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Dáil Éireann debate -
Friday, 27 Jun 1924

Vol. 8 No. 1


I would like to say at the outset that it was my intention, until the President stated he would not give any more time to private members, to put down a Motion to discuss the question of the further detention of the prisoners. As a result of his statement I have to be satisfied with raising the question on the adjournment, but I will not keep the House very long with what I have to say regarding the matter. Needless to say, I, no more than any other Deputy in the House, am not anxious that any criminal should be released one minute before his time is up. I recognise full well that on occasions of strife such as we have passed through, from experience I have had in the past, it is certain that a number of undesirables, apart from what you might call the political element, will get into gaols and internment camps. That is naturally understood, and it takes some time to weed out those. From the reply of the President to-day it appears there are 123 persons interned. I am quite satisfied if that list is produced to me or to other Deputies in the House that we could point to seventy or eighty per cent. of these who are well-known to the Deputies and to the people of Ireland not as criminals but as a purely political class. There may be some very special reason for keeping them interned. If there is, I certainly would like to know it and have it definitely stated. I mentioned the case of Austin Stack to-day. I have no brief for him. I have no doubt that they will be very annoyed to know that I am speaking here for them. His is the only name I can think of, except De Valera, as a really political case. I do not know of other individuals at the moment. It cannot be that the Government are afraid that the release of individuals such as the Stack type will cause any outburst in the country. If that is the case I must say that they are being wrongly and badly advised. When one can see the Acting-President of the Republic walking about quite openly and no effort being made to arrest him, surely there cannot be any fear of De Valera or Stack being released.

We will take the other type of individual who might be classed as a political, the dangerous gunman. Surely when a man like Frank Carty can wander around quite openly and do even more than that, can even threaten at the present day, without being molested by the forces of the State, there cannot be very much fear that the release of men of that type who are held in prison would cause an outbreak. Some releases took place nine or ten months ago of men far more dangerous than any man at present interned. I can back my opinion against any of the member of the Executive Council in what I say. You had the man who was responsible for the blowing up and the burning of the picture houses in Dublin released nine or ten months ago, while others were kept in. When I stated it was a shame to have him released, I was told that he was not out by the then responsible Minister, but I knew he was out at the time. That being so, unless some very definite reason is given to me, I must believe that there is some other reason that has not been stated for keeping in those prisoners than fear of an outbreak. I can walk through the streets, the same as any of you, and actually see the principal of the I.R.A. in Ireland, the most wanted man of all, walking the streets within thirty yards of this House, four times within a month. It is not for want of touts, because I can say definitely that there are more touts now in the military intelligence in Dublin than there were at any period of the past two years. If these men can walk about freely, in spite of the fact that these touts are supposed to be looking for them, there is something wrong somewhere. I suggest in this case it is not the fault of the Executive Council, but rather it is the fault of their advisers. They are advised that certain men of these 123 should not be released for one reason or another, and they are accepting their advice. Three weeks ago I intervened for the first time on behalf of a prisoner. It was the only case in which I was asked to intervene. I knew from my own personal knowledge that the particular man in question would not kill a fly, and that he never handled a gun in his life. I knew exactly the suspicion he was in on, because at one time he happened to be employed in the Department for which I was directly responsible. That man would still be in were it not for the fact that I intervened. He was probably classed as a dangerous man, or as one who would not be released till the last. In view of these facts, I think we ought to hear from the Executive Council what is the real reason for detaining the prisoners further. To my mind, there is no fear that is understandable in view of the releases that have already taken place, and in view of the fact that the really dangerous men, if there ever was any danger, are walking about quite openly the streets of Dublin. I have not the slightest doubt that on yesterday at the meeting in Ballina at which the anti-Treaty candidate was selected, that the anti-Treaty candidate, who is a wanted man, was present, and also that the Acting-President of the Republic was present. That can happen in a small place like Ballina, and there was no attempt at arrest.

I would like to support the plea of Deputy McGrath in regard to the release of prisoners, with a slightly different note. I think that it must be evident to the Executive Council that there is a very general desire, backed by a conviction of safety, that there should be detained no longer Prisoners or internees who are kept for political offences. I think that desire should be met. I think that the Executive Council is more or less clearly convinced that there ought to be a general release. They have released very many during the last two or three months. I think that is evidence of a desire, at least, not to detain longer out of pure vengeance, but I see no reason at all for detaining men such as those who have been named and persons who are clearly detained because of what has been generally called political activities, or military activities for purely political purposes, and not for self-aggrandisement or for serving personal desires—I mean such things as theft and crime in the ordinary sense. I am quite confident in saying that the Dáil would be relieved greatly if the Ministry would freely say to-morrow morning that they have no more prisoners of this character. The Dáil is backed in this view by the country, from one end to the other, and the country is fretting that the Government are keeping these men so long as they have done.

Now, the President, this morning, made a remark about certain difficulties in respect to soldiers who had been sentenced for offences more or less in connection with the troubles, and he thought the release of nonmilitary prisoners, that is prisoners who were not members of the Army, would necessitate as a corrollary the release of prisoners who had been sentenced for offences, men who had been members of the Army, and he explained the difficulty from a military disciplinarian point of view. No doubt, it is a difficulty. It was the difficulty put forward by the British authority in relation to other prisoners in the same category. But we pleaded with them, and we pleaded eventually with success. Can we not, even in the case of these men, do the same thing as was done then, as we then pleaded should be done, and was done eventually by the British authorities? I am convinced that it would be a statesmanlike act, an act that would give a feeling of relief, and it would be looked upon as a commonsense action on the part of the Ministry to make this general release of political prisoners. The continued detention is simply making more and more difficult the position of those who want to strengthen the State; and to retain men because of their official positions in the forces that opposed the State, and detain them, as it seems, as hostages, is anything but satisfactory. I do urge the Minister—I think I am unquestionably voicing the general views of the Dáil, and I hope other Deputies will do the same—that there should be a general release at the very earliest possible date.

I would like to add my voice to what Deputy McGrath and Deputy Johnson have said in regard to the desirability of immediately releasing the men imprisoned. Some months ago I referred to the question of the Northern internees, and I see most of what I said at that time has been borne out by the events that have recently occurred. I saw the other day a letter from the Home Office to a Committee for the release of prisoners in County Armagh, and the tenor of the reply was that there were more prisoners interned for political offences in Southern Ireland than there were in the North of Ireland. They took as an excuse for holding those internees indefinitely the reason that they should not be expected to do what the people of Southern Ireland, who were of the same religion and politics as their internees, were not doing with those they had interned in the South of Ireland. I think that is one very good reason why there should be a statement made by the President and a decision come to to have all political prisoners in Southern Ireland released.

As regards the question of criminals, I do not think we could, by any stretch of the imagination or any straining of logic, describe such men as De Valera and Austin Stack, and the other leaders, as criminals of the ordinary type, or criminals in any sense of the term. The fact that all over the country the most dangerous type of revolutionary or Irregular, or whatever you like to call him, is at large, and that he has been at large for some months; that the "cease fire" order which was sounded some fifteen months ago has been observed, and that no organised disturbance of any kind has occurred since, forms a very good answer to any arguments put forward for keeping those men in indefinitely, on the assumption that their release might mean another revolution. Now the detention of those men in prison has had, in my opinion, very deplorable effects on the credit of the country. I believe this country at the present moment is as stable as any other country in Europe or in the world, but the fact that those men are now in prison tends, in my opinion, to spread an impression abroad that we are expecting another revolution, and that the moment we let them out, or trust to chance to release them, we are going to have a repetition of what occurred in 1922. In my opinion that fact has a lot to do with the depreciation of the Loan and the country's credit at the moment, and it is more than anything else a factor that will weigh with people in investing in this Loan and keeping up our credit. The detention of the prisoners spreads the impression abroad that the country has not definitely settled down from revolution.

I think we are done with revolution once and for all. We certainly will have revolutions at some time, because every political organism in the world will revolt. All parties in Ireland have been seared and burned by the violence and revolution of the last few years, and I do not believe that in this generation you will have any return to the violent methods that were resorted to in 1922. I would appeal to the President to make a definite announcement on this subject and to tell us here and now that he is going to release leaders such as Stack and de Valera, who cannot be described as criminals in any sense of the term. Let him make a generous gesture in face of the widespread demand all over the country for the release of those men.

There is no respect in Ireland for grudging concession, but there is always respect and appreciation for a generous gesture. If the President makes the generous gesture he will have a very hearty response in return. As regards the question of criminals, I think that could safely be left to a committee of the Dáil to decide as to what individuals amongst the people who are interned belong to the criminal class. I would suggest that the President would leave it to the committee to decide who are and who are not criminals.

I would appeal to the President to accept that suggestion.

Have we general agreement on that proposition? Has the Deputy's suggestion general agreement?

I will let the Dáil express its opinion upon that point. I for one am prepared to put the suggestion forward; I will stand by that. I would invite the President again to say definitely whether he is going to release the prisoners or not. If he is not prepared to make a definite announcement to-day, can he tell us at what time would he be prepared to make it?

I want to say that as far as I am concerned any prisoners I was interested in, and any prisoners I have asked the Minister for Defence to release, have been released. In one instance there were three men undergoing penal servitude, and they have been released. Notwithstanding that, I think it would be advisable for the Minister for Defence to put his house in order by releasing all political prisoners. He would by doing so show a good example to other Governments and they might also release the prisoners that they have interned.

Would they follow that example?

I am sure they will follow the good example if you lead the way. It is time the Government did something in the way of a general release of prisoners. If they do not release those prisoners very soon they may find themselves slipping in the wrong direction. Seventy per cent. of the people of the Sáorstat are on the side of the Government, and that is really because so many prisoners are being released. If the Government release the remaining prisoners I believe they will succeed in gaining the support of another 20 per cent. Then they would have the support of 90 per cent of the citizens. In my opinion it would be advisable, not alone charitable, to release all the prisoners, and by an act of that sort our President would show that he is, indeed, the President of the State.

I announced on the 21st or the 22nd May that we had in prison on the 1st April 941 prisoners. I then stated that the number had been reduced to 616 by the 22nd May. At the present moment we have 228 interned, and of that number nine, I find, are sentenced prisoners whose sentences are being remitted in full, and there are releases pending in 19 cases. That brings the number to 200, and of that 200 two are waiting transfer to civil custody. That brings the number below 200. Of that number we think that about 70 constitute cases of prisoners whose sentences have been reviewed and are under consideration. Now, that is a pretty considerable reduction in the number from what it was on the last day I spoke.

I submit, with great respect to the Dáil, that I have carried out the promise made on the last day, that a very considerable reduction would be made. At that time I was not in the position to estimate a larger reduction than 300 in a month. The number has actually gone down more than that, and further releases are pending. Those releases may be from the present moment. It takes time to cover all the formalities. This particular subject has taken up a very considerable portion of my time and the time of many officials. I am not in a position to deal with the matter to-day, because there are many issues involved in dealing with the many considerations which it is our duty to pay attention to, just as it would be the duty of Deputy McGrath if he were in my position, or Deputy McCabe if he were the Vice-President. We have to take into consideration certain circumstances and certain events. One cannot with a stroke of the pen, or, according to one's judgment, say that this person is a criminal or that person is a criminal. There must be grounds for coming to that conclusion. There must be a reason, and even in cases where there are reasons for putting a person in that category, there may be reasons now for absolving him from the particular criminal event that occurred.

All that takes a very considerable time and involves trouble. We have reduced the number of cases very considerably since the last time I spoke. Possibly before the adjournment I would be in a position to make an announcement on the question, and I can assure Deputy McCabe that nobody is more anxious than I am to see the prisoners out. It is not correct to say that we have a greater number of internees than there are in the North. They started before we started, and perhaps they will finish having internees after we have finished with them. I have not stated at any time that Mr. de Valera or Mr. Stack were in the category of criminals. With regard to one of them, I think there is a recommendation that Mr. Stack should be released. I think there is.

Very gracious.

Most gracious. You have experience of their graciousness, and I believe you will live to have much more experience of that graciousness. I should say that within a week or possibly within a fortnight I would be in a position to deal with this matter more satisfactorily than I can deal with it to-day. All I have to say about it is that we have, generally speaking, less than 200 prisoners at present. A large number of cases are down for consideration and decision as to their removal from the list of internees. A reference to this matter on the adjournment, particularly at short notice and after a strenuous week, is scarcely reasonable, and it is unreasonable to expect that I would be in a position to make a satisfactory statement.

Would the President give some statement of his policy or some information in regard to men like de Valera and Austin Stack? Is he going to keep them in for life, or when is he going to release them? We want to have that one way or another.

I have stated that I would be able to deal more satisfactorily with the subject of the prisoners in a week, or in a fortnight, at the outset. I have never stated that it was my intention to keep the particular individuals referred to in for life, nor have I stated that any political prisoner would be kept in for life.

Perhaps the President will give a little more consideration to the question I brought up to-day, or would it be necessary for me to draw attention to the matter again in a fortnight's time?

I think I will be able to deal with the matter without having a question put.

Will the President try to make a definite statement on the subject next week?

I could not promise, but I will make an effort to do so. The matter has to be considered in the light of all the other business that has to be done.

The Dáil adjourned at 4.30 p.m. until Tuesday, July 1st, at 3 p.m.