HL Deb 06 August 1866 vol 184 cc2074-87

(The Earl of Derby.)


Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, it is with great reluctance that I rise to move the second reading of this Bill; for nothing would have been more gratifying to me than to be able to state to your Lordships that, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, the condition of Ireland was now such, and the discontent and the conspiracy which have long prevailed had become so far extinguished as to allow us to revert to the provisions of the ordinary law, instead of asking for the continuance of the extraordinary measure of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. But, however desirable it might be that such a course should be pursued, we cannot undertake the responsibility of allowing Parliament to disperse without first taking powers to carry into effect the provisions of the Act which has been considered during the present Session indispensable for the preservation of the peace of Ireland. I need not now refer to the circumstances which were stated by Her Majesty's late Government at the commencement of the Session, as the reason why there should be confided to them the extraordinary powers they demanded—and which were confided to them, I believe, without a dissentient voice being raised in Parliament—for the purpose of protecting the loyal and peaceable inhabitants of Ireland from the effects of one of the most dangerous and treasonable conspiracies which ever existed in any country. I am quite sure this extraordinary measure was not applied for one single moment before it was necessary:—indeed, if I were to express my own opinion on the subject, I should say that the fault of the late Government was rather in delaying the application of the remedy until the conspiracy had attained to a strength and confidence which rendered it much more difficult to grapple with than would have been the case at an earlier period. Still, this was a fault no doubt on the right side, because no Government, without some absolute necessity, would be desirous of going beyond the ordinary powers of the law, and thereby curtail the liberties of the people. The operations after the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act were carried out by the Executive, under the authority of the noble Earl whom I see opposite (the Earl of Kimberley), with an amount of firmness, and at the same time of temper and moderation, which reflect the highest credit on the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office. The effect of the measure in restoring peace and tranquillity to Ireland was most remarkable. I am happy to say that during the present year the returns from the assizes show a remarkable diminution in the amount of ordinary crime in that country; but, at the same time, with regard to the Fenian conspiracy, although the measures which were adopted have checked its outward manifestation, I cannot flatter myself that its spirit has been by any means subdued. That is also the opinion entertained by the late Government. The spirit still exists to a dangerous extent, and with an impulsive population like that of Ireland, the permission to agitators to carry on their operations unchecked by any extraordinary measures of coercion would be liable to throw the country again into the greatest confusion and danger. The measure passed at the beginning of the Session has been acted upon, as I said before, with temper and moderation. A very considerable number of persons have been arrested under its provisions, but of these a large proportion—I believe more than one-half — have given security for their future good conduct, and the observance of the law, and have been thereupon set at liberty. It is the earnest desire of Her Majesty's present Government to extend that system as much as possible, and to allow the dismissal from prison of all persons who can give any security, or who can hold out any prospect that they will act for the future as loyal subjects of the Crown. But there are a considerable number of persons from whom no such security can be obtained or expected, and who, in point of fact, still maintain the language of defiance towards the authorities. Now, to let all these persons loose upon society would, in my opinion, be to incur a responsibility which no Government with a proper sense of duty to its Sovereign and the country ought to take upon themselves, for a period of five or six months during which the sittings of Parliament will be suspended. But it is not only with regard to the persons who in Ireland have been removed from the scene of their dangerous attempts—nor is it with regard to them chiefly—that the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act has had a most beneficial effect, and that its repeal would be most injurious. A great portion of this formidable conspiracy is not of Irish birth. It comes from foreign agents—self-expatriated Irishmen perhaps—who carry on a treasonable conspiracy against the land of their birth, being secure under the laws of the country to which they have transferred their allegiance. At the time of the passing of the Suspension Act we know that a great number of these persons were in Ireland, spreading their opinions among the impulsive and easily deluded population of that country. When the Act was passed, and they found themselves amenable to the law, a great many returned to America, and from the time of their departure the maintenance of peace in Ireland is attributable rather to their absence from the country than to the imprisonment of those who remain. The repeal of the Act at the close of the Session would give to those persons the opportunity of returning to Ireland with perfect impunity, and of renewing those designs which they have never abandoned, and which they now put forward in the United States with the utmost confidence and effrontery. Repeal the Act and you will again admit those dangerous agents into Ireland, and the population will be exposed afresh to all the dangers from which the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act has exempted them. I think it is much more with reference to these foreign agents, who would return to renew sedition and agitation in Ireland, than to the native population, that it is desirable to renew the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. I certainly believe that with the renewal of that dangerous element, and with powers conferred upon the Government — which will, I feel confident, be executed with firmness and at the same time with moderation, and with an anxious desire to protect the peaceable and loyal inhabitants of the country—I believe that though this suspension may be regarded as, and in fact is, a curtailment to a certain extent of the liberty of the people, the well disposed portion of the population of Ireland will hail it as the greatest protection to their lives and liberties during the ensuing autumn and winter. I trust that at the commencement of next Session the state of matters will be so far improved that we may be able to ask Parliament to revert to the ordinary powers of the law; but, at the present moment, I am convinced I should not be doing my duty if I did not ask your Lordships to intrust to the present Government until the next meeting of Parliament the same powers which were intrusted to the late Government.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a." —(The Earl of Derby.)


My Lords, I am sure that all your Lordships will share, as I do, the regret expressed by the noble Earl as to the necessity for again proposing that the Habeas Corpus Act should be suspended in Ireland; but I am bound to say, that had I remained in office, it was my intention to recommend to the late Government that this course should be adopted, and from communications with my late Colleagues, I have reason to know that my recommendation would have been acted upon. Your Lordships will therefore see that I cannot do otherwise than approve the conduct of the present Government in bringing forward this Bill. The noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) alluded to the state of ordinary crime in Ireland, which I am happy to say is at present at a very low ebb. That fact has been adduced by some persons as a reason for objecting to the continuation of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act; but I think a little reflection and consideration will satisfy your Lordships that there is no direct connection between ordinary crime in Ireland and the Fenian conspiracy, against which this Bill is exclusively directed. The ordinary crime of Ireland had for a considerable time—after an increase occurring during a series of years of bad harvests—again steadily diminished, and when the Fenian conspiracy was at its height, ordinary crime was at a much lower ebb in the country than it had been for some years. There is, in fact, no connection between the two things, except that the criminal population might be ready to take advantage of disorder and confusion to pursue their avocations. There is no doubt that at the present moment the tranquillity of Ireland, and the absence of crime from the country, is a subject of just congratulation; but I nevertheless feel it my duty to say that I agree with the noble Earl in believing that a dangerous spirit continues to exist in some portions of the population. I think that in consequence of the conspiracy never having broken out into actual rebellion, few persons, except those who have had the opportunity which I have had of seeing all the information that could be collected by the Government, know how formidable and how dangerous a conspiracy really existed in Ireland. I should have felt more hesitation in speaking in this way—because it might seem to magnify any merit of mine in preventing an outbreak—if that opinion had not been expressed by the noble Earl opposite; but, as that opinion has been expressed, I think it is my duty to state to your Lordships and to the country that I am persuaded that since the year 1798 there has not existed so dangerous a condition of the minds of people in Ireland as that which existed in the past year. I say this deliberately, after much reflection and consideration, and after communicating with those who played a principal part in the movement of 1848. I think there can be no doubt that the conspiracy in the last-named year, though it actually broke out into a slight rebellion, was far less formidable than the conspiracy which I hope we have now to a considerable extent overcome. The reason why this conspiracy was so formidable was that alluded to by the noble Earl—namely, because to a great extent it has its roots in a foreign country. If it were not for the encouragement and support which the conspiracy received from persons who were themselves exempt from the dangers incurred by those who remained in Ireland, though there might exist in some parts of Ireland discontent bordering upon disaffection against the Queen's Government, yet such disaffection would never have assumed the form of a conspiracy which could be at all formidable and likely to endanger the tranquillity of the country. But as long as you have a large and extensive society in a foreign land, supported by considerable sums of money, and sending emissaries into Ireland for the purpose of sowing disaffection throughout the country, you will not be free from solicitude concerning the possibility of an outbreak. Another fact well worth attention is that the persons who were most active in promoting the conspiracy were not the poorer and more ignorant classes, but persons I can best describe as belonging to the artizan and small tradesman classes. It would be a mistake to suppose that many intelligent persons were not connected with the conspiracy. It is quite true—and the circumstance is a most fortunate one—that there were no owners of property or persons occupying high social or professional position in Ireland who took any part whatever in this movement; but, at the same time, the leaders and moving spirits of the conspiracy, though belonging, as I have said, to the artizans and humbler trading classes, were, nevertheless, persons whose energy and ability rendered them difficult to contend with. As regards the farming classes — of whom I have frequently seen it asserted that they did not sympathize with this sedition—I regret that in its full extent I cannot repeat that statement. In the South and West of Ireland, although the occupiers of farms did not take a prominent part in the conspiracy, yet, as a matter of fact, it was known that had the rebellion actually broken out in many parts of the country they would have been prepared to join it. I do not intend to pursue this theme, but I have said enough to show you that this sedition, the rise of which has been comparatively slow (for it has been in preparation for some years) cannot be expected to vanish in a moment by the mere enactment of a law suspending the Habeas Corpus, in the same manner that sedition vanished in 1848; and I am convinced that it is only wise and prudent to continue for a time the exceptional powers of the Government, because if those exceptional powers did not exist you would see a revival of sedition, you would lose the opportunity of stamping out the embers, and of preventing the rebellious spirit from again attaining formidable dimensions. More than this—there would be extreme inconvenience in the expiry at the present time of the exceptional powers given to the Government, for there still remain in prison under the Lord Lieutenant's warrant a considerable number of persons; and suddenly to let these persons loose without any guarantee whatever as to their future conduct would have an exceedingly injurious effect. It might very possibly happen that not long afterwards some fresh seditious movement would take place, and Parliament being then not sitting, the Government would find itself in a position of embarrassment from not having power to deal with the emergency. And therefore this must not be looked upon as a measure of coercion, levelled in an invidious manner against Ireland, but as a measure of ordinary precaution, such as any Government, looking to its safety and security, would adopt at the present moment. I am convinced that even the Fenians themselves would acknowledge this measure to be wise and sensible. I have myself received more than one letter from persons who had been confined under my warrant and were subsequently released, expressing, I am happy to say, their satisfaction with the manner in which they had been treated during their imprisonment, and stating that it was impossible to blame the Government for taking measures such as any Government with a regard for its security must be expected to take. The writers were perfectly honest in their admissions that they had intended to overthrow the Queen's Government, but added that they thought the Government perfectly justified in taking means to prevent their success. No persons, I venture to think, would be more surprised than those still in prison if Her Majesty's Government took so unwary a course as suddenly and without any guarantee to release them all from confinement. As the noble Earl (the Earl of Derby) has observed, the powers conferred by the Act have hitherto been exercised with moderation; there can therefore be little hesitation in renewing them. I have obtained a return of the number of persons who had been arrested up to the time of my leaving Ireland, and I find that they were in all 756 persons, of whom, on the 23rd of July, when the return was made up, there remained in prison 339. Your Lordships will see from this that although a considerable number of persons were necessarily arrested, the Government showed every disposition wherever they had an opportunity of doing so to release the prisoners, either on condition of their leaving the country or of their giving bail. And I cannot pass from this branch of the subject without acknowledging with gratitude the temperate manner in which the United States Consul in Dublin, instructed to make various representations with regard to persons who were either native-born United States citizens or naturalized American citizens, conducted his representation. As United States Consul he naturally did not shrink from the duty of bringing under my notice the cases of such persons as his Government felt interested in; but it is only due to that gentleman to state that throughout the communications which I had with him he showed very great moderation, and, if I may be permitted to use the word, very great discretion. I am satisfied that in what he did he was acting under the direction of the United States Minister in London. We have accordingly to thank both the United States Minister in London and the United States Government in America for the very prudent, moderate, and friendly manner in which they behaved with regard to all American citizens, born or naturalized, who might happen to be arrested under this Act. It gave me great satisfaction to be able to release several of these persons on their undertaking to return to the United States. This action of the American Government is the more important, remembering that there exists in that country a society formed for the express purpose of carrying on treason against the Sovereign of these realms. Nothing tended more strongly to discourage the hopes of the Fenians than the discovery that although, owing to the peculiar character of the Government of the United States, they might be permitted to carry on meetings and form societies without let or hindrance, the moment they actually broke through the neutrality laws and invaded a friendly country, the United States authorities did not shrink from doing their duty, but interfered in the most prompt and effectual manner. The noble Earl opposite has been pleased to mention with approval the manner in which I exercised the power given under this Act. [The Earl of DERBY: Hear, hear!] I can assure the noble Earl that such approval is to me a matter of very great satisfaction; for, although the result has been so far fortunate that no rebellion actually broke out yet I can unfeignedly assure your Lordships that the whole of the last winter was a time to me of very great anxiety. The noble Earl said, but with a personal courtesy that deprived the observation of all unpleasantness, that possibly the measures of the Government were not taken sufficiently soon. Now here I must observe that there is nothing more difficult than rightly to estimate the true nature of a conspiracy of this kind, and to know the precise moment at which it is ripe enough to strike; because your Lordships will see that the information which we now possess was not then before the public, and was only before me in a broken and fragmentary form, so that it is very probable that if we had struck at the conspiracy sooner the public might have said we had made "much ado about nothing," and that we had exaggerated into the importance of a conspiracy what, after all, was but sedition of a very ordinary kind. I am free to admit that I thought it my duty to allow the organization, as long as it was possible with safety to the country, to develop itself, taking care always so to have my eye on the conspirators as, if possible, to prevent them from breaking out into open violence. Had it been necessary, at the first whisper of sedition, to take means to crush the conspirators I should not have hesitated to adopt that course; but, the conspiracy having already arrived at a certain pitch, I am convinced that it was wiser to allow it to develop itself, taking measures, meanwhile, to root it out as far as possible. It would be most ungrateful in me were I not to seize this opportunity of acknowledging the general—I may say the universal support which I received from Irishmen of all ranks and of all parties, without distinction of creed or opinion, in the measures which I took to sustain the authority of the Crown and cause of law and order. On this occasion Irishmen showed that they, like Englishmen on other occasions, could forget party dissensions, and unite in support of the Queen's Government—a support, as your Lordships may easily suppose, most necessary and indispensable to the Government at such a crisis. This conspiracy was distinct from former associations in this—that whereas in 1798 you had many landed proprietors and many members of the legal profession connected with the conspiracy, on this occasion I do not think it could be asserted by any one that a single landed proprietor or person connected with the learned professions was in the slightest way connected with the movement; at least, if there was an exception, it was of so slight a character as to confirm the general rule. I acknowledge the debt of gratitude which the Government owe to the gentry and nobility of Ireland for the support which they gave upon this trying occasion. But when I say this, I feel bound to add that I think what has happened on this and on former occasions, and the necessity which has been found at every outbreak for suspending the constitutional liberties of the country, are facts which should make your Lordships and everyone interested in the welfare of the United Kingdom reflect most seriously on the condition and prospects of Ireland. Since the Union you have had no less than three movements of this kind—in 1803, in 1848, and again in 1866; and these were but the continuance of revolutionary movements which have unfortunately characterized the country since the time of Queen Elizabeth. A country in that state cannot possibly make progress or attain prosperity; and I think an occasion of this kind is one when we should carefully reflect upon the condition and prospects of that country, and consider whether there are any measures by which we may not merely repress the Fenian Conspiracy, but prevent such conspiracies from being formed in future. At this period of the Session it would be out of place for me to enter upon a discussion of the various social disorders of Ireland and the various remedies which have been proposed; but I am confident of this—that those who look carefully at the condition of the country will see that it is impossible for England to perform its duty to Ireland as long as no attempt is made to deal with the important question of the tenure of land. When the Bill of my noble Friend who now sits upon the cross-benches (the Marquess of Clanricarde) was before the House I made some remarks upon this important subject; and now, without going into the details of the measure, I will again venture to impress upon your Lordships my opinion—namely, that this is a most urgent question for the consideration of Parliament. I hold that this country is directly responsible in this matter, and bound to see that the present state of things be not perpetuated in Ireland; and that, while employing the great military power which we possess for the purpose of suppressing rebellion and preventing conspiracies, we must at the same time seek out and remove as far as we are able the causes of these things. Unless this course be followed and remedial measures be adopted they will be, I am convinced, forced upon the attention of Parliament. I know it is most distasteful to people living in that part of the United Kingdom to think that their condition requires exceptional measures, and that they cannot be dealt with exactly in the same manner as those who hold land in England or Scotland; but I think the noble Earl the First Lord of the Treasury will not differ from me when I say that the position of Ireland is such that exceptional measures in regard to the land tenure are absolutely required. I believe that the question of land tenure is one which most interests the people, and I am convinced that it is a question which Parliament should first consider and first endeavour to solve. There are, however, other and very formidable evils, among which I may mention those connected with the Established Church. It is sufficient to mention the fact that there is in Ireland an Established Church to which no more than some 700,000 persons out of a population of more than 5,500,000 belong. Undoubtedly, that is a great and formidable evil, with which I am convinced some day Parliament must deal. At the same time, when you look at the condition of the mass of the people, that which most interests them is the question of land tenure. Of course, I am of opinion that the measure which the late Government brought in was in its principle suited to the occasion; but, at the same time, without in the slightest degree abandoning the principle of that measure, I may say that I do trust that Her Majesty's present Advisers will take the subject into their serious consideration; and if they can devise a measure better suited to the state of Ireland than ours was, I, for my part, promise it my most hearty support. There are some subjects in which a settlement ought to be brought about by an agreement of both sides of the House, and I am convinced that Irish questions are amongst them. Ireland is a country with which English statesmen have been singularly unsuccessful in dealing; but if we can devise any measure by which that country can be brought more into sympathy with the rest of the United Kingdom, by which we shall touch the hearts of the Irish people—which we have never yet touched—we shall add to the glory and strength of the Empire more than by any other measures we can possibly devise. I shall not detain your Lordships any longer by alluding to the various topics which naturally suggest themselves to my mind, after residing for a period in Ireland, and paying great attention to those things which are connected with its welfare. I will only say that, although remedial measures for that country are largely called for, the first necessity is security, which no Government can neglect to provide, and therefore I cannot but support the Bill now before the House.


expressed his regret that the noble Earl who had just spoken with so much weight, authority, candour, and absence of all party spirit in regard to the Bill before their Lordships, should have thought it necessary to deviate from that topic to enter upon others, which compelled him (the Marquess of Clanricarde) to express his dissent from the views which he had advocated. The noble Earl, when speaking on the subject of land tenure, alluded to a treatment of property in Ireland, of which he was in utter ignorance, differing in opinion from Mr. O'Connell, Bishop Doyle, and from every good authority on the subject, not one of whom contemplated the re-distribution of land and the deprivation of the present possessors of their property.


said, he could not allow it to go forth that he advocated the re-distribution of land, observing that he could not see how a charge of supporting such a Fenian measure could be founded upon anything he had stated.


said, that the Bill introduced by the late Government would, had it been passed into law, have effected a re-distribution of the land; and if the noble Earl did not look upon it in that view, he differed from those who supported the Bill in the other House, and the various societies and associations that urged its acceptance on the very ground that it would have the effect he had stated. He was sorry the subject should have been mentioned, but he had not introduced it. He denied the assertion that the landlords of Ireland had been unwilling to entertain the subject in a spirit of justice and of equity; and the reason why a proper settlement had not been arrived at was the party spirit which had been aroused throughout the country. He did not wish to lay any particular blame on the legal profession, but he held that they had contributed much to prevent an amendment of the present unsatisfactory state of the law in Ireland in regard to landlord and tenant. There was, however, never less cause for the mention of such a matter than on the present occasion, when their Lordships were discussing a Bill proposed for the purpose of repressing Fenianism. The noble Earl and the various Members of the late Government had over and over again during the Session stated that Fenianism was not an Irish rebellion, that the farmers of Ireland had nothing whatever to do with it, that it was not connected with the question of landlord and tenant, but that it had its origin in America, and was supported by American gold.


said, the importance of the subject would be sufficient excuse for again interposing. He had stated to their Lordships most distinctly that the conspiracy had its root in Ireland, but that that which made it more dangerous was the encouragement it met with from without; and so far from believing that the conspiracy was not sympathized with by the farmers of the West and South, he would again tell the noble Marquess that if the rebellion had broken out ill the South and West of Ireland nearly the whole, if not the whole, of the tenant farmers would have joined the rebellion.


said, he clearly understood the statement of the noble Earl, but he did not say that a single large tenant farmer in Ireland would be found sympathizing with the movement. The noble Earl had said very truly that the chief supporters were shop-boys and artizans, and he left out farmers. Generally speaking, the farmers had the greatest reluctance to mix themselves up with the conspiracy. Nor had he mentioned the clergy, who possessed considerable power in the rural districts. Nor had the noble Earl made any reference to the North and East of Ireland. For his part, he (the Marquess of Clanricarde) did not believe that the small farmers of the West had any sympathy with the conspiracy. But he rose to enter his protest against the notion that by altering the Law of Land-lord and Tenant disturbances in Ireland would be prevented. He could not for a moment entertain the idea of Ireland being left to herself; but he had not the slightest hesitation in saying, that the loyal men of Ireland would have been strong enough and willing enough to beat the disaffected had the opportunity been afforded them. His noble Friend had got his information from the police; but had be (the Earl of Kimberley come in personal contact with the tenant farmers of the country he would have found a state of things very different from that he had represented. Tranquillity could not be obtained by tampering with the rights of property, but by securing equal justice to all. He would not say anything upon the Established Church, to which the noble Earl had alluded, as this was not the proper occasion for so doing. He concurred in the wisdom of extending the period of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, believing that in order to make property secure this step was necessary.

Motion agreed to: Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House To-morrow.