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Criminal Law—Release Of Political Prisoners—Question

Volume 229: debated on Monday 22 May 1876

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asked the First Lord of the Treasury, If it is his intention to advise Her Majesty to extend Her Royal mercy to the prisoners still suffering punishment for offences in breach of their allegiance to Her Majesty?

Sir, it will be convenient to the House, in reference to this Question, which to a certain extent comes forward periodically, that it should have a clear conception of the number of persons who are at present in the situation described by the hon. Gentleman, because I think that without they have that information it would be difficult for the House to comprehend the circumstances under which any Government thus appealed to is to arrive at a conclusion. At present I find that there are only 15 persons who can come under the description of which the hon. Gentleman has availed himself. There are two of those persons in prison for the crime of murder; they were convicted of murder, and the sentence of death was passed upon them, and that sentence was commuted to one of penal servitude for life. I refer to this fact because on a previous occasion, in a discussion in this House, the case was noticed as one in which the individuals in question were guilty of high treason, and it was urged that that being the case, it was not right to allude to the circumstances of murder connected with the particular incident, because the prisoners must be looked upon as political offenders, provided they were found guilty, either of high treason or of treason-felony. I find according to the record they were not found guilty of high treason or of treason-felony, but they were prosecuted for the crime of murder, and found guilty of murder; and, therefore, under these circumstances, I do not think that we should be justified in admitting that they are to be considered as political offenders. It appears, then, that of these 15 persons—omitting the two to whom I have adverted—there are six in prison in England. A case which has excited great attention is the case of Michael Davitt, who was convicted with another man named John Wilson. They were charged with treason-felony, with conspiring to depose the Queen, with levying war against the State, and with supplying arms to the Fenian organization, and they were both found guilty. Wilson was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, Michael Davitt, his confederate, to 15 years'penal servitude. Now, it so happens that Wilson has worked out his time, whether entirely or with some of those attenuating conditions that attach now to almost every punishment I do not exactly know; but certainly he has served his time; and Davitt, who was sentenced to double the term, is still in prison. It is for the House to remember that the Judge, when he sentenced Davitt, respecting whom so many efforts of interposition are making, to double the period of servitude to the term passed upon the other offender, must have considered that there was in his crime very aggravating circumstances. Now, Wilson has just worked out his seven years, and it becomes necessary for those who are responsible for these matters to consider whether it is politic to permit a man who has been found guilty by a jury of very aggravated conduct to find himself equally free at the termination of half the period of his sentence with the comparatively harmless man whom the same authorities thought deserved a far lighter punishment. I think, however, that this is a question which society should not determine hastily, and which we ought to consider very deeply before we proceed to take action with regard to it. Then there is the case of Daly. Well, I have gone through these cases, and with the exception of these two, I find that the remainder in England are all military. There are three soldiers who are in prison in England for very aggravated cases, of knowledge of intended mutiny—knowledge of a conspiracy against the Queen, and not revealing it, and in their instances even taking an active part in the conspiracy. All the rest of the military convicts have been transported to Western Australia; and with regard to them, before I answered the Question of the hon. Gentleman I should have made myself acquainted with their exact and precise position. It is from no want of pains on my part that I have not succeeded in obtaining that information, for I should much like to know the exact condition of those persons. Two of them have, I understand, worked out their time, and are now free, and I cannot but believe, from something that has reached me at different times in regard to this matter, that those who are not free are in a position very different from that which is generally contemplated in this House as being connected with the condition of convicts in a state of penal servitude; and I would remind hon. Gentlemen that if pardons were offered to any individuals who had connected themselves with those disturbances in Ireland it is not highly improbable that conditions would be insisted upon in those pardons by which those receiving them would be compelled to absent themselves from this country. ["Hear, hear!"] That assent only proves that it may not be impossible that many of these convicts in Western Australia are, in fact, at this moment enjoying a state of existence that their Friends in this House are quite prepared they should accept, and by commencing, and perhaps pursuing, a life of some prosperity and comparatively little restraint, it is a question whether the attainment of the object desired by those Friends and the country would very much avail. I have thought it necessary to put these views on this subject before the House, and I will briefly recapitulate my remarks. There are only six of these Fenian prisoners imprisoned in England, and I doubt whether, except in England, any are enduring any hardship. Two of them are murderers. ["Oh, oh!"] They were convicted of murder, and I do not see the wisdom or charity of regarding them as political offenders. With regard to the case of Davitt, that, it is said, is a hard case, because his companion is free; but I beg to remind the House that in that instance his conduct was considered very aggravated, and that in justice to those who, like Wilson, have behaved with more moderation, though guilty of misdemeanour, it requires considerable hesitation before one interferes with the verdict of a Court of Justice. Then there are the cases of the three soldiers also imprisoned here, whose offences are of too grave a nature to allow them to be passed over. All the rest are military cases, and I would remind the House that since the question was mooted last year, and a Return moved for by an hon. Gentleman, two of these prisoners have become released in the natural course of the regulations, according to the punishment they were called upon to endure. Under these circumstances, the House will see that these are not cases to be decided in an off-hand manner, and, having indicated the principle which I think ought to govern any Minister in a case of this kind, I am bound to say that I am not prepared to advise Her Majesty to release the prisoners referred to in the Question of the hon. Gentleman.

begged to move the Adjournment of the House, in order to record his protest against the decision which the Government had arrived at upon the subject. The announcement just made by the Prime Minister would, he believed, be received in Ireland with mingled feelings of surprise, regret, and indignation. He could not sympathize with the right hon. Gentleman in the hesitation which he had displayed in answering the Question of his hon. Friend. The memorial which they had presented bore the signatures of 138 Members of the House of Commons, who believed that the time had come when those prisoners might be released from their confinement; and he could not but express his condemnation of the policy of perpetuating political animosity by keeping the men in prison. He felt it his duty to protest against the policy pursued by Her Majesty's Government of trampling, as they were in this instance, on fallen foes. It ought to be the policy of that Government to lay aside animosities in that struggle; and now, when Ireland was remarkable for peace and tranquillity, the opportunity might be taken for cementing the friendship which was growing up between the two countries by an act of clemency and generosity. It seemed to him that the appeal made by so many hon. Members ought to have more weight than it seemed to have had with the right hon. Gentleman, and especially at a time when the whole nation was rejoicing at the safe return of a Member of the Royal Family. He could only record his protest against the decision the Government had come to in the matter.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—( Mr. O' Connor Power.)

Lest it should be supposed that all hon. Members sitting below the Gangway on this side of the House entertain the same opinion as that expressed by the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, I beg to say that I rise to record my cordial approbation of the statement which has been made to the House by the First Lord of the Treasury. Regarding the Petition, signed by 138 Members, to which the hon. Member for Mayo has referred, I may observe that very great pressure was put upon hon. Members to sign that requisition. I myself was asked no fewer than six times to sign it; and I know that other hon. Gentlemen were repeatedly asked. Moreover, statements were made to them which were not in accordance with the facts communicated to the House by the Prime Minister this evening. For my part I refused to sign the memorial unless a clause was introduced excepting from it the extension of mercy to those who had been found guilty of murder through being connected with the Fenian affair at Manchester or with the Clerkenwell outrage, and as that was not inserted, I persisted in my refusal Many hon. Members on this side of the House refused in the same way; and I believe that a considerable number of those hon. Members who did sign the memorial signed it in ignorance of the fact that the clemency asked for was to be extended to the prisoners guilty of other crimes than that of breach of military allegiance. ["Name, name!"] I am not provided with names; but I have no doubt there are plenty of hon. Members who can endorse the statement I have made. If the right hon. Gentleman agrees, as I understand him to agree, to remit the sentences of those military men in Australia, under certain conditions of non-return to this country, I think he will do all that the House can expect of him.

said, he thought it right to say a few words in connection with that affair. It was a question which really concerned the honour of England more than that of Ireland. This question of the punishment of a few men might not seem a great matter; but if England were the great and powerful country that it ought to be, these things could not occur. It was generally supposed that the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces was one of those who had great objection to the remission of these sentences. That was not strange in a country which had entrusted the command of the Army to a German Prince not identified with England, and who could have no sympathy with either its interest or honour. It was not strange that this clemency asked for should not be granted by the Prime Minister, a Gentleman who had truckled last year to Prince Bismarck, and who was an alien in race and religion to the people of England. England had been brought so low that on a recent occasion, when the Eastern Question was raised, the three Emperors settled what they would do, and only then asked England whether or not she would agree. [Cries of "Question!"] That was the question; England's honour was involved, and if she was afraid to let some half-dozen poor Irishmen out of prison, it did not speak well for her.

said, the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister had spoken of two of the prisoners as being murderers, meaning those who had been convicted at Manchester. He had also spoken of soldiers subject to imprisonment in Western Australia. He had also spoken of those military prisoners who were in prison in England, and whose military crime he was disposed to consider a greater one than that of those in Western Australia. He (Mr. Parnell) was speaking of Davitt and Wilson, found guilty of selling arms. With regard to the Manchester affair, he held in his hand a book called The Rights of American Citizens, which could be seen by any Member, as it was ordered by the United States Congress as a Return. It gave a report of the trial of Condon and Maloney at Manchester. If any hon. Member would take the trouble to read the evidence—if the right hon. Gentleman himself would take the trouble to read the book, he would see that the evidence against Condon was given in full, and he would find that there was not a particle of evidence to connect him with that murder. At the very outside his name was mentioned by three or four witnesses as having been in the crowd around the van. He was not mentioned as being near the van, except by one man who said a stone fell on Condon's head from the van; but he was attended by a surgeon who said the wound was not caused by a stone, but more likely by a policeman's bludgeon. As regarded Maloney, he was apprehended in London after the three men in Manchester were hanged. He was convicted upon his own statement to a fellow-workmen that he had been present at the attack on the van; but there were many men who knew that Maloney was no more at Manchester on the day of that business than he (Mr. Parnell) was. He was put on his trial and found guilty of murder, and sentenced to be hanged, but the sentence was afterwards commuted to penal servitude for life. There were many men who believed in their own hearts that neither Condon nor Maloney was guilty of that affair. He was sorry that the hon. Gentleman the junior Member for Tipperary (Mr. Stephen Moore) was not in his place that evening to stand up and say he believed that Condon was perfectly innocent of the crime of killing Sergeant Brett at Manchester. With regard to the military prisoners who were confined in Australia, he thought the right hon. Gentleman was under a misapprehension when he represented to the House that they were in a better position in Australia than they would be in this country. He (Mr. Parnell) remembered that the late Mr. Ronayne, before he left London to go to Cork—and he was a man with special information on the subject—told him it was supposed that the convict establishments in Western Australia were about to be given up, and, as a consequence, the prisoners, if not released, would be sent to penal servitude in England, so that it would be additionally hard to those men, who had been enjoying some absence from penal restraints, should they be brought back and put in such convict prisons as Chatham or Dartmoor, and subjected to the rigour of English penal servitude. He threw out those hints in order that the right hon. Gentleman might inquire into the matter. With regard to the three prisoners who were now in prison in England, M'Carthy, Chambers, and another, M'Carthy was a brave soldier, who had fought, and fought well, for England in many parts of the world. Was it fair, after that man had had 10 years in penal servitude—10 years of discipline, which was given in order to effect reformation in the minds of thieves, murderers, and the worst of criminals—was it fair to keep the man in imprisonment any longer? With regard to Davitt, who was sentenced to 15 years'penal servitude by a Judge, he might say that the man who only got seven years was an Englishman; and he did not know how much effect Davitt's being an Irishman might have had with the Judge. ["No, no!"] Hon. Gentlemen might say "no, no,"but it was very hard to be superior to prejudices on all occasions; and he had little doubt that when this man was sentenced to 15 years' penal servitude, the fact of his being an Irishman, and the fact of this occurring just after the Clerkenwell Explosion, and after the murder of Sergeant Brett, which created a great deal of feeling in the minds of the middle and upper classes of this country, had some influence in determining the sentence passed on him.

regretted that the Prime Minister—he had no doubt unwillingly—had felt himself compelled to refuse the prayer of the Petition in favour of the political prisoners. He gathered some hope, however, from the subdued cheers with which that announcement was greeted, so different in tone and intensity from the vindictive cheers which greeted a similar announcement two years ago, that the time would soon arrive when the appeal for mercy would be yielded to. He rose to repudiate, in his own name and the names of the hon. Members for Limerick and Mayo, and the noble Lord the Member for Clare, the statement of the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson), that they had obtained signatures to the declaration laid before the Prime Minister on false pretences. He repudiated with the most thorough contempt which the usages of Parliament allowed the statement of the hon. Member for Glasgow. The language of the hon. Member was insolent to the House and unbecoming the position of a Member of Parliament. There were attached to that Petition the names of 138 Members. When the hon. Member made the charge of false pretences he should have proved it, and he (Mr. Callan) called upon the hon. Member either to give the names of the Members who had obtained signatures to the Petition under false pretences, or to withdraw the charge.

I took down the words of the hon. Member at the time they were used, and they were "false pretences." ["Order"!]

:I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the hon. Member for Glasgow has disavowed the use of those words.

accepted the disavowal. He himself went to Members of Parliament whose signatures he was anxious to obtain. He went to the noble Lord the Member for Northumberland and the noble Lord the Member for Calne and took them to the Library and directed their attention to the offences for which those men were detained.

desired to express his extreme regret that he had asked the Question that day; in the first place, because it had provoked a reply which would keep alive a sore in Ireland which her well-wishers would desire to see healed; and secondly, because it had provoked a scene and language from hon. Gentlemen which he was sorry to have any part in bringing about. He disavowed any sympathy with the words of the hon. Member behind him (Mr. Biggar), and he (Mr. Brooks) believed that he would speedily regret that he had been led to make use of them. He would on an occasion which would not be remote give the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister an opportunity of replying to that part of the question which concerned the Royal mercy. In Ireland it was believed that justice had been vindicated by the long imprisonment that had been endured by these men, and that the time had come when the Prime Minister could no longer say that mercy could fairly or with justice be withheld from them.

as one of the Members who signed the Petition, desired to repudiate, as far as in him lay, that he could for a moment have solicited pardon for those who had been concerned in murder. He perfectly recollected asking the hon. Member for Mayo (Mr. O'Connor Power), who asked him to sign the Petition, whether it included those men who were concerned in the affair at Manchester or in the affair at Clerkenwell. The hon. Member replied that it was solely intended for the purpose of obtaining the release of those who were concerned in purely political offences.

appealed to the Prime Minister to give a favourable consideration to the Memorial which had been signed by so many hon. Members. He believed that an amnesty for the political prisoners would do much good by calming the feeling of irritation which still prevailed in Ireland.

said, he rose with great regret and some feeling of shame to say that he also was one of those hon. Members who signed the Petition. He could give his support to the statements of the hon. Member for Glasgow (Mr. Anderson), and the hon. Member behind him (Mr. Briggs). When an application was made to him to sign the Petition, he put the question twice distinctly whether it was intended to include and did include men who had shed blood. He was distinctly told that it did not include those who had been convicted of shedding blood at all, and had that assurance not been given his name would never have been put to that Petition. Having heard that day what had been stated by the First Lord of the Treasury, he (Mr. Waddy) was perfectly and entirely satisfied with the statement which had been made. Moreover, considering the temper and language of some hon. Members who had spoken upon the subject, he felt very strongly that it would be dangerous to let forth from their confinement men who were likely to be worked upon by persons in a superior position, but with so little command over their own temper and judgment as to use such language as had been unfortunately heard that evening.

said, he rose on a point of Order, and he desired to explain that the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Briggs) had not accurately represented the scope of his reply in regard to the declaration which he was asked to sign. He (Mr. Power) stated that it did not necessarily call for the release of those who were engaged in the Manchester outrage, and it left upon the Government the responsibility of drawing a line between the different classes of prisoners. ["Oh, oh"!] He recollected very well what he said. The declaration left to the Government the responsibility of drawing a line between those prisoners who had been convicted for offences that were political and those that were non-political. It appeared from the tone of the Prime Minister's observations that he desired to convey the impression that the prisoners still confined were not suffering very severe treatment. He would give the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary an opportunity of bringing the question to the test of examination by calling attention to the subject in the House. As his only object in moving the adjournment of the House was to get an expression of opinion, he was ready to withdraw the Motion.

said, that after the statement made by the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Disraeli) he could not but think that his hon. Friend the Member for Mayo acted perfectly right in raising the discussion, although there was some inconvenience in discussing how these prisoners should be treated upon a mere question of adjournment. He could not quite concur in the statement that had been made with respect to the Manchester prisoners. He believed there had been no subject in England which had been more misunderstood than the case of those prisoners. Technically, it was undoubtedly a conviction for murder. [Laughter] Hon. Gentlemen who laughed would not do so, if they had the slightest conception of the nature of the English law on that subject. They were convicted without the slightest proof that they went there for the purpose of bloodshed. They were convicted on the well-known principle of English law that if a number of men were engaged in a common illegal enterprize, and that one of them shed blood in the course of that enterprize, even those who never contemplated it were guilty of murder, though they never struck a blow. He said more than that. He might say it was an established rule in a criminal case that a verdict must stand altogether or must fall. What took place here? Why, prisoners who, upon the same verdict, were convicted of capital offences were released two or three days after, because it was clearly proved that the verdict was wrong. The verdict, which was manifestly mistaken, was the same verdict upon which these men were kept in prison. If their offence had had nothing to do with political crime, he believed that they would have been released long ago. They might remember that they were dealing with a remnant—and a small one—of a treasonable conspiracy. The leaders of that conspiracy were released long ago, and the Government were now called upon to consider whether, having released the men who were the leaders, the men who led these soldiers into their crime, the latter should not also receive the benefit of clemency. They must consider whether that would be wise at that time. He believed the releases already made had had a most beneficent effect in Ireland, but that was marred every day by retaining the men who still remained in prison. He did hope they might have an opportunity by-and-bye of fully putting the question before the House, and when they did refer to the case of the soldiers, or that of Davitt, he would appeal with confidence to the justice and generosity of the House to say that the time had now come when they would allow their Sovereign to boast that there was not a single political prisoner confined in any gaol in her dominions.

said, that his name was on the Petition, but no pressure was resorted to to induce him to sign. He found mercy staring him in the face, and he would remind the House that they would all want mercy some day.

said, he had refused to sign the petition for the release of the fenian prisoners as he did not think that they could ask the Government to release prisoners who had been guilty of murder; but he thought the Royal mercy might be extended to the other prisoners convicted of treason only.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.