HC Deb 23 July 1959 vol 609 cc1523-7

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

78. Mr. HYDE

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will now make a statement on the diaries of Sir Roger Casement.


To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is the nature of the difficulties which now prevent him from placing the Casement diaries in the Library; and if he will make a statement before the rising of the House for the summer Recess.

103. Mr. DU CANN

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will now make a statement regarding the Casement Diaries; whether he will permit members of the public to inspect the originals; whether he will place a copy of the originals in the Library of the House of Commons; to whom the copyright belongs; and what consultations have taken place with the Government of Eire and the executors and trustees of the late Sir Roger Casement's estate.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I will, with permission, now answer Questions Nos. 78, 80 and 103 together.

The Casement Diaries consist of five volumes found in a trunk which the landlord of Casement's lodgings in London handed to the police at their request on 25th April, 1916, two days after Casement had arrived in London under arrest. The Diaries were retained in Scotland Yard until 1925, since when they have been in the Home Office.

For some thirty years, successive Home Secretaries have refused to give any information about, or access to, the diaries. The position has been altered by the publication of the greater part of them abroad; and I have now placed them in the Public Record Office. Under Section 5 (1) of the Public Records Act, 1958, the Lord Chancellor has prescribed 100 years as the period during which they are not to be available for public inspection. As, however, they are of some historical interest I shall be prepared, under Section 5 (4) of the Act, to give facilities for the examination of the diaries to historians, other responsible persons who have made a study of Casement's life, and persons qualified to express an informed opinion on their authenticity. I am circulating in the OFFICIAL REPORT a brief description of the five volumes and of the arrangements for obtaining authority to study them.

I shall be very ready to consider applications from hon. Members who satisfy the criteria to which I have referred to examine the diaries in the Public Record Office.

The Government do not claim to hold the copyright of the diaries and it is not for me to say to whom it belongs.

Persons authorised to see the diaries will be warned that if they make any extracts from the diaries they will publish them at their own risk, having regard to the law of copyright and of obscenity.

There have been confidential consultations with the Irish Ambassador, and I have considered representations from the executors of Casement's last surviving executor and from solicitors representing the residuary legatees of his sole legatee.

Mr. Hyde

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that his reply will give considerable satisfaction to many people who have been disturbed by the official policy of silence and secrecy, which, as he himself has said, has prevailed for over thirty years and which has, of course, given the unfortunate impression that successive Governments have had something to hide? Will it be possible for photographs or photographic reproductions to be made by approved members of the public of certain pages of the diaries the authority or authenticity of which has been doubted for comparison with known specimens of Casement's handwriting which are already acknowledged as genuine?

Mr. Butler

No, Sir; I think that that would be difficult because, apart from the fact that the publication in books or articles of some parts of the diaries might render the author concerned liable to proceedings under the law relating to obscenity, the copyright of the diaries does not appear to belong to the Crown, and the supply of copies might result in infringement of copyright.

Mr. H. Morrison

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the announcement he has made leaves the House rather mystified, because, on the one hand, he appears to have given some partial release to the diaries, and, on the other hand, he has surrounded it by so many conditions and restrictions that either he had better release them altogether or he had better not release them at all? Is he not asking for trouble when he says that hon. Members who qualify under his definition may see the diaries and others may not? Is he aware that there is no hon. Member in the House who would confess that he has no sense of historical perspective?

Mr. Butler

I defer to the wisdom of one of my predecessors as Home Secretary, but I think that the arrangements we have made, considering the character of the diaries, of which the right hon. Gentleman must be well aware, are the best possible in the circumstances. As I believe that hon. Members will find, if they are definitely interested, that they qualify, I have no very great anxiety about either the opportunity available or the perspicacity of hon. Members.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is the Home Secretary aware that, for many years now, a very large section of public opinion in Ireland, in America and throughout the rest of the world has believed that the obscene passages were forged? Could he tell us what his opinion of that is? Also, will he tell us why these records are not to be sent where they should belong, to Ireland?

Mr. Butler

We regard them as public records and, therefore, we are sending them to the Public Record Office. We believe them to be authentic. They have been examined by a handwriting expert. They were examined by Dr. Wilson Harrison, Director of the South Wales and Monmouthshire Forensic Science Laboratory, who, after comparing the handwriting of the diaries for 1910 and 1911 and the ledger with that in documents attributed to Casement in Foreign Office and Home Office files, concluded that there was ample evidence to show that all the entries in the diaries and the ledger were made by the same hand as the documents in the files.

Sir G. Nicholson

Can my right hon. Friend elucidate what appears to be the mystery of how diaries which have been in the care of the British Government for over forty years have been published in Paris?

Mr. Butler

There are copies of the diaries in Dublin, which probably accounts for their publication abroad.

Mr. E. Fletcher

Will the Home Secretary explain by what right he claims to try to discriminate between one hon. Member and another as to who should have the right to inspect the diaries?

Mr. Butler

I believe that there is great wisdom in the Home Office and that it would be possible, I think, to discriminate. Also, I doubt whether hon. Members, after a certain time, will be falling over one another to see the diaries.

Mr. Gordon Walker

I welcome the measures which will make the diaries more accessible, but will the Home Secretary consider again whether access to them should be quite so hedged about? Also, can he explain how a document in the possession of the Home Office came to be copied so that copies were available in Dublin?

Mr. Butler

The particular copies or versions in Dublin, which I have not seen, never came anywhere near the Home Office, and I do not know at all. There have been copies in Dublin and, presumably, that was the source from which the copies published in Paris came.

Following is the information: The Casement diaries comprise the following:

  1. (1) a field service note book containing a few jottings apparently relating to Casement's service in the Congo in 1901 and 1902;
  2. (2) a Letts' pocket diary and almanack for 1903;
  3. 1527
  4. (3) a Dollard's office diary for 1910;
  5. (4) a Letts' desk diary for 1911;
  6. (5) a ledger containing accounts and notes relating to dates in 1911.
The arrangements for giving access to the diaries are intended to facilitate the serious study of the diaries and, particularly, of their authenticity. Applications for authority should be made in writing to the Under-Secretary of State, Room 208, Home Office, Whitehall, and not to the Public Record Office, and should indicate the qualifications of the applicant and the purpose for which he wishes to have access to the diaries. The facilities for inspecting the diaries will be available from 10th August. Persons authorised to examine the diaries will also be authorised to examine for purposes of comparison certain Foreign Office papers in the Public Record Office which contain manuscript documents written by Casement in 1903. 1910 and 1911.