HC Deb 21 April 1948 vol 449 cc1960-72

Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act no person shall be entitled to vote at a parliamentary election in any constituency in Northern Ireland unless he has resided in that constituency for a period of at least three months immediately preceding the qualifying date.—[Sir H. O'Neill.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Sir Hugh O'Neill (Antrim)

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The new Clause is to provide that in Northern Ireland there should be a qualification of three months' residence for a vote. There are special reasons in that part of the country why that should be so, and these reasons are recognised by the Committee on Electoral Registration. In Section 24 of their report (Cd. 7004), which was published in December, 1946, they refer to this matter. I should like to read what they say. Objections have been raised to the qualifying period being abolished, on the ground that there would be great difficulty in determining questions as to residence on a qualifying date only, having regard to the large number of people who cross the border into Northern Ireland. This difficulty, however, would not be confined to Northern Ireland, and we take the view that, if, as we believe, our proposal that the qualifying period should be abolished is right in principle, the proper solution of the difficulty, in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain, is to ensure that interpretation of the term 'residence' is such as to give effect to our intention that a person should be registered for the address at which he ordinarily lives. We are advised that there is substantial case law on the point, and we do not doubt that the draftsman will be able to give satisfactory statutory expression to our intention. As far as I can see, in this Bill the draftsman has not given any statutory definition of what really does constitute residence. I hope that the Home Secretary will be able to tell us what is the case law on this matter to which the Committee referred.

Another point which I would like to put to the right hon. Gentleman is whether people who may come into Northern Ireland from Southern Ireland are British subjects. I am not quite clear on that point—whether they are British subjects and qualify for the vote. If they are, and if they can be brought into the United Kingdom at a time of a general election for the purpose of getting a qualifying residence merely by being resident in a particular house on a particular day, that is the kind of abuse which is a real danger. I admit that it is a danger, to a certain extent, in any part of the country; but it is especially a danger in Northern Ireland because of the large number of people, as recognised by the Committee to which I have referred, who are habitually crossing the border, and who might, at an election time, come in for the purpose merely of qualifying by residing at a particular house or place on one particular day. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us what constitutes residence, and that he will be able to give us some really cogent arguments, if he does not accept the proposal of my hon. Friends and myself, why he is unable to accept it. If he does not accept it, I hope he will give us arguments which make it quite clear what does constitute residence, and that it is something more than being in a particular place on a particular day.

Mr. Ede

The question of what the word "residence" means in this connection was dealt with cogently by the Attorney-General on 17th March which is reported in Column 2239 of HANSARD for that day. "Residence" does not mean staying for one night in a hotel or being for one day in a particular place. That has cropped up several times during the course of the Bill, and I think that view has never been challenged when it has been stated from this Box by my hon. and learned Friend. The question which arises on this Amendment is whether there are to be two methods of qualification for being on the voting register in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. This proposal would make the qualification for Northern Ireland different from the qualification for Great Britain. All the while we are a united kingdom it is desirable that there should be uniformity in this matter.

Sir H. O'Neill

The right hon. Gentleman will agree that there was a difference under the old law.

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Ede

That is no reason why we should not right now what was wrong under the old law. That is one of the reasons for having this Bill.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Antrim (Sir H. O'Neill) asked me whether a citizen of Southern Ireland was a British subject for the purpose of this Bill. A citizen of Southern Ireland for that purpose is a British subject. When he comes to England he will be included in the register if he is resident, having regard to the definition of residence that I have given, in an English constituency on the appropriate date. I cannot see why he should be in a different position in Northern Ireland. While this may be aimed—and I gather from the right hon. Gentleman's speech that it is so aimed—at people who come from Southern Ireland to Northern Ireland, it equally applies to Englishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen who go to Northern Ireland—

Mr. McKie

It says nothing of the kind here.

Mr. Ede

I do not know what the hon. Member means by that remark. What I asserted—and I gathered from the approving nods which I had from the assembled Members from Northern Ireland that I was right—was if the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. McKie), having got rather tired through the numerous interventions he has made in our Debates today, decided to settle in Northern Ireland so as to remove himself from temptation, he would, under this new Clause, have had to reside for three months in Northern Ireland before qualifying to be a voter. I cannot see there is any necessity for such a differentiation and I advise the Committee not to accept the proposed new Clause.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Walter Smiles (Down)

I want to point out the facts as I really believe they are. The border between Eire and Northern Ireland is not the same as the border between Yorkshire and Lancashire, or even the border between England and Scotland. After all, in Yorkshire and Lancashire and in England and Scotland they all acknowledge one King and one flag. Mr. de Valera—and he is quite sincere in his belief—has said that they in Southern Ireland belong to a different country. They are under a different flag, and Mr. De Valera himself has talked about the British King being a foreign king. In Eire they teach Irish in their schools. We do not teach Irish in the schools of Northern Ireland. I could cite other instances of the differences between us. During the war there was one town on the border of Eire and Northern Ireland. One side of the street was in Eire and ablaze with lights; the other side was in Northern Ireland and in darkness. Surely that shows there is quite a different boundary between Eire and Northern Ireland from what there is in this country, and that in Ireland they are two different countries.

The Home Secretary talked about people who are British subjects coming to Northern Ireland and whether they are Englishmen, Scotsmen or Welshmen they would suffer the same disabilities. I unfortunately am not a lawyer, but so far as I can see from this Clause as drafted that would appear to be true. However, those are not the sort of people we want to exclude. In places like Newry or Londonderry, the border is so close that it is quite possible for people to come from Eire to Newry or Londonderry to work and go home to Eire in the evenings. They have far less distance to cover than the average man or woman working in the city and travelling to and from Greater London every day.

The very real danger in which we might find ourselves is that of being flooded with "foreigners" in some of our Northern Ireland constituencies [Laughter.] Hon. Members laugh, but I call them "foreigners" because they have ideas different from ours, and it is not impossible that we might get a flood of such people, not loyal to the British flag, who might alter the whole course of an election. After all, hon. Members opposite would not wish a flood of Frenchmen or Russians coming into their constituencies and altering the proper turn of the election. For those reasons, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider this matter.

Mr. Mulvey

The object of this Clause is to bring the law into conformity with the franchise law of Northern Ireland, which is, undoubtedly, the most undemocratic of any in any part of the British Isles. Thousands of voters in Northern Ireland are under that law deprived of Parliamentary, as well as local government votes, and if this Clause is accepted it will mean that still more people would be deprived of the vote. Hon. Members will ask how that can be done. At the moment, there is the Safeguarding of Employment Act under which residence permits must be obtained by workers who come from outside Northern Ireland. If the three months' residence prior to the qualifying date was adopted, it would be an easy matter for the authorities to get rid of these workers just before the time fixed for the registration of voters. That is what was in the minds of the sponsors of the Clause, and I am glad to hear that the Home Secretary has said he will not accept it.

I would remind the House of the keen desire of the Unionists of Northern Ireland to wipe out the Nationalists in the areas in which they hold majorities, and I ask leave to detain the Committee for a few moments by quoting a reference of a Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament, made a few days ago. He spoke at a Unionist meeting in Enniskillen, at which the Premier of the Northern Ireland Parliament was present. The report of his speech states: That was just one thing which was rather a 'black spot' in the report. That is the report of the Unionist Association. The Nationalist majority in the county, notwithstanding a reduction of 336 in the year, stood at 3,684. They must reduce, and-711imately liquidate that majority. 'This county, I think it can be safely said,' stated Mr. Ferguson, 'is a Unionist county. The Boards and the properties are nearly all controlled by Unionists, but still there is this millstone round our necks.' He would ask the meeting to authorise their executive to adopt whatever plans and to take whatever steps, however drastic, that they may deem necessary to wipe out this Nationalist majority. They asked for the people's support as it would not be done without plenty of hard work and some very drastic steps, but in the long run he thought they would succeed. So long as this majority stood against them in the county, so long would it be a very useful and potent weapon of propaganda against them.

The Chairman

I really have given the hon. Member a great deal of latitude, but I do not think his remarks are relevant to the new Clause.

Mr. Mulvey

Hon. Members are thoroughly aware that within recent years there has been the liquidation of different sections of people in Europe, but few of them are aware that in Northern Ireland, in the areas under the jurisdiction of this House, not a subtle but an open campaign is being carried on designed to wipe out the Nationalist majority. That is the object of bringing in this Clause by hon. Members opposite.

Mr. Keeling

I was a member of the Home Office Committee on Electoral Registration and of its sub-committee which went to Northern Ireland to investigate this point. Some of us presented a minority report which hon. Members can find at the top of page 23 of the Committee's Report, Command 7004. We found that the view of the overwhelming majority in Ulster was that movements across the border created conditions quite different from those experienced in Great Britain, and that with a qualifying date as the basis of registration it would be difficult to determine whether residence had been established. The Home Secretary said that the question was whether there should be two methods of qualification. As my right hon. Friend has said, there always have been two methods of qualification. The principle that residence requires to be more firmly established in Northern Ireland has always been accepted. The qualifying period has always been longer than in Great Britain. The right hon. Gentleman said that that was no reason why the difference should continue, but I should like to point out that there was and still is a very good reason, in addition to others already given, namely, that Great Britain is surrounded by the sea whereas Ulster has merely a land frontier with Eire, and therefore it is easier for a man to slip across from Eire to Ulster than to slip across from Eire to England or Scotland. Whatever the Home Secretary may say about the definition of residence, I am quite certain that the abolition of the qualifying period will multiply claims and disputes many times. I am quite sure it is wrong to abolish the qualifying period for Northern Ireland.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Bing

I think it might help the Committee if I were to call to their attention what was said by a Unionist Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament on this subject. This proposal put forward by hon. Gentlemen opposite is an attempt to continue the system of residence permits in another form. Speaking quite frankly—and this is an extremely courageous Member of the Unionist majority—he said this about it. He gave various instances where residence permits were used at times of elections to remove opponents of his own party, and I will quote one of these instances. Speaking of a residence permit, he said: It was refused because her sister and some other people in the house were suspected, and rightly suspected, of voting for and supporting the Commonwealth candidate at an election in South Belfast. A lady Unionist living across the street reported the matter, and this woman was refused a residence permit. Then he said, addressing not the Chair but his colleagues, with a freedom which is, perhaps, permitted in the Northern Ireland House, but which we do not allow here: When you stooped to that, you stooped to the lowest level of degradation. It is unfortunately true that means of excluding political opponents are often used by the Northern Ireland Government.

I will give only one more example, as I do not want to delay the Committee at this late stage. I will take the case of Captain White, of Whitehall, the son of the great Field-Marshal who fought at Ladysmith. He, as an elderly man, took up the cause of the unemployed in Northern Ireland. He was a Protestant landowner. He was served with an exclusion order—exactly the sort of thing for which this Clause would leave an opening—and when he fell into some family difficulty, when his children were ill, what was the document which the Government of Northern Ireland laid before him to sign before they allowed him to return to Northern Ireland? It was this: For reasons connected with my family and private affairs, I have decided that I cannot take any further part in public affairs in Northern Ireland, and I now undertake not to take any further part in public life here, and to keep the peace while the exclusion order is in force. I hope the Committee will support the Home Secretary in rejecting the Clause, which would lay the way open to abuses of this sort.

Sir R. Ross

I do not propose to follow the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing)—[An HON. MEMBER: "Apologise."] I should have thought that if anybody should apologise it should be the hon. Member for Horn-church, whose venom against the Government of Northern Ireland is the best guarantee of unfriendliness to this country, because those whom he supports are not friends of this country as a rule, and those whom he attacks are. Fortunately, his interventions in elections, even in the local Hornchurch elections, are not successful. It was the most peculiar account of Captain White that has ever been heard, and it is some time ago since that happened. I forget the precise year. The hon. Member went back 25 years to dig out something that he thought he could use the other day, and I suspect that this is not very far short of it. However, to return to the substance of the proposed new Clause, rather than this business of trying to throw mud at a loyal part of the United Kingdom—

Mr. Bing rose

Sir R. Ross

No, I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman seldom gives way when he is speaking—

Mr. Bing

On a point of correction—

Sir R. Ross

Very well, if the hon. Gentleman wants to correct something.

Mr. Bing

The hon. Gentleman accused me of going back 25 years. The Report from which I quoted is dated Wednesday, 30th April, 1947.

Sir R. Ross

Yes, but not the case of Captain White which is the matter I asked about. The hon. Gentleman is not able to quote the date for that. Probably he does not know it.

To return to the merits of the Clause, the whole case as put by the right hon. Gentleman has been entirely compromised by the speech of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and Tyrone (Mr. Mulvey). The substance of the speech of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and Tyrone was that if there has to be even so short a period as three months as a qualification for residence, the Nationalist majority in his constituency would be jeopardised. That is the effect of the speech. It is not a question of years, but of three months' residence. The hon. Member says it is an attempt to jeopardize an important Nationalist majority—

Mr. Mulvey

I did not say that. I said it was to prevent a Nationalist majority, or words to that effect, from increasing.

Sir R. Ross

So it is. We do not want people nipping over the border and then nipping back again, voting in Eire first, and then in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member has given his case away entirely because he says it is a very material factor in Nationalist tactics. I believe I have heard it said that identity cards can be obtained on reasonable terms in some parts by those who wish to come over from Eire to vote.

If I might have the right hon. Gentleman's attention for a few moments, there is a point I would like to bring to his notice. The hon. Gentleman in his speech on the new Clause, alluded to the Attorney-General's speech of 17th March. He said that the matter had been clearly and effectively dealt with by the Attorney-General. If the Home Secretary thinks it is clear, then I do not. The Attorney-General began by saying: As hon. Members know, the meaning of the term 'residence' varies very greatly according to the context in which it is used. It is perhaps one of the most difficult words to define in the whole vocabulary of the English Law. He then went on to give a definite instance. In respect of one law, it means one thing, and in respect of another law, it means something utterly different. He finally said: With regard to the franchise, it had a fairly well recognised connotation, although it had not been the subject of any very precise definition; but it was supposed to be something equivalent to 'inhabitance,' but if I were asked what is inhabitance 'I should have to reply in the words of a learned judge, who said that it is something approaching residence'."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1948; Vol. 448, C. 2239.] This is the precise definition which the Home Secretary wishes us to rely upon, with an open border which people can come across quite easily from various directions on the Appointed Day. I am glad to see that the Solicitor-General is here. Perhaps he will be able to improve on the Attorney-General's definition, because so far the thing is complete and utter confusion.

Then there is this further point. Practically everybody in Northern Ireland thinks that the registration will already be very difficult, and to have two registrations will mean a continuous registration practically throughout the year. That is the opinion of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and Tyrone as well as myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, with the knowledge of years not spent in Northern Ireland—I do not know whether he has ever been there—proceeded to overrule us both. Think of thousands of objections being argued on the question of inhabitance and what that means. Nobody yet knows. Even the Attorney-General does not know. I do not know whether the Home Secretary will say that he knows, or whether the Solicitor-General will clarify the whole matter in due course, but so far the whole thing is complete and utter confusion.

The suggestion that we made of a period of three months in one place was largely in order to cut out the difficulties which otherwise might ensue when there is this registration session. To have two in a year will be very difficult from the Imperial point of view. Therefore, I appeal to the right hon. Gentleman, in view of this, either to give us a definite and more precise ruling on which something can be done, or else to consider whether this suggestion of three months' residence is not a very reasonable one.

I think the hon. Member for Fermanagh and Tyrone (Mr. Mulvey) is really pessimistic when he thinks this is going to affect any genuine voters. I cannot see how it could. I beseech hon. and right hon. Members opposite not to allow their passion for unity to be carried to the length of having this unity also as regards residence qualifications, and so forth, because the conditions are totally different. Indeed, I do not think the Government know very much about the entirely different conditions in Northern Ireland. They are as different as walking across a street is from taking a journey across the Channel in a ship. Therefore, I urgently appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the whole matter, because it is a serious problem for us. I am sure he wants just and reasonable elections and does not want to land all parties in these interminable squabbles over jurisdiction.

Mr. Delargy (Manchester, Platting)

I think the Committee is really getting a little weary of these matters. After all, there is a Government in Northern Ireland; yet its representatives here, irrespective of this Government's legislation, come over here, whining, groaning and grovelling, and asking for special sessions for themselves. Surely, we are entitled to ask why should special, exclusive and preferential treatment be given to these people in Northern Ireland. Three hon. Members from Northern Ireland have spoken in support of this preferential treatment, including the senior member for Antrim (Sir H. O'Neill), who shows his vast interest in his own Clause by going out—

Mr. Gage

He is here.

Mr. Delargy

He was not in his place and he still is not. He made certain objections which apply with equal force in any part of the United Kingdom, As they apply with equal force all over the country, why should special legislation be made for Northern Ireland?

Sir R. Ross

They do not.

Mr. Delargy

The hon. and gallant Member for Down (Sir W. Smiles) thinks we should pass this Clause because the Irish language is spoken in Eire. But Welsh is spoken much in Wales and the hon. Member for the Western Isles (Mr. M. MacMillan) reminds me that most of his election speeches were made in Scots Gaelic, an old and beautiful language, older than the language we speak here.

Sir W. Smiles

What about the flags?

Mr. Delargy

I do not admit anything about flags: I should like to keep to one point at a time. Some hon. Gentlemen fear Irish voters in these constituencies. We on this side have no such fear because we know—and the Home Secretary must realise it, too—that unless Irish voters had come into Great Britain, there would not have been a Labour Government here tonight.

The hon. Member for Londonderry (Sir R. Ross) reproached the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Bing) for going back 25 years to find some peculiar abuse in the system in Northern Ireland. I can give the hon. Member for Londonderry one example which took place in his constituency, when three people, a man, his wife and a servant girl, came from County Donegal. Two of them, as they were born in Northern Ireland, were granted residence permits and votes: they belonged to the Unionist Party. The servant girl, who was born in Londonderry, had spent some time outside Londonderry with her employer and his wife, but when she came back at the same time as they did she was refused a residence permit, because everyone knew very well that she would never have voted Unionist. That is not going back 25 years, because the case came to my notice on 17th March, 1948, 'a date which the hon. Member for Londonderry ought to remember, because that was the day he tried to prevent my going to his constituency. I believe the House is growing weary of this subterfuge, special pleading, and sycophancy. The one good thing tonight has been the encouraging words used by the Home Secretary, who said that all the while there is a United Kingdom including Northern Ireland, we must do this and that. I like the phrase "all the while" because he seems to see a time to come when Ireland will be a united country.

12 midnight.

Mr. Ede

Nothing that I have heard from hon. Members opposite makes me think that the decision I announced to the House ought to be varied. During my period of office I have done my very best to understand the temperament and problems of Northern Ireland, and I have on occasions incurred some odium with my hon. Friends on this side because I have endeavoured to observe strict impartiality in the discharge of the duties of my office in so far as they concern Northern Ireland. I am bound to say, however, that I consider the greater part of my work in that regard undone by the deplorable speech made by the hon. Member for Down (Sir W. Smiles). I can think of nothing more calculated to make it difficult for me to pursue my policy than the attacks he made on other British subjects with whom he happens to disagree in politics. I would regret to think that that represents the considered view of the people of Northern Ireland on this problem and similar problems. I repeat what I have said. I can see no reason why there should be two residence qualifications in one United Kingdom.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.

To report Progress, and ask leave to sit again.—[Mr. Pearson.]

Committee report Progress, to sit again Tomorrow.