HL Deb 10 June 1886 vol 306 cc1256-60

My Lords, I trust that your Lordships will indulge me for a very few minutes while I make some personal explanation. It is not my habit to trouble your Lordships unnecessarily, and I assure you that I will make it as briefly as possible. I have no doubt that your Lordships have noticed that a discussion is reported to have occurred in "another place" between Mr. Parnell and my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, in which, to summarize very briefly, Mr. Parnell is reported to have stated that a Minister of the Crown of the late Conservative Government had conveyed to him the intention of that Government to offer a Statutory Parliament with power to protect Irish industries. My Lords, I should not have thought of saying one word on this subject had not, a few hours afterwards, a paper of considerable circulation pointedly stated that I was that Minister. I therefore beg to deny, as plainly and as broadly as I can, the statement to which I have just referred as having been made by Mr. Parnell. My Lords, I might, perhaps, pause here, and content myself with this denial; but I have seen the allegation that I was that Minister taken up by several newspapers and stated and restated in the most pointed manner, and accompanied with innuendoes and many of those hints of intimate knowledge of circumstances, all pointing to this—that I was carrying on an attempt at an illicit bargain with Mr. Parnell. Therefore, my Lords, I hope I shall not be wrong if I go a little further into this question, and endeavour, to the best of my power, to sweep away once and for all any grounds of further misapprehension and misrepresentation of the statement which is being made. For my own part, I am not sorry to have this opportunity, because I think that it is very rarely, indeed, that the whole truth does any harm, whereas my experience shows me this—that half-truths are very often mischievous. Now, my Lords, looking at what has been stated in different papers, I wish to inform your Lordships of an incident which by itself and of itself would not have seemed to me worthy of the attention of this House. My Lords, towards the end of last July it was intimated to me that if I were willing Mr. Parnell would also be willing to meet me in conversation. Now, I think no apology whatever is necessary on my part for entering into such a conversation, for I hold that it is the duty of the Viceroy to obtain information where and how he can with regard to the fortunes of the country placed under his charge, I care not from whom the information may come. I can see no reason for making any apology for accepting such information; but if your Lordships will carry yourselves back in mind to the peculiar state of affairs at the moment of which I am speaking you will see there was all the greater reason for the course I then adopted. The political position was, to say the least of it, a very peculiar one. My noble Friend near me (the Marquess of Salisbury) had just formed a Government. I had just gone to Ireland; and I had before me as difficult a task as could well have fallen on the shoulders of any man. Your Lordships will remember that at that moment there was no one who could precisely say what the wishes and the desires of the Irish Parliamentary Party were. There had been singular reticence on their part, and it was impossible really to know what their views or opinions were. There was only one man who was in any way qualified to speak. He was the chosen Leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and his power was singularly and exceptionally large. He stood at the head of the Parliamentary Body who had proved their strength by virtually controlling the Business of the House of Commons. It was notorious that when the new Parliament should be elected his strength would be at least doubled. My Lords, when I, therefore, received such an intimation I felt that, on my part at least, I had no option in the matter. It seemed to me to be alike my duty to make myself acquainted with what Mr. Parnell's views and opinions were; and if for fear of being censured, if for fear of what might be said against me, I held back, I should be guilty of the greatest political and moral cowardice. The only point which seemed to me important to bear in mind was, first of all, that I should make no promises, give no assurances, enter into no understandings; and, secondly, that whatever I did I should do it myself, for myself, and entirely apart from my Colleagues. Let me endeavour to say in the plainest language I can command that I was not acting for the Cabinet nor authorized by them; and, though I know well and shall keep in mind that sound and wholesome doctrine that nothing is to be repeated that has passed in the Cabinet without the consent of Her Majesty, I may at least say this of what went on outside the Cabinet—that I had no communication on the subject, no authorization, and that I never communicated to them even that which I had done. Therefore, the responsibility was simply and solely mine; they were not cognizant of my action; and my right hon. Friend Sir Michael Hicks-Beach was perfectly justified, so far as this matter is concerned, in utterly and entirely repudiating all knowledge of it as he did the other night. For this reason I will not incur with my eyes open the possibility of mistake in the future; and if anything was done at all it was I, and I alone, who should bear the responsibility. I hope I make myself explicit and plain to the House. I endeavoured to make myself equally explicit to Mr. Parnell. I explained that the three conditions upon which I could enter into any conversation with him were these. First of all, that, as I say, I was acting of myself, by myself; that all the responsibility was mine; and that the communications were from me alone—that is, from my lips alone. Secondly, that that conversation was with reference to information only, and that it must be understood that there was no agreement or understanding, however shadowy, between us. And, thirdly, that I was there as the Queen's servant, and I would neither hear nor say one word that was inconsistent with the Union of the two countries. My Lords, to those conditions Mr. Parnell assented, and I had the advantage of hearing from him his general opinions and views on Irish matters. This really is the whole case, as I have stated to your Lordships. It was the first, the last, and the only time that I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Parnell. It was essentially in the nature of a conversation; and had it not been for his Parliamentary position, and the fact that I was Viceroy of Ireland, there would have been nothing, I apprehend, to distinguish it from the many conversations on this subject which take place at all times. He was quite frank and straightforward in all he said. I, on the other hand, had absolutely nothing to conceal, and everything I said I shall be perfectly content to be judged by. Both of us left the room as free as when we entered it. It may be said that this was an unusual course for me to adopt. I submit that, even if it was unusual, it was a common sense and a natural course to be taken in the circumstances. It may be said, perhaps, by some that I committed an error of judgment in the matter. My Lords, it is not for me to argue that matter; but this I will say—that anyhow, and in any circumstances, it is far better that I should state these facts unreservedly and frankly to the House than that I should make myself subject to innuendoes and invidious reports of being suspected of having attempted to make an underhand bargain with Mr. Parnell. I might close anything I have to say with this; but I wish to say one thing more. I understand that, during my absence abroad, my name has been more than once used in connection with this question, and that I have been represented as being favourable to the late scheme, as I must call it, of Her Majesty's Government. My Lords, I say at once that I am not favourable to it. I would gladly see some limited form of self-government, not in any way independent of Imperial control, such as may satisfy real local requirements, and, to some extent, national aspirations. I would gladly see a settlement where, the rights of property and of minorities being on the whole secured, both nations might rest from this long and weary struggle, and steady and Constitutional progress might be patiently and gradually evolved. But I cannot say that this scheme is such a settlement. I would not be in Order to discuss it now; but in one single sentence I may say that I believe it to be financially unsound. I believe that it heals none of the old wounds; that it settles nothing upon a lasting basis; that it leaves open that great question which lies fundamentally at the root of every other question in Ire- land the Agrarian and Land Question; and that it leaves open that burning question of Ulster. Still more—and my last is, perhaps, the gravest complaint against it—by the tumult and the passionate feeling which is evoked by the hopes which it has conjured up, which cannot be gratified, it has virtually postponed to a very distant day that settlement which I so much desire to sea. My Lords, it is impossible to have lived in Ireland, and to have held the reins of government there, even for a short time, without taking the deepest interest in the warm-hearted people of that country. They, indeed, have their faults, and those faults have often misled them; but they also have a kindly and a sunny side to their character. I should be very ungrateful to have received so much of their sunshine if I did not frankly and cordially acknowledge it. There are also great and real evils in Ireland, and worst of all is their poverty. One of the wisest of my Predecessors in the Viceroyalty, in the early part of the last century, said that of all the evils from which Ireland suffered poverty was the worst. I subscribe to that doctrine, and I believe that that which was true at the commencement of the 18th century is, unhappily, true at the end of the 19th century. But, my Lords, because I sympathize deeply with Ireland, and I shall always sympathize with her, my sympathy must not be confounded with sympathy for a measure which I am convinced would only have aggravated existing difficulties, and which I believe conscientiously would be as wrong for Ireland as it would be for England.