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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 54

Speeches in the House

Speeches in the House.

I will now briefly deal with his speeches in the House, which, considering the very short period for which he sat, are numerous and important—mostly in the interests of the poorer and more oppressed classes, and always well-chosen and to the point. I should be within the truth if I said that he displayed a great knowledge of the subjects brought up for discussion, as well as the abilities of an old and practised debater of acknowledged power. I may also draw attention to the fact that he never upon one single occasion intruded his particular views upon theological and speculative subjects upon the House. But it is with his speeches upon Irish questions that we are principally concerned, and it is to them only that I shall here draw your special attention. They are speeches which demand serious attention from the Irish people, and this demand is rendered still more imperative from the fact of Mr. Bradlaugh having been so completely misrepresented by those who heard him utter them. Two of them are of considerable length, occupying some six columns each in the closely-printed pages of "Hansard". They are, I believe, the longest speeches he made in the House, and both were page 13 delivered in Direct Opposition to Coercion—one being in justification of the vote he gave against the Government when Mr. Forster introduced the Coercion Bill, and the other when he, In Mr. Parnell's Absence, Moved its Rejection.

Mr. Bradlaugh's speeches in the House not only demand, but would well repay, the careful perusal of every Irishman who takes an interest in the political welfare of his country. They are particularly interesting as showing the general tenor of his mind and convictions upon questions as between Ireland and England. Undoubtedly there is through them a strongly marked desire that the law of the land should be obeyed both inside and outside the walls of Parliament. One of his great complaints is that the law should be suspended in dealing with Ireland. He complained that it was not just nor wise to deprive the people of that country of their constitutional freedom and guarantees, and that upon the evidence put before the House by Mr. Forster he had completely failed to make out a case for doing so.

His speeches show that while he, as a conscientious and law-abiding man, could not countenance obstruction pure and simple—obstruction which would render all law and law-making impossible—he would do all in his power to legally remove the cause of discontent; and that, while he consented to keeping arms out of the hands of hungry and desperate men, he was anxious to place the means of contentment and prosperity within their reach. The great lesson which appears to run through all his speeches upon this subject is, that it would be more humane, more just, and more statesman-like to repeal, reform, and to make new laws in order to prevent crime, than to suspend the law in order to punish it. In reference to this idea he points out most forcibly, and in many ways, that the successive governments, in conjunction with what is now called "landlordism" (although he does not, I think, use the word), are largely responsible for the crime, to enable them to deal with which they were seeking to set aside the ordinary law of the land.

I do earnestly ask every Irishman who is interested in his vote to read Mr. Bradlaugh's speeches upon Irish questions whilst he sat in the House. They are to be found in "Hansard's Parliamentary Debates", from July, page 14 1880 to the end of March, 1881, wherein you will find something so utterly different from coercion that you will be astounded to think that your trusted representatives could ever have made the charge. Here I can only give a few extracts. It would be altogether beyond the limits of this pamphlet to give them in full. But such as I do give will serve to show the general tone and character of the whole, and if they should induce Irishmen to see for themselves what he has said (in full), a great portion of the purpose for which they are quoted will have been served.

I would point out that these speeches are of peculiar value; first; because they are not mere hearsay, or somebody's rendering, but are the words actually uttered and taken down verbatim. Secondly, because they are not speeches made at the hustings, or at excited meetings, with a view of securing the popular favor, but are speeches made in the House with the knowledge that he was further estranging some whose favor it might have been to his immediate interest to obtain, and also with a full sense of the responsibility which attached to them, and to the votes which were to follow them, the votes in his case meaning the liability to pay a penalty of £500 for every one recorded. But outside all this there runs through them the warmest sympathy for Ireland, and a strong desire on the speaker's part to blot out the old and hard laws, and replace them with better and more humane ones: to remove the cause of crime rather than place the country under a ban in order to punish those who under a bad system had been led to commit it.

This, to my mind, is the great principle which pervades his speeches, and I cannot forbear asking, Was it for this he is called the "arch-coercionist"?

The following extract is taken from Mr. Bradlaugh's speech in the debate upon the Relief of Distress (Ireland) Act Amendment Bill. It was delivered on the 3rd July, 1880, and is to be found in full upon page 1,472, Vol. 253, of "Hansard's Parliamentary Debates". Strangely enough this was his first speech from his seat in House, and, as it shows, was delivered solely in the interests of the poor of Ireland.

"Now he thought it most unfortunate for the notion to get abroad as being the true one that the Government and the people of England and Scotland intended only to be generous page 15 so far as it involved them in no cost. . . . . He appealed to the Government not to be generous with half-a-hand. The giving £200,000 for out-door relief took the matter out of any range of discussion that might be bounded by the hard and fast lines of political economy. On behalf of an English constituency, which consisted of a very large number of English working men, he thought he should only be doing his duty in asking the Government to allow some of the loss to fall upon them, rather than that measure should be misunderstood. It was possible that the day might come when England or Scotland might have to ask the same favor that Ireland now asked of us. If that unfortunate occasion should ever arise, and either of those countries should be so reduced as for deaths to result from famine, and appeals were made to Ireland, he had no doubt that she, in her turn, would be as generous to the people of Scotland or England as she now asked the Government in this case to be to her".

In the above speech we have the singular spectacle of a constituency pledging its willingness, through its members, to bear its part of the burthen of a larger relief to that country whose members—almost to a man—illegally vote away its existence!

On the 24th of January, 1881, the Right Hon. W. E. Forster, moved to bring in what was called the "Protection of Person and Property Bill". It is scarcely necessary for me to say that this was a "Coercion Bill". Dr. Lyons moved an amendment: "That remedial legislation should take precedence over the coercive measure brought in by Government." Mr. Bradlaugh delivered a powerful speech Against the Government, and in Favor of the Amendment. If I remember rightly, this was his longest speech during the time he sat. I can here only give a few extracts which I take from "Hansard", beginning at p. 1260 of Vol. 257.

"He intended in the strongest manner to oppose the measure introduced by the Government, and to support the amendment of the hon. member for the City of Dublin (Dr. Lyons). . . . He could well understand the great reluctance with which a gentleman of the reputation of the Chief Secretary for Ireland had made the proposition which he had made; and if he (Mr. Bradlaugh) entered in the strongest terms his dissent from the course the Government had taken, and his desire to support the amendment, it was because he felt the occasion was one on which no one should remain silent when measures of coercion were proposed in the way they were proposed. He was war- page 16 ranted in supporting the amendment by no less an authority than the right hon. gentleman (Mr. W. E. Forster) himself. If his memory did not deceive him, the right hon. gentleman, in the last session of Parliament, intimated that the Government would try and govern Ireland with the law as they found it; and he also intimated that if they found themselves unable to do that they should then suggest that it should be accompanied by some measure of remedial legislation. . . . ."

Mr. Bradlaugh here goes on to argue that, as the Government had not done this, he was, upon Mr. Forster's own showing, justified in opposing them. He then goes on to say:

"He knew the Government had means of information which were not within his reach; but if their information only amounted to what the right hon. gentleman had told the House, he must say there was no case made out by the right hon. gentleman to entitle him to ask for measures of coercion for Ireland. . . . He believed that the Chief Secretary for Ireland had altogether failed to show that the ordinary law was not sufficient to put down the offences which he had mentioned in support of his case. . . . . The Government, through the right hon. gentleman, said they could make no terms with lawlessness; that while in Ireland criminals were few, the sufferers were many. Were they sure that they were not about to make terms with fear and panic? Were they sure they were not making terms with the landed interest opposite, who prefered a policy of force to a policy of justice, and who made the misery of the people out of which the crime spoken of had grown?"

In speaking of the small amount of non-agrarian crime in Ireland, as compared with England, he says:

"Why was it that there was one class of crime sheltered by the people of Ireland? It was because the people had come by experience to think that the Government gave them no protection; and that the law afforded them no remedy for their grievances."

In speaking of the kind of evidence which would have to be relied upon under the Bill, he said:

"Neither the right hon. gentleman, nor the noble lord at the head of the Irish Government, could personally examine the details of every case. They must trust to others, and these in turn to others, until at last, perhaps, private malice might strike the one whom the House had stripped of his constitutional right."

After showing that it was the miserable condition of the page 17 people aggravated by the treatment received by them at the hands of the landlords, he said:

"It was not the Land League that built the wretched hovels in which the suffering people of Ireland dwelt; it was the misery and suffering which he saw in hundreds of Irish cabins last year, which had created that organ. The English people were determined to stand by the present Government thoroughly; hut he asked what was the Government about to do to remedy the wrongs of the people, as well as to punish the criminals to be found amongst them?"

After an eloquent appeal for generosity to the Irish people he says:

"It was the duty of the Government, he strongly felt, to hold the sword in one hand, and the palm-branch in the other. But now they only held the sword in one hand, and nothing in the other. At the same time they told the people of Ireland that good should come some day; but, he asked, how were these unfortunate people to believe them, when they had last year beheld a small measure, which was brought forward as one of mercy and justice, mockingly kicked out in 'another place'."

To these extracts I will not add one single word, but will ask: Do they read like the language of a "coercionist"?

On Feb. 4th, 1881, Mr. Foster brought up the Coercion Bill for the second reading; and Mr. Bradlaugh, in the Absence of Mr. Parnell, Moved its Rejection. The following are extracts from the speech he delivered upon that occasion, which speech is to be found in "Hansard vol. 258, page 182.

"In rising to move as an amendment that this Bill be read this day six months, he did so with a full sense of the grave responsibility that devolved upon him. He did not intend, in what he had to say, to imply any kind of attack upon the Government, or upon the members composing the ministry. He believed that every member of her Majesty's Government produced the measure with reluctance and pain, and had only been brought to introduce it by a sense of what seemed to him to be the gravity of facts warranting its introduction. He hoped he should not be wrong in assuming that every member of the House—at least every member on that side—regretted that any Government, much less a Liberal Government, should have to make the humiliating avowal that the ordinary law was not enough; and that in order to govern, they were obliged to propose a resolution superseding the rights of the people, and page 18 abolishing their constitutional liberties. His first objection to the introduction of the Bill was, that no crime was shown to exist which the ordinary law was not equal to meet, and, in many cases, had succeeded in punishing. . . . Many members of this House were old enough to remember the time when the landlords, encumbered with debt, encouraged resistance to civil law when it was set in motion against themselves. These landlords, who to-day asked for extraordinary powers, had themselves left a bad example to the unfortunate and miserable men who to-day threatened and repeated the bad acts of their superiors. . . . ."

He contended that

"the measure now brought forward would not insure that persons should prosecute, that witnesses should testify, or juries convict. All it would do would be to give the Government or some unfortunate gentleman—and unfortunate indeed would be his position charged with this duty, who had the right of arresting—to give him the duty of superseding the conscience of the prosecutor, and the evidence of the witness; to take the place of all juries; and, on suspicion to have the power to imprison the person whom he arrested for eighteen months. ....He submitted to the House that, in threatening the liberties of its citizens, good intent was not enough; and, unless a case was overwhelmingly made out, they ought not to entrust to any government the right to supersede the law. . . . . Would the House pardon him if he pointed out why the old secret societies existed? They existed because the landlords extorted unjust rents, and compelled their tenants to pay an enormous price for rooms—it was a shame to call them rooms, for he had seen hovels in which hon. members would not kennel their dogs, nor stable their horses—rent which was impossible to pay. These unfortunate people had no legal appeal to Parliament, for Parliament was deaf to their appeals. . . . ."

Speaking of Mr. Gladstone's attempts to remedy this, he says:

"The Prime Minister had made several attempts to remedy this state of things, but the rights of land were valued in 'another place' at a higher rate than the rights of life, and therefore his efforts proved useless. . . . ."

He then goes on:

"They were reduced to their present position because the habit of the country had been to allow demonstrations against the law to override the law, and also because of the frequent enactment of Peace Preservation Acts to suppress mischief, instead of remedial legislation to redress wrong. The hungry page 19 man could not reason, and did not reason: he struck. It was for the Government to step in with its Land Law Reform Bill, and say: 'You shall not starve long; we will give you the opportunity of living by the fruit of your labor as free citizens ought to live.'"

Referring to the argument which was put forward, that the Bill was only directed against those who had committed outrage, he said:

"But then it was under cover of pretensions like these that the liberties of the people had been stolen over and over again."

In speaking of the violent acts described by the Government—acts which he contended had grown out of the state of affairs which they should have remedied—he said:

"The right hon. gentleman at the head of the Government felt this, for, in words which would always be remembered, he had again and again admitted the wrong done to Ireland; but then no remedy was offered to them yet. It was true the Government said it intended to introduce one, and he fully believed their declaration. . . . . But while he was quite certain that the coercive measure before the House would pass, he was equally sure that every step in the direction of making the Land Bill complete would secure the greatest opposition of the Conservative party."

After a long and earnest speech, Mr. Bradlaugh concluded by moving "that the Bill be read that day six months".

It is worthy of note that the Right Hon. Lord Randolph Churchill rose immediately in opposition to the amendment, and actually apologised for not having spoken upon the occasion of its introduction, "because he had not wished to appear even for a moment as delaying its introduction".

I want you to reflect that this same Churchill is one of the most active members of the National Tory Alliance combination, whose object it is to crush the man who had just spoken so earnestly for Ireland, and whose voice, raised against coercion, had scarcely ceased to vibrate.

This concludes the extracts which I am here able to give from Mr. Bradlaugh's speeches in the House. I can only again beg of every Irishman who has it in his power to peruse them in their entirety to do so.

page 20

In November of the year 1867, at a people's meeting on Clerkenwell Green, which was either convened by Mr. Bradlaugh or by his friends, we find him pleading for the lives of those unfortunate men now popularly known amongst their countrymen as the "Manchester Martyrs" in the following fashion:1

"According to the evidence at the trial, Deasy and Kelly were illegally arrested. They had been arrested for vagrancy, of which no evidence was given, and apparently remanded for felony without a shadow of justification. He had yet to learn that in England the same state of things existed as in Ireland; he had yet to learn that an illegal arrest was sufficient ground to detain any of the citizens of any country in the prisons of this one. If he were illegally held, he was justified in using enough force to procure his release. "Wearing a policeman's coat gave no authority when the officer exceeded his jurisdiction. He had argued this before Lord Chief Justice Erle in the Court of Common Pleas, and that learned judge did not venture to contradict the argument which he submitted. There was another reason why they should spare these men, although he hardly expected the Government to listen, because the Government sent down one of the judges who was predetermined to convict the prisoners; it was that the offence was purely a political one. The death of Brett was a sad mischance, but no one who read the evidence could regard the killing of Brett as an intentional murder. Legally, it was murder; morally, it was homicide in the rescue of a political captive. If it were a question of the rescue of the political captives at Varignano, or of political captives in Bourbon, Naples, or in Poland, or in Paris, even earls might be found so to argue. Wherein is our sister Ireland less than these? In executing these men, they would throw down the gauntlet for terrible reprisals. It was a grave and solemn question. It had been said by a previous speaker that they were prepared to go to any lengths to save these Irishmen. They were not. He wished they were. If they were, if the men of England from one end to another were prepared to say, "These men shall not be executed," they would not be. He was afraid they had not pluck enough for that. Their moral courage was not equal to their physical strength. Therefore he would not say they were prepared to do so. They must plead ad misericordiam. He appealed to the press, which represented the power of England—to that press which, in its panic-stricken moments, page 21 had done much harm, and which ought to save these four doomed men. If the press demanded it, no Government would be mad enough to resist. The memory of the blood which was shed in 1798 rose up like a bloody ghost against them to-day. He only feared that what they said upon the subject might do the poor men more harm than good. If it were not so, he would coin words that should speak in words of fire. As it was, he could only say to the Government: You are strong to-day; you hold these men's lives in your hands; but if you want to reconcile this country to you, if you want to win back Ireland, if you want to make her children love you—then do not embitter their hearts still more by taking the lives of these men. Temper your strength with mercy; do not use the sword of justice like one of vengeance, for the day may come when it shall be broken in your hands, and you yourselves brained by the hilt of the weapon you have so wickedly wielded."

It is really humiliating to have to ask, or continue to repeat, the same question, but nevertheless I do it. Has the above eloquent, though fruitless, appeal for the lives of these poor fellows, the ring of "the arch coercionist" about it? For shame, Mr. O'Connor, M.P., for Tipperary! Looked at to-day, in the light of some of the tragedies which have since been enacted, it reads more like a prophecy.

The following is taken from a plea for Ireland which he had printed some short time before he delivered the speech which we have given above:

"Where is our boasted English freedom when we cross to Kingstown pier? Where has it been for near two years? The Habeas Corpus Act suspended, the gaols crowded, the steamers searched, spies Listening at shebeen shops for sedition, and the end of it a Fenian panic in England. Oh, before it be too late, before more blood shall stain the pages of our present history, before we exasperate and arouse bitter animosities, let us try and do justice to our sister land. Abolish once and for all the land laws, which in their iniquitous operation have ruined the peasantry. Sweep away the leech-like Church which has sucked her vitality, and has given her back no word even of comfort in her degradation. Turn her barracks into flax mills, encourage a spirit of independence in her citizens, restore to her people the protection of the law, so that they may speak without fear of arrest, and beg them to plainly and boldly state their grievances. Let a commission of the best and wisest amongst Irishmen, with some of our highest English judges added, sit solemnly to hear all complaints, and then let us honestly legislate, not for the punishment of the discontented, but to remove the causes of page 22 the discontent. It is not the Fenians who have depopulated Ireland's strength and increased her misery. It is not the Fenians who have evicted tenants by the score. It is not the Fenians who have checked cultivation. Those who have caused the wrong at least should frame the remedy."

This is certainly one of the most novel "coercionist" speeches which I, or anyone else, could possibly conceive! What think you, Irish people? Does it read like the words of a man who would injure your country? What think you, national Parliamentary party? Does it justify you, upon your own political lines, in blocking the way of such a friend? for friend he is, and co-worker—in spite of you—in your country's cause.

Irishmen, I implore you to ponder these matters well! They are true records of words, warm, generous, and bold, uttered nearly twenty years ago, at a time when few dared raise their voice in your behalf. Your National party as now existing was not so much as thought of; you had no Land Bill, no Tenant Eight, and the alien or "Garrison Church" was still triumphant; and shall it be said that the man who thus advocated all these things, and much more, is the man whom to-day your press and your representatives delight to insult and wrong? I appeal to you who are held to be proverbial for being a warm-hearted and grateful people, not to allow the stain of this injustice to rest longer upon you. There is a feeling of universal brotherhood understood by men of noble minds and high aspirations, which impels them to stretch the hand of friendship far and away beyond the narrow limits of mere sectarianism in order to grasp that of true worth and nobility wherever it may be found. I ask you in the name of our common humanity to put forth that hand, even though it be to grasp that of an Englishman who is not of your faith.

It is right that I should hero state—and I am happy to be able to do so—that, although the Irish vote has been cast almost solid against Mr. Bradlaugh, yet two prominent members of the Parnellite party publicly thanked him in the House for his votes and speeches on Ireland. For this they deserve the gratitude of all right thinking men.

We will now turn to the lecture to which I have already alluded. It was delivered by Mr. Bradlaugh in America in the year 1873, and reported in full by the New York page 23 Daily Tribune of October 7th of that year. I will give the lecture word for word as it therein appeared; for the accuracy of the report I presume I need not vouch.

It is a lecture—oration, I think, would be the better word—which few of the Irish or English leaders of the present day could equal, and fewer still excel. It would do honor to the most gifted and warm-hearted amongst your own sons; but coming as it does from an Englishman, who thus had the courage to stand up in open condemnation of his own countrymen and government because he felt they were pursuing a wrong and cruel system of government towards your country, it deserves even more honor. And bear in mind, as I have before mentioned, the aspect of the Irish question has much changed during the last twelve or thirteen years. It was not then in the position it now occupies; and I claim for Charles Bradlaugh that he has done immense work in educating public opinion in the direction which will eventually make self-government in Ireland possible. At the time he delivered the lecture in question I will venture to say there lived not another Englishman who would have dared to make the same speech—by which I mean, tell the same unpleasant truths. Is it thus he has earned the contumely heaped upon him by most of your now leaders?—men, some of whom, at the time he was fighting your battle, were schoolboys. I am not twitting them on account of their youth. I think youth a glorious thing, and it is to the honor and credit of those who have come to the front so young. But let them not in their youth and power return evil for work done on their country's behalf before they were yet able to so much as think. Let them endeavor to be just, and to cast away that taint of religious bigotry which does so much harm and warps so many noble minds.

In claiming for Mr. Bradlaugh the just meed of credit for work done, I do not think I am robbing Mr. Parnell and his party—nor even Michael Davitt, the greatest man of them all—of the just merits of their labors. I but claim for him that honorable acknowledgment and fair treatment to which his labor entitles him.

There are many thousands of English people for whom, in purely political matters, Mr. Bradlaugh speaks, and who are willing and ready to hold out the hand of friendship, and to help you to redress what you believe and what page 24 they believe to be your wrongs; but if one of their honored leaders and their own political rights be simply jeered at, it will not be surprising if they should withdraw that friendship which they are now willing and anxious should exist. That the Irish party set some value upon the good will of the people of England, is evinced by their lectures and addresses in all parts of that country, lectures delivered with the avowed purpose of informing the English mind upon Irish subjects. But why estrange them by unjust treatment of perhaps the most friendly leader towards yourselves that they have? It does indeed seem strange that you should go so far out of your way to crush this particular man, who has gone so far out of his way to serve you!

Just one other word before we go to the lecture. Much is often made, and I admit with great reason, of the idea that nothing is got out of the English Government for Ireland's good, except through fear. Your motto is: Frighten the Government sufficiently, and it will "stand and deliver" well; but that cannot apply to Mr. Bradlaugh. Was it fear which took him to America and to Ireland to denounce his own government, and demand justice for you? Was it fear which induced him to raise his voice in Trafalgar Square and to ask for the liberation of the Fenian prisoners? or to go to Clerkenwell Green and plead for the lives of Allen, Larkin, and O'Brien? Was it fear which induced him to Speak and Vote Against Coercion, whilst he sat in Parliament with a fine of £500 hanging over his head for every vote he gave? Let your better natures give reply to these questions.

The lecture is as follows; and if his case stood upon it alone, you should be moved to silence, if not to utter shame.

1 This and the "Plea for Ireland" which follows it is taken from Our Corner for May, 1884, in which will be found a most graphic account of the occurrences attending the trial of these poor men.