HL Deb 18 February 1867 vol 185 cc453-6

said, he wished to ask the noble Earl at the head of the Government a Question—namely,Whether, considering the state in which Ireland now was—considering that Fenianism was only scotched, not killed—knowing that the very day after the affair at Chester a large number of men were arrested in Dublin immediately after their arrival from England, having, it was supposed, returned to Ireland in the belief that the law under which the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended had expired—he wished to ask whether, under all these circumstances, and considering what had since taken place in other parts of Ireland, it was still the opinion of Her Majesty's Government that the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act should cease at the end of the present month? He would take this opportunity of expressing a strong hope—even at the risk of offending the delicate susceptibilities of the Exeter Hall people—that if any of those unfortunate Fenians fell into the hands of the Government—being captured as it were red-handed—they would be treated with the utmost rigour of the law as being guilty of high treason. He hoped that no humanitarians, so common in our days—excellent men no doubt in other respects—would be allowed to stand between those people and the punishment which they so richly deserved. He would further express a strong hope that if on those occasions the military should be called upon to act, and that blood should be shed, they would not be exposed to the risk of criminal proceedings for acting vigorously in defense of their Queen and country. He could conceive nothing more discouraging to both officers and soldiers than that when called out to act in defence of law and order against a body of rebels, they should feel that they might perhaps be exposed to a criminal prosecution if lives were lost through their vigour and promptitude in suppressing a revolt. He could conceive nothing more humiliating than the position in which the officers of the British army were sometimes placed in cases of great danger and emergency. If they hesitated to do their duty, probably they would be professionally disgraced. On the other hand, if they acted vigorously and resolutely, they ran the risk of indictment in a criminal court. He believed that the extraordinary leniency shown to State criminals since the period of Mr. Smith O'Brien's affair for crimes which were formerly characterized by the old-fashioned names of rebellion and high treason, and punished as such, had acted in effect as a premium for the encouragement of similar crimes. It was well to say that prevention was better than cure. The Government had tried that principle, and had it succeeded? It had tried leniency—had it succeeded? Witness the return of the Fenians from other countries to which they had been allowed to remove themselves, to their own country, for the purpose of renewing their rebellious machinations. What did they care for the consequences when they believed that if captured they would be only condemned to a few months' imprisonment, or at the utmost to a few years' penal servitude? What did they care, if even the military were called out, if they believed that they would not be allowed to act with energy or vigour against them? He should be sorry to be supposed harsh or unfeeling; but he believed that this principle of leniency had been carried too far, and he believed that if the Government wished to put a stop to such wicked proceedings as those to which he had referred, it could only do so effectually by dealing with the leaders in the most summary manner possible, and by teaching their misguided followers that they could not raise the flag of rebellion and disturb the peace of the country without incurring the penalty which the law attached to such a serious crime. The noble Earl concluded by again asking whether it was the intention of the Government to persevere in their expressed intention to allow the Act for the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland to expire?


said, that before the noble Earl at the head of the Government answered the Question, he wished to make a few observations. He positively denied that all this mischief had commenced in Ireland. He believed that it was concocted in Manchester and other large towns in England. He was informed, and believed his information to be correct, that a Member of the House of Commons connected with Ireland, who had distinguished himself at some of the Reform meetings in this country, had been telegraphing brief reports of these proceedings to his friends in Ireland. He must protest against the whole blame being thrown on the Irish population—they were all Reform demonstrations, in fact. They had first the Hyde Park riots, then the Chester affair, and lastly the Killarney demonstration, and they were all organized to demand "Reform" of some kind or other. He should like to ask whether Her Majesty's Government had any intention of suspending the Habeas Corpus Act in Chester? Noble Lords on the other side of the House must see that outbreaks such as had taken place in Kerry were very much what was to be expected from their own policy.


With regard to the Question put by the noble Earl who has just sat down, I have to say that the Government has decidedly no intention of proposing to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act in Chester. With regard to the other Question put to me, I regret to say that I heard the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Essex) very imperfectly; but, as far as I understood him, he inquired as to whether the Government intends moving for a continuance of the Act suspending the Habeas Corpus Act in Ireland; and, at the same time, the noble Earl expressed a hope that if any of the Fenians connected with the recent disturbances were captured, the utmost rigour of the law would be administered to them; and, also, that military officers would be protected by the Government from any criminal proceedings which might be brought against them in consequence of any acts committed by them in the discharge of their duty. The question is one of such great importance that I think it would have been better if the noble Earl had given me notice of his intention to put it. At the same time, I can quite understand that, as the Act of suspension has so nearly run out its term, your Lordships are all anxious for some information as to the Government's intention with reference to the matter. But I regret I cannot yet give a positive answer to the noble Earl. Your Lordships know that in Her Majesty's Speech from the Throne a hope was expressed that the Government would be able to dispense with any exceptional legislation on this subject with regard to Ireland. It must, however, be borne in mind that the recent outbreak, insignificant as it was, was perfectly unexpected and unforeseen by any party. I am happy, however, to say that, from the accounts we have received, the affair has been entirely put down, and that the result has to a great extent refuted the anticipations of the late Lord Lieutenant, who feared that any rising in the country would at once be joined by a large portion of the population. As a matter of fact, the rioters have been joined by no one; they were insignificant in point of number, utterly deserted by everybody, and exercised not the slightest influence on the surrounding population. It is impossible to say at present whether similar insane attempts to theirs may not be made in other parts of Ireland; and I think it better to postpone the consideration of the subject until the Chief Secretary for Ireland, who has returned from Dublin, and who will, of course, be able to furnish the latest information, has been conferred with. As to the prisoners who may be taken, I can assure the noble Earl that the Government will endeavour wisely to discriminate as to the relative guilt of each prisoner; and while, with regard to the highest description of offenders, they will not shrink from enforcing the utmost rigour of the law, yet every case will be judged on its own merits. I am sure, however, that it is not your Lordships' wish that the less guilty should be visited with undue severity,. As to the hope expressed by the noble Earl with reference to the officers now in Ireland, I trust it is not necessary to say that, in the discharge of the painful duties which may devolve upon them in suppressing these disturbances, they may rely upon the fullest support from Her Majesty's Government.