HL Deb 13 May 1875 vol 224 cc570-8

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


said, he need scarcely inform their Lordships that he felt very much the great importance of this measure which he had now the honour of asking them to read a second time, and the responsibility which attached to the Government for dealing with the question. But it would no doubt be in the recollection of their Lordships that in Her Majesty's most gracious Speech delivered from the Throne, these words would be found—Her Majesty stated that— The various statutes of an exceptional or temporary nature now in force for the preservation of peace in Ireland will be brought to your notice with a view to determine whether some of them may not be dispensed with. He was sure he would not be contradicted when he said that no Government, whether formed of noble Lords and right hon. Gentlemen sitting on one side or the other of their Lordships' House and the House of Commons, could with any degree of satisfaction feel themselves compelled to propose measures which were of a stringent and coercive character directed against any portion of Her Majesty's dominions; and when these measures had once been passed it was the duty, as it must be the wish, of every Government that they should no longer be kept in a more stringent form than was absolutely necessary for the safety of the country for which they were enacted. Therefore, Her Majesty's Government had thought it right and proper, as it had been their agreeable task, to look into those various statutes now in force, and see whether the state of Ireland and the condition of the country were such as to render it wise and proper to modify those measures and to do away with certain portions of them which were of the most stringent character. And they believed they were able to do this as to many such provisions. This Bill dealt with three separate Acts of Parliament—first, with the Peace Preservation Act of 1870; secondly, it dealt with the Act passed against Unlawful Oaths and Illegal Societies; and, thirdly, with another Act passed for the protection of Life and Property in certain portions of Ireland, called the Westmeath Act. The Peace Preservation Act of 1870 amended an Act that was passed in 18S6. The Act of 1856, introduced in that year, was a considerably milder form of legislation than prevailed in the year 1848; but in 1870, the noble Lord opposite (Lord Carlingford), in consequence of the disturbed state of Ireland at that time, thought it necessary to amend the law, and the Act of 1870 was the consequence. By the provisions of that Act persons, although duly licensed to carry arms, were not authorized thereby to carry or have revolvers in any proclaimed district unless with a special permission. The Act extended the Whiteboy Acts to proclaimed districts. That portion of the Act it was now proposed to repeal. It also gave the Lord Lieutenant power to grant general search warrants in proclaimed districts authorizing the person holding the warrant to enter into any house or place to execute the warrant, at any time—by night as well as by day; and such warrants were in force for three months. It was proposed to abrogate this power by the present Bill. The Act also dealt with the sale of gunpowder: it gave arbitrary power to summon persons who were supposed able to give material evidence. The second part of the Act of 1870 gave power to the Lord Lieutenant to issue special Proclamations—a power which was now proposed to be given up by the present Bill. There were also what were commonly called the Curfew Clauses, which gave power to arrest at night under suspicious circumstances persons found in proclaimed districts who could not give a satisfactory account of themselves. That was now proposed to be repealed. There were also stringent and coercive powers given to the Lord Lieutenant to deal with the Press in Ireland, and to seize and deal with newspapers in a manner hitherto unknown in that country. The state of Ireland at that time might well be judged by the very coercive nature of that Act, which the noble Lord opposite felt himself bound to introduce and recommend to the consideration of Parliament. He believed, he might say, it was passed with the general assent of Parliament—their Lordships did not think that the powers then asked were greater than the necessity of the case required. This Act was to expire in 1871. It had been renewed by other Acts for the protection of Life and Property in certain parts of Ireland for two years, and in 1873 it was further renewed till the 1st of June, 1875. He had now sketched very briefly and hurriedly the various Acts of a stringent nature which existed in Ireland, and he thought no Government would be justified in retaining them one hour longer than they were believed to be necessary for the protection of life and property in that country. The present Bill was a modification of the Act of 1870. In the first place, it enlarged the power of the licensing authority. It enabled that authority to extend the licence to carry arms, and made it obligatory to grant a licence to persons having an agricultural holding on the production of a certificate signed by two magistrates in the Petty Sessions district of the person producing the certificate. The Act also diminished the punishment for carrying or having arms contrary to the law from two years, with hard labour, to one year, without hard labour. It also provided that warrants of search for, and seizure of, arms should be executed only between sunrise and sunset, and it reduced the time during which the warrants were to run from three months to 21 days. These were concessions made by the Government in the other House to the feelings of Gentlemen who were deeply interested in Ireland. Then the Bill allowed a summary trial by the magistrates in Petty Sessions, with power of appeal if the punishment allotted was more than one month's imprisonment. It also modified the form in which compensation should be granted, making it necessary that the Grand Jury should be of opinion that material evidence was withheld; and it gave the Judge large powers of review. These powers the Government proposed should be continued for five years. Then there was the 2nd and 3rd of the Queen—the Unlawful Oaths Act—modified by the 11th and 12th, relating to the administering and taking Unlawful Oaths, and to unlawful combinations and confederacies which had signs and passwords as a means of recognition, and also to societies for the distribution of arms, It was quite evident that such societies, unless checked, might be the cause of considerable disturbance and danger, arising from the distribution of arms and the dissemination of revolutionary principles. Under these Acts the persons joining those illegal bodies were guilty of felony. The 11th and 12th of the Queen provided for the searching, under warrant, of places where those societies held their meetings in order to obtain information. By the 2nd and 3rd of the Queen, societies of Freemasons and Friendly Brothers which had registered themselves were exempt from penalty; but during the progress of the Bill through the other House of Parliament it was ascertained that some of those bodies in Ireland had not been registered, and the 4th clause of the Bill granted them an indemnity. With those modifications the Government proposed that the provisions of the Acts to which he had referred should be continued for five years. The third Act with which they proposed to deal was the Preservation of Life and Property Act of 1871. That Bill originated in the inquiries of a Committee of the other House of Parliament into the state of Westmeath, and parts of Meath and the King's County. Such a state of things was shown to exist that the Government of the day thought it necessary to come to Parliament for the very stringent provisions which were part and parcel of the Act as it at present existed. By that Act powers were given to the Lord Lieutenant and the Privy Council to enforce its provisions by Proclamation in the districts to which it referred, a statement to that effect being laid on the Table if Parliament was sitting at that time, and, if not, within 14 days after it had met. Power was also given to arrest and detain without trial any person suspected of complicity with the Ribbon Society. These powers were so stringent that anyone at this side of the water would be very much surprised if any Government were to ask for them; but we must not forget that this exceptional legislation was intended to deal with societies which for many years had had the most baneful effect on the condition of Ireland. He would venture to read a few words on that subject from the Marquess of Hartington when Chief Secretary for Ireland, The noble Marquess said— The reports we receive show that such a state of terrorism prevails that the society has only to issue its edict to secure obedience; nor has it even to issue its edict, its laws are so well known, and an infringement of them is followed so regularly by murderous outrage, that few, indeed, can treat them with defiance. Riband law, and not the law of the land, appears to be that which is obeyed. It reaches to such an extent that no landlord dare exercise the most ordinary of rights pertaining to land; and no farmer, employer, or agent dare exercise his own judgment or discretion as to whom he shall or shall not employ; in fact, so far does the influence of the society extend, that a man scarcely dare enter into open competition in the fairs or markets with anyone known to belong to the society."—[3 Hansard, cciv. 994.] That was a true statement of the facts of the case, and though the Acts were stringent, the results showed that they had been wisely conceived and carried out with moderation and discretion up to the present time. This Westmeath Act the Government proposed to deal with in a different manner from the other two Acts, and to limit its continuance to two years. It was to be hoped that by the end of that time it might not be necessary to prolong it in its present stringent form. It was to be borne in mind that the fact that the other two Acts were to be passed for five years did not by any means imply that they would be enforced all that time, because it would be the duty of any Government—and an agreeable duty it would be—if the necessity for them no longer existed, to propose to Parliament to repeal them. It would be satisfactory to noble Lords' on both sides to see that the legislation contemplated by this Bill was entirely in the direction of relaxation, and he hoped this would be an earnest of what the state of Ireland would allow to be done for the future. He hoped it might be the pleasing task of whatever Government might be in power still further to relax the severity of measures which were of an exceptional character, and that the day might not be far distant when it might not be absolutely necessary to have a different law in one part of Her Majesty's dominions from that which prevailed in another. He begged to move the second reading of the Bill.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a"—(The Lord President.)


said, this Bill was so important that he could not allow the second reading to pass without taking the opportunity of offering a few general remarks upon it. His first feeling with regard to it was a hearty hope that it might be the last Coercion Bill they should ever see within those walls. His second feeling was that of satisfaction at the tone and substance of the statement their Lordships had just heard from the noble Duke. The noble Duke's statement was very fair to those who preceded him in office and whose painful duty it was to frame and carry the laws which the present Government were now partially repealing, and the statement was also fair and conciliatory to the people of Ireland. The Bill, in fact, amounted to a very large relaxation of the coercive code which had for some time been in force in that country. This fact, of which there could be no doubt, had been rather hidden by the course of events in "another place"—the almost endless Amendments moved by Irish Members during the progress of the Bill there, and the controversies to which those Amendments led, had concealed the fact that the measure very considerably relaxed the severity of the law. He did not grudge Her Majesty's Government any credit they might derive in Ireland from the fact that the Bill greatly relaxed the severity of the law; but he thought the people of Ireland ought to know that it was a fact, and that the Government and Parliament had been engaged all this time, not in framing a fresh law of coercion, but in largely relaxing the law which had been deemed necessary for some time past. With the very grave but still the limited exception of the Westmeath Act, the Peace Preservation Act, as it would stand in future, amounted to scarcely anything more than restrictions on the sale and possession of arms. If the Lord Lieutenant deemed it necessary, he might impose those restrictions widely; but, on the other hand, he might, if he deemed it safe and prudent, not apply the provisions of the law to any particular district. Of course, the Westmeath Act was a most exceptional measure, and one not to be justified except upon proof of absolute necessity. He hoped, however, it was known in Ireland that the late Government had had recourse to that Act with the greatest reluctance, and only upon proof of such necessity as made it the duty of any Government to endeavour to remedy the evil. The Act was not passed until a full inquiry had been made by a Committee of the other House, consisting of distinguished statesmen of both political parties. Ribbonism was an evil which the ordinary law had always found the greatest difficulty in coping with, and nowhere was this fact more fully recognized than in the very districts which had been subject to the provisions of the Westmeath Act. Westmeath, Meath, and portions of the King's County had been acknowledged for years to be the hot-bed of Ribbonism. The most important omission from the existing Act which the present Bill made was, that of the clauses relating to the Press; and here again he agreed with the noble Duke that unless positive necessity could be shown for the maintenance of such an exceptional enactment Parliament could not be called upon or expected to re-enact it. At the time when the law was passed there were, as the noble Duke had said, certain Irish newspapers which held, day after day, such language as no Government could allow to continue. These prints in various parts of Ireland were at that time using language, which amounted to a direct and audacious incitement both to rebellion and to individual assassination. That was a state of things which no Government, whether popular or despotic, monarchical or republican, could allow to continue without making some attempt at prevention. But things had now changed for the better, and he was not prepared to say that the Government would at this moment have been able to justify themselves to Parliament if they had proposed a re-enactment of the clauses affecting the Press. For himself he rejoiced heartily that they were able to let them go. The propriety of the large relaxations now proposed cast no doubt on the necessity of the original enactments at the time they were made. That necessity, he thought, was amply proved by himself, when as Chief Secretary for Ireland, he introduced in "another place" the Bill of 1870, and by his noble Friend Lord Hartington when he brought in the Westmeath Act in 1871. Not that in those two years the state of crime was unprecedented, for outrages and assassinations had been far more numerous in earlier times, for in 1847, when Lord John Russell's Administration introduced their Bill, the number of assassinations in Ireland amounted to 160; but, nevertheless, at that period of 1871–2 crime in Ireland was bad, dangerous, and increasing—being, moreover, of that kind which excited terror and paralyzed the energies of the country. The power which the Government now possessed of relaxing those severe laws had been brought about first of all by the success of the laws themselves, and next, he must add as his firm conviction, by the success of other laws of a very different character which were passed by the late Government at the same time. It would be un-candid in him if he did not say this, because when he performed the painful duty of introducing the Bill of 1870, he remembered saying most distinctly that it was his great consolation that Government at the same time intended to pass other measures, not of coercion, but of reform, to the effect of which, by moral means, it looked quite as much, and, in the long run far more, for the peace and tranquillity of Ireland. Still, it was, of course, impossible to wait for the effect of permanent measures, which no one but an enthusiast could expect to act by magic. The then Government recognized the necessity of exceptional legislation, and that necessity was strongly illustrated by the very remarkable concurrence with which those measures were received by Parliament, and in almost every part of the House of Commons itself. It was an important fact, often forgotten, that the amount of Irish opposition to those measures was quite trifling. Not as many as 15 Irish Members, he believed, voted against the second reading of the Peace Preservation Bill in 1870; and the case was much the same the next year with regard to the Westmeath Act. It was difficult to know exactly what effect would be produced by the long debates which had recently occurred in "another place." It was difficult for a bystander to judge. There seemed to have been a curious alternation of embraces and reproaches between the Treasury Bench and the Irish Members; but he believed it would be recognized in Ireland that both the Government and Parliament had brought to the consideration of this subject the utmost patience, and the utmost anxiety, to deal with Ireland as we would deal with this country, if we were legislating for any part of England or Scotland under similar circumstances. In conclusion, he must express his belief that the spirit of conciliation which characterized the noble Duke's speech to-night would not be without producing a good effect on Ireland.


said, he had no doubt the Bill was necessary—he regretted the necessity for its introduction as much as any Member of their Lordships' House; but he joined in the hope expressed by the noble Duke on moving the second reading that, long before the expiration of the five years, it might be possible to repeal this measure.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House To-morrow; and Standing Orders Nos. 37. and 38. to be considered in order to their being dispensed with.


then moved that the House should meet tomorrow, at 12 o'clock, for the purpose of considering the Bill.

Motion agreed to.