§ LORD ORANMORE AND BROWNE had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government whether it is their intention to pass into law during the present session the promised Irish Land Bill; and to move for Papers.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (LORD BIRKENHEAD)
My Lords, before the noble Lord rises, I do not know whether it would be inconvenient for me to ascertain his view upon a point to which I will shortly call his attention. The matter which the noble Lord desires to raise is well known to your Lordships. He can support that which he urges by very powerful argument, and I realise plainly that the matter must be argumentatively discussed in this House at an early date. The consideration which at this moment I would suggest to him is the following. As he knows, at the present moment there are pending arrangements which may have the result of bringing to London representatives of the Northern and Southern Parliaments. I carefully guard myself from stating an expectation in more sanguine terms than those which I have used. If such discussion is to take place, I should be unwilling that any observations I might have to make to the noble Lord should be made until the discussion has taken place. Because whether it be likely or whether it be unlikely, if the discussions assume a favourable complexion it is quite obvious that not only this matter but many other 847 matters, well known to the noble Lord and his friends and affecting the whole field of finance, would be profoundly modified.
I hope the noble Lord will understand that I am not really going so far as to make any appeal to him in the matter. It is in his hands and I am perfectly prepared to make such guarded answer— and it will be extremely guarded— as the nature of the circumstances; as I understand them, renders proper, if he wishes it. But, inasmuch as we shall probably know in about a week exactly where we stand in relation to the matters which I have indicated, I should have suggested to the noble Lord, unless it is personally inconvenient to him and his friends, that on the whole the balance of advantage would lie in the direction of a short postponement, such as I have indicated. If the noble Lord and his friends find it inconvenient to be here I have nothing more to say at this moment.
LORD ORANMORE AND BROWNE
My Lords, it is very difficult to resist such an appeal as has been made to me by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, particularly as I know the deep interest he takes in Ireland and the friendliness which he has so often shown to those of your Lordships who come from Ireland, when we have had occasion to approach him on the subject. At the same time, I cannot help thinking that this is not a subject which ought to be involved in any of the negotiations which are to take place between the Government and the representatives of Northern or Southern opinion in Ireland. I desired to submit to the House that this was a matter to which the Government were pledged; that unless the pledge was carried out, or a promise was made that it would he carried out, the Government would be in a less favourable position to approach the negotiations which are in view.
After the appeal of the noble and learned Lord, I think I had better confine my remarks within as small a compass as possible. I had intended bringing forward proof of the promises which were made by the Prime Minister, by Mr. Bonar Law while Leader of the House of Commons, by Mr. Macpherson when he was Chief Secretary for Ireland and introduced the Bill, and by the noble and learned Lord himself. Although, in the circumstances, I do not intend to elaborate the arguments I 848 intended to bring forward, I think it would be of the greatest assistance to those who feel as I do if even the guarded answer were given which the noble and learned Lord says lie is prepared to make.
Perhaps lie scarcely recognises the feeling in Ireland on this matter. The Government have often said— it has been quoted over and over again— when it has been suggested that negotiations should take place with regard to a settlement of the Irish question, "How can we come to an arrangement? How do we know that you, or anybody else with whom we speak, may be able to deliver the goods?" That is not the situation in Ireland. People in Ireland know perfectly well who can deliver the goods. But they say that they do not believe the Government are prepared to deliver the goods; that if they were to make a bargain with the Government they could not be sure that the bargain would be carried out. If the hoped-for conference takes place and the representatives of the Government are able to approach the other side and show that the word of the Government is as good as their bond, their position will be much stronger than any tactical advantage they may obtain from the fact that this matter is still sub judice and may be used as a basis of negotiations, will make it.
The position in Ireland in regard to this question is extremely critical. I do not know whether the Lord Chancellor is aware of the fact, hut an agitation is rising against the payment of rent— not of annuities so much as rent— in the case of tenants who have not purchased. And if a "No Rent" campaign is added to the present difficulties the position will be more serious than it is even now. The position is absolutely changed since last week, when the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack made a speech which caused me the greatest dismay and I might almost say feelings of despair, as I listened to it. We now know that the position is very different. But, in view of the appeal of the noble and learned Lord, I will say no more at the moment, though I think I must ask the Question without details, in the hope that the Government may be able to make a reply which will give us some reason to believe that they do not intend to repudiate their pledges.
THE EARL OF MAYO
My Lords, I should like to say something with regard 849 to what the Lord Chancellor said. He said that the field of finance might be modified. I hope it will be modified, and I understand what that means in view of the deliberations which I hope will end favourably. But that does not absolve the Government from their promise to bring in a Bill to settle the Irish land question. And although the finances may be modified in Ireland, hundreds of landlords and tenants who did not settle up under the Wyndham Act, which was killed by the Birrell Act, brought in by Lord Crewe in this House, are waiting for the Bill. Although that field of finance, as the Lord Chancellor said, might be modified, that will not satisfy our aspirations for a settlement of our land question. This is, indeed, a very serious question, and no matter what arrangements may be made for giving us better financial conditions at this new meeting which is about to take place, I hope the Government will not ride off from their responsibilities after having promised this Land Bill. The landlords and tenants of Ireland are waiting for the Bill, and they feel that things are getting more serious with regard to it. I have warned the Government, and I hope the conference will bring forth all the good things that my friends and I would wish it to do.
THE EARL OF MEATH
My Lords, although I do not see eye to eye with some of your Lordships who come from Ireland in regard to the Irish question, I am going to support the noble Lord, Lord Oranmore and Browne, because I think the position of His Majesty's Government would be greatly strengthened if some declaration were made that. the British Government are willing to adhere to their words, over and over again spoken, and that this Irish Land Bill is intended to be passed, whether or not negotiations are happily concluded between the two Parties. I therefore, briefly but earnestly, add my appeal to the noble and learned Lord to give us, as far as he possibly can, some expression of hope at all events that the British Government intend to show clearly to the Irish people that they are not going to play fast and loose with their words.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
My Lords, the noble Lord who asked the Question certainly assented in the spirit, if not in the letter; to the suggestion I was bold enough to make to him, but he enlarged 850 the subject of the debate a little by making some reference to the effects produced upon his mind by some observations which I made in this House a week or so ago. I am extremely sorry if the: effect of that speech was to convey either dismay or despair to the mind of the noble Lord or to any of his friends. I may perhaps, without trespassing very gravely upon any rule of order, as the noble Lord has introduced this topic, say that there really was no reason why that which I said should have occasioned to him either dismay or despair, because the speech, from first to last, contained nothing which either I or the Prime Minister had not said on previous occasions. I said, and say plainly, that it was, and is, the policy of the Government not to put forward in positive form financial proposals which do not recommend themselves upon their merits to the Government, as long as they have not the slightest reason for supposing that the putting forward of those proposals will in any way modify the actual situation in Ireland. I made it plain that the information which the Government had of the situation in Ireland was such as to convince them that the putting forward of any such financial proposal at this stage would not in any way favourably modify that situation. That was, and is, the policy of the Government.
The noble Lord added that they now knew that the policy of the Government was different. Give me leave to assure the noble Lord that he is entirely wrong. If he had done me the honour to follow closely what I said, he would have noticed that in the course of that speech I made two observations. I insisted, in the first place, that the only possible hope in our judgment of a fruitful escape from our difficulties lay in such a resumption of the negotiations between the representatives of the North and the representatives of the South as was contemplated in the very structure and spirit of the Home Rule Act. So much I made perfectly plain, and I had in my mind at that time— though I was not in a position, or authorised, to anticipate in detail that which has happened— that something of the kind which has occurred might happen; and, in the second place, I was most careful to point out, as being the intention and the attitude of the Government, that, while they might disapprove of many financial proposals; they were hardly prepared to assign a limit (before discussion) to the concessions which 851 they might be prepared to make if those with whom they were dealing were in a position to promise peace as the result of the negotiations. If the noble Lord will be good enough to submit himself to the weariness of reading in the OFFICIAL REPORT the speech that I made he will find that those two points were made in the plainest manner possible, and I am convinced that a perusal of that speech will at least satisfy him, or anyone who was aware of the declared policy of the Government, that there is cause neither for dismay nor despair.
I have been betrayed into irrelevance, for which I ask your Lordships to forgive me, but, of course, the noble Lord himself led me on to that path. As to the Question of the noble Lord, I will answer it explicitly and in a sentence. It is not the intention of the Government to introduce the Bill referred to in the Question in the course of what is left of the present session. I suggest to the noble Lord that he should postpone discussion in detail, first, on that decision, and secondly, on the prospects of suggesting a Bill in the actual situation that we have now in Ireland. I still think that I shall be well advised to content myself, as I am entitled to content myself, with shortly answering, as I have answered with a negative, the Question the noble Lord puts to me, but I ought I think, out of courtesy to him, to add one or two very short observations upon the point.
It is true that the proposals which are concerned with Irish land stand on an entirely different footing to those general financial considerations which everybody recognises must be the subject of discussion before any final solution is likely to be reached. The Irish land proposals affect, of course, primarily, the Irish landowner. They also, however, affect in a very particular and evident manner, the Irish tenants. It is not the case that direct subventions from the Treasury in this country are called for, as they are in many financial proposals that are pressed upon us. But it is none the less the case in this matter, as in others, that the contingent financial responsibility which is undertaken by the Treasury on behalf of the taxpayers of this country is considerable.
I suggest to the noble Lord that he should place this Question for fuller debate upon the Paper in a week or ten days' time, when we shall know exactly what the result is of the present approach in this matter.
852 The Question will undoubtedly require discussion in the light of the changed conditions in Ireland since I and others last spoke upon the subject. I do not wish to enlarge upon it at the moment for reasons which the House will readily conjecture, and if the noble Lord adopts the course which I have suggested as a convenient one, I will at least give him the assurance that there will be no further request for any postponement, and that I will make to him a statement of the policy and intentions of the Government which will not in any way be lacking in completeness.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords, it probably will be convenient to follow the course which has been suggested by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, and not to take this discussion at any length on the present occasion, but the observations which the noble and learned Lord has made, do, I think, call for one or two words. He spoke with customary modesty of the weariness which would befall noble Lords if they were to refresh their memories by reading the important speech he delivered a few nights ago in this House. I am sure that no such feeling would befall any noble Lord in consequence of such a perusal; and I speak with all the more confidence because I have carefully read it within a brief period of the present moment. I confess that the reading of that speech did not leave upon my mind exactly the impression which the noble and learned Lord has stated but which, no doubt, is what he must have intended. On the contrary, although there are several passages in it which do conform to what he has said, there are also passages in which he explained that what is called fiscal autonomy in Ireland was inconsistent with the fiscal arrangements of this country, and he did not believe any one would consent to them. That is the impression which a careful perusal of his speech left on my mind. I do not think it would be right or proper, certainly not in order, for me to pursue the matter further now.
With reference to the Question before us, I entirely agree with Lord Oranmore and Browne that land purchase urgently requires to be dealt with, because of the engagements of the Government and the passage of the Government of Ireland Act last year. It may be that that Act is going to be modified. I do not want to 853 express any opinion on that matter, and I do not want to convey the impression as to what opinion I should form, one way or the other, of the comings and goings between various Parties. This is not the proper occasion on which to do so. But this I will say: the Home Rule Act being on the Statute Book, the passage into law of a Land Purchase Bill is a matter of urgency, and the Government are not absolved from their responsibilities in the matter by the possibility of further negotiations and modifications in the Government of Ireland Act. Therefore, I hope, when this matter is brought before your Lordships again, that the Government will be able to fulfil, in the spirit and the letter, the policy they have announced to Parliament.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR
To avoid any misunderstanding, I will make it quite plain that I adhere to every word I said on the subject of fiscal autonomy, maintaining the description of fiscal autonomy which was contained in my speech. I am not aware of anything in the observations I made then which I have to correct or modify.
LORD ORANMORE AND BROWNE
After the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, I propose to act upon his advice and put down the Question for a later date. I could reply to some of the criticisms he has made in regard to the Land Purchase Bill, but in the circumstances it would not be proper for me to do so. I think the House will agree that the Question has not been asked in vain, as it has elicited from the noble and learned Lord an interesting statement which has shed some gleams of light on what appeared to many of us to be the appalling gloom which pervaded his speech of last week. When the Question is again raised I hope that the negotiations now in progress may be reaching a favourahle conclusion.