§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ MR. P. J. SMYTH
, in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, its object was to repeal the Act 33 Geo. III., c. 29, known as Lord Clare's Convention Act, passed by the Irish Parliament in 1793, to prevent meetings of a representative character, though called for the most laudable purposes, and for attending which persons on conviction were liable to fine, or two years' imprisonment. That Act was passed for a special purpose, but it had been continued by the Imperial Parliament down to the present time, although no law of a similar kind had ever existed in England or Scotland. A public meeting might be convened in Ireland for any purpose whatever, provided that those who attended it were not delegated to it, and the meeting was not of a representative character; but the police were empowered to enter any meeting of a representative character and disperse it, and the people in attendance were liable to fines and imprisonment. No law of a similar kind existed for England or Scotland, and if such a law were in force in either of those countries, the Corn Laws would never have been repealed, Parliament would never have been reformed, and the Ballot would not now be the law of the land. If it were extended to England, however, there was not an Englishman but would say that the right of public meeting was extinguished. He admitted that the Act was not put in force, and that he had himself recently attended a meeting in Dublin in which delegates were present not only from Ireland but from England; but it was wrong to 586 leave on the Statute Book any Act which either could not or ought not be carried into operation. With those few words he asked the House to assent to the second reading of the Bill, so that in England and Ireland the law might be assimilated with reference to the holding of public meetings.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. P. J. Smyth.)
§ THE ATTORNEY GENERAL FOR IRELAND (Dr. BALL)
contended that the Act of 1793, which was passed to guard against a contemplated seditious meeting, and which it was now proposed to repeal, and which every Government since it was passed by an Irish Parliament had been unanimous in upholding, did not interfere in any way with the ordinary right of meeting convened to petition Parliament or the Sovereign for the redress of grievances, or for any other political purpose. Any meeting might be lawfully held in Ireland, provided it did not degenerate into sedition, or was not composed of delegates affecting to represent the people of that country. The Act of 1793 was solely aimed at assemblies, convened from all parts of the country to procure changes in the laws and to usurp the functions of Government, claiming or exercising authority to represent the nation. The fact that Parliament and Convocation were specially excepted from its operation showed the true meaning and intent of the Act. It was, in his opinion, an Act of State policy for the maintenance of the established Government of the country, and intended to prevent the setting up, side by side with the Legislature, of any body which assumed to itself a representative character, and which arrogated to itself co-ordinate power with Parliament, whose functions it might usurp. No one now dreamt of setting up in England or Scotland a rival Legislature to the Imperial Parliament, but at the present moment, when there existed in Ireland a movement in that very direction, and an agitation was carried on to obtain a local Legislature, he thought they could not afford to cast away an Act which had proved so successful in Ireland, and had given so much protection to the people. What would be the consequence of allowing representative assemblies for the purpose 587 of considering subjects of the kind? He hoped the House would reject the Bill, which sought to do away with a statute that had proved most useful, and that had never been used for purposes of oppression. He must therefore give the Motion a decided negative, and move the rejection of the Bill.
§ Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Attorney General for Ireland.)
§ MR. BUTT
said, the very fact of oppressive use having been made of the Act furnished a strong argument for its repeal. Moreover, the Bill had been introduced in consequence of an article in The Times inviting Irish Members to bring forward and discuss in that House practical measures for the redress of their country's grievances. He held that the Act of 1793, which might have been suited for the troublesome times of the French Revolution, and which was adopted in Ireland at a period when the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended in England, was not needed now and ought to be abolished. No man in Ireland was mad enough to think of setting up a body to usurp the functions of Parliament, and, moreover, even if it were otherwise, the Common Law on which that particular statute was by its authors avowedly based, was sufficient to meet any such case. He would therefore suggest that the Government should allow the Bill to be read a second time, striking out those clauses which were covered by the Common Law. The stringent character of that arbitrary statute might be judged of from the fact that when the Irish Church was disestablished it was necessary to insert in the Act disestablishing it a clause specially providing that the meetings of the Episcopalian Synod should not be deemed illegal. If the Bishops of that Church when it was about to be disestablished had convened their clergy and laity to meet to set their house in order, they would thus have brought themselves within the penalties of the Act of 1793. He wanted to know whether the Presbyterian Synod, professedly a representative body, or the Convention of the Methodist Church were illegal assemblies? He had himself attended meetings of delegates of the working classes 588 in England on the subject of the Factory Acts. If hon. Members did that in Ireland, they would be liable to two years' imprisonment, and, under the new prison regulations, might be made to wear the prison dress, live on the prison fare, have their hair cropped, and clean out their own cells. He said that a law of that kind ought not to be continued, and if it was not meant to be enforced, its retention on the Statute Book was the less defensible.
§ MR. FORSYTH
said, he wished to remind Irish Members who were indignant at the existence of such stringent legislation as regarded public meetings in Ireland, that even more stringent enactments on that subject now existed in England. Among them was an Act of George III. to prevent the election or appointment of any unlawful assembly, under the pretence of presenting Petitions or Addresses to the Crown or to Parliament. By an Act of Parliament of Charles IL, which had not been repealed, great restrictions were also placed upon the holding of meetings, the ostensible object of which was to adopt Petitions to His Majesty or to Parliament. Then, by the Act of George III., it was required that meetings of more than 50 persons, except county meetings, should not be held without certain notice, and declared that if held without such notice they would be deemed unlawful. An Act passed in 1846, on the same subject, recited the provisions of the last-mentioned statute, and modified its stringency to the extent only of requiring that proceedings under it should not be taken except in the name of the Law Officers of the Crown. There was thus, in point of fact, a still more rigorous law applying to England than to Ireland. The object of the Irish Act of 33 George III., the one under notice, was simply to prevent the holding of conventions in imitation of Parliament, and the establishment of an imperium in imperio; and of all times the present seemed to him the most unsuitable for a proposal to repeal that law, bearing in mind that the hon. and learned Member for Limerick had given Notice of a Motion in favour of Home Rule.
§ SIR GEORGE BOWYER
maintained that the Act applied, or might be made to apply to assemblies which were not of the nature of a convention in imitation of Parliament, and which did not encroach 589 either upon the Prerogatives of the Crown or the Privileges of Parliament, and it was impossible to tell what might happen under it at a time when there were corrupt Judges. With regard to the English statutes, to which reference had just been made, he was under the impression they were repealed. [Mr. FORSYTH: No.] Then they ought to be, for he looked upon them as practically obsolete; and he undertook to bring forward a Bill in the course of the present Session with that object. He trusted the House would not hesitate to pass the measure now before it.
§ MR. CONOLLY
said, he thought there was no quality more remarkable in the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. Butt) than his consummate coolness. He and others who acted with him were themselves indictable under the Act which they sought to have repealed. [Mr. BUTT: Hear, hear!] The hon. and learned Gentleman owned the soft impeachment, and, no doubt, within 24 hours after the passing of the Bill, he would proclaim throughout the length and breadth of Ireland, that he intended to hold his mock Parliament in College Green. Without doubt, he and those with him would shrink from nothing, however illegal or unconstitutional. ["Oh, oh!"]
§ MR. CONOLLY
apologized to the House for having, in the course of an illustration of his meaning, gone further than he had intended, and to hon. Gentlemen opposite for having used words which seemed to have given them offence.
§ MR. CONOLLY
said, he readily withdrew them; but wished, at the same time, to express his conviction that those hon. Gentlemen would go any length, within the law, in order to make it appear that public opinion in Ireland approved their scheme for a separate Legislature, and were oven prepared to hold a convention in Dublin for the purpose. In fact, they had held a convention there already, and had thus made 590 themselves liable to the penalties of the law. But for the fact that we were living under a most forbearing Government, and at a time when there was no wish to execute the law in all its rigour, these gentlemen would now be suffering: for what they had done. Under these circumstances, it was strange that they should be so scjueamish as to object to the language which had been used. The truth must be told sometimes, however inconvenient to hon. Gentlemen opposite; and as one knowing Ireland well, he must affirm that they themselves held very different language on the other side of the water from that which was heard from them in this House: for in Ireland, they brooked no opposition, and sought to ride roughshod over the country, making people fear that their very lives and homes would not be safe.
§ MR. R. SMYTH
I am not a little surprised to hear from the hon. Member for Donegal (Mr. Conolly) such an alarming account of the state of matters in those parts of Ireland which have fallen under his special observation. Of course, no one knows so well as the hon. Gentleman himself through what trying ordeals he had to pass in seeking a return to this House; but I may say that at the recent General Election I had to engage in conflicts similar to those which excited the county of Donegal, in the county which adjoins it (Londonderry), and although it is well known that a considerable minority of the population of that county hold opinions in harmony with those of the hon. and learned M ember for Limerick (Mr. Butt), I saw no attempt to disturb the peace, or to do anything that could, with any colour of justice, be designated as "riding rough-shod" over their opponents. The hon. Member for Donegal may have had experiences exceptionally disheartening; but that is no reason why he should permit himself to draw conclusions of so sweeping and alarming a character, For my part, I am not aware of any means being, at this moment, resorted to in Ireland for the propagation of political sentiments, or for the advancement of peculiar theories of government that are not perfectly constitutional, and if we do not like them, we have constitutional means of opposing them. These alarmist pictures may have their effect upon hon. Gentlemen who do not 591 know Ireland; but they cannot possibly govern the votes of any Members of this House who are able to look beneath the surface of affairs in that country. With regard to the Bill now before the House, I am bound to give it my support, for a reason which I shall briefly assign. We have it on the authority of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland, that an assembly is illegal in that country, not because of any illegality or treasonable object in the matters brought before it but solely for the representative character of the meeting itself. If it is a delegated assembly and deals with constitutional politics, it is illegal. [Mr. BUTT: Hear, hear. The hon. and learned Member behind me coincides in opinion with the Attorney General, as indeed, I believe, he made clear in his own speech. Well, then, according to that interpretation of the Convention Act, I am sure the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has frequently, in recent years, committed illegal acts without being aware of it. It has petitioned Parliament, it has discussed questions fundamental to the Irish Constitution ill Church and State; and, in doing so, has transgressed. Why do I say so? The Presbyterian General Assembly in Ireland is a delegated body. Its members are sent there from congregations scattered throughout the four provinces of Ireland. They are not fortuitously brought together, but regularly commissioned. Now, in 1868, certain Resolutions were carried in the House of Commons, and a Suspensory Bill was also carried, founded on those Resolutions, the object of which was to change the Constitution of the Irish Church, and, in fact, to sever its connection with the State. The General Assembly met shortly afterwards, and, not having any fear of the Convention Act before its eyes, actually discussed that Suspensory Bill, passed resolutions of its own, which were forwarded to the Prime Minister, and, in so doing, violated the law as laid down to-day on high legal authority. Do I blame the General Assembly? I do not; but I want it hereafter to do its work, even when semi-political, under the sanction of law. A law is bad that cannot be enforced, because it tends to weaken the respect of the people for authority. I am well aware that no sane Government would interfere with 592 Ecclesiastical Assemblies in their deliberations; but it is curious that in the Act of 1869, for disestablishing the Irish Church, it is expressly provided that the representative body of the Protestant Episcopal Church may meet and deliberate, anything in the Convention Act notwithstanding. I, as a Presbyterian, am not content to live on sufferance, while my neighbours are living in the midst of privilege. I have no doubt that the Presbyterian Assembly will go on in its old way; but why should the members be made to feel that some day a Government of the future, having more legal knowledge than political discretion, may come down upon it with pains and penalties for discussing some great subject lying at the foundation of the Constitution and of liberty? The Government may wish to be armed against surprises; but if I am rightly informed, the Common Law is sufficient for the purpose. The people, too, ought to be armed against surprises, and because I believe the Convention Act is no more than a dead letter in quiet times, and might become a serious menace in times of national excitement, I shall vote for its repeal, and therefore I shall support the Bill brought in by the hon. Member for Westmeath.
§ Question put, "That the word 'now stand part of the Question."'
§ The House divided:—Ayes 84; Noes; 216: Majority 132.
§ Words added.
§ Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.
§ Bill put off for six months.