Skip to main content

Settlement With Rebels

Volume 149: debated on Wednesday 14 December 1921

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

So far there have been but two criticisms, and I will deal very briefly with them. The first is that this is a surrender to rebellion, and is therefore a derogation from the dignity of the Crown and the prestige of the Empire. The best answer to that is the effect which the agreement has had throughout the whole civilised world, and notably in the Dominions. The part played by the Monarch has added dignity and splendour to the Throne.

On a point of Order. I am exceedingly sorry to intrude on the Prime Minister. I did not raise this point of Order when two previous speakers were addressing the House, because they were moving and seconding the Address. I now ask your ruling, Sir, as to whether the name of the Monarch can be introduced into a Debate in this House. I submit with great deference that it is one of the oldest and longest standing Rules of Order of this House that no reference whatever should be made to the personality of the Crown or the action of the Crown. In these circumstances, I ask whether it is in order for the right hon. Gentleman or for any other Member in this Debate to refer to the action of the Crown in regard to this matter?

I think the hon. Baronet has stated the position of this House just a little too broadly. In moving the Address in reply to the Speech from the Throne, it is not possible to avoid using the name of the Sovereign. Our rule—a very sound one—is that the name of the Sovereign should not be brought into Debates to influence decisions.

It is only to that extent I propose to go, and, having regard to the terms of the Address, it is essential I should make that reference. The prestige of the Empire has been enormously enhanced by this Agreement. It has given the Empire a new strength. There was a very remarkable communication which came the other day from an able correspondent at Washington, and I think it worth reading to the House:

"Regarding the Irish settlement strictly from the American standpoint, its effects must be beneficial on Anglo-American relations and ought to bring about a close and firm friendship between England and the United States, which hitherto has been impossible, because all attempts at amity were defeated by Irish malcontents in this country. Ireland has long been an issue in American politics. It has affected elections and controlled policies. It has divided parties. It has defeated treaties, agreements, and co-operation between England and the United States because of the terrorism exercised by the Irish."
It ends up:
"The 'New York Times,' voicing the general approval, states that some politicians in this country will lament that their source of reputation and of livelihood has been taken from them, but nothing can really abate the deep satisfaction with which the entire world will receive the news."
That is the Washington correspondent of the "Morning Post." There is a lack of co-ordination there, but it is very creditable to the news columns of that paper. There is no doubt at all that he is one of the ablest correspondents which any paper has got in America at the present time, and that is very well known. It has added to the conviction which the world already possessed that Britain somehow or other always gets over her difficulties. It is dangerous to discuss the ethics of rebellion.

I meant no personal reflection. Is it to be laid down that no rebellion is ever to be settled by pacific means? If the terms are good, are they never to be negotiated with rebels? Whom else could we have negotiated with? This House is the last authority in the world to maintain that proposition. It owes its greatest rights and privileges to concessions made to successful rebels. And may I also point out that the most ruthless repression of any Irish insurrection was effected by the greatest English rebel in history, leading an army of rebels, on behalf of a rebel government, to crush the Irish who had rallied to their legitimate Sovereign. If you take the greatest battle in Irish history—and I am sure my friends from Ulster will forgive me if I allude to it; you might have thought sometimes it was fought only yesterday—it was a battle fought by a British army led by a revolutionary King against an Irish army led by a King who had been deposed by an English revolution. There were more than half, I believe, of the English aristocracy who still believed him to be the rightful occupant of the Throne. There are considerations when you come to discuss rebellion in Ireland which are very difficult to disentangle, and we had better not say too much about them. The same arguments were advanced when there was appeasement of Canada. One of the Bills that was carried through this House was characterised by the "Morning Post" of that day as the "Rebels Reward" Bill. I make my hon. Friends a present of that. That "Rebels Reward" Bill, 70 years later, brought over 500,000 valiant men to our aid in our greatest trouble. The Earl of Chatham when dealing with rebellion in the United States of America, moved a Resolution which ended like this:

"Fully persuaded that to heal and to redress will be more congenial to the goodness and magnanimity of His Majesty and more prevalent over the hearts of generous and free-born subjects than the rigours of chastisement and the horrors of civil war."
That is equally true to-day. He said, in the course of the speech in which he commended that to the House of Lords:
"It is difficult for a Government, after all that has passed, to shake hands with defiers of the King, defiers of Parliament, defiers of the people. … Mercy cannot do harm. It will seat the King where he ought to be, throned in the hearts of his people; and millions at home and abroad now employed in obloquy and revolt would pray for him."
Therefore I do not shrink from this settlement. There are those who say we might have done it a year or two ago. Who can say? It is easy for you to see clearly what you can propose, but you must choose your time in proposing it. Statesmanship consists not merely in the wisdom of your proposals, but in the choosing of the right moment. My right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and I belong in different ranks to the same profession. I belong to the lower and working ranks, and consequently the less remunerated. He knows what it is to settle an action, and he knows it depends upon your choosing exactly the moment. You must not choose it when the parties are full of fight, when they are confident they are going to win, when they are confident, not merely in the justice of their case, but in the invincibility of their counsel. Who can stand against it? That is not the time to settle. You have got to wait until difficulties have cropped up which they had never foreseen, when doubt begins to enter their minds as to the completeness of their victory, when the costs are mounting up, and the only smile is on the face of the solicitor, when they are tired out by pleadings and counter-pleadings and all the delays and wearing mechanism of the law. That is the time. But if you propose too soon, it means not merely that you fail then, but that you interpose obstacles in the way of settling at the right time. You cannot repeat exactly the same terms which have already been rejected—and terms which may be excellent to-day would not have been looked at a year ago—but you cannot repeat them once they have been thrown over. Every counsel knows that, and every statesman ought to know it.

In 1917 we tried a settlement. Representatives of Sinn Fein would not come to the Convention, and for the rest one party would not agree to the unity of Ireland and the other party would not look at anything without it. The result was division. What was ultimately agreed to was not carried by a majority of that Convention. There were moments when we all feared that we proposed a Conference too soon, and if any of those who think that we might have done it a year ago could have just peeped through and seen the last hours which ended in agreement, they would have wondered whether, on the whole, we might not have waited a little longer. You have done it, but only just. I believe that it could not have been done had you not faced Ireland with the accomplished fact of the rights of Ulster. That accomplished fact—by legislation, by the setting up of the Government, by the operation of the Government—it was there to deal with, not in the abstract, not in an argument, not in contention across tables, but in an actual living Government. There are those who still think it could have been done a year or two ago. We do not think so.

We have got in support of our view this agreement, and can anyone say it could have been reached a year ago? I do not believe it could. But it has been done. I invited here time and again conferences, and those invitations were not accepted. The fact of the matter is that public opinion on neither side was quite ripe. It was only when it came to be realised by everybody that prolonging the agony would only mean more loss, devastation, irritation, and trouble that the moment came when men of reason on both sides said: "Let us put an end to it." You could not have done it earlier; but here it is, as far as it has gone. We have got this document. [An HON. MEMBER: "A scrap of paper!"]