HC Deb 25 November 1948 vol 458 cc1413-23
The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

Mr. Speaker, I will, with your permission, make a statement on Eire.

In 1937 a new Constitution was enacted in Eire in which no reference was made to the Crown. This, however, left in force the Eire Executive Authority (External Relations) Act, 1936, which authorised His Majesty the King to act on behalf of Eire in certain matters within the field of external affairs as and when advised by the Eire Executive Council to do so. In December, 1937, the United Kingdom Government stated, after consultation with the Governments of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, that they, like those Governments, were prepared to treat the new Constitution as not effecting, a fundamental alteration in the position of Eire as a member of the Commonwealth.

On 7th September last the Prime Minister of Eire, Mr. Costello, announced that the Eire Government were preparing to repeal the External Relations Act. Subsequently, Mr. Costello confirmed this intention. As the House is aware, I took advantage of the presence in London during October of other Commonwealth Ministers to arrange on 17th October for preliminary discussions with Eire Ministers in order to explore the consequences which would flow from the legislation proposed in Eire. Representatives of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in which there are particularly large numbers of people of Irish ancestry, participated in these discussions.

Since then the matter has been under constant examination here. When the Eire Government announced that their Repeal Bill, to be entitled the "Republic of Ireland Bill," would be introduced on 17th November, I thought it right that the situation should be further discussed with members of the Eire Government and with the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs, all of whom were in Paris for the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Discussions took place accordingly in Paris last week. I should like to take this opportunity of expressing my warm appreciation of the constructive part played by Mr. St. Laurent, Mr. Fraser, Dr. Evatt and Mr. Pearson in the preliminary discussions. I have also discussed this matter personally with the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and informed him fully of the position.

As a result of these discussions the United Kingdom Government have been able to give the most careful consideration to the relations between the United Kingdom and Eire when the Republic of Ireland Bill comes into force. They regret that Eire will then no longer be a member of the Commonwealth. The Eire Government have, however, stated that they recognise the existence of a specially close relationship between Eire and the Commonwealth countries and desire that this relationship should be maintained. These close relations arise from ties of kinship and from traditional and long-established economic, social and trade connections based on common interest. The United Kingdom Government, for their part, also recognise the existence of these factual ties, and are at one with the Eire Government in desiring that close and friendly relations should continue and be strengthened.

Accordingly the United Kingdom Government will not regard the enactment of this legislation by Eire as placing Eire in the category of foreign countries or Eire citizens in the category of foreigners. The other Governments of the Commonwealth will, we understand, take an early opportunity of stating their policy in the matter.

The position of Eire citizens in the United Kingdom will be governed by the British Nationality Act, 1948. The Eire Government have stated that it is their intention to bring their legislation into line with that in Commonwealth countries so as to establish by statute that, in Eire, citizens of Commonwealth countries receive comparable treatment.

Mr. Churchill

In the Debate on the Address, we had every reason to suppose that the Government would resist the proposals of Mr. Costello's Government to sever the last tenuous link with the Crown, and that the Southern Irish would be confronted with all the difficulties which would arise in respect of the nationality of Irishmen in Great Britain and of the British in Ireland, and also in all matters connected with preference and trade relations. Now it appears from the statement which has just been made——

Mr. Stokes

On a point of Order. Is there any Motion before the House? Are we to proceed to debate this statement, because the Leader of the Opposition is not asking a question? He has come with long prepared notes, and is proposing to make a speech.

Mr. Churchill

Further to that point of Order. I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that when a statement of this momentous character is made by the Government, some statement of the position of the Opposition, naturally confined within moderate limits, is permissible and is customary.

Mr. Speaker

I think that is so. But it is more convenient under the Rules of the House if the Chief Whip moves "That this House do now adjourn." Otherwise, we get into a Debate which I cannot stop, and which is out of Order. From the point of view of the Chair it is more convenient if that can be done.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Whiteley)

I beg to move. "That this House do now adjourn."

Mr. Churchill

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and, addressing myself with great particularity to the Question whether we should now adjourn, may I be permitted to say that, whereas in the Debate on the Address we had every reason to believe that His Majesty's Government intended to raise all these issues of nationality and preference if the Dublin Government decided to sever this last tenuous link, they have now abandoned that position. They are going to acquiesce in arrangements which leave the Southern Irish in full enjoyment of any advantages there may be in being connected with the British Empire and Commonwealth without having any reciprocal obligations of their own towards it.

I do not wish to exaggerate the significance of the step which the Dublin Government are resolved to take. From the point of view of their relations with this country it is not of a very novel character. Mr. de Valera's External Relations Act did not prevent Irish neutrality in war, in mortal war, or the denial to us of the use of the ports on which our life sometimes depended. The External Relations Act did not prevent Mr. de Valera's Government from having an Irish Minister in Berlin and in Rome, and German and Italian Ministers in Dublin. I have no doubt whatever that he only retained the use of the symbol of the Crown for matters of domestic and local convenience. Therefore, it seems that the severing of this link implies no real or material change—whatever may be the sentimental issues involved—in the position which has been accepted and endured for the last 10 years or more.

We bear no ill-will to the Irish people, and we recognise the fact that world movements and world causes may bring us more closely together in future years, not only for practical purposes in matters of mutual convenience, but also in sentiment and in spirit. It is not the question of the relations between Great Britain and Southern Ireland which is important. The serious matter is the attitude of His Majesty's Government towards it and the action—or inaction—which they propose. I should like to make it clear that we on this side in no way associate ourselves with this action. The Government have the power, and they also have the responsibility. Of course, they are taking it in full harmony with the declarations of policy which have been made on their behalf by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is only an incident in the melancholy path we are now forced to tread.

But it seems to us of the utmost importance that two things should be made clear. The first is that on account of its geographical position near to Great Britain, and on account of the long, terrible and tragic history of the two countries, it seems clear that Ireland is in an entirely different position from any of the other parts of the world in—I must not say in the, British Empire—perhaps I may be allowed to say in which we are still at present interested. No arrangements which may be made by the present Government, or any other Government, in regard to Ireland can afford any rule or precedent for application elsewhere. I think that that is the view of the Government. Each separation from the British Crown will have to be judged in accordance with the circumstances of the time and the facts of the case. That is the first point; that this is no precedent. It may be right or wrong, but it is no precedent. No one has the right to say, "This rule applies without discrimination elsewhere." It is important we should be agreed upon that.

In the second place, it is quite clear, now that Southern Ireland has separated itself altogether from the Crown, that the maintenance of the position of Northern Ireland becomes all the more obligatory upon us. It is evident that a gulf has been opened, a ditch has been dug, betwen Northern and Southern Ireland which invests partition with greater permanency and reality than it ever had before. I cannot myself conceive that even the present Socialist Government, in their full tide of destructive success, would coerce the loyal people of Ulster out of their right to choose what shall be their relationship with the British Crown and Commonwealth. It is obvious that the position of the people of Northern Ireland, of Ulster, has been simplified and consolidated by the decisions which the Dublin Government have taken. That is a fact, and I was sorry that some emphasis on that fact found no part in the statement which the Prime Minister has just made to us.

There is only one other observation which I should make. We wish to harbour no towards the Irish people wherever they may dwell. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I have my own mental contacts with that people, whose fortunes I have followed and been connected with in many ways, long before those who make these superficial scoffings were called upon to form, or were capable of forming any intelligent opinion on the subject. I say that we on this side of the House harbour no towards the Irish people wherever they may dwell, and for my part I shall never allow the hope to die in my heart that, under whatever form may be adopted, our future sentiment and action will be increasingly in harmony. Finally, I must make it clear that in respect of future legislation which may be presented to us we reserve absolute freedom of action.

Mr. Clement Davies

The action which the Eire Government and people have taken is one over which they have complete control, and have had control since the Statute of Westminster. The question, therefore, is what attitude should the Government and people of this country take? Shall we now treat the Irish people as if there had been no relation at all between us and as completely dissociated and foreign from us, or should we do our best to maintain the friendly relations which always ought to have existed, and which can exist, between us? I think the statement of the Prime Minister is the only one which we could make. I am strengthened in this view by the fact, as I understand it, that that is also the desire and wish of the Irish and of the other members of the Commonwealth.

Sir Hugh O'Neill

Speaking on behalf of Northern Ireland, I should like to say that we view with the most profound regret this decision which has been taken by the Southern Irish Government. I look upon it as a disaster that the Southern Irish Government should have decided to sever the last link with the British Commonwealth of Nations, however tenuous those links may have been in the past.

Mr. Rankin

On a point of Order. Is it in Order for us to discuss a decision taken by a friendly Power?

Mr. Speaker

The House is in Order in discussing the statement made by the Prime Minister. Of course, this only occupies time which has been allowed for other Business.

Sir H. O'Neill

I was saying that the people of Northern Ireland consider it a matter for profound regret that the Southern Irish Government should have decided to sever the last link with the British Commonwealth and also to repudiate allegiance to the Crown. I think that everyone in this House will agree that the symbol and fountain 1 head of the British Commonwealth and Empire is, and always must be, the Crown.

On behalf of Northern Ireland, I should like to lodge an emphatic protest against the decision to call the State of Southern Ireland the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of Ireland. But Northern Ireland is not a republic. Northern Ireland is, and intends always to remain, a part of the United Kingdom. That is all I need say on this occasion, with the exception of asking the Prime Minister two questions. The first was raised by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. Can the Prime Minister again give an assurance that this change will have no effect whatever upon the constitutional status of Northern Ireland? Also, can he tell the House whether or not this decision implies legislation here?

The Prime Minister

In reply to the right hon. Gentleman, there is no change whatever in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. It was, I thought, quite unnecessary for me to repeat the statement I made in this House as recently as 28th October, in which I said: The view of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom has always been that no change should be made in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without Northern Ireland's free agreement."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th October, 1948; Vol. 457, c. 239.] I do not think that there is any immediate need for legislation. There may possibly be some need for clearing up one or two small points. I am advised that there is not likely to be any immediate need for major legislation.

I might say a few words on the general question. I was rather sorry that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) seemed to condemn the attitude taken by His Majesty's Government without suggesting what he would have done in the circumstances. The alternative would have been to treat Eire as a foreign country and to break off all relations——

Mr. Churchill


The Prime Minister

Why not?

Mr. Churchill

What about France and the Benelux countries?

The Prime Minister

Unless the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to put forward some policy which is better than that which, after careful consideration with other members of the Commonwealth, we have put forward, he might have accepted this with a better grace.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

I appeal to the House. I asked that the Adjournment should be moved, but I did not want other Business to be spoiled——

Mr. Churchill

Why not?

Mr. Quintin Hogg

On a point of Order——

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member cannot rise on a point of Order when I am on my fee+. I suggested that this matter should be debated on the Adjournment so that we might comply with the Rules. We should not debate this for the whole of the day. Hon. Members should remember that there is other Business to come before the House which I hope they will not curtail by prolonging this Debate.

Mr. Whiteley

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Charles Williams

On a point of Order. May I have some information for my own assistance and possibly for the assistance of other hon. Members? The Chief Patronage Secretary himself moved the Adjournment. Does not that mean that we can discuss this matter on the Adjournment?

Mr. Speaker

Yes, but there is the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. It was obvious that the Leader of the Opposition had a statement to make which I thought perhaps was not in Order in reply to a statement. Therefore, I appealed to the Government Chief Whip to move the Adjournment. It was a request from me. The Chief Whip moved the Adjournment at my request because I saw that the Leader of the Opposition had some remarks to make on behalf of the Opposition as a whole. I thought that the House would not want to take advantage of that and thus spoil the next Debate.

Mr. Hogg

On a point of Order. I think that most of us appreciate the courtesy of the Chief Whip in moving the Motion at the point at which he did. We applaud the motives which led him to do that. But, after all, this is a somewhat important question. If the House consents to the withdrawal of this Motion, as the right hon. Gentleman now seeks to withdraw it, would it be possible before that is done, for the Leader of the House to give some indication that we shall have some opportunity to discuss this matter at some other time? Speaking for myself, I could never consent to the withdrawal of this Motion unless I was assured that this most important constitutional issue could be properly ventilated in the House.

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

Further to that point of Order. The hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg) is needlessly complicating the situation. It was perfectly obvious that the Leader of the Opposition felt strongly about the matter.

Mr. Churchill

I felt bound to make a statement.

Mr. Morrison

Believe me, I am not trying to be controversial. The Leader of the Opposition felt that he had to make a statement perhaps outside the ordinary limits of a supplementary question. You, Sir, made an appeal to my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip to move the Adjournment. We consulted, and the Adjournment was moved. Obviously, this must be an exceptional case, and if we do not get on with the Business—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] It must be an exceptional case. Otherwise the Chief Whip will not move the Adjournment again. The Chief Whip, with my full concurrence, as a matter of courtesy to the Leader of the Opposition—and I think it was a proper courtesy—moved the Adjournment. If the position is to be abused, obviously he will not do that again. I cannot enter into any bargaining as to the conditions upon which the withdrawal will take place. I ask the House to be good enough to allow the Chief Whip to withdraw the Motion. If anybody wants to talk about this matter, conversations can proceed through the usual channels. I will not enter into any bargain as a condition to the Motion being withdrawn.

Mr. Churchill

Further to that point of Order. I am bound to say that these questions have been put to you, as you know, Sir, on a very serious statement which has been made by the Government Front Bench. It was a statement of policy on which, evidently, something was required to be said to indicate the position of the Opposition. Undoubtedly, it raises difficult questions as to exactly what should be said, or at what length such a statement may be made. I fear that, in what I was saying, I may perhaps have used language a little more definite than should have characterised an ordinary statement in response to a Government declaration, but I do think that this is a matter of great, and even of historic, importance. My hon. and right hon. Friends behind me who are associated with me feel that their position must be safeguarded at this stage in the interests of the House, and it was in that sense that I ventured to trespass, but I am grateful to the Chief Whip for having moved the Motion for the Adjournment, which, of course, placed me in Order. I trust that my hon. and right hon. Friends on this side will make sure that the progress of Government Business is not hampered or prolonged as the result of the Chief Whip having moved the Adjournment as an act of courtesy, and also, I think, for the general convenience of the House.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mr. Gallacher

I will only take two minutes, but it is necessary that I should say something. While agreeing with the Prime Minister and the Government on the necessity of treating the Irish in this country as they have always been treated, and making no change, it is very necessary that we should go into these things with a clear idea of what we are doing, because the Leader of the Opposition again referred to the Government of Southern Ireland. There is no Government of Southern Ireland. I drew attention in this House to this matter when the Act for the cession of the ports was being passed, and when this House was passing an Act legalising and recognising the Government of Eire. It is the only Government which has legal recognition and not de facto recognition, and I want to ask the Prime Minister, in view of the fact that he now recognises, not only the Eire Government but the Republic of Ireland, if he will follow the logic of that course, remove the partition, remove the substitute for a Government in Northern Ireland and provide for close and friendly co-operation between Ireland and this country.

Mr. Whiteley

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.