HC Deb 27 November 1922 vol 159 cc290-4

On the 23rd November there was read from the Chair a letter from the Secretary for Home Affairs of the Government of Northern Ireland, intimating that a Member of this House, one of the Members for Tyrone and Fermanagh, was interned under a Regulation made by that Government, not specified, but to which only reference was made in relation to the Defence of the Realm Act and the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act. At that time it occurred to me that a privilege might arise in connection with this intimation, and you, Mr. Speaker, kindly allowed me to raise the matter this afternoon. Since then I have had the advantage of correspondence with you. The letter which was read did not disclose that the hon. Member had been arrested upon any charge. It is well established that privilege from arrest does not extend Jo criminal charges or to breaches of the peace. So far as can be ascertained, the internment order under which the hon. Member is detained comes under neither of these categories.


What is the date of it?


I think the date is in the letter, but that is not relevant to the point I am raising. The only legal definition of the position of such a prisoner is to be found in the judgment given in the House of Lords in the Zadig case. In that case Lord Finlay, who was then Lord Chancellor, stated that detention under Regulation 14B of the Defence of the Realm Act was not punitive, but solely preventive, thus, I think, clearly marking the distinction between such arrests and arrests on a criminal charge or for a breach of the peace. The only precedents, I submit, which have any bearing upon the present case are to be found in connection with various suspensions of the Habeas Corpus Act and the Protection of Person and Property Act, 1881. In the case of many of those suspensions of the Habeas Corpus Act, Parliament expressly provided that arrests made under the powers so given were to be reviewed by the House of Commons, and in the case of the Protection of Person and Property Act of 1881, a provision was contained in that Act laying it down that intimation of arrest of Members of Parliament should be made in the same way as in the case of a criminal charge. In spite of this special provision appearing, a Motion for a Select Committee of this House to inquire was accepted by Mr. Speaker Brand, I think, on the 7th February, 1882, and on that occasion Mr. Speaker apparently held that the question whether there was a primâ facie case was a matter, not for the Chair, but for the House.

The present case, I submit, seems to fall exactly within that precedent. I do not suggest that the hon. Member is not legally detained. I am not criticising the legality of the action of the Government of Northern Ireland. The sole question is, as to whether the privilege of the House does not extend to a Member so interned. I have pointed out, or endeavoured to point out, that privilege does not cover criminal charges and breaches of the peace. In the doubtful case of contempt of court, that distinction has also been plainly drawn. Where a contempt of court is civil in its character, it has been held that the privilege of this House protects any hon. Member; where, however, a contempt of court is criminal in its character, privilege, does not there apply. I am, therefore, in my submission to you, relying on this clear distinction, which has been observed in all the precedents, that unless there is a criminal charge, either on indictment or a breach of the peace, the House is entitled to assert its privilege, and in the circumstances of the present case I submit that I am entitled to move for a Committee of this House.


I cannot claim to be acquainted with all the legal technicalities arising out of the history and procedure of Parliament, and I am only asking that one of my fellow countrymen who has been honoured by being elected to this House for a district which happens to be a district that is severely interested in the question of the delimitation of the geographical areas of the Northern Parliament should not be victimised because of his political opinions. This man has been interned for some time. If he is a criminal, why is he not charged; if he has committed an offence against the laws of the country in which he lives, why does not the law proceed against him; and if he is found guilty of an offence, why not let him stand the necessary consequences? What we are asking for in this particular case is for the ancient privileges of Parliament to be asserted. The Bolshevists have turned Constitutionalists. We have been described as Bolshevists outside during the course of the Election, but we are asking that the Members of this House shall be protected in the constitutional way and be allowed to come here to exercise their duties, and that, if they are criminals, the ordinary procedure of the law shall operate against them. I, therefore, second the appeal on the broad grounds which I have just stated.

Captain CRAIG

Like the hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. J. Jones), I have not had time to look into the legal aspect of this question, but before you give your decision, Mr. Speaker, I would like to remind you and the House that the internment order under which this gentleman, who was elected for Fermanagh and Tyrone, has been interned is three months old, and that, therefore, the people who elected him were well aware of his present position. I would point out also that this gentleman is a Sinn Feiner, and that the other members belonging to that same party have declared more than once, and have carried out their declarations, that if they were elected to this House they would never take their seats, so that the effect of holding that this gentleman is entitled to the advantages and privileges for which the hon. Members now ask would be that this House would be reducing itself to a laughing stock by getting a gentleman out of detention who had no intention whatever of taking his seat.


I must not allow the last question to influence my mind. Whether a Member come here or not is a matter for himself and must not enter into my judgment, nor can I enter with the hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. J. Jones) into the question of the merits of the legislation, or the Regulation under legislation, with which we are dealing. I must keep my mind clearly and solely on the question whether a primá facie case has been shown for raising this as a matter of privilege. I must thank the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Pringle) for his courtesy in sending me very full details of the points he intended to raise, which has enabled me to consult the authorities before pronouncing on the merits of the question.

Having taken a good deal of trouble, believing it to be my duty to be careful in every respect of the privileges of this House, I am clearly of opinion that no primá facie case of privilege is shown here. This refers to action taken by the competent authority of Northern Ireland under the powers of the criminal law for the punishment of crime or the maintenance of order. In such cases privilege has not been allowed in this House. The hon. Member quoted a case under one of my predecessors, Mr. Speaker Brand, not exactly parallel with this, but, even if it were to be taken as any guidance, a little later in Parliamentary history there were cases of that kind in which privilege was not allowed. I am of the opinion, therefore, that no case of privilege arises here.