HL Deb 21 February 1853 vol 124 cc335-41

rose pursuant to notice to put a question to Her Majesty's Government relative to the late occurrence at Six-Mile Bridge, and to inquire whether it is the intention of the Government to prosecute the Irish priests for their conduct on that occasion whom it was the intention of the late Government to prosecute? His Lordship said, that since he had last had the honour of addressing their Lordships upon that subject, he had received some authentic information from Dublin, from one of the highest legal authorities, with regard to the present position and the prospects of those poor soldiers, who, it was understood, were about to be tried at the assizes in Ennis, which were to be opened to-morrow. He had been informed of a circumstance which certainly appeared to him to bear very hardly and very unfairly on those men—namely, that up to Wednesday last no intimation whatever had been made either to them or to Mr. Delmege, the civil magistrate in the neighbourhood of Six-mile Bridge, as to whether they were to be prosecuted by the Crown lawyers or not. The noble Earl at the head of the Government, in replying to a question which had been put by him (the Earl of Cardigan) on a former occasion, had asked, why had not the Attorney General of the late Government entered a nolle prosequi against any further proceedings in that case? Now he (the Earl of Cardigan) had been informed on the very best authority, that in such cases as arose out of the finding of coroners' inquests, it had not been usual to enter nolle prosequis; and the late Attorney General for Ireland had not considered it right or proper to pursue such a course in the present case. That right hon. and learned Gentleman had further thought it unnecessary that he should do so, because the inquisition had been taken into the Court of Queen's Bench, where the question of the legality or illegality of the finding had been argued, and a decision given in favour of its legality; and that finding would naturally have gone back to the Court of Queen's Bench, and could only be removed from that Court by the Irish Attorney General himself; and unless it should be so removed it would be of no more value than so much waste paper. There was a very remarkable precedent bearing upon that point. A few years ago a coroner's jury, who had inquired into the deaths of certain poor Irish people who had perished from famine, had brought in a verdict of wilful murder against Lord John Russell and his Colleagues. That verdict had been transmitted to the Court of Queen's Bench; and the Attorney General of that day had not thought it necessary to enter a nolle prosequi, because he could never suppose, nor could any body imagine, that if by any chance there should be a change of Government, the Attorney General of the succeeding Government would prosecute Lord John Russell and his Colleagues for wilful murder. It had been thought that that precedent would have been followed in the present instance, and that if the inquisition, as it was called, had been allowed to remain in the Court of Queen's Bench, no further steps would have been taken in the matter. It appeared, however, that in the course of last week the inquisition, and all the documents connected with it, had been taken out of the Court of Queen's Bench by the present Attorney General for Ireland, and transmitted to the county of Clare. It was pretty clear that under those circumstances Her Majesty's Government were going to employ the Crown lawyers to prosecute those soldiers. That would, in his opinion, be an act of great hardship to those men; and he thought that they had further been treated with much cruelty and unfairness by the omission to give them any notice, until Wednesday last, as to whether they were to be prosecuted or defended by the Crown lawyers. He believed that was a very unfair course to pursue towards an honourable portion of a very well-conducted Army. These soldiers, however little they might be thought of, belonged to an Army which, in every quarter of the globe, and often under the most contagious climates, discharged with patience and courage some of the most onerous duties to which man could be subjected; and had not that Army always displayed, not only that courage which was natural to them in action, but the greatest heroism and devotion to duty under the most trying difficulties. He would cite one or two instances of the spirit by which they were animated. A body of that Army had stood as firmly and as steadily as if they had been on parade on board a sinking ship, had allowed helpless women and children to be saved, while they themselves remained apparently careless of their own lives, and suffered themselves to be swept off the deck, and had passed into eternity in silence, or only perhaps murmuring a humble prayer for forgiveness for the failings of their past lives. Then, again, the other day, two or three men, under perhaps rather a mistaken sense of duty, had, in obedience to the orders which they considered they had received, attempted to force their way through impassable snow, and in the endeavour rigidly to execute the task committed to them had met a miserable death. The people of this country, although they hated that Army, could not dispense with its aid; and on the first appearance of an outbreak, its services were always eagerly invoked. Those were the men who were hated, he knew, by the people of this country, but who, when it was necessary to protect the lives and properties of the inhabitants of large towns, were waited for with trembling anxiety. To show the confidence the people had in even the smallest bodies of this Army, he might mention, that upon one occasion the chief magistrate of a manufacturing town of some 30,000 or 40,000 inhabitants, in soliciting the aid of the troops under his (the Earl of Cardigan's) command, had told him that it was an old opinion in that town, that if they had at any time a score of Dragoons among them they were perfectly safe. If he had correctly described the character of our soldiers, were not the Government bound to support them, and to defend instead of prosecuting them? If the Government were to prosecute the men engaged in the Six-mile Bridge affray, a very serious injury would be inflicted on them, because the very fact that they had been prosecuted by the Crown lawyers for murder, would leave a stigma on their character, whatever might be the result of the trial; and if they should be found guilty, there would attach to them a double stigma, which no subsequent remission of the sentence by the Crown or its representatives could remove. He said they were bound to uphold the honour and character of their Army; and that the course which it was possible, and even probable, according to the latest accounts, that the Government were about to pursue in the case to which he was then referring, would be an insult and an affront to those soldiers, to the regiment to which they belonged, and to the Army of which that regiment formed a component part. He would not pursue that subject further; but he could not help humbly expressing upon that occasion his lamentation over the fate of the unfortunate country in which that occurrence had taken place—a country not only torn to pieces by civil discord and religious animosity, but tossed about by the changes and the unsteady course adopted by the Governments which so frequently succeeded one another in that country, each of whom reversed many of the orders of their predecessors. But unhappy as was the present condition of that country, he said that it would be much more unhappy if, by oppression and injustice, the Government were to alienate the affections and to paralyse the energies of a faithful Army. In conclusion, he had to put the following questions to Her Majesty's Government:—Whether they had any objection to state the course they had determined on taking with regard to the trial of the soldiers of the 31st Regiment for their conduct at Six-mile Bridge; whether they intended to prosecute or to defend those soldiers; and also whether they meant to pursue the course which the preceding Government had proposed to adopt by prosecuting those Roman Catholic priests who had urged the populace against those troops?


said, he should state, since the noble Earl had again brought that subject under their Lordships' notice, that he had done so in a manner not altogether consistent with a due regard to the administration of justice. The noble Earl had told them that those persons were to be put on their trial to-morrow; and he (the Earl of Aberdeen) would ask what practical object could be gained by bringing the matter before the House at that moment? [The Earl of CARDIGAN: I said that the assizes would commence to-morrow.] But if the assizes are to commence to-morrow, how could the noble Earl expect that his statement that evening would produce any practical effect on the trial? The noble Earl had taken that opportunity of enlarging in very warm terms on the conduct of Her Majesty's troops in Ireland, and in every quarter of the world; but as he (the Earl of Aberdeen) had already borne testimony in the strongest terms to the sense which he entertained, and which Her Majesty's Government entertained, of the admirable conduct of those troops on every occasion on which they had been called upon to assist in the preservation of the peace, it was unnecessary for him to repeat his sentiments upon that point—sentiments which came more naturally, and with a better grace, from the noble Earl. The noble Earl had complained of the great delay of the Government in deciding on the course which they were to adopt with respect to those persons. Now, he (the Earl of Aberdeen) denied that there had been any undue delay on the part of the Government in the management of those proceedings. It might be very possible that a charge of cavalry should be decided on promptly and executed vigorously; but the noble Earl would forgive him for saying that in a case of some difficulty a little deliberation was required before the Government decided on the course which they should pursue in the administration of the law. The noble Earl, while expressing his own admiration of our Army, had gone on to say that that Army was hated by the people of this country. He (the Earl of Aberdeen) entirely differed from that statement. He said that the merits of the Army were freely and readily acknowledged by the people of this country. In the case then immediately under their consideration, the Irish Government had decided that bills should be preferred to the grand jury against those parties against whom a verdict had been returned by a coroner's inquest; and in so doing they had followed the only course which, according to law, justice, or common sense, it was in their power to adopt. The noble Earl professed to believe that the late Government would have followed a different course, and would not have sanctioned the prosecution of those persons by the law officers of the Crown. That, however, was an entirely erroneous view of the case, for when a petition was presented to the late Lord Lieutenant of Ireland by the friends of the persons whose lives had been lost, in which they objected to the prosecution being conducted by the law officers of the Crown, and prayed that they might be allowed to carry on the prosecution by means of their own agents, the late Lord Lieutenant had told them, that as they professed a want of confidence in the Crown lawyers, he thought it incumbent on him to mark as censurable and to reprobate an application made on such grounds and with such an object as that of inducing him unconstitutionally to suspend the Attorney General and the Solicitor General from the performance of their imperative duties. That was the way in which the late Lord Lieutenant of Ireland had regarded the question of the prosecution of those soldiers by the law officers of the Crown. The course against which the noble Earl had that evening directed his censures, had been rendered necessary—doubly necessary, as he (the Earl of Aberdeen) maintained—by the steps taken by the Irish Attorney General of the late Government. That right hon. and learned Gentleman had brought the question before the Court of Queen's Bench, where it had been fully argued, and where the verdict of the coroner's jury had been sustained. After that, what course remained for any Government but to follow the mode of proceeding always adopted in cases of the same kind? He confessed that, notwithstanding the high respect which he entertained for our Army, and its admirable conduct on all occasions, he entertained a still greater respect for the due administration of the law. He said, that if they were to have law at all in Ireland, they should not strain and thwart the just administration of that law by any such interference as that which the noble Earl then advocated. The course Her Majesty's Government had to take was perfectly clear. The grand jury would deal with the bills as they thought proper, and it would ultimately be for the Government to decide what course they should pursue. He cer- tainly did think that, considering what had taken place in that case—considering the decision at which the Court of Queen's Bench had arrived, no other course had been open justly and properly to Her Majesty's Government, excepting that which they had taken. The noble Earl had further asked whether it was the intention of Her Majesty's Government to prosecute the two priests against whom also an accusation had, in that case, been preferred? and, in reply to that question, he (the Earl of Aberdeen) had to state that he made no distinction between soldiers and priests. All he wished to state to their Lordships was this: that as long as he had anything to do with the Government of Ireland, he would undertake, that without any exception, either in the case of soldier or of priest, of peasant or of Peer, justice should be administered to all. The bills against the priests would therefore be proceeded with just in the same way as the bills against the soldiers. The grand jury would in the first instance deal with them as they might think proper; and it would afterwards be for Her Majesty's Government to determine what course they ought, under the circumstances, to pursue.


said, he had it in the handwriting of the Irish Attorney General of the late Government, that it had not been the intention of that Government to have prosecuted those soldiers.

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