HL Deb 26 June 1857 vol 146 cc417-23

VISCOUNT DUNGANNON rose to call the attention of the House to the Conduct of certain Justices acting in the City of Kilkenny, and to move for a Select Committee to inquire into and report upon the same. The noble Viscount said that he was fully aware of the invidious nature of the task which he had undertaken, and nothing but a strong sense of duty had led him to undertake it; because, although it was never a pleasing thing to become the accuser of any class of persons, it was especially disagreeable when those persons were public functionaries. Therefore, in bringing the subject before their Lordships, he should avoid as much as possible going into details. In the month of January, 1856, several Scripture readers were assaulted and very much injured in the streets of Kilkenny by a mob of Roman Catholics. The case was brought before the justices of Kilkenny. Those justices were the mayor, Mr. E. Smithwick, Mr. Potter, Mr. Marshall, and Mr. Cullen, all Roman Catholics; Mr. Greene, the stipendiary magistrate, his brother, Mr. Newport Greene, and Lord James Butler, Pro- testants. In the course of the case Mr. Smithwick took a very decided course against the Scripture readers. That gentleman appeared more in the character of an advocate than of one of the justices; and he endeavoured to make out that the Scripture readers had posted upon the walls of the town offensive placards against the Roman Catholic religion. He inquired of Mr. Curtis, the superintendent of police, whether he had sent out Roman Catholic police to take part in the matter in which the Scripture readers were concerned. The answer of Mr. Curtis was, that he had sent out the police in their proper turn, without reference to their religious creed. Upon that Mr. Smithwick observed that it was a most improper thing to do; and that he, being a Roman Catholic, would have disobeyed the order—he considered that any Roman Catholic constable was justified in disobeying such an order. He (Viscount Dungannon) asked whether any magistrate was justified in making use of such, an expression? It was true that he modified the observation on a subsequent day, but in his opinion that modification amounted to a distinction without a difference. During the examination of a Mr. M'Neill, one of the witnesses, Mr. Wynne, a Roman Catholic attorney, said to him, without being checked by any of the justices except Lord James Butler, "Go down, sir; I should be very sorry to be near you with any money in my pocket. "The inquiry was afterwards adjourned to the 20th of the same month, when the case was dismissed upon the ground that the magistrates were indisposed to believe what the Scripture readers had stated. Lord James Butler, however, declared that, in his opinion, the cases of assault had been fully established. Mr. Smithwick upon this occasion stated, in explanation, he did not mean to say the constables should have disobeyed the order, but that he thought it very wrong to send out Roman Catholic constables to protect those who were the enemies of their faith, and to hear things which would be insulting to their religion. No proof had been afforded that anything insulting to the religion of the Roman Catholics had been uttered by the Scripture readers. He would not enter upon the question how far it was advisable or otherwise to send forth those Scripture readers among the Roman Catholics, but their vocation was a lawful one, and so long as they kept within the bounds of the law they were entitled to protection. Here he could not help calling attention to the social position of some of these persons, who had been entrusted with commissions of the peace. Two of them kept small shops, in which they sold drams and whisky. The mayor also kept a small grocery shop in which whisky was sold. Mr. Smithwick was a brewer, and in a better position of life, but still, like his brother magistrates, not fitted by education to discharge the duties of a magistrate. He did not mean to say that the Roman Catholics must necessarily be wrong, and the Protestants right; but he could not help looking with more confidence to such men as Lord James Butler and Messrs. Greene, than to persons of such station as those to whom he had been referring. He wished he could have done with Mr. Smithwick here, but he should have to bring that gentleman before them in a still more objectionable light. In January of the present year two boys, twelve and thirteen years of age, while going about distributing tracts, were cruelly and severely beaten with a whip by a man named James Ryan, in the employ of Mr. Smithwick. He was brought before the bench on a charge of assaulting them. Mr. Smithwick gave evidence to the effect that he believed the man was utterly incapable of the act imputed to him, and then sat upon the bench and adjudicated upon the matter. A letter was afterwards written to a newspaper by Mr. Newport Greene, the stipendiary magistrate, saying that the decision was directly contrary to the evidence. He appealed to noble Lords whether, if such an act had been committed by any magistrate in this country as that of adjudicating upon a case in which he was directly or indirectly interested, he would not merely be cautioned and reprimanded, but struck off from the commission of the peace? There was also another charge of assault against several parties, and although evidence was given by the police of the extreme ill-usage which the prosecutors received, all of them were acquitted except one, who admitted that he had struck and tripped up one of the complainants. That person was convicted, but only fined 6d. Those three cases showed, at least, a disregard of the rules of justice, which would fully warrant the inquiry for which he intended to move. The impartial administration of justice was everywhere most essential, but more especially was it essential in that country where, lamentable as might be the fact, party feeling of a religious character prevailed, and nothing would tend more to lower the courts of petty session in the estimation of the public, than the idea that in any case pending between a Roman Catholic and a Protestant, the result must depend on whether a majority of justices of one persuasion or the other might chance to sit on the bench at the time. He asked for even-handed justice to all classes, of whatever religious persuasion they might be.

Moved, "That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into and report on the Conduct of certain Justices acting in the City of Kilkenny."


said, he need scarcely assure their Lordships that his noble Friend the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was as anxious to extend even-handed justice to all classes of Her Majesty's subjects in that country as the noble Viscount himself could be, and he believed no departure from that principle had taken place in the cases to which the noble Lord had called attention. The statement made by the noble Lord in reference to the charge against Mr. Smithwick was substantially the same as the report which appeared at the time in The Kilkenny Moderator. The Lord Lieutenant having had his attention directed to that report, called upon Mr. Smithwick for an explanation; whereupon that gentleman wrote a letter stating that the report of what he had said on the 12th was quite incorrect, and what he had said on the 19th was much misrepresented; that a great deal of what he said was omitted, and much more misrepresented, and that the expressions attributed to him by the reporter he had never used. This explanation was accepted by the Lord Lieutenant as satisfactory; but he wrote at the same time to say that had it not been so he should have taken other steps. It would be a great mistake to interfere with the administration of justice by the local authorities without sufficient grounds. In the other case a trivial assault was committed; it was disposed of by the magistrates, and no complaint was made to the Government by the party who might be supposed to be aggrieved by the decision; but at a subsequent period a body of gentlemen calling themselves the Protestant Association, but whom the Protestants of Ireland repudiated as representing them, took up the matter and made this charge against the magistrates. That being the case, the Government did not consider there was any ground for inquiry. With regard to the Scripture readers, he thought it was a point worthy the consideration of those excellent men who desired to propagate the true faith of the Protestant religion amongst the Roman Catholics of Ireland, that they should pay some attention to the manner in which some of the persons they employed endeavoured to carry out the holy cause in which they were engaged. He (Earl Granville) had letters in his possession from chief constables and other functionaries, showing that the Scripture readers were in the habit of stopping Roman Catholics in the public thoroughfares, denouncing and ridiculing the peculiar tenets of the religion which their listeners professed, and thrusting their tracts upon unwilling passers by, interlarding their discourse generally with attacks on Her Majesty's Government. Their Lordships, he thought, would agree with him, that this was not the mode of propagating the Protestant faith amongst the Irish Roman Catholics, but that, on the contrary, it was the most likely means of exciting the public mind, and occasioning breaches of the public peace. To hold out the slightest encouragement of protection to persons engaged in proceedings of this character would therefore be most imprudent, and he would advise those who felt an interest in the progress of our religion to watch narrowly the conduct of these persons, and to cheek this excess of zeal. It was a very difficult matter for Government to afford protection to such persons, because the very fact of such protection enabled and encouraged them to persevere in offensive denunciations of the religion of their auditory. The one charge referred to by the noble Lord it appears was founded in error, and the other having been disposed of by the magistrate, and no complaint having been made by the parties themselves, he submitted that there was no case for interference on the part of the Government or of their Lordships. It must not be supposed that in these cases the Roman Catholic magistrates were always wrong and the Protestants always right, even were it possible for the Government to make any distinction either upon religious or personal grounds. They could not place more reliance on one magistrate than another because he happened to be a Protestant, or because he happened to belong to a high and wealthy family. He trusted that their Lordships would agree with him that no ground for an inquiry had been made out.


said, that the noble Earl had failed in meeting the allegations of his noble Friend. The charges did not appear to be of a very grave nature; but two cases had been brought forward which, supposing the facts stated by his noble Friend to be correct, showed gross partiality on the part of a certain magistrate; and admitting that the superior credibility of one magistrate over another was a question that the Government could not entertain, much less a Committee of that House, still he thought the statement of his noble Friend demanded some more explicit answer than it had received. Mr. Smithwick, having been called upon to explain the language he used, it appeared contented himself with saying that the report was incorrect, and that what he said had been misrepresented by the newspaper; but it would have been more satisfactory if he had gone a little further and stated what he did say, and left others to judge of their effect. The important fact that he came forward and gave a character to the accused, and then as a magistrate gave his casting vote in his favour, was not denied; and supposing that such a circumstance actually took place, he must say it was one that was calculated to cast suspicion on the due administration of justice by the local tribunals of Ireland. It appeared to him that the subject was one that demanded more investigation than it had received; but he was not prepared to say that questions of this kind ought to be inquired into by Committees of that or the other House of Parliament. The proper course of proceeding was by reference to the Court of Queen's Bench in Ireland, and he was surprised that that course had not been adopted. One of the faults of the administration of justice in Ireland was that in every case of doubt or difference the Government was appealed to, and the impression generally prevailing that the result of such appeals depended upon the political feeling of those in high office. This was a great evil, and went far to destroy the independence of the local judicial authorities. He presumed his noble Friend did not intend to press his Motion for a Committee, which was one he (the Earl of Derby) could not support; but he thought his noble Friend was fully justified in bringing the case under their Lordships' attention, as one that demanded searching investigation on the part of the Government.


said, that the practice of resorting to the Executive in Ireland as a court of redress in cases where the administration of justice was concerned had grown into an enormous evil. The principle of the Government ought to be to discourage such appeals, and to throw the full weight of their proper responsibilities upon the magistracy of the country. Perhaps, if that was done, a little less anxiety would be shown for the attainment of the commission of the peace and a greater ambition to become acquainted with the duties of magistrates. Cases like that brought forward by the noble Viscount that evening had been of late years of very frequent occurrence in Ireland, and he thought he was justified in saying that, primâ facie, they invariably put the Roman Catholic clergy in the wrong. For these Scripture readers were men whose characters had been closely scrutinized before their appointment to office; and, as far as his experience went, he must say they performed their duties in an inoffensive manner. On the other hand, they were habitually subjected to every species of malicious usage; as, for example, to having their garments covered with spittle. He mentioned that for the sake of justifying the missionaries, and to prove that where disturbances arose they could not fairly be attributed to them.


in reply, said he did not think that the noble Earl opposite had sufficiently met his statement, for he had made no reply whatever to the graver charge against Mr. Smithwick of having adjudicated in a case where his own servant was defendant. Still he would not press his Motion to a division, but content himself with expressing a hope that what occurred that evening in their Lordships' House would not be without its proper effect upon the country.

Motion (by Leave of the House) withdrawn.