HL Deb 14 September 1914 vol 17 cc603-11

My Lords, before the adjournment on Thursday last I told the House that I would to-day make a statement upon our future proposals on the Government of Ireland Bill and the Welsh Church Bill, and that I would state when it was proposed to put those measures down for Second Reading. Since then the noble Marquess opposite has placed on the Paper a notice for a Bill relating also to those measures with which he will in due course proceed. But I understand that it is regarded by the noble Marquess and the Opposition as more convenient that, in spite of that fact, I should wake my statement before the noble Marquess proceeds to move the first stage of his Bill.

There has been general agreement that so far as possible the events which have occurred throughout August, the declaration of war and its consequences, should not affect either way, to the disadvantage of one Party or the other, the fate of these two Bills which in the ordinary course would have come up for the third time during this session. But it is evident, from the Bill which the noble Marquess is about to introduce, that the two Parties are not agreed as to the method by which this result may be achieved. The noble Marquess, it is clear, favours a complete suspension of all proceedings in relation to these two Bills, involving that we should not now proceed with the Second Reading of either. There is a certain plausibility, I do not mind admitting, in that contention; but it has to be borne in mind that if the conditions are to remain in fact identical, or as nearly as possible identical, with those which exist at this moment that plan of proceeding would involve the indefinite prolongation of this Parliament. It might happen that the general situation demanded an appeal to the country either with reference to the conduct of the war or to some other public event, and, as I shall proceed to show, we on this side of the House therefore dismiss that solution as not being a possible one. It appears to us that the effect of a failure to pass these Bills into law during the present session would be, in fact, a definite triumph for the Opposition achieved over the Government.

I would ask the House for a moment to look at the history of the recent facts affecting these measures. You will remember that in the gracious Speech from the Throne at the opening of this session His Majesty expressed hopes in the direction of unity, and a declaration was made in another place by the Prime Minister that, after the absolutely necessary financial business of the year had been dealt with, proposals would be made which it was hoped would lead to some form of agreement. Meanwhile the Government of Ireland Bill pursued its course. It was read a third time in another place on May 25 by a majority of 77. Before that date—namely, on May 19—the Welsh Church Bill had been read a third time there by, I think, a precisely identical majority. Then on June 23 we introduced in this House an Amending Bill involving the exclusion of some part of Ulster. That Bill was fully discussed here; it was radically altered from top to toe by Amendments in this House, and was then sent down to the House of Commons. A further attempt was made outside Parliament to arrive at some form of agreement. A Conference composed of leading members of both Houses on both sides was held at Buckingham Palace from July 21 to July 24. It did not result in complete agreement, although I venture to think it served its purpose in clearing the air to some extent and in enabling those who took part in it to see what was the actual line of demarcation over which neither Party was able to cross.

Then, in the natural course, the Amending Bill would next have been proceeded with in another place. That, as we all know, was interfered with by public events on the Continent of Europe of which we are all aware. It is, I think, clear that the Amending Bill would have passed into law in some form, representing some compromise—it is not easy to say what—between the terms of the Bill as introduced here and those totally different terms which were found in it when it was sent to another place. It appears, therefore, if I am right in believing that it would have passed in some form, that the plan favoured by the noble Marquess in his Bill involves some definite, or at any rate possible, gain to the Opposition point of view over and above what it would have obtained if it had been possible to proceed with that Bill. It may, of course, be said—it has been said—"If such a compromise of views was possible, why should not such a compromise be proceeded with now? Why cannot the Amending Bill be reconsidered, first in another place, with a view to arriving at some kind of solution which, by admission, would be temporary, vet at the same time might enable the Irish question to be put aside for the time being and the Government of Ireland Bill to be placed on the Statute Book with the acquiescence of the Opposition?" There is much to be said for that argument and it has found favour, I believe, with not a few.

But, on the other hand, the arguments against such a course are strong. It is quite evident that if the compromise were to take the form of the exclusion of a part of Ulster—I do not attempt to say what part—such a compromise could only be brought about by the putting of severe pressure by the Irish leaders on one side or the other upon their followers in Ireland, and at this moment that would involve a series of visits by them to that country, a number of speeches, and an agitation which at this time we should all desire to avoid. But there is also this further argument against attempting to arrive even at a solution which might hold good for two, three, or five years, as the case might be, that it is not a desirable course to engage in a great Constitutional change of this kind, even as regards those parts of Ireland upon which noble Lords opposite might be disposed to admit such a change must ultimately fall, at this moment of crisis and when great national issues are at stake. Even where it is possibly conceded that Home Rule might be put into operation at once, most of us would say that this is not the moment to do it.

We then have to consider what would be the effect—I am afraid I am somewhat trespassing on ground that I ought not to cover, but it is not possible to make a statement of our views without saying something about the other views which are clearly indicated by the Bill of the noble Marquess—we have to consider what would be the effect if those views were adopted. If I may be forgiven, I would digress for a moment to say that I understand that the purpose of the noble Marquess's measure is that these Parliament Act Bills, if I may so describe them, would, in a session after the war is over, be placed in precisely the same position as regards the Parliament Act as that in which they stand at this moment. I am advised that, as a matter of fact, the noble Marquess's Bill does not carry out that intention. For this reason, that the next session after the war is over might not be a consecutive session, and in that case the Bills would not obtain the benefit of the Parliament Act; and, unless that was specifically provided for, the work which has already been done upon them would lapse. But I pass that by for a moment. That is more a question of drafting than of anything else.

As regards the proposal for the complete holding up of these measures, I would venture to remind the House of this. We cannot deny that in this matter of Irish Home Rule each side has felt, and has freely expressed, profound mistrust of the intentions of the other. Noble Lords opposite and their Party have credited us with a desire to coerce Ulster, or at any rate to force Ulster into subjection to the Government of Ireland Act, as it would then be. That is the mistrust which has been freely expressed by the Opposition as regards our views and intentions. On this side of politics and also in the Nationalist Party the mistrust of the intentions of the Opposition has been equally profound. It has been the belief, I think, of the great majority of our Party and of the Nationalist Party that the main object of the Opposition, even while Ulster has been on every lip and the coercion of Ulster has been denounced, has been not so much to protect Ulster from Home Rule as, if possible, to destroy Home Rule altogether. There have been a number of speeches which have given not a little colour to that supposition. There was the well-known speech of Sir Edward Carson's at the Albert Hall a year ago, when he said that he was willing to adopt exclusion because he considered that it would destroy Home Rule altogether. But not longer ago than February of this year (February 18) Sir Edward Carson said— I frankly state that for two years I and those who trust me have been doing our best to render the Government of Ireland Bill impossible under any conditions. And a number of other speeches in the same sense could be quoted. I have heard the same thing said by noble Lords in this House—that it is not so much a question of the exclusion of this or the exclusion of that, but of destroying Home Rule altogether.

As to the mistrust that the Opposition feel of us, I have no hesitation in saying that there cannot be the smallest question, and no responsible Government could ever hold the idea, of imposing a political Constitution or a solution of this question upon Ulster by force. We say that quite categorically; and I hope that when our proposals, which I shall shortly describe, come to be considered noble Lords will be so good as to bear that statement in mind. It is not made only on my own account; it is made on behalf of His Majesty's Government—there is no such question. I have explained how it is that the Liberal Party and the Irish Nationalist Party feel mistrust of the intentions of the Opposition, in the sense that it is not safeguards for which they are on the lookout, but the destruction of the system of Home Rule altogether; and, further than that, there is the desire to checkmate the Parliament Act, to which noble Lords, as we all know, and their Party object so strongly, and which they have found interferes so inconveniently with their projects and their beliefs. The fear, therefore, of those who agree with us, of the Liberal Party and of the Nationalist Party, would be simply this, that if before the end of the war or at the end of the war there should come into being a Government differently constituted, possibly owing to complaints in the conduct of the war, possibly owing to differences of opinion as to the ultimate terms of peace which might be exacted, or, if you will, as to the method and incidence of the taxation which will be required to pay for the war—that if, owing to any of those causes, which I merely give as instances, a Government of a different complexion, not necessarily representing the Front Bench opposite but a Government of a different complexion from this one, should come into being, although the General Election might have no reference whatever to the subject of the government of Ireland, the result would be that either the Government of Ireland Bill would be destroyed altogether or that some form of Irish Government, some kind of creation of gas and water provincial councils of a nature which I have heard favoured from the Front Bench opposite, would be brought into being, and that consequently, without any evidence whatever that the mind of the country had changed on the subject, Ireland might altogether lose its chance of Home Rule. That being so, it is not surprising that the Irish Nationalists and the whole body of the Party which we have the honour to represent feel that it is impossible to dispense with the passing of the Government of Ireland Bill into law. We feel that not to do so would simply mean the opening of a fresh credit in favour of the Party opposite for financing the warfare against the whole subject of Home Rule. For that reason we are impelled to proceed, and I propose to place the Government of Ireland Bill on the Notice Paper for consideration to-morrow.

It is only fair to ask, as we are anxious to hold a correct balance between the two Parties—although I know noble Lords opposite do not think we are doing it—what is it that the Opposition would stand to lose by placing the Government of Ireland Bill on the Statute Book? We are proposing a Suspensory Bill of a different kind from that which the noble Marquess is going to present. The Prime Minister had intended to present it in another place to-day, but he was prevented from doing so by a technical objection raised by the Opposition of which I do not, I confess, appreciate the precise purpose; but he will be able, as I understand, to present it to-morrow. That plan of ours is, briefly speaking, as follows. Instead of adopting the noble Marquess's method of postponing all further stages of the Government of Ireland Bill during the continuance of the war and taking it up again precisely at the same point in the first session thereafter, our proposal is that after the Bill has been placed on the Statute Book—and the same thing applies to the Welsh Church Bill no steps whatever shall be taken to bring either Bill into operation for a period of twelve months from the date of their passing, and if, at the expiration of those twelve months, the war has not ended, then by Order in Council the date of their coming into operation will be further postponed until such later date as may be fixed upon, that date not being later than the end of the present war—that is to say, that so far as the war is concerned there is no practical difference between the noble Marquess and ourselves; there can be no question of the Bills coining into operation until the war is concluded. It is true that the noble Marquess's Bill might, if Parliament should not be called together immediately after the completion of peace, having adjourned just before the end of the war, involve a somewhat longer delay; but I will not attempt to labour that point. What is at the back of both proposals is that during the continuance of the war no real steps whatever should be taken in connection with either Bill.

As regards our proposal, the House will see that its effect is either to suspend the operation of the Bills altogether right up to the next General Election—that is to say, to the time when a General Election is absolutely bound to take place by the Constitution—or quite possibly over and beyond the General Election. The Opposition have frequently said that if a General Election could take place they would then be content to accept the 'verdict of the country on this question, and it is clear that, so far as the practical operation of both of these Bills is concerned, they will be in the main at the mercy of a General Election. But apart from that we make a definite pledge that we will bring in a Bill to amend the Government of Ireland Bill which will have to be dealt with, and which we should see is dealt with, before the expiration of the term of twelve months. I ask the House to remember what I said just now with regard to the impossibility of our having any idea of patting coercion upon that part of Ireland which does not agree to a particular political Constitution; and that being so, I think noble Lords will see further that, although it seems a paradox, the inclusion for the time being, by the passing of the Government of Ireland Bill, of the whole of Ireland without any exception in the provisions of that Bill offers in fact, in the absence of any possibility of coercion, the surest guarantee that an Amending Bill must be passed before the Bill as a whole can come into operation. I think that is an argument of which noble Lords will not wish to dispute the weight.

But I do say this, that when the time Comes for the Government of Ireland Bill as a whole to be amended I do not think we ought to regard it as a certainty that that amendment will necessarily take the form of the exclusion of Ulster or of a part of Ulster. I do not think that, as matters now stand, we need take it as a settled fact that that is so. It is impossible now to foretell the form which such an Amending Bill will take—whether the form of exclusion or some different form of safeguard to the Protestant minority which they may be disposed to regard as sufficient. We have to remember that the whole temper of Ireland, both in the North and the South, has been greatly changed, and changed, as we are glad to believe, greatly for the better by the war and by the immediate consequences of the war. I am quite confident—I speak only on my own responsibility, but I speak with full certainty—that when the Government of Ireland Bill has been placed upon the Statute Book there will be a rush to enlist in His Majesty's Army on the part of the whole of Ireland. Some noble Lords express a certain incredulity, but we shall see. I cannot forget in this connection that it is not so many years ago since in this House and in the other we were told in accents of profound conviction, most honest conviction, by Members of Parliament and by noble Lords that we were committing a folly in giving self-government to South Africa. Noble Lords have only to look at their newspapers now to see what South Africa is doing for the Empire; she is undertaking a great and dangerous part in warlike operations, headed by the Dutch element there. Noble Lords will, perhaps, admit that they were not right then, and it is possible—I will not put it higher than that—that they may think that we are in error now in believing that the spirit of the Nationalist part of Ireland will be greatly changed by this evidence of trust and friendship on cur part; but when noble Lords look back to the speech which Mr. Redmond made in another place I think they may at any rate be disposed to drop some of their scepticism on that subject.

What I do hope, my Lords, is that when these proposals of ours come before the House—I have done my best to explain what the difference between the noble Marquess's proposals and ours is; it is not a very wide difference though it is a deep one—the Opposition will not attempt to pile up a fictitious grievance on the ground that we are taking any advantage of the existing situation. We maintain that we are taking no advantage whatever of the existing situation. The situation abroad has in some degree told against the more extreme views of both Parties in Ireland. I do not deny that for a moment. Nor do I regret it. Nor can we regret the postponement which is involved by either the noble Marquess's proposals or ours if that postponement leads to a better understanding between the different sets of opinion in Ireland and to a closer approximation between them. At any rate, I do not believe that an attitude of mere resistance to placing the Irish Bill among the laws of the country added to the proposals which I have sketched out to your Lordships will win the sympathy of a great number of your Lordships' supporters in the country. I believe that moderate men will see that the course which we are proposing to take is not an unreasonable, still less an unfair, course. There are some members, no doubt, of the Party opposite who have learned nothing and have forgotten nothing. But I cannot believe that the average members of the Unionist Party will be led away by the sentiments, however loudly expressed, of the more extreme members of the Party. I should like also to think, my Lords, and I hope I am not wrong in thinking, that even among those more extreme members of the Party represented opposite, whatever indignation they may feel at the course we are taking, the expression of their annoyance or regret will not lead them to depart in any way from the united attitude which as a country we have taken in face of the troubles abroad, and that, in spite of differences at home on the merits of which either one Party or the other may remain unconvinced, in the face of the enemy we shall remain a united country.

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