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Processions (Ireland) Bill

Volume 202: debated on Thursday 7 July 1870

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( Mr. Chichester Fortescue, Mr. Solicitor General for Ireland.)

Bill 170 Second Reading

Order for Second Heading read.

, in rising to move that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he had brought it forward in strict accordance with an announcement which he made upon the second reading of the Bill introduced by his hon. Friend the Member for Belfast (Mr. W. Johnston), to repeal the present Party Processions (Ireland) Act. Upon that occasion he stated that he would accede to the second reading solely on condition that he should introduce, on the part of the Government, an alternative measure dealing with processions of all kinds in Ireland, and he made his consent to the repeal of the Party Processions Act absolutely dependent on the adoption by the House of that alternative measure. The distinction between this Bill and the Party Processions Act might be described in this way—The Act now in force was an Act to prevent party processions; this Bill was directed against processions of all kinds in Ireland which were calculated to endanger the public peace and order and the good understanding which ought to prevail among Her Majesty's subjects in that country. There was one clause in the Bill which he believed would have been valuable for the peace of Ireland, and he could not see that it would in any way interfere with the liberty of the sub- ject or produce ill feeling between different classes. Nevertheless, the clause was of an exceptional character, to be justified only by exceptional circumstances, and though he maintained his own view of the case, he was willing to admit that there was great difference of opinion with regard to it. The clause to which he alluded was the 5th, which enabled the Lord Lieutenant, if he apprehended that any procession would fall under any of the heads enumerated in the preceding clause, to issue a proclamation forbidding it, upon which it would become absolutely illegal. He was ready to withdraw that clause. He was very anxious, particularly at this period of the Session, not to multiply controversies—above all, angry controversies—and he did not wish to ask for any power beyond what the Irish Government thought absolutely necessary to enable them to perform their duty. He was quite ready, therefore—and he trusted what he said would be taken in good part—to withdraw that clause. In addition to that it would be wise, in his opinion, to make this a temporary measure. He trusted the time was not far distant when we could dispense with any legislation of an exceptional character in regard to Ireland. He entertained that opinion very strongly. The time had not yet arrived; but he hoped it was not far distant. He begged the House to regard the Bill as consisting of the 4th clause, with an additional one which would make it last a short period. It would facilitate discussion if they conceived the Bill to stand in that shape. [An hon. MEMBER: For how long is it to be in force?] He would not at present pledge himself as to the time to which the Bill would be limited; but it would be short. The Bill, then, would consist of the 4th clause, which undoubtedly was both comprehensive and important. The effect of that clause would be to reenact in its essence, but with considerable changes, and, as he believed, improvements, the present Party Processions Act. The change which it made was this—it left out of view those particulars with regard to party tunes and party flags which, in his belief, had constituted the great difficulty in the working of the Party Processions Act. It was well known to all who knew anything about the matter that the Courts of Law had pronounced a variety of decisions and given different interpretations of the Act, which had the effect of rendering its operation very uncertain and not a little embarrassing, because it was by no means clear what was a party tune and what a party flag or banner. There had been many decisions that a certain tune was not a party tune or a certain flag a party flag, though the playing of the tune and the exhibition of the flag had the very same effect in producing animosity and ill-will as if the tune and the flag had been pronounced to be of a different character. They all knew the controversy which had raged on the subject of the green flag, and, for his own part, he certainly sympathized very considerably with those who said that green was not a party, but a national colour; but yet it was used for party purposes. The legal difficulty, at any rate, existed, and had greatly embarrassed the working of the Act. Processions, again, were of different degrees of importance, and some were wholly insignificant. What he now proposed to do was to leave out those words which had been the cause of difficulty and confusion, and to confine the Act to those real and serious matters with which it was the object of the former Act as well as the Bill to deal—namely, "processions, or the parading together of persons calculated or tending to provoke animosity between different classes of Her Majesty's subjects." On the one hand, it would not be necessary to treat a procession as partaking of that character merely because it was accompanied by certain flags or banners; on the other hand, the fact that a flag was crimson instead of orange, or the fact that one tune was played instead of another, would not take a procession out of the statute, provided that, in the opinion of the Law Officer, who alone could institute proceedings in these cases, and of the jury, who alone could find the parties guilty, a procession did really partake of the character described in the Bill. Another change proposed by this Bill was that the jurisdiction of the magistrates in these matters should be entirely excluded. The cases were extremely difficult for magistrates to deal with, and they were very unwilling to enter upon them. Under the Bill, therefore, proceedings could only be taken at the instance of the Officers of the Crown, and that by way of prosecution at the quarter sessions. The Bill, moreover, was not confined to party processions. In accordance with the undertaking he had given, it extended to objectionable processions of every kind. These were the processions aimed at by the words, following those he had already read—"or to promote, propagate, or encourage treason or sedition." Here, again, it would depend on the Government whether they thought it right and necessary to institute proceedings against those taking part in such processions. But it would be no longer possible for anyone in the North of Ireland to say that there was a law upon the statute book which dealt unfairly with processions in that part of Ireland, while other processions of a more serious and dangerous character were left to be controlled only by the common law of the land. One special purpose was included in the Act which ought to be mentioned, for it was totally distinct from the act of playing any particular tune or carrying any particular flag, and yet deserved to be controlled by law. This was the provision under which any processions of persons parading together, or joining a procession, who should bear or have among them any fire-arms or other offensive weapons, became an illegal procession. The wording of this clause would require some further definition so as to require the carrying of arms to be open, for, of course, it was not intended that any person joining in a procession should be rendered responsible for the secret act of some other person who might have a weapon concealed about him; but the object was to check the practice of persons joining or parading in procession carrying fire-arms with them. No one could doubt that this was an objectionable and dangerous practice, or one which deserved to be controlled by law. He had seen it stated that the Bill was sure to interfere with the right of public meeting. A more entire delusion or misrepresentation of the objects of the Bill it would be impossible to conceive. The Bill interfered in no respect with the right of public meeting. What it did was to render illegal and subject to prosecution parades and processions in which persons should bear fire-arms or other offensive weapons; parades and processions of persons calculated or tending to promote animosity between different classes of Her Majesty's subjects, or to provoke a breach of the peace; and, lastly, parades and processions tending to promote, propagate, or encourage sedition or treason. All those forms of processions were treated by the Bill as demonstrations hostile to the peace and tranquillity of the country, and as demonstrations entirely unfitted to the present condition of Ireland, which it was wise, therefore, that the law of the land and the Executive Government should check and control. He did not mean to imply that all these processions were equally dangerous or serious in their character; but the Government sought by the Bill to apply to all of them an impartial administration of the law. It would be in the recollection of the House that he had promised to introduce this Bill as an alternative measure, and he hoped it would prove acceptable even to those who were opposed to the present Party Processions Act; but he had distinctly told the hon. Member for Belfast, on a former occasion, that he could not consent to his proceeding further with the Bill for repealing the Party Processions Act, until this alternative measure had been introduced. He had now fulfilled his promise, and he respectfully advised Gentlemen at both sides of the House to accept this measure, which dealt with perfect impartiality with all objectionable processions, no matter what their creed or colour, and made any allegations of unfairness impossible. He knew there were some enthusiastic Gentlemen who thought the time had arrived when any enactment on this subject could be dispensed with in Ireland. He wished he could adopt that view. But as he was unable to do so, he begged to move that the Bill be now read a second time, and hoped it would receive the favourable consideration of the House.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—( Mr. Chichester Fortescue.)

said, it was with unfeigned surprise that he had perused this Bill, after the repeated assurances received from Members of the Government, and particularly after the pleasure expressed by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, that the Party Processions Act was about to be repealed. The feeling of pleasure indulged by the right hon. Gentleman must have been of a very peculiar kind. There must have been a grimness about the jocularity with which he contemplated the introduction of a Bill under which, the people of Ireland would be bound with ten-fold more severe chains than they were at present. He (Mr. W. Johnston) had been, to some extent, the victim of credulity. The Bill which he introduced last year was drawn up by Her Majesty's Judge Advocate General, who expressed to him the gratification he should experience in seconding a Motion for the repeal of the Party Processions Act were it not for the circumstance of his being a Member of the Government. That measure was submitted to the then; Attorney General for Ireland, the present Master of the Rolls, who was averse to the introduction of a clause rendering it penal to carry fire-arms, in a procession, as he thought it would be better merely to repeal the Party Processions Act. For his own part, he strongly objected to the carrying of arms; but, at the same time, he did not think it was I fair that a number of persons should be liable to punishment because a single individual, perhaps an enemy, might have joined a procession with a pistol or a gun. He had received the strongest assurances that in any measure they might bring forward the Government would respect freedom of action as far as they could. The present Bill, however, would take away all freedom of action from persons of whatever creed or party who met together for any purpose in Ireland. He admitted that the present attempt at legislation was directed against all parties. It was totally subversive of all liberty and of the rights and institutions of a free country. The Government had promised Ireland peace. The Church Bill was to give peace, and the Land Bill was to be a panacea for all the ills that Ireland was heir to; and yet Ireland, being still in a state of unrest, was now to be treated to the second Coercion Bill of the Session, which would renew those animosities and provoke those breaches of the peace which had ceased for some time past. He had received a letter from a magistrate in the North of Ireland who expressed his strong belief that should the Chief Secretary persevere with his mischievous legislation, it would be re-engendering bitter hatred between the classes which he (Mr. Johnston) had endeavoured to unite. He could not conceive why this Bill was introduced at all, or, if it were necessary to introduce it, why it was not brought forward at an earlier period of the Session. Why did Her Majesty's Government wait until the July anniversaries of those events which had placed Her Majesty's dynasty on the Throne were about to be commemorated not in a spirit of hostility towards any class in Ireland, but in vindication of the rights of the free citizens of a free country? [Mr. CHICHESTER FORTESCUE said that the 5th clause had been withdrawn.] The circumstance of that clause being withdrawn did not alter, to any extent, the character of the Bill. No meeting was to be held without lawful authority from the Government, and he questioned whether the Lord Lieutenant would grant permission for the celebration of the July anniversaries. If this Bill were passed, every meeting would be treated as a riot. The magistrates would read the Riot Act, and all who attended it would be ordered to depart to their lawful business on pain of death. Therefore, those who celebrated the 12th of July might be ridden over by the soldiery, and there would be a repetition of the dragonades of other times. But they were not to be so deterred. Those who would oppose this measure represented a race which had been highly complimented by Her Majesty's Government, and which had been characterized by the Prime Minister himself as a race of great energy, massive in character, and which would not be trodden down. He (Mr. W. Johnston) had incurred a considerable amount of opposition, and even some suspicion of over-friendliness to the Government, because he had ventured to say in the North of Ireland that he believed they would act in a spirit of fair play and give equal liberty to all classes of the people; but now it appeared to him that they contemplated equal tyranny to all parties, who were to be trodden down by the iron heel of military despotism. A pleasing state of things had existed for some time past in the North of Ireland. On the 14th of May both Protestant and Catholic bands paraded the streets of Belfast on the occasion of the laying of the foundation stone of the Working Men's Institute, and all parties were gradually learning to tolerate one another. But the present action of Her Majesty's Government would be the means of reviving hostility, which no one could more deeply deplore than he did. Feeling very strongly on this subject he had some difficulty in restraining himself; but he must say that if the Bill became law, it would deluge the hills and the plains of Ireland with blood not through the internecine contests of her citizens, but by the attempt to override the liberties of the free people of what ought to be a free land. In conclusion, he moved that the Bill be read a second time upon this day three months.

said, he thought that his hon. Friend (Mr. W. Johnston) and those who acted with him had great cause to complain of the course pursued by the Government. His hon. Friend brought in his Bill at an early period of the Session, and the Government assented to the second reading, but afterwards intimated their intention of introducing a measure which would be satisfactory to all parties. This declaration was taken in the North of Ireland to mean that the Government were about to give freedom to processions of every kind, and preparations were accordingly made for celebrating the July anniversaries on a more extensive scale than formerly. At the eleventh hour, however, this Coercion Bill was introduced. It could not become law until after the anniversaries had been celebrated, and consequently the parties who broke the law would have to be prosecuted under a statute which the Government themselves had declared to be unequal and unjust, and to repeal which the present measure had been introduced. On the whole, he preferred the existing measure to that now proposed. In the first place, the Bill cast an undeserved insult on the Orangemen of Ireland—men whose only fault, if it were a fault, was a slight exuberance of loyalty—because it classed them with the promoters of treason and sedition. He believed the Judges who were to interpret the Bill would be guided rather by its letter than by the assurances given by the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. C. Fortescue). Indeed, he did not see how they could do otherwise than put a stop to meetings of all kinds whatsoever.

explained that the Bill only referred to parading or joining in processions.

said, persons might parade or join in a procession in private grounds. The most objectionable part of the Bill had been withdrawn—namely, that which gave enormous powers to the Lord Lieutenant; but, after all, those powers were merely transferred to the Law Officers of the Crown. As to fire-arms, he agreed with what had been said by his hon. Friend. At the same time, he thought it would be most unjust to render a meeting of 20,000 men liable to the pains and penalties of the Bill simply because some foolish boy or hostile person might carry a pistol concealed about him. He had, under those circumstances, much pleasure in seconding the Amendment of his hon. Friend. Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day three months."—(Mr. William Johnston.) Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

said, he rose at the earliest moment to protest against the Bill. He regretted that the Government should at the fag-end of the Session have introduced a measure of this coercive nature, for which there was no necessity. No demand, so far as he was aware, had been made by any party in Ireland for such a measure, and he could not understand why, if processions were to be put down in Ireland, they should not also be prevented in England and Scotland. He denied the right of the Government to say that such a measure should be applied to one part of the kingdom only. He had seen large processions in London. Meetings had been held in Hyde Park; the very railings of the Park had even been torn down by the mob; and yet no legislation had been resorted, to with the view to prohibiting meetings of that description. No one could walk about London on a Sunday without seeing crowds of persons assembled in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere, to hear open-air preaching; and did not that tend to create animosity and produce a breach of the peace? In the Party Processions Act there were no such words as "to provoke a breach of the peace," which were to be found in this Bill. Under the Bill political meetings might be suppressed by the Riot Act being read. If the crowd did not disperse the military might be ordered to fire. An agitation might be set on foot in Ireland for a Federal Parliament, and were persons, he would ask, because they happened to walk in procession to a meeting held with that object, to be subjected to the penalties which the Bill would impose? Recollecting that the Session had commenced with the passing of one of the most unconstitutional Acts which had ever become law, he hoped its close would not be signalized by the enactment of a similar measure. There was at present scarcely a county in Ireland which was not under the operation of the Peace Preservation Act. It was in force in his own county (Cork), though there was not a single district in Ireland freer from crime. He would call attention to this fact—a short time ago a gentleman, who was going shooting, sent his servant forward with his gun; the gun was seized, and when the gentleman complained the Chief Secretary for Ireland said that the police were right in seizing it. How would hon. Members like such a law in England? He hoped the Government would rest satisfied with what had been already done in that direction, and would not persist in asking the House to sanction this Bill, which would promote those disturbances which it was intended to suppress. They were about to send another message of peace to Ireland; and let it not be accompanied by another measure of coercion.

said, that he had three years ago given Notice of his intention to bring in a Bill to repeal the Party Processions Act, and the longer he had thought on the subject the more convinced he was of the inexpediency of a style of legislation so exceptional. Had it answered? Was it not the fact that, since the passing of two special Acts, with the same object as the present measure, a greater amount of party spirit had been displayed, and a greater number of party processions had been held, than had previously been the case? The Party Emblems Act, which was one of the measures to which he referred, had created so great an amount of bad feeling that it had, two years ago, with universal consent, ceased to be law. It was inseparable, he might add, from legislation such as that now proposed that certain persons in Ireland should not look upon it otherwise than as being about to be put in force against them only. He, for one, objected to the powers the Bill gave to the Government—powers, which he thought it was inexpedient they should possess. Would it be wise to give them power to put down meetings in the City of London? He was also opposed to throwing on the in- dividual the responsibility of deciding whether a procession was or was not likely to lead to breach of the peace, for he ventured to say that most of those who attended such meetings did so with no intention of doing that which was unlawful. Let the Government show a little confidence in Ireland. The present law had become a dead letter. If the Government trusted to the common law of the land, they would then carry public opinion with them, and a man against whom they proceeded was not likely to be made a martyr of; whereas, under an exceptional law of this kind, the whole institution of trial by jury was likely to break down. This was the time to set out on a fresh course, as regarded Ireland, and give the people of Ireland credit for acting for the common good. Under the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act the Government had ample powers for the preservation of peace in Ireland, and the Chief Secretary might safely withdraw what remained of this Bill. If Gentlemen who had influence in Ireland would set themselves to promote peace there, the processions which were usual at this time of year might safely be allowed. No country was more favoured by nature than Ireland. It contained a population most talented, most brave, and generous; and he believed that generosity towards them, on the part of those who made the law, would be warmly responded to.

said, the Chief Secretary for Ireland by no means occupied a bed of roses; for, if he looked on and folded his arms during these processions, he was accused of neglect of duty; while, on the other hand, if he brought in a Bill to restrain them, hon. Gentlemen complained of exceptional legislation. At the same time, believing it would be well to postpone this Bill for a certain time, and see how Ireland got on without it, he should give his right hon. Friend an opportunity of taking this course by moving that the debate be now adjourned.

said, it appeared to him that the present state of the law was greatly misunderstood. There was an idea that the Party Processions Act was a one-sided measure, and was only directed against Orangemen. He, however, would give an opinion to the contrary effect, which he could confirm by his own experience. He was employed by the Duke of Abercorn's Government in a prosecution which arose out of a large assembly with very different banners and emblems from those carried by Orangemen. That was a prosecution under both common law and statute law, and the question was left to the jury whether the meeting was calculated to promote animosity between different classes of Her Majesty's subjects. The existing law was directed against party processions; the Bill of the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. C. Fortescue) was not; and, in his judgment, if the 5th clause were omitted, the Bill was hardly a perceptible advance beyond the common law. The case usually quoted on this point was that of the Peterloo massacre, when the legality of the interference of the police and the magistrates was justified because the meeting was of itself calculated to produce alarm, and therefore tended to a breach of the peace. He would read two passages from the common law, which were much to the same effect as the present Bill. One said that any meeting of great numbers of people held under such circumstances as to endanger the public peace and arouse fears and jealousies was an unlawful assembly; and the other said that the meeting of great numbers of people, complaining of a common grievance, armed in a warlike manner, was an illegal assembly, for no one could foresee what might be the event of such an assembly. With the exception that the Bill introduced the element of animosity, it did not advance much beyond the common law. This was a late period of the Session to bring forward such a measure relating to party processions—that was, to processions which the common law did not reach, and in respect of which there were no immediate circumstances of terror or alarm; and, as the question was one which deserved and demanded more consideration than could be given to it now, he really could not see why the Act 13 & 14 Vict. would not suffice for another year, and why a new Bill should be brought forward at this period. When they were prepared to discuss one Bill the Chief Secretary for Ireland submitted another, and from that was omitted a most important clause, one which would have been invaluable—namely, that which gave the Executive power to meet a crisis when it arose. For one he had no distrust of the Executive, seeing that there was a force in public opinion which would pre- vent any illegal exercise of authority. This important clause, which invested the Lord Lieutenant with useful power, was abandoned with scarcely a word of explanation. Such changes, made at the last moment, made much stronger the case for postponement to another year. It had become the fashion to speak of the Peace Preservation Bill as the Coercion Bill, and the name was used with more meaning than it had at first; but the Act had proved to be a Peace Preservation Act, and it would be an infatuation to weaken or withdraw it, or to falter in its execution; for we had already reaped the fruit of it; we had peace, the loyal were protected, and no one was restrained or coerced except those who wished to do evil.

said, he did not think any arguments had been adduced which should lead the House to postpone the passing of the Bill this Session; but it was another question whether the debate should be adjourned. He did not intend on this question entering into the merits of the Bill at any length. The right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Dr. Ball) had not given the Bill the credit due to it; but when he said it scarcely advanced beyond the common law, he admitted that it was an advance, and it was that very fact which made the Bill necessary. No doubt some processions were already reached by the law as it then stood, but processions whose tendency was to create animosity were alone dealt with by this measure. As to this being a new Bill there was no foundation for this statement, it was shorn only of a clause which was objected to as unconstitutional. Now that the clause was left out, this was simply a Party Processions Bill, amended to suit the altered conditions of the times, treating all alike, and not aimed at any particular party. It had been said that processions which were not party processions did not excite animosity, and only tended to produce a breach of the peace. This Bill would embrace all; and it was impossible to carry on the government of Ireland without some law of the kind. The present law, with all its defects, was better than none.

said, the course taken by the Government with respect to the Bill of the hon. Member for Belfast (Mr. W. Johnston) to repeal the existing law produced a general im- pression that it was the intention of the Government to allow the old Act to be repealed; but on the 7th of July, with a celebration coming off on the 12th, which he personally disapproved, the Government brought forward a Bill which could not possibly become law, and which could only be regarded as an insult to that party which always upheld the law and the Constitution. This Bill put in the same category loyal Orangemen and those who met to propagate treason and sedition; this was an insult to those who, however injudicious, were still loyal; and it was an insult which they did not deserve, and which was sure to be resented with indignation at a number of excited meetings.

said, he considered the Chief Secretary had acted very unfairly in bringing the Bill forward at a time when it could not be fairly discussed. He had also kept the word of promise to the car and broken it to the sense by introducing a Bill which was unsatisfactory to every party. He regretted the Motion for Adjournment, because it prevented them discussing the Main Question; and, as a protest, he would vote against Adjournment.

said, this Bill would tear to pieces the remaining liberties of the Irish people: he wanted to see justice done to all parties, and he wished for a Bill to put down the Fenians and those who were the enemies of Ireland. He protested against the proposal of the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. W. H. Gregory), because it was only made to help the Government over a stile, for they were in a difficulty, and had withdrawn the principal clause of their Bill. What was now the use of the 3rd clause? It spoke of the Lord Lieutenant and the Chief Secretary as being referred to in the other part of the Bill; but they were referred to only in the 5th clause, and that was another clause that was useless. On what ground was this Bill to apply only to Ireland? He looked upon the Bill as an outrage and insult to the people of Ireland, and he called upon the Government to withdraw it and pass the Bill for repealing the Party Processions Act. They might be sure of the common law being sufficient for maintaining peace in Ireland if they would only govern that country fairly and not for party purposes.

said, he must compliment the hon. Member for Belfast (Mr. W. Johnston) on the moderation he had displayed in moving the rejection of the Bill. The processions against which the Bill was aimed were described as provoking animosity; but he (Mr. Whalley) had had personal experience of orderly meetings in Ireland, composed of men of the most undoubted loyalty, and the persons whose animosity would be provoked by such assemblages were those Roman Catholics who were instructed by their priests that they were bound by all the obligations of their religion to do all in their power against the authority of the Government of England, and to oppose, even to the extent of slaughter, any expression of opinion adverse to their own religious views. He believed there was no portion of the population that had more claims on the House than the hard-working and industrious Roman Catholics, who did not want Coercion Bills, against which he had always protested. ["Divide, divide!"] He would be very soon done now.

said, he hoped the hon. Member for Galway (Mr. W. H. Gregory) would withdraw his Motion for the Adjournment of the Debate and allow the House to divide on the Main Question.

said, he could certainly be no party to the withdrawal of the Motion for the Adjournment of the Debate. The understanding was that his right hon. Friend (Mr. C. Fortescue) should make a statement in proposing the second reading of the Bill; but it was not anticipated that the debate could conclude that evening.

said, he would support the Motion for Adjournment, not in the interest of the Government—for when the question was put on the second reading of the Bill he would vote against it—but because there were many hon. Gentlemen who desired to speak upon the question.

said, he must protest against the adjournment of the debate. The right hon. Gentleman (Mr. C. Fortescue) said he sympathized with those who thought that green was not a party colour. It had been changed to blue because green was the emblem of rebellion.

Motion made, and Question put, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—( Mr. W. S. Gregory.)

The House divided:—Ayes 111; Noes 72: Majority 39.

Debate adjourned till Monday 18th July.