Ramsay MacDonald – 1923 Speech on Deportations to Ireland

The speech made by Ramsay MacDonald, the then Labour MP for Aberavon, in the House of Commons on 12 March 1923.

When I put certain questions to my right hon. Friend (Mr. Bonar Law) this afternoon my object was to find upon what constitutional procedure the action of yesterday took place. Every Member of this House must feel that when such proceedings take place it is the duty of the Opposition to see that the Government justifies itself. As the hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. J. Jones) said, we do not associate ourselves in any way with any action of a hostile character taken against the Irish Free State. That is not the question that is involved at all. The question that we raise is, What power had my right hon. Friend to do what he has done, under what Regulations, under what Statute did he act in doing what he did. Did he take the power which he ought to take to safeguard the rights and liberties of the deported men? I am not a lawyer, and cannot approach the question from a legal technical point of view, but I do care for the proper administration of the law of this country, and for the rights, not, only of citizens of this country, but also of people who are domiciled in this country and made subject to the law of the country. This is not merely a lawyer’s point. We have got to bring to bear upon those questions a broad commonsense intelligence which will do justice to all people who are our citizens or our guests. I do not know whether the learned Attorney-General is going to speak first, but we want to know straight away the Government’s statement of its own case.

I am not going to assume that the men who were deported are guilty simply because the Government or the Home Secretary has deported them. It is my duty to satisfy myself that my right hon. Friend acted legally in the performance of that duty. I would like to know what pains he took to satisfy himself that whatever statements were made against them were sound evidence against them? I ask how long he took to investigate this matter? It could not have been done in 24 hours, for the domiciles of these people were scattered pretty far, north, south, east and west. What machinery did he put into operation to investigate every case, as he had no business to deport any man unless the case against that man as a separate individual was established to his satisfaction? Moreover, what steps did he take to satisfy himself that the people deported were subjects of the Free State? Did he satisfy himself that he was not handing over any subject of this country to the independent jurisdiction of a, State that enjoys the status of an independent Dominion within the Empire? The right hon. Gentleman told us this afternoon that he acted under Regulations drafted in accordance with the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act of 1920. I do not know what view is taken by my legal friends to the right and to the left of me. I take the layman’s view, and I think it is the safest thing to take the layman’s view to begin with.

What is the common-sense view of the Act of 1920? That Act was passed by this House at a time when the whole of Ireland was part of the sovereignty of this country. We were responsible for Cork, just as we were responsible for Belfast, and just as we were responsible for London. Ireland in 1920 was in rebellion against us we had our troops in Ireland; we had our police in Ireland. We were suppressing a rebellion that had broken out in Ireland. We drafted and passed the Restoration of Order in Ireland. Act, which applies not to the present disturbances in Ireland, but applied to the disorderly situation in Ireland when it was in rebellion against us. That was the purpose of the Act, and that is the meaning of the title of the Act. Certain Orders were issued under the Act. Regulation 14B in particular was drafted, not, for the purpose of sending people from England into Ireland, but for the purpose of deporting rebels in Ireland into England and to give them a residence here for the time being. What are the operative parts of 14B? So far as T can understand it and its application, the first paragraph applies to the case now before us, and the paragraph towards the end, which relates to arrests in Scotland and Ireland. It is purely technical, with no political substance in it. The political substance, as I understand it, is confined to the first Clause. What does it say? 14B enables the Secretary of State

“by order to require a person forthwith, or from time to time, either to remain in or to proceed to and reside in such place as may be specified in the Order.”

Is that what happened to the deportees of yesterday? Are they compelled by Order to remain in the place to which they are deported? Take the next words—

“and to comply with such directions as to reporting to the police as to movement,”

and so on. And then it goes on

“or to be interned in such place as may be specified in the Order.”

Has the Home Secretary specified the place in which they are to be interned in Ireland? We ought to get information on that point. As has been said, a very important thing has happened since 1920. Ireland is no longer in a state of rebellion against us. It may be in a state of rebellion, internal to Ireland itself, but the rebellion is not against us. That is not all. Ireland now has the benefit of the Irish Free State Constitution Act, which we passed last Session. What happens? Supposing these Regulations still run on common-sense lines as well as in law, what happens? If these Regulations had been put into operation in 1920, and Irishmen had been arrested here for engaging in a conspiracy to aid the rebellion in Ireland in 1920, and if they had been deported from this country under those Regulations and sent to Ireland, they would live been under the jurisdiction of the British military or of some British authority for which a Minister in this House was responsible. Therefore, if injustice had been done to the deportees in 1920, this House, which is the guardian, as it must always remain, of British liberty and the rights of individual British citizens, was at liberty to raise the question of injustice, to censure the Minister, and to pass judgment on what he had done. That is no longer the case. That is the common-sense, Constitutional and good, sound Parliamentary point of view.

The Home Secretary agreed to deportation yesterday, and the arrested people have gone. They are now in Ireland. Suppose they were shot; I do not suggest it for a moment. Suppose something happened to them which we all agreed was an act of gross injustice. Who in this House is responsible for it? No one. I cannot question my right hon. Friend. I could question the Secretary of State for the Colonies, or his representative in this House, but supposing, as a result of the answer to those questions being altogether unsatisfactory, one of my hon. Friends asked Mr. Speaker for leave to move the Adjournment of the House, what would Mr. Speaker say? Mr. Speaker would say at once that under the Irish Constitution Act this Parliament had handed all its responsibilities to the Irish Government. Quite properly Mr. Speaker would say, “Therefore I cannot allow the matter to he discussed, and I will not accept, as being in order, a Motion for Adjournment.” Is not that a substantial argument? I am quite certain the very last man who would resist that argument is my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Therefore he must see that the responsibility which he took upon himself in allowing these Regulations to be regarded as alive in the circumstances of 1923, is an enormously greater responsibility than that which he would have taken upon himself had he deported under these Regulations in 1920. Moreover, I want to get some more information about the Committee to which the right hon. Gentleman referred this afternoon when replying to a question.

The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Bridgeman)

The Advisory Committee?


Yes, the Advisory Committee. It seems to me this is very much a case of hanging a man first, and trying him afterwards. That is why my first question was what steps did the right hon. Gentleman take to see that the evidence which justified deportation was good evidence. He replied to me this afternoon on the lines that he himself had been satisfied, that his legal advisers had been satisfied, and if the men concerned still had a grievance, then this Advisory Committee had been set up to investigate any statement they might make. I want to know what is the Advisory Committee? What is its power? Who are its members, and who is the legal authority? Who is President of it? That is the first point.

The second point is: Whilst they are investigating in order to give advice, what is to be the position of the deported person? Is he to be kept in gaol in Ireland, or may he come here and await the advice which the Committee is going to give? The third point is this: Supposing the Advisory Committee comes to a conclusion upon the two cases which were cited this afternoon, the one cited by the hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. J. Jones) of a person who is a British subject, and who, as the hon. Member says, was not, as a matter of fact, in recent times involved in any political conspiracy against the Irish Free State, and the other case cited by my hon. Friend the Member for North Battersea (Mr. Saklatvala), the case of mistaken identity. [HON. MEMBERS: “The same case.”] Is it the same case? Well, it does not matter. [Laughter.] It surely does not matter when it is a case of grave injustice being done. I quite honestly fell into a mistake. I understood there were two cases. It does not matter if there is only one; that is enough for me. I think one has as much right to justice as half-a-dozen. Let us take this one case. Supposing the Advisory Committee find on investigation that this case is genuine as stated by my two hon. Friends, what power has this Government to take it back? Has my right hon. Friend made an agreement with the Irish Free State that if any mistake has been made they guarantee to rectify that mistake?

These are questions upon which, I make bold to say, every Member of the House of Commons who has got any respect at all for the duties of the House will insist upon getting information. It is not enough for a Minister to say, “There is a very bad state of affairs in Ireland and therefore I am going to act “—I think the right hon. Gentleman used the actual expression” according to the convenience of the Irish Government.” No. Hon. Members behind me have done quite as much for established self-government in Ireland as any other hon. Members? We believe in it quite as much, we back up that government quite as much, but that is not enough to justify deportation from this country upon such Regulations as those which my right hon. Friend has quoted. I therefore hope without any further delay, and in order to enable some hon. and right hon. Members who are more entitled to address the House than I am—[HON. MEMBERS: “Hear, hear!”]—on a point of law, yes, but not on points of policy. I know my duty to this House. I know the duty that must be performed in this House. Whatever the substance of the rights or wrongs of the case may be, this House must satisfy itself that the administration of the Government, especially in matters like this, is sound, is sane, is safe and is in accordance not with convenience but with law.