HL Deb 27 June 1916 vol 22 cc387-91

THE EARL OF SELBORNE, rising from the corner seat below the gangway on the Ministerial side, asked leave to make a personal explanation concerning his resignation from the Government. The noble Earl said: It is the rule of your Lordships' House that a personal statement may be made just before the commencement of public business. I believe the rule also enjoins that it is not in one's power, in making a personal statement, to inaugurate a debate. Indeed, I venture to think that the moment has not yet come when, in the interests of the public service, a debate can take place on those grave matters on which I am going only just to touch.

Your Lordships will remember that when the war broke out the Home Rule controversy had reached this stage: The main principle in respect of which the Unionist Party had contended for thirty years had been decided against them, but the Ulster question had not been decided. When the war broke out the whole Unionist Party agreed to accept the accomplished fact and to abandon any attempt during the war to renew any phase of the struggle about Home Rule. That also was the position when the Coalition Government was formed about a year ago. The government of Ireland was being conducted by Mr. Birrell on principles of which we had never pretended to approve; and although, naturally, we did not desire to interfere then more than we could possibly help with the government of Ireland, that would not have absolved us, I quite admit, from interference if we had known that the position had changed, and that the condition of affairs in Ireland was worse than it was when we joined the Government. But we did not know that. Mr. Birrell never informed us that the condition of affairs in Ireland had grown worse, nor did private information reach us from other sources. Therefore we knew nothing about the drilling and manœuvring, and all those matters which were known to other people, and consequently the rebellion took us by surprise.

After the rebellion had been put down the Prime Minister paid a visit to Ireland. He returned impressed with the desire of all parties in Ireland for a settlement of the outstanding problems between Unionists and Nationalists. The Prime Minister appointed Mr. Lloyd George to see all the Irish Parties concerned and to ascertain whether there was any settlement which they would all accept. Mr. Lloyd George was necessarily entrusted with much freedom of action, but I wish to make it quite clear that he was not a plenipotentiary. His function was to make inquiries, to gather opinions and suggestions from other people, then to form the best judgment he could on the position, and, when he had formed it, to report to the Cabinet, with whom the decision rested. And this, I am informed, is the attitude he has throughout adopted.

I understood that the basis of the inquiry was an amendment of the Government of Ireland Act by which Ulster, or a part of Ulster, would be excluded from its operation, and that the Bill of Exclusion would be passed during the war. But I believed that neither the principal nor the amending Act would come into operation until the restoration of peace. This was not a vague impression. I had, and have, sure and definite grounds for believing that when Mr. Lloyd George was appointed this was the basis contemplated. In this belief I concurred in his appointment. It was during the Whitsuntide recess that I learnt for the first time that the basis of the inquiry had been changed, and that it had become a contemplated part of the proposed settlement that the Government of Ireland Act should, with certain modifications, be brought into operation during the war. I immediately—that is, the same day—informed the Prime Minister that I could take no responsibility for such a policy and placed my resignation in his hands. I also took care that the principal parties to these negotiations were informed of the existence of dissent.

In conclusion, let me state briefly why I dissent. Since the Government of Ireland Act was placed upon the Statute Book I have not contemplated its repeal. I have laboured, and should have continued to labour, for the exclusion of Ulster, or of a part of Ulster, from its operation; but, dangerous as I have thought the policy of Home Rule and unworkable as I have believed the actual Act to be, I have been quite clear in my mind that the welfare of the whole United Kingdom, and, indeed, of the whole British Empire, demanded that it should be given a fair trial. I should, therefore, have been perfectly ready to arrange for the exclusion of Ulster, or of part of Ulster, now, and to give every guarantee that the Government of Ireland Act should come into operation immediately after the termination of the war. But I am not prepared to advise His Majesty that it, or rather some travesty of it, can wisely or safely be brought into operation during the war. I say some "travesty" of it, because I do not suppose anybody contemplates the possibility of holding elections in Ireland now. Ireland is in a gravely disturbed condition, and in my judgment, to inaugurate a constitutional change of such magnitude during the war would be more perilous than any other course open to us. I say this while acknowledging in the fullest way the loyal and patriotic attitude of Mr. Redmond all through nearly two years' stress of war. I know well the great difficulties of the case, that there is much to be said on the other side, and that others with an equally honest endeavour to form a wise judgment take a different view; but in matters of such gravity each man must form his own judgment and act upon it.


I rise, my Lords, simply to express on behalf of His Majesty's Government, and I feel certain that on this occasion at any rate I am also expressing the feeling of the whole House, our great regret that my noble friend has thought it necessary to relinquish his office. On the personal ground I need only say that the noble Earl and I—and I think the same is true of my two noble friends behind me—have been on terms of personal friendship for forty years or so, and therefore I can truly say that the close of our formal association in this manner is a serious grief both to them and to me.

So far as the public aspect of my noble friend's resignation is concerned, I will simply say this, that since the formation of the Coalition Government he has filled the important office which he has held with high credit and distinction. As the House very well knows, the functions of the President of the Board of Agriculture have been peculiarly difficult during the last few months or a year, partly from the peculiar relation in which his work has stood to the paramount need of supplying as many men as possible for service in the Army; and during all that time my noble friend has carried out the duties of his office with a devotion and an absorption in his work which are altogether beyond praise.

Perhaps I may be excused if I do not at all attempt to enter this afternoon into the actual circumstances surrounding my noble friend's resignation. As he has pointed out, it would not, indeed, be in order for me to do so. There is no question before the House, and to attempt to discuss now the various aspects of the intensely difficult and complicated question to which he has merely alluded would be wrong for me and clearly could have no advantage in the public interest. It is quite certain that within a short space of time a general discussion will be held both here and elsewhere on the whole question, and until that time arrives—and it cannot be long deferred—I must ask your Lordships to excuse me from saying a word more on that side of the subject.


My Lords, the noble Marquess has not addressed himself to any controversial part of this topic, and I recognise that it is the rule on these occasions not to raise a debate upon a statement such as has just been made to the House by my noble friend who sits below the gangway opposite. But I cannot honestly say that the mystery which surrounds this question has been at all cleared up by that statement. The noble Marquess promises a discussion on an early day. I hope that it will be a very early day, for I think the country is entitled to know what has been going on and under whose authority it has been going on. That, however, is a matter into which I will not enter now. A rumour has reached us that there is to be a statement in another place shortly. I should like to ask the noble Marquess whether he will be able to make a statement to-morrow.


I cannot answer that question definitely.