I ask leave to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to remove the obligation now imposed by law on members of the Oireachtas and Ministers who are not members of the Executive Council to take an oath, and for that purpose to amend the Constitution and also the Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Eireann) Act, 1922.
Public Business. - Constitution (Removal of Oath) Bill, 1932—First Stage.
Is the motion opposed?
This Party will not oppose the present Stage of this Bill, but will oppose subsequent stages.
I want to oppose the introduction of this Bill.
The position is that the President having introduced a motion and Deputy MacDermot having opposed it, each may make a short statement.
I do not think it is necessary for me to make a statement at this stage. I am sure that the purpose of the Bill is known to every member of the Dáil. The whole matter was discussed at great length during the recent election, and I think that it is quite unnecessary to speak on it at this stage.
I am not going through the formality of opposing the First Reading of this Bill out of any spirit of hostility to the Government. To be quite candid, I have no desire to see the Government defeated nor have I any desire to see their prestige undermined. The reason I have taken advantage of this opportunity is that I feel that the controversy about the oath in this country has been running upon wrong lines, that men's minds and views are hardening in a wrong direction, that we have been getting too far away from realities. I want to take the very first opportunity available in this House to make an attempt, however ambitious, to give a somewhat new turn to men's thoughts on this subject.
It seems to me that the fundamental question which the Government have not faced and ought to face, is this: Do we or do we not regard ourselves as belonging to the British Commonwealth of Nations? Whichever answer is the right one, I submit that this Bill is a mistake. Supposing that we do regard ourselves as belonging to the British Commonwealth, in that event I submit that this Bill is a breach of international good manners. I leave aside altogether the question of breach of faith, the question whether the oath is obligatory in the Treaty and the question whether a Treaty which brings a war to an end ought to be regarded as binding upon the weaker party, because these are questions that I am conscious arouse angry passions, and it is not necessary to our argument to discuss them.
I suggest that, however it has happened, we do in fact find ourselves members of a partnership, members of the British Commonwealth—a partnership in which the Crown is recognised as a visible symbol of unity. In that partnership, we find each of the other partners having an oath somewhat similar to our own. Suppose we are taking the fullest advantages of the privileges that accrue to us under that partnership—that for instance we are making use of British consuls and ambassadors all the world over, that our young men are passing into the British Imperial services, that we are taking advantage of any economic concessions that are made to members of the British Commonwealth as distinct from foreign nations—supposing all that is the case, I submit that the more natural and the more decent thing to do in approaching this issue would be to get into touch with the other members of the partnership, to point out that these oaths have become somewhat anomalous as a result of the Statute of Westminster and, indeed, as a result of the general common sense of mankind and see whether we could not come to some reasonable arrangement. Suppose, on the other hand, that we do not regard ourselves as forming part of the British Commonwealth, I say, in that event, that this Bill is totally inadequate to make our position clear either to our own people or to the world at large. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, I suggest that statesmanship should avoid an ambiguity. I suggest that this particular ambiguity is one extremely dangerous to our reputation abroad and extremely dangerous to peace at home. If we want to be out of the British Commonwealth, let us say so and go out of it like men. I believe that Britain will raise no legal or technical difficulties and the whole thing will go through smoothly and expeditiously. The Government, perhaps, consider that they have no mandate to go out of the British Commonwealth. I have heard that stated by members of the Fianna Fáil Party. But do they realise what that implies? It implies that we are members of the British Commonwealth, for if we are not members of the British Commonwealth, obviously no mandate is required to go out of it. It is implied that the Irish people have accepted the Commonwealth and if that is the official view of the Fianna Fáil Party it would be very interesting to have it stated plainly.
On the other hand, they say that they have got a mandate for this Bill. I question that statement. In my experience during the election there were only three parts of the Fianna Fáil programme that really interested the people—the promise of retrenchment, the promise of employment for everybody and the hope of abolishing the land annuities. In any case, assuming there were a mandate with regard to the Oath, it is certainly not one that should have deterred the Government from dealing with the matter by negotiation instead of by one-sided action. After all, we are a deliberative Assembly. We are paid £360 a year and given first-class railway tickets to come here and use our brains, to do our best to interpret the considered and permanent will of the people and not to be mere machines for registering mandates. I urge the Government, therefore, to withdraw this Bill, to initiate negotiations with the other members of the partnership to which we belong for removing the Oath and for substituting some more acceptable form of undertaking to act as loyal partners. After reaching a provisional agreement, or even in the event of their failing to reach agreement, I suggest that they consult the country by means of a referendum and settle the question, once and for all, whether the Irish people wish or do not wish to form part of the British Commonwealth. If they do that, they will, undoubtedly, be able to guarantee internal peace, which I very much fear this Bill will tend rather to impair than to improve.
This Bill settles nothing. The propaganda in its favour since the election completely ignores the fact that we are free to leave the Commonwealth if we choose and, in that way, it has given a fresh impetus to unofficial military organisations. The triumph which the passing of this Bill will procure for the Government will be of the most transitory description. By taking the wiser course, even at the eleventh hour, the Government will earn for themselves the more unfading laurels that belong to those who benefit their country. We are an ancient race with noble and moving traditions, with tragic and glorious memories. Do not let us behave like guttersnipes. Politically, we are a young nation. Let us form the habit of thinking rather of our opportunities than of our rights. The lunatic asylums and the bankruptcy courts are the destiny of individuals who brood too much over their rights. Bad as that is for the individual, it is an equally bad practice for a nation. On the other hand, if we cannot get rid of the obsession that "our rights are being trampled upon," in the phrase of the Leader of the Labour Party, then let us leave the British Commonwealth and be done with it. Let us get rid of this futile and exasperating nonsense. It is in that spirit that I wish to make the statement, that if this Bill is persisted with and passed, I contemplate introducing a motion at an early date requesting the Government to proceed with the necessary steps for removing Ireland from the sphere of the British Commonwealth of Nations.