HC Deb 28 March 1922 vol 152 cc1281-96

I am exceedingly sorry that I am compelled to intervene at this late hour of the night, and possibly, through no fault of my own, to prevent many hon. Members who are interested in this question pursuing the discussion further. As, however, this matter we propose to bring before the House is one of vital and far reaching importance to my own constituency, and as this is one of the rare opportunities we are able to secure for the discussion of those matters which affect us, I trust the House will forgive me for intervening at this stage.

I intend to-night to take advantage of this opportunity to raise the whole question of the appalling conditions in Belfast, the massacre of innocent and unoffending Catholic citizens, the continued bombing of women and children, the establishment of a system of wholesale terrorism amongst the Catholic minority in the city, culminating in the cold-blooded assassination of Mr. McMahon and his family, which has shocked almost the entire world. These conditions are so terrible that I feel it is urgent to bring to the knowledge of the House and the world the state of terrorism that exists there. There is no doubt about it that, in my reading of the atrocities of the Turks in Armenia, and some of the infamies committed in Russia, there is no parallel for what is going on in Belfast at this moment, for the last two weeks, and almost the last 12 months. If I have remained silent, perhaps to many who are deeply affected by those horrible conditions existing there, it was in the profound belief and hope that time, the softening of political asperities, and the gradual growing power of the existing Government in Northern Ireland, would put an end to this condition of things that is undoubtedly a blot on civilisation and a disgrace to humanity.

Let me briefly state what has occurred in the last few days. I will come to a matter that indeed most deeply affects the Government. I propose to saddle the Government with the responsibility for what is going on there, because when it comes to the knowledge of the House that most of these violent attacks, assassinations, bomb-throwing, and murders take place between the hours of eleven o'clock at night and six o'clock in the morning—the curfew hours—the House will realise that I am compelled, as I am compelled, to endeavour to saddle the responsibility upon those who are responsible for the Government, for the preservation of public order, and for the defence of the people's liberties. During curfew hours this morning bombs were thrown into a crowd in Unity Street, Belfast. At 4.15 this morning a second bomb was thrown in the same district, and a further bomb was thrown later on. It is the conviction of the people whom I represent that most of these outrages are committed by the uniformed officers of the law, and that the men who are paid to protect the defenceless minority are themselves the miscreants who are committing these deeds.

These outrages, which have been going on for the last 12 months, and with greater ferocity, culminated in the murder of one of the most respectable families in Belfast. I speak with some feeling with regard to this latest outrage. Mr. McMahon, whose four sons were murdered and two of whose sons now lie dying in the hospital, was a very close and intimate personal friend of mine. He was a leading merchant in the City of Belfast. He was a man who, if you were to go through the whole city would be regarded as the most unoffending citizen. He took no part in politics. He had a family of sons, now murdered, who were fine, vigorous, athletic young men, who took no part in politics. Here, at I o'clock in the morning, a band of assassins entered Mr. McMahon's house, dragged his wife and little niece out and forced them into a room, and forced Mr. McMahon and his six sons into another room, and murdered him and four of his sons and mortally wounded two others.

11.0 P.M.

To give the House an idea of the character of this crime, I propose to read to the House a description of this scene from a leading Unionist paper, the "Belfast Evening Telegraph." It stated that the most terrible assassination that has ever stained the name of Belfast took place in the early hours of this morning, when five men were murdered in a district right in the heart of Belfast. Here lived Mr. McMahon and his family of six sons, his wife and niece and domestics, including his manager. Mr. McMahon, who is the proprietor, is one of six brothers owning licensed houses in the city. In the early hours of the morning, at 1.30, five assassins crept into the house and murdered five of the occupants, and two others were badly wounded. The family were in bed and the house was in darkness, when a thunderous sound was heard which Mrs. McMahon thought was a bomb. She and her husband went downstairs and were met by masked men carrying large revolvers. The gas had been lighted in the sitting room. What happened to Mr. and Mrs. McMahon could only be assumed, for the husband was now dead and the poor wife was in a stupor in a neighbour's house. The women in the house were collected and put into a back room on the first floor, and then the intruders proceeded upstairs, awakened the men, ordered them downstairs in their shirts at the point of the revolver and were put into a parlour. There was a pause, and then the leader of the assassins told the terror-stricken victims to avail themselves of the few minutes left, them to pray for their souls. While Mrs. McMahon the wife and mother was praying for the lives of her loved ones the revolvers spoke repeatedly, and one by one the victims fell. The shots intended for the youngest victim, a boy of 11, missed the lad, and shrieking with fright he ran round the dining table and hid under the sofa, being discovered there when the rescuers entered later on. In all the murderers were not more than five or six minutes in the house, and having satisfied their blood lust in this most terrible form they disappeared over the palings and were lost in the dark.

As I said, Mr. McMahon was a personal friend. I felt profoundly moved, and horrified and indignant. I was anxious to get the truth, so far as it could be ascertained, so I called yesterday at the hospital and interviewed Mrs. McMahon. She told me distinctly she saw men in uniform committing these crimes, and I understand that the little girl, her niece, also says—


The hon. Member is now going into details of the evidence-matters which are really under the control of the Government of Northern Ireland. I understood when he spoke to me privately his claim was that His Majesty's Ministers, who are here in reference to the Conference to be held to-morrow, should be made to feel that the conditions in Belfast are not lost sight of. So far the hon. Member would be quite in Order, but I must ask him not to trench on what is really within the province of the Government of Northern Ireland.


I propose, as you will see presently, to justify my claim that this is a matter that can be brought before this House, because these special con stables, who are a menace to the State, who are far worse than the Black and Tans in the South of Ireland, who are infinitely worse than the, Black and Tans who so horrified the world, and whose misdeeds so horrified humanity every where, that this Government was compelled to take them away and try some other policy—I say these special constables are worse than the Black and Tans, and they are, I assert, paid, not by the Government of Northern Ireland, but by His Majesty's Government, and I want to know from Members representing English constituencies whether—


Perhaps the hon. Member will put his point clearly. He has been a long time in arriving at it. Is it very plain that these constables are paid from the British Exchequer?


Yes; and the Secretary of State for the Colonies will not deny it. I have been listening to economy Debates. I have been listening to the eloquent speeches of distinguished ladies asking for £27,000, which you are economising, for the maintenance of women police to do not only a great work, but to serve humanity and lift those poor fallen women and help them: and you are taking that £27,000 away. Yet you are paymasters of those whom, I declare here to-night in the House, are responsible for those misdeeds that are shocking the whole world. Five minutes before I got up here in the House, I got a cablegram from America, from some one I do not know at all, saying: All America is shocked at the story of those infamous barbarities. I want to say to the English Members now, in the midst of all this cry for economy, when you tell us that you cannot build houses for heroes to live in, that you cannot spend this £27,000 on the maintenance of an efficient police force in London, that you are prepared to subsidise and pay for hired assassins who are bringing the blush of shame to our cheeks. Is there any hon. Member of this House who does not blush at the story, which has not been told by me in inflammatory language, but registered in the cold language of an Ulster Unionist paper? I myself might regard this as an isolated case that has occurred as a reprisal for something done. It might be an excuse if it were a reprisal, but it could not by any possibility be a justification. But for 12 months I have been bringing cases, not perhaps so striking in their infamy or so blood-curdling in their details as this one, but cases of a similar character before this House, and never has one of the miscreants been brought to justice. In November, 1920, I drew the attention of the House to the cold-blooded murder of three young Catholics, Messrs. Gaynor, Troddyn, and McFadden, who were shot in their homes at one in the morning, two hours after curfew, when the city was entirely in the hands of Government forces. In May last there was the murder of two brothers, Duffin, in Springfield Gardens, at the time of the curfew, when the armed forces in the city were those of the Government. On Sunday, 11th June, there was another murder of three young Catholics, Alexander McBride, William Kerr, and William Halfpenny, who were brutally murdered by armed men, who drove to the house in motor cars and dragged the victims from their beds. In these cases the murders were committed in the presence either of the wives or the mothers of the victims. Finally, we have the case of Mr. McFahon. I will not refer again to the case of the bombing of the children in Weaver Street where a number of children were killed. All this has been done in Belfast where you have a settled Government and the Northern Parliament with all the power they can possess. The Northern Parliament was set up in order to protect the minority. There is a minority of 100,000 citizens in a population of less than 400,000 and that minority is living in a state of stark and absolute terror. These gangs of assassins have lists of names and on the slightest provocation they go to these homes of isolated Catholics living away far from the City. In some cases they bring motor lorries and in others, as in the case of the McMahon family they sneak in the dead of the night and pierce into the homes of these innocent people and murder them. Not one of them has ever been brought to justice. Not one has ever been arrested. The comedy mixed with this horrible appalling tragedy is that at this very moment the Northern Parliament is passing through a Restoration of Order Bill, more coercive and more indefensible than any Bill passed here for dealing with the rest of Ireland. Let me tell the House the story Mrs. McMahon told me. A special constable who lived near her came to her boys and said, "I will give you revolvers to protect yourselves." The boys said, "We do not want revolvers. We do not interfere in anything that causes conflict or trouble. We do not want them." If they had had revolvers in the house they could have protected their lives. The Northern Government is passing an Act which enacts that if a revolver or rifle is found in any house in Belfast the person who owns it will be flogged or executed. Then if Catholics have no revolvers to protect themselves they are murdered. If they have revolvers they are flogged or sentenced to death. Was there ever anything like it in any Christian land? That Act is being carried through Parliament now.

Now let me come to this point. Let me tell you who these special constables are. A portion of them belonged to Lord Carson's army—political partisans organised to break the law. Another section of them are what are called B constables. They are men who only do marching work, belonging to Orange Lodges, Tory associations and things of that sort. They get £1 for marching along the road, or through unfrequented parts of the city—all political partisans. Now there is a third class called C constables. Sir James Craig announced the other day that he was going to arm 20,000 of these men. There is nothing to prevent them breaking into my house any night. I do not carry arms. I should not know how to use them if I had them. I once got into frightful trouble at a time when arms were very popular for saying that if I had my will I would not have a rifle or revolver in Ireland in the hands of anyone. They are a curse in any country where they are.

I assisted the British Empire in their task during the War, because they were fighting Prussian militarism. It was not because it was Prussian militarism, but because it was militarism. I do not care whether militarism is American, English, German, or French; it is a curse upon humanity, and has cankered and corroded all that is best and noblest and Christian amongst men and women. For my part, if I had a revolver I could not use it. [Interruption.] I will not reply to a single interruption. I could squash that gentleman with a breath. I could blow him out as the last of the Die-hards, but I do not notice him; the matter is too serious. If these men choose they can go into my house any night. I have got countless threatening letters from them, but I do not care about those threatening letters, for I trust that, however I may be lacking in physical courage, I am not without moral courage. However unpopular, or undesirable, or difficult the task may be, in the public interest I will perform it, and in that spirit I am performing that duty now. They could come in at any time and shoot me dead. My political opponents are armed against mc, but under the Restoration of Order Act—how splendidly euphonious and beautifully musical are these expressions used to camouflage these coercive measures and these attempts to destroy the liberty of the citizen—if I were found with a revolver I could be flogged or sentenced to death, and if I have no weapons, as in the case of the McMahons, then my life is not worth 24 hours' notice. I again point out to the Secretary of the Colonies that all this is being paid for out of the depleted Exchequer of England. In the Northern Parliament the Chancellor of the Exchequer declared the other day that you were paying for it up till October, and he says that he will saddle you with all the expenditure for the continuance of this force in Belfast. Further, Sir James Craig announced that he was going to vote £2,000,000 out of the Exchequer of the Northern Parliament—an almost empty Exchequer—to raise some other military force, to finance either the "C" specials or some other force. And this whole, splendid and scientifically organised military machine is to be under the skilful handling of Sir Henry Wilson, now the Member for Down. He has now come into Parliament, and is the Member for North Down. Within the last few weeks deputations of Catholic traders and merchants have come to me from Belfast asking me, for God's sake, to do something to get their lives preserved and their property defended. Two hundred shops belonging to Catholics have been burnt to the ground, and nearly a hundred of these men or their shopmen or assistants have been murdered. One of my own greatest friends in business in Belfast told me the other day—I hardly knew him when I met him, he was so unnerved—that he had not slept in his house for six months. He sleeps away in another part of the city. All this is happening in a city that has a Government of its own, that has full control and untrammelled power in regard to preserving law and order. They got that Parliament because they represented a minority as compared with the rest of Ireland, and, mark you, these men who are attacked and assassinated, whose property is destroyed, whose children are assassinated, are not politicians at all. People talk about Sinn Fein, but these men have no more to do with Sinn Fein than the Colonial Secretary. Most of them are supporters of mine, and I am told, "You, the constitutionalist, you the man that looks to Parliament for the redress of public grievances, this is how your constituents are treated, and there is no redress." I say now frankly that in my judgment this is a deliberate plot to exterminate the Catholics of Belfast and drive them out of the city, and as long as the British Government chooses to pay to maintain these special constables, so long will these things go on. Surely some more useful purpose could be served by the expenditure of this money. In addition to what you are paying for maintaining these special constables, who are not constables at all, but malefactors in uniform, they are voting £2,000,000 themselves for the purpose of raising a fresh army. The fact of the matter is that our people do not know where to turn or what to do in the circumstances.

I have tried to think out as best I could what could be done to meet this horrible condition of affairs, and I am prepared to make a suggestion. I say that these special constables should be disbanded altogether. The first and the only justification for police at all is that they maintain order, that they defend the people's liberties, that they stand by the people's rights. There was an article the other night in one of the Belfast papers asking, "Are we living in Mexico?"—and these are the most, model people in Ireland. If with special constables, and the expenditure of vast sums of money which are a drain on the Imperial Exchequer at a time when public funds are needed for so many and so varied purposes of national utility in this country, this is the record of their work for law and order, surely it is time that the right hon. Gentleman cried "Halt!' I believe that if the British taxpayers knew that this money was being paid by them to maintain a force like that, there would be an absolute uprising amongst the indignant taxpayers of this country at being called upon to finance a conspiracy of wrong and disorder.

My next suggestion is that, until these people learn to behave themselves, the whole city should be put under the military. The people, even in the worst and most violent days in the South of Ireland, had respect for the military. You had no hestitation, when there was an odd murder here and there, in put ting martial law into operation in the rest of Ireland. The military ought to be under an absolutely impartial authority, and subject to control by the, right hon. Gentleman or by the Secretary for War. There ought to be, as I suppose there must be, a police force, but it should be an independent police force, controlled by some Commission, composed half of Catholics and half of Protestants, which would be independent of this Northern Government. In that way something might be done. That is all that I can think of as a means of stopping these crimes. The fact is that something horrible will occur there. I want to avoid and avert it if I can. I do not know whether any hope lies in the Conference to be held to-morrow. I profoundly hope that some good will come out of it, and that this campaign of murder will end. But it arouses tremendous passion, and makes a solution profoundly difficult, when the whole vast mass of Catholics of the rest of Ireland see their co-religionists treated in this fashion in Belfast by those who have lived and thrived upon their platitudinous expressions of "law and order," which have been their stock-in-trade on every platform and have won for them this Northern Parliament. The fact of the matter is, that England does not realise what is going on. There is a Catholic church in one of these districts. It is attacked about every week. Soldiers have to be brought up constantly to protect the Convent. Attempts were made to burn down the Convent. I saw parts of it burned myself, and nuns were driven from it. You would not find a Protestant in an area which would cover the ground from here to the Westminster Palace Hotel. There are in the area a dozen Protestant churches to which the Protestants go unmolested, not one of them attacked. They go in crowds to the Protestant churches in the Catholic districts, and I was informed that the volunteers actually lined up to see that nothing was done to them in the pursuit of their Christian obligations on the Sabbath morning. But that the powerful party, the party of the 250,000 of population, the party of wealth, the party of intelligence, the party which claims to have all the virtues, should wage war upon these wretched and helpless and defenceless men and women is enough for the world to cry "Shame" on them. Many in Belfast are already saying, "Oh, Lord, Oh, Lord, how long?"


The House will recollect that hitherto I have declined questions or debate on the subject of law and order in Northern Ireland, and I think rightly so. But it has come to my knowledge only to-night that an arrangement has been made for a certain contribution in aid of the constabulary forces in Northern Ireland which is under the control of His Majesty's Ministers here. That, of course, has altered the position, and to that extent has brought within the rules of Order the speech of the hon. Member for the Falls Division (Mr. Devlin). I felt bound, in justice to myself, to explain to the House that a new fact had arisen, which alters the decision I had given previously.

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

No one will quarrel with my hon. Friend the Member for the Falls Division of Belfast (Mr. Devlin) because of his very strong, bitter, passionate feeling at the present state of affairs among his own people, in his own constituency, and in a city with which, all his life, he has been associated. I am not going to trespass long on the attention of the House, but a few words are required from this bench in answer to the vehement protest and appeal, the cry of pain and indignation which he has raised. Let me say just a word or two upon the facts, and then I will say a little about the responsibility which we have assumed in regard to these matters in Northern Ireland.

It is impossible to describe more powerfully and more horribly the massacre of the McMahon family than has been done in the quotations from a Unionist newspaper—I draw the attention of the House to that, a Belfast Unionist newspaper—cited and quoted by my hon. Friend. I think one would have to search all over Europe to find instances of equal atrocity, barbarity, cold blooded, inhuman, cannibal vengeance—cannibal in all except the act of devouring the flesh of the victim—which will equal this particular event. But I can find other instances in other places in Ireland equalling it in horror. Only a week ago two unfortunate sergeants of the Royal Irish Constabulary in Galway—both desperately ill in the hospital, in a district from which the rest of their comrades had been withdrawn, without, unhappily, notice of their presence in hospital being sent to the Provisional Government which would have ensured no attempt being made—were crept in upon at night and murdered in their weak, helpless, invalid condition, with every circumstance of cold blooded fury and barbarity. A wretched man already once wounded, in the workhouse hospital, was again dragged out while still in that awful state of physical and moral weakness which attends recovery from gunshot wounds, and was shot to death. If we are to paint these horrors in lurid terms, with all the resources of powerful descriptive rhetoric, they will have to be painted on both sides.

What Englishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen are asking themselves is: Why is it that Irishmen will go on doing these things to one another? We stand in a new position now. I think the House, as the Session advances, increasingly appreciates the strength of the new position in which the representatives of the British Government stand. We seek only the repression and the termination of these horrors. We have no other object and no other interest. The rest must lie with the representatives of the Irish people across the Channel. Everything we can do to help them to shake themselves free from this convulsion and spasm—due, no doubt, to the tragedies of the past—will be done, and every action which I shall submit from this box must be defended and justified only in reference to that.

What are we doing? We are most strictly following out, with all its consequences, and with all its disadvantages, where disadvantage occurs, a two-fold policy. First, we are carrying out the Treaty which has been signed, for good or for evil, right to the end, with the utmost meticulous strictness in every point. Secondly, we are going to defend Ulster in the enjoyment of the rights which are secured to her. No one can suppose that there will not be many evil consequences and many difficulties and disappointments attaching to both those positions. You will be able to show, for instance, that carrying out the Treaty here and there causes the greatest possible disadvantage, or injury, or humiliation almost, in some parts of the country, or in some aspects. You will also be able to show that in this process of giving Ulster the necessary support that she requires to maintain what are her rights under the general arrangement, you will become responsible indirectly for episodes which fill everyone with the most profound shrinking and regret. All the same, those are the two planks in our platform, the two elements of our policy—that Ulster must be given the assurance that she will not be invaded, upset, brought into a condition of chaos, by any agitation created from the South, or arising in herself, in sympathy with the South, and, on the other hand, that the Treaty will be carried out strictly and honestly and fully in regard to the Southern Government. Thus we will show to both sections of Irishmen that nothing further is to be gained by force, that everything further can be gained by concord and agreement. We shall hold strongly to that position.

I venture to submit to you, Sir, the fact, which certainly has never been concealed from the House of Commons, that we have decided to help Ulster during the present very critical period by granting certain sums of money in aid of the Special Police arrangements which she has to make, and also by putting in considerable numbers of troops, which will be reinforced if necessary. I cannot deny for a moment that that involves us in a certain degree of responsibility, but we shall not ignore that responsibility. We shall do our very best to make the influence which we have a right to assort in consequence of that responsibility felt continuously. That we have done, and that we shall do. Of course, you cannot judge any one episode in this Irish situation without reference to the others. Why is it that 20,000 special constables have been called out in Ulster? A violent raid was aimed, was levelled, across the frontier into the territories of Ulster, 50 or 60 people were hauled from their beds in the night, including an old man of 80 years of age, and dragged off into the territory of the Southern Irish Government, where they remained for three or four weeks. As soon as the Provisional Government could get to work, with their feeble resources—growing resources at the present time—they succeeded in securing the return of these men, but meanwhile the harm had been done. The whole of Ulster was in a state of the gravest panic, the whole borderline population was placed under the fear and apprehension that they might be dragged from their beds, and carried off into the mountains, and a sort of mobilisation took place. But if anything like that were to be done again, or threatened again, be sure that ample forces would be provided, and would be at hand in order to repel it, and to control the situation. I am hoping that, without either failing to do justice to Ulster or failing to do justice to our Treaty obligations, we may get to a better state of affairs. We have a great deal of influence in this matter, and we shall use it solely with the object of producing quietness and tranquillity. After all, it is very difficult to accuse the Ulster Government of the unnecessary mobilisation of 20,000 of these B Specials, when there are openly admitted to be We divisions of the so-called Irish Republican Army in Fermanagh and Tyrone at the present moment.


I only referred to Belfast, which is 60 or 70 miles from the border, and although I would like to discuss the whole question with the right hon. Gentleman, I must ask him to confine himself to the particular instance with which I have dealt.


I am not going to confine myself to a particular instance. I must deal with the general state of affairs throughout the Northern Province. We are not giving a grant-in-aid merely for the B Specials in Belfast, and if Belfast were alone concerned, we should never have been called upon to render such assistance to the Northern Government. The great bulk of the B and A Specials are on the frontier in the districts which are disturbed, and it is to those that our grants have gone. I could not possibly defend the action of giving these sums of money except for the general fund.


Where are these Specials recruited?


From all over the Province of Ulster, from farmers' sons and others, and the greatest inconvenience and difficulty are being experienced in carrying on the ordinary agricultural processes, owing to so many men having been taken away from, their ordinary avocation.


Not taken away. They have come away because they are paid by the Orange Lodges.


They would be extremely glad to return to their ordinary avocation. But it is my business to put both sides of the case, and I am bound to point out that, while there are two divisions of the so-called Irish Republican Army practising their military evolutions, practising bomb-throwing, road blowing-up, and all sorts of attack and ambuscade, actually organised within the territory of the Northern Government, that while there is this very strong movement on the border outside the territory of the Northern Government, it is quite impossible to expect that such a Government will not be in a state of very great anxiety, and will not be bound to take every kind of exceptional measure to preserve its own security. I am putting these points not at all in order to heighten feeling, but only in order to show that my hon. Friend's picture would not be complete without a wider view being taken. As far as Belfast is con cerned, I agree with him to a very large extent that it is probably the main cause of the troubles on the border, and, indeed, a great exacerbation of all that is taking place in Ireland. If we could get that square mile of houses round Falls Road into a state of tranquility and peace, and ordinary civilisation and charity—


I want to correct the right hon. Gentleman. There was not a single outrage in that district.


Anyhow, in that part of Belfast. I do not pretend to be very familiar with the geography of Belfast.


That is the road you had to run down when Carson chased you with Galloper Smith.


I should like very much indeed to see both sections of the population, both creeds, both races, represented in a great effort to reestablish peace and order there. I do not at all exclude, if such measures fail, recourse to the impartial authority of the Imperial troops, who are now, in response to the demand of the Irish people, withdrawing their impartial and moderating influence from Irish affairs.

To-morrow we hope that the Conference will begin on this subject. I am sure my hon. and gallant Friend has been careful in his speech in not saying anything that would complicate the task of the Conference. I am glad to know that no less than five Ministers of the Ulster Cabinet are coming over, and there are here four Ministers from the Provisional Government. It is my hope, and the hope of every one of us, that these Irishmen, dealing with purely Irish affairs, with nothing but the interests of their own island to consider, with no British influence brought to bear upon them from any point of view except that they shall live in peace and tranquillity together, will be able in the course of their frank and earnest discussions to arrive at some method of modifying the appalling horrors which are due to the hatred, and solely due to the hatred, of one creed and one class of Irishman against another.

Question, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.