HC Deb 15 June 1922 vol 155 cc519-24

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he can make a statement as to the present situation in Ireland?

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

I have come to the conclusion that, in all the circumstances. I should be better advised to postpone any statement that the House might desire me to make on the Irish situation until next week, and probably until the middle or latter part of next week. Nothing of special urgency requires to be dealt with at the moment; and on the whole the state of the country, both in Northern and Southern Ireland and on the frontiers, is distinctly quieter than it was when we separated for the Whitsuntide holidays.

But there are two events of very considerable importance which will take place to-morrow. The first is the Irish Elections and the second is the publication of the Irish Constitution. So far as the Irish Elections are concerned, I am sure that the less we say about them here at this stage, the better.

So far as the Irish Constitution is concerned, unexpected progress has been made. The Constitution will be published in to-morrow morning's newspapers on both sides of the Channel, and it is my duty to state on behalf of His Majesty's Government that in their opinion the Constitution is in conformity with the Treaty.

To-morrow morning, therefore, everyone will be able to study the Constitution for himself, and probably by Tuesday next all the Irish Election results will be complete. We shall then be far better able to form an opinion on the general position in Ireland, and I shall be able to give a fuller and truer appreciation of that position than I could do at the present time, with the Elections unheld and the Constitution unpublished.


Is it following the practice adopted in such cases that the Constitution should be published in the morning papers before it is submitted to this House?


The Constitution would naturally be published by the Provisional Government of Ireland, and at such time as they think fit. There is nothing in the Treaty, or in any arrangement entered into, which prescribes any definite hour or time for that publication. I assume, however, that the newspapers on this side will get the information as soon as it is issued on the other side. I am quite ready to lay a Parliamentary Paper, but this is not the stage at which this Constitution comes formally before the House of Commons.


Are we to assume that the publication will be made by the Irish Provisional Government, or by His Majesty's Government?


The Irish Provisional Government are to make the publication, and they have undertaken to do so, to their own people, before the election which takes place to-morrow. It would have been quite impossible for them to do it any sooner. It is being done at the earliest possible moment, but I think that there is no reason whatever why the newspapers on this side should not be facilitated in obtaining copies of this document, which is to be published by the Irish Government in Ireland.

Captain C. CRAIG

Seeing that one of the most important matters which the Irish people have to vote on to-morrow is this matter of the Constitution, did the right hon. Gentleman make any attempt to have publication of this document made at an earlier date than to-morrow morning, when it will be much too late for many at the voters to have seen the document before registering their votes?


Everybody made every effort to get the document published at the earliest possible moment, and I am sure that that is being done.


Are we not in this country at least equally interested in the Irish Constitution with the Irish Southern Government, and are we not entitled in this House to have as early information of the nature of that Constitution as the Irish people in Southern Ireland?


The procedure in that regard in every Dominion is that the. Constitution is formulated by the Dominion, and comes up for subsequent ratification and approval by the Imperial Parliament. That is the course that is being taken in this case.


Why should there not be publication this afternoon both in Ireland and here? The Constitution has been seen by the Government, and everybody knows that it has been settled. Why is the House of Commons not allowed to have first access to this news?


I do not know at what hour the Provisional Government intends to publish the Constitution. In fact, I am to receive that information later this afternoon. It is impossible to lay a Paper at the moment, because matters have only just reached a stage at which publication can be made. But I am quite ready to lay a Paper, so that at the earliest possible moment an official copy will be formally in the possession of every Member.


Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether this document, to be published by the Provisional Government, is not really a document which has been approved by the Cabinet in this country, and, therefore, having the imprimatur of the Cabinet, ought it not to be communicated to this House?


No, Sir. As I said on the last occasion on which I spoke on this subject, we have seen the Constitution confidentially and as a matter of courtesy.




It is no use my hon. Friend assuming those airs of indignation. We have seen the Constitution as a matter of courtesy. There is no obligation on the part of the Irish Provisional Government to consult us, or to show us the document before they make it public. Of course, the moment it is made public, our freedom to examine it and discuss it would begin, and, as we have in this House to approve it before the full juridical status of the Irish Free State is complete, it is obvious that our rights and constitutional position are in every respect safeguarded. But there is no obligation in the Treaty arrangement, nor in the practice now current between this country and the Dominions, for previous consultation. It has been done as a matter of convenience and will prove, I think, to have been very convenient.


Has the proposed Constitution been before the Cabinet, or only before the Ministers who are described as signatories to the Treaty?


The hon. and gallant Gentleman has no right to inquire into the manner in which the Cabinet discharges its functions internally; but I strongly recommend him to wait until he has had an opportunity of reading the Constitution in to-morrow's newspapers, or until he receives an official copy of it. Then he will be able to see what lines it would be most fruitful to follow.


Has not this Parliament conferred a Constitution on Southern Ireland, and have not the Government, who are responsible to this Parliament, at any rate, a right to be informed of the terms of that Constitution before it is published?


If the hon. Member will look back at the records, he will see that the duty was put on the Provisional Government of drafting a Constitution, which was afterwards to be laid before this House.

52. Captain FOXCROFT

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether, seeing that an agreement was made between His Majesty's Government and the Provisional Government that the Constitution of the Irish Free State was to be published before the Southern Irish elections, and seeing that no such publication was made before the date of the nominations for such elections, will he say what steps he intends taking to secure the enforcement of this agreement, so that electors opposed to or desirous of amending this Constitution may put forward candidates to express their views?


The hon. and gallant Member is mistaken in thinking that any such agreement as that which he suggests was at any time made between His Majesty's Government and the Provisional Government. It was at the desire of the Provisional Government—who expressed a wish that an opportunity might be afforded to Irish electors to study the draft Constitution before the elections—that an Amendment was inserted in the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act, postponing the latest date for the holding of the elections; but the date of the publication in Ireland of the draft Constitution is a domestic matter for the decision of the Provisional Government, with which His Majesty's Government would not desire to interfere.


Am I to understand that the elections will take place and the Constitution be promulgated on one and the same day?


That win be what is actually going to happen.


Cannot the right hon. Gentleman say whether the electors of Ireland are to have an opportunity of approving this Constitution?


It is a question of what is our business in the matter, and what is not our business. Our business with this Constitution will be very serious when it comes to us in the regular course, but we have nothing in the Treaty which justifies us in requiring the Irish Provisional Government to put the Constitution before the electors at this election. As far as we have any opinion on the matter, we should have preferred them to have gone to the country on the simple issue of the Treaty many months ago, but it was by their wish that events have taken the course they have, and we are wholly free to adopt our full Parliamentary rights in due course.


In view of the fact that these gentlemen have a Constitution of their own, why is it their business?