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Belfast Labour Disputes

Volume 180: debated on Thursday 8 August 1907

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I desire to put the Question which I submitted in accordance with private notice yesterday to the Secretary of State for War, but to which, owing to the right hon. Gentleman's absence, I did not obtain an answer. It is whether he is aware that a large number of military troops were turned out yesterday morning to parade the streets of Belfast on picket duty with fixed bayonets and that each man was supplied with twenty rounds of ball cartridge; and whether he will use his influence to put a stop to this display of military, which only tends to render abortive all attempts to bring the dispute to a peaceful conclusion.

I am not sure that the hon. Member quite realises where the responsibility rests for dealing with a situation of this nature. By the law of the country, everyone is bound to aid in the suppression of riotous assemblages, and it is the duty of the civil authorities to regulate the force employed in proportion to the danger to be apprehended. At Belfast the situation has been judged sufficiently serious to call for military intervention, and the military authorities have complied, as they are by law bound to comply, with the requisition of the civil power. I may add that the composition and the duties of the force have been settled in consultation between the General Officer Commanding and the Irish Government, and I have every confidence that the orders issued to the troops are such as are demanded by the necessity of maintaining civil order.

I desire to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware that in addition to their endeavours to maintain law and order the troops were being used as private employees of the Belfast railway and shipping companies?

I am not aware of that. It is the duty of these troops to give such assistance as is strictly necessary to the civil authorities to maintain law and order.

Arising out of the right hon. Gentleman's reply, may I ask him whether he is aware that through the presence of such a large force of military the Trade Disputes Act is rendered absolutely inoperative in Belfast, and so far as peaceful picketing is concerned it is absolutely hopeless under the present condition of martial law?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the action of the Irish executive in Belfast has the confidence of three-quarters or the majority of the inhabitants of the city?

May I now, Mr. Speaker, put the same question which I have put to the Secretary for War to the Chief Secretary for Ireland?

This is what may be called a change of venue, and I think I should like the hon. Member to repeat his question at a later date.

May I ask the Chief Secretary my last question, viz., whether he was aware that the Trade Disputes Act is being rendered absolutely inoperative by the presence of these troops and that peaceful picketing is an impossibility?

That is contrary to the information I have received. The hon. Member was kind enough a little while ago to put the question to me, and I telegraphed to Belfast for information on the point. The reply I received was that nothing could be more contrary to the wish of anyone than that the soldiers should prevent peaceful picketing. I only know of one instance which has occurred, where a Highlander is alleged to have assaulted a person answering to the description of a peaceful picketer. This was being made the subject of special inquiry. There is nothing further from the intention of the civil authorities in Belfast—so far as I can speak for them, but I must decline to hold myself responsible for them—I say there is nothing further from the intention of the civil authorities in Belfast than that peaceful picketing should be prevented. It is the desire of the military authorities that the troops should be withdrawn as speedily as possible, and as soon as is consistent with law and order in the city. The civil authorities cannot give Belfast over entirely to the strikers, there are other persons to be considered, and I assure the hon. Member that this strike presses heavily upon them. No one has the faintest desire that the dispute shall be maintained a day longer than is necessary, but in the opinion of the authorities there were grave circumstances which rendered it necessary that the military should be in the city owing to the disaffection among the police. That disaffection, however, has now been happily removed, and the police have returned to duty and are behaving in an admirable manner. I hope before long it will be possible to remove the military.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Robert Graham was assaulted by P.C. 588, and N. Bennett by P.C. 459, and John Gwynn by Sergt. 39, and others—men who were peacefully picketing, and whether he is aware that from information that comes to hand to-day the moment a man gets near a wagon he is seized by the police, batoned by them, and unable to have an opportunity of peacefully saying a word to any men taking the places of other workmen, and whether he will make inquiries into these facts?

If the hon. Member can give me the numbers I will make inquiry, but the information I may say is contrary to what I have received.

Will the right hon. Gentleman get the information from Belfast that these men who claim to be peaceful picketers are all armed with heavy bludgeons?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is interpreting the spirit or the letter of the Trade Disputes Act, to make it absolutely impossible for pickets to approach men who are acting as blacklegs?

I decline to make myself responsible for the civil authorities at Belfast, who are doing their best under very difficult circumstances, and under pressure from the citizens to maintain order. If any information is provided I will communicate with a view to ascertaining the actual facts.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the section of the citizens who brought this pressure to bear are the Employers' Protection Association, and the firms immediately concerned, and that the military are being employed even against the wishes of the employers who desire to submit the matter to arbitration? Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to sanction the continuance of this military force in Belfast under the circumstances that the employers would agree to arbitration?

I have no power to remove the military from Belfast if the civil authorities wish them to remain there.

Have the military authorities in supplying troops taken into consideration the enormous advantage they are giving to the employers?

The duty of the military authorities is to assist the local authorities when they are properly' called on to enforce the law. They are only obeying the law in doing it.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the military are being used as workmen in the interests of the employers, and will he put a stop to it?

I do not admit they are being used as workmen. When you are dealing with a great riot of this kind you naturally avoid using weapons of offence beyond what is more than necessary. No doubt the soldiers associate themselves with civilian methods, but that they have been acting as workmen I do not believe.

Is it proper for the soldiers to fix their bayonets when there is no sign of a riot?