§ Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
Is it your intention, Sir Eric, to call the Amendment in page 1, line 15, at the end to add:Provided that no exceptions beyond the period of thirty years shall be prescribed by the Lord Chancellor affecting Irish affairs.and the new Clause "Availability of public records affecting Irish affairs", which stand in the names of myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt)?
§ Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.
§ 10.36 a.m.
§ The Chairman
Order. Perhaps I should inform the hon. Gentleman that the Amendment and new Clause are out of order, being outside the scope of the Bill.
§ Mr. Foot
I live and learn, and I hope that I shall live for quite a long time in order to be able to learn even more. I understand from reading the Clause that it should enable us to have a discussion which could embrace a large number of aspects of the matter and our discussion on the Question, That the Clause stand part of the Bill, might be wider than on the Amendment or new Clause, had they been in order.
I am very glad to be associated with my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast. West in the general proposition which we wished to put in the Amendment and new Clause and to which I wish to refer in my remarks on the Question that we are now discussing. We hope for certain guarantees or assurances from the Government about how the Bill will be operated when it becomes an Act before we agree with this Motion.
As I said on Second Reading, the general purposes of the Bill seem to be very good. I am glad that the Government have introduced this Measure, and the Prime Minister in particular deserves our gratitude for having taken the initiative in securing a reduction from 50 to 30 years in the general period of the restrictions imposed on the examination of the documents concerned. Therefore, we did not put down the Amendment and new Clause and we do not seek to raise the matter now in any sense because we wish to impede the Bill. All that we want is, as usual, to improve the Bill and make sure that it is not marred by any of the matters referred to by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General in his speech on Second Reading. When I heard the Attorney-General last Monday, I was flabbergasted. Considering some of the events of the past year or two, I do not flabbergast easily, but I was flabbergasted to hear his reference to certain papers relating to Irish affairs.
Under the Bill, restrictions are imposed on matters which are not to be covered by the 30-year rule, and where the 50-year rule is to be maintained or there is to be an even longer period. I can well understand that that should be so with 1186 matters concerning distress or embarrassment to living people or references to criminal or prison records which, if revealed, might cause embarrassment, difficulty or hardship to individual persons. Those are reputable matters for a Government or Lord Chancellor to have in mind when they impose restrictions. Some of us might also be reticent about giving our approval, as the Attorney-General said, to the examination of certain exceptionally sensitive papers which affect the security of the State. But I cannot see that such security matters would be likely to prevail after 30 or 40 years in most cases, but I suppose that there can be such matters.
What I object to most strongly or find most extraordinary is the selection, as a special category, of certain papers relating to Irish affairs. We tried to obtain from the Attorney-General an indication of what were these "certain papers". The first answer which he gave was not very elaborate. He said that there wasa sensitive area in regard to Irish affairs which remains".Later, when replying to the debate, he said:The only ones which are restricted are certain records dealing with what are commonly called the troubles'".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June, 1967; Vol. 749, c. 29–34.]I am not sure exactly what dates the Government put upon "the troubles". Sometimes they refer solely to the period between 1920 and 1923. Sometimes the dates are extended. But, whatever they may be, I cannot understand why the Government should have wished to impose this special restriction.
I cannot imagine the Government saying, "We are very glad to make this relaxation of the 50 year rule, but we must make sure that certain papers referring to Irish affairs are specially protected". I cannot imagine a man of the liberal mind of the Lord Chancellor or the Attorney-General, or even of the Solicitor-General, making such a restriction unless some representations had been made. Therefore, the Committee should know whether any representations have been made to the Lord Chancellor and the Government which led them to interpolate this extraordinary sentence about certain papers relating to Irish affairs.
It is conceivable that representations were made by the Official Opposition. The 1187 Bill has been brought forward as a consensus Measure. That may be naturally suspicious in the first place. But, apparently, the Government have had the advice of the Leader of the Opposition on it. We are sorry that the right hon. Gentleman cannot be here to assist us with that advice, but we are very glad to see the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson), who I am sure will tell us, if the Government do not, whether any representations about Irish affairs, in particular, have been made by the Opposition.
That would not be a novel occurrence. We all know what happened when the war broke out in 1914 and the whole future of this country, as many believed, was at stake. Some accommodation, it was thought, had to be reached between the Government of Mr. Asquith and the Tory Opposition. When the guns had already started firing and Mr. Bonar Law went to see Mr. Asquith, there was one condition which he wished to extract from the Government before the Conservative Party would give its support to the Government. The condition was that the Home Rule Bill should be withdrawn. That was priority No. 1 of the Conservative Party—that freedom should still be denied to the Irish people. Only if that condition was satisfied was the Conservative Party willing to join the Government and support the 1914 war.
If that was the attitude of a Conservative leader in 1914, I suppose that it is conceivable that in 1967 another Leader of the Conservative Party would say to the Government, "We do not mind agreeing with you that the period should be reduced from 50 to 30 years, but we must insist on the protection of those who were involved in dealing with Irish affairs between, say, 1916 or 1917 and 1923 or 1924." That is one possible explanation. If any representations were made by the Conservative Party on this matter, I should hope that the Committee and the country, and particularly the people of Ireland, would hear of it. Although there may not be a great number of Members assembled here today to discuss this matter, I am sure that there are many people in other parts, particularly across the Irish Sea, who are interested in the Government's attitude to these matters.
1188 10.45 a.m.
Therefore, my first question is whether any representations were made by the Conservative Party, and, if so, what was the Government's response. But, assuming that no representations were made, how was it that this provision got into the Government's declaration? There seems to be some peculiar machinery in the Government's legislative apparatus whereby any Measure has to be stamped with this consensus stamp, and there must be some organisation—I do not know how many civil servants one would employ on the task—to consider every Measure to ensure that it satisfies all opinions over the past 40 or 50 years.
It appears that that has happened in this instance, because I cannot believe that the Government thought this up by themselves or that they said, "We must protect this matter". It may be that somebody looks back at previous discussions—perhaps at the 1958 Bill which followed on the examination of the whole of public records and how they should be used. Or it may be that at the time when we had a Conservative Government it was agreed that "certain papers affecting Irish affairs". to use the sinister phrase, should be excluded and that the practice has been carried over from 1958 to 1967 without anybody very much knowing how it occurred. I should like to know whether that is the explanation. It would have been much better if the Government had looked at the matter afresh and not adopted this appalling exclusion.
I come to the merits of the matter. What are the matters which the Government or Lord Chancellor might think it would not be proper to discuss at this date? I looked up the speech of the Lord Chancellor in another place to see whether any guidance was given on the point. His speech was very erudite, as one would expect, on other matters, but he made no reference to this question except possibly to say that special provision should be made to ensure that matters affecting people who might still be in public life and which could be used by foreign propagandists should not be referred to.
I suppose that it is conceivable that the Government, out of a special sensitivity towards Mr. de Valera, would say, "We must not have discussion of these 1189 matters". I see the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington nodding. I do not think that Mr. de Valera would mind. He has not anything to be ashamed of in what he did in 1916. Indeed, he walked through the streets of Dublin quite recently celebrating the events of 1916, and, so far from people in Ireland being ashamed of what happened in 1916, many individuals who did not support the events of that time have been gratified to be associated with them. Therefore, I do not think that Mr. De Valera is likely to object to anything which may be revealed.
The other day I went to Ireland to assist in a small way in the celebrations of the tercentenary of the birth of Jonathan Swift. I was privliged to hear the President of the Irish Republic make a speech on Irish affairs which showed that he is still in the fullest possession of his faculties. I am sure that if the Government wished to protect his reputation, all that they would have had to do would he to say to him, "When we change the 50 year rule, would you mind if we made sure that it applied to Irish affairs in exactly the same way as it applied to English affairs?", and they would had an immediate "Yes" I therefore hope that we can dispose of the suggestion that the Government have done this because they desire to protect Mr. De Valera.
I come now to consider other matters which some people, but not, I hope, the Government, would wish to conceal. There are certainly the questions of 1916 and the barbarous executions which took place afterwards and the instructions which may have been given. Most of the history has been revealed, but there is no reason why the Labour Government of 1967 should wish to conceal anything done by the Government of 1916.
To come to a later date, there are the events which are more accurately described as the "period of the troubles". What is it that a Labour Government would wish to conceal? We want all the facts to be known. The Labour Party of that day had a very fine record in these matters. The Labour Party's attitude to all the Irish affairs in the period between 1916 and 1924 was one of the finest chapters in Labour history.
1190 The Labour Party have nothing for which to apologise. They stood for Irish freedom. They foretold that the Government would have to concede freedom to the people of Ireland and they put forward proposals for achieving it which would have been considerably better than those which were subsequently achieved and which, indeed, might have saved the world from bloodshed.
Some of the most recent historians who have written about this matter have greatly praised the attitude, for example, of the late Mr. George Lansbury and others during that period. If their proposals had been accepted in 1914, whole rivers of blood would have been saved. There is no reason why the Labour Government should not wish to have these matters revealed.
Speaking personally—and this may strike a note in the stony heart of my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General—when my father first came to this House, one of the matters in which he was principally interested was the Irish question. He voted against the Lloyd George Coalition on many matters, but partly because of the record of the Black and Tans. Some of the first Questions that he put in the House referred to Irish affairs. There were many Members of the Liberal Party at that time, as my father was, who had an estimable record on Irish affairs and saved the reputation of the Liberal Party from what was being done in the name of those who were in the Government at the time.
I am sorry that there are no members of the Liberal Party present to participate in our proceedings this morning, but we are here to sustain the reputation of those of them who deserve to be sustained as well as of the Labour Party.
Whatever may be the desires, therefore, of people in other quarters to suppress the truth in so far as it was revealed in Government documents about what happened at that time, I insist that the Labour Party should have no desire to do so and, indeed, has no right to do so. Therefore, far from there being any provision about preventing the revelation of certain papers relating to Irish affairs, a Labour Government should have a proper interest in ensuring that those matters are revealed.
1191 There are, however, others who might have an interest in suppressing the truth about what occurred at that time, and they are the beneficiaries of that settlement. I see the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr), who represents part of the six counties, sitting opposite me. He and his party were the principal beneficiaries of the settlement of 1920. They have had a Unionist Government there for 40 years as a result of what was done then. If, therefore, there is anything murky about what was done, it is natural that he and his friends should wish to conceal it. In my opinion, they have a great deal to conceal.
As I read the history, there was certainly a profound misunderstanding between the British Government and Michael Collins and Arthur Griffiths, two men who paid with their lives for their bravery. They understood—at least, they thought that they had been led to understand—that the settlement was not the conclusive settlement which the Unionist Party in the six counties claimed it to be. They thought that there would be a Boundary Commission which inevitably, if it was fair, would give a different settlement of the whole proceedings. It was a Boundary Commission such as many of the other Boundary Commissions in the six counties since then. It set the style of subsequent affairs.
I have read many of the recent contributions in Ireland to the history, and there has been a great development of historical understanding of it in recent years which some people regard as a revolution in historical thinking in Ireland on these matters. At least, one of the matters on which the latest scholarship is generally agreed is that there was a basic misunderstanding about the agreement which Michael Collins and Arthur Griffiths had signed. What is the truth about this?
§ The Chairman
I do not want to interrupt the hon. Member, but there are limits beyond which we cannot go in detail into what happened in Ireland in the 1920s. It is open to the hon. Member to probe what was meant by the Attorney-General on Second Reading, but in the debate on the Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill" we cannot go in great detail into Irish history in the 1920s.
§ Mr. Foot
I appreciate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there must be limits to all debates, but I should have thought that this was one of the widest ever. It was my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General who said:The only ones which are restricted are certain records dealing with what are commonly called 'the troubles'".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June, 1967; Vol. 749, c. 34.]That is a very broad description.
§ The Chairman
Perhaps I may help the hon. Member. The Question which we are debating is whether Clause 1 should stand part of the Bill. What the Clause does is to reduce the period of 50 years to 30 years. That is the only question before us.
§ Mr. Foot
By raising these matters, which I would have thought, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are generally within the bounds of the debate, I am seeking to illustrate that it would be a grave departure from the general purpose of the Bill if the kind of restrictions which were indicated by the Attorney-General on Second Reading were to be enforced. What some of us are arguing for in this debate is that it should be made clear, either by a general undertaking of the Government or, perhaps, a special statement which the Government may bring from the Lord Chancellor, that they do not intend to apply these restrictions to certain special papers of Irish affairs. If that response to what we are proposing can come from the Government, we will have achieved what we desire. It is clear that we cannot press that argument successfully with the chance of influencing what may be later said unless we can give illustrations of what may be the reasons for the suppression which has surprised us so greatly.
My last reason why there might be a suppression is that some people might have an interest in the suppression. Naturally, we look for those who profited from the crime. Therefore, we look to hon. Gentlemen opposite who have profited from the crime and who continue to hold their positions in the House as a result of the affairs that took place in Ireland between the years 1917 and 1922.
§ Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)
Apart from the rules of order, there are limits to which the facts can 1193 be stretched. The Boundary Commission to which the hon. Member has referred was set up by this House. The resignation which took place from it was of the Southern Ireland representative, who resigned because the findings had allegedly been leaked to the Morning Post and were not as favourable to Southern Ireland as he had expected.
§ Mr. Foot
I am in no way saying that the Government of Northern Ireland was responsible for the gerrymandering under the Boundary Commission at that time. Other Governments as well as the Northern Ireland Government can gerrymander. My reference to gerrymandering must not lead to the conclusion that I am referring to the activities of the Northern Ireland Government.
We are seeking to get the full documents about the Boundary Commission and its operation, and, in particular, the full revelation of the undertakings made by the British Government to the Irish representatives and whether those undertakings bore the later interpretations of the Government and the Boundary Commission or whether they bore the interpretation which Michael Collins and others put upon them at that time. Since this played such an essential part in the foundation for 40 years of Unionist power, we have a right to probe it to the bottom.
I hope that the Government will review this matter seriously. I do not raise it in any flippant sense. It is important that the historical facts should be revealed and that students from this country and in Ireland should have the fullest access to what was done. As far as I know, in Dublin all the details which are available have been revealed. If there are any which are concealed, I hope that the Government there will be prepared to reveal them as well.
I have read some of the principal books on the subject—for example, the masterly book written by a member of the Government, the Leader of the Government in another place, Lord Longford, who wrote an estimable book on the subject in the year 1935. He said at that time that the details that he required from the Irish side had been made fully available to him: there had been, as far as he could see, no restriction.
1194 We ask that there should be no restriction from our side. Whatever may be the pressures from any quarter—whether from the official Opposition, whether it be Unionist pressure, or whether it be pressure from any other quarter—the Labour Government should make up their own mind on the matter and not be content with an agreement with the other parties involved.
Twenty or thirty years ago a commentator on Irish affairs said this:When in office, the Liberals forget their principles and the Tories remember their friends.The last remark was not made in a complimentary sense. I hope that a Labour Government in office will remember their principles, remember their friends, and also remember their enemies. I hope that we shall enable the whole of Ireland and the people of the world to know fully and clearly what was done in our name in those years, because it may help to guard against the same crimes and the same follies being committed in other territories in the future.
§ 11.0 a.m.
§ Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
I do not intend to follow the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) into the Irish matters which he raised, except to say that by his last sentence or two he tended to give away some game—I do not know which game—when he abjured the Solicitor-General to remember the friends but not the enemies of the Government.
I want briefly to talk about some other matters arising on the Clause. I have in common with you, Sir Eric, a very remote interest, in that we are both members of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, which deals with private records. The Clause deals with the substitution of a 30-year rule for the 50-year rule in relation to public records. In trying to discover what public records were I consulted the 1958 Act. The first Schedule contains a very clear and exact description of what are public records to which the Clause applies. Part II of the First Schedule provides that the National Coal Board is a body whose records are public records for the purposes of the Clause.
Why does the Clause apply only to the National Coal Board and not to the 1195 14 other separate nationalised undertakings? I would not be certain that it was right that their records should be recorded by the Public Record Office or by some other record office, but it would seem logical and correct that the records of all the nationalised industries should be treated in exactly the same way. It is just as important that records of the Airways Corporations or of the Electricity Council or of any other body—perhaps records relating the history of the nationalisation, denationalisation and renationalisation of steel—should be kept and held for the public.
Why is only one industry included? Is it intended to hold up the making available of these records for 30 years? There is no reason why these records should not be made public much earlier than that. As soon as any commercial questions about intentions to buy land or to do any financial transactions have been got out of the way, there is no reason why the records should not be made available. It may well be that they are.
I should be grateful if the Solicitor-General would tell us how the Clause is to apply to the records of public enterprises, and particularly why only one of the 15 separate public industrial enterprises appears in the First Schedule to the 1958 Act, which defines the application of the Clause.
§ Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)
It will come as no surprise to the Committee to learn that I personally am taking a great deal of interest in the Bill. When its Second Reading was moved by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General last Monday, I, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), was disappointed that this restriction on Irish documents was embodied in it. As the Attorney-General continued his speech, as an Irishman I took great exception to the reasons which he gave for the restriction being placed on documents relating to Irish affairs. He said this:There is a sensitive area in regard to Irish affairs which remains, and I do not think it would be prudent for me to pursue it on the Floor of the House. But there are papers which it would not be in the interests of this country to disclose."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June, 1967; Vol. 749, c. 29.]1196 I take it that the Attorney-General would be reluctant to make all the papers relating to the Irish troubles available, on the grounds that there availability might detract from or injure this country's reputation. As an Irishman, I have no hesitation in saying that, if the documents were published 50 years after the event, all people of Irish birth, whether they reside in the island of Ireland or in the far-flung corners of the world, would have nothing to be ashamed of in any happenings during what the Attorney-General described as the period of "the troubles".
The Attorney-General was questioned about the length of the period, whether it would run from 1920 to 1923. Most people in Ireland accept that the period of the troubles in Ireland began in 1912. That is outside the 50-year limit and well outside the 30-year limit. One of the first steps which was taken to bring about this rather troubled period in Irish affairs was taken in Northern Ireland in 1912, when members of the Unionist Party made it public that, if they did not have their own way in relation to the political situation as it was developing in Northern Ireland, they would have no hesitation in kicking the King's Crown into the Boyne. From then on we had a series and a sequence of events.
We in Ireland are well aware that a good number of these documents are at present in the hands of the British Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale said that one of the most important documents which is in the hands of the British Government at the moment, and for whose publication we are now pleading, is the Report of the Boundaries Commission of 1925. I am sure that the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) would agree that the publication of all the facts and circumstances relating to the deliberations of the 1925 Boundary Commission could be accepted at this period of time by all the people in the island of Ireland.
I cannot understand the reluctance of the Government, particularly of the Attorney-General. I have a cutting from a liberal Unionist newspaper in Northern Ireland, a paper which in recent years has tried in every way possible to bring about a better community spirit—the Belfast Telegraph. Last Tuesday, the day 1197 after the Bill received its Second Reading, the paper wrote an editorial mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale and saying:As Mr. Michael Foot pointed out at Westminster, there is no real reason why a double standard should be applied with regard to the publication of State papers dealing with the period of the troubles.Further on, it says:The survival of such bones of contention only affords the opportunity for less progressive politicians to make political capital cheaply. The sooner the realities of Irish history are faced up to, the healthier will be the political climate generally.In view of that, the Attorney-General should have no reluctance to make provision for the publication of these records, when people north and south of the border in Ireland would be prepared to accept all the findings reported in them. It has been accepted that the troubles in Ireland began in 1912 if not before, they finished in 1923 or 1924, and, finally, there was the Boundary Commission of 1925.
Your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Irving, told my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale that hon. Members could attempt to elicit what documents were embargoed and could not be published and which documents at present are in the archives of the British Government. In view of that, I wish to put some specific questions to my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and ask him about documents which, in the view of the people of Ireland, it would be interesting to see published.
First, there exists a report of the minutes of Cabinet meetings held in 1912, when the Northern Ireland Unionists and Tories were threatening to kick the King's Crown into the Boyne if they did not have their way. The discussions which took place at that time would be extremely illuminating, not only to Irish people but to members of the British public generally.
Second, I am certain that there must be a report of the Cabinet meeting which was concerned with the Curragh Mutiny, in which British generals stationed in Ireland came out in open rebellion against their own Government over the steps proposed to be taken in Irish affairs.
§ The Deputy Chairman (Mr. Sydney Irving)
The hon. Gentleman is in order in probing the statement about sensitive documents and trying to elicit which documents these may be. However, I think that he is going too far if he goes outside the period dealt with in this Bill. The Bill has the single purpose of reducing the period. He cannot question the discretion used in the previous Measure, but only that which will be exercised under this Bill.
§ Mr. Fitt
The period of 30 years embodied in the Bill would allow the publication of these documents, unless some restriction was placed upon them by the Government. However, a restriction has been placed on them by the learned Attorney-General on the ground of the sensitivity of such documents dealing with Irish affairs. The period between 1912 and 1914 is outside the 50-year limit, and it is even further outside the 30-year limit. Assuming that the documents exist, I am attempting to elicit from my hon. and learned Friend if there is any possibility of representations being made by the Lord Chancellor to make provision for their publication.
I have referred to the Curragh Mutiny. In 1914 we had the Larne and Howth gun-runnings—
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is pursuing the point which I suggested was outside the scope of the Bill. He can only talk about the difference made in the law in respect of the period of time. He can only raise matters about documents which come within the 20-year period, between the original 50-year limit and the 30-year limit imposed by the Bill.
§ 11.15 a.m.
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. My purpose is not deliberately to restrict the hon. Gentleman but to apply the rules of order.
§ Mr. Fitt
Before you intervened, Mr. Irving, I had already decided to skip the period which is outside the scope of the Bill. The Larne and Howth gun-runnings were in 1914, which is just outside the 1199 scope of the Bill, when there must have been many Cabinet meetings on the situation in Ireland.
In the period between the 50-year and 30-year limits, we have 1917, which was the year after the rebellion and the executions which took place subsequent to Easter week, 1916. Later on in those years, we had the formation of the B Specials, the formation of the Black and Tans, the formation of the Auxiliaries, the burning of Cork City, and all the attendant Cabinet meetings which took place during the Treaty discussions in 1918 and 1919 prior to the partitioning of Ireland in 1920.
I am sure that the overwhelming mass of people in the United Kingdom, particularly those with connections with the trade unions and the working-class movement who have a proud record in their defence of the stand which was taken by the Irish people, would raise no objection to the publication of such documents, and certainly no objections would be raised by the Government of the Republic.
It is particularly vital at this period in our history that all the facts and circumstances relating to the Government of Ireland Act and the 1925 Boundary Commission should be made public not only to the Irish people but to historians in general. No discussion which takes place in this House will change the political climate which exists in Ireland, and certainly publication of the documents will not change it. In the years which lie ahead, I would not be prepared to say that we should maintain the unnatural partition and mutilation of Ireland.
Between 1917 and today, the situation has been extremely complicated, with many personalities and tortuous conflicts on the Irish political scene, and it would be more honest of the British Government if they were to take the steps which I am asking for this morning to ensure that the full light of public opinion should be thrown on the incidents which took place at that time.
Within the period which you have specified that we can discuss, Mr. Irving, we have the year 1919, but when discussions took place between the Irish plenipotentiaries and the British Government on the Treaty which eventually resulted in the partition of Ireland. That is most important in relation to the subsequent 1200 Boundary Commission in 1925. The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) said that there was a Commission in 1925 and that its findings had been accepted. I hope to be able to disprove that.
The Treaty can be read in the Library. In Article 12, it was made clear that a Commission was to be set up in 1925, and it stated explicitly the problems which the Commission would have to deal with in that year, after a four or five-year lapse from the coming into operation of the Government of Ireland Act.A Commission consisting of three persons, one to be appointed by the Government of the Irish Free State one to be appointed by the Government of Northern Ireland and one who shall be chairman to be appointed by the British Government, shall determine, in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants, so far as may be compatible with economic and geographic conditions, the boundaries between Northern and the rest of Ireland, and for the purposes of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, and of this instrument, the boundary of Northern Ireland shall be such as may be determined by such Commission.This is one of the documents which has not yet been made public, and the Irish people are unaware of what was discussed and the deliberations which took place in the Commission.
The motive underlying Article 12 is clear, understandable, and very succinct. It meant that the Boundary Commission, when it was set up in 1925, would take into account the boundaries which then existed between Northern Ireland and the Free State, with particular reference to the wishes of the inhabitants in that area. The hon. Member for Londonderry, said that the Commission met and deliberated, but we have not got the Commission's report, and we do not know what its findings were. All we know is that it did not change the geographical division of Ireland at that time.
This document is in the hands of the British Government, and I am certain that my hon. Friends on this side, and even hon. Members on the benches opposite, would be happy to see all the documents relating to this Commission made available to the public. All the more advanced and progressive thinkers in Northern Ireland would like this document to be made public, and I hope that the Solicitor-General will today get away from the fear which was expressed by the Attorney-General, because the people 1201 in Northern Ireland are prepared now to accept what happened 50 years ago. We want to be made aware of all the aspects of what happened at that time.
There is in existence a letter from Mr. Lloyd George, the then Prime Minister, to Sir James Craig, on the subject of the Boundaries Commission. It was written in 1921, the day before the Irish Treaty was signed. He enclosed a copy of the Treaty, and said:You will observe that there are two alternatives between which the Government of Northern Ireland is invited to choose. Under the first, retaining all her existing powers, she will enter the Free State with such additional guarantees as may be arranged in Conference. Under the second alternative she will retain her present powers, but in respect of all matters not already delegated to her will share the rights and obligations of Great Britain. In the latter case, however, we should feel unable to defend the existing boundary, which must be subject to revision on one side and the other by a Boundary Commission under the terms of the instrument.We had the Boundaries Commission, and I think that those words must be taken to mean what they say, that the Commission's main function would be to go into the whole question of the geographic division of Ireland, either to consolidate the position as it was, or to make recommendations for changes, but no one in Ireland knows what the, Commission recommended. The documents have not been made available. I think that the Irish people are entitled to know what discussions were held.
On 7th December, 1922, the Northern Ireland Government voted for exclusion from the Free State as it was, and, following on the letter to which I have just referred, it was clear that if the Northern Ireland Government were to take this step of exclusion from the rest of the Free State, when the Commission came into operation it would be charged with finding out the opinions as expressed by the majority of the inhabitants of the six counties as to what their political future should be. It was accepted then that Tyrone and Fermanagh would opt out of the six counties state as it was.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale said that during the negotiations with Lloyd George about the bringing into operation of the Treaty, Griffiths and Collins had been told that if they accepted the terms of the Treaty Northern Ireland would be excluded 1202 from the six-year period, that the Commission would sit in 1925, that the will of the inhabitants on a county by county basis would be taken into account, and that in those circumstances Tyrone and Fermanagh would certainly opt for inclusion into the Free State, which would make a four county state in Northern Ireland completely insupportable. This was the impression left with Griffiths and Collins.
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. Impressions are excluded from the purpose of the Bill. The hon. Member is going a little wide of the Question, That the Clause stand part of the Bill. He must relate his remarks to the reasons for the sensitivity about these documents.
§ Mr. Fitt
Mr. Irving, I realised that I would find it rather difficult in this House to advance the arguments which I would like to put forward. It is a long time since we have had a debate in this House on the Irish question, but, having been elected to represent Belfast, West, as a Republican Labour Member, the onus is on me to speak as an Irishman and as a Socialist in all debates in this House, irrespective of the limits which will be imposed on me.
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. The House has not challenged the vigour with which the hon. Member has pursued his case. I hope that he will relate his remarks to the Question now being, considered.
§ Mr. Fitt
The report of the 1925 Boundary Commission is one document which I would like to see made public, because on the deliberations of this Commission rests the whole structure of the Governments which now exist in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
I have here a document, which I shall not read, relating to the negotiations between Lloyd George and the Irish Plenipotentiaries. They were clearly left with the impression that the Commission would in effect ensure that partition would not take place, but later he wrote a letter—
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. I think that the hon. Member is going into the merits of these issues, rather than discussing the question before the House which is whether they should be kept as sensitive papers and not released. The 1203 hon. Member must devote himself more to the Question before the House.
§ Mr. Fitt
I am trying to illustrate the conflicting opinions which were expressed in dealings with the Irish Plenipotentiaries in letters to Sir James Craig and other personalities of the day by the then Prime Minister. We have three different stories. We have the then Prime Minister telling Michael Collins that he did not want the partition of Ireland and that two counties would opt for inclusion in an Irish Republic which would make four counties uneconomic and non-viable so that they could not last. There was a letter to Sir James Craig saying that if he excluded himself from the Irish Free State there would have to be a Boundary Commission. Later, Lloyd George wrote saying that "under no circumstances would Ulster, whether she will it or not," become part of the Irish Free State.
In view of this apparent conflict, the only way of settling it is to publish the Report of the 1925 Boundary Commission. It was set up by the British Government, with a representative of the Free State, Professor Eoin Neill, and a nominee. No nominee was appointed by the N.I.
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman some latitude to demonstrate the conflict which requires the publication of these documents, but he is now going into much too much detail. I must ask him to leave this part of the subject and come to the Question, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.
§ Mr. Fitt
I think I have sufficiently illustrated the importance of the Boundary Commission's Report, Mr. Irving.
I will ask my right hon. and learned Friend a number of questions. First, is there in existence the minutes of a Cabinet meeting in 1916 about whether Roger Casement should be executed or not? Is this one of the documents which the British Government are prepared to keep in the dark archives? Is there a document explaining the part of Sir Basil Thompson in the Casement trial, with particular regard to the Casement Diaries? Is there a document which would throw light on the part of the 1204 British Government in the burning and ransacking of the City of Cork in 1920? If these documents exist, that would indicate something to the Irish people.
How did the Black and Tan force come into being? Was the decision taken by the British Government or by people outside British political circles? What were the reasons for bringing this force on to the political scene, and do the British Government stand by the actions which this force committed?
I could stand here for the next three weeks and expatiate on this subject, but I know that I would not be permitted to do so. This restriction on the publication of various documents is unacceptable to the Irish people and to the vast majority of the British people as a whole. I am delighted to have the support of the hon. Members for Down, South and Londonderry in asking for this restriction to be lifted and for no double standards to be applied, and that all documents within the purview of the Bill should receive equal treatment.
The Solicitor-General said that one of the reasons for the restrictions on documents relating to Irish affairs was that this was still an unduly sensitive area. However, the opinions expressed in the House this morning by the two hon. Members with political opinions violently different from my own show that they would be prepared for this publication, as both the authorities in the South would raise no objection. Therefore, who has been making representations or is feeling unduly sensitive?
I could understand it if the hon. Members from Northern Ireland opposite did not want them published, because they would have reason to be sensitive, but they have said that they are not sensitive, so the only people who can be sensitive are the present British Government. As a Socialist, I fail to understand this, because the British Socialist movement has played a great part in defence of the Irish people in all their struggles against the imperialism foisted upon them by a Tory Government.
I make a final appeal to the Solicitor-General. In view of the opinions expressed that the Irish people are not reluctant to see these documents published, and to help to ensure that they are brought into the light of day, would he 1205 not, even at this late stage, say that the Government would be prepared, if representations were made by Irish authorities to publish them?
§ Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)
I am glad that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) reminded us that he was an Irish Republican—
§ Captain Orr
Very well, a Republican Socialist—because one might have thought from his indignation at the prospect of the Crown being kicked into the Boyne that he had suddenly become a Royalist—
§ Captain Orr
The hon. Member has had a long session and he might allow someone else to speak for a change.
I support the general proposition behind the Amendments which were not called that, generally, the restriction should not apply to Irish documents—
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot, on this Question, argue that restrictions should not apply. He can urge that the discretion under the Bill should be exercised in a particular way, but he may discuss only what is in the Clause.
§ Captain Orr
Perhaps I did not express myself very well, Mr. Irving, but that is precisely what I was doing.
The Government's handling of this matter is very strange. Had they intended the Lord Chancellor to exercise his discretion to prevent the disclosure of certain Irish documents which were sensitive, is it not strange that they should announce this in advance? Surely one of the ways to make persons most interested in sensitive documents is to suggest that some of them are so sensitive that they cannot be published.
This prompts me to ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman to reply to the question of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) as to whether or not there have been any representations about the matter. I hope that he will not take the attitude, "Let not my left Foot know what my right Foot is doing." I hope that he will give an 1206 answer, because there is a strong suspicion that he has had representations from the Irish Government.
The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale mentioned Mr. De Valera, who is still alive. No one would wish anything to be published which embarrassed him. But we should know whether this is one of the reasons for the proposed exercise of discretion.
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Dingle Foot)
I am not clear as to the documents to which the hon. and gallant Gentleman refers.
§ Captain Orr
I am talking about the documents to which the Attorney-General referred. He spoke of papers relating to Irish affairs. If the Solicitor-General does not know which documents they are, then we really are in trouble.
§ The Solicitor-General
The hon. and gallant Gentleman referred to certain documents. He gave no indication of the documents which he had in mind. My inquiry was directed to that point.
§ Captain Orr
I was referring to the documents which the Attorney-General said were certain papers "relating to Irish affairs", which were still sensitive. I hope that the Solicitor-General will tell us what those papers are and whether he has had any representations about whether the Lord Chancellor should exercise his discretion in relation to them.
We in Northern Ireland have nothing to fear from publication of the truth. The Ulster history and the resistance to home rule and our determination to remain within the United Kingdom and everything done to that end constitute something of which we are intensely proud. I therefore hope that the relevant papers will be published.
In particular, I hope that the papers to which the hon. Member for Belfast, West referred concerning the Boundary Commission of 1925 will be published. The most prevalent impression of what happened then is that the Boundary Commission, set up by the House of Commons, was about to report and there was a leak in the Morning Post of the day which suggested that, far from what the hon. Member for Belfast, West thought would happen, the Commission would report in the opposite sense and a large 1207 portion of East Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan would be included in Northern Ireland and that because of that the southern representative withdrew. I can see that you are getting restive, Mr. Irving, and therefore I shall leave that point.
If the documents to which the Attorney-General referred were included in the Report of the Boundary Commission, it would be intensely interesting to see that Report and to realise why the southern representative withdrew. That would be a matter of great historical value, because the present borders of Northern Ireland have been ratified by all three Parliaments and therefore we can examine the matter in an academic way in the hope of getting the historical truth.
As the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale knows, and as any other historian knows, it is very difficult to achieve historical truth. History is so often written either by one side or the other. It is often written by the victors. To try to discover the truth about Richard III by studying Tudor historians is notoriously difficult. All kinds of strange views of Irish history have emerged in recent times, particularly concerning "the troubles", which the Attorney-General mentioned. There are fantastic ideas about what took place. On one side people think that there was a gallant war of liberation against a hated tyrant. On the other side, people think of decent, sensible individuals trying to put down a squalid rebellion.
Historians of the future, and historians writing now, should have the facts and the papers. I most strongly support the plea that relevant documents should be published so that we know the facts. We in Ulster have nothing to hide. We should not mind any of these papers being published. We are proud of what has been achieved and we hope that the Lord Chancellor's discretion will not be exercised in such a way as to prevent that great story from being told with truth.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. James Dickens (Lewisham, West)
It goes without saying that I am not an Irishman, although occasionally, to my alarm and incomprehension, people mistake my accent as being that of a person coming from that island. I rise to speak in support of the plea for clarification on 1208 the point about the disclosure of Anglo-Irish documents and to say a few words about the wider aspects of this Bill.
On Second Reading the Attorney-General made some remarks which have been quoted today by my hon. Friends the Members for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) and Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). For example, he made the intriguing remark thatThere is a sensitive area in regard to Irish affairs which remains."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June, 1967; Vol. 749, c. 29.]The first question which we have to ask is this: would it cause any embarrassment to the Dublin authorities if the British Government treated all the affairs between this country and the Southern Irish Government over a period beyond 30 years on equal terms as affairs with other countries? If the British Government say that that should not be done, one is bound to raise the wider principle of how this should be applied to other sensitive areas—for example, our relations with India, Cyprus and other Commonwealth countries with which there have been troubles in the more recent past.
The Solicitor-General threw out a challenge to the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) as to the sort of documents for which we ask for full publication. I do not wish to discuss in detail Irish affairs during the period of the troubles but to make one or two general remarks about the sort of documents which are absolutely essential for the benefit of British and Irish historians in arriving at a proper assessment of what took place during the troubles.
It is unsatisfactory for the Attorney-General to say, as he said on Second Reading,… documents relating to Irish affairs are not generally restricted. The only ones which are restricted are certain records dealing with what are commonly called the troubles'".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June. 1967; Vol. 749. c. 34.]Since "the troubles" led to the formation of an independent Ireland, it is nonsense to make available documents concerning Irish history in general either before 1916, before the troubles began in earnest, or after 1923 when they ended.
What are the documents which one could properly ask to be published? 1209 They are, first, treating the matter in chronological order, documents on the relationship between the Westminster Government and the first unofficial republican Government in Dublin, formed as a result of the General Election of December, 1918, which ran Irish affairs very satisfactorily and in peace until the formation, on the one hand, of the Irish Republican Army and, on the other, of the Black and Tan organisation.
There is, secondly, the question to which my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West drew attention about the high policy decision arrived at in this country which led to the formation of the Black and Tan organisation. That organisation was founded basically to supplement the ineffective rôle being played by the British Army and the Royal Irish Constabulary in keeping law and order. We have to ask ourselves how this organisation was founded and where the money came from to pay 10s. a day to the rank and file and £1 a day to the officers recruited.
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. The hon. Gentleman is going into too much detail on this issue. He is entitled to ask for these documents to be released but he is going further than the Question, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.
§ Mr. Dickens
I shall try to avoid detail as much as possible, Mr. Irving. Perhaps I am in order in referring to two statements made at the time. My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale referred to the position of Labour and Liberal politicians of the period on this issue and it may be useful to recall what was said by one or two of them. The late Mr. Arthur Henderson, who later became Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, said:A state of affairs exists in Ireland which is a disgrace to the human race.Mr. Asquith, as he then was, was more explicit. He said—
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. The hon. Gentleman is getting into a debate on Irish history which is out of order on this Question. He must confine himself to the purposes of the Bill and to the Question, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.
§ Mr. Dickens
I am trying to do so, Mr. Irving. I shall dispense with that interesting quotation from Mr. Asquith.
I he third area of documents that one could look for are the Cabinet papers which led up to the preparation of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, which was, of course, largely stillborn except for the establishment of the Government of Northern Ireland. Again, there are the interesting revelations in Sir Harold Nicholson's official biography of King George V about the King and Ireland. One would want to know something more about the rôle played by the King and General Smuts arising from the speech which the King made at the opening of the first Northern Ireland Parliament in June, 1921 which made a significant contribution leading to a peaceful settlement of the dispute.
One would also want to see the Cabinet papers relating to the crisis which took place in the Cabinet following the King's speech, when Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, set out in a Cabinet paper the conditions under which Ireland could be militarily pacified—100,000 British troops, an economic blockade, block houses—
§ The Deputy Chairman
Order. The hon. Gentleman is again going into too much detail. He can only refer in general terms to these documents. He cannot go beyond a passing reference into their contents.
§ Mr. Dickens
I shall try to do that, Mr. Irving. Sir Henry Wilson's Cabinet paper led to much internal dissention in the Cabinet. One would also look for documents concerning secret negotiations which took place early in 1921 between Mr. De Valera and the British authorities. There is also the question of the documentation leading to the dispute in 1921 on the question of whether or not Ireland should be given Dominion status or made a Republic within the British Empire.
Then again, there is the unique position of Mr. David Lloyd George in this. There is the question of his original plan for a united Ireland and the opposition then created within the Coalition Cabinet by Mr. Bonar Law, which killed the idea.
Finally, there is the question of the Boundary Commission, which is, as has been said, perhaps the most important 1211 single question of all. We know that Dr. Tom Jones, Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, told Michael Collins during the Irish negotiations that they could confidently expect that the Commission's recommendation for the final boundary between Ulster and Eire would so whittle down Ulster by taking away Tyrone and Fermanagh that Northern Ireland would not be a viable proposition. It is worth placing on record that Mr. Lloyd George, Sir Austen Chamberlain and Mr. Winston Churchill said just this in speeches in public in December, 1921, and February, 1922.
I want now to refer in more general terms to the provisions of the Bill. It is important to get absolutely clear the question of how far we are prepared to publish Anglo-Irish public records, because Ireland was the first country to achieve independence within the British Empire, and if we are to adopt this attitude of undue sensitivity towards Irish affairs one is bound to ask whether that principle will be extended to later events.
For example, what about the Indian controversy in the 1930s, including the Round Table Conference and the rôle of Mr. Churchill and others at the time in resisting the moderate advances towards Indian State self-government then envisaged? What is to happen about the post-war period and documents concerning our relations with India, Burma and Ceylon in the 1940s and with Kenya and Cyprus, where we had prolonged periods of British military rule, in the 1950s?
It would enhance, in general, Anglo-Irish relations if we had the full publication of Anglo-Irish historical records on exactly the same standards as documents pertaining to the domestic affairs of this country. It is remarkable that, in a period when relations between this country and the Government of the Republic of Ireland are good and improving, the Government should not take this view, and I am bound to repeat the question as to where representations have come from on this question of sensitivity. Have they come from the Opposition? Are they concerned about the rôle of Conservative Cabinet Ministers in the Lloyd George Coalition Government of 1918–22? Was the Stormont Government 1212 concerned about other ramifications in the later periods of "the troubles"? These are questions which require clear answers.
There are other aspects to the Bill which one should mention. There is the question of private papers which have been handed over to the Public Record Office or to other public record keeping bodies. I ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General to tell us whether such private papers will be made available on the same terms as public records, notwithstanding the fact that there may be family aspects in records deposited which it may be thought undesirable to make available in a period of less than 50 years. I feel the 30-year rule should apply to all documents both publicly and privately deposited with the Public Record Office.
Finally, I refer to the question of the double standards being employed between, on the one hand, historians trying to write serious works of historical reference, either beyond the 30-year period or within it, and the position in which certain Cabinet Ministers—most recently, I think, the Earl of Avon—can use documents to substantiate their points of view and try to justify their positions before other historians can get all the facts.
I want my right hon. and learned Friend to make it clear that, if the 30-year rule is applied to all public records, it will be universally applied and that former Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers should not be allowed, within the 30-year period, to use public records, which they have either kept or have not handed over after their period of office, in order to justify their position in memoirs which they publish.
I welcome the Bill. It is a notable advance in the development of British historiography that we should be able to reduce the period from 50 to 30 years in which public records are available. I hope that it may be possible in future to make further reductions in this period—perhaps to the 25 years which most historians were asking for until the Bill was published.
I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will answer the serious points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Ebbw Vale and Belfast, West and myself in relation to Anglo-Irish documents and that he will also say 1213 something about the wider aspects concerning private papers and the use of confidential Cabinet papers by former Cabinet Ministers and Prime Ministers when writing their memoirs.
§ 12 noon.
§ Mr. Chichester-Clark
I want to follow some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Lewisham (Mr. Dickens) and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) in reference to some of the documents referred to by the Attorney-General and also a letter from Mr. Lloyd George referred to by the hon. Member for Belfast, West and the hon. Member for Lewisham. That letter and the speeches referred to by Mr. Winston Churchill and others were in fact outdated by events which followed, and I cannot see how publication of them would do anyone any harm at this stage, because they are wholly irrelevant. They were outdated because the Boundary Commission broke down in 1925. My hon. Friend and myself earlier gave an account of why we think it broke down—simply because the representative from the Republic of Ireland did not wish to accept the findings which were likely to flow as leaked to the Morning Post.
§ Mr. Dickens
The hon. Member is confusing two separate questions. First, the speeches made by Mr. Winston Churchill and others are on public record. Secondly, I am not sure that Mr. Lloyd George wrote any letter about the Boundary Commission and as to what its likely findings would be. What we do know, and what Mr. A. J. P. Taylor records in a footnote in Vol. 15 of the Oxford History of England, is that some message passed between Mr. Tom Jones, the Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, and Mr. Michael Collins about the likelihood of the Boundary Commission's findings. It is on this that we want evidence.
§ Mr. Chichester-Clark
It may well be that it is only a letter that has not been published. When I spoke about letters and speeches I was being comprehensive. I do not want to deny the hon. Member anything.
This letter and any other document referring to this question are outdated by the agreement of 1925 which recognised the separation of the six counties from the rest of Ireland "in a spirit of 1214 neighbourly comradeship." This agreement was signed by the Free State Government and is interesting because it refutes the notion that the Southern Irish have always been totally opposed to Ulster's very existence. I do not want to pursue that.
§ The Deputy Chairman
I am anxious to ensure to the hon. Member the same latitude as was given to the hon. Member who raised the matter, but I think the hon. Member is going into too much detail.
§ Mr. Chichester-Clark
I do not wish to pursue it any further. It was simply worth getting it on the record.
I have some sympathy with the object of the hon. Member's protestations this morning. As was said, I cannot think that there is anything anyone would wish to hide in the matter. There are those who say that there are sensitive areas, and there may well be some of which I know nothing. There are those who say publication might be inflammatory. One can make these matters inflammatory. There may be certain documents upon which people could dilate and cause an inflammatory situation, but inflammatory situations already exist and people cause them, like the hon. Member for Belfast, West who made a speech in Trafalgar Square the other day, which was certainly an incitement to violence if ever there was one.
§ The Deputy Chairman
One thing which is certainly not in the Bill is a reference to Trafalgar Square.
§ Mr. Chichester-Clark
I just wanted the hon. Member's Left-wing friends to study and evaluate the hon. Member's speech. I cannot see any objection to publication of any of the documents so far mentioned. Whether there are others I do not know. That is my view and I hope that it is of some help to the hon. Member for Belfast, West to know that as far as Unionist Members on this side are concerned there is no attempt to hide anything.
§ Sir John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)
I do not intend to deprive the Irish wolfhounds, but friends of the Solicitor-General, from the pleasure they 1215 will have in listening to his answer, which they are most anxious to receive, on the problems which have been discussed this morning.
I hope that the Solicitor-General will have noted the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) about nationalised industries. They are all below the thirty-year period, but under Clause 1 of the Bill, if passed as it stands, there will be liberty for the Lord Chancellor to reduce the thirty years. It may be that he would consider the exercise of a discretion, because I cannot believe that documents on nationalised industries are of very high security or sensitivity. There is the additional point that there is only one nationalised industry whose records are to be public. They should all be in or out, and I would hope they would all be in.
We started with, I was about to say, pedestrian flights of fancy, but that would only be accurate so far as nomenclature goes. The flights of fancy indulged in by the Opposition in representations to the Government on the question of the Irish papers could never be called pedestrian, because it touched neither ground nor reality at any point. I have no knowledge and I have never heard, as I am sure I would have done, of any such representations being made in the course of the discussions between the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister on the reduction of the period from 50 years to 30 years, which is the purpose of this Bill. So far as I know, no representations concerning Irish affairs in the course of those negotiations has been or was made. I have seen most of the correspondence. I was not present at every discussion, but I would have been aware if anything had been said in the course of the discussions.
The trouble is that we are all speaking in the dark. There has been a veiled reference to groups of documents by the Attorney-General and we do not know what they are. I would like to express in advance my sympathy to the Solicitor-General for the awkward situation in which anyone in his position finds himself. There may or may not be good reasons for saying that certain documents should be covered by a special category of protection because the only way one 1216 can justify it is by disclosing documents which must not be disclosed. Those who have ever been Law Officers and considered the question of Crown Privilege and matters of that sort know how unfair it often may seem that, without showing the strength of one's hand, one has to justify what seems on the whole to be unjustifiable. I have no idea what is contained in the documents referred to by the Attorney-General. I understand he referred only to the documents affecting the troubles. I do not interpret that as having anything to do with Ulster. I had always thought that the troubles were concerned with that part of Ireland which is now Eire, but I may be wholly mistaken. None of us knows, and it may well be that the Attorney-General is in the unhappy position of not being able to tell us, what is considered by his colleagues and the present Lord Chancellor to require special protection.
The Bill contains a provision that the Lord Chancellor is to exercise a discretion in these matters. I think that is a wise and sensible provision. I am content to leave the decision on these and other documents to the present or any future Lord Chancellor. The Lord Chancellor is in a position to exercise an independent judgment on the difficult matter that history should be written and that the truth should be revealed as soon as possible and the damage which we must all recognise can be caused if certain documents are disclosed at times when those who were alive and present when events took place are still alive. Therefore, I approve the provision that this difficult judgment should be left to this and any future Lord Chancellor.
§ The Solicitor-General (Sir Dingle Foot)
Before I come to the main theme of the debate, I will deal briefly with two of the specific points which have been raised. The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) and the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) both referred to the singular position of the Coal Board and pointed out that, under the Act of 1958, the records of the Coal Board are documents which come into the possession of the Public Record Office, and they asked why there should be this differential between the Coal Board and the Boards of other Nationalised industries.
1217 The explanation is that the inclusion of Coal Board records was covered by the original legislation under which the Board was set up. The position has been maintained because the Coal Board itself has expressed a wish that its records should be public records and subject to the same rules about disclosure as other public records. The other Boards have expressed the contrary wish. They have no desire that their records should come into the possession of the Record Office and, as a result, they are not covered by the 1958 legislation.
§ Mr. Ridley
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman consider that to be a desirable position? If these are public industries, their records should be kept by the Public Record Office and preserved for the benefit of the public, whatever they themselves may think.
§ The Solicitor-General
Not necessarily. There may be many ways in which those records are made available. An Electricity Board, for example, may be quite willing for all its records to be made available to the public within quite a short space of time, rather than being made subject to the 30-year rule. It does not follow that there is any degree of concealment if the Board of a public industry says that it does not want its records dealt with in this way.
The other point was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dickens), who asked about the position of private papers given into the custody of the Public Record Office. I have taken advice about that. I am informed that, when an offer of this sort is made, the papers are accepted only if they have some connection with public affairs and providing that the donors agree to their disclosure in the same way as any other documents in the custody of the Public Record Office.
I come now to the principal theme of the debate, which was about Irish documents. We have had many excursions back into history. We were reminded of old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) even recalled what Winston Churchill in 1922 described as the "forbidding steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone". All these matters were recalled to us. However, there has been a certain degree of misunderstanding arising out of the Second Reading de- 1218 bate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) said that he was not easily flabbergasted. Casting my mind back, that may be so, but he becomes very readily indignant. He can become indignant at the drop of a hat about almost anything. On this occasion, I agree with him that, when one considers the history of Ireland over the years and, indeed, over the centuries, and when in particular one considers the record of the party opposite in Irish affairs, there is a great deal about which to be indignant.
Coming to the specific question of Irish documents, during the Second Reading debate my hon. Friend asked why there should be this special provision about Irish affairs, and he raised the same question today. However, that is really a misconception. Neither in the 1958 Act nor in this Bill is there special provision about Irish affairs or Irish records. Under Section 5(1) of the 1958 Act, the Lord Chancellor may prescribe a longer or shorter period than 50 years, and he will now have power to lengthen or abridge the 30-year period in respect of any document or class of document.
We are concerned here not with a power to abridge the period, which is not infrequently exercised but to which no one has referred, but with the power to lengthen the period, and that power is invoked in certain classes of case. In his Second Reading speech, my right hon. and learned Friend gave examples of the sort of case in which that discretion is exercised. Two of them have a particular bearing on the subject matter of this debate.
The first example is where documents have been obtained originally either in strict confidence or under the seal of absolute secrecy and where their publication might cause embarrassment or even danger to individuals. That could arise in the case of Ireland, and I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West that similar considerations might arise in relation to other countries in Asia and Africa which have obtained their independence in recent years.
Those are documents which affect individuals. Then I come to court proceedings, particularly proceedings before courts martial, which again were cited 1219 as an example by my right hon. and learned Friend. It must have been obvious to hon. Members in all parts of the Committee that, when dealing with such proceedings, the instructions given to prosecuting counsel in civil proceedings and to the prosecuting officer before a court martial might cause considerable embarrassment to the individual concerned if he is still alive, or to his family if he is not, and it is very difficult to imagine what useful purpose could be served by publication in such cases. So far as public records are concerned, this sort of consideration applies to the proceedings of courts martial, as to other courts, wherever such proceedings may have been held, but it must be obvious that it has particular application to Ireland because, unhappily, Ireland was under martial law for a period of years.
I want to make it clear that there are certain categories of documents in respect of which the power to lengthen the period is exercised by my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. It has followed from the circumstances of history that there are various Irish documents which fall into those categories, but again I want to make it clear that there is no different standard. The same standards are applied, whether we are dealing with Irish documents or with any others—
§ Mr. Michael Foot
Is my right hon. and learned Friend saying that the reference to certain papers relating to Irish affairs is superfluous, since it is covered by other categories?
§ The Solicitor-General
What my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General was doing was illustrating the way in which the discretion applies. There is no separate standard which is applied to Irish documents, and my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor considers them in the same way as he would consider any other class of document.
§ Mr. Dickens
If that is so, why were Irish affairs specifically mentioned as the third of four categories by the Attorney-General in his Second Reading speech on 26th June, at col. 28?
§ The Solicitor-General
My hon. Friend may take it that I am tolerably familiar with the speech of my right hon. and learned Friend. If he studies it 1220 carefully, he will see that it illustrates what I am saying. My right hon. and learned Friend was making it clear that discretion is exercised in relation to particular documents or categories of documents, and that some Irish documents fall into those categories. However, Irish affairs do not fall into a special category of their own, although, because of the circumstances of Irish history, there must be particular documents which are caught by the sort of prohibition which I have tried to describe.
I come to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). I listened to him with great interest and sympathy, as I am sure the whole Committee did. I hope that I am not inhibited from answering any of his questions. I gather that there were certain points which he felt unable to mention in this debate, and I shall be very glad to discuss them with him at any time, and to make any representations that he would wish to my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. I cannot give any undertaking on the disclosure of a particular document, but I should be very willing to co-operate with my hon. Friend in that way.
He will not expect me to give a precise answer on all the documents he mentioned: but perhaps I might refer to one or two. He asked whether I thought we could make available the Cabinet Minutes of 1912 and 1916. That is not possible, for the simple reason that in those days there were no Cabinet Minutes. Indeed, there was no Cabinet Secretariat as we understand it until Mr. Lloyd George formed his Coalition Government at a very fortunate moment for this country in December 1916. Therefore, one would look in vain for any Cabinet Minutes before that date.
But there would be Cabinet Minutes available after that. Some have recently become available for the first time under the 50-year rule, and some of them have been a matter of public comment and controversy. When the period is shortened to 30 years, I expect that Cabinet Minutes would normally be available. I cannot say that there is no case in which there might not be an item which could not be disclosed, but certainly I would expect them to be available.
My hon. Friend was supported by the hon. Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) and, I think, by the hon. Member 1221 for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark), and I was delighted to see this degree of unanimity. They all had in mind events from 1920 onwards, and particularly the Report of the Boundary Commission. They said that it had never been disclosed and indicated that it would still be a matter of great public interest, both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland.
I did not have the opportunity of considering any specific documents before coming to the debate, because I did not know which would be mentioned. I can see no conceivable reason why the award of the Boundary Commission should not be published, together with nearly all the documents connection with it. I therefore hope that it will be possible to give satisfaction to hon. Members on both sides.
I think that I have dealt with the major points raised in the debate. There is no intention to put Irish documents into a particular category by themselves. It is intended that there should be general disclosure of documents under the new 30-year rule and that only in certain very exceptional cases of the kind I have described will the Lord Chancellor exercise his power to lengthen the period and withhold those documents from publication. With that explanation, I hope that the Committee will accept the Clause.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time and passed, without Amendment.