HL Deb 19 May 1920 vol 40 cc426-39

THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can make any statement as to the steps which are being taken by the Irish Government to put an end to the condition of veiled rebellion in Ireland.

The noble Marquess said: My Lords, in the very few observations I am going to make this evening I do not desire to traverse the ground which was so admirably covered in a recent debate in your Lordships' House at the instance of the noble Lord, Lord Askwith. I have nothing to add to the lucid description which he and other noble Lords then gave on the deplorable condition of Ireland, except to say that I think a good many noble Lords who sit in this House as representing the Government must feel rather bitterly the discredit which has been thrown upon their political reputations by the action of the Government as a whole, and of the Irish Government in particular. They are, of course, responsible for the condition of things in Ireland. That must never be forgotten. No doubt the difficulties with which they have had to deal are very formidable, but they are there to govern the country. They have failed to govern the country, and upon them rests the responsibility.

But I do not rise for the purpose of recrimination. I rise with a view of trying to aseeitain from the Government what steps they are now taking to restore the authority of His Majesty's Government in Ireland. I say, "the authority of His Majesty's Government in Ireland," because it is quite clear that the condition of things is rebellion. It has ceased to be merely disorder; it has ceased to he merely an effervescence of public opinion; it is definitely rebellion—that is to say, resistance to the King's Government and an attempt to set up some other Government in its place; and we wish to know, on the eve of the recess, whether His Majesty's Government are able to make to us any statement as to the steps which they are taking. I need not say that I have no desire to weaken the hands of the distinguished General who has now been sent to Ireland. I mean General Macready. He is entitled to, and I am sure will receive, the fullest support from your Lordships in the efforts which he is making.

There are, however, statements appearing in the public Press of a more or less authoritative character purporting to describe the line which the policy of the Government in repressing this rebellion is about to take. There was, for example, a long note in The Times this morning. I do not know how far that was authoritative. It appears, therefore, to be suitable that one of us should take the opportunity which this afternoon affords to ask the Government if they will state, in their place in Parliament, what steps they are taking. It is not necessary for me to say that I do not want them to make any statement which in their judgment would defeat the object which we have in view. If they think that it is wiser in any particular direction to keep silence, that is for them to decide. I shall certainly not press them to say more than in their discretion they think can profitably he said. But within those limits I venture to put my Question.

When this subject was debated on Thursday week in your Lordships' House—I am sorry to say I was not able to be present then, but I have taken every precaution to make myself fully acquainted with what passed—certain suggestions were put forward. As I read the debate they were, most of them, suggestions for the proper use of the troops in Ireland. My noble friend Lord Midleton suggested that a system of patrols should be established. I think he also suggested that there should be better co-ordination between the military and police authorities; while my noble friend Lord Selborne, later in the debate, suggested that a special corps of former soldiers should be re-enlisted in some way in England for use in Ireland. All these matters were submitted to His Majesty's Government, and if the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack is able to tell us anything on that head without injury to the public service I am sure he will do so.

Before I sit down, if your Lordships will bear with me, I should like to say one or two words as to what I conceive to be the principles which this House would like to see borne in mind in carrying out this work. First, as to the punishment of the guilty. What is required is not so much severity as certainty. What is essential, as all of us know who have had any experience in administration, is that the guilty should know that punishment is inevitable for the crimes which they commit. I am quite aware that owing to the way in which matters have been handled in Ireland it is not possible to predicate what I may call inevitableness of punishment following crime there at this moment. The Government have lost grip, lost control, so much in Ireland that it will want many months of strong control reasserted there in order to make it certain that punishment will follow crime. That is the object which, on that head, I venture to think the Government should have in view. I do not suggest that they should pay much attention to words. Words do not mean much anywhere; they mean next to nothing in Ireland. It is only when the words are followed by acts that they become serious. Let the Irish politicians and the Irish newspapers fire off as much sedition as they please. It does not seem to hurt anybody. But if, as the result of speeches or writings in any particular place, crime follows, then let those who uttered or wrote those words be punished—inevitably punished. Let them be quite certain that they cannot escape. That is the very foundation of the re-establishment of order and, if I may venture to say so with respect, let the Government make it quite clear that they will go on from step to step until the end is achieved; that they will shrink from nothing—I mean what I say—from nothing which is not immoral in what is necessary to re-establish order. Let the seditious population—I do not say all the population, because they are not all seditious; there is a large loyal body whom we value immensely—but let the seditious element of the population in Ireland realise that the Government will shrink from nothing, absolutely nothing, which is legitimate and moral in the re-assertion of law and order. Once they get that conviction the battle is more than half won. That is one thing.

Then once the Government have asserted the power to punish those who are guilty, let them be relentless in carrying out the punishment. I do not mean make the punishment over severe; I do not mean that at all. As I have said, it is not severity that is necessary, but certainty. Let us never hear that a convicted criminal in Ireland is let out of prison because of hunger-striking or any such thing as that. That was, in my judgment, a most deplorable confession of weakness on behalf of His Majesty's Government. I am not speaking of the untried prisoners. They present a different question. But, as your Lordships are aware, there were a great many convicts who were absolutely let out. I believe it was one of those incomprehensible blunders which seem to take place only in Ireland. At any rate, let that never occur again. I hope the official who was guilty of the blunder was properly dealt with. That is the second great principle—following the first that punishment should be inevitable—that when the punishment is awarded it should be relentlessly exacted. Those are fundamental matters.

Then there is the protection of the innocent. I should like to hear the Government say that they would protect the innocent and law-abiding citizens of Ireland at whatever cost of effort or of money; that whatever is necessary to protect them the Government will afford. And, above all things, they should make it clear to friends of law and order in Ireland that they will not be abandoned. What I am so very much afraid of is that those who adhere to the British Government in Ireland are thinking that they are going to be abandoned to the wolves. There is the loyal population; and, above all the police. I want to hear the Lord Chancellor say that under no circumstances whatever will the Government abandon our friends in Ireland. I know they are hampered a good deal by the existence of a certain Bill which is before the other House of Parliament. I am not going to discuss the Home Rule Bill. I do not want to get mixed up with it. I want the Lord Chancellor to say in his place that the Government are firmly resolved that in any legislation or any administration of the law England will never abandon her friends in Ireland; never abandon the loyal population or the police; and that they will take care that whatever is done these, at any rate, shall be efficiently protected. How can you expect people to stand by us if they are not quite certain we arc going to stand by them. I earnestly hope that the Lord Chancellor will be able to give us these assurances. If it is once clear that the whole power of this country will be used at whatever cost to punish the guilty, and that under no circumstances whatever will we abandon our friends then I believe the cause of law and order in Ireland is already won.


My Lords, the noble Marquess has very closely followed on a recent discussion which took place in this House and has called attention to a melancholy and yet engrossing topic. No one can complain that he has thought it proper on the eve of a short recess to ascertain whether the Government had anything to add to the reassurances given to your Lordships in relation to this anxious topic. Let me at once, in reply to the last words that fell from him, make I more complete if I can the assurance I attempted to give when I last addressed your Lordships that it is the policy of this Government, whether the struggle be short or long, to employ the whole available forces and all the resources of these Islands, in the first place to restore law and order in Ireland, and, in the second place, to render utterly impossible the campaign with the object of secession which is at present in progress in that country. More than that no one can say. I am conscious that the road which still remains to be travelled is long and anxious.

I do not agree with the noble Marquess that every Minister in this House, or every Minister, must be conscious of discredit in their political reputations. I confess that I am quite unconscious of discredit in this matter. I can only say that ever since I became a Minister I have given all the thought, all the capacity, and all the industry of which I am capable to attempt in council to reach some solution of the difficulty, and I know that all my colleagues who sit on that Bench, according to the measure of their capacity and opportunities, have done the same. It is quite true that up to the present we have not succeeded; but a temporary failure does not in the least necessarily mean any political discredit. The degree of political discredit must be measured in relation to the difficulty of the problems which require solution and, I think, in justice to those who have been engaged on this question, who are at least as high and efficient administrative officials as the members of any Government, it ought to be remembered that seldom in the history of the relations between Ireland and England have more formidable problems presented themselves than have arisen as one of the by-products of the war.

Ireland, rightly or wrongly, was excluded from the compulsory scope of our Conscription Acts. Ireland, in the main, chose to hold itself aloof from the great effort made by the Allies in the recent war. The result has been this, that some hundreds of thousands of young men, possessing many gifts which would have rendered them invaluable members of the forces of the Allies, remained in Ireland availing them- selves of a period of unexampled material prosperity, not migrating as so large a proportion of them would have done had it not been for the circumstances of the war. You had operating upon this body the turbulent propaganda of those who in Ireland have always, from the days of the Clan-na-Gael, been open and avowed enemies of this country. Two circumstances rendered this a fruitful and promising field for their endeavours. In the first place the difficulties and accumulated anxieties of this country in the war, and, in the second place, the presence of a turbulent and disaffected population of young men who under normal circumstances would have found themselves in our Armies.

Let us make no mistake as to the actual circumstances which have resulted from the combination of which I have spoken. The noble Marquess does not use language too strong when he speaks of the state of affairs in Ireland as one of "veiled rebellion." There are districts in Ireland in which for certain periods the veil has been of the thinnest possible description. The problem with which we are faced to-day is this. In Southern Ireland we have to deal with a movement which has not come into the open presenting its armed forces to be dealt with by military means, but which, by a continuous succession of cowardly assassinations and murders, is challenging the power of this country to put it down. The difficulty of dealing with an open military insurrection would have been incomparably light in comparison. They murder isolated policemen, burn down and destroy barracks; and no man living can suddenly devise a scheme by which over the whole of that area you can protect every one against outbreaks and outrages of this character.

The problem is one of the most difficult that can be set. If the movement were purely military it could be dealt with at once, and with success. I agree that up to the present the Government has failed, and those whom the Government have placed in authority, to whom they gave their confidence and to whom they still extend their confidence, have failed to deal with this problem. Whether your Lordships would be right in accepting the invitation of the noble Marquess to say that Lord French and the late Chief Secretary, those who have assisted them in the Permanent Service and those who have given attention to this matter in England, all deserve political discredit must depend upon the view your Lordships take as to the difficulties of the problem with which they have to deal. I do not know whether any noble Lords will be prepared to say that had this responsibility been theirs instead of being that of the Government as a whole they could be quite sure they would have met with more complete success. I should be very slow myself to be one of your Lordships to make any such claim, and I presume to offer this opinion with as much knowledge of recent months of Irish history as any one who has not been employed at the Irish Office. The malady is a deep-seated one. It is a fundamental malady. Shallow and superficial diagnosis, and still more hurried and too confident treatment, are not necessarily guarantees of success.

The noble Marquess laid down some principles. He said that punishment should be inevitable, and that its certainty should bring terror to the mind of the malefactor. My Lords, no one, and certainly no one whose duty lies in the direction of administering the law, will quarrel with a view which has very often with universal approval been acclaimed, but we have had to deal with a population in the South of Ireland of which those who are not actually concerned in a guilty conspiracy are themselves intimidated by that conspiracy, and the difficulty has been to obtain evidence which will enable you to estabish the guilt and thereby make the punishment both certain and inevitable. Can anything be more shocking than the case which occurs to all of us, and the tragic features of which will long remain in our memory. An able and most meritorious servant of the Government, in the full light of day, in Dublin, was forcibly taken from a tramcar and murdered before crowds of people, none of whom made or dared to make any protest, and what is perhaps worse, none of whom could be found bold enough to come forward and give evidence in relation to the crime. These things, my Lords, are in process in many parts of Ireland, and the first stage in the reconquest of law and order there is undoubtedly—and I think the noble Marquess meant to suggest it—so to restore the moral of the people as to convince them that the strength of this country is able to deal with the malefactors, and the only way to deal with the malefactors is to detect them and bring them before whatever tribunal may be proper in the circumstances of the case, in a manner which will make their punishment possible. The difficulties of obtaining convictions in these matters are well known to your Lordships, and need no explanation from me.

The second of the principles indicated by the noble Marquess was that the Government should make it quite plain that they would go on step by step and shrink from nothing. I think I have already attempted to show, in the observations with which I began this short speech, that it is our intention to make it plain that the force and resolution of this country are as deeply committed to carry to success our purposes in Ireland as they were deeply and inextricably committed to carry through our purposes in the late war. Plainer language than that it is impossible to use, and I use that language with the authority of all my colleagues.

The noble Marquess, in conclusion, indicated his view, and I agree with him, that it will be necessary to make it plain by every means in our power that it is our intention to protect the innocent, and that it is our determination not to abandon our friends. The observation which I have to make upon that must be made in very guarded language, because the unhappy events of the last few months have demonstrated, unfortunately, that it is not at this moment in our power in all parts of Ireland to protect the innocent from isolated assault, and that it has not always been possible to see that our friends are protected from outrage and even from murder. But the noble Marquess is far too intimately aware of the actual condition of affairs in Ireland at this moment to have expected that it would be in the power of any Minister to give an assurance which would immediately offer both immunity and protection to every friend of ours in Ireland. But this at least I can say, that no one can be more conscious than the Government—few I think can be as conscious, for few have more intimate knowledge—of the debt and obligation of gratitude and of admiration that we owe to those who have sustained their courage and maintained the cause of this country amid hostile and murderous surroundings, like those in the South of Ireland, and most notably the heroic members of the Irish Constabulary.

I have been asked by the noble Marquess whether it is possible for the Government to indicate the steps we propose to take I may tell your Lordships in very general words that considerable military reinforcements have already been sent. It is in preparation to send more. If the troops who are at present in Ireland and those who are now being sent prove insufficient, then more will be sent. The only limit upon the numbers of those who will be sent is the extent and the danger of the crisis as it develops from week to week and month to month, and if the existing military forces of this country are insufficient for the task we should as little hesitate to come to the population of this country and ask them to increase that force as we hesitated in the crisis of the late war. The actual details of the steps which have already been taken, or are being prepared, or are being taken, are tactical matters and relate. to the joint action of the police and the military, to the increase of mobility in the use of both forces, and the noble Marquess would be as unwilling to give undue publicity to their nature as I or any other Minister. While, therefore, I cannot give the information which has been asked, I should have entirely failed to do my duty as a Minister had I not given your Lord ships the clearest possible indication of the determination of the Government to support the Irish Executive in every possible way, and with determination, until their object, which is the restoration of law and order in Ireland, has been completely attained.


My Lords, the Question of the noble Marquess has produced two very interesting speeches, but I am not sure that it has added greatly to the information gained by your Lordships during the debate which was raised by Lord Askwith a day or two ago. The noble Marquess certainly did not exaggerate the situation when he described part of Ireland as being in a condition of veiled rebellion; and the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, rightly as I think, was prepared to alter that epithet into certain parts of Ireland being in a state of positive rebellion. Surely the extraordinary feature of the situation is that His Majesty's Government, rightly or wrongly, find themselves in the position of combining the military occupation of a hostile country with an attempt in that same country to introduce a scheme of political reform, which is devised and designed to please as many of the inhabitants of that country as possible. That is an unprecedented position, and I do not wonder that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack reiterated the difficulties in which His Majesty's Government find themselves owing to the state of affairs in Ireland.

The gravity of the situation has more than one aspect. In the first place there is the dreadful campaign of murder and outrage, which has not been too strongly, characterised either by the noble Marquess or by the noble and learned Lord, a campaign which even to those who have known something of Irish crime in the past is such as almost to fill one with a feeling of despair, owing not merely to the multiplication of the outrages themselves, but to the apparently ever-increasing difficulty of bringing the perpetrators to justice. The noble Marquess behind me, in laying down his two canons of what it was necessary that the Government should do and giving a great deal of good advice to the learned and noble Lord on the Woolsack, spoke of the necessity of convicting criminals in Ireland. That difficulty is very much greater now than it has ever been, but it has always been a big difficulty of Irish government. When the noble Marquess speaks of the certainty of punishment I would remind him that there never has been certainty of punishment in agrarian or political crimes in Ireland. If he were to look back at the figures during what we used to call the bad times he would see that a considerable proportion of agrarian and other crimes remained permanently undetected, but there was then, as has often been observed—I do not want to dwell on the point—the possibility, and in some cases the probability, of obtaining information in many cases, of which perhaps the most notable was that of the Phœnix Park murder. Information was forthcoming then, and conviction followed. Now apparently—and, after all, it must be one of the gravest features of the situation—no such information seems to be forthcoming. That seems to exhibit a degree of intimidation which has had no parallel in the past. I cannot, however, believe that the absence of information is entirely due to intimidation, but is due more to what is in a sense more grave still—namely, that those or the greater part of those who become cognisant of the origin of certain crimes are in such general sympathy with the political objects and aims of the criminals that, even though they may not be in sympathy with the crime, they are not prepared to come forward and denounce those who commit the crime. That is a very grave political situation. We shall all, I am sure, be prepared in these circumstances to extend every possible sympathy and to make every allowance to the Irish Administration for their failure, which I think was the word the noble and learned Lord used, to deal with the whole situation as it exists at present.

The noble Marquess also said that the punishment of criminals should be relentless, and he carefully limited the meaning of that expression. He did not mean that there should be cruel punishment, but that no leniency should be shown in cases of convicted criminals. That, I think, will meet with the general view of your Lordships' House. But the difficulty, of course, in dealing with persons in prison is greatly increased when a considerable proportion of those persons are arrested on suspicion—suspicion which in the minds of the authorities amounts to moral certainty, but for one reason or another is not capable of public proof. It is not easy, however strong the conviction of guilt may be in the minds of the authorities, to treat those people as though they had been convicted in a Court of Law. How far the noble Marquess was right in saying that persons had been released who had been actually found guilty I have not the information which would enable me either to deny or confirm. I did not imagine that any of those persons who were released were undergoing conviction for the perpetration of actual violent crime. Perhaps the noble Marquess knows, and will correct me if I am wrong.


I am afraid I cannot give my noble friend any facts. The facts are in the knowledge of the Government. I do not think the noble and learned Lord denied that convicted criminals were released in consequence of the hunger-strike.


I believe there were a few cases of that kind, but the number released was relatively small in relation to the total number of hunger-strikers. I do not know how far the noble Marquess is right in saying that their release was due to the blunder of some subordinate. The matter is one of some detail with which I confess I find myself unprepared to deal at the Moment.


The point I wanted to make was that if the Irish Government had released people who had been actually convicted they were probably people who had been convicted of seditious speech or of something of that kind, and not people who had been concerned in murders or direct criminal offences of the most serious type. But that I can leave. That is one point of the greatest gravity, this outburst of crime.

There is also the serious fact that the Republican Party in Ireland, or the Sinn Fein Party, or whatever they may be called, have presumed to set up what they describe as a form of Provisional Government of their own. That is a complete defiance of law and order of a totally different kind from that of which we have already spoken. I am bound to say that there—and here I come into conflict, I fear, with the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack—they have a very bad example before them in what was threatened in regard to Ulster six years ago. It was then said that the Provisional Government which it was designed to set up in Ulster would be purely orderly in its conduct, that it would simply take the place of the then Irish Administration conducted by the Government to which I belonged, and that, far from leading to criminal action, it would carry on its affairs with full reliance on propriety and justice. That is what the Sinn Fein Government apparently professes to do in Ireland. To my mind it is a monstrous abortion, but I confess I should have said the same of the intended Provisional Government in Ulster. I do not want to labour that point or to rake up the past, more particularly as, whatever the moral results may have been, no practical results followed.

But, taking the present situation, and agreeing, of course, that the gravest feature of the Irish position is the outburst of crime, at the same time one cannot fail to emphasise the seriousness of this sweeping aside of constituted authority in favour of a totally irresponsible body of administration, which may itself at any time become actively revolutionary and criminal. At the same time, I venture to think that the noble Marquess was wrong—and I am not quite sure that the noble Lord on the Woolsack did not to some extent encourage what I hold to be his error—in dividing Ireland into two bodies of people, one of whom are described by the adjective "loyal," which seems to have become rather a political than a moral term, and all the rest are presumed to be in sympathy with the Revolution. Nobody who knows anything of Ireland can believe that it is possible to make a division of that kind. What always struck me during the years when I knew Irish affairs intimately was the existence of a certain definite hostile majority, and also the existence of a considerable number, not merely confined to the North-East of Ireland, who were devotedly attached to the British connection. Equally striking was the carelessness and indifference of so many of the inhabitants of Ireland to England and everything connected with it, the complete ignorance and carelessness about English affairs, and unfortunately also, to a large extent, to Imperial affairs, but not conceived in a spirit of definite hostility or likely to lead to anything like active rebellion against the British Crown and the British Government. And therefore one cannot help believing that even now in these lurid moments there is a large block of the Irish population which can be turned into a better way, that it is wrong to put down as an active Republican and as a potential rebel every man who is not anxious to sing "God Save the King" in public. There is, and there always has been, that large body in Ireland who have been brought into hostility to the British Government over the Church, or over the land, or over whatever the main question of the moment may be, but who are not to be regarded as being of the same kidney as those leaders of revolution and rebellion, even though—as the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack deplored in terms with which we shall all agree—in cases of the commission of crime they are not prepared to come forward and denounce those whom they regard as lovers of their country and more or less in some sense or another as the apostles of freedom.

One could see that the determination, expressed by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, that the Government would not in any sense weaken in their task so long as the condition of Ireland remained anything like what it is at present, received the approbation of the House. It is quite true that for any Government to speak of weakening when it is a question of putting down crime and outrage is altogether an impossibility. Those who know Sir Nevil Macready are assured that he will bring to bear to his task a steady mind and the results of the remarkable experience which, as an administrator, as a soldier, and as a Chief of Police, he has had. I think that no better selection could have been made.

I cannot sit down without adding my humble testimony to what the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack said with regard to the Irish Constabulary. I was most proud as Lord Lieutenant to be in supreme control over that splendid force. It would be impossible to exaggerate what they have gone through in the last few years; nor, I think, is it possible to overestimate their courage and loyalty and steadiness. So far as they can be supported in the exercise of their semi-military duties on the military side by the employment of troops, I believe it will be all to the good. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that the country will not grudge the employment of soldiers for that purpose. It is, of course, a lamentable necessity; because, to go back to what I said at first, it is hateful that a part of the United Kingdom should be the subject of a definite military occupation, though for the time being it may be a necessity. But the sooner the political aims of His Majesty's Government—amended as they may be in the course of the progress of their measure through both Houses of Parliament—can be brought into definite being, the more hope there Will be of a relief from the present almost intolerable condition of affairs.