HL Deb 18 December 1906 vol 167 cc1231-6

Order of the Day for Second Reading read.


I beg to move the Second Reading of the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. This is a matter of ordinary administration—it is an Act which has to be brought in every year.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Earl Beauchamp.)


I beg leave to refer to a rather remarkable omission from the list of Acts contained in the schedule—that is to say, the Peace Preservation (Ireland) Act, 1881, commonly called the Arms Act. This Act does not interfere with or annoy any law-abiding person in Ireland. In the first place, it is only brought into operation by the Lord-Lieutenant in Council proclaiming certain districts for putting this Act in force. Further, when the Act is in force every respectable individual can easily obtain a licence to have firearms in his possession. I know it may be urged, as it has been urged in another place, that the state of the country as regards ordinary crime is so satisfactory that there can be no question of any special legislation. Well, this particular Act has nothing on earth to do with ordinary crime. It is directed against illegal conspiracy and outrage. Further, it may be urged that the state of the country now is very different from what it was when this Act was passed in 1881. I have too keen a recollection of the state of the country in the year 1881 to dispute that for a moment. But at the same time the country is not free from disquieting symptoms in the West. Within the last few weeks a police constable was fired at and severely wounded by an armed party which, either for the purpose of intimidation or outrage, was approaching the house of a gentleman with whom I have the honour of being acquainted. They were, as I say, an armed party. I have also heard it said that this Act was not one that would be productive of any great results, because a gun can always be found to shoot a man. No doubt that is the case, but nevertheless it is a very valuable and important Act. In case of any outrage with firearms it enables the authorities to trace the offender by reason of the few arms in the district, and their knowledge of the only people who have the right to possess them. Therefore it is a valuable Act, and, as it remains dormant until it is put in force, I must protest, in the name of all law-abiding people in Ireland, against its ceasing to exist, because if it is now taken off the statute book it cannot re-appear there unless it is re-enacted. If it is not wanted now it may be wanted at some future period, and why, therefore, His Majesty's Government cannot be contented to leave it dormant until it is wanted I am unable to understand. I can only protest, in the name of all law-abiding people, who look askance at anything that tends to lessen their security and the peace and order of the country, against its omission.


His Majesty's Government have carefully considered this question in all its bearings, and they have come to the conclusion that in the present state of Ireland the renewal of this Act is not necessary, that it is not required, and that, being an Act of an exceptional character, it ought not, without necessity, to be renewed. That is very strongly my own individual opinion. I think that all these exceptional Acts may be necessary, and at times are necessary—I do not profess that they are not—in many countries; but I have always held, and I hold now, that they ought not to be continued beyond the time when the state of the country justifies their existence. They are in themselves exceptional laws, placing those who are brought under their action in an exceptional position and I have always held that such laws, when they have ceased to be necessary, ought not to be continued. It is upon those grounds that His Majesty's Government have determined to omit this particular Act from the schedule of the Bill now before your Lordships. If the noble Lord wishes to move an Amendment to the schedule, it will of course be quite open to him to do so, and the subject can then be discussed at greater length.


I am sure that my noble friend who has drawn attention to this matter has no desire to move any Amendment, but that all he desires to do is to register his protest against this strange and unexpected omission.


I have no objection at all to the noble Lord doing so.


Quite so, but the noble Marquess says that such a law, which is merely an Arms Act, should not be continued unless there are exceptional circumstances in the country to justify it. I take it that that is a good and sufficient statement for an executive action which I am not disposed to question, but surely it is a very grave thing to suspend an Arms Act which has been put in operation by the present Government, as anyone can see in the Irish Gazette, within the last three months. That being so, it is a serious thing for them to arrive at the conclusion that the state of every part of Ireland now is such as to justify the withdrawal of this very important law, which works quite moderately and does no harm to anybody. My noble friend (Lord Clonbrock) speaks with very great authority and knowledge of the west of Ireland, being a local proprietor who resides in the County Galway, of which county he is Lord-Lieutenant, and anyone who is acquainted with the condition of Ireland now knows that, peaceful as it may be, generally speaking, and free from all offences against the law, the state of the West of Ireland is full of cause for anxiety. The country is in a very grave state, and the most thoughtful observers think that although its present state may be serious it may become more serious still. Therefore many of them hold that it is a serious thing to select this occasion for the omission of this Act which has been in existence for a great number of years without causing any inconvenience. But I feel the force of the suggestion made by the noble Marquess who leads the House, and made incidentally also by the noble Lord who moved this Amendment—that this is a matter for executive administration, and that the Government must take the responsibility, whether grave or light, of the decision at which they have arrived. The responsibility is theirs. It must remain theirs, and they must naturally not be surprised, if it should turn out that they have been mistaken in accepting this responsibility, if those who do not agree with them now should remind them later on of the fact.


I am sure none of us can complain of the manner in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ashbourne, has spoken on this question. He has spoken upon it with great moderation, and in a tone which we should naturally have expected from him, remembering the high position which he has occupied in Ireland. It is perfectly true that it always is a grave matter for an executive Government to undertake a responsibility of this kind. But my right hon. friend the Irish Secretary, from his knowledge of the present state of the country, thinks he sees his way to undertake it, and as the noble and learned Lord fairly says, it is with the Government that the responsibility must rest. I should like, however, just to protest against the point of view which the noble Lord, Lord Clonbrock, seemed to take when he said that, after all, legislation of this kind need not be used, and that if not used it hurt nobody, I am not prepared to admit that. I do not think you can reasonably expect any country to sit down quietly under a system of what I might call in terrorem legislation, which is held in reserve, while it behaves well, and left in the cupboard, so to speak, to be pulled out if the country behaves badly. We should not like it in England, and it is not altogether surprising if they do not like it in Ireland. Perhaps I may say there is one point in connection with the matter in which it is quite possible we might ask the assistance of noble Lords later on. I refer to the Pistols Act, which is somewhat too weak, I think, in its operation. It was passed two or three years ago, I believe, at the instance of the noble Earl opposite, Lord Donoughmore, and it does not, if I am rightly informed, apply to Ireland. I think it very desirable that it should, and if, at some future time, we are able to extend that particular piece of legislation to Ireland, we shall hope for the support of noble Lords opposite.


Hope on, hope ever.

Bill read 2aaccordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House to-morrow