HL Deb 26 April 1916 vol 21 cc819-32

VISCOUNT MIDLETON rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can give any information as to the steps which have been taken to repress the disorders which have arisen in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in putting this Question I think it is due to your Lordships to make a statement, so far as I can, of the position which has caused these disorders to arise, and with a view to pressing upon the Government that they should take more adequate steps to prevent the spread of these disorders to other parts of the country. We had a statement read to us yesterday afternoon in which it was said that the position in Dublin is "well in hand." What does that mean? The previous day, at about twelve o'clock, some of the most important spaces in Dublin were occupied by the Sinn Fein organisation. Several officers and other persons were shot. The statement to which I have referred was made here at half-past four o'clock yesterday afternoon. So far as my information goes, at that hour not only were the rebels in possession of a variety of the most prominent spots in Dublin, but no attempt had been made to dislodge them. I do not know whether that is held to be a situation well in hand. It appears to me to be a situation well in hand on the part of the rebels, because His Majesty's Government were not sufficiently provided with forces to deal with the insurrection. But that is not the only important point. Telegraphic communication has been almost entirely interrupted. The rebels, I understand, seized the Post Office, cut the wires, and, unless I am misinformed, also cut the cable connected with this country, so that a good deal of the news of what has passed has come by wireless.

We were assured that the situation was excellent, and that no further trouble had arisen in other parts of the country. What we should like to be assured of is that, as this particular movement in Dublin came upon His Majesty's Government as a bolt out of the blue, they have provided themselves with sufficient forces in other parts of the country to prevent the spread of this disorder or others arising from the same source—that is to say, from organised bodies of Sinn Feiners whom the Irish Government have ignored in other places as in Dublin during the past few months. I desire to distinguish in this matter between His Majesty's Government and the Irish Government. I know that the members of the Cabinet have been so deeply engrossed with the very grave issues which have been before them in connection with the war that it is probable that a good deal of what I am going to say would not come before the whole Cabinet, but would be dealt with by the Irish Government. And by the Irish Government I mean more especially the member of the Irish Government who sits in the Cabinet, the Chief Secretary, because, obviously, the Lord Lieutenant, who, I have no doubt, is doing all lie can to deal with the present emergency, has not the authority possessed by the Chief Secretary, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the Crown in Ireland.

Why has this business come upon the Government as a bolt out of the blue? I speak with some knowledge of what has occurred, and I do not think that the noble Marquess opposite will be able to deny a single one of the facts that I am going to state. In the first place, the Irish Government have been perfectly aware that not in Dublin alone large bodies of Sinn Feiners have existed, perfectly armed, perfectly equipped, and constantly drilled for sonic months past. Secondly, that they possessed explosives in considerable quantities. Thirdly, that they were well provided with money, the origin of which is well known to the Trish Government. Beyond this, the avowed purpose of the Sinn Fein organisation was set forth, week after week, by a variety of newspapers published in Dublin and elsewhere, which the Irish Government have allowed to continue without making any but the most feeble efforts to suppress them. The heads of this organisation are well known to the Irish Government, who, except in, I think, two instances, decided that they would not deal with them.

We are tongue-tied by the war in regard to bringing forward matters in public which ordinarily would, naturally and properly, be brought before Parliament; but I ask you to accept my statement that every one of these points has been brought, not once, but constantly, and up to the most recent date, by the most influential persons possible, to flu notice of the Irish Government, with an urgent request that they should take authority from Parliament to deal wish them, if they had not sufficient authority already. Nothing has been left undone by interview or memoranda, or the giving of evidence so far as it was necessary, to induce the Irish Government to act. Yet they allowed parades of the Sinn Feiners to continue Sunday after Sunday; they allowed these newspapers to circulate; they allowed posters of the most seditious character, especially directed against recruiting, to be put up broadcast in a number of districts in Ireland. As recently as last week all these matters were brought before the Irish Government, with an intimation that if they did not deal with them quickly the opportunity might come too late.

What has been the result? I have seen officers who, not a week ago, were warned by the Police that they would have to keep their men in barracks because they might be needed in Dublin for a sudden emergency. That was, I think in one case, on Tuesday last. Did that wake up the Irish Government? Not the least. All the officers who desired it were allowed to go on leave. The Chief Secretary himself remained in London. The Commander of the Forces in Ireland was allowed to cross to England last Friday night. The Lord Lieutenant was to have proceeded to Belfast on Thursday, but for other reasons had to put off his journey, and fortunately is still in Dublin. I am informed, though I am not certain whether it is the fact, that the head of the Royal Trish Constabulary also came over to England on Friday. I know, because I saw it myself, that a large number of officers—in fact, you might say a paralysing number of officers—were allowed to attend races in the neighbourhood of Dublin arid Cork on Monday, and are absent still in large numbers. Some were seized in their attempts to get back. I cannot conceive any Government, after all these warnings, being so blind as to allow such a state of things to arise and to be paralysed by the absence of all its heads when such difficulties were seen to be impending.

I know that all these matters could not possibly come before the Cabinet. But there is one man who, whatever we may have to say afterwards as to his conduct hitherto, is bound now to be at his post, and that is the Chief Secretary. I make a demand on the Government that they should assure us that if the Chief Secretary has not returned to Ireland already he will return without further delay. Grave decisions had to be taken in Dublin yesterday—decisions as to the proclamation of the Sinn Fein conspiracy, for which we have long asked, and as to certain other matters. It is not fair to leave to subordinates decisions of that character. Nor is it fair in a country where the Civil Chief is responsible, even if you place the country under Martial Law, to leave the military authorities alone responsible for those measures as to which the civilian head must necessarily be consulted. I speak with every respect fore and confidence in the Lord Lieutenant. If he is at this moment able to act, which, of course, I cannot tell—I know that some members of the Government there are at this moment beleaguered and unable to act—and if full authority could be given him, I should feel perfect confidence that he would do all that an Englishman could do under such conditions. But how can you give a man full authority who is not himself responsible? It is the Chief Executive Officer representing the Crown—the Chief Secretary—who I venture to think ought to return at once to his post from which he has been so long absent.

The other point which I would venture to ask the noble Marquess to give us some assurance upon is the protection of other places outside Dublin. It is no answer—if I may venture to forestall what I may be told—to say, "Difficulties have arisen in Dublin, and we have sent sufficient troops to deal with them." What we want to prevent is the spreading of this trouble to other parts of the country. I am not going to mention any names, but His Majesty's Government are perfectly aware that divisions of the Sinn Fein organisation, just as well armed and equipped, furnished with machine-guns, and in all respects, except that of actual drill, able to take the field, exist in other places besides Dublin. The Government cannot be too prompt in sending sufficient forces there to make their proclamations good and effective by disarming and arresting the leaders of this organisation, and I ask His Majesty's Government not to wait until the trouble has spread to make those exertions, which I have no doubt they will freely make as soon as they find that the necessity has arisen.

I venture to ask this, not with any desire to make any capital out of the unfortunate events which have arisen, but because I most seriously feel that the present position in Ireland is one of the utmost danger if it is not promptly grappled with. The inaction of the Government during the last few weeks has been a serious discouragement to the loyal population and an almost complete bar to successful recruiting. Any leniency which is allowed to those who have broken the law in this conspicuous manner, and have been guilty of these treasonable attacks, and of murder and other outrages, can only be misinterpreted in Ireland. Up to this moment His Majesty's Government have been sheltered, with regard to their desire not to drive into an extreme course men who might otherwise be won over, by their wish not to divide the nation at a critical time. They decided not to deal with the Sinn Fein conspiracy; the Sinn Fein conspiracy has now dealt with them. I therefore venture to hope that the Government, without undervaluing what has taken place and without the slightest fear that they will be accused of panic, will take effective measures for the vindication of the law.


My Lords, I certainly make no complaint of my noble friend for having described the present situation in Ireland as one of considerable danger if it is not grappled with. I believe that this outbreak will prove to be a futile outbreak, and I believe it to be predestined to failure, and to ignominious failure. But I am not on that account at all disposed to minimise the serious inconvenience which it is likely to occasion or the necessity of dealing vigorously with it.

The principal facts are, I think, generally known. On the 24th the rebels made a half-hearted attack upon Dublin Castle, which was not pressed through. They occupied St. Stephen's Green; they held up troops on their way from the barracks and fired on them from the windows of houses on the route. The City Hall, the Post Office, the Four Courts, Westland-row Station, and, I think, also Broadstone Station were occupied by Sinn Feiners, and telegraphic communication was at first completely interrupted. The force now available in Dublin is composed as follows. There is, of course, the original body of Constabulary and the normal garrison of Dublin. To these have been added reinforcements, the first of which came from the Curragh on the 24th. Further reinforcements came yesterday from Belfast; further reinforcements still came from England, which have arrived in Irelam4 and are on their way to Dublin.

My noble friend, I think, said that no attempt, as far as he was aware, had been made to dislodge the rebel force from the places that it had occupied. That is not quite the case. The Sinn Feiners were driven out of St. Stephen's Green, and driven out with a certain number of casualties. They were, however, yesterday reported to be still in occupation of the buildings which I named just now and of houses in St. Stephen's Green, Sackvillestreet, Abbey-street, and along the quays. But by the evening of yesterday the military had succeeded in protecting the line from King's Bridge Station, via Trinity College, to the Customs House and to North Wall. Later in the evening of yesterday the Lord Lieutenant announced the proclamation of Martial Law for the City and County of Dublin. He was able to report at the same time that the provinces generally were tranquil.

To-day telegrams have been coming in with some rapidity. We learned at midday that the building known as Liberty Hall, which is the headquarters of the citizen army, with which the name of Mr. Larkin is connected, had been wholly or partially destroyed and occupied by the military. It was then reported that there were only three minor cases of disturbances in the provinces. By two o'clock the Lord Lieutenant was able to report that the situation was on the whole satisfactory and that the provincial news was reassuring. The Inspector-General of the Royal Irish Constabulary contributes one item of intelligence which I think will be satisfactory to your Lordships. It is that at Drogheda the Nationalist Volunteers turned out under arms to assist the Government, whilst many local persons offered assistance.

The latest information is to the effect that telegraphic communication, though rot fully restored, is still possible with Dublin. Since I came to the House I have received a further instalment of information, to this effect. The General Officer Commanding reports that there is now a complete cordon of troops round the centre of the town on the north side of the river, and that two more battalions are arriving this afternoon from England. There has been a small rising at Ardee, in Louth, and a rather more serious one at Swords and Lusk, which, as your Lordships know, are close to Dublin.

Your Lordships may wish for some information as to the number of casualties that have occurred during these disturbances. The last reports which I have seen show a total of fifteen killed and twenty-one wounded, besides two loyal volunteers and two policemen killed and six loyal volunteers wounded.

My noble friend is anxious that I should justify the statement which appeared in the published telegrams to the effect that the situation is well in hand. The expression seems to me, upon the whole, to describe the facts with fair accuracy. I do not see in these telegrams any sign of doubt as to the ability of the Government to cope with this movement and to put it down by the most drastic methods. My noble friend would like to be assured that steps are being taken to prevent the spread of the movement to places in the provinces. I have mentioned already two telegrams which go to show that the situation in the provinces is, I will not say wholly satisfactory, but on the whole not such as to justify grave apprehensions. I am able to tell my noble friend that the Irish Government fully recognise the necessity of making sure of the situation, not only in Dublin, but in other parts of Ireland, and particularly in one or two spots which I dare say my noble friend has in his mind, where special vigilance is called for.

The noble Viscount did not ask me for any information with regard to the landing which took place on the West Coast, but if it is of interest to the House—[Several noble LORDS: Hear, hear.]—this is what I ant able to tell your Lordships. A German submarine awl a German vessel, the latter with false papers and disguised as a Dutch trading vessel, made their appearance, I think three clays ago, off the West Coast of Ireland. From the submarine there landed in a collapsible boat three individuals, of whom two were made prisoners, one of them being Sir Roger Casement, a gentleman whose name is familiar to my noble friend and to me in connection with a very different kind of question. The German vessel was stopped by one of His Majesty's ships and. ordered to accompany her into Queenstown. I believe the weather was very rough, and it was difficult to put a prize crew on board. The disguised vessel followed His Majesty's ship a certain distance, but at a particular moment—I do not know exactly when or where—she flew the German flag and sank herself—scuttled herself, I should imagine. I may add that the crew were rescued. I do not know what Sir Roger Casement may have been led to expect in the way of assistance or facilities on shore for this landing, but I have not been able to ascertain that there are any traces of extensive preparations having been made on the seaboard either for the reception of Sir Roger Casement or for the distribution of the material with which the sunken ship was presumably laden.

My noble friend concluded his speech by calling the attention of the House to the fact that within his knowledge repeated warnings had been addressed to the Irish Government as to not only the possibility but the probability of an outbreak of this kind. I have made inquiries into this matter, and I am not able to conjecture what is the precise foundation upon which my noble friend's charge is made. It is a matter of notoriety that for some time past the activity of the Sinn Fein party has been very noticeable and has occasioned serious misgivings to many people, and to that extent it is, no doubt, quite true that the Government of Ireland were aware that there was a possibility of trouble, but I have not been able to hear of anything like a specific or authoritative warning of such a development as that which we have witnessed within the last few days. In fact, the only specific warning which we did receive—it was one which came from an external source—reached us on the day of the outbreak. I am therefore unable to follow up the statement which my noble friend has made.


My case was that the Government had been repeatedly warned by most influential persons that if they did not take action against the heads of the Sinn Fein organisation they would have serious trouble. Those warnings were in the most unmistakable terms. Yet in the face of that, last Sunday fortnight the Government allowed a whole battalion of Sinn Feiners to parade and to go through a number of exercises armed with side arms, the officers carrying revolvers; whilst last Sunday week the same people were occupied in practising street-fighting in the streets of Dublin, without any interference by the Government.


My noble friend has access to information to which I have not access; and if he is satisfied that the facts are as he has stated them, I am not going to contradict him. But what I wished to convey was that there had been nothing like a specific warning that this particular trouble was to be expected at this moment. The only other point which my noble friend raised had reference to the movements of the Chief Secretary. The Chief Secretary has been lately in London, where, as my noble friend knows, the Cabinet has had important matters to consider, but he is to leave London to-night for Dublin, and will probably he at his post to-morrow morning.


My Lords, may I call attention to one extraordinary statement made by the noble Marquess? He said that no specific warning had been given of the action of the Sinn Feiners. He knows perfectly well that Ireland has been smothered in disloyal literature for months, declaring that they intended to get rid of the English and the English Government, and welcoming the Germans. I consider that this was quite specific warning enough to show the Government that the outbreak of the Sinn Feiners now was to have been expected. Yet on top of that the Government have allowed these disloyal people to arm and parade and drill. This is well known to the Police and to the military authorities, and must therefore have been known to Dublin Castle. In these circumstances 1 take exception to the noble Marquess's statement that no warning of any sort or kind had been given to the Irish Government with reference to what these rebels might do.


I never suggested for a moment that there were no materials at all from which a conjecture as to what might happen in Ireland might have been formed. The facts which my noble and gallant friend has mentioned are matters of common knowledge. Many people did, however, view the proceedings of this organisation with very great concern and apprehension, and in that sense, of course, we were forewarned. I was directing myself to what I conceived to be a different point, the point which I thought my noble friend wished to make—namely, that we had been told that we might expect this particular outbreak at this particular moment.


Has the noble Marquess been able to form any estimate of the strength of the rebel army in Dublin?


I am afraid I have no information on that point.


The noble Marquess admits that information had come to the Government from various sources as to the dangers which might occur, although he says that no specific warning as to this particular outbreak at this particular time in this particular place came to the Government. That is quite possible. I should like to ask, after the warnings that had been received from influential people—and I am informed that very influential people laid specific facts before the Government in Dublin during the last month or two—whether the Government took any action at all to forestall this outbreak, or did they allow things to go on exactly as before without giving a single order to any executive authority or to any military force in case there was an outbreak. It being admitted that there was danger of an outbreak, I think this is a fair question to ask.


My Lords, there is nobody in your Lordships' House who supposes for a moment that the noble Marquess opposite knew anything about these matters beyond what was common knowledge to his colleagues in the Cabinet. No doubt the information was mainly confined to the Irish Government. But lily noble friend Lord Midleton has definitely stated that the Irish Government were over and over again warned in the most categorical manner of the risks which were being run in Ireland. We do not, of course, expect that my noble friend Lord Lansdowne will he able to tell us this evening how far the Government of Ireland admit my noble friend's charge. But if the charge is an accurate one, then I venture to think that Parliament and the country will require some explanation of why it was that this grave state of things was, in face of the warnings given, allowed to grow up in Ireland without any steps being taken to prevent it.

We do not, of course, desire to press my noble friend (Lord Lansdowne), who is always most courteous to all members of your. Lordships' House, to give an answer to-day; but we do think—and we say so most expressly—that he and his colleagues ought to make some inquiry as to whether these warnings were received by the Government of Ireland and what steps they took in consequence to prevent the explosion which has taken place, of which ex hypothesi they were warned. On a future occasion we shall venture to ask His Majesty's Government for an answer on these points. I am glad to think that my noble friend has been able to assure your Lordships that steps of a very important kind are, at all events, now being taken to meet the difficulty. There has evidently been a large body of troops moved into Ireland, and I was pleased to hear my noble friend state that he had no doubt they would be "drastically" used. I take that to mean that no kind of hesitation will be shown in dealing with such a rising at a critical moment like this.

I will venture to dwell for a moment on the words of my noble friend Lord Midleton in respect to the other parts of Ireland. My noble friend Lord Lansdowne told your Lordships that he thought there was not much to be feared. I hope that is true. But I noticed, as be went through the telegrams which he had received, that while in the first telegram quoted it was stated that there were no disturbances in the rest of Ireland, the telegrams which followed began to show that there were certain parts of Ireland in which there were slight disturbances; and then there was another telegram which mentioned disturbances in vet other parts of Ireland. They may all be very small. I hope they are. But what they show is that the danger is not confined to Dublin. We hope that the Government will take all necessary steps to prevent their being caught tripping again, and to prevent the same ignorance of the state of feeling in Ireland overtaking them, as regards other parts of the country. We do not, as I say, wish to press the noble Marquess and his colleagues now, in the absence here of any member of the Irish Government; but we do think that inquiries ought to be made and a full account given to your Lordships on a future occasion of the warnings which the Government received and of the action which they took in consequence.


My Lords, one word on the question of the warnings which are said to have been addressed to the Irish Government. Being in ignorance of what the alleged warnings are, it is impossible for me to deal completely with this point. But if the noble Viscount will give me particulars of some of the warnings, I will make it my business to find out how they were dealt with. But I may mention to the House that, irrespective of the question of warnings, in consequence not of any particular warning but in consequence of the state of the country, which was notorious, steps were taken by the Irish Government to deal with this trouble. Among other things I hear that several persons were arrested for having, improperly, arms in their possession, and also that several newspapers were stopped on account of the nature of their contents. So that I think there is evidence to show that the Government were aware of the trouble which was brewing and took steps in order to deal with it.


My Lords, I have had, for good reasons or bad, a good deal of experience of Irish government. I think I am the only person, except Lord St. Aldwyn, who was unwise enough to hold the post of Chief Secretary twice. It is not my business, of course, to defend the Government, but I miss any sign of a willingness to measure what I suppose was the most operative argument in the mind of the Irish Government. I do not think there can be any doubt, after what the noble Viscount has said, and also from knowledge which I have, that the Irish Government were well aware that these sinister proceedings were on foot, and probably they have been aware of that for some time. But then a Government faced with a difficulty of this kind have to ask themselves, Shall we do more harm by severe, drastic, repressive measures, or will it be wiser, and in the end more salutary, to let things come to a still graver head? I am not in the least denying that the proceedings of Monday are what I should call a grave event. There can be no doubt of that. But I look hack upon one action in my experience in which I am afraid I had the misfortune to incur loud and constant censure from your Lordships' House. I refer to riotous proceedings which went on day after day in the city of Belfast in the year 1886. There was great loss of life. They—not the Nationalists, but the other party—took it into their heads that I as Chief Secretary had sent down Catholic constables to murder Protestant Unionists. It was almost incredible that in a great city like Belfast such nonsense as that should have found any lodging in people's minds. I wondered then, and I wonder now, looking back upon it after all these years, whether it would not have been wiser to tolerate a great deal of violence and lawlessness in Belfast in 1886 than to have taken the severe proceedings that we felt ourselves obliged to take. To apply all this to the case of the moment, I submit that your Lordships might do well to give full weight to the possible balance of judgment iii the minds of the Irish Govern- ment as to whether they would have done more harm two or three months ago in taking severe measures. I hope your Lordships will pardon my entering that caveat.


My Lords, I heard with great satisfaction the statement that Mr. Birrell is to return to Ireland. I have a very great regard for Mr. Birrell and a great sympathy with him in many ways. I hope that he will not only return to Ireland, but that he will remain there during the period of these disturbances. I am quite sure that we ought to have a representative in Ireland during these anxious times.