HL Deb 27 July 1921 vol 43 cc33-9

My Lords, in accordance with private notice I beg to ask the Lord Chancellor whether the Government are now able to make any statement as to the terms offered to Mr. de Valera, and if not, can they indicate how soon they will be in a position to make such a statement? Perhaps the House will allow me to explain in two sentences. Mr. de Valera had his first interview with the Prime Minister on July 14, and the final interview about a week ago. I had some reason to believe that the Government would be able to make a statement within a few clays of that event. But I judge from what passed in another place yesterday, and from what the noble Marquess the Leader of the House has said this afternoon, that there is no prospect of an answer from Mr. de Valera for several weeks.

That places us in a very difficult position, and that is the reason why I put this Question to the noble and learned Viscount. We were, with great reluctance, willing to postpone addressing ourselves to this subject for a few days. But if we allowed anything like a length of time to elapse, it might be assumed that we approved of the method which the Government have pursued in the solution of this Irish question; the truth being that we feel the deep shame and humiliation which are involved in these negotiations, and that we were only waiting for the statement of the Government to make our position clear to the House and to the country. We are quite willing to wait a few more days, but I do not think we can wait indefinitely; and therefore I venture, very respectfully, to put the Question of which I have given private notice to the noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack.


My Lords, the position is generally as follows. Some days ago, as the noble Marquess has indicated, summarised but, I hope, intelligible proposals were made by His Majesty's Government to the representatives of Southern Ireland, which it was hoped might serve as a basis for reconciliation and for peace. If those terms are accepted, it will, of course, be necessary to embody them in the form of an Act of Parliament, and it will be necessary for both Houses to discuss them in that form. It may be convenient and necessary to anticipate such discussion. The noble Marquess more than once in his speech puzzled me a little by saying that "we" feel that there is a great shame involved in these negotiations, and generally in the employment of denunciatory implications tacked upon the use of the first person plural. I do not know precisely whom the noble Marquess means to indicate when lie says"we "; but I make it very plain that, so far as I am concerned, and so far as all my Unionist colleagues, who formerly, at least, belonged to the same Party as the noble Marquess, are concerned, we are utterly unconscious of any shame in the discussions which we have undertaken or in the proposals which we have made.

If these proposals are accepted, I have made it plain that we shall not in any way be anxious to postpone a discussion of the matters indicated by Lord Salisbury, and to sustain the weight of the indictment which he has indicated it is his ardent desire to put forward. I may go, and perhaps I ought to go, even further, and say that if, on the hypothesis that these proposals are accepted, we do recommend them for the adoption of both Houses of Parliament, we shall not only welcome, but we shall challenge, criticism of the nature indicated by the noble Marquess, and I, for one, most confidently avow that we shall not be found incapable of meeting even so formidable a menace. If, on the other hand, these proposals are not accepted by those to whom they are addressed, it will none the less be necessary that Parliament and the country should be acquainted with the nature and the terms of the proposals which we have addressed to the representatives of Southern Ireland, and we shall undoubtedly select an early opportunity so soon as that contingency has declared itself, of making them known. Here, equally, we should be prepared to meet the same indictment, if the noble Marquess, on the hypothesis that the attempt has failed, thinks it worth while to make that indictment.

The noble Marquess has asked me to tell him with what precision I can when we shall be in a position to make this statement. I am not aware of anything that has passed between the representatives of Southern Ireland and the Government which would have led me to suppose that many or several weeks—I forget the exact phrase—would elapse before a conclusion, which could be stated and explained, had been reached by the other Parties to these negotiations. If there be some fact upon which that inference can be based, it is unknown to me, and my own anticipation is, as it was when I last spoke on this subject, that we may reasonably hope that we shall receive some expression of opinion upon this offer from those to whom it has been addressed, before Parliament separates. I am bound to add this. The matters dealt with in this proposal are of very high consequence. The noble Marquess himself discerns in them the material for much animated controversy and discussion, and much 'difference of opinion in this country. I think he is probably right. The matters which are contained in this proposal will unquestionably be much discussed. Our position as a Government in relation to them is, of course, plain. If they be accepted elsewhere, we shall recommend them to Parliament as our proposals. We shall either meet with the necessary support for them in Parliament, or we shall fail. If we fail, it will naturally be proper for us to consider whether the necessary support is likely to be forthcoming elsewhere.

But I have not ignored, and, so far as I know, none of my colleagues has ignored, the complexity of these discussions, or the importance of the decisions that will be required to be taken. Is it not equally obvious that those who are considering them upon the other side of the Channel are confronted with difficulties at least as grave, with considerations at least as various, and that they have persons to consult whose views, whose concurrence, or whose dissent, must obviously be most carefully considered by them? Whatever view any member of this House may be inclined to take as to the attitude, for which the Government accept the fullest responsibility, involved in undertaking these discussions at all, I should be extremely surprised if the noble Marquess met with a great deal of support in an attempt to complain—if he were disposed to make it—that the representatives of Southern Ireland took some weeks to consider whether they were prepared to accept as a basis for a statutory b arrangement the proposals which His Majesty's Government have made.

Lord Salisbury has spoken of the shame which he and others feel in the fact that these negotiations have been undertaken at all. In such matters it is quite impossible for one individual even to attempt criticism of the feelings which come into the mind of another individual, because they are beyond anybody's control. We must support that charge if -and when it is preferred. But, postponing that for the moment, what exactly is the disadvantage and the mischief that the interval which has been interposed has brought to the country? Each day, before these negotiations were undertaken, it was possible to read in the papers that some devoted public servant, either a civil servant or a member of the various volunteer forces, or a soldier of the Crown, had been murdered in circumstances as to which I have never concealed my opinion in this House—an opinion which, I believe, is shared by your Lordships. Each day contained also the distressing records of incalculable material damage, which these unhappy dissensions and acts of illegal violence had occasioned.

While I admit fully that a moral question will require and will receive discussion, upon the course which we have adopted in undertaking these negotiations at. all, I cannot see that there is any valid reason why any noble Lord should grudge the days which are given to the attempt to see whether a solution can be reached—days which are, happily, free from those outrages which have distressed your Lordships and alarmed and distressed the whole country. I cannot answer in point of date the question of the noble Marquess, further than to say that at the first possible moment that information can be given to him and to the House it will be so given, and that if the noble Marquess should, as I think unhappily, find it his duty to challenge discussion on the other issues at an early date, that is a challenge which will certainly be accepted at the earliest possible moment by His Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I have no desire to prolong the debate upon the subject raised by the noble Marquess and replied to by the noble and learned Viscount. I merely desire to clear my own mind upon one matter which the reply of the noble and. learned Viscount seemed to me to place in a somewhat new aspect had understood that the negotiations which had taken place so far were strictly preliminary negotiations, in order to discover whether a basis existed upon which a detailed Conference could take place between His Majesty's Government and the representatives of Southern Ireland, with a view to arriving at a real agreement. From the noble and learned Viscount's speech it seemed as though matters had gone somewhat further—namely, that the Government had actually suggested definite terms which would be either accepted or refused by Mr. de Valera and his colleagues, and that the matter had therefore reached a far more advanced stage than most of us had been prepared to suppose. Judging by recollection of the statement that was made by Mr. de Valera, or on his behalf, I had certainly gained the impression that the negotiations had not gone further than the stage which I have indicated—namely, that there had been a general discussion on bases which would lead, if those bases were accepted, to further negotiations, which might occupy a considerable period of time. Perhaps the noble and learned Viscount will be able to tell me whether my reading of what he said is correct.

Before I sit down I should like to say this. My noble friend, Lord Salisbury, when discussing the business of the House, stated that he and I are by no means always in agreement on all subjects under discussion in your Lordships' House. We are in a condition of remarkable unanimity over the question of the business of your Lordships' House, but in this matter we are not likely to see so completely eye to eye, and I think I ought to say that, so far as I am acquainted with the circumstances at present; and so far as one has been able to gather them from the necessarily meagre reports that we have received, I cannot see that His Majesty's Government have in any sense humiliated themselves by entering on and pursuing these negotiations with those who, after all, do speak for the great majority of Southern Irishmen; and, quite apart from the important fact mentioned by the noble and learned Viscount, that at any rate for the time being an astonishing condition of tranquillity has resulted in Ireland from these negotiations, on the general merits, and in view of the paramount necessity of pacifying Ireland, so far as I know the facts I am only disposed to congratulate His Majesty's Government on the step that they have taken.


My Lords, I ask the pardon of your Lordships for intruding again, only for a second, I do not want to pursue the matter any further for the present, beyond saying that we must all approach the subject with a feeling of the deepest responsibility, and therefore, in giving notice, as I do now, that on Wednesday next I shall call attention to the negotiations between His Majesty's Government and Mr. de Valera and move a Resolution, I desire to say that I should be anxious not to stand upon any ceremony in the matter, and that if representations were made to me, from any quarter of the House, on the subject, I should give those representations my most earnest consideration. But as at present advised, I propose to move that Resolution on Wednesday next.


My Lords, I take notice on behalf of His Majesty's Government of the intention which the noble Marquess had just conveyed to the House. With reference to the point made by Lord Crewe, the divergence, or the apparent divergence, indicated by him is, I think, a verbal one. He is quite right in supposing that certain heads of possible agreement or concessions were submitted, or were offered, to Mr. de Valera and his associates on their recent visit to this country. It is, of course, obvious that no document dealing with matters so delicate could be complete; in other words, everybody contemplated that unless those proposals were rejected at once further discussion would be necessary. They may be called conferences, or may be given a less formal term, but other discussions will undoubtedly prove to be necessary.

The noble Marquess, Lord Crewe, said that he was not aware that anything so formal as an offer had been made. Without in any way making public that which could, from any conceivable point of view, react unfavourably on the situation, I may say that there is in existence, and there has been communicated to the representatives of Southern Ireland, a document which has received the sanction of the Cabinet, and which does, in substance, make it plain to them what are the proposals for which His Majesty's Government are willing to undertake responsibility and to place before Parliament. It would have been, of course, quite useless to discuss even what the noble Marquess spoke of as a basis of a further conference unless you had made known to those with whom you were discussing the general nature of that which you were prepared to give.


I am extremely obliged to the noble and learned Viscount. My only fear was that what he said might conceivably be taken—and he has explained wrongly taken—as though certain definite terms to take or leave had been presented to the representatives of Southern Ireland. I understand that is not the case.


That is not the case.