§ THE EARL OF MAYO had given Notice to ask His Majesty's Government for what reason and for what purpose they have indefinitely postponed the Irish Free State (Agreement) Bill. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I shall not, of course, put the Question which stands on the Paper, but I beg to ask the Lord Chancellor the Question of which I have given him private notice.
§ THE LORD CHANCELLOR (VISCOUNT BIRKENHEAD)
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Earl for having given me notice of the Question which he desires to substitute for that appearing on the Paper; the latter has obviously become somewhat out of date. The substance of the noble Earl's substituted Question is as to whether I am in a position to make a statement, consequent on the visit of the Irish delegates to this country, in explanation of that which has taken place in Dublin at the Conference which is known as Ard Fheis.
The short effect of that which happened, as I now understand it, can, I think, be made plain. A compromise was reached between the two sections who are struggling for mastery, and are likely to struggle for mastery, in Ireland until a General Election has finally, as we hope, decided between them. The result of the discussions in the Conference recently held has been that each Party has given way upon one point of some importance. The Provisional Government found themselves strongly impressed by the argument put forward by Mr. de Valera's friends that under the actual circumstances in Ireland to-day it was not reasonable that the Election should take place until the terms of the proposed Constitution had been submitted to, and could be discussed by, the electorate. This involved a delay. It will necessitate some slight technical modification of the Bill, which provides that an Election should take place as soon as may be, but the loss of time on balance—the net loss of time, if I may so phrase it—will not, it is believed, amount to more than six or seven weeks, because in no event could an Election take place before some six or seven weeks from now; in fact, I think that in answer to the noble. Marquess, Lord Crewe, two or three days ago, I told him that, in my opinion, the earliest possible date of an Election that could be hoped for would be towards the end of March.
246 The delay, therefore, is not in this respect particularly serious, nor do I think that one can complain that the Provisional Government have found themselves unable to sustain the force of the argument that their opponents should be entitled to know how far the Constitution, when translated into the terms of a formal document, may be in harmony with the language—necessarily more general upon many points—of the Treaty. This, then, was the concession made by the Provisional Government.
On the other hand, they obtained in return a concession which certainly appears to me not to be of less importance. It amounts to a virtual recognition by the Republican section in Ireland of the Provisional Government, because it is agreed harmoniously between all Parties that the Constitution is to be drafted by the Pro- visional Government, who will, of course, undertake the full and exclusive responsibility for doing it. The task will not belong to the Dail Eireann, but to the Provisional Government. An agreement, upon this point, it is evident, involves recognition on the part of the de Valera section of the position and temporary authority of the Provisional Government. in the second place, it is understood that a collateral result of the understanding arrived at is that the Election, if and when it does take place, shall be an Election in which there will be opportunity for the expression of free and unintimidated opinion on the part of the electors.
Those of us who have run so many risks in this matter, in the hope that a settlement might prove to be attainable, attach more importance to this understanding, if it be carried out, than to almost anything else, because we are still of opinion, and we are advised by those with whom these discussions have taken place, that if a free Election without terrorism takes place in Ireland the majority of those who vote will still, in spite of all that has been said and done, record their votes in favour of the Treaty. For these reasons, and examining all these things, as we must, on a balance of advantage and disadvantage, we are not dissatisfied or displeased with the result of the recent discussions at the Sinn Fein Conference.
But I ought, I think, to make it quite plain that we are as convinced as we ever were of the steadfast desire of Mr. Griffiths to carry out the Treaty, as he understands it, by every legitimate means at his disposal; 247 and in a question that has afforded, and continues to afford, us so much anxiety, I may perhaps offer the assurance that Mr. Griffiths' own strong personal conviction is that that which has taken place at the Sinn Fein Conference not only does not affect prejudicially the prospect of the Treaty, but, in his judgment, strengthens the prospect of the Treaty and the hope of those in both countries who are determined as far as they can, if good will and effort can do it, to make the Treaty successful. The position then, as I understand it, is not one which we think ought to cause discouragement. The Election will be somewhat postponed, but we have great hope and some ground for thinking that when that Election does take place it will be an Election at which reasonable citizens who have formed their views will 248 be able, freely and without apprehension of violence, to express their opinions and make them felt.