HC Deb 06 August 1924 vol 176 cc2930-7
Mr. BALDWIN by Private Notice

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he has any information to give to the House on his return from Ireland?

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

As the House is aware, in view of the Report of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on the questions submitted to them, His Majesty's Government felt it necessary to confer with representatives of the Government of the Irish Free State and of the Government of Northern Ireland, and a joint meeting was held in London on the 2nd instant, after which the representatives of both Irish Governments returned in order to consult with their colleagues. I had already on the previous day informed the House that His Majesty's Government felt that it was an honourable obligation, binding upon the British people, to secure that the undoubted intention of the Treaty was carried into effect.

And, in order that that obligation might be fully discharged, His Majesty's Government entered into an Agreement with the Government of the Irish Free State, duly signed on both sides, but subject to confirmation by the respective Parliaments, to remedy the defect in the Treaty disclosed by the Report of the Judicial Committee; and the purpose of the Bill, of which I have given notice for to-day, is to ratify and give the force of law, so far as this country is concerned, to that Agreement.

On the 4th inst., my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister received a letter from the President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, in which Mr. Cosgrave stated that, after the fullest consultation with his colleagues, he felt it necessary to urge upon the British Government the necessity of passing the Bill into law before the adjournment of Parliament, in order to remove finally from the minds of the Irish people the grave doubts and suspicions which the long delay in the setting up of the Commission had created.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister felt that he could not call upon Parliament to consider legislation which was certain to meet with serious opposition not only in this House, but in another place at the very end of the Session, and without at least allowing some period of time for reflection both here and elsewhere as to the grave issues involved. At his request, therefore, my right. hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I crossed to Dublin the night before last. We had the fullest and frankest discussion yesterday with Mr. Cosgrave and his colleagues. They explained to us the very serious difficulties with which they were faced; and we explained to them the difficulties confronting His Majesty's Government and the British Parliament. I hope and believe that this mutual exchange of views was of value to both sides.

As a result of that discussion, His Majesty's Government, feeling that they ought not to leave any room for doubt in the minds of the Irish people or of the world of their determination to carry the Treaty into effect, have decided to ask Parliament to meet again on the 30th of next month (September), instead of on the 28th October, as had been originally intended. On that date, unless in the meantime the Government of Northern Ireland have nominated a member of the Commission, we shall move the Second Reading of the Bill, of which I shall give notice in a few minutes, and thereafter, in priority to any other business, we shall make use of all the powers available to us for the purpose of passing that Bill into law at the earliest possible date.

I will not pretend that the Free State Government were fully satisfied with this decision, or that they in any way receded from their view that the Bill should be passed into law forthwith. But I hope that, nevertheless, they will be able to satisfy their people that His Majesty's Government and the British people mean to keep faith with them, and to afford no shadow of an excuse for the accusation that this country has been in any way false to a Treaty solemnly entered into with the people of the Irish Free State. After the adjournment of the House to-morrow, therefore, we have until the 30th of next month before the Second Reading of the Bill. His Majesty's Government most earnestly hope that in that interval the Government of Northern Ireland will see their way to appoint their representative on to the Commission, and thereby to render the further progress of the Bill unnecessary. But let there be no mistake and no misunderstanding. His Majesty's Government accept the view that it is an honourable obligation undertaken by the people of Great Britain towards the people of the Irish Free State to secure that the Boundary Commission shall be set up, and that its recommendations shall be made effective by the Governments concerned.

The issues in this question are grave. They involve the honour and the good faith of this country. They are too serious to be the sport of party passions and politics. I venture, therefore, to believe that it is not asking too much of the Press and people of this country if I express the hope that, during the interval until this House meet again, they will refrain from any action which might awaken old suspicious or inflame old prejudices. It is, I am sure, the earnest hope of all of us that those suspicious and prejudices may before long be forgotten for ever.


I purposely refrain from any comment on the statement which has been made, but I think, perhaps, it would facilitate business to-morrow if I could ask a question of the Deputy-Leader of the House. The statement that the House will meet on the 30th September, of course, has come as a surprise. It will be within the recollection of the Government that a definite agreement was come to, through the usual channels, that the House should adjourn until the 28th October, and a part of the agreement was the affording of facilities to certain legislation to enable the House to rise by to-morrow. That part of the bargain has been kept. I quite see the difficulties of the position of the Government, but I want to ask them to consider, before the Adjournment takes place, whether they will be able to tell the House that, in the event of the proposed legislation passing, they will take no further business until the time that was originally agreed upon for the House to meet?

I would put this further suggestion to them for their consideration—and perhaps they would be good enough to consult again through the usual channels—whether the best form of Motion for tomorrow to meet the circumstances of the case would not be the Motion that was moved by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) in 1921 and by the right. hon. Gentleman the Member for West Birmingham (Mr. A. Chamberlain) in 1922, which gave Mr. Speaker power, on the recommendation of the Government, and if he thought it desirable, to summon the House at any time? That would enable the House to be summoned on the 30th September, or at an earlier date if any unforeseen contingency made that desirable or necessary. There is one other point in connection with fixing a date by a Resolution of the House. If by any chance it were not necessary to proceed further with the Bill, the House would be obliged, after passing a Resolution, to meet on the 30th September. The proposal which I have made would obviate that necessity. I put that suggestion to the Leader of the House, and I should be very glad to consult him about it.


The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, recognise, as will the whole House, that the first arrange- ment has been set aside by the force of circumstances over which we have had no control. I have to say, on behalf of the Government, in respect of his question, that we fully recognise the reason and the force of it, and everything will be done by the Government to meet the wishes which he has expressed.


Arising out of the statement of the Colonial Secretary, I should like to put to him three questions. First, I wish to ask whether the Colonial Secretary understands that, while the responsibility in this matter of course is the responsibility of the Government, in as much as the gravest interests of honour of all parties are involved, the party for which I am speaking at the moment are prepared to support the Government in the course that they think necessary and adequate to implement the Treaty without undue risk, whether that takes the form of meeting at the date that he suggests, or whether it takes the form, if necessary, of meeting sooner, or indeed, if necessary, of sitting on now. The second question which I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman is this: Would he think it well to make plain to the House, before the House separates, whether it is the policy of the Government to confine their proposed legislation to the implementing of the Treaty, without introducing either on one side or the other any qualifications which are not either expressed or implied in the honourable obligations of the Treaty itself as defined by Parliament? The third question I wish to put to him is this: Has the Colonial Secretary taken occasion to point out to the Government of Northern Ireland that under the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act, 1922, an Act of this Imperial Parliament, the opportunity of the Government of Northern Ireland to opt out, or to contract out of the Irish Free State was given them by the very same Article as provides for the appointment of the Boundary Commission, and that this option by the terms of the Article could only be exercised provided that the Commission was so nominated, and has the right hon. Gentleman pointed out to Northern Ireland that in that view Northern Ireland is claiming to accept the advantage of the Article without discharging the burden imposed by it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Honour!"]


That sounds rather like an argument on the Bill.


It is taking an unfair advantage.


It is causing mischief.


I want to put a question to the right hon. Gentleman, and I will promise not to make it the cover of a party speech. What I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman is this: With regard to the appeal that he has made to the Press, an appeal to which no doubt everybody would be anxious to respond if it were reasonably possible—[An HON. MEMBER: "Except the Liberals!"]—seeing that, in the judgment of those of us who sit on this side of the House and, as we believe, of a large number of people outside, the honour of this country is not involved in the legislation now proposed, but is entirely on the other side, does the right hon. Gentleman mean that for the two months that are to elapse before the Second Reading of this Bill, he expects complete silence in this country as to the controversy that must rage upon that point?


If any justification were needed for my appeal, it is to be found in the incidents of the last two speeches. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"]


They cannot play straight. They do not understand the meaning of the word.


I stated in the House last week that on the day that we took office we decided that we would make this question not one of party, but would endeavour to effect a settlement by both sides. I said to the representatives of the Northern and Southern people on behalf of the Government that we were convinced that a permanent settlement of this question could only be brought about by them themselves and no one else. I have never changed that view. I indicated the course that the Government intended to pursue. I repeat what I said to President Cosgrave yesterday, that, in our judgment, to attempt to introduce legislation at this stage and force it through by mere majority would not solve the question, but would render a solution ten thousand times more difficult, not only because the House itself is tired, but because an attempt to say to any one section, "Unless you do this in a fortnight, so and so will happen," is not the way to get agreement. That, I pointed out, was the position of the Government, and it was not an unreasonable request to make to the representatives of Southern Ireland.


That is the position of the Liberals too.


It was to that request that the representatives of the Irish Free State, with all their difficulties, responded, and I am deeply indebted to them for that response. Therefore, do not let us debate it to-day or to-morrow. With respect to the particular reference, no, we have no right to ask you to abate your views in the interval. We have no right to ask the Press to fail to discharge what is their proper function, but we are entitled to say to the Press, when a certain section of them every day and whilst I was in Ireland yesterday blazingly announces that a Republic will be announced in a few days, that they do not understand that they are giving encouragement, not only to the enemies of the Free State, but to the enemies of the Empire as well. In other words, we do not ask anyone to sacrifice their principle or abate their opinions, but we do ask them neither to allow their party influences or prejudices to blind them to the paramount importance of getting peace in this matter


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question with reference to business?


I am quite sure that I must not allow any further questions—

Captain BENN

It is a question as to business.


—unless it be purely a question about business.

Captain BENN

It is a question purely about business. When will the Bill be printed and circulated?


The Bill will be handed in at the Table by me in a few moments, and it will be printed and circulated to-morrow morning.


When will the Third Reading of the Appropriation Bill be taken?




No Member from Northern Ireland has yet asked a question. I shall not say anything provocative. I only want to ask the right hon. Gentleman, in view of what he has said about not stirring up party feeling, with which I sympathise entirely, that when he makes statements and speaks of the honour of this country being involved, he would be good enough to remember that the people we represent consider that there was an honourable engagement made with them in 1920. They look on that Act as being infringed, and if he could stop the bandying about of questions of honour in this way—we say there is no question of honour involved—and if he could only throw the emphasis somewhere else, it would greatly conduce to improved feeling in Northern Ireland.