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Military And Naval Forces

Volume 149: debated on Wednesday 14 December 1921

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Now I will deal with them. First in regard to allegiance. If anyone challenges what I am saying—and I understand it is going to be challenged—I will defer what I intend to say until an Amendment is moved on that subject. But for the moment I will confine myself to the statement that there has been complete acceptance of allegiance to the British Crown, and acceptance of membership in the Empire and acceptance of common citizenship. I come to the first of the great difficulties—the security of this country if full and complete Dominion Government were conferred upon, Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. Asquith) pointed out in his letter to the "Times" that, that meant that they would have complete control over their army and the navy. They could raise any army they liked and any navy they liked. I pointed out over a year ago what that meant. I said that they could in these circumstances raise an army of half a million men. I think that that was rather ridiculed at the time. I have only got to point out two or three facts. The first is that Australia, with practically the same population, has sent that number of men overseas. The second is that during the War Great Britain raised very nearly one-sixth of its population to put under arias. That would have meant 700,000 in Ireland, and my recollection is that Scotland actually raised, with the same population, something like 700,000 men.

There are two objections, apart from the security of this country, to that being permissible. I say that, even from the point of view of the security of this country, there was an element of danger, but there are two objections apart from that. This country has, since the War, taken the leading part in the disarmament of land forces, and taken a leading part in America in the disarmament of naval forces. We were the first power to put an end to conscription. We took a leading part in imposing the abolition of conscription upon our enemy countries in the Treaty of Peace. We could do so because we were setting the example ourselves. But these problems of the disarmament are the problems of the immediate future. How could the British Empire exercise the weight which it ought to exercise in pressing on other countries the importance of reducing these great forces, which had so much to do with provoking and precipitating the war, when in partnership side by side near us we had a country with forces numbering perhaps 500,000 of men all trained for war? That is the international objection.

The second objection is of a different character. If Southern Ireland trained all its young men, and raised these big forces, one can imagine the apprehension that would fill the hearts of men in the North-East of Ireland. They would be driven, if only to give their people a sense of protection, to pursue the same course. You, therefore, would have all the young men of the North-East of Ireland enrolled, trained, and equipped as fighting forces of the North. What would happen? You would have two rival powers, with menacing conditions, and in those conditions an attitude of defence is apt to be distorted into a gesture of menace. Those are conditions in which conflict always begins. It was desirable, in the interests of the Empire, in the interests of the world, in the interests of Ireland herself, that there should be a limitation imposed upon the raising of armaments and the training of armed men within those boundaries.

I now come to the other side, which is put forward by those who think that we ought not to have allowed any armed forces at all. Let my hon. Friends who think that consider what it means. You cannot guarantee law and order in a country unless you have, to support your civilian forces, a certain number of armed men. We think of Ireland as a country concerned merely about Nationalist questions, concerned merely about these conflicts which have been raging during the last few years. But Ireland has exactly the same problems that we have at bottom. In Belfast there were strikes some time ago, and a considerable number of armed men had to be sent there to maintain peace. In my own country, in Wales, we had a great strike. [HON. MEMBERS: "Lock out!"] We had a stoppage of work, an involuntary stoppage of work. A certain number of extreme men were threatening sabotage. The Government felt compelled to send a considerable number of armed men there to maintain order and protect property. You cannot have a Government responsible for law and order, unless you also equip them with the right to raise a certain number of armed men to support the civil authority. That is all that has been done.

The limit is not beyond what is necessary for the purpose. If you take the most sanguine view, the numbers will not exceed, for the whole of Ireland, 40,000 men. That is not an extravagant figure for the maintenance of order in North and South, with all the possibilities of conflict which may arise. I know exactly what the idea of my friends in the North of Ireland is as to the numbers they require, and if they require these numbers in the North of Ireland, it is not too much to say that it would be unfair to say that the Government in the South of Ireland responsible for law and order should get something corresponding, on the population, to those figures.

That is the Treaty—which is the only question now before us. My right hon. Friend enquires, if this Treaty be broken, what shall we do to enforce it? I am quite willing to face that. It is not a question of one Article. It is a question of the whole of the Articles. If Ireland break faith, break her Treaty—if such a situation has arisen—the British Empire has been quite capable of dealing with breaches of Treaties with much more formidable Powers than Ireland. But we want to feel perfectly clear that when she does so, the responsibility is not ours, but entirely on other shoulders.

I now come to the second force—the Navy. With regard to the Navy we felt that we could not allow the ordinary working of Dominion status to operate. Here we had the experience of the late War, which showed how vital Ireland was to the security of this country. The access to our ports is along the coasts of Ireland. For offence or defence, Ireland is a post which is a key in many respects, and though I agree that Ireland is never likely to raise a great formidable Navy which will challenge us upon the seas, I would remind the House that minelayers and submarines do not cost much, and that they were our trouble mostly in the War. Then as to naval accessibility to the ports of Ireland. The use of coastal positions for the defence of our commerce and the British Islands in time of war is vital. We could not leave that merely to good will, or to the general interpretation of vague conditions of the Treaty. Good will has been planted, but it must have time to grow, and it must not be exposed too much to the winds of temptation. Therefore, we felt that where the security of these islands was concerned, we must leave nothing to chance. My right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley has charged me with having stigmatised Dominion Home Rule as lunacy. I never did so—never. My right hon. Friend, had he taken the trouble to read the speech before criticising it, would have seen that. He said some rather unkind things about me recently, but I think that to force him to read my speeches would be too severe a penalty. I am not complaining, except that I think that if he does criticise my speeches, he is in honour bound to read them.

Then my right hon. Friend's memory must be very bad indeed. I never stigmatised Dominion Home Rule as lunacy. What I did say was that to allow Ireland the right to raise unlimited forces, which would pro- voke civil war there, and be a menace to us, to allow Ireland to raise a navy and any craft she chose, when Ireland was so vital to our defence, was lunacy, and I still say so.

If my right hon. Friend says now that he did not say that I characterised Dominion Home Rule as lunacy, then I at once withdraw, but his followers certainly have done so, and I understood that he did also. At any rate, let me make it clear, for the benefit of his supporters that I never did say that. I confined the statement purely to the unlimited raising of forces and to the raising of an independent navy.

I have read within the last 24 hours a letter which my right hon. Friend wrote to his organ, the "Times." I will bring it here tomorrow. He will find there a passage in which he makes it perfectly clear that he would leave the army and navy in the same position in Ireland as in Canada.

For the moment we will postpone the duel till to-morrow. All I say is that if my right hon. Friend did not say so, and assuming that I am right, such a proposal was sheer lunacy. That is only a kind of provisional characterisation of his speech. So much for the military forces of the Crown. What we have done there is this: We felt that the defence of these islands by sea ought to be left to the British Navy. That is better for Ireland and better for England. There is the inherited skill, there is the power, there is the tradition of the Navy, so that the first thing we provided for was that, in the case of war, we should have free access to all the Irish harbours and creeks. If there be war, we cannot wait for discussions between Governments as to whether you can send your ships here or land men there. The decision must be left to the discretion of the men who conduct the operations.

That is safeguarded by these Articles of Agreement. That does not mean that we do not contemplate that Ireland should take her share in the defence of these islands, the defence of her own coast, and by defending her own coasts helping us to defend ours. In five years we propose to review the conditions, and we trust it will then be possible to allocate a certain proportion of defence to Ireland herself. But that is a matter for discussion and agreement. We shall welcome her co-operation just as we welcome the co-operation of the great Dominions in naval defence and in all the other defence that is necessary for the Empire. If there are any questions to be put upon it, I shall be very glad to answer them.