HL Deb 14 February 1922 vol 49 cc132-43

THE EARL OF MAYO rose to ask His Majesty's Government when the arms given up to the military in Ireland, and to the Royal Irish Constabulary, are likely to be returned to their respective owners. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am not going to speak about this matter, but I should like to read a letter which I have received from a noble Lord, who is a member of this House. I do not wish to mention his name, but I will hand the letter to the Lord Chancellor after I have read it. The letter is as follows— My dear Mayo,—I see you have a Question down in the House about the return of guns handed to the police. About a fortnight ago a notice appeared in our local Press, saying that the military in Wexford were prepared to return all guns. I did not apply for mine immediately, as I had heard that they were being stolen from those who had got them, so I thought they would be safer where they were. But on Saturday I got word that unless I took them— I hope your Lordships will mark this— away at once they would be handed over to the Irish Republican Army. So I hired a motor on Sunday morning, there not being any Sunday trains on this line, and went off to Wexford, thirty miles, taking with me my keeper. I found my guns, which were in cases, all right, but my keeper's gun was not there. The only guns left were a heap of rusty single-barrelled muzzleloaders. I hear of several people complaining that they had been unable to get their own guns. It seems that people went in and helped themselves to any guns they fancied. A rook rifle of mine was missing, and the officer present offered another, which I declined. I got safely home with mine, but in many cases roughs in the streets of Wexford took them away from those who had got them, and I was told that at fast eighty had been stolen in that way. The above guns were those handed in in 1920 and 1921. I do not know where those handed in in 1918 and 1919 are, but I believe they were sent to the Curragh, and elsewhere. I inquired at the police barracks in Gorey about those handed in in 1918 and 1919, and they could not tell me how I could get them. If one has to go over the whole country looking for guns handed in in 1918–19 it will entail great expense. I have been told, but I cannot say if correctly, that in many cases the soldiers in charge of the guns have sold them, and that the confusion about handing over is a put-up job. I know of one case in which guns have been borrowed from the barracks for the purpose of shooting, and I expect that has been done in many cases. Any amount of raiding has been going on. That is the condition in which we live in Ireland. Our guns are taken from us and we ask to get them back, but we do not. We want to get back arms which carry bullets, which are really useful things if you are attacked. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.


My Lords, the noble Earl can hardly expect that I should be prepared to reply in detail to the complaint contained in a letter which I have not previously seen. I have no doubt that irregularities have taken place in different parts of the country in existing circumstances. The matter which is specifically raised in the Question of the noble Earl is now under consideration by the Provisional Government and the British authorities in Ireland, and it is hoped that a decision will be reached in the course of a few days. I think the noble Earl will see, as all of us must see, that the conditions ruling at this moment in Ireland are perhaps not such as to make this one of the most pleasant questions, bat the noble Earl will allow me to reply in greater precision to one suggestion contained in the letter of his correspondent, and that was that some of these guns have been handed over to the Irish Republican Army.


No, there was a threat that if he did not come and fetch them they would be handed over.


Very well, there was a threat that they would be handed over. I am in some hopes that I may relieve the immediate pressure of that apprehension in the mind of the correspondent of the noble Earl, if I inform him that there has been, perhaps, more exaggeration in relation to the handing over of arms to the Provisional Government than in relation to almost any other topic, in days in which exaggeration has not been lacking. There was a small force, entirely attached to the Provisional Government and to the enforcement of the Treaty, which it was desired to render especially efficient, and two hundred rifles only have been handed over by this Government to the Provisional Government for the use of this particular body. On the strength of this, which is the only extent to which any arms at all, according to my official information, have been handed over, distorted and exaggerated stories have been circulated to the effect that every person who is under arms in any part of Ireland against those who are supporting the Treaty, or supporting the maintenance of order in Ireland as a whole, is armed with weapons handed over by the British Government.

I am very glad that the Question of the noble Earl has given me an opportunity of placing this matter in at least its proper proportion. If convenient to the House, although it does not arise directly out of the question which is asked me, I should like, and am prepared, to make a somewhat fuller statement as to the situation in Ireland. The first anxiety, I think, must be as to the state of affairs in Belfast, and a telegram was received this afternoon, about three o'clock, from the Prime Minister of Ulster, with which it would be right that the House should be made acquainted. It is in the following terms— Replying to your wire the greatest tension has existed in Belfast since the kidnapping of loyalists and the murderous attack on the police at Clones station on Saturday last. The city had been quiet for a considerable time and the present outbreak began by some shooting in Wall Street, a mixed locality, on Sunday last. The number of civilian casualties officially reported during the course of yesterday was seven killed and twenty-five wounded. In addition there were wounded one soldier, one member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and three special constables. Further reports of cases of wounding are now corning in. The trouble yesterday began with the firing on workers, all loyalists, going to their work at Combe Harbours, the firing coming from a Sinn Fein locality in Conlin Street. Further regrettable incidents occurred later in the day, including the indiscriminate throwing of bombs over a wall into Weaver Street, a Sinn Fein area, which resulted in the death of two children and the wounding of fourteen others. These outrages are greatly deplored by my Government, especially the latter dastardly deed, involving the lives of children. The Minister of Home Affairs is in constant consultation with the Lord Mayor, the military, and the Constabulary authorities regarding steps to be taken to deal with the situation, which is gravely aggravated by the intense excitement which prevails in Northern Ireland owing to the failure of the British Government to return the kidnapped prisoners. Have just learnt that a most respectable caretaker of an Orange lodge was shot this morning. Such is the latest telegram which has been received in relation to the actual condition of affairs in Belfast.

But it is proper that your Lordships should quite plainly understand that a situation of extraordinary anxiety, and of grave potential danger, exists upon the frontier which divides the area subject to the Government of Northern Ireland from the territory assigned under the Treaty to the Free State. It is always difficult to define with complete accuracy circumstances which in these tragic developments assume decisive importance. What actually happened in the historical sequence was, so far as I can understand, that the football team which was arrested a month ago, ostensibly proposing to play a football match in Derry, was discovered with arms in its possession—revolvers. We have been unable to secure any confirmation of the statement, at one time made, that the members of the team were, or any member of the team was, carrying bombs; and it would appear to be established that a football match was in fact arranged, and that several of the persons who composed the parties were well-known football players in the district under consideration. They were, however, arrested by the Government of Northern Ireland, acting entirely within its legal powers, on the charge of carrying arms.

It is understood that no objection to bail would be raised by the Government of Northern Ireland, and it is also understood that that Government, taking, I think wisely, a lenient view of the situation, would not be unwilling to assent to the entering of a nolle prosequi in the case of the prisoners when the matter in due course was returned to the Assizes. But this step, for which I think I have made it quite clear that I do not in the slightest degree criticise the conduct of the Northern Government, undoubtedly occasioned very great resentment in Monaghan, because it happened that several members of the Staff of the Irish Republican Army in Monaghan were members of the football team that was arrested, and has been already detained, in the circumstances which I have indicated, for one month in custody in Northern Ireland.

When we attempt to examine the situation as a whole it is very important that we should clearly appreciate what is the position, and what are the actual effective powers of the Provisional Government. The Provisional Government is, so far as I know, in operation. Almost unique in the varied history of the British Empire is the fact that the limitations upon its powers are, indeed, more evident than those powers themselves. The extent to which it is handicapped and crippled in the attempt to retain and restore order could hardly be exaggerated. At the present time it is, according to my information, broadly true to say that the Provisional Government receives the support and the allegiance of far the larger part of the Irish Republican Army, but there are undoubtedly areas, and important areas, in which the Irish Republican Army has not acceded to the cause of the Provisional Government, and will not at this moment, through its principal officers, receive or obey the instructions of that Government

Whether the cause was or was not—information does not enable me to analyse it so closely—indignation among the members of the Irish Republican Army at the detention for a month, in the circumstances which I have explained, of several officers, including the principal officer on their Staff, I cannot inform your Lordships, because I do not know; but certainly this is the fact, that for the last few weeks the Monaghan branch of the Irish Republican Army has been entirely out of hand, and has refused to obey the directions of the Provisional Government. And I have, I think, made it plain that the Provisional Government is very lacking, in the existing circumstances, in the means of making its orders effective upon a recalcitrant minority in any part of the country. But I am in a position to tell your Lordships that the very greatest efforts have been made, up to the present unhappily unsuccessfully, to obtain the return of those who, as the result of a detestable outrage, were taken from the frontiers of Northern Ireland, and have been illegally and improperly held in custody since.

A telegram upon that subject has been received to-day from Dublin informing the Government here that Mr. Collins is crossing to-night to see members of His Majesty's Government in London, and Mr. Collins is of opinion that he is now in a position to say where a number of the captives from the North are being kept, and that he will take immediate steps—steps which will be effective, in his belief—to secure the release of them as soon as possible. He will send later information upon this point. I hope I have made it plain that I do not attempt to pass any unfavourable judgment upon what is conceived by those who have been guilty of this abominable act in Ireland to be their provocation—the one act on the part of the Government of Northern Ireland. Whether it was worth while or not may be the subject of considerable argument; but that it was within their legal rights is unquestionable. Whether in all the circumstances it was judicious or not, I do not enquire. But it was a legal right and it must be judged upon that standard.

I have no doubt whatever that, under extraordinary difficulties, the Provisional Government has done its best to impress its will upon a section of their forces which, in plain truth, is almost in mutiny. I think we should make a great mistake if, in these anxious moments when so much may happen in an hour or a night, we under-rated or under-stated the difficulties in which the Provisional Government finds itself. There is hardly any single part in the whole range of that which constitutes executive and administrative authority which it can pursue without some interruption due to the transient and irregular circumstances in which it holds its powers.

I read to-day, as many of your Lordships read, a cablegram which was sent by Mr. Collins to an organiser in America of the most extreme Irish forces there, a gentleman who, consistently with his whole past, did not hesitate to fling the whole of his forces in America upon the side of Mr. de Valera the moment he understood that Mr. de Valera was assuming the anti-British side in this bitter quarrel. The terms of that communication are, I think, deserving of the attention of your Lordships, because if it be sincerely phrased—and I have no reason to impeach its sincerity—it is plain that Mr. Collins is apprehensive at this moment that an attempt may be made by violence in Ireland, by those who wish to wreck the Treaty and such hope of peace as it still presents, to destroy the Provisional Government by seducing from it the armed forces, or the partially armed forces, upon whom, if it conies to a trial of strength, it must in the last resort depend. I am quite clear that in the situation and the difficulties in which we all find ourselves, it is our duty, and it is no doubt the obvious dictate of policy, that we should as far as our commitments elsewhere—our honourable obligations to the North for instance—permit, support those men in Ireland who, under difficulties which are inconceivable to us here in England, are nevertheless making an honest and in the main a courageous attempt to carry out that instrument to which they have set their hands.

We have not, indeed, found it permissible or wise to continue the evacuation of Irish troops, and I will tell your Lordships, very shortly, the grounds of the decision which we reached. We came to the conclusion that while there was this extraordinary tension existing on the boundaries of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, while there were so many who were entitled and bound to look to us as the supreme and only refuge if matters deteriorated into further disorder and perhaps into anarchy, we should not be justified in continuing the evacuation of troops until prospects appeared to be brighter. The course we have taken, therefore, is to stop immediately—and it will not be resumed until the prospect clears—the evacuation of troops.

We have at the same time suggested, I think in identical telegrams, to Sir James Craig and Mr. Collins that on the borderland, the debatable land, where the centre of unrest at this moment exists, they should appoint liaison officers, that the liaison officers on the Free State side of the line should be composed of officers in the British Army, and that a corresponding selection should be made from the armed forces on the other side, who should, upon the side of Northern Ireland, keep in constant touch and satisfy the intelligent and moderate persons among their opponents that steps which may be and possibly are entirely defensive on each side should not be construed, by very intelligible alarm, into vast offensive preparations. We had hoped that it would have been possible at a time so grave for the discussions to have been resumed between Sir James Craig and Mr. Collins in person. I am still not without hope that it may be possible at an early date for such a discussion to take place.

Your Lordships will, I think, expect that I should say a word upon another subject, and that is in reference to what is described as the Clones murders. That incident formed the subject of a Question which the noble and learned Lord (*Lord Carson), whose indisposition and absence to-day I very much regret, had asked me, but, if I have the indulgence of the House to deal with the matter very shortly, I think his absence ought not to prevent the House being apprised of the latest information which we have upon that point. As the House is aware, Clones is upon the Irish Free State side of the boundary. As I understand the railway geography of the place, there is a loop-line there which offers two alternative routes, one of which goes through the Irish Free State territory. These police—police of the Northern Government—were armed, and on Irish Free State territory.

I am not even criticising the course of the action that was taken. Under conditions anything like the normal it would be an entirely prudent proceeding upon their part, but of course in the eyes of their bitter opponents at a moment of exceptional mutual heat, it could be technically represented as the same kind of thing as the mutineers did when they went with arms to Delhi. However that may be, there is an acute conflict of evidence as to what *Lord Carson's Question was as follows:—To ask His Majesty's Government whether the British subjects recently kidnapped in Northern Ireland have been released; and, if not, what steps His Majesty's Government intends to take to procure their release; and also if any statement can be made as to the recent murders of police at Clones railway station; and whether any of the murderers have been arrested. took place. Having duties to discharge which make it very necessary for me to suspend judgment constantly until a whole case is discussed and established, far be it from me to pronounce a conclusion upon one side or the other.

Upon that point a telegram has been received from Mr. Collins which I think your Lordships would like to hear— Owing to engagements which took place between Class A and B specials in Fermanagh and Tyrone and volunteers in County Monaghan the officer in charge of volunteers in Clones was given to understand that no Special Constabulary would come across the Six County border. On the arrival of the six o'clock train from Belfast it was reported to Divisional Commandant Fitzpatrick at his headquarters that there was a number of Special Constabulary or Royal Irish Constabulary on the platform of the Clones station. He immediately motored to the station taking with him six or seven men. When he got to the platform he saw a policeman with a revolver in his hand. The Commandant called on the policeman to put up his hands which the policeman did. Commandant Fitzpatrick's intention was to discover what exactly this force of constabulary was doing in this area without his knowledge. If they were a force acting under recognised orders they would not be molested in any way and would be allowed to proceed by simply answering the necessary questions or producing their official warrant for the journey. While Commandant Fitzpatrick was interrogating the policeman he was shot dead by a Special Constable from a carriage behind. Immediately this happened Commandant Fitzpatrick's comrades opened fire on the carriage killing four Ulster Specials and wounding a number—some seriously. The fire was returned by the Specials and the engagement lasted about twenty minutes. If the Special Constabulary had not shot Commandant Fitzpatrick there would have been no firing by our men, and it is absolutely certain that no lives would have been lost. The responsibility entirely rests with the people who did not inform our liaison officer of the journey. The wounded specials were brought to a private house in Clones for treatment and yesterday they were given safe conduct through County Monaghan to Enniskillen. Five Special Constabulary have been detained as an inquiry will be held regarding the death of Commandant Fitzpatrick. The situation in Clones is well in hand, but information has been received that some of your British transport is being mobilised for an attack on our people in County Monaghan. I have read from this account upon that side only to show your Lordships that, at any rate, there is a conflict of fact. I should read the statement on the other side, except that it has been very widely advertised, and naturally excited very great indignation, and I cannot pretend to reach a conclusion as to whether or not there has been one of those tragic misunderstandings which sometimes happen in cases of this kind, or whether the evidence on the other side is unreliable. I have not the material before me to give an opinion, and I can only say that it is proper and natural that the matter should be made the subject of very close inquiry.

I ought, I think, to deal with another episode, and that is the murder of an unhappy young British officer, Lieutenant Wogan Browne. He was murdered in atrocious circumstances, and the moment the attention of the Government was directed to it a complaint, couched in language of suitable indignation, was made to Mr. Collins, and he has sent the following telegram:— With reference to concluding part of your wire of 11th instant about murder of Lieut. Wogan Browne, have just been informed by telephone that we have captured three of those responsible for the attack. Every one, civilian and soldier, has co-operated in tracking down these responsible for that abominable action. You may rely upon it that those whom we can prove guilty will be suitably dealt with. I think in that connection that we ought to inform your Lordships that the verdict at the coroner's inquest, I have just been informed, was in the following terms:— "Murder against some person or persons unknown." The strongest indignation was expressed and comment made by the coroner and jury, and there was also an expression of sympathy with the relatives. Several officers of the Irish Republican Army expressed their sympathy, and their determination to discover the criminals.

These, I think, are the main points upon which I have any observations to offer, and I will only add one or two general words. We should, indeed, deceive ourselves if we blinded our eyes to the fact that in the next few weeks we are going through the most grave and critical period probably in living memory even of our troubled relations with Ireland. Whether we shall get through them with success or not I do not know. Your Lordships will find, if you care to look at all I have said on the subject of Ireland since the Treaty was signed, that I have most closely safeguarded myself against undue sanguineness, but I am still of the opinion that if all men in the two countries who are of good intention, all men who wish to see the Treaty succeed and carried out, will co-operate, there is still a great prospect that we may be able to see a fortunate end to our efforts.

The delay, of course, has been lamentable. No one can measure the unfortunate consequences which have flowed from the delay. No one here could have contemplated that the discussions in Dail Eireann could have taken so long, thereby postponing, and it may be to some extent even jeopardising, the prospects of the Election in Ireland. Those who set their hands in Ireland to the Treaty, those who, in spite of overwhelming difficulties, in my judgment, are still honestly attempting to carry out that Treaty—although the attempt is involving them day by day in controversy, constantly growing more bitter, with their friends—are, I am persuaded, determined to carry this, if they can, to the issue in Ireland of a successful Election, and they believe that they can so carry it, although the prospects have been rendered less bright by the delay which has taken place. If they do so carry it, if the suffrages of the Irish people are taken as a whole upon this question., and if they endorse the Treaty entered into with the English people, then, my Lords, I say, difficult even then as our position will be, it will be on its moral side stronger than it has been within memory.

The Irish Government appointed plenipotentiaries to discuss this Treaty with us, and we took great risks in reaching and signing an Agreement with them. They signed it too, and if it be endorsed by the Irish people and the Irish Government, I cannot but believe that the result will be that this long and last stage of its history will end fortunately for the future of both countries. I am persuaded, while it may not be in the power of all the men of good will in both countries to attain this happy result, it may very easily be in the power of a few men in both countries to destroy its possibility. Of this I am more sure than I am of anything, that the one hope at this moment is that under accumulating mortifications and disappointments, we should none the less keep cool heads. If we do this we may still have the good fortune to attain a happy result.


My Lords, I have no desire to enter into all the circumstances covered by the noble and learned Viscount in the course of his full and, as usual, most lucid statement. I desire to ask him one question. He has pointed out, with, I think, irresistible force, the immense difficulties under which the Provisional Government of Southern Ireland labour at this moment He has shown us how difficult it is for them to keep control over their armed forces, and he has also made it clear that the measure of support which the British Government can give to Mr, Griffith and his Government is greatly limited by the fact that any appearance of interference on our part must necessarily tend to drive into the opposite camp those who are thoroughly suspicious of England and who would dread any appearance of co-operation or combination of the Irish Provisional Government with the Government of this country.

That being so, it is, as the Lord Chancellor has pointed out, of paramount importance that the position of the Irish Government should be regularised as soon as possible. The noble and learned Viscount spoke of the forthcoming Irish Election, and the only question I desire to put to him is this: Can he tell us how soon that Election is likely to take place? I confess that I am not acquainted with the rules which govern the possible date of such an Election, or, indeed, why it should be postponed at all, except from certain internal difficulties with which the Provisional Government may have to cope. But I should be grateful if he could tell us the exact constitutional position and how soon it may be possible to begin that Election on which I am certain our hopes for the status and permanency of the new Provisional Government must in the main be based.


May I also ask whether the British Army in Ireland will be under the orders of the Provisional Government, or will it remain under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief and get its orders from this country?


The British troops will remain under the orders of the British Commander-in-Chief and will receive their orders from the military authorities in this country. With regard to the point raised by the noble Marquess it was felt, for reasons which I need not refer to now, desirable that the Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons, I think, on Friday, and will in due course come to your Lordships' House, should become law before the Election in Ireland takes place. Whether that was a necessary decision or not I do not know; we do not quarrel with it. But if the progress of the measure in both Houses is reasonably swift, it is expected that it will be possible to take the first stage of the Irish Election before March is over.