HC Deb 04 June 1924 vol 174 cc1257-61

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he is in a position to make any statement as to the progress of the Irish negotiations?


I hope the House will pardon a somewhat unusually lengthy answer. I think the House may wish to know, without delay, what steps the Government have taken in connection with the Irish Boundary question. Our relations with Ireland are now governed by the Treaty, ratified with the approval of all recognised parties after a General Election, during which the matter was specifically submitted to the electorate. The Irish question has thus been placed outside the ambit of party controversy, so far as this country is concerned. The task of the present Government is greatly facilitated by the fact that it has merely to give effect to the policy outlined by our predecessors, with which we are in perfect agreement. To us, as to them, the Treaty embodies a final settlement of Anglo-Irish relations, made once for all, with no ulterior purpose. And as we intend to observe it in the spirit as well as in the letter, so, of course, we look to Ireland to observe it. Without qualification, I must say that absolute faith has been kept by the Government of the Irish Free State with us.

With regard to the Boundary question, our predecessors made every effort to bring about a settlement by agreement. We continued those efforts, but when the Government of the Free State on the 26th -of April informed us that they saw no hope of further progress, we agreed to carry out the provisions of Article 12, as we were bound in law and honour to do.

Immediate steps were taken to find some person qualified and also willing to accept the appointment of chairman. Our view has been that the person selected should, if possible, be some one with judicial experience, detached from the politics of both countries. I have to-day received a cable which enables me to say that we have secured a chairman with these qualifications. I shall be in a position to- announce his name to-morrow.

On the 29th of April we informed the Government of Northern Ireland of the steps we were taking to appoint a chairman and requested them to appoint their representative. On the 10th of May the Governor replied that his Ministers respectfully declined to appoint a representative. This refusal naturally created a situation which His Majesty's Government were bound to take into serious consideration.

It was a reply which made it necessary to consider what were the legal and constitutional powers which His Majesty's Government are hound to exercise. It must be held in mind that under Article 12 of the Treaty the boundary between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland is to be such as is determined by the Commission. A question may there- fore be subsequently raised in the Courts as to whether a valid award has been made, involving the further question whether the Commission was legally constituted. His Majesty's Government have therefore decided to avail themselves of the power conferred on them by Section 4 of the Judicial Committee Act, 1833, to ask the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to advise them as to their legal and constitutional powers to constitute the Commission. We are laying the correspondence on the Table up to this point and Members will be able to see the terms of the reference to the Judicial Committee which are set forth in a dispatch. I have, however, a word to add as to the constitution of the Judicial Committee. The Lord Chancellor is anxious to include on this tribunal distinguished Judges from the Dominions. I am happy to inform the House that at his request the Chief Justice of Australia has consented to act, and will leave for London in the course of the next few days. For these arrangements His Majesty's Government are deeply indebted to the helpfulness and courtesy of the Commonwealth Government. We are in hopes that a member of the Canadian Bench will also be available. There is thus every reason to believe that the Judicial Committee will he able to sit and resolve the legal and constitutional issues in July.

We have by no means abandoned hope that the two Irish Governments may reach an agreed settlement before the Commission is constituted, though, even in that event, the Commission will be necessary to give formal effect to the agreement. In these hopes we have all been encouraged by the conciliatory utterances of President Cosgrave and Sir James Craig. Last week my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies, whose unfortunate illness at this particular moment we all deplore, felt that we ought to invite them to discuss the matter together. My right hon. Friend, the Home Secretary, took the same view, and so at the instance of my colleagues I wrote to President Cosgrave and Sir James Craig inviting them to meet, me on Saturday. At the meeting which took place I asked them to think over certain proposals which I have since submitted to them in the form of letters.

I will now read to the House the letter which I have sent to President Cosgrave:


In the course of our conversation with Sir James Craig at Chequers on Saturday, the 31st May, I pointed out that His Majesty's Government, being bound to exercise all their powers under Article 12 of the Treaty with a view to constituting the Boundary Commission, were taking steps under Section 4 of the Judicial Committee Act, 1833, to ascertain the exact extent of those powers. In view of the constitutional importance of the questions to be referred to the Judicial Committee, it is proposed to include in the Tribunal eminent judges from the Dominions. The Government of the Commonwealth of Australia have, at the request of the Lord Chancellor, arranged for the Chief Justice of Australia to come to England for that purpose. We hope that a Canadian judge will also be available. Every effort is being made by His Majesty's Government to secure within the next few weeks the services of a Chairman qualified to preside over the Boundary Commission. As the Chief Justice of Australia cannot reach London until July, some time must necessarily elapse before further formal steps can be taken. I am sure that the interval could profitably be employed, with the assistance of the proposed Chairman, in examining the general aspects of the problem and in seeing how far the desire for an agreed settlement expressed in your recent public utterances can in practice be fulfilled.

I intend, therefore, that the services of the person designated as Chairman should he available for this purpose. If, as I earnestly hope, progress can be made on these lines, the difficulties by which we are all at present confronted may well be brought within the compass of an amicable settlement."

The letter to Sir James Craig was couched in identical terms. I have had a reply from him saying that he is "willing to assist in every way in his power the consummation of this, the only statesman-like solution of the problem."

I have not yet received President Cosgrave's reply, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies has received a despatch evidently sent just before my letter could have been delivered, deprecating delay, and expressing a hope that the early appointment of a Chairman will enable certain preliminaries to be put in hand.

I cannot but feel, in view of these two communications, that we are in a position now to advance this vital matter one stage further. At any rate, of this I am sure that the spirit shown in recent pronouncements by the Irish leaders, which I conceive still animates them, gives me ground to hope that Irish statesmanship will enable the solution to be reached.


Can the right hon. Gentleman say when he expects that the Chairman will be in England?


The communication does not mention it, but we are trying to get him here without delay. He is, I think, 16 days off.


What will be the attitude of the Government if Northern Ireland refuses to be represented?


He is expected to arrive on 30th June.


What steps do the Government propose to take if Northern Ireland refuses to be represented? I would warn them that the covenanting spirit of Scotland is not dead.