HL Deb 06 May 1931 vol 80 cc1036-44

LORD BANBURY OF SOUTHAM rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether their attention has been called to a book published in London by Peter Davies, Ltd., and written by a man named Charles Dalton, called "With the Dublin Brigade (1917–1921)," in which the author states that he was present and assisted in the murder of eleven English officers in their beds in Dublin on November 21, 1921, though he does not say that he fired any of the shots, and what action they propose to take; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Paper and I think the simplest thing for me to do is to read to you what the man Dalton actually says In this book. He says: We had been engaged for the past three weeks locating the addresses of these Intelligence men. Many of them were officers of high rank. They had taken up their abode in private houses in quiet residential neighbourhoods, where they lived in great seclusion, many of them under assumed names and occupations. By one means and another we had got upon their track. At six o'clock I called to see a Volunteer who lived over a shop in Amiens Street. I had tea there with a girl with whom I had an appointment. She was a. country girl employed as a maid in a superior boarding-house in one of the fashionable streets on the south side of the City. I was very anxious to have a conversation with Rosie, but I waited until we had finished our tea. We had met her several times already, and she had been able to give us some valuable information. When I first met her she had let fall scraps of gossip about her boarders which had aroused my suspicion. They were 'English gentlemen' she thought. They 'looked like military officers,' though they did not wear uniform. They never went out during the day but 'always at night after Curfew.' They were 'quiet gentlemen,' she said, 'spending most of their time writing,' and when Rosie had to clean out their rooms she was bothered by the overflowing contents of the waste-paper baskets which she had to dispose of. She had, at my suggestion, brought me to these waste papers, and on looking through them and piecing them together … we had not been surprised to find notes relating to the movements of Volunteers and other data which were most interesting to us. She had also managed, to get hold of some photographs which were in the possession of these officers. They were of Volunteers who were being pursued by the Authorities, and who we had reason to suppose were on the list for summary execution. By now we knew all we needed to know about Rosie's boarders—their names, both their assumed names and their real ones, their appearance, habits, and the nature of their occupation. It had been decided that if we were to survive and our resistance to continue, the time had come to bring their activities to an end, and those of a number of other Secret Service men living secluded in the same way in other private houses in the same district.

Therefore, you will see, my Lords, that having got hold of a servant girl and she having found certain papers which were later pieced together, it was necessary to kill these people because they thought they were English officers. The book goes on: Rosie told me that evening that life in the boarding-house was just the same, but that two of her officers had moved to a flat in another street. I asked her had she heard the address. She had, and gave it to me. Bidding her good-bye, I hurried to the office used by us as Brigade Headquarters, and found several officers gathered there. I was aware of the arrangements made for the following morning,"— that is the morning when these gentlemen were killed— and gave my information of the change of address of the two officers. I did not stay long as I had another appointment to keep. I went to Harcourt Street where I met a Volunteer Officer whom I had not been acquainted with hitherto. I was to accompany him and his men on the following morning. We made our arrangements about meeting. It was now near Curfew and I hurried home to the dispensary.

Then he gives an account of what he did at the dispensary and he goes on to say: We were awake and dressed by seven o'clock. We breakfasted on the same fare of tea and eggs. I noticed that the men were examining their revolvers, seeing that they were in working order. Outwardly we were calm and collected, even jesting with each other. But inwardly I felt that the others were as I was—palpitating with anxiety. Shortly after eight o'clock we left the house, as we had a long way to walk to the respective scenes of our operations. Crossing the City we saw but few people astir, save an occasional milkman making his rounds. It was a beautiful, clear morning. Coming near Merrion Square we passed several groups of Volunteers with whom we exchanged glances of understanding. At Merrion Square I parted with my companions, and I walked on alone until I came to my destination. There I met the Volunteer Officer with whom I had spoken on the previous night. He had several men with him who were waiting round the corner. He looked at his watch and said it wanted five minutes to the appointed hour—nine o'clock. We had both received our orders. I told him what mine were: 'I am to get any papers in the house.' Those were the longest five minutes of my life. Or were they the shortest? I cannot tell, but they were tense and dreadful. Sharp at nine o'clock we walked up the steps of the house. Fortunately the door was open, while the caretaker was shaking the mats on the steps. One of our men held him up, and warned him to keep quiet. (He was blamed for complicity, the poor fellow, and got ten years' penal servitude.) We walked into a large hall which had two separate flights of stairs ascending from it. We divided into two parties, four in each, and as I went up one staircase with my companions I saw our other party swiftly mounting the other. The stairs were heavily carpeted and our footsteps made no sound. On the landing were two doors which I knew led to the rooms of two of the Secret Service men. Here we divided again, and knocked simultaneously at both doors. We identified the men we wanted. Each had a revolver at his hand, but our men were too quick for them. Shaking, I said to the officer of my party: 'Wait for me. I have to search for the papers.' 'Wait be damned! Get out of here as quickly as you can.' I was only too glad to take his advice. The noise of the shots must have been heard in the neighbourhood. We hurried down the stairs together. In the hall three or four men were lined up against the wall some of our officers facing them. Knowing their fate I felt great pity for them. It was plain they knew it too. As I crossed the threshhold the volley was fired. In the street I parted from my companions, they going south.

The next few pages relate only to how he escaped. He ends by saying this: Then I heard a bell ringing in a nearby church. It was the Angelus. I remembered I had not been to Mass. I slipped out, and in the silence before the-altar, I thought over our morning's work and offered up a prayer for the fallen. It is a pity that he did not do it the day before instead of an hour afterwards.

Then there is one other passage:— The evening following my interview with Mac I called.… to meet Rosie. This was the first time I had seen her since the Sunday morning of the shootings, and I was very anxious to know what had happened afterwards at the boarding house. The minute she saw me, she burst into tears. This greatly surprised and distressed me. Putting my arm around her, I asked her what was the matter. This only caused her to cry more convulsively, so that for a while she could not speak to me at all. 'Oh, why did you shoot them?' she sobbed at last. 'I thought you only meant to kidnap them.' 'But Rosie,' said I, 'surely you know we are at war and that these men were shooting our fellows?' 'I know,' she said, still crying, 'but it was dreadful.' After a while she managed to calm herself, and told me her story. 'After the gentlemen were shot, we were all terribly upset. Military and detectives arrived at the house, and they questioned us for hours. They took lorry loads of papers away with them. I was so upset I did not leave the house for days. You see, I felt I had had a hand in it, and I couldn't bear my thoughts, and at last I felt I must speak to someone. So I went to a friend of mine, who was a priest, and I told him everything.' 'Well, Rosie, what did he say to you?' 'He was very nice to me. He told me I needn't blame myself at all. He said that ye were fighting with your backs to the wall. A defensive war, that is what he called it. He said the English had no right to be here at all. Our boys must defend themselves, he said, and a lot more which I did not understand. He was grand and kind to me.' 'Only when I saw you it all came back to me again.' I do not think I need take up more time by attempting to describe the horrible facts that are admitted in this book.

Here is a book published in London, a cheap edition at 2s. 6d., by some people called Peter Davies, Ltd. I should like to know what steps the Government propose to take with regard to the publication of this sort of book, whether it is advisable that a book of this sort should be circulated, a book which apparently gives people to understand that the man in question, if he did not murder these unfortunate gentlemen, assisted in their murder, and was accessory to the fact both before and after, holding himself up as a sort of hero. Apparently his attitude has been endorsed by a priest.

I do not know, not being a lawyer, what powers the Government have, but I presume that, if this man ventures to come to England, he can be arrested, and I further presume that they have some powers over the publishers of the book. I do not know whether, the South of Ireland being still part of the Empire, the Government here have some influence with the powers there, and can induce them to take steps against a man who glories in having murdered defenceless gentlemen. I am sorry to see that the Liberal Benches are not very full, but I would remind noble Lords who sit there of what their great leader, Lord Palmerston, once said when be applied the phrase, "Civis Romanus sum," to Englishmen. If Lord Palmerston were here now, I am quite certain that action would have been taken.


My Lords. I must confess that I do not understand what object the noble Lord, Lord Banbury, had in giving this very large gratuitous advertisement to this publication of which he disapproves. I do not propose to go into the incidents described in the book in question. I will only point out that this is the story by a boy of his exploits at the time when he was seventeen years of age. I must also point out, since it happens to be a relevant fact, that they occurred in November, 1920, and not in November, 1921, as stated in the Motion. That is a small mistake, but it happens to be of great importance. I must remind your Lordships that in January, 1922, upon the establishment of the provisional Government in the Irish Free State, His Majesty granted a general amnesty in respect of offences committed in Ireland from political motives prior to the operation of the truce—that is to say, prior to July, 1921, which is some eight months after the incidents in question.

With your Lordships' permission, I will read the terms of that amnesty:— His Majesty the King has been pleased, at the moment when a provisional Irish Government is about to take office, to grant a general amnesty in respect of all offences committed in Ireland from political motives prior to the operation of the truce on July 11 last. That is to say, from July 11, 1921. The release of prisoners to whom the amnesty applies will begin forthwith. It is His Majesty's confident hope that this act of oblivion will aid powerfully in establishing relations of friendship and good will between the peoples of Great Britain and Ireland. The terms of this amnesty express very definitely His Majesty's proclaimed desire that the unhappy events to which the noble Lord has referred, and others like them, should be consigned to oblivion. Since then the controversies and ugly incidents of the years preceding the establishment of the Irish Free State have been replaced by happier relations and by a spirit of good will. I cannot feel that any useful purpose would be served by reviving now the bitter memories of past events, and I venture to believe that, on further reflection, the noble Lord may think fit to withdraw his Motion for Papers. There are, in fact, no Papers whatever.


My Lords, I think your Lordships will have been very much struck by the speech delivered by the noble Lord who sits behind me, and whilst I am quite sure that the noble Lord who has responded for the Government has probably exactly the same feelings of horror and indignation as exist in our minds, he did not tell us so in the speech which he has just delivered. He certainly has stated, quite correctly, that an amnesty was granted, and there is no need for me to go further into that matter, since the noble Lord has read its terms. I should have thought, however, that your Lordships would form a further opinion on the proceedings to which my noble friend behind me has drawn attention— namely, that the publication of a book in which the writer appears to glory in the deeds which were perpetuated on the date mentioned, calls for some remark. I do not know what the powers of His Majesty's Government are, but I know quite well that they have some jurisdiction over publications that are produced for sale in this country, and I should have thought that it would be possible for them, if their powers are not adequate for the destruction of a book of this description, to have made some remonstrance to the Free State Government with a view to putting an end to the publication of books of this description.


My Lords, it is obvious from what Lord Passfield has said with regard to the amnesty (assuming, as of course I do, that he has accurately stated it) that no prosecution of this infamous criminal—infamous according to his own confession—can take place, but to my mind that does not justify the reproduction in this country of this infamous book, extracts1 from which have been read. Can anything be more pernicious, degrading and criminal than that a self-confessed criminal should publish in this country a justification of one of the basest murders that have ever taken place in Southern Ireland? Do not let us forget that the murder occurred in November, 1920, and was one of those scoundrelly actions of murder and outrage which, I am sorry to say, led up to the appalling surrender to crime in June, 1921.

It is repulsive to go into these old stories, but every one knows that the Government of this; country about November, 1920, or thereabouts, through the mouth of the Prime Minister, declared that nothing would induce them to surrender to the deliberate campaign of outrage and murder which was then going on in Ireland. Just after this atrocious event took place, and the result was, in June, 1921, the surrender of all that we held most sacred in Ireland. That being so, is it decent, is it right, that this scoundrelly criminal should be allowed to produce in this country a book in which he glories in the crime of himself and those other equally infamous ruffians like himself?—not only glories in it but recalls to the minds of the British people what he thinks are the admirable effects of those crimes. To my mind it is a direct incitement to violent crime, if the persons who commit it think that by those methods they are going to get the results for which they ask. I think it would be unfortunate that in. India persons there conspiring against our Government should have an opportunity of reading a book like this, in which an atrocious crime is confessed, with the result that the British Government surrendered. Therefore I beg the Government to consider whether it is a decent thing to allow the publication in this country of such a book, and if they do not, and I doubt if any right-minded person could think it is decent, I trust that they will take steps to prevent the further publication here of such a book.


My Lords, I made two suggestions in the remarks which I ventured to address to the House a few moments ago. I said that not being a lawyer I was not aware whether the Government had power to take proceedings. I understand from what the noble Lord opposite has said that owing to these events having occurred before the amnesty was granted, which gave an amnesty to political offenders—this is the first time I have heard murder called a political offence—they can do nothing. My second suggestion was as to the taking of steps to prevent the publication of a book of this sort. Do they consider it right that a book of this sort, which contains reminiscences and statements regarding murders by a man who evidently thinks he is a wonderful man, and doing the right thing, and which he says a priest of the Christian religion seemed to excuse—do they think it is right to encourage the publication in this country of the cheap edition of a book of this sort? I have not very much opinion of the Government, and I have certainly had less in the last few moments. I shall not withdraw my Motion, but if there are no Papers or the Government refuse to produce them I shall not trouble the House with a Division.


I understand that Lord Passfield has stated that there are no Papers.

On Question, Motion for Papers negatived.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes past five o'clock.