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The Belfast Riots

Volume 180: debated on Tuesday 13 August 1907

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asked the Chief Secretary to the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland whether, in view of the grave condition of affairs in Belfast, the Government would immediately take steps to prevail upon the railway and shipping companies to recognise the desirability of submitting all points of dispute to arbitration, and also in the meantime have the troops withdrawn for a stipulated period, with a view to securing a peaceful settlement.

Before the right hon. Gentleman answers that Question, may I ask him whether he is aware of the speech made by a Member of this House at Belfast, in which he said that although the people of Belfast had no swords or guns they had broken bottles, and whether he proposes to take action against the hon. Member for inciting the people to riot?

Don't give him a free advertisement.

I can assure the hon. Member for Jarrow, who has given me notice of his Question, that the Government are fully alive to the urgency of this matter, and are doing all they can to secure a settlement of this most unfortunate strike. It will be remembered that two representatives of the Labour Federation, Messrs. Mitchell and Gee, did in the earlier stages of the dispute go over to Belfast, and did their best to secure a settlement, with very considerable beneficial results. I cannot but believe that, had they remained, all the difficulties would by this time have been overcome. Unfortunately, they were obliged to leave. I have arranged with the President of the Board of Trade that he should send over, and he is sending over to-day, one of these gentlemen, Mr. Mitchell, who is now a temporary servant of the Board of Trade; and he is going accompanied by a permanent servant of the Board of Trade in the Labour Department. They will at once do what they can to place themselves at the disposal of all parties. I have also just heard, I think somewhat authoritatively, from the representative of the trade unionist party in Ireland and the trade unions, that they are perfectly willing to refer this matter to arbitration. They suggest the name of Mr. Carlisle, an active member of the firm of Harland and Wolff, who are one of the largest, if not the largest, employers of labour in the United Kingdom. They say also that failing him they would be willing to allow the matter to be referred to Sir Antony MacDonnell. This, at all events, shows a disposition on their part to refer all these matters in dispute to arbitration. I have the most earnest hope, and am not altogether without some confidence, that in the course of a few hours we may hear that these negotiations which are going on on all sides have had a satisfactory result. Every effort, so far as I can do anything, will be in the interests of peace. So far as the removal of the troops is concerned, that is a matter entirely in the hands of the civil authority, and it is for them to consider the propriety of any such step. I have no responsibility; but from the information within my reach, I cannot say that I think any such proposal as that would add to the general sense of security on the part of the whole city of Belfast, whose interests must not be overlooked even in the presence of this most lamentable strike.

asked if the right hon. Gentleman was aware that the reason of the breakdown of the negotiations with Messrs. Mitchell and Gee arose entirely from the obstinate position taken up by the railway company.

I do not think it is desirable for me at the present time to express any opinion.

asked whether the recent visit of Sir Antony MacDonnell was not with a view to arbitration, and, if so, whether he had reported the result of his inquiry.

Sir Antony MacDonnell went as a representative of the Government to ascertain facts for my information. I do not think I am at liberty to say more.

asked whether a full and complete inquiry would be made into the circumstances which had led to such disastrous results.

asked whether it was not the fact that the soldiers and the police had exercised the most wonderful self-control during the riots.

asked the right hon. Gentleman to say who were the civil authorities referred to who ordered out the military, seeing that the Lord Mayor did not consult the city magistrates or the city corporation.


asked whether the introduction of the military in Belfast was not chiefly owing to the extreme pressure brought to bear on both the local authorities and the Irish Office by the Shipping Federation, who wrote to the right hon. Gentleman on 25th July a threatening letter which contained the phrase that failing strong action by the Government they themselves would use force, that they would organise a force of their own, and whether the right hon. Gentleman had sent any reply to this letter depecating the use of such minatory language.


May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether, considering the nature of the missiles used by the crowd in Belfast, and the fact that such crowd contained a large number of innocent women and children, he does not consider that the order to shoot by the troops with intent to kill was wholly unnecessary and unjustifiable?

I have a report here which tells the story related by the military commander, and I will read the details of it. It is dated the 12th, but it contains a narrative of what happened on the two days—

"Military report on the situation in Belfast during Saturday and Sunday, 10th and 11th August—
"Belfast, 12th August, 1907.—I have the honour to report that the troops were on picket duty in the streets on Saturday. All was quiet till about 12 noon, when a determined attack was made on some wagons of Messrs. Hughes in the Nationalist quarter in the Falls Road. Two pickets of the 1st Royal Berkshire Regi- ment came to help the police and formed a cordon across the street, afterwards falling in in rear of the wagons and escorting them down the road. The troops were greatly hampered in taking any offensive action, as three-quarters of the mob consisted of women and children, the men remaining in rear and throwing paving stones and broken bottles. Second Lieutenants Allfrey and Harvey and ten non-commissioned officers and men were cut about the head with missiles. The disturbance appeared purely local, and I am taking measures in concert with the police to guard against attacks on the pickets in this quarter. The conduct of the 1st Royal Berkshire pickets was admirable, all ranks showing the greatest forbearance and steadiness under the most trying circumstances. No troops were on picket duty yesterday (Sunday). At 7.15 p.m., however, an urgent telephonic communication was received from the Commissioner of Police that a serious riot had broken out again in the Falls Road district, and requesting that all available troops in the garrison should at once proceed to the vicinity. Within five minutes of the message being received all three battalions at Ormeau Park were under arms, the two battalions at Victoria Barracks and two troops of cavalry following shortly afterwards. On arrival at Cullingtree Police Barracks, which appeared to be the centre of the riot, the troops were halted. After consultation with the Commissioner of Police, it was decided to block the entrances to the streets to the north of the Grosvenor Road with a view to localising the disturbance, and also separating the Protestant and Catholic quarters north and south of the above road. A picket of fifty men of the 2nd Essex Regiment were ordered, in company with about twenty of the constabulary, to occupy a post about 150 yards north of the police barracks. The party were received with volleys of stones, and it was found necessary to clear the three worst streets at the point of the bayonet. The mob, however, did not await the charge, but fled down the streets, the inhabitants covering their escape by throwing stones, tin pots, filth, and other missiles from the upper windows. The charge, however, had a good moral effect, no further trouble taking place in this quarter. More stone-throwing took place at the picket of the 4th Middlesex Regiment guarding the debouches into the Grosvenor Road, and the cavalry had several times to clear the streets, followed up by parties of the infantry. The rioting gradually ceased, and about twelve midnight all troops returned to quarters. I regret to say that one officer (Second Lieutenant Passingham, 4th Middlesex Regiment) and seventeen hon commissioned officers and men are under medical treatment, all suffering more or less severely from contused wounds, chiefly in the head, caused by paving stones thrown at distances of nine or ten yards. The brunt of the fighting fell on the 4th Middlesex Regiment, two troops 3rd Dragoon Guards, and a picket of the 2nd Essex Regiment, mentioned above. The conduct of these corps was admirable, and there was never the slightest sign of the troops getting out of hand, though they often had to stand being mercilessly pelted at short ranges without being allowed to retaliate. The police co-operated splendidly with the troops, and some twenty arrests were made. Some portable searchlights would be of the greatest assistance and would save many casualties, as prior to commencing operations the mob extinguishes all street lamps. Wires and ropes were also fixed across the streets to impede the cavalry."
I have just received the following telegram—
"Victoria Barracks, Belfast, 13th August, 1907.—Serious rioting last night. At 5 30 p.m. I placed troops in five posts round disaffected area with orders not to expose men unless necessary and keep rioters in their own quarter of city. Reserve at Ormean Park and Victoria Barracks. Mob attacked and broke all windows of Cullingtree Road Police Barracks. Rifle Brigade charged out and made twenty-five prisoners. This moved mob to Palls Road Barracks. Here the picket was so hardly pressed that the magistrate ordered troops to tire. Seven rounds were fired, three people killed, one, I regret to say, a woman, and several wounded. Reinforcements arrived about 8.15., and troops were able to hold their own. About 12.30 the troops returned to barracks, leaving a detachment at Falls Road, which left for barracks at 1.30; casualties fifteen, only three of these serious."

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us who is the local authority who ordered out these troops? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Lord Mayor did not consult the city magistrates nor did he consult the corporation; and I will further ask him can the Lord Mayor of a city call out the military on his personal responsibility?

I must have notice of that Question. The conditions under which the troops were called out are laid down in the King's Regulations.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that my colleagues and myself on these benches have counselled peaceful behaviour during the whole strike?

I have no reason to doubt that. My opinion is that the people who have been taking part in these lamentable attacks are not strike workmen.

Will the right hon. Gentleman answer my Question, whether he knows that a Member of this House advocated to the people of Belfast that they should throw broken bottles at the troops if they had not swords or guns, and what action he proposes to take to prosecute that Member?

Is it not a fact that this speech was delivered in England, and that England is not within the jurisdiction of the Chief Secretary for Ireland?

The matters which are engaging my attention and also the attention of the people of Belfast have not allowed me a moment to pay attention to the wild language which has been used, and to which no importance is attached in Belfast. The hon. Member paid a hasty visit to Belfast and disappeared very soon. Belfast people with all their faults are not likely to take any guidance from him. With reference to the letter that was addressed to me by the Shipping Federation, I dare say its terms were not very proper, and I have pointed out that in my reply. But I can say for myself that no pressure was put upon me or on any of us by the terms of that letter.