HL Deb 01 April 1914 vol 15 cc888-94

rose to call attention to the following language used by the Attorney-General in the House of Commons on Monday, namely— They thought it right and necessary to let the Ulster Volunteers know that it was the fixed intention of Ministers to use the Forces of the Crown, if necessary, to prevent the usurpation of law by force"; and to ask His Majesty's Government whether they are prepared, in the event of the Home Rule Bill becoming law through the operation of the Parliament Act and without an appeal to the country, to use the Forces of the Crown to crush any resistance to its operation in Ulster.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, since I put this Question on the Paper last night I must confess that certain facts have appeared to-day which have somewhat modified my position. When I put this Question down last night I had in mind what I considered to be the very definite and reassuring language used by the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack in regard to Ulster, and I was anxious to call the attention of the House to the variety of voices, if I may so put it, in which different Ministers of the Crown have alluded to this question of Ulster. I noticed to-day what my noble friend Lord Midleton made the subject of a question earlier in the proceedings this afternoon. I noticed that the Lord Chancellor had re-edited a most important statement in his speech in the Official Report. We all admire and envy the mellifluous eloquence of the noble and learned Viscount, but conciseness and directness of statement are not, perhaps, the distinguishing features of his oratory. But on this particular occasion and with regard to this particular sentence the words seemed to be perfectly clear, definite, and unqualified. What did the noble and learned Viscount say in my hearing and apparently in the hearing of the Press? Speaking in this House during a debate when our feelings were very much roused and when both in Parliament and in the country recent events had caused the deepest anxiety, the Lord Chancellor said— No orders were issued, no orders are likely to be issued, and no orders will be issued for the coercion of Ulster. As my noble friend Lord Milner, speaking from the Cross-Benches, said, we were all in a state of great anxiety and tension. We were not desirous, as he said, of making Party capital or introducing violent Party elements into the discussion, but we did want to have our mind relieved on what we feared we were drifting towards—the nightmare of Civil War. At such a time it was doubly important that we should have had from the Woolsack a statement such as I have read. But those words used by the Lord Chancellor have been re-edited by him, and we read them in Hansard now in this way— No orders were issued, no orders are likely to be issued, and no orders will be issued for the immediate coercion of Ulster. it seems to me that the insertion of the word "immediate," which no noble Lord heard uttered in the House, must really give to us and to the public the impression that in speaking of no immediate coercion of Ulster you mean that there will follow some subsequent coercion of Ulster. That seems to me to be the inevitable effect upon the public mind.

It may be said that Governments cannot answer hypothetical questions, but we are confronted by stern facts and realities. What is governing the situation is that we are confronted in Ulster by a grim, determined, resolute opposition, not only a political opposition, but an opposition supported, maintained, and affirmed by, we are told, a by no means despicable army of 100,000 men. It is all very well to describe that army as a rebel army, but surely a serious and heavy responsibility must fall upon the shoulders of the Government if they choose to treat it as such while not having had the moral courage to prevent such an army being created. But apart from all that, we have to face the situation, and I had hoped, in conjunction I venture to say with many other people, that the evils of the crisis had for the time passed away, and that at least some basis might be formed upon which suggestions might take place which, if they did not lead to an ultimate settlement, might lead at any rate to some amelioration of the tension of feeling and anxiety. But after what has passed to-day we are confronted by exactly the same position, if I may put it so, that the officers must have felt when those two paragraphs were struck out of the document in the White Paper. Those definite words of the Lord Chancellor did have a very reassuring and soothing effect in the course of debate, and I regret very much that the noble and learned Viscount, as those words were constantly referred to, did not get up in this House and make the revision then. But the words were allowed to stand until after the debate had taken place, and now, after the debate, we find ourselves placed in exactly the same position of anxiety and difficulty as the officers must have felt and as I am sure the country will feel to-morrow when it knows exactly what has taken place.

I did not rise to embarrass the Government or to make any acrimonious remarks, but I would venture to submit to His Majesty's Government that these sort of proceedings go a very long way to destroy any feeling of confidence or any idea of settlement, as suggested by my noble and learned friend Lord Loreburn. On the other hand, it seems to me that if there is a repetition of this sort of re-editing of language used it will be impossible for any party to know exactly how they stand. It seems to me as though we are being trifled with, and I can assure your Lordships that I only rose, as I had hoped, to obtain from the Government some assurance that the language used by the Attorney-General was not language which implied the coercion of Ulster, as we had been so definitely given to understand in this House by the Lord Chancellor that no orders would be issued for the coercion of Ulster. As it is, I put my Question; but I do so fearing that I shall get not only an unsatisfactory answer, but such an answer as will cause the profoundest anxiety and distrust in the country.


My Lords, the noble Earl opposite devoted the bulk of his observations to the speech delivered by my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack which has already formed a topic of conversation this afternoon, and my noble and learned friend, as he was well able to do, has stated clearly the reasons which actuated him in making the correction which has appeared in Hansard. I confess that I have never yet seen any precise explanation of what is meant by "the coercion of Ulster." It is a phrase to which, I conceive, a number of different meanings can be attached. The noble Earl, however, whatever he understands by the coercion of Ulster, takes my noble and learned friend, by his statement that no immediate coercion of Ulster is proposed, to imply thereby that subsequent! coercion of Ulster is proposed. The noble Earl is a distinguished ornament of Oxford University, at which logic is, as we all know, one of the principal studies. But he would find it difficult to construct a syllogism on the basis which I have just stated—namely, that because my noble and learned friend says that there is no immediate intention of coercing Ulster, thereby he is threatening subsequent action in that direction. My noble and learned friend—I did not myself hear his speech—was undoubtedly thinking of the scare of which I spoke yesterday, of a great and immediate strategical movement, involving both the Army and the Navy, for the complete military occupation of Ulster, and I have no doubt that he intended to convey, as we have endeavoured to convey all along, that any supposition of the kind was purely baseless.

I made a general statement on this subject last night. Through no fault of my own I am afraid it was made at an hour when most of your Lordships were dining. I have no desire to repeat any part of that speech this afternoon. My right hon. friend the Foreign Secretary also made a statement germane to this subject in another place yesterday. It is, of course, the fact that a speech made in one House cannot be taken as addressed to the other, but on the other hand I have no doubt that many of your Lordships have read that speech and have appreciated the position of His Majesty's Government in respect of this matter which was described with absolute accuracy by my right hon. friend.

We hope that this Irish Bill will be passed in a form in which, if not agreed, it may, at any rate, meet with general acceptance. Assuming, if you will, for the purposes of the argument, that, from the point of view of the Opposition, the worst happens, and the Bill is forced through under the Parliament Act in the form in which it now stands. When that operation has taken place, if it should take place, Ulster, like the rest of Ireland, will still be governed directly by the Imperial Parliament, although the Government of Ireland Bill is passed. In the course of the observations that I made yesterday I did not ask any questions because I could not expect noble Lords opposite to reply to them, but I alluded to the statements that had been made about setting up what is termed a Provisional Government in Ulster. Assuming that such a Provisional Government is set up, and set up, as we have been led to believe, for the whole Province of Ulster, various results may follow. The decrees of such a Government, in the first place, might not be accepted by the Roman Catholic and Nationalist population of Ulster, comprising, I think I am right in saying, not far from 44 per cent. of the population of the Province. The decrees of that Government might be defied, and serious rioting might ensue, possibly of a very violent character, which might be held to demand the intervention of the Imperial Government, who would still be responsible for law and order in Ireland.

The noble Earl's memory no doubt goes back to 1886, when the Government of Ireland Bill of that year failed to become law. The Bill was defeated, the prospects of the Nationalist Party in Ireland were as gloomy as possible, and the situation therefore was altogether a different one from that which would exist if this Bill was passed. There was no provocation of the Protestants or Unionists of Ulster, but in spite of that fact, from the month of May to the month of October continual rioting went on in Belfast and also in some other parts of the country. A great many lives were lost, 25 or 30 lives were known to have been lost, and it is believed that a certain number of deaths were concealed. Many hundreds of people were severely injured, and it is therefore impossible to deny the possibility, assuming, as I am, that this Provisional Government has been set up in Ulster and its decrees are defied by the Nationalist minority, that serious violence might ensue, calling for the intervention of the Imperial Government.

Quite apart from that, to develop what I stated yesterday, assuming this Provisional Government to undertake the entire administration and government of the country against His Majesty's Government, it would presumably seize by force the various Government buildings, the Police barracks, and perhaps the military barracks, and other public institutions. That action would be bound to be resisted, and those in charge of these institutions would defend them at the risk of, and possibly with the loss of, their lives. It is therefore impossible, speaking now, and the whole situation being hypothetical, to estimate what degree of restraint, or, if you prefer the word, coercion, it might be necessary to apply in such circumstances as those. And, as I reminded the House yesterday, all this, by the hypothesis, would take place without anything having happened in Ulster in the sense of change of government or administration there. There would be no Irish Parliament, and no Irish attempt to enforce Irish decrees. It would be the Imperial Parliament just as it is now, whose decrees are defied and which would take the responsibility for enforcing them. Therefore I ask the noble Earl whether he expects me now to make a statement that in such circumstances as those the Government would remain entirely passive; that it would adopt an attitude of complete non-resistance to an uprising of that kind; and, in fact, that it would retire altogether from the country and leave it in the hands of those who had forcibly taken it. If resistance to such action as I have described, and described as I hope in a manner which can provoke nobody, is called coercion then it cannot be denied that coercion may become necessary, and that it may be applied; and I cannot believe that, in the particular circumstances that I have described, the people of this country would resent in any degree such application of force, or consider that any unfair use was being made of the Forces of the Crown.

But, as my right hon. friend pointed out yesterday in another place, the possibilities which I have been describing are of a purely hypothetical character, because, before anything which can be Irish coercion of Ulster is to take place—that is to say, any coercion applied to Ireland in respect of the Government of Ireland Act, as it would then be—a General Election must have taken place before Ulster can come under an Irish Government. No irreversible steps can have been taken by that time, and it would be open, supposing the people of the country desired to make an alteration affecting Ulster, or, indeed, affecting any portion of the Government of Ireland Act, it would be open for any Government which is returned to power so to make it. Therefore the question which the noble Earl has put does not, in fact, suggest the dilemma which he appears to assume that it suggests.

The answer to the noble Earl's Question is that nothing will have happened in Ulster; the Act will not be in operation, and therefore if the Forces of the Crown had in any hypothesis to be used they would be used, not in respect of the operation of the Act, but in respect of an uprising of a certain proportion of the inhabitants of Ulster because of what they feared might happen after a General Election had taken place. The noble Earl also mentioned, and I am glad that he did, the possibility, or the prospect as I should prefer to say, of a settlement being reached which would place all these contingencies still further away in the region of hypothesis. I do not think there will be any gain in my attempting now to enter into those particular questions. The facts are familiar to the House. But I desire to express once more the hope which I expressed last night that it will not be found impossible to come to terms on the lines suggested in the speech of the Prime Minister; and therefore all these alarming possibilities of which the noble Earl has spoken may prove to be ill-founded, and will never come into being. But I must respectfully protest against the implication which the noble Earl made that the simple correction which my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack made in the terms of his speech introduces any alteration whatever in the situation or in the intentions of His Majesty's Government, and I hope what I have just said makes that altogether clear.