HL Deb 10 August 1848 vol 101 cc50-4

said, that he rose to move the Second Reading of this Bill, which had for its object the continuance and amendment of certain Acts respecting secret and illegal societies in Ireland. It was almost unnecessary for him to say that those societies were illegal which were bound together by secret and unlawful oaths. The law as it stood, without the aid of further provision, was sufficient to deal with illegal meetings wherever the real character of such meetings could be ascertained; but some definition was necessary as to what these societies were. The great difficulty was in finding out and distinguishing what were secret societies. There could be no doubt that they had recently existed to a very great extent in Ireland for the purpose of promoting and organising a conspiracy for seditious and treasonable purposes. The consequence of this was that by means of these secret clubs and societies, an organisation had been completed throughout the country which had recently led to so much mischief, but which had been prevented extending to the degree that the promoters of it intended. Unless means were found by which these secret societies and clubs could be suppressed, it was vain to look for tranquillity in Ireland. There could be no doubt that many of the outrages committed, and the recent organisation of the disaffected for insurrection, originated in these secret societies. The present Bill proposed to continue the two existing Acts on the subject (the 4th Geo. IV. c. 87; and 2nd and 3rd Vic. c. 74), with some additions. To obtain actual information as to parties being sworn in members of these secret clubs would be a matter of great difficulty; but still he thought means might be devised by which this might be effected more satisfactorily than was the case under the present state of the law. In the present Bill he proposed a clause, that before a warrant was issued for the apprehension of parties as members of such societies, an oath should be taken by the party giving the information that there was reasonable ground to believe that such oaths were administered, and that the parties were engaged in unlawful or seditious practices. The Bill then authorised any magistrate to issue his warrant; and, under the authority of that warrant, it was proposed to empower certain officers to attend the meetings, to restrain them if necessary, and to search for and examine hooks and papers. It had been suggested that the Bill should go a little further, and give some more immediate remedy against the persons forming these societies. After considering the matter, he conceived that this was not at all necessary. If the societies, as they existed, were illegal, all that was wanted was access to the meetings for the purpose of proving their illegality. The police, having obtained access, would ascertain that illegal practices were carried on, and the societies would then come under the provisions of former Acts. The authorities would, in fact, be armed with all the provisions that could be needed, and to secure that object it was not at all necessary to alter the provisions of former Acts. Parties offending against the law would be amenable under the existing statutes. The great object was to prevent these illegal societies from carrying on their practices in private, and for this purpose means were proposed to enable the police to detect them in their unlawful pursuits. The officer, when authorised by the warrant of a magistrate, was to be at liberty to continue in the place of meeting as long as he considered it expedient to do so. He would, of course, check any illegal transaction which was going on during his presence; and, what was most important, he would be able to inform himself, by an examination of books and documents, as to the object of the society. This was undoubtedly an invasion of the rights and prileges of the Queen's subjects, but it was an invasion which was not carried further than the state of Ireland absolutely required; and he believed that, after the fullest consideration had been given to the proposed measure, it would be found that nothing short of the powers which the Bill provided would enable the Government of Ireland to prevent the revival of those secret societies which had produced so much evil, and which required to be checked by the authority of the law. He, therefore, trusted thot their Lordships would sanction the Bill.


said, it had been his intention—the present state of the House alone prevented him from fulfilling it—to move that a portion of the Act passed in 1833 should be inserted in the measure under consideration; and the purpose for which he meant to make that proposal was the putting down of the Repeal Association which met on Burgh Quay. On learning that measures of that description were about to be introduced, he had hoped that the example set by a former Administration would be followed at the present time; and he could not but express the disappointment which he felt at finding that it had not. Now, having looked over the four or five Acts which, by the Bill before the House, were to be renewed and extended for two years, he had come to the conclusion that the course proposed would not lead to the breaking up of the clubs. Under the 2nd and 3rd Vict., and 4th Geo. IV., it was necessary that the members of the associations to be suppressed should have bound themselves by oaths. The clubs in Ireland had no oaths, though the members understood one an- other perfectly well. He would like very much to be better informed on that subject, and would be glad if the noble and learned Lord opposite (Lord Campbell) would state whether or not magistrates, and other authorities, in Ireland could, under the provisions of the Bill, bring members of the clubs to justice as offenders against the law.


said, that, as the noble Earl had appealed to him, he felt it his duty to answer the question propounded. The noble Earl seemed to forget altogether that there was such a thing as the common law. There were statutes directed against illegal meetings, which gave tests of illegality, and, without going further, he would observe, that if it could be proved that illegal oaths were administered, or that illegal pass-words were used, meetings at which such things occurred were at once adjudged by the law to be illegal. But, without that, according to the common law of England, which was also the common law of Ireland, if meetings were held for any seditious or treasonable purpose they were illegal, and all, therefore, who attended them might be punished. What was now wanted was, to obtain evidence of the purpose for which these meetings were assembled. The object of the Bill was to enable police officers, with the sanction of a magistrate, to enter any house or place where it was supposed or suspected that an illegal meeting was assembled, and to ascertain the purposes for which that meeting had been convened. If the parties attending were discovered to be preparing for an insurrection, or for the bearing of arms, or, in fact, to be doing any thing which was illegal, they would be liable to be apprehended; and should they be brought before the noble Earl as a magistrate, he advised the noble Earl immediately to commit them to gaol. He (Lord Campbell) would indemnify him against any consequences which might follow from the granting of the warrant. There was one error prevalent in Ireland to which he wished briefly to allude. The people of that country seemed to suppose that nothing was illegal except what was forbidden by the statute. They appeared to imagine that it was lawful for them to have arms in their hands for the purpose of carrying on an insurrection against the Queen's Government if there were no statute to forbid it. Now, the common law forbade this. Wherever arms were found under such circumstances might be seized, and those who had them for that illegal purpose were liable to be imprisoned, brought to trial, and punished. Without any statute, if people assembled for a seditious or treasonable purpose, and it was proved that they had so assembled, although they might not have administered any illegal oath, or employed any illegal pass-word, still they were amenable to the law, and it was the duty of a magistrate to put the law in force against them. Therefore, the noble Earl might be perfectly tranquil in the discharge of his duty, in which he (Lord Campbell) was sure the noble Earl was most earnest; wherever there appeared to be any conspiracy against the existing Government of the country, or wherever people were apparently combining to violate the law, the noble Earl might fairly believe the parties to be guilty of a crime, and might resort to the means requisite to bring them to punishment.


thought there was great evil in the habitual renewal of temporary measures for the government of Ireland, when experience had proved such measures to be permanently necessary. There was nothing either in the 2nd and 3rd Vict., or in the 4th Geo. IV., which, after recent experience, ought not to be made permanent in its application. At that period of the Session he would not raise any obstruction to the passing of the Bill; but he certainly thought that two years was an unnecessarily short period for the continuance of the Acts to be renewed.

Bill read 2a.

House adjourned.