§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Colonel Sanders.]
§ Major O'NEILL
I rise to draw attention to a matter with regard to which I asked a question this afternoon, namely, the urgency for the completion of land purchase in Ireland. The question which I asked to-day was twice postponed at the request of the Government, and naturally, in view of that, I had some reason to suppose that they were considering the matter with a view to taking some action and giving me a favourable answer. Instead of that, the answer which I received was merely to the effect that the matter was engaging the anxious consideration of the Government, that it would require legislation to carry the question further towards its completion, and that at the present time legislation would not be feasible. This question of land purchase is one of the most pressing questions that exist in Ireland at the present time. It is a point upon which all representatives of Ireland are agreed, be they Nationalist or Unionist. I may say that the only reason why Nationalist Members are not present this evening to support me is that, so far as I know, they were not in the House to-day, and I was unable to give them notice that the matter was coming forward. The hon. Member for the Falls Division of Belfast (Mr. Devlin) raised this identical question a short time ago and pressed the Government upon it, but received no reply more satisfactory than that which I received to-day.
I should like briefly to put before the House the position with regard to this matter. It is pretty generally known that in 1903 a large and comprehensive Land Act for Ireland was passed, the object of which was to transfer the ownership of the agricultural soil of Ireland from the 1270 landlords to the tenants. That Act, brought in by Mr. Wyndham, was greeted, and rightly so, as a great charter for the benefit of the agricultural community in Ireland. As a result of it land purchase underwent a great and beneficent revolution. Practically speaking, it began to become operative, and became rapidly a matter which would soon be completely carried out. Since those days the matter hung fire owing to the change in the financial situation, and owing also to an Act which was passed in 1909, which practically put an end to any possibility of completing the matter, due to its entirely inadequate and unsatisfactory financial provisions. The result is that at present land purchase is practically dead. It is not moving forward in any respect. The first reason for that is the complete change in the value of money. When the Wyndham Act was passed money could be borrowed by the Government at 2½or 3 per cent. To-day it can only be borrowed at 5 per cent. Also the landlords, the sellers, could not possibly accept payment in depreciated land stock, which had sunk far below its par level. Land stock, for the purpose of payment, was to be treated at its par value. That was the position of the matter when the Irish Convention dealt with it. Of all questions which were before the Convention in Ireland none were regarded as more pressing than this question of land purchase. A Committee of the Convention was appointed to consider it, and they made a unanimous recommendation. With regard to that recommendation, the Prime Minister wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Convention in January, 1918, in which he used these words:Finally the Government have noted the very important Report which has been prepared on the subject of land purchase and on which a unanimous decision has been reached by the Committee of the Convention set up to consider this subject. If this Report commends itself to the Convention, the Government are prepared to introduce into Parliament, as part of the plan of settlement, a measure for the purpose of enabling Parliament to give effect to the recommendations of the Convention on the subject of land purchase.Of course the Convention on its main grounds broke down, and there was no question of any immediate settlement. Therefore, the question of land purchase was allowed to drop. But now it is vitally important that quite irrespective of any larger settlement, whether that is coming or not, this matter should be pro- 1271 ceeded with, as the Prime Minister in his letter to the Chairman of the Convention stated that in his opinion it was most vitally desirable.
It is not a big matter that remains to be completed. On 31st March, 1917, the position with regard to land purchase was as follows, according to the figures which were laid before the Committee of the Convention. The land which was sold, or which had been agreed to be sold, amounted to 410,000 holdings of an acreage of13,500,000. Unsold there remain 5,750,000 acres, or, roughly, 30 per cent. of the agricultural area in Ireland. The holdings which remained unsold were roughly 50,000 and the purchase price of those holdings was estimated to be from £12,000,000 to £16,000,000. The total purchase price estimated to complete the whole matter, both with regard to tenanted and untenanted land, was put, roughly, somewhere in the neighbourhood of £70,000,000. That figure to complete this vast beneficent reform does not in any respect represent hard cash. If it did, I should be the first to realise that, in existing circumstances, it might be a difficult matter; but to complete land purchase no one is asking the Government to present £70,000,000 to Ireland or to any body of people in Ireland. 1272 It simply means that the figure which represents the value of the land is really that, and, of course, the transference of that from the landlords to the tenants is primarily purely a paper matter. What it would mean would be that the Government would have to create new stock, and, of course, in present circumstances it would have to be 5 per cent. stock, and they would pay the present owners of the land not in cash, but in that 5 per cent. stock at face value. No money would pass, and with regard to the interest they would have to pay to those who invested in that stock, not a penny of it would be taken from the pockets of the taxpayers. It is a productive expenditure which will pay its own interest, just as if the railways were nationalised, and so long as they produced revenue to pay the interest on whatever bonds were created, that would not be a question of asking the Government for any money, but it would simply be a paper transaction under which the interest would pay the annual dividend.
§ Notice taken that, forty Members were not present. House counted, and forty Members nut being present,
§ The House was adjourned at Seven minutes after Eight o'clock till Tomorrow