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RESIGNATION OF MR. BIRRELL. (Hansard, 3 May 1916)

Search Help HANSARD 1803–2005 1910s 1916 May 1916 3 May 1916 Commons Sitting DISTURBANCES IN IRELAND.

RESIGNATION OF MR. BIRRELL.

HC Deb 03 May 1916 vol 82 cc30-9 30
§ Sir H. CRAIK

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he proposes and is in a position to announce to the House any immediate changes in the Government of Ireland?

§ The PRIME MINISTER

My right hon. Friend (Mr. Birrell) will make a statement on that matter this afternoon. I ought, perhaps, to inform the House that I have received a telegram from the Headquarters in Dublin stating that three of the signatories to the Republican Proclamation, namely P. H. Pearse, Thomas J. Clarke, and Thomas Mae-Donagh, were, tried by court martial, found guilty and sentenced to death by being shot. The sentence was duly carried out this morning.

31
§ Mr. GINNELL

Hunnish!

§ The PRIME MINISTER

Three other prisoners—Edmund J. Duggan, Pierce Beazley, and Joseph Maginnes—were sentenced to three years' penal servitude.

§ Mr. W. THORNE

Can the Prime Minister state when the man, Sir Roger Casement, is going to be tried? He was the forerunner of this movement.

§ The PRIME MINISTER

With the utmost expedition; as soon as the evidence is ready.

§ Mr. THORNE

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this man was arrested before the men who have already been shot?

§ At the end of Questions,

§ Mr. SPEAKER

called upon Mr. Birrell, who rose—

§ Mr. GINNELL

On a point of Order. We are promised a day for the discussion on the condition of Ireland, and I ask you, Sir, to rule that any statement now with reference to that subject can be made only by permission of the House, that the permission of the House has not been obtained, that it ought not to be given, and that even if it were given by the House it ought not to be given by you, because it would be a breach of order.

§ Mr. SPEAKER

There is no breach of order. I understand that the right hon. Gentleman who rose is going to make a statement. That is a very common practice.

§ Mr. GINNELL

He cannot do so without permission of the House. The right hon. Gentleman's statement is not worth a snap of the finger. The condition of Ireland is the important matter.

§ Mr. SPEAKER

The hon. Member had better wait and hear it before he says that.

§ Mr. GINNELL

He has not got the permission of the House.

§ Mr. SPEAKER

He does not require it.

§ Mr. GINNELL

He does require it. I beg to give notice—[HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"]—that on the Adjournment this evening I will call attention to the shooting of innocent men by this Hunnish Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, oh!"]

§ Mr. BIRRELL

rose—

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§ Mr. GINNELL

Give Birrell a chance! We have got rid of him at last.

§ Mr. SPEAKER

I must ask the hon. Member to control himself—

§ Mr. GINNELL

We have got rid of Birrell at last!

§ Mr. SPEAKER

If the hon. Member cannot control himself, I shall ask him to leave the House.

§ Mr. GINNELL

Give Birrell a chance!

§ Mr. BIRRELL

I rise to make a short—a very short—

§ Mr. GINNELL

The shorter, the better!—

§ Mr. BIRRELL

—personal statement. This House has already been promised a Debate at the earliest possible opportunity—

§ Mr. GINNELL

That will be the time for you'—

§ Mr. BIRRELL

—consistent with the public interest, in order to discuss the whole of the affairs of Ireland relative to recent events.

§ Mr. GINNELL

And your jobbery there!

§ Mr. BIRRELL

It has also been promised that there shall be a full, true, particular, and searching inquiry as to the causes of this insurrection and as to the degrees of responsibility of the Irish Government for all that relates to it. In that Debate I can, as a private Member of Parliament, take part, and that inquiry will necessarily have, as one of its main objects—mine being the chief responsibility—an inquiry into my conduct throughout the whole history of Irish administration in the past few months.

§ Mr. GINNELL

Disgraceful, too!

§ Mr. BIRRELL

It would be, therefore, most unfair, unwise, and improper were I to seize this opportunity, either with or without the permission of the House, to initiate that Debate, or to say anything relative to what may transpire in the conduct of that inquiry. I do not, therefore, propose to say any words upon those topics which might properly arise during the Debate or which will be investigated during the course of that inquiry.

It would, I dare say in some respects, have been some relief to me were I now able, from a full heart and with perfect freedom, to speak at length upon the 33 subject; but, of course, I cannot do anything of the kind for the reasons which I have already given and two others which I may add. The first is that I could not do it, even if I wished to do so. What I have seen and heard during the last five days in Dublin is too fresh in my memory, from which indeed it can never fade, and is too lately inscribed upon it to enable me, even if it were desirable or proper to do so, to say anything now about it whatsoever. I could not do so. Another reason is that I have to remember that there are other people besides myself with a much less degree of responsibility than mine whose case is different in some respects from mine, and who might therefore perchance be gravely affected as to their reputation from words used by me, speaking out of the fulness and depth of my feeling, which would injuriously affect them. I am bound to consider their case far more than my own. For these reasons, it would be impossible for me to go into any details or to offer any kind of argument one way or the other on the present case. I therefore, speaking for myself alone, say sorrowfully that I made an untrue estimate of this Sinn Fein movement—not indeed of its character or of the probable numbers of persons engaged in it or belonging to the association, nor of the localities where it is most to be found, nor of its frequent and obvious disloyalty, nor indeed of some of the dangers resulting from it. All this I knew and was able, if not fully, at all events with no great measures of incompleteness to appreciate, but not the possibility of a disturbance of the kind that has occurred in Dublin, of the mode of the warfare, if such an expression can be used in regard to it, which has been pursued—it was not street fighting, for there was no street fighting but of house and roof occupation—and of the desperate folly displayed by the leaders and by their dupes, which has resulted in the deaths of officers and soldiers who never enlisted for such purposes as these, and whose hopes, therefore, although their duty none the less has been well performed, were disappointed, and also in the deaths of equally brave inspectors, sergeants, and constables of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The moment therefore that I was assured, as I was the day before yesterday by Sir John Maxwell, that the insurrection was quelled, I placed my resignation in the hands of 34 my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has accepted it. No other course was open to me or to him.

If, in conclusion, I may address one word—and I ask the indulgence of the House for that moment—to the great army of my critics, hostile or friendly, harsh or lenient, I would say to them that the error which I have admitted, which has had great and terrible consequences, has not proceeded from any lack of thought or of consideration or of anxiety. My critics here, I assure them, are on the wrong tack, and if they want to make me wince—indeed, I can do it far better myself than they can do it for me—they must change that tack. As soon as ever the War broke out with Germany I took it to be my supreme task, and, indeed, my one and only duty, cutting myself adrift from everything else attractive, important, necessary in my position as Cabinet Minister, to maintain, unbroken, if possible, and unimpaired, the front of Ireland, the position of Ireland as a whole, to our common foe, and in that respect and in every hope and in every aim I was certainly gallantly assisted by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. John Redmond). I thought of nothing else, I cared for nothing else, I wished for nothing else. It was said in this House that Ireland was to be the bright spot of the Empire in the hour of her dire necessity. I hope it may even yet still be said to be so. I was, at all events, well aware of the difficulties of the situation. I knew Ireland well enough to know that there was much in it which would give anybody who knew anything about it grave cause for anxiety. I know the difficulties were great, I knew the ice was thin, and yet I conceived it to be my duty to run even great risk in order to maintain in Ireland herself—aye, and in the face of Europe—the picture of an unbroken unanimity within the boundaries of her soil, and I say at the present moment much has been done in that respect, and Irish soldiers are still the best representatives of their country, fighting as they are doing in all the theatres of our great War.

In order to accomplish that purpose I have no doubt run very great risk. I was urged by many persons—who, I dare say, know Ireland far better than I do—that it was the duty of the Government at once to suppress the Sinn Fein movement wherever they found it, and to take 35 away from it its arms; and, although up to the very last moment, no proof was forthcoming that they were in hostile association with the enemy, it was said to me that that ought to be done. But if it had been done—it might have been wise; I may have committed an error in not doing it; but I ask the House to consider what some of the consequences might have been, would have been, had that step been taken at that time. The unanimity of Ireland has, as I say, even yet been preserved. This is no Irish rebellion. I hope that, although put down, as it is being put down, as it must be put down, it will be so put down, with such success and with such courage, and yet at the same time humanity, displayed towards the dupes, the rank and file, led astray by their leaders, that this insurrection in Ireland will never, even in the minds and memories of that people, be associated with their past rebellions, or become an historical landmark in their history. I hope that, at all events, will not be the case, and when yesterday morning I drove down from the Phoenix Park through all the familiar streets of Dublin on my way, for the last time, leaving the shores of Ireland and crossing the Channel, when I viewed the smoking ruins of a great portion of Sackville Street, when I was surrounded by my own ruins in my own mind and thought, and all the hopes and aspirations and work I have done during the past nine years, one ray of comfort was graciously permitted to reach my heart, and that was that this was no Irish rebellion, that Irish soldiers are still earning for themselves glory in all the fields of war, that evidence is already forthcoming that over these ashes hands may be shaken and much may be done, that new bonds of union may be forged, and that there may be found new sources of strength and of prosperity for that country. I at all events have done what I could for her, and although I end my connection with her, lasting so long, in this melancholy manner to-day, I can assure the House, and I appreciate it as well as any of my bittterest foes, if I have any in this House, that I still hope some measure of good may come out of this great evil.

§ The PRIME MINISTER

It has always been the custom of this House to give to a Minister who has felt it his duty to tender the resignation of his office, the 36 oppportunity of a personal explanation. It has equally been the custom of the House to allow its Leader, the head of the Government for the time being, to say one or two words on the matter contained in that explanation. As my right hon. Friend has said, the whole of this subject will be, according to the promise the Government has given, a matter for inquiry and debate. Even if the rules of order permitted it, it would be most undesirable that that debate should take place at this moment, and under these conditions. I will, therefore, only say this, without prejudging in any way the decision which may ultimately be taken, that I am sure the House, in every quarter, have listened to what my right hon. Friend has said not without sympathy and emotion. I can assure him, if such assurance were necessary, and I hope it is not, that he possessed and possesses in an exceptional degree the regard—I will go further and say the affection—of all his colleagues. For myself, for ten years I have been in close and intimate association with him, and I can assure the House that in the whole of my public life there is no personal loss which I more acutely feel, or more greatly deplore.

§ Mr. JOHN REDMOND

I hope the House under the peculiar circumstances of the moment will accord me a generous indulgence while I utter just two or three sentences. It is unnecessary for me to say that the whole of this incident in Ireland has been to me a misery and a heart breaking. One of its immediate consequences has been the withdrawal of the right hon. Gentleman, and deeply I sorrow and grieve at the severance that has taken place. I have been for several years closely associated with the right hon. Gentleman, and so have my colleagues, and we all believe that during his tenure of office he has been animated by a single-minded devotion to what he regarded as the highest interests of the country that he went to govern. We believe that he grew to love Ireland and that he has honestly done his best for her interests. He has taken blame this afternoon, and he has been widely blamed in this country already, because he underrated the dangerous situation which confronted him. Of course, I had no responsibility of the same kind as the right hon. Gentleman, but I do feel, and I think it is only just that I should say it, that I have incurred some share of the blame which be has laid at his own door, 37 because I entirely agreed with his view that the danger of an outbreak of this kind was not a real one, and in my conversations with him I have expressed that view, and, for all I know, what I have said to him may have influenced him in his conduct and in his management of Irish affairs. Therefore, I think it is only just on my part that I should to that extent share the blame which he lays upon his own shoulders. The right hon. Gentleman leaves Ireland under melancholy circumstances, but he has some consolations. During his term of office he has conferred some great and imperishable benefits upon Ireland. His name will always be honourably associated in the minds of all classes of the Irish people with the creation of the National University, and with all that he has done for the educational interests of the country, and I can assure him that he takes with him into his retirement—and it will be a consolation to him in the melancholy circumstances—the respect, the good-will, and, to use the phrase of the Prime Minister, the affection of large masses of the Irish people.

Let me, in conclusion, say one sentence. This outbreak, happily, seems to be over. It has been dealt with with firmness, which was not only right, but it was the duty of the Government to so deal with it. As the rebellion, or the outbreak, call it what you like, has been put down with firmness, I do beg the Government, and I speak from the very bottom of my heart and with all my earnestness, not to show undue hardship or severity to the great masses of those who are implicated, on whose shoulders there lies a guilt far different from that which lies upon the instigators and promoters of the outbreak. Let them, in the name of God, not add this to the miserable, wretched memories of the Irish people, to be stored up perhaps for generations, but let them deal with it in such a spirit of leniency as was recently? exhibited in South Africa by General Botha, and in that way pave the way to the possibility which the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Birrell) hinted at, that out of the ashes of this miserable tragedy there may spring up something which will re-round to the future happiness of Ireland and the future complete and absolute unity of this Empire. I beg of the Government, having put down this outbreak with firmness, to take only such action as will leave the least rankling bitterness in the minds of the Irish people, both in Ireland and elsewhere throughout the world.

38

§ 4.0 P.M.

§ Sir E. CARSON

Throughout the last few days in these unfortunate and terrible occurrences which have happened in Ireland, I have endeavoured for the sake of our common country to associate myself as far as possible with the hon. and learned Member for Water-ford (Mr. Redmond), and therefore I may be allowed to say a few words. For my own part, I may say that during the whole time in which the late Chief Secretary has been in Ireland, I have been in direct conflict with him. It would be idle to maintain that there was any other relation between us as far as politics were concerned. But I do not think that anybody who has ever had any friendship with, or any knowledge of the right hon. Gentleman, will fail to express regret that his career in Ireland, so well-intentioned, however you might disagree with it, has terminated in such unfortunate circumstances. I can assure him that many of us on this side, and many of his bitterest opponents in Ireland, will recognise that this misfortune has come upon the country, and has come upon his career, rather through his desire to preserve that unity which he spoke of as a common front to our enemies abroad than from any dereliction of duty on his part. I shall say no more than this. Even his most bitter opponents, of whom I have been one, wish and earnestly hope that this episode in his career may not in the slightest degree interfere with his political activities in the future, and that he may find consolation to himself for what he is apparently suffering at the present moment in the knowledge that On all occasions we admit that he was a man who did his best.

With reference to the speech of the hon. Member for Waterford, and what he has said about these unfortunate dupes in Ireland, let me say that, while I think that it is in the best interests of that country that this conspiracy of the Sinn Feiners, which has nothing to do with either of the political parties in Ireland, ought to be put down with courage and determination, and with an example which would prevent a revival, yet it would be a mistake to suppose that any true Irishman calls for vengeance. It will be a matter requiring the greatest wisdom and the greatest coolness, may I say, in dealing with these men, and all that I say to the Executive is, whatever is done, 39 let it not be done in a moment of temporary excitement, but with due deliberation in regard both to the past and to the future.

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