HL Deb 19 March 1924 vol 56 cc914-24

VISCOUNT FITZALAN OF DERWENT had the following Notice on the Paper:—

To call attention to the words used in this House on the 5th day of March last by the Lord Muskerry in connection with the conduct of an Assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I apologise for detaining your Lordships at this hour, but I am obliged to do so because I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Muskerry, finds it impossible to be here to-morrow and I shall be away next week. I will be as brief as I can in saying what I have to say on this matter. The importance of this question is its relation to an ex-civil servant. I know your Lordships are always anxious that the fair fame of our great Civil Service shall not be questioned unless it be justly.

On March 5 the following words were used by the noble Lord. Lord Muskerry, in this House— But Mr. Lloyd George intervened. He selected a, certain person in the service of the Excise Department. I believe that person was acting as a detective. His duty was to assume certain disguises and to trap those who were engaged in evading the Excise Laws. This person was sent over to Ireland as an Assistant Under-Secretary. Mr. Lloyd George also sent over four other officials, but I am dealing especially with this Assistant Under-Secretary. On his arrival at the castle he took advantage of his official position to attend meetings held by heads of Departments to consider the best means of putting down these outrages and of restoring law and order. Having obtained full information, he at once proceeded to convey that information to the leaders of the Sinn Fein organisation"— may I request the special attention of your Lordships to the following words?— with the result that these plans devised by His Majesty's officers came to naught and in many cases His Majesty's officers and men lost their lives. The result of this treachery at headquarters was to paralyse the efforts of His Majesty's officials, and crime and outrage were rampant throughout the country immediately afterwards. If those words are true I think your Lordships will agree with me that the individual to whom they refer ought to be taken out and shot, because they really amount not only to a charge of treason but also to a charge of being an accessory to murder.

It, is not denied that the Assistant Under-Secretary referred to is Sir Alfred Cope. I will not trouble your Lordships by reading a letter which Sir Alfred Cope wrote on the following morning to the noble Lord, Lord Muskerry, but he wrote to the noble Lord challenging him to repeat those words outside the House where action could be taken in regard to them, and he informed me that he had so written. I did nothing for a few days. Then I communicated with Sir Alfred Cope and asked him whether he had had any reply. He told me that he had not. I then communicated with the noble Lord, Lord Muskerry, and told him that I should have to place a Notice on the Paper with reference to the matter.

We are all aware that the noble Lord, Lord Muskerry, has suffered grievous wrongs from outrages committed on his property in Ireland—wrongs which. I regret to say, have been suffered by many other persons and families in that country. Had his action been confined simply to attacking the policy of the Government of the day, no one, of course, could object at all and he would have been quite within his rights. But to make against an expermanent official of our great Civil Service the charges he has made against him in this House under privilege, and without producing a single particle of evidence, is, I venture to urge before your Lordships, conduct quite unworthy of a member of your Lordships' House.

Sir Alfred Cope's career began, I believe, in the secretariat of the Customs and Excise Department of the Inland Revenue. During the war he was appointed Second Secretary in the Ministry of Pensions. I believe he distinguished himself particularly in that Department by showing great organising ability. When, in the year 1920, His Majesty's Government felt it right to strengthen the Government in Ireland, they decided to send over some extra officials and to lend them to the Irish Government. Sir John Anderson, now permanent head of the Homo Office, and Mr. Cope, as he then was, were lent to the Government of Ireland with a view to helping that Government in its work. Sir John Anderson became Joint Under-Secretary and Mr. Cope became Assistant Under-Secretary.

I ought to explain why it is that I, who have been for such a very short time a member of your Lordships' House, have taken it upon myself to bring this case before your Lordships. I did it because I really did not believe there was anybody who had, from one point of view, higher qualifications for it, and I do not suppose that any single noble Lord in this House has had to work so closely with Sir Alfred Cope or is so intimately acquainted with him as I am. On the other hand, I regret deeply that there was nobody better qualified, and more accustomed to speak in your Lordships' House than myself, to take up this case. I accepted the appointment of Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in the early part of 1921, and when I arrived in Ireland I found Mr. Cope, as he then was, holding three offices—namely. Assistant Under-Secretary, Deputy Keeper of the Privy Seal, and Clerk to the Privy Council. In the last-mentioned capacity he administered to me the oath on my arrival.

I wish to state emphatically that I have the highest opinion of Sir Alfred Cope. I consider him to be a man of great capacity, perfect integrity, and great courage. He did a great amount of work on behalf of the Royal Irish Constabulary. It was through him that an obsolete weapon was done away with—a most important thing considering what was going on in Ireland at that time—and that magnificent corps was armed with an up-to-date weapon. He showed great zeal and energy in improving the transport; doing it in such a way that I believe many lives were saved in consequence. He altered the seating arrangements in the trolleys in which the men had to travel. He was most energetic and most helpful in these things, and he ran the greatest personal risks. I am absolutely certain that at least on two occasions he was attacked with intent to murder him. Luckily he escaped. On three or four other occasions he was under fire. Whether the attack was meant to be made personally on him on those occasions I do not know, but he was under fire. I can assure your Lordships that I had very great anxiety indeed for him. When it was my duty to see him, as it was almost daily, I had great anxiety, for I knew that when I had sent for him he ran great risks. It is no secret that he was liaison officer on behalf of the Government with the Sinn Fein people. It was no mystery that he was employed in that way with a view to bringing about the meetings and negotiations which ultimately followed with the Government of the day.

In addition to what I have said myself regarding Sir Alfred Cope, I should like to read an extract from a letter that I have received from Sir Nevil Macready who, as your Lordships will remember, was at that time Commander-in-Chief in Ireland. I read this letter because, in the first place, Sir Nevil Macready, who is now abroad, directly he read in the papers of the attack that had been made on Sir Alfred Cope, spontaneously and on his own initiative, wrote to Sir Alfred Cope a letter condoling with him on the outrage that had been committed upon him. As soon as he read that I was going to take up the case in your Lordships' House, Sir Nevil Macready wrote me a letter, one paragraph of which I ask leave to read to your Lordships. It is this: During the time I was in Ireland I heard much abuse of Cope, because he entered whole-heartedly into the policy of self-government for Ireland, but never did I hear the breath of suspicion of disloyalty. Had such been suspected it would certainly have come to my ears. Lord Muskerry saw me on two occasions. If he know anything of what he now asserts he surely ought, in the interests of the country, to have told me. I was thoroughly disgusted to see that he took advantage of his position to make such an accusation instead of milking it at one of the many loyalist meetings, where it could have been dealt with. In conclusion, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Muskerry, to get up in his place in this House and substantiate the charges he made against this ex-civil servant, or, if he does not wish, perhaps for good reasons, to produce any evidence in this House at the present time, then I ask him to repeat outside what he said in this House, and let the law take its course and justice be done.


My Lords, I must first say that I have no personal knowledge of Sir Alfred Cope. To my knowledge, I have never seen him in my life. The statement I made on the 5th inst. to which the noble Viscount has referred, was made in all honesty. I had the news from friends whom I know, and who were in a position to speak, and it is their statement I made. I cannot give their names—the noble Viscount can very well imagine why—but I am convinced that they were honest in their statement. Since that debate I have received a number of letters from officers and ex-officers of the Royal Irish Constabulary who were in Dublin at the time, and they make the same statement. These letters contain their names and addresses, but they are marked private and confidential, and I cannot make use of them. But I have had others which go in great minuliœ into matters. I suggest, that if the Government were asked, they would appoint a Committee with power to investigate what took place, and take evidence as to what happened between the end of the year 1919 and the end of 1921 when the Treaty was signed. Sir Alfred Cope can appear before that Committee, and, if he can clear himself, then I shall be the first to apologise. But, as I say, I cannot give the evidence. If I were to give names of people it would be as much as their lives were worth. I was under the impression that an Assistant Under-Secretary would be under the Under-Secretary of State, and would not belong to the Department of the Lord-Lieutenant. The Under-Secretary, as a Cabinet Minister, would be responsible for the action of His Majesty's Government in Ireland. I had no idea the noble Viscount had anything to do with it.


I take full responsibility for every action that Sir Alfred Cone took during the time that I was Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland.


I was asked to give the statement, and I am certainly not going to repeat it outside.


My Lords, I think what has passed calls for some expression from a Minister representing the Government. It is our business to protect the Civil Service. The noble Viscount has done well to call attention to what has passed. He has challenged the noble Lord either to repeat outside what he has said, or to give proof of what he stated. And what is his reply? The noble Lord says he will not give the names of his witnesses; he knows nothing of Sir Alfred Cope personally, and that upon hearsay, for it is nothing more than hearsay, he has made these statements. That is a perfectly unjustifiable proceeding. The noble Lord had no right to traduce and take away the character of an ex-public servant, as Sir Alfred Cope is, unless he was prepared to justify to the full what he said. A court of law is the proper place where such an issue should be tried. It is not a case for any Committee, nor will the Government appoint a Committee. They leave it to the Law Courts; and they do this in addition

I have made it my business to inquire about Sir Alfred Cope. I can add my support to the high testimony that the noble Viscount has given not only as to his character but as to what he did in Ireland; and I have made inquiries from other sources. His action in the course of the negotiations for the Treaty were taken with the full knowledge and on the request of his immediate superiors, the Chief Secretary for Ireland and the Under-Secretary. He carried out very delicate negotiations. He got into comparatively friendly relations with those with whom he was negotiating, and he was able to bring about that condition of things which eventuated in the Treaty. That was a great public service, and it is a public service which deserves to be recognised alongside those other public services of which the noble Viscount has spoken. But Sir Alfred Cope was not the only person whom the noble Lord mentioned in his speech. He spoke of another very distinguished and eminent man—Mr. Lionel Curtis—and he made the reproach against him that he was connected with a Socialist Paper the name of which was the Round Table. That seems to me to rather aggravate what the noble Lord said about Sir Alfred Cope. The Government are thoroughly satisfied that no case has been shown to make Sir Alfred Cope deserving of the reproach, and I join with the noble Viscount in deprecating the course which has been taken to-day and which is thoroughly unsatisfactory from the point of view of justice.


My Lords, it will probably be expected that I should say a few words on this question. It is one of much greater gravity than the noble Lord, Lord Muskerry, has realised, and I hold that the noble Viscount, Lord FitzAlan of Derwent, was not only justified in bringing this matter to your Lordships' attention but that he has performed a public service in so doing. I know-nothing whatever about the services which Sir Alfred Cope achieved in Ireland, but I remember his being sent there by the Prime Minister of the Government of which I was a member to conduct certain negotiations. I am aware that in the course of doing so he incurred great suspicion and in some quarters great hostility. To what extent there was any justification for those beliefs I have no knowledge at, all. But what I have to consider, at any rate what I do consider, is the manner in which we discharge our obligation as members of the House of Lords and the manner in which we use, or, as it seems to me in this case abuse, the privilege which we enjoy.

What is privilege? Privilege is the right, as I understand, to say in this House things which, because they are said under the privilege of this House, are not actionable and are free from the consequences that might ensue, and probably would ensue, if they were said outside. But that privilege, which has been given in the course of centuries to both Houses of Parliament, is given to members of this House as a means of protection to themselves, not as a means of aggression upon others. It certainly was not intended that anybody should take advantage of the privilege of Parliament in order to make an attack with impunity upon the rights of others. Look at the manner in which we protect ourselves. If any noble Lord in this House gets up and utters matter that reflects injuriously upon the character of any other noble Lord he is at once challenged. If he persisted in the matter without cause or justification, the House would take very serious notice of it. Are we to extend to our own members the privilege of immunity in that respect which we deny to those outside who are incapable of defending themselves?

One further point. I do not know whether the noble Lord realises the particular form of privilege which he is claiming to enjoy. If the noble Lord, after making that speech the other evening, which I heard and which in my judgment—and I have read the language again—justifies the description which is given to it by the noble Viscount, if after making that speech, he had taken steps to issue it himself in the form of a leaflet or otherwise he would at once have come under the operation of the law; that is to say, an action for libel might have been brought against him and the case tested in the Courts. But simply because speeches which are delivered in your Lordships' House are published by the Government and at the expense of the State, the noble Lord escapes any such risk. He makes his statement here but it is not confined to the walls of this House. It is broadcast to the papers next day. Sir Alfred Cope and his friends are aware that these dreadful charges have been made against him, but because the publication takes place in the columns of the OFFICIAL REPORT and under the orders of Parliament therefore he cannot proceed to defend his own character.

When the case was brought before your Lordships by the noble Viscount I awaited with the greatest anxiety the defence and answer of the noble Lord. I own I was greatly disappointed. All he could de was to say that he made these statements himself believing in their bona fides; and that he received them from persons whoso honesty he did not question. That is not enough for making statements in your Lordships' House. It is not enough to be convinced of the honesty of those who inform you. You have to be convinced of the veracity of the statements you make, and it is no defence to say that you have had more letters from persons whose names cannot be given repeating the charges, and that, therefore, you are not called upon to withdraw them. And, having failed to withdraw them, having failed to take the line of action which surely is incumbent upon any member of your Lordships' House in these circumstances, you are actually to ask the Government to appoint a Committee, to hold a sort of rambling inquiry into the events of the past few years, in the course of which Sir Alfred Cope is to have an opportunity of defending his character against the aspersions which the noble Lord has cast upon it.

I think your Lordships are not only entitled, but are bound in the defence of your own honour, to look seriously on a case of this sort. I will ask my noble friend behind me, who still has the opportunity, to take advantage of that opportunity of withdrawing in your Lordships' House the statement which he made ten days or a fortnight ago, if he is not willing, as apparently he is not willing, to substantiate it by repeating the statement outside. I would ask him—and I make the request with great seriousness and gravity, because he must be aware of the general sentiment with which his action has been regarded by the House, as has been shown by your Lordships this evening—to take this opportunity, now and here, of withdrawing statements of this sort which he is not in a position to substantiate. If my noble friend is not disposed to take that course, I can only say that I should like, when these proceedings are over, to consult with the leaders of the Government as to any action in the future which, in self-protection, this House will, in my opinion, in all probability be bound to take.


My Lords, after what the noble Marquess has said I certainly bog to withdraw the statements made on March 5. I think I might say, in justice to m,\ self, that I was told that evidence would be given.


My Lords, before the debate closes may I say one word upon a point which has not been touched upon, but upon which I feel so deeply that this must be, my excuse for troubling your Lordships for a very few moments? I am sure we shall all welcome the action just taken by the noble Lord in response to the Leader of the Opposition, but I am rather concerned with a more general aspect of the matter. I have regretted this debate extremely. There are members of your Lordships' House to-day who have been longer in the House than I have, but I have been here for twenty-three years, and I remember very few cases where an attack has been made upon a civil servant.

It is the tradition of your Lordships that we do not attack civil servants; we attack their chiefs. Even in this case I should have no hesitation in saying to my noble friend that, when Sir Alfred Cope was in Dublin, we had ample opportunity of attacking his chief, and we did so, though perhaps not so often as we might have done. I hope it will not be forgotten, when we reflect on this debate in the future, that it is not our rule, whatever the provocation, to attack civil servants for anything that they do, however strongly we feel about it. It is our tradition to attack their chiefs, and I hope that this tradition will not be in any way weakened by the proceedings this afternoon and the other day.