HL Deb 25 February 1886 vol 302 cc1181-7

said, in the unavoidable absence of Lord Castletown, who had been obliged to leave for Ireland last night, he had to ask the Question which stood on the Paper in the name of the noble Lord. The Question was as follows:— To ask the Lord President of the Council, Whether he will, in addition to the information he has agreed to present respecting "Boycotting and other outrages," give such information as may be in the possession of the Government officials in Ireland, or can he obtained by them with reference to cases of trials of farmers and others by National League local courts, and the infliction of fines and sentences by those tribunals; and, also any cases of appeals from these courts to the Superior National League Court in Dublin for confirmation or revision? The noble Earl said, that the Question had reference to a state of things which prevailed at the, present moment in Ireland of the most alarming and dangerous character, and which it was necessary some steps should be taken to deal with, if any semblance of law and order was to obtain in that country. From the information at his disposal, and at the disposal of his noble Friend who was to have asked the Question, it appeared that National League Courts not only existed and flourished in Ireland, but that the decrees and decisions of these Courts were obeyed and enforced, while the decisions of Her Majesty's Courts were not enforced at all. He (the Earl of Limerick) would not trouble the House at any great length with any quotations to prove the existence of these Courts, nor was it necessary that he should do so. The Irish newspapers were full of instances of inquiries held by branches of the League; and it was not at all necessary for him to go into them at any length. He would only take one or two cases; and he would ask that the Government should, at least, actively inquire as to the extent to which these Courts existed and the nature of the operations, and put an effective stop to the further spread of acts of illegality. In one case he found that, on November 19th, 1885, a meeting was held in a Boman Catholic chapel, and the statement of the parish priest was heard against a man stated to be a land-grabber. The result was that a fine of £30 was imposed. In the town of Drumcollagher the action of a tailor in supplying a suit of clothes to a man who was at enmity with the League, was brought forward; but as the tailor had died no further action was taken. In another case he found reported in the papers—no names were given—that a man who had taken a farm was summoned to the League Court and ordered to pay £600 to the former tenant or surrender the farm. If such cases as these were true, it went to show that there were Courts in Ireland hearing cases and enforcing fines and penalties. How was this done? It was done by an extreme and monstrous system of "Boycotting," accompanied in many cases by dreadful consequences to the victim s of the system. This system was not confined to rich or poor in particular—more frequently, indeed, it was the poor who suffered from it. He asked the Question with great confidence in the noble Earl opposite (Earl Spencer), for he could bear willing testimony to the fact that when he was Lord Lieutenant he took the strongest means to put down all these illegalities. It was with the greatest pleasure he (the Earl of Limerick) said that there was no Member of the House who would bear more willing evidence to the manner in which the noble Earl had discharged his duties as Viceroy with impartiality, firmness, and fairness. He (the Earl of Limerick) then quoted from the charge of a County Court Judge in Ireland, who said that he did not think that any honest man could say that the country was in a state of tranquillity, or that obedience to the law was observed. On the contrary, the law and government of the country were never held in greater contempt than at present. The Government was superseded by a much more powerful Government; and if that were so, it was impossible that he could compliment them, however much he would wish to do so, on the state of order which prevailed.


said, that one of the cases mentioned had occurred on his property. A tenant took a farm in 1881; he spent a good deal of money upon it, and improved it; and in 1885 the League ordered him to pay £600 to the former tenant, who had been evicted. He understood that the present holder had already paid £500.


said: I do not propose to enter into a discussion of the subject which the noble Earl has introduced. I readily admit the very grave condition of affairs to which allusion has been made, and which shows that a very unfortunate state of things has existed during the last seven months in Ireland. There is no doubt that the fact that these Land Courts are held, and that they exercise these functions if, as I believe, it is true that they do shows a very unfortuate state of things', and a state of things which must be remedied. I do not propose now to state—I have told your Lordships before that I am unable to state—the policy by which Her Majesty's Government have to meet the question of social order in Ireland, and the other matters which are committed to them. I cannot go into that. "With regard to the Notice on the Paper, I regret that it is not possible for the Government—though they are anxious to furnish as much information to the House and the public on this subject as they can—to give any Return of this character that would be satisfactory, or which it would conduce to the public interest to give. These Land Courts, as they are called, are held in private houses, and sometimes, I believe, as the noble Earl mentioned, they are held in Roman Catholic chapels; but, being held in private, we have no means of getting any information about them excepting reports which were brought to the Government in a confidential manner. Those reports could not be presented to Parliament. There are obvious and numerous reasons why they could not be made public. It is, therefore, quite out of the power of the Government to grant these Returns, although they would be exceedingly glad if they could to furnish any information on the subject. The other night, when the noble Viscount opposite (Viscount Cranbrook) asked for a Return, I stated that the Government would most willingly give it, and that Return is being prepared as quickly as possible. That Return relates to "Boycotting" and intimidation; but it does not touch these particular cases of the Land Courts, as to which, for the reasons I have indicated, it would be impossible for the Government to produce satisfactory information.


said, that though the noble Earl had stated that he could not, without detriment to the public interest, supply a technical Return as to these Courts asked for by his noble Friend (the Earl of Limerick), he (Lord Ashbourne) did think that it would have been possible for the noble Earl (Earl Spencer), without detriment to the public interest, to have said something more than he did in the observations he had made. What was the state of facts which was practically and almost in terms admitted now not only to have existed during the last seven months; but he would go further, and say during many more months of the noble Earl's own tenure of Office as Viceroy, and which existed now in greater intensity than at any former time—what was the state of facts admittedly in existence? That there were Courts held under the sanction of the National League, with a procedure of their own and an appellate system of their own, administered under the sanction of the League, administered with the sanctions of terror and intimidation the purpose of such Courts was to supersede, degrade, and bring into contempt the administration of the Queen's law. That was the state of facts now admitted by the responsible Minister of the Crown to be the existing state of affairs in Ireland, and to have been the state of affairs in Ireland for the last seven months. The late Government were quite aware of the great difficulty which the noble Earl had stated of obtaining evidence in regard to what took place at those meetings; and that might have been one of the very powerful considerations presented to Parliament by the late Government to induce it to supersede the ordinary law so as to enable them to grapple with the state of things, and with a procedure so insidious and so destructive to the administration of the authority of the law in Ireland. But what was the outcome of the statement of the noble Earl? The noble Earl admitted the great evil that existed. He would be taken to admit its deadly peril to the Queen's Sovereignty and to respect for the law; and he further practically avowed that in that position of affairs the Government were unable to do anything, even by way of a public announcement, to restore confidence in the law and the assertion of the law. It was easy to say that the Government were unable to make a full announcement of their policy, and that they were not to expect it from them for four or five weeks to come; but that was a question, not of policy, but of administering the existing law, so as to insure respect for the Queen's authority and something like decent respect for the Queen's law. At all events, ho thought they were entitled to some statement from those who represented the existing Government that they were not only alive to the gravity of the situation which they acknowledged existed, but that they would take such resolute steps as might be in their power to note what went on in Ireland, and to procure such evidence as might be in their power; and that when they had procured that evidence no exertion would be wanting to put down a state of facts which was as perilous as it was discreditable to the Empire. [Earl SPENCER assented.] A gesture could not be reported; but he thought he was doing nothing disrespectful to their Lordships when he translated the nods and gestures of the noble Earl (Earl Spencer) as meaning that they—the present Government—would anxiously watch the process and procedure by which these Courts now sought to bring the Queen's law into contempt, and that whenever they could procure evidence—and no efforts would be wanting on their part to procure evidence—that no exertions would be wanting to bring to punishment and trial those who in these Courts brought into disrepute the whole administration of the Government in Ireland. He ventured thus to put into plain English what he took to be the meaning of the applause and gesture of the noble Earl opposite; and if he (Lord Ashbourne) laboured under a misconception, it was due not only to himself, but to their Lordships' House, that he should be publicly corrected, so that there should be a perfect understanding as to every particular about so grave a matter.


I have not the slightest hesitation in endorsing by words what the noble and learned Lord (Lord Ashbourne) gathers from the gesture of my noble Friend (Earl Spencer) who was some time ago Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The Government feel the responsibility resting upon them, and deem it necessary to watch in the most attentive manner all the events going on in Ireland; and they are devoting themselves to considering the very best mode of dealing, among other subjects, with disorder and disrespect for the law. But I must say that the noble and learned Lord opposite (Lord Ashbourne) is one of the last persons who should make an attack on the Government. He has said that "Boycotting" existed during the Viceroyalty of my noble Friend near me. Nobody denied that some "Boycotting" did exist at that time. But Lord Carnarvon told your Lordships, and the Leader of the other House under the late Government told that Assembly, that the country was almost in a state of normal quiet on the accession of the present Government to Office, and it is well known that it increased rapidly after the Prorogation of Parliament; and yet the late Government did not in any manner provide a remedy for dealing with it by exceptional legislation. There was nothing like the amount of "Boycotting" that afterwards existed when the late Government were in Office. [Lord ASHBOURNE dissented.] The noble and learned Lord shakes his head. I do not know exactly what that gesture means. Does he deny that "Boycotting" increased day by day?


said, he was not dealing with "Boycotting," but with the particular subject referred to in the Question put by the noble Earl (the Earl of Limerick)—namely, as to the existence of the National League Courts. He was quite prepared to discuss the wider question.


As far as I know, the noble and learned Lord (Lord Ashbourne) was talking of the same thing. It is part of the whole question; and, therefore, what I wish to remonstrate against is the noble and learned Lord taking every opportunity to twit the Government with being a little slow in dealing with that which the late Government entirely neglected.