Skip to main content

Clause 2—(Power To Prolong House Of Commons Of Northern Ireland)

Volume 393: debated on Wednesday 3 November 1943

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

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

I want to oppose Clause 2. I gave some reasons on the Second Reading, but I have more reasons to put forward to the Committee why Clause 2 should not be accepted in the Bill. During the week-end I had the opportunity of meeting Labour and trade unionist representatives in Northern Ireland, and this question was discussed as to whether it could be justified that this Clause should be allowed to proceed through this Committee without objection. They decided on behalf of the Labour and trade union movement in Northern Ireland that I should oppose Clause 2 on the following grounds. First, that Northern Ireland provides no parallel to this country. The Parliaments are not the same. No Coalition exists in the Parliament of Northern Ireland.

This is a very narrow point in this Clause, dealing only with the actual prolongation of a certain Parliament. It does not enable us to discuss comparisons between that Parliament and this and various other details connected with Northern Ireland.

Is the hon. Member not in Order in doing this? This Parliament, as we have already decided by the passing of Clause 1, shall continue. The second Clause gives the right for the Northern Ireland Government to continue longer. The point the hon. Member is making is that while we are justified in allowing Clause 1, for certain domestic reasons, to pass, we are not justified in passing Clause 2. Would it not be in Order, therefore, for the hon. Member to show contrasts in the working of the Northern Ireland Government against that of this country? He has to adduce reasons why that Government should not be given the same facilities as the Government in this country. I should have thought he was perfectly in Order in arguing that there was a reason for a differentiation.

No, that is the mistake. The hon. Member seems to think we are discussing the Government of Northern Ireland. We are only discussing technically the Parliament of Northern Ireland.

May I put this, with great respect, that what we are here discussing is not merely technicalities, but whether the Northern Ireland Government should be granted an extended life or not—[HON. MEMBERS: "Parliament, not Government"]—that the Northern Ireland Parliament should be allowed to continue? What the hon. Member is arguing is that the Parliament in Northern Ireland is, for certain reasons, different from the Parliament here. Is he not entitled to show that difference? Is he not entitled to argue that that Parliament for certain reasons, owing to the way it is governed, ought now to come to an end and a new Parliament be substituted?

No, I think my Ruling must be quite clear on this matter. This is a matter in which we can discuss the prolongation of a Parliament, but not with regard to Northern Ireland.

With regard to that, there is another important condition under which Clause 1 was carried. It is because we have a Coalition Government. It is entirely different in Northern Ireland. I suggest—

I think that goes further to show that I am right in insisting that we should limit ourselves to a Parliament. Otherwise we get into discussion as to what sort of Governments there are.

There is no parallel between the two Parliaments. The Parliament of Northern Ireland is not constituted on the same lines as this Assembly. On the Second Reading the similarity of the two Parliaments was put forward as a justification for Clause 2. I certainly thought that I would be entitled to give reasons why the life of that Parliament should not be extended. I showed that that Parliament did not stand as a Coalition. That Parliament has been in session since 1938, but the same controlling authority has been in power for the last 22 years. We claim that the Government of Ireland Act, which gives the right to the people of Northern Ireland to call upon the Parliament of Northern Ireland to dissolve every five years, should be fulfilled. If there is a violation of the Government of Ireland Act in this Bill, I claim that that is a breach by this House of an agreement with the people of Northern Ireland. It is all right for the Home Secretary to say that this Bill does not extend the life of the Northern Ireland Parliament, but it gives authority to the Parliament of Northern Ireland to extend its life by Resolution. We in the working class movement in that area know that the life of the Parliament of Northern Ireland will be extended if power is given. We seek protection from this House against the dominating factor in the Parliament of Northern Ireland, the Tory party. If this Clause is passed the Storm Troopers at Stormont belonging to the Unionist party will trot into the Division Lobby to extend their own life, because there is nothing of which they are so afraid as a General Election. They are afraid to go to the people of Northern Ireland. They have lost all the by-elections they have fought—

—except one. They have lost Willowfield, North Down, and West Belfast. The only election they have to their credit—

Here again, I must point out that we cannot discuss the Government of Northern Ireland, but only the Parliament.

Surely I may be allowed to refer to the by-elections. At four by-elections held under the Parliamentary franchise they have been defeated in three.

That is the point. The Parliament has not been defeated but the Government has. That is why the subject is out of Order.

If I substitute the word "Parliament" for "Government," I hope, Mr. Williams, that you will be lenient.

I accept your Ruling. The representation of the Parliament has been so changed that Clause 2 ought not to be accepted. Any argument which I can put before you would not be so strong as that great change which has taken place. The Home Secretary has said that this Clause only gives power. The Parliament gets that power, and, as I have already pointed out, there is an Opposition of 16 in the Parliament. But there is another party—the Tory Party—with 36.

One of our people mis-conducted himself by selling the pass to the Tories, and we had to expel him, and the Tories accepted him into their ranks. I accept the correction of the hon. Member for Belfast University (Professor Savory). They do not resign their seats there when they change their party. They hold on to their seats. That Parliament's life should be terminated immediately. I believe that the overwhelming majority of the people in Northern Ireland and the Unionist representatives in this House agree with me that the present Parliament's life should be terminated because of the methods adopted by a certain party caucus in the undermining of the old Tories who have represented the Government of that country for so many years. I do not wish to delay the Committee very much longer, but I ask it to bear with me on this point of common decency and give to the people of Northern Ireland that which they are entitled to receive. We are not here as poor men begging for something. We are entitled to have an election under the 1920 Act, and that, we claim, this House should concede. We do not wish to be bombastic and say that if we had an election we might be returned to power. It will require an enormous amount of education before the Socialist Party can take over full control of Northern Ireland, but I hope the day is not far distant when that party will reign with full powers over the destiny of the whole of Ireland and not the North alone.

At this late hour the limitation of the discussion on Clause 2 and your Ruling, Mr. Deputy-Chairman, would not allow me to justify my case and bring it to the point of telling the truth and nothing but the truth to Members of this Com- mittee. The startling statements that I could make about the conduct of Parliamentary life in Northern Ireland would amaze every Member in this Committee. Not one Member here would believe what is happening to-day under what we call democratic control and a Parliament that is supposed to be a democratic Assembly. I claim that it is not a democratic Assembly. It is more akin to the Nazis of Berlin than it is to a democratic State. The resentment and bad feeling and the retarding of our war effort have been due to the majority of that Parliament. I say that with a full knowledge of the true position in the war factories and in the shipyards.

I think the hon. Member is really going too far. I thought his peroration would be on the lines of the Parliament and that the hon. Member would not go on to the shipyards.

Thank you very much, Mr. Williams. I had something to say in that strain, but, taking the advice you have so wisely given to me, I do not want to encroach on your generosity. We in that part of the world known as the six counties of Ireland feel that if you can approve of elections in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and our neighbours next door here can have an election, the least you can concede to the people of Northern Ireland is an early election for the Parliament of Northern Ireland. If you can make a concession of this kind, you will only be carrying out the terms of the 1920 Government Act and giving the right to the people of Ireland to decide for five years what form of Parliament they will have.

The hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. J. Beattie) always goes about as a person looking for a bad smell, and, rather like Hitler, he always finds it.

I do not see how that illustration can possibly come into the life of a Parliament.

You know but too well, Mr. Williams, how the system of ventilation in the old House makes your remarks, if I may say so with great respect, rather dubious. At all events, we have listened to threatened exposures from the hon. Member for West Belfast, and they are all rather like Hitler's secret weapon, which is something with which we are threatened, is always vague and never comes into any concrete form.

I had to interrupt the hon. Member several times for going into these points, and I hope that the hon. Member, with his considerable Parliamentary experience, will not abuse his Parliamentary knowledge and will keep strictly to the point.

I will keep very strictly to the point, but as you are aware, Mr. Williams, the hon. Member made remarks to which I was trying in a very mild way to make some slight answer. I pass from that to congratulate the hon. Member for West Belfast—it is the first opportunity I have had of doing so—upon being the first Member in this House who believes and has preached an independent all-Ireland Republic and has had the courage to take his place in this House.

On a point of Order. Is it in Order for an hon. Member to make a charge against another hon. Member without tabling the proof?

I am prepared to accept the hon. Member's word. If he says he is against an all-Ireland independent Republic, let him say so. I would entirely accept it.

I had better stop this. The hon. Member, in addressing the Committee, was about to make some complimentary remarks, but they were not as complimentary as the hon. Member obviously thought, and perhaps we may drop this matter now.

It was my intention to congratulate and compliment the hon. Member, and judging from the annoyance that gives in the Fall's Road neighbourhood, I thought it would be most welcome for him to be congratulated on those lines. I extremely regret it if I have caused the hon. Gentleman any pain.

None. If the hon. Member wants to know where I stand, I will tell him. I stand for a Socialist State for Northern Ireland and for Southern Ireland.

I must ask the hon. Member not to pursue these interruptions, because it is fairly obvious that they might lead to a prolonged Debate. I would suggest that he keeps to the small point of the length of that Parliament and not have anything to do with the Members of this Parliament or any other.

My efforts to please the hon. Member for West Belfast have been extremely unfortunate, and it would, perhaps, have been just as well if I had not made them. I tried to congratulate him in one sense, and when that did not go very well I tried in another. In neither had I any success. However, I will try to address myself to one or two points in order that the Committee should know what all this is about. The first is that this Clause is permissive. All we are claiming is permission for the Parliament of Northern Ireland to exercise the same rights which this Parliament exercises over its elections. Anyone who is at all inclined towards smaller independence for Northern Ireland would have been on the side of those who said, "Everything must be governed strictly from Westminster," but would rather have been on the side of those who said, "The Parliament of Northern Ireland must have some authority over its own elections." There is another point which has not yet been mentioned in the whole of the discussions about this matter, namely, that this Parliament is two years older than the Parliament of Northern Ireland, that it is two years more stale and more out of date. Is it to deny a younger Parliament the rights which it takes for itself? I cannot imagine any Parliament worthy of the name taking such a line. There is one other point I would like to make, and that is that in the interests of accuracy I must say that the number of unemployed which the exertions of the Parliament of Northern Ireland—

I am sorry, but the hon. Member certainly cannot discuss the question of unemployed or give any figures in connection with them.

Can I not point out, Mr. Williams, that they were at least one-half of what was alleged?

I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Williams, and I will not divulge the information which I have in my possession and which I was prepared to give. It is a sad blow to me, though, because I am well prepared on this point. The hon. Gentleman the Member for North Camberwell (Mr. Ammon) raised a matter on which I am sure he would welcome my assistance. He said that we had no Coalition. Well, we have and—

There are many points on which I am sure I could be of great assistance to this Committee, but I naturally bow to your Ruling, Mr. Williams, as I always have done and will continue to do. I think, however, that there are two further points on which I shall be strictly in Order. One is that in Northern Ireland the National Service Acts do not apply owing to the action of this House, although the Members for Northern Ireland were in favour of them applying because there seemed to be particular reasons why it was more appropriate there than elsewhere. The Service man who goes to the front is a volunteer, and it is notorious that the views of all in Northern Ireland are not keenly in support of the war. Whatever arrangement is made for the vote of the Service man, it cannot be as satisfactory and as easy for them as it is for those who—

I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he is dealing now with another Act.

With respect, Mr. Williams, surely I am allowed to point out the peculiar state of affairs produced by the National Service Acts in their application and show that volunteers are in a less fortunate position in the matter of their vote?

Yes, if it is strictly related to the life of the Parliament. But the hon. Member must not go into the question of registration and things of that kind.

I was merely pointing out that it is much more difficult for the Service man's vote and that in this case the Service man is drawn from those who go of their own free will. Therefore, elections are even less desirable there than here. Northern Ireland is a much more agricultural country than this. The townsman can reach his polling booth with ease, even in these days when transport is very difficult, but in the large and thinly populated areas, which are far more general in Ireland than in the United Kingdom, it would be an insufferable hardship if those who live in country districts were expected to leave their work, which is of the utmost importance, and walk as much as 15 miles to and from a polling booth. It is easy in West Belfast, where the polling booths are at the ends of the streets, but if the hon. Member for West Belfast knew a little more about Derry and Tyrone, he would see that it is quite impossible. For the reasons I have advanced it is only fair and just that this Clause should be accepted. If any Members of the Northern Ireland Parliament wish to oppose it, let them do it there.

The very delightful Irish interlude we have had to-day has been a change from our usual proceedings and only shows what a loss the House has suffered through the absence of so many Irish Members. I am, however, interested in this matter only from the constitutional point of view. I do not know whether the present Irish Government is good or bad, and I am not concerned with it, and in any case it would be out of Order if I referred to it. I am not wholly convinced by the arguments used so far in favour of putting this Clause into the Bill. It did not seem to me that my hon. Friend was very convincing. To say that the Irish Parliament was two years younger than this Parliament does not go to the root of the matter. As to conscription, while I quite see his point of view, that argument is met by the fact that in Canada, where there is no conscription, there has been a General Election. To say that this is permissive does not seem to meet the point either. Surely the test that ought to be applied has been applied in this country. It is, Is there general agreement that we should uproot our Constitution and prolong Parliament by its own will; and, further, is the country concerned so closely involved in the war, in the matter of possible bombing attacks by the enemy, as to make the carrying out of a General Election impracticable and undesirable? That seems to be the real test, and I have not yet heard anything to indicate that Northern Ireland should be exempt and comes within that category. It may be that more powerful arguments can be adduced. My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast University (Professor Savory) is most persuasive and no doubt will tell us at great length; but looking at the matter purely from a constitutional point of view, and as one who does not like to see our Parliamentary machinery altered at all, unless there is a thoroughly good reason for it, I hope we shall have further enlightenment on this point.

I am very glad of the opportunity to reply to the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander). First, I think it necessary to clear up a misconception which has prevailed among Members of Parliament and also in the Press. Many hon. Members have said to me "Why do you not prolong your own Parliament?" My answer is that it is ultra vires for us to do so. We are limited strictly by the Act of 1920, which says there must be a General Election in Northern Ireland every five years. Therefore, we have no power to prolong our own Parliament, and this Clause only gives permission to the Parliament of Northern Ireland to prolong its existence. My hon. Friend has asked me why, if there is not general agreement in Northern Ireland on this question, we are asking this House for permission. He says that on a matter of such constitutional importance there should be general agreement. My answer is clear. Last year we asked the British Parliament to give us this same permission under Clause 2 of the Prolongation of Parliament Bill. The British Parliament passed that Clause and gave permission to the Parliament of Northern Ireland to prolong its life. What happened? The Resolution came before the House of Commons of Northern Ireland on 25th November last year. I have here the official Hansard, Volume 25, column 3068. To show my hon. Friend that there was general agreement let me point out that the only person who opposed that Resolution was the hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. J. Beattie).

There was general agreement. Why does the hon. Member interrupt me? I never interrupt anybody. There was general agreement, because the only person who spoke against that resolution was the hon. Member for West Belfast. He could not get anyone to join with him, and consequently there was no Division, and the Resolution giv- ing permission to the Parliament of Northern Ireland to prolong its existence was passed unanimously without a Division.

That is the answer to question No. 1. As to question No. 2, the hon. Member has put this relevant question to me, and I hope my answer will be equally relevant. Are there, he said, such conditions prevailing in Northern Ireland as prevail over here, such as air raids, to make it difficult to hold an election? My answer is that 55,000 houses in Belfast were damaged by the two raids of Easter Tuesday, 1941, and 4th May, 1941. More than 900 people were killed in Belfast alone. It is true there have been no serious raids since, but who can tell whether we shall not have further raids, in view of the fact that the capital of Southern Ireland is a blaze of light and acts as a landmark for raids upon Belfast and Liverpool? We are therefore seriously exposed to danger, and that danger is far from being removed. My answer to the last question of my hon. Friend is that it would not be fair to hold an election in Northern Ireland at the present time, because of the immense number of our citizens who are fighting your battles in Italy and everywhere else where the war is taking place.

Speaking of my own constituency, I am staggered by the official figures which have been given me by the Secretary of the University to show the proportion of my constituents, graduates of the university, who have joined up. They have joined to such an extent that, for example, the medical profession is almost depleted, and it is very difficult to find a sufficient number of doctors to carry on the necessary work in Northern Ireland. It would be most unfair to hold an election when the very élite of the voters would be prevented from voting. Therefore, all we are asking when we beg you to pass this Clause is to give permission to the Parliament of Northern Ireland—because it cannot do it itself—to prolong its own life. Another Resolution will have to be brought forward in the House of Commons of Northern Ireland, and then we shall see whether the hon. Member for West Belfast can prevail upon his sole and unique follower not to rebel against him but to join with him so that at least there may be two tellers for a Division.

I think the hon. Member for Belfast University (Professor Savory) has been somewhat unfair, I do not think intentionally, in the way he has put the position against the hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. J. Beattie). The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) posed a certain question. He said that in Britain there is unanimity among the great political parties, and not merely among the parties, but among the main forces outside in this country, because whether a General Election is to be held or not is a question involving not merely political forces but the great forces outside. The position he says is that last year, the only Member in the Northern Ireland Parliament who opposed the proposal was the hon. Gentleman who is now Member for West Belfast, but that does not answer the issue. What of the great organised body of Labour opinion? You cannot say that the whole of that Government is vested in one side. I lived there for some time and I know it.

On a point of Order. Was not this the point, Mr. Williams, on which you stopped me, when I wanted to point out that it was a Coalition?

I asked hon. Members, on both sides, to keep very strictly off those matters, and I think that is a perfectly fair Ruling.

But you allowed the hon. Member for Queen's University, Belfast, to say that there was no body in Northern Ireland political affairs against this Bill and if you allowed him to say that, you must allow me to answer him.

Let me develop my point. I was going to say that there is a great body of opinion, other than the political forces and I was going to show that, even in Northern Ireland, the Parliament is based on something more than merely a majority party on one side and the hon. Member for West Belfast on the other. There is a small group who represent Irish national opinion. I know they do not attend but still they are elected Members with as much force behind their election as any Members of that Parliament and I think there are four of them.

They are opposed to it. Further, the hon. Member for West Belfast represents opinion far outside the narrow confines of party, because in the recent election, he defeated a Conservative of considerable prominence.

In the old days when I was there you could not get elected on 10 split votes. Here far the first time in history a member of the Labour Socialist movement has been elected to come here. Does that show that the parties are united? I will not go into other issues that could be raised but since the hon. Member spoke about the impossibility of voting because all the people were away I would point out that to-day we have passed the Committee stage of another Bill.

It does not apply to elections for the Parliament of Northern Ireland at all.

I am addressing the Committee. The hon. Member for Belfast University (Professor Savory) should not have made that interruption.

If the Professor would show to one of the humbler section of the community, manners, it might do both of us good. I say we have to-day passed the Committee stage of a Bill which makes provision not merely for voting at by-elections, but if a General Election were held for voting in that also. If the Northern Ireland Parliament had wanted an election there was nothing to hinder them in the past 12 months making provision for every one of the absent voters. The truth is that in Northern Ireland, as in many parts of the world, politics are undergoing great changes and it would be a good thing for the Parliament over there to have an election. I think it would show greater changes than in most places and it would be better if the people were allowed to decide. I think this Parliament is doing wrong in continuing the Northern Ireland Parliament for another 12 months.

I think it is a great pity that you, Mr. Williams, have called various hon. Members to Order—

I really do not think that is a correct interpretation of Parliamentary procedure.

I was not suggesting anything discreditable to yourself Mr. Williams, but only that it was about time we had a good Irish row. That is why I said it is a pity so many hon. Members have been called to Order. I remember in the old days when 83 Irish Members sat in this House, the rows that were kicked up were thoroughly enjoyed. The hon. Member for West Belfast (Mr. Beattie) represents the Nationalist Party in West Belfast, the very people who kicked up the rows in former days. He has no objection, I am sure, to my saying that, because it was by Nationalist votes that he was returned here. Let us get back to what this thing means. The Solicitor-General was very fair when he said that this Clause did not lengthen the life of the Parliament of Northern Ireland. It gives them a chance of doing so themselves. A Member of this House who does not profess to be a friend of Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Calmachie (Mr. Stephen) said that he recognised that with the electoral roll as it was at present there was need for prolongation, at least until a new roll came into operation. That is a bit of common sense. The hon. Member for West Belfast in the Second Reading Debate gave a number of reasons why the Government of Northern Ireland should be dissolved and why there should be a new election there. Mr. Speaker then said:

"I have been listening to the hon. Member, and I appreciate that he is talking on Clause 2. He is entitled to say how bad the government of Northern Ireland is in his opinion and therefore that its Parliament should not have its life extended."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th October, 1943; col. 119, Vol. 393.]
If Mr. Speaker gave the hon. Member liberty to refer to Clause 2 and to say all the bad things he could about the Northern Ireland Government, I should like to say some of the good things upon this proposition. On this proposition that the Clause stand part, may I say that the Government of Northern Ireland have followed in the footsteps of everything good that has been introduced in this House? They have attended to the question of old age pensions—

I have ruled several hon. Members out of Order for discussing what a Government do, do not, or what they are, and I must ask the hon. and gallant Member to keep off that kind of thing and keep entirely to the question as to whether the Clause stand part or not.

All I have to say, Mr. Williams, is that your Ruling is quite different from that of Mr. Speaker.

With regard to what the hon. Member said on Second Reading of the Bill with reference to ourselves, that we do not really represent the people of Northern Ireland and that we do not know anything about Northern Ireland, I do not know where he gets that information. I think that some of us have lived for a much longer time in Northern Ireland than he has, and some of us have been in Parliament a much longer time than he has.

I do not know, but not as long as I have nor as long as the senior Member for Antrim (Sir H. O'Neill).

I am telling the hon. Member. He should not make these wild statements. His speech was humorous; that was perhaps his intention—

I really must ask the hon. and gallant Member to help me. If he goes on making these attacks on the hon. Member opposite, there is bound in fairness to be a reply. I would appeal to him and ask him to keep to the relevance of the Motion we are discussing.

It seems very strange to me that we may be attacked from the opposite side, or the Northern Government may be attacked on the opposite side, and that all the bad things that the Northern Government have done are to be broadcast in this Committee and the Press, and that we are not allowed to reply. In that case I sit down.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, without Amendment; read the Third time, and passed.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

It being after the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.