I move that the Dáil adjourn until 3 o'clock to-morrow.
THE ADJOURNMENT—ATHY ARREST.
I beg to second.
The matter to which I gave notice earlier refers to certain questions arising out of a dispute of agricultural labourers which has been in progress in South Kildare for the past four months or so. The local Secretary of the Union—the Transport Union—in Athy was arrested in January, and this letter was sent by me on the 30th January to the Minister for Defence. It gives the facts of the case:—
"We were informed by telephone yesterday that Mr. C.J. Supple, the Secretary of our Athy Branch, was arrested yesterday about 12 o'clock, at the rooms of the Union in Athy, by military, and was subsequently taken to Carlow Military Barracks. As you are no doubt aware, a number of members of this Union in the Athy area are at present on strike, fighting against a threatened reduction of their wages by the local farmers to 25s. per week, and as all the men on strike belong to Supple's branch of the Union he naturally has been compelled to take an active part in connection with the matter. We understand that up to the present no charge whatever has been made against Supple, and we wish to protest vigorously against the action of the military in arresting a Trades Union official in the midst of a strike of this nature, and lodging him in custody without any charge being made against him. Surely if Supple had exceeded the law in any way in connection with this strike a civil summons could have been issued against him, and the matter tried in the ordinary way. We make this statement because we are assured on the best authority that Supple was in no way concerned with any military or anti-Government organisation, and, consequently, his arrest could only have arisen out of his position as Branch Secretary. We think the military have acted in a most illegal manner in this case, and probably the action was taken locally without your authority, and we would be glad, accordingly, if you would telegraph immediate instructions for the release of this man pending a charge being made against him in the usual way. We may mention that Supple is a rather delicate youth, and is at present, we understand, under medical care, and the effect of his arrest may have very serious results to him. We may also mention that we understand that negotiations were in progress which might have resulted in the termination of this long-drawn out strike, and that the arrest of Supple will probably prevent these negotiations coming to a head. We would be glad if you would give this matter your personal attention."
The reply from the Minister is dated the 2nd February, and was received on the 5th of February. It is as follows:—
"A Chara,—With reference to your G/L of the 30th January, regarding the arrest of Mr. C.J. Supple, the Secretary of your Athy Branch, I am directed by the Minister for Defence to say that Mr. Supple was arrested and will be charged on a charge framed on the fact that he issued a letter as per the attached copy."
The enclosed copy is as follows:—
"A Chara,—I am directed by the Committee to inform you that they had your case of refusal to strike against a reduction of wages before them last night. After careful consideration, I was directed to write to you to inform you to strike work on Monday next and report to me. Failing to do this we will be compelled to take drastic action both against you and your employer, and to do all in our power against him. Hoping that after this notice you will cease work.—Yours faithfully,
Our reply is as follows:—
"A Chara—I am in receipt of your letter of the 2nd inst., enclosing copy letter in which you state a charge has been framed against above. I can hardly imagine that the Ministry is serious in stating that a charge will be made on the basis of this letter, as it appears to me that it is quite clear that what was intended by this letter was that the usual trade union action, which is perfectly legitimate, would be taken in this case. I fail to see how anything more can be read into the letter. In any event, if a charge is to be made, I take it that such a charge will be heard by a Civil Court, and, accordingly, I fail to see the reason why Supple was arrested by the military, and why he is still detained. I think a mistake has been made in this case, and I am sure on your re-considering the whole case you will immediately direct the release of this man, and if it is intended to proceed with the charge a summons can be issued against him in the ordinary way, and we will be quite prepared to meet the case when it comes off. In my previous letter I mentioned that Supple was in a delicate condition of health, and I understand that he was to have undergone an operation this week. Having regard to all the circumstances I trust you will see your way to order the immediate release of this man, and, as stated above, if the Department is serious in proceeding against him you can do so by the ordinary legal procedure. If you still find it impossible to release this man, I would thank you to arrange to have the charge against him tried without delay, and I would be glad to hear from you by return as to the date and place of hearing."
The reply from the Ministry is dated 9th February, and states:—
"A Chara—Re C.J. Supple, Athy. I am directed by the Minister for Defence to acknowledge receipt of your G/L of the 5th inst., relative to the above, and to inform you that the matter is having attention.”
Now we contend this is a very serious matter that a Trade Union official acting for men on strike should be arrested on a charge of that kind and kept in custody indefinitely. He is now in custody for three or four weeks and if there is a genuine charge against him, let him be tried and in the meantime until he is tried let him be released on bail. We can give very substantial bail, and he is prepared to meet whatever charges the authorities have against him. But a very serious development of the case has arisen since. While he has been in custody members of the Farmers' Union have been admitted to see him. They have had facilities given to see him and these gentlemen have importuned him to agree to a settlement of this dispute and his release would immediately follow. But the members of our Union were not thought good enough to visit him. One of these is Senator Duffy, who is present as a visitor here this evening. When they were in Athy to see if anything could be done to end the dispute they decided that Mr. Supple should be visited in Carlow Barracks. They went to see him and they found there the Secretary of the Farmers' Union. A long discussion took place as to the terms of settlement and in the course of the discussion the Farmers' representative said if Mr. Supple agrees to sign a settlement now he will be released immediately, and the local Military Officer present confirmed that and said "Yes, immediately he signs this document he will be released." That is a very serious allegation, and I put it to the Minister that a full and searching enquiry should be made into that allegation. Now, there is a further point—a very pathetic matter that occurred. It was rumoured at one time that Mr. Supple was to be released. His mother travelled to Carlow to meet him on learning the report. It turned out to be false, and she was taken suddenly ill and died within an hour. That is only an incident, but the facts that I have outlined are very serious and show that there is collusion between the Military Authorities and the local farmers. I do not, of course, say that the Minister for Defence approves of that, but the local officer may not be aware of the Minister's attitude. Mr. Supple has been refused parole to attend and try to effect a settlement, but he was promised parole if he would effect a settlement and, further, he was promised his release if he would bring about a settlement of the dispute.
I want to say that the Kildare portion of the Farmers' Union in Athy district have seceded from the parent Union. The Athy Branch have left the Union for the past two months. We are not in favour of, and are not party to, meetings of this kind. We know that a letter was sent out, and following that Mr. Melville was fired at and shot through the hand, and we know that in the whole district round there haggards have been burned out. It is just an accident that these people have not been guilty of murder. The intention was there, and that was as good as murder.
The men who fired at Melville.
I do not propose to say much in this case, for the very good reason that it is sub judice. None of us—I am sure I speak for the Minister for Defence and for every member of the Ministry and of the Government—cares whether the Athy farmers are members of the Farmers' Union or not, and we are not concerned as to whether Mr. Supple is Secretary of a trade union or not. Both the Farmers' Union officials and the Trade Union officials are citizens as far as we are concerned. I hope that is perfectly clear. But while I do not want to say much about the case, I think it would be no harm, as Deputy O'Brien has gone into it, that the Dáil should know the circumstances. A strike occurred some four months ago. It was an ordinary dispute as to wages. We need not go into the merits of the dispute now. As the strike developed and things got a little bit confused, the employer got a letter signed by Mr. Supple. I think I am wrong in saying it was the employer, it was a workman, and the letter informed him that if he did not leave the employment of Mr. Melrose drastic steps would be taken against his employer. That was followed by a strike, which was going on for the last 4 months, and the history of the last 4 months is that the matter was followed up first by a shooting at the employer or agent.
Yes. After that letter was received threatening drastic action and since then, in the period of over 4 months, nine or ten haggards have been burned. All the produce of the farmers in this dispute has been burned. Now, as I say, we are not looking at this from the point of view of the Farmers' Union or the Transport Workers' Union. We do not care what the cause is. The fact is that as a consequence of this dispute a man is shot at, and 7 or 8 haggards are burned.
Burned by whom?
I do not know.
Spontaneous combustion, I suppose, as Deputy Gorey points out.
Were they burned because these farmers broke away from the Union?
They were burned——
Order, order. Deputy Gorey has already spoken. He has made one speech, and he cannot make another. Nor is he entitled to make any further interruptions. We are not called upon here to decide any legal matter or who caused burnings. The Minister for Agriculture has stated what has happened, and it is not in order to ask him who did these particular things.
On a point of order— have I not as good a right to speak as anybody else?
There is no point of order. Deputy Gorey will have to sit down and say no more this evening.
I am merely giving the facts. Four months ago this dispute began, and during that time the supporter of one of the employers was wounded and 7 or 8 haggards were burned down. That is not trade unionism, and I hope it has nothing to do with trade unionism. All this followed a letter coming from Mr. Supple threatening drastic action, and is it seriously contended that the people responsible for law and order in that county should not have arrested Mr. Supple? I will say no more about the case because it is sub judice.
I think I am entitled to some explanation of the main point with regard to the action of the local military officer. He took sides on the matter.
The Minister for Defence is here, and he will speak for himself on that matter.
The facts of the matter from my point of view are those as stated in the correspondence with the Deputy. Mr. Supple is being detained on a charge framed on the fact that that letter is supposed to be issued by him. He is to be tried by Military Court. With regard to the main point, which I realise is the main point, I regret that, owing to the short notice, I have not very definite information on the matter, but I certainly will promise very full inquiry into it. With regard to that particular point it did come to our notice that Mr. Supple, who is in prison in Carlow, was receiving visits. As a matter of fact on one occasion when the matter came very much to light, he was holding a kind of levee. The officer responsible for seeing that prisoners should not get visits was at once suspended, and is at the present moment under suspension. Prisoners in military custody are not allowed to be visited by anybody except by a solicitor in certain circumstances, and they are not allowed parole, and when these types of visits or parole are allowed they are not allowed without express authority from Headquarters or from the officer responsible, so that the officer who is responsible for this irregular procedure is under suspension, and any statement made here this evening will be the subject of inquiry.
May I ask the Minister for Defence when Mr. Supple will be tried. He is now three weeks in custody, and it is unfair to keep him in jail without trial. Why not have him put on trial at once.
So far as I know he is being tried to-day.
Does that mean that an opportunity is extended to him to call witnesses?
I take it that that is so. He is entitled to that.
The Union has received no notification that he is being tried to-day.
I tried to get information from Carlow since the matter was raised, and I was under the impression that he is to be tried to-day, but I have not been able to get the information.
This is a matter that raises a very important question to the trade union movement. A prisoner is going to be charged with an offence before Military Courts, an offence presumably under those regulations. The language of the threat—shall I call it a threat?— is language which can be easily justified and easily understood. It has a certain definite meaning—a meaning which is quite regular and lawful. A Military Court, which has in mind certain preconceived notions as to what that language implies, unless there are the fullest particulars given to prove the innocuous nature of the language, that Military Court will, I was almost going to say likely, do an injustice. It certainly will do an injustice if the fullest opportunity for bringing evidence to bear as to the nature of the threat is not granted. The Minister suggests that in his mind, the likelihood was that the case was to be tried to-day. From what we know of Mr. Supple it is certain that if an opportunity had been granted to him to defend the case he would have communicated with solicitors, and the Union would have been informed of the matter. I want to ask the Minister to make sure that every opportunity is given to the prisoner in this case to have a proper legal defence, and to call witnesses on his behalf, and not allow any trial to take place until that full opportunity has been granted.
I did not mean to intervene in this debate, but as I was responsible for putting a question before the Minister for Defence some months ago about this particular case, I think it well to state that what Deputy Johnson considers common language, and the common meaning of the words "drastic action" as applied to these cases of wages disputes, is interpreted by farmers, from past experience, as similar to what has taken place in Athy. The first time these words "drastic action" were used to my knowledge was by a lady, who was Minister of Labour in another Parliament in this country—the second Dáil. They were used by her in reference to a dispute in Wexford, and "drastic action" was threatened unless farmers paid certain wages to labourers, and the week following this "drastic action" was followed by the burning of fifteen farms in Wexford. Waterford followed, then Cork, so that the words are interpreted by farmers, whether rightly or wrongly, to mean burnings.
Was the lady arrested?
That is the translation.
The Dáil adjourned at 6.45 until 3 o'clock on Thursday, February 22.