HL Deb 14 May 1875 vol 224 cc633-40

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee, read.

Moved, "That the House do now resolve itself into Committee."—(The Lord President.)


said, he was glad to know that the Government felt themselves able to relax the exceptional legislation which had been in operation in Ireland; but he should have been better pleased to hear more valid reasons for the relaxation than any he had heard advanced in support of that course. It was beyond dispute that there was less crime in Ireland at present than there was some time ago; but he believed that was attributable to the repressive measures which it was now proposed to relax. It had been said that what were called the "conciliatory measures" of the late Government had been attended with good results. Instead of that, he believed they tended to the encouragement of discontent by giving rise to the conviction that by violence, people in Ireland might obtain from the Imperial Parliament anything they might choose to demand. It was a fact of some significance that at the present time there were in the other House of Parliament a larger number of Members favourable to the disintegration of the British Parliament than had sat in any previous Parliament. Again, threatening letters were more prevalent in Ireland at the present time than at any former period—a fact which showed that but for the existence of the Acts dealt with in this Bill crime would be rampant. He objected to the clause in the Bill which gave power to the local Justices to sign applications for licences to carry arms. He feared that some of those magistrates, from a desire for popularity, and others from a feeling that there ought to be no Arms Act in existence, would sign for licences in cases in which the applicants were persons to whom licences ought not to be granted. Everyone would admit that measures such as the one before their Lordships were objectionable; but in the case of Ireland they were necessary, and as the Executive Government were sure never to go beyond what it ought to do in the exercise of extraordinary powers intrusted to it, he regretted that Her Majesty's Government had surrendered so much and gone so far in the direction of relaxation.


hoped their Lordships would allow him to make a few remarks on this occasion. He wished to do so because he had been a long time officially connected with Ireland while those extraordinary powers were being exercised, and as Lord Lieutenant he had the supervision of the manner in which they were applied. He did not rise to answer the speech of the noble Lord who had just spoken (Lord Oranmore), nor did he wish to discuss the policy of the remedial measures passed for Ireland by the late Government. He might, however, say that he had great confidence in those measures when they were before Parliament, and he confessed that his confidence in them had not since been shaken. He could not concur with those who expected an immediate effect from such measures. It required time for the Irish people to get over the traditions embedded in their mind as to the injustice of the Imperial Parliament; but he felt confident that in the end it would be found that those measures had not been thrown away, and that they were tending towards bringing about a cordial feeling between the people of the two countries. As to the Bill before the House, he thought there could be no doubt that no Government would ask for an exceptional measure of the kind unless it felt absolutely obliged to do so; and some passages of the documents read by the noble Duke (the Duke of Richmond) last night showed the necessity for the exceptional legislation asked for by the late Government in 1870 and 1871. A Government was bound to exhaust all the ordinary powers at its command before it was justified in coming to Parliament to ask for exceptional powers. The late Government was obliged to take the latter course in 1870 and 1871, and he thought he might now point to the success of the legislation which they asked Parliament for in those years. Instead of anarchy and outrage prevailing over large districts, there had been an almost immediate cessation of that state of things. He did not mean to say that there had not been agrarian murders in Ireland since that legislation—it would take time to put an end to such crimes; but, though there had been some murders since the time to which he was referring, Her Majesty's Government would bear him out when he said that almost immediately after the passing of the extraordinary legislation proposed by the late Government those outrages which had reduced the country to a state of anarchy almost ceased to be heard of. He might, without presumption, take some credit to the Irish Government for the way in which that legislation had been administered, because he thought that the Acts of Parliament had been put in force with success, and, at the same time, without curtailing the liberty of any loyal and peaceful subject of Her Majesty. The only persons with whom those laws interfered were miscreants who were the leaders or tools of those societies which had devoted themselves to the instigation of outrage and murder, and the characters of these persons were well known in the neighbourhoods where they resided. He felt great satisfaction at learning that Her Majesty's Government, who had the best means of knowing the state of the country, felt at liberty to relax the powers which the Acts of 1870 and 1871 conferred. He felt satisfied that the Government was well advised in the matter, and he could not agree with the noble Lord (Lord Oranmore), who seemed to think that the immediate result of that relaxation would be an immediate revival of the illegal combinations which had spread so much alarm through the country. He quite admitted that it would be impolitic to put an end to those extraordinary powers altogether, unless there was evidence that those against whom they were aimed had given up their old traditions. It was, unfortunately, true that in many districts the lower orders of the population had been imbued with, and brought up in the traditions of, Ribbonism. They acknowledged Ribbon Law, and scarcely admitted any other. Well, you would not get rid of such traditions all at once; and so long as the habits and customs to which they had given rise existed in certain districts, restrictive laws of greater or less severity must be continued for those districts. He shared in the antipathy to those measures which some hon. Members in "another place" were so fond of putting forward; but he could not agree with those hon. Gentlemen that those measures should be at once put an end to. Those hon. Members said—"How dishonest you are to ask for such measures, when at the same time you point to the increased wealth and general improvement of the country!" Now, though he did not agree with the noble Lord (Lord Oranmore), who seemed to be of opinion that the improvement in Ireland was to be entirely attributed to these laws, he did hold that they had had their effect in bringing about a beneficial change, and he believed that it was absolutely necessary to continue them in some districts in order that the people of those places should know that Parliament was determined to put down agrarian outrage and murder. He now came to the question of the Arms Acts. There were points in respect of them where he could have wished that some further relaxation had been proposed; but he had the greatest trust that the Government would handle the measure with justice, and still further relax its stringency if it saw its way to doing so. Though he differed from the Party who had now the conduct of affairs, he had full confidence that the present Irish Government would administer the law in a spirit of fairness and justice. As to the Arms Act, he wished to explain why it was that up to the time of his leaving Ireland the Government with which he was connected had not felt that it would be justified in relaxing that enactment. A great many of the counties in which it was in force were seaboard counties, and it unfortunately happened that either for the purpose of showing those from whom they received money that they were doing something, or for some other reason, the parties engaged in illegal organizations were in the habit of importing arms. Consequently, if the Government had relaxed the Act in certain counties, they would have become centres for the collection and distribution of arms. He thought, however, that it might be possible to draw a legal distinction between the carrying of military arms and revolvers, and the carrying of other descriptions of arms. He hoped that although this point was not included in the present Bill, the Government might practically deal with it, and he therefore referred to this question in the hope that it would be taken into consideration. There was one alteration proposed in the Bill which he somewhat regretted. It was that which provided for the signing of the certificate to carry arms by two local Justices, on whose signatures the stipendiary magistrate was to act. He believed the stipendiary or resident magistrates had administered the law, with regard to granting certificates, in the most upright way possible. He certainly remembered a case which had been referred to in "another place," and which had given him a good deal of trouble. It was the case of a bank clerk at Portumna, in the county of Galway, to whom the resident magistrate refused a licence. When the case was brought under his notice as Lord Lieutenant, he communicated to that magistrate his opinion that he had not exercised a wise discretion in refusing the licence. But an isolated case could not throw discredit on the manner in which the resident magistrates had administered the Arms Act. Now, what would be the effect of the new clause requiring the resident magistrate to act on the certificate of two local magistrates? A resident magistrate had a large district. His district might, perhaps, embrace a large number of Petty Sessions divisions. In some of these, easy-going magistrates might sign certificates very freely—perhaps too freely; while in others, magistrates might be very severe and refuse certificates to respectable men, who without danger might be allowed to carry arms. A difference in practice as regarded signing certificates might arise from the law not being very well understood. A local magistrate might imagine that the Arms Act was intended to assist him in preserving game, and might refuse to sign a licence for a man who had frightened some game on his land. He hoped he was wrong; but he feared that cases would arise in which the proposed alteration would place the resident magistrates in great difficulty. He also feared that in the North of Ireland they would be placed in considerable difficulty at times when religious differences stirred up the rival factions, and when processions were being got up. He thought that another alteration proposed in the Bill—that having reference to the manner in which compensation was to be awarded—was very advisable. In that respect through inadequacy in its wording the Act of 1870 had committed injustice. By way of illustration he might refer to a murder of the grossest character. A lady was murdered in the suburbs of Dublin. There could be no doubt that the murder was of an agrarian character, and that it had been planned in the Queen's County, though it was carried out in the neighbourhood of Dublin. Although the Irish Government used every effort to bring the perpetrator or perpetrators to justice, it failed in doing so—it never was able to obtain evidence; application was made for heavy compensation, and the Grand Jury of Dublin felt bound to grant it. Now, he need scarcely observe to their Lordships that it never had been contemplated by the framers of the Act of Parliament that the payment of compensation should fall on a perfectly innocent neighbourhood, as it had fallen in that case; but there could be no doubt that the wording of the Act made the compensation payable by the district in which the outrage had been committed. He hoped the alteration of the wording proposed in the present Bill would prevent the recurrence of such an injustice as that which he had just brought under the notice of their Lordships. He was satisfied that there was an improvement in the tone of Ireland, and he did believe that the people of Ireland would learn to have that confidence in the administration of the law which was entertained in England and Scotland. When they had, it would no longer be necessary to propose such laws as this; and he was confident that nobody in this country would rejoice more heartily than their Lordships' House at the arrival of that day.


concurred with the noble Earl (Earl Spencer) that the resident magistrates had carried out the Arms Act with great discretion, and he thought the change proposed by the Government in the clause relating to the signing of the application by two local magistrates was of so doubtful a character that he would be glad to see an Amendment, even at the eleventh hour, which would give a veto on the action of the local Justices. In the county of Clare, after the perpetration of an attempt at murder, a man's thumb, which had been blown off by the bursting of a pistol or other firearm, was found near the place where the outrage had been committed. The man to whom the thumb was supposed to have belonged held a licence for a public-house. That man made application for another licence; and the resident magistrate applied to him to come from a distance to the Session at which the application was to be heard, because it was believed that the magistrates in the neighbourhood would be afraid to vote against the granting of the licence. He did not doubt the loyalty and justice of the magistrates of Ireland as a body; bearing in mind the manner in which they were too often appointed, he feared they would not always be able to resist the pressure which would be brought to bear upon them to give the necessary recommendation. In such a case the resident magistrate would have no option but to grant the licence. In some cases the men who filled the office of unpaid magistrates were not persons who should fill the office. He would prefer to see the Commission of the Peace given to some substantial farmers than to certain of those gentlemen. Requisitions for the appointment of particular gentlemen to the Commission were hawked about, and in some instances, he believed, by the candidates themselves. Such a requisition had been brought to himself for signature, with his name already written in pencil; it being taken for granted that those who were asked for their signatures would give them as a matter of course. He would much prefer that the law should be allowed to stand as it was; or, at any rate, that a veto should be reserved to the resident magistrate. He much doubted whether the clause with regard to compensation in cases where information was withheld would work satisfactorily even in its amended form. It was very difficult in some cases to say that available evidence had been withheld, merely because no evidence was forthcoming. The point was one which it was not always easy to decide.


said, he did not think that the difficulty apprehended by the noble Earl (Earl Spencer) and the noble Lord who had just addressed the House would arise from the clause relating to the signing by two local Justices of the application for a licence to carry arms, because not only must the application be signed by two Justices in the locality of the applicant, but the latter must be a person having an agricultural holding in the district of the two magistrates signing the recommendation. He thought that provision would be sufficient to prevent licences being granted to improper persons. He believed, also, that the change in the clause referring to compensation would prevent any injustice, because it would be for the Grand Jury to decide whether evidence had been withheld in the district in which the offence had been committed.


said, he did not quite agree with the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack on that part of the Bill which had reference to giving an appeal to the Judge of Assize in matters of compensation. He could not think that the interpretation of the noble and learned Lord was correct, either in reference to that question or upon the Arms clause.

Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly; Bill reported without Amendment: Then Standing Orders Nos. 37. and 38. considered (according to Order), and dispensed with: Bill read 3a and passed.