HC Deb 11 June 1952 vol 502 cc208-12
Lieut-Colonel H. M. Hyde

I should like to draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to a matter which may possibly be considered a breach of Privilege. The matter concerns another hon. Member of this House, and in accordance with what I believe to be the custom of the House I have informed him of my intention to raise this matter today. I do so simply because I believe it to be my duty to the House and for no other reason.

The matter of which I complain consists of a remark or remarks attributed to the hon. Member in a report of a meeting of the Omagh Rural Council, published in the "Belfast News-Letter "of 10th June. This newspaper, although published yesterday morning in Belfast, did not reach the House until yesterday evening, and so I claim that I have raised the matter at the earliest possible opportunity.

The matter arose in this way. There was a meeting of the Omagh Rural Council on Monday last, at which there was proposed a resolution expressing loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. O'Neill) moved an amendment to the resolution in which he strongly urged that the council should not adopt the proposal and in the course of which, according to the newspaper report, he described Her Majesty as "a foreign ruler. "The amendment was seconded by a Mr. E. V. M'Cullough, who is a Member of the Northern Ireland Parliament.

The report in the newspaper continues as follows: Mr. C. S. Beatty, who proposed the resolution, said Mr. O'Neill and Mr. M'Cullough had already signed declarations of allegiance to the Queen. He supposed these were to be treated as scraps of paper. MR. O'NEILL—That is what they certainly are. MR. BEATTY—You signed a declaration of allegiance to draw Her Majesty's money. I do not know what sort of conscience you have. It seems to me that for an hon. Member to describe the declaration or oath of allegiance, which all hon. Members of this House are required by law to take, as a scrap of paper, amounts to a contempt, since it imputes that a declaration or oath is a meaningless formality.

Apart altogether from considerations of taste, on which hon. Members have, no doubt, formed their own opinions, this statement would also appear to me to be calculated to bring the proceedings of this House into public disrepute. It is, however, a difficult matter and I have searched in vain for any precedent which might cover it. Hence it would seem to me to be a matter of some importance, in which the House should have your ruling, Mr. Speaker, as to whether the matter of complaint which I have raised constitutes a prima facie breach of Privilege.

Copy of newspaper handed in.

Mr. Speaker

I find that the hon. and gallant Member has read the report accurately, so I need not ask the Clerk to read it.

Mr. Michael O'Neill

May I make a reply, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member may be heard, as he has been mentioned.

Mr. O'Neill

There are two mis-statements in the quotation. First, the resolution before Omagh Rural Council was not a resolution of loyalty to the Queen. It was a resolution expressing congratula- tions to Sir Basil Brooke on an honour conferred upon him by the Queen. We object very strongly to such a resolution, because we hold, first, that it is a political matter which should not be introduced at a local government meeting, and, second, because we believe that Sir Basil Brooke did not deserve the honour.

The scrap of paper which was referred to in the report, and which was referred to by the hon. and gallant Member for Belfast, North (Lieut.-Colonel Hyde) is a declaration which we in Northern Ireland are compelled to accept on taking our seats in local government bodies in Northern Ireland. We have always protested against this form of coercion, because we know that it does not exist in England, and it is merely a political manoeuvre to compel us to recognise a non-democratic, gerrymander system of local government in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I allowed the hon. Member to make a short statement so that he might have an opportunity of correcting any mis-statements of fact with regard to himself on this matter of Privilege. He must not expand the matter into a general political discussion. If he has anything specifically to deny in the newspaper report, I shall be happy to hear it.

Mr. O'Neill

I have denied the accuracy of the newspaper report. I want to give the House an understanding of what we mean by the declaration to which I referred as a scrap of paper. I want to convey to the House exactly the background of what we mean by referring to this as a scrap of paper.

As the House will know, we have repeatedly tried to bring this matter of local government before the House, but we can never get an opportunity. We are told that local government matters are solely the responsibility of Northern Ireland, and I fail to see why the House should accept responsibility today for local government affairs in Northern Ireland. The particular council is notorious for its gerrymandering——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot allow the discussion to go on along these lines.

The hon. and gallant Member for Belfast, North (Lieut.-Colonel Hyde) was good enough to give me notice that he would raise this matter, and I have care- fully considered it in the time at my disposal. The gist of his complaint is that the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. O'Neill) used words to the effect that the declaration of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen, which he had signed, was to be treated as a scrap of paper. The hon. Member for Mid-Ulster has now given us his own account of the affair.

I say, as I always have to say on these occasions, that it is for the House to decide, if the complaint is persisted in, whether such a phrase, if it was used, constitutes a contempt of the House by disparaging the oath of allegiance taken in the House before a Member takes his seat or votes. That is for the House to decide. If there is disputed evidence, the House must come to its own view on the evidence and whether it amounts to a breach of Privilege. My duty is confined to saying whether or not the hon. Member who raised the matter has made out a prima facie case of breach of Privilege so as to give the matter precedence over the Standing Orders for today.

I agree with the hon and gallant Member who raised the matter that there is no strict precedent in this matter to guide us. Indeed, in the light of a decision by the Court of Appeal on the Bradlaugh case on 28th January, 1885, it may be that it would be for a court of law to decide whether a Member who admitted that the statutory oath taken by him had no binding effect upon his conscience, had the right to sit and vote in the House.

The Court of Appeal, in 1885, said that if Mr. Bradlaugh took his seat and voted as a Member, although he had gone through the form of making and subscribing the oath appointed by the statutes, he would be liable upon information at the suit of the Attorney-General to the penalty imposed by the Parliamentary Oaths Act, 1866, Section 5.

In these circumstances, and with the information that is before me, it seems to me that this is more a matter of law than one to which I should give priority by finding a prima facie case of breach of Privilege. It will, of course, be open to the hon. and gallant Member who raised the matter to put down a Motion on the Order Paper to be dealt with in the ordinary way, if he so pleases.

Mr. Geoffrey Bing

I think it ought to be made clear, Sir, that the declaration which this discussion is about is no oath whatsoever in regard to this House but, as I understand, is a piece of paper pledging allegiance to the particular type of government which goes on in Northern Ireland and which it is necessary for local councillors to sign. It ought to be made clear that that is the position; otherwise, hon. Members are left under a grave cloud of allegations of this sort being made with no opportunity to refute them.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter for me. I gave my Ruling on the complaint, assuming the worst against the hon. Member who had been complained against. I do not find that there is a prima facie case of breach of Privilege.