HL Deb 11 February 1853 vol 124 cc28-32

rose to ask the noble Earl opposite the question of which he had given notice. That question had reference to the prosecution which it was understood was about to be conducted by the law officers of the Crown in Ireland against certain soldiers for their conduct at Six-Mile Bridge. He hoped he should be acting in accordance with the rules of the House in making one or two observations before he put his question. Their Lordships were aware that the services of the Army were various and manifold, and by no means the most painful and dangerous of those servives was what they had to perform when in action. There were other services, not purely military, which were not unaccompanied with danger, but which at the same time were most onerous and disagreeable. There was one duty which was always considered to be of a most painful character, that of being called upon to act against their own countrymen in times of public disturbance. There was another duty, which was a peculiar duty— for it was confined to the time of a general election in Ireland. The same duty was unknown in this country—for so far from the military being called upon to act at general elections in England, they were sent to distant parts in order to be quite out of the way of the proceedings; but in Ireland the Army was employed on all occasions of a general election, for the purpose of protecting voters and preserving the public peace. In his humble opinion it was very doubtful whether this kind of duty ought to be allotted to the Army under any circumstances. At the same time, he was quite aware that, owing to the condition of the sister kingdom, it would be difficult to know how a general election could be got through without disturbance, unless the aid of the military was obtained, or unless some other than present arrangements were established. But he would say, that if Government did employ Her Majesty's troops in services of this irksome and dangerous nature, where there was neither credit nor honour to be gained, and where the duty required was of a most painful character—if Government did employ troops, and by that means brought them into collision with the people at a general election, and if those troops, in defence of their own lives, protected themselves in the only effectual way by taking the lives of their assailants, Government was bound to support those troops in the discharge of that duty. But what was about to be done in the case of the soldiers employed at the late Clare election? There was not the slightest doubt that the people were urged to rage and violence by certain Roman Catholic priests. The people made a most violent attack on the soldiers who were engaged in protecting a body of the electors. Those soldiers' lives were exposed to great danger—they defended themselves, and it had been laid down by the greatest lawyers, that when troops under arms were attacked they had a right to employ those arms for their own defence. Such being the case, they were told and understood—by the public—and the report had not been contradicted—that not only were the Crown lawyers going to prosecute the soldiers for defending their lives, but that Government had sent down parties specially to conduct the prosecution. This made the affair all the more strange. He should like to ask the Government if these Crown lawyers were to prosecute the soldiers for defending their own lives against a furious populace, urged on to violence by their priests, who were to defend the soldiers? Who were to pay for counsel to contend with the Crown lawyers? Were Government going to employ the Crown lawyers? Or, if not, were Government going to furnish money for the defence of the soldiers? The position of matters presented a most extraordinary anomaly. He doubted whether the doctrine would be satisfactory to the Army, or that soldiers could be made to believe it was justice—if they did their duty, and thereby became liable to prosecution, that, instead of being attended by all the legal talent at the command of Government, all this legal talent was to be employed against them. They had heard a great deal about the necessity for educating the Army—that if soldiers were educated, instead of being rough men and good soldiers, they would become more intelligent and refined. He did not dispute that it would be of advantage that soldiers should know how to read and write, but he hardly thought more was wanted. But could any amount of education which a soldier could receive teach him that such treatment as the soldiers engaged in the Clare election had received was right and just? He would take the liberty of telling their Lordships it was utterly impossible such a system could be good or beneficial. He was also informed Government were going to adopt quite a different course in this affair, to that course which the previous Government adopted. He should therefore be glad to be informed whether it was the fact that these soldiers were going to be prosecuted by Government and the Crown lawyers; and if so prosecuted by the Crown lawyers, how the expenses to enable them to defend themselves were to be paid? Further, he had been credibly informed in this country and in the sister kingdom, that, instead of the intentions of the late Government being carried out by the prosecution of the priests who had excited the people to violence, it was the determination of the present Government not to prosecute. He should therefore be glad to hear what the intentions of Government were in both respects.


Nothing can he more natural than the interest which the noble Earl feels in the fate of those persons whose case he has brought to your Lordships' attention. I am sure the House must respond to those feelings; and certainly no one can be more sensible than I am of the great pains and forbearance displayed by Her Majesty's troops when employed in the most irksome and most painful service they have to perform, in assisting in the preservation of the public peace. But, my Lords, the noble Earl's inquiry is somewhat premature. Only this day I received intimation from the Lord Lieutenant that the matter is under the consideration of the Irish Government, and that no steps whatever have yet been decided on. Your Lordships will, perhaps recollect, that on the verdict of the coroner's inquest on the murdered men, the learned Gentleman who lately filled the office of Attorney General in Ireland (Mr. Napier) brought the case before the Court of Queen's Bench in Dublin, and endeavoured to procure a decision which should quash the verdict of the coroner's jury. After fully considering the matter, the Court came to a unanimous decision that there were no grounds for that proceeding. In doing so, I make no doubt they were perfectly right; and I understand the Court expressed an opinion that it could only set aside the verdict upon some informality or technicality on the face of the proceedings. That not being the case, the verdict was allowed to stand undisturbed. If the case were so clear as the noble Earl represents it—and I am not disposed to doubt it, for from every account I have received of the transaction the manner in which he describes it is perfectly correct—but if the case were so, why did not the learned Gentleman, the law officer under the late Government, enter at once a nolle prosequi? He might thus have stopped the proceedings at the instant. The present Attorney General may still do so, for I am not prepared to say what course the Irish Government may determine on taking. As to the prosecution having been undertaken by the law officers of the Crown, that is a matter of course in Ireland; but the Attorney General may at any stage of the proceedings, by interfering on behalf of the Crown, stop the further progress of the trial. I am sure I do not know whether it will be considered right to proceed at all; but if it should, and if the case should be sent for trial, the grand jury may ignore the bill, and if so, that would be an additional reason for the Attorney General exercising the power to stop further proceedings. I am really unable to give any answer to the noble Earl as to the course intended to be pursued by the Irish Government, because it is only to-day, as I have said, that I heard from my noble Friend at the head of the Irish Government (the Earl of St. Germans) that the matter is still under consideration, and that no decision has been come to on the subject.


I am sure the noble Earl used a word which he did not intend when he spoke of the people that were shot as being "murdered men."


Oh, I only meant they were killed.


I presume the noble Earl intends the same answer to apply to the other question which was put to him by my noble Friend with regard to the prosecution of the priests, who certainly, according to the published accounts, appear to have taken an active part in the riot.


The noble Earl has anticipated the answer I was about to give. That question is also under the same consideration as the other.

House adjourned to Monday next.