HC Deb 03 May 1956 vol 552 cc749-60

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Barber.]

11.32 p.m.

Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)

I am not raising the case of the Roger Casement papers in any partisan spirit. I am not concerned whether Casement was a national hero or a traitor or a misguided idealist, but merely with the question whether certain diaries and other notebooks attributed to him are genuine or false. These diaries are understood to be preserved in the so-called "Black Museum" of Scotland Yard.

Copies of this material were circulated at the time of Casement's trial in 1916, and they played a significant part in the events leading up to his execution. These documents purported to show that Casement was a homosexual, and they had the effect of alienating the sympathies of a number of individuals who would otherwise have supported the movement for his reprieve.

People who knew Casement, including some still living, amongst them Mr. William Cadbury, the well-known Quaker, take the view that these documents are spurious. I understand that Mr. Cadbury has recently communicated this view to the hon. Member for Ladywood (Mr. V. Yates). Mr. Cadbury, and others like him, think that these documents, or at any rate certain portions of them, are the diaries of a scoundrel and pervert named Armando Normand, whom Casement came across when investigating the rubber atrocities in the Putumayo for the Foreign Office, and that Casement translated these diaries from the Spanish in which they were originally written and kept a copy in his own handwriting, as he considered that they could not be entrusted to a typist.

The subject has come into prominence lately through two recent publications. One of these is a book called "The Eyes of the Navy" by a former Member of this House, Admiral Sir William James. That book deals with the life of Sir Reginald Hall, who was in charge of naval intelligence at the Admiralty in the First World War and, as such, was entrusted with the interception and decoding of German naval messages, including those about Casement's activities in Germany and his last ill-fated voyage in a U-boat to the Irish coast. According to the author of that book, it was Captain Hall, as he then was, who was mainly responsible for the surreptitious circulation of extracts from the diaries, having previously received the text from Sir Basil Thomson, at that time Assistant Commissioner of Police and head of the C.I.D.

The other book is a new life of Casement by the well-known journalist, Mr. René MacColl. Mr. MacColl, as he states in his book, wrote to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary asking, not to see the diaries, but merely whether their existence could be officially confirmed. Mr. MacColl was informed that my right hon. and gallant Friend was unable to supply him with any information on the matter. This has been the stock official answer for many years, certainly since 1930, and it has recently been given to the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) and myself.

In 1930, Professor Denis Gwynn, who was engaged on a biography of Casement, asked to see the diaries and referred to a description of them which had been given by Sir Basil Thomson in one of his books. The then Home Secretary, Mr. J. R. Clynes, replied: On inquiry, I find that it was decided long ago not to make any official statement as to the existence or non-existence of these diaries. I have carefully considered whether it is still necessary to maintain that rule, and there seem to me to be very good reasons why in the public interest it is desirable not to break the official silence. Mr. Clynes did not state what these reasons were, but on the subject of Sir Basil Thomson he added: You mention that reference to these diaries has been made by Sir Basil Thomson, but any such statements were completely unauthorised. In fact, the official silence had already been broken and the existence of the diaries had been admitted.

Five years before that, in 1925, another journalist, Mr. Singleton Gates, who had had access to typed copies of the diaries, announced that he was publishing a book based on the diaries. He was sent for by the then Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, and was threatened with the application of the Official Secrets Act if he persisted in his intentions to publish his book. He was also seen by the authorities in Scotland Yard. In a letter to the Evening Standard dated 18th April, 1956, Mr. Singleton Gates wrote: A few days later I was seen at Scotland Yard by the chief of the C.I.D., Sir Wyndham Childs, whose main concern was whether I had seen the documents during his régime. He confirmed the existence of the diaries and copies. He went much further, though I had never doubted the authenticity of the diaries. I think it can be inferred from that statement that Mr. Singleton Gates actually saw the originals of these diaries.

On the other hand, it has been suggested that the diaries were deliberately faked by Sir Basil Thomson, who intermingled some Casement genuine diaries with the obscene Putumayo diaries of Armando Normand. Sir Basil Thomson's family, with whom I have been in touch, are naturally distressed by this accusation, which they regard as unfounded, and they are anxious to have his name cleared.

Sir Basil Thomson has given four accounts of how the diaries were discovered and subsequently used. They differ on minor points, but all agree that they were found by the police in one of Casement's trunks as a result of a search of his old lodgings some months before his arrest, while he was still in Germany.

There is no doubt from the published writings of Sir Basil Thomson that he believed the diaries to be genuine, as indeed did everybody else to whom photographs of several of the pages and typed extracts were shown. The then Attorney-General, Sir F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, was anxious that the defence should, if it wished, use these diaries as evidence of the possible insanity of Casement, but Casement's leading defence counsel, Serjeant Sullivan, refused to agree or even to look at them at the trial to support such a plea. The material was also shown by Sir Basil Thomson to the then legal adviser to the Home Office, the late Sir Ernley Blackwell.

In his autobiography, published in 1939, Sir Basil Thomson quoted a passage from his own diary, the entry being a few days after Casement's appeal had been dismissed. It is dated Saturday, 22nd July, 1916, and is as follows: Saturday, July 22, 1916 … Yesterday I … saw Sir Ernley Blackwell who read me his memorandum to the Cabinet on the execution of Casement. It was very well written. He had incorporated in it all the information that I had collected and which was circulated on Wednesday. The waverers accepted the position that the law was to take its course, but on Thursday Lord Crewe circulated a letter from Eva Gore-Booth, Countess Markiewicz's sister, alleging that Casement's object in coming over was to stop the rebellion. Blackwell confessed he did not know, with such a weak Cabinet, what the result would be. A copy of the Memorandum of 17th July, 1916, has come into my possession and it might be of interest to the House if I read it: Exercise of the Prerogative on the ground of Insanity. Casement's diary and his ledger entries covering many pages of closely typed matter, show that he has for years been addicted to the grossest sodomitical practices. Of late years he seems to have completed the full cycle of sexual degeneracy and from a pervert, has become an invert—a 'woman' or pathic who derives his satisfaction from attracting men and inducing them to use him. The point is worth noting, for the Attorney-General had given Sir E. Grey the impression that Casement's own account of the frequency of his performances was incredible and of itself suggested that he was labouring under hallucination in this respect. I think that this idea may be dismissed. I believe the diaries are a faithful and accurate record of his acts, thoughts and feelings just as they occurred and presented themselves to him … No one who has read Casement's report to the Foreign Office on the Putumayo atrocities (at a time when his sexual offences were of daily occurrence), his speech from the dock … his private letters to friends … could doubt for a moment that Casement intellectually at any rate is very far removed from anything that could properly be described as insanity. His excesses may have warped his judgment and in themselves they are of course evidence of disordered sexual instincts, but they have not in my opinion any relevance in consideration of his crime, such as drunkenness, sexual excesses, jealousy, revenge, provocation, etc., have in the case of crimes of violence … In a second memorandum, Blackwell concludes: So far as I can judge, it would be far wiser from every point of view to allow the law to take its course and by judicious means, to use these diaries to prevent Casement attaining martyrdom. That is precisely what happened. Those who were shown the typed copies or photographs included Dr. Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury; Dr. Henson, Bishop of Durham, and the Irish Nationalist leader, John Redmond. They all refused to sign a petition for Casement's reprieve, in consequence. They were also shown to President Wilson, who got them from the U.S. Ambassador, Mr. Page, who in turn got them from Sir Basil Thomson. Another American, Mr. Ben Allen of Associated Press news service, was shown the original by Hall, and offered copies for cabling to New York. He asked if he could confront Casement with them in prison, but this request was repeatedly refused.

I have here a letter from Mr. Allen, who is still alive, dated 7th March, 1956, in which he says. My only concern when I was solicited by Hall to cable the story of the alleged diary to New York, was to pay due heed to the ethical code of the Associated Press which prevented me from handling the story until I had verified every pertinent fact connected with it. That was the only discussion I had with Hall—my insistence that I take the copy of the diary to Casement to get his side of the story. His repeated refusal convinced me that there was something back of it that he dared not disclose. Now I am sure of it. To me, the purpose is now obvious; to blacken Casement's character so that the United States Senate would not ask for his reprieve. These stories reached Casement in the condemned cell and he immediately denied them to his solicitor, the late Mr. C. Gavan Duffy. It is about time that this matter was cleared up. No one wants to see the diaries published, but I would suggest to my hon. Friend that a small committee of experts might be appointed, say two drawn from Ireland and two from this country, to examine the diaries and any relevant available evidence. They could do that and give an opinion whether or not they really are Casement's. Such an inquiry, incidentally, would also serve the purpose of establishing Sir Basil Thomson's bona fides or otherwise.

The question of these diaries has excited, and will continue to excite, public interest, particularly in Ireland. It inspired the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, to write a poem of which each verse ends with the lines: The ghost of Roger Casement Is beating on the door. I can assure my hon. Friend that his ghost will continue to beat on the door of his office until he allows these diaries to be seen by reliable experts. Only then will it be possible to resolve all doubts about this matter once and for all, and I invite him to take that step.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I cannot see why the Home Office does not accede to the very reasonable request made by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde). This appears to be a dirty little secret of the Home Office, kept in some safe after forty years, and the Home Office appears to be as anxious to hide the documents now as it was to exhibit them in 1916. So long as this attitude is adopted by the Home Office, so long will there be doubt in Ireland—a doubt which this country will share. I cannot see any reason why the documents should not be handed over to experts, to Irish authorities, to any relatives who may still be living, or to some museum in Ireland, and not continually be hushed up.

We never shall hush up anything like this; it will be a matter of controversy and argument, fanning the flames of resentment, so long as the Home Office adopts this attitude. If they are indecent documents, why should the Home Office cling to them as though they were ancient documents, like Magna Carta or the Bill of Rights? It is to the discredit of the Home Office that it should take this attitude, advancing no argument except that previous Governments have persisted in this attitude. If the documents are genuine, let them go to some authority.

The very fact that the Home Office pursues this hush-hush policy is enough to make anyone believe that there is some mystery which it does not want to reveal. After all, we cannot hide the facts of history for ever. I believe that, at the time, these documents were used very wrongly, because they were irrelevant to the charge made against Sir Roger Casement. They were used to discredit him, and they undoubtedly prevented a reprieve. They were used to kill him, and are now used to discredit him and him reputation after death.

Whatever is in these documents, I hold, as many Irishmen hold, that Sir Roger Casement rendered great service in exposing the atrocities in Putumayo. He was an Irish patriot, and the Home Office is doing no good service to history, morality or anything else by adopting this attitude. I appeal to the representative of the Home Office to grant the request of the hon. Member for Belfast, North.

11.48 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) has given a very detailed account of the events surrounding and subsequent to the execution of Sir Roger Casement, and I am quite sure that he does not expect me to comment in detail upon the version which he has given. I think I should do best if I addressed myself to his main request, which has been reinforced by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), that there should be an outside examination of these papers. It would be fairest if I went on to say, straight away, that I think it unlikely that I shall be able to give him much satisfaction in his quest.

It is always rather disagreeable for all the parties involved to have to be stubbornly uncommunicative at this Dispatch Box, particularly upon a matter which has aroused, and continues to arouse, so much curiosity. Before today the Home Office has been accused of being secretive, obscurantist and even blackguardly in its attitude about this matter. I do not think that such charges are merited, nor in this instance, are they original. We are here faced with the difficulty, as in many matters affecting the Home Secretary, that any effective attempt to justify secrecy or silence about this must involve breaking that silence—

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

But the diaries have been exhibited.

Mr. Deedes

—and revealing evidence and committing, without any good reason at this moment, a complete breach of the policy which I believe, has been rightly upheld for many years.

Mr. Hale

We should not complain about the secrecy, had there been secrecy from the start. Then no one would have complained at all. The complaint is that these documents were exhibited round the House while hon. Members were waiting the execution of Casement. Is that true or not? And if they were, why cannot they be exhibited now?

Mr. Deedes

If the hon. Member will allow me to proceed, we shall come to that question.

I said that I believed that the policy had been a right one. I have studied the correspondence over the years on this issue with great care. My hon. Friend is not the first to seek information about the Roger Casement papers. He is the last of a long line extending over a quarter-of-a-century, and Home Secretaries of both parties have consistently refused to give any information to anyone. They have resisted pressure from many sources, some highly responsible, some not so responsible. But the plea made to the Home Secretary has generally had the same foundation, and my hon. Friend has indicated it tonight.

I will attempt to put it as fairly as I can. The allegations are that the Government used diaries, real, copied or deliberately forged, to smear Casement and influence opinion in America; that such infamous allegations should be met by publishing the diaries and that continued silence is unfair—

Mr. Hale

It was said by Member after Member in 1916.

Mr. Deedes

—and gives substance to the allegations. I think that that is a fair summary of the case. This most seductive argument is used whenever any new book on the subject appears, and there have been a good many books.

It is a difficult argument for any Government to meet, but in each case it has been resisted and tonight my hon. Friend has not advanced any fresh grounds for saying that at this moment my right hon. and gallant Friend should submit to it. Whenever any controversialist stirs up the dust on this or any like issue, we are told that only a complete disclosure will lay the dust. I do not think that is an argument which bears examination, and I will try to explain why. The important point was made the other day by, I believe, the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Younger), that the most respectable precedents should be reviewed from time to time, and I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that that is done and that there are no cobwebs on this particular file.

Mr. Hale

Does the Parliamentary Secretary deny that hon. Member after hon. Member of this House has recorded in his reminiscences that he was shown copies of the documents before Casement was shot—

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

He was hanged.

Mr. Hale

I thought he was shot—

Mr. Delargy

He was hanged.

Mr. Hale

—and that some refused to intervene because they had seen documents which they believed came from the Home Secretary? Where did they come from?

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Alfred Noyes.

Mr. Deedes

As I was saying, we do from time to time review the decision which has been taken by successive Home Secretaries. It is not taken for granted and I can assure my hon. Friend that a review has been carried out on this occasion. But where there exist good general grounds for not departing from the policy of silence on this issue, I think that the onus lies on those who seek to change it to bring forward strong reasons for changing it at this moment.

The attitude of the Home Office is not that of mere secretiveness. Official papers are not normally disclosed until a considerable time has elapsed. The practice is now to deposit papers in the Public Record Office after 50 years, and those on capital cases are not open to inspection. It is asked, "Is this in the interest of historical truth?" It has often been necessary to allow a passage of time before uncovering the whole truth about historical events. That is a fact which genuine historians accept.

Although the rule is at times very irksome, it has sound foundations, and one relevant to this case is that as time elapses and as generation succeeds generation, the passion goes out of political controversy. This convention was not invented by the Home Office for Casement. But the Casement case is a good example of the convention's soundness. The events are still a source of passionate partisanship. Whatever the truth, and however we were to reveal it, the inevitable consequence would be to stimulate and not to mollify those passions. Moreover, any disclosure about this tragedy, whether it be the diaries do or do not exist, are genuine or otherwise, must lead to renewed controversy about Casement's character and his part in the events which occurred.

He landed in Kerry on Good Friday, 1916, and while these events are beyond the recollection of my generation, and are growing dim in the recollection of an older generation, they are remembered in Ireland with pride and bitterness. Whatever we said about this now would incite, first, curiosity, then a demand for more evidence, and, finally inevitably a good deal of bitter controversy. The embers would most certainly be fanned into flame—and to what good? To provide material for a fresh research—[HON. MEMBERS: "Truth."]—for truth, if you like? Truth might be found to be manysided. To vindicate those concerned 40 years ago? Or to vindicate Casement? That was the point raised by one hon. Member.

This brings me to the question of whether the diaries were genuine. The latest version quoted by my hon. Friend, is, I gather, that they are. So it is said that there would be no harm in confirming it. But, on the contrary, if it were true, and we were to confirm it, we would be giving from official sources information detrimental to the character of a man who had been a prisoner. It is an important principle that the Home Office does not do that, and it is doubly important when the prisoner has paid the extreme penalty.

I foresaw the arguments which would be raised against it. What right has the Home Office to decide what is fit for publication? I think that the Home Office has a very heavy responsibility, more serious than anyone else. I do not take the decisions of the last 25 years by Home Secretaries, or even the 50-year rule, as conclusive. I think there is much more to it than that, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to pay attention to this point.

There is a fundamental principle that no official disclosure should make it possible for anyone further to blacken the memory of a man who has been imprisoned and hanged. I put that first. There is a second, which, I think, will commend itself to the House, that where to break silence may only stimulate memories bitter and bloody, then it is better to remain silent. The day may come when these considerations will either not apply, or will apply with a great deal less force than they do today. It will then be for the Home Secretary of that time to determine whether or not the moment has arrived to make the disclosure for which my hon. Friend asks.

12 m.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

We have just heard about the weakest and the most ill-informed reply that I have ever heard in an Adjournment debate. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department speaks about his refusal not to publish the diaries. That was not asked for. What was asked for was that a small committee of experts, some of them in the confidence of the Irish people, should be allowed to examine these documents if they exist and then to say, without necessarily divulging their contents, whether or not the documents are genuine original personal records. That is all that is asked for.

The Joint Under-Secretary is talking about a complete disclosure. No one has asked for that. What has been asked for is a small thing. The hon. Gentleman takes refuge in trying, as he says, to defend the memory of Casement when, in fact, Casement's memory was blackened in order that he should be the more conveniently hanged. It is really not good enough merely to say that the Home Office is now doing what Home Secretaries have previously done.

I will also say to the hon. Gentleman—and it may give him some comfort—that it is not to the credit of Irish Governments that they have refrained—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Thursday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes past Twelve o'clock.