HC Deb 30 June 1922 vol 155 cc2551-8

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

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

I have been asked in various quarters whether I can give any further information to the House on the fighting which is proceeding in Dublin. I think I must say to-day, as I said yesterday, that the full, continuous report in the newspapers gives, on the whole, a very accurate account of what is proceeding and I have very little to add.

As the House will perceive from the report in the newspapers, the greater part of the Four Courts was successfully assaulted last night and occupied by Free State troops, and a number of prisoners were captured—between thirty and forty—including a commandant of some importance on the insurgent side named Barry, who was one of the leaders who signed the proclamation for a general rising which was issued last night by the Republican forces.

About noon to-day the Four Courts were reported to be on fire, and shortly afterwards a violent explosion took place, the effects of which were felt in all parts of the city. This explosion threw into the air large numbers of documents stored in the Four Courts among the débris. The explosion was caused by a mine which had been laid by the insurgents, and which was sprung by them under the part of the building occupied by the Free State troops. Thirty of the Free State troops have been injured or killed by the explosion.

The attack was continued and the irregulars were still holding out in a corner of the building at one o'clock. At that time the conflagration was threatening to spread to the neighbouring street. The Record Office was, however, still uninjured at that time.

A further bombardment had just begun with a view to enforcing the submission of the insurgents who were still holding out. The "Irish Republic," the organ of Erskine Childers, has issued a broadsheet stating that Mr. de Valera is actively serving with the insurgents outside the Four Courts who are creating disorder and fighting in the City.

The latest news I have is not sufficiently definite to enable me to make any statement on it to the House, but it indicates that a great deal of cheering from the Provisional Government troops has just taken place and it is believed that it is connected with the immediate situation at the Four Courts. My information on this point was only received a few minutes ago. I cannot pretend to add to the information that I have given.


Do those cheers indicate a victory?


They indicate that some development has taken place at the Four Courts of a favourable character.

A small party of British soldiers from the Border Regiment went to the bank to get some money, protected by an armoured car. Fire was opened upon them by the insurgents, and two men have been wounded. Of course, British troops are being confined to their quarters, and only go out on most necessary business, and their orders have been, for some time, if fired upon to fire back at once. They will only do so in case of their being attacked.

The House will also see announcements of fighting in Donegal between the Free State Forces and the local insurgents, which appears to have ended, in all cases, very satisfactorily to the Free State Forces, resulting in most cases in the capture of insurgents.

If this report be true, it is very satisfactory, because perfectly irresponsible ruffians and bandits have been reducing Donegal to a state of veritable anarchy during the last few weeks, thereby complicating and endangering the peaceful relations that should prevail between that part of the country and the Six Counties area which is immediately in contact with it.

A Proclamation was issued by the Provisional Government, in answer to the proclamation calling for a general rising which was issued by the insurgents. Perhaps, as it has not yet appeared in the newspapers, the House would like me to read it, because it shows the position that the Free State Government take up at this moment: For forty-eight hours the soldiers of your army have unflinchingly borne the brunt of battle against the forces of anarchy in your capital. Some of them have given their lives, and many others have been wounded in the defence of your rights as citizens. You are faced with a. conspiracy whose calculated end is to destroy the Treaty signed by your representatives and endorsed by yourselves. Under that Treaty the Government and control of your own country and its resources have been surrendered back to you after centuries of usurpation. You are asked to reject this surrender and to engage in a hopeless and unnecessary war with Great Britain. The people in the Four Courts say they are fighting for a Republic. In reality they are fighting to bring the British back. Remember, we ask no man or woman to yield up any ideal or principle. Liberty will be secured to all, under Constitutional guarantees, but it will he Constitutional liberty, and no man shall be permitted to do violence to the views of his neighbours or to the will of the majority, least of all will the profession of ideals or principles be permitted as an excuse for undermining the people's rights, the security of the person, the security of property, and freedom to live their own lives in their own way as long as they do not trespass upon the rights of others. Fellow citizens! This is what your Government stands for, this is what your soldiers are fighting for. In this programme we do not hesitate to turn to you for support in any call which we may be compelled to make on you. Dishonest appeals to your emotion, founded, in many cases, upon deliberate falsehoods, are being circulated amongst you. Your proven steadiness and good sense will discard these appeals and discountenance these falsehoods. I have no further information to give.


There are one or two points in the statement of the right hon. Gentleman which he will perhaps make a little clearer. I understand from the Press that all telegraphic communication with Ireland is interrupted except by Belfast.


No. The direct wire was interrupted for several hours yesterday, but it is now working.


Some of us feel a great deal of anxiety about the structure of the Four Courts. Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us to what extent it has been destroyed? The Press announces that it has been blown up. The right hon. Gentleman has so far confirmed that as to say that some part, at least, has been destroyed by a mine sprung by the garrison. He has told us that the Record Office, so far as he knows, has not been destroyed. Can he give any information with regard to the magnificent Library of the Four Courts, which is one of the most magnificent libraries in the United Kingdom, the loss of which would be an infinite loss to any country that possessed it? If we could have some idea that it had not been totally destroyed, it would be a very great comfort to most Irishmen. I would also like to know to what extent the architectural features of the building have been damaged. If a breach were effected in the building at the side, it would not necessarily permanently injure the architectural features, but if the front of the building were seriously damaged it would be a matter of very great loss.

There is another matter of considerable importance. One gathers from the accounts in the Press that there has been considerable activity shown by a different body from either the Free Staters or the Republicans—that is, by the Independent Workers of the World. They seem to have organised themselves, and presumably would be in opposition to both the other parties, and their activity is a very dangerous one, because if they prevailed the organisation which they would set up would probably be in the nature of a Soviet Government. I should be glad if the right hon. Gentleman would tell us what he can on these points, as we shall not have an opportunity again until Monday of hearing anything in the nature of an official statement.


Does the right hon. Gentleman know if there has been any response outside Dublin to the appeal of the Republicans to the country to rise?


I would be glad if my right hon. Friend could give some information as to the documents in the Four Courts. There is a large number of documents there—and I believe only there, because there are no copies—which are essential to the administration of the large trust funds which are being administered by the Court of Chancery in Ireland. Would those documents be in the Record Office, or in some other part of the building? Any official of the Four Courts who knows the practice would be able to give an answer about that. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot give information now, would he find out between now and Monday where those current documents for the administration of justice are kept?


And the Land Registry?


This affects an enormous number of people in Ireland in their interests and pockets. Could the right hon. Gentleman tell us in reference to the Soviet army, which is dominated by the Transport Workers' Union, whether that army is acting in concert with Rory O'Connor and his rebels, or de Valera and his rebels, or whether it is conducting a campaign of mischief and of murder on its own account? My last question is what precautions are being taken to guard the Bank of Ireland? We all know what an important part the Bank of Ireland plays as regards Treasury documents and books, because in the books there are recorded the lists of stockholders in all British and Colonial securities, and there is also an infinity of documents and valuables. I do not know whether our troops or those of the Free State are guarding the Bank.


Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether the documents referring to Northern Ireland, which were originally at the Four Courts, have been transferred to Belfast, and will he ascertain whether it is safe or possible to send mails to Northern Ireland via Dublin?


Has that arch-scoundrel Rory O'Connor been captured?


The right hon. Gentleman told us that certain persons had been captured. Have the Provisional Government made any communication as to their policy? Are the captured men to be tried?


Many questions have been asked. This is the business of the Provisional Government, and it is not our business in the first instance at all, though we cannot help watching with keenness and sympathy what is taking place in Ireland now. There is no doubt that it will play a great part in the future history of that country and its relations with the British Empire. As far as disorder in other parts of the country is concerned, my information is that there have been several other centres of disturbance, but that the Free State troops have, in most cases, obtained control of the situation very early in the day. This is particularly so in the case of Drogheda.

As far as the Independent Workers of of the World are concerned, I have the same information as has appeared in the Press, but it is confirmed from official sources that they have occupied certain points. It would be incorrect to describe them as an army. They are just that jackal rabble which is in every situation of revolution and disturbance. It creeps forward to prey upon society and upon the combatants on both sides. I cannot believe that if the dangers with which the Provisional Government are now grappling are successfully overcome, the task of reducing these people to proper subjection will be a difficult one.


May I interrupt? A very serious misstatement was made on this matter. An hon. Member confused the Independent Workers of the World with the Irish Transport Workers. The Independent Workers of the World are an entirely negligible party, which has nothing whatever to do with any constitutional organisation.


I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I understand that the Labour party in Ireland have taken no part whatever in these lamentable proceedings. As far as the records are concerned, I have been asked questions which are manifestly absurd. How can I know? The explosion took place at one o'clock. It seems almost to be supposed that I have made a catalogue of the documents saved and those which had been lost. This I do know, that every effort was made by the Provisional Government to safeguard the records, and to avoid more damage than was absolutely necessary to this historic and beautiful structure of the Four Courts.

When men are fighting, and fighting about matters so important as the foundations of their country, buildings and records will often suffer. Damage, lamentable and almost measureless, and hardly less inconvenience will follow from a general destruction of these valuable documents, but I do not think this inconvenience would be so great as or at all comparable, in any way, to the sufferings which would come upon Ireland if general anarchy were to prevail.


We are only asking for the facts.


I have no further information on that at the present. I will only say this—that a State without archives is better than archives without a State.


Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to explain my question about the records? I did not expect him to tell me what had become of them. What I am asking is, that the right hon. Gentleman should, before Monday, find out whether these archives and documents are in the Record Office, and if they are cafe or not.


By Monday By to-morrow the country will know exactly what has been destroyed and what has not, in the way of buildings.

Information has come in since I began to speak. The building is burning; there is not much hope of saving it; 30 or 40 more of the Provisional Government troops have become casualties and there are strong rumours that the Irregulars have asked for terms of surrender and have been told that surrender must be unconditional.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes after Four o'Clock till Monday (3rd July).