the other; but it occurred to me that an inquiry of this sort would have very little prospect of arriving at any valuable knowledge. If the right hon. Gentleman and the Government think otherwise, certainly I have no desire to stand in the way. I am quite certain that whoever is appointed will do their best, and if they can protect the witnesses and get them there to give evidence, and if they can arrive at any accurate account of what took place, so much to the good. I have no wish to stand in the way of that being done, arid, after what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I will ask leave to withdraw my Motion for the Adjournment.

Motion for adjournment of Debate, by leave, withdrawn.

Resolved, That it is expedient that a tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the circumstances connected with the affray which took place at Clones on the 11th day of February.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.