We have been appealed to by the Labour Party to release the men who are on hunger strike. A similar appeal was made on the 9th November, 1939, by the Parliamentary Labour Party. The appeal was made to me and, on that occasion, I came to the House and made a statement. I think if I re-read it it will be as good as making a similar statement now. I got special leave from the House then and I said:—
"I am grateful to the House for giving me this opportunity of stating what the Government's attitude in regard to the prisoners at present on hunger strike is. Last night I got a letter containing a copy of a resolution which was passed by the Parliamentary Labour Party. As that Party is represented in this House, I felt it would be proper that I should give the Government's answer in the House rather than by letter. I have perhaps a further reason, and that is that the prisoners in question are in imminent danger of death, and I thought, therefore, that I should give that reply at once, or at the earliest possible opportunity.
"The Government's attitude in this matter is this. There are no means by which the Government can secure the safety of the people here except the powers of arrest and detention of those who are in a position to bring this country to disaster. The policy of the hunger strike is aimed at taking away these means from the Government, and once these means are taken away what is to happen is obvious. You are going to have organisation to such an extent that the only way in which ultimately the supremacy of the people can be established is by arms. We know perfectly well that if arms have to be used many lives are going to be lost, and that the only way that is left to prevent that from happening is to restrain—because that is what is being aimed at—those who are bent on courses which will undoubtedly lead to disaster.
"We all know that there is a body in this country with arms at its disposal. We know that in the last year...."
This was on the 9th November, 1939.
"We know that in the last year its activities have taken a new turn, that the body has definitely proclaimed itself as entitled to exercise the powers of government here, to act in the name of our people, even to commit our people to war. Now we are in a time of peril, we have a war being waged around us, the outcome of which no man can tell. We have seen already in this war nations, comparatively large nations, losing their freedom. Is the Government of this country to be deprived of the only power that it has to prevent things taking place here which are going, I firmly believe, if not prevented, to rob us of the independence which has been got, so far as this part of the country is concerned, and in so doing to rob us of the fruits of all the efforts that have been made for the last 25 years? That is what is at stake.
"We do not want to see any Irishman die. We do not want to be opposed to any group of Irishmen. We would wish, in this particular time of danger and anxiety, that every section of the people was with us, and heaven only knows before the end of this situation we may want every section to stand with us to try to maintain the rights of our people.
"It is not then in any spirit of vindictiveness that we have approached the consideration of this question. We have sat down and considered every alternative that was possible for us, and we see no alternative, because we have been placed in a position in which there is no alternative. The alternatives we are forced to face are the alternatives of two evils, one to see men die that we do not want to see die if we can save them, the other, to permit them to bring the State and the community as a whole to disaster. But they have put us in that position— it is not we who have done it—they have put us deliberately in that position. And I wish that one half of the efforts that are being made to try to get the Government to abdicate—because that is what it means —were used to induce these people to see reason and to see that, in this part of Ireland, every political body that wants to do so can go out and advocate any programme, with the single sole reservation that they must not resort to force in order to achieve their ends.
"I do not want to argue in this case. As I have said, the Government have been faced with the alter native of two evils. We have had to choose the lesser, and the lesser evil is to see men die rather than that the safety of the whole community should be endangered. We do not wish them to die. We would wish— Heaven knows I have prayed for it— that these men might change their minds, and that the people who are with them might change their minds, and realise what our obligations and our duties are. If we let these men out, we are going immediately afterwards to have every single man we have tried to detain and restrain going on hunger strike. Some of them have been detained in their own interest, because they have been subject to orders, and some of these orders might mean their death. It is in their interest, as well as in the interest of the community, that this restraint has been used; but we cannot use it if these men are let out and then immediately afterwards others go on hunger strike. We have had that experience. We are anxious to avoid what I would regard as a calamity, the calamity of death, if it can be avoided. We let one man out after 30 days' hunger strike. What happened? Next day, I think, half-a-dozen more went on hunger strike. If we let these men out now we are going to have to face a hunger strike by the remaining prisoners, perhaps. Unless it is at some stage decided by the Government that they will face the second evil, we cannot rule here, and not merely would we be abdicating as a Government, but we would be making it impossible for any other Government to govern. These are the considerations which have determined the Government not to release the prisoners. Therefore, the answer I have to give to the Labour Party is that we regret we cannot release them."
Now, I made that statement in the House, and it explains fully the considered policy behind it. Within five or six days, I was informed that one of the men was actually dying, and that there was no chance of his recovery in any case. It was a question of his dying, not alone as a result of the hunger strike, but in physical agony unless an operation were performed, and, foolishly, as I see now, I urged upon my colleagues—I take full blame for it, because in the event it was very blameworthy—to have the man concerned transferred to a civil hospital. He was transferred there, and got out of prison, and within a year he was engaged with others in an attack upon the Gárdaí, in which two of the Gárdaí were killed, and he and another of the party engaged in that shooting had to be executed. That meant four deaths. Later on, we had two more: Two men who died on hunger strike because we had, at some stage, to stand absolutely firm.
Now, it has been one of the great regrets of my whole life, and will be until my death, that I allowed any consideration of any kind to get me to retract from the position I had taken up. It was one of the biggest mistakes that I have made in my life and, as I have said, I will regret it until my death, because, had it not been for my action, there would have been only one death, whereas, in the event, there were four deaths and two—six deaths in all. That is the position. We cannot carry on here unless we have powers of internment, powers of restraint and detention. It is absolutely necessary to have these powers. If we had not these powers, then we could not govern, and we are going to have a situation which will involve us again in another civil war.
That being the position, I can only state to everybody who comes to me that the last word on this has been said. We have to maintain our right to restrain people. If anybody goes on hunger strike, then we cannot let him go out as a result of that hunger strike. That is final. I have got—and I hope that by my example other people may learn—a lesson which is enough to teach me for the rest of my life. There are times when it is fatal, absolutely fatal, to give way to representations such as are being made at present. Now, with the example before me, the example which I have given, I have to say definitely, to prevent any other representations coming in, that we cannot release anybody who is on hunger strike. That is definite and final. Those who wish to save the lives of those men, if they have any influence with them, will tell them to get off that hunger strike.
I should like very much to have time to meet Deputy Connolly's speech. Generally, I think most of us can agree with the attitude behind it, except perhaps one thing. He speaks of the philosophy of force. I know as well as he does that there are occasions on which people will feel justified in resorting to force. Every one of us, as he has pointed out, has at one time or another resorted to force to right wrongs which we felt could be righted through no other method. That is not now compatible here with the duties which a Government has to carry out. No Government in charge here can admit that right for any group of citizens. It must be quite clear that that is so. If any group of citizens goes out on that basis, some time or other to use force against the State, then the Government must try to stop it. It must be stopped at the start, because otherwise it is going to mean a larger clash. That is a situation which I anticipated goodness knows how many years ago. It was because of that that I made certain statements which, at the time, were misunderstood and misrepresented. Once there is an organised Government here, the nature of its office and its duties to the community, compels it to prevent any organisation arising which is going to use force for political ends within its territory. I cannot see any way out of this.
What was the right thing for us to do? We have tried to do it on these benches. The inspiring motive of a lot of the work we have done has been to try to get a basis of unity here, to get an authoritative headship for our nation. Here is the only place where there can be such a headship for the nation, and it can tolerate no rival. By our Constitution, which was passed by the people—it is the people's Constitution—every section of the people is permitted to go out and advocate any policy it chooses. There is nobody being imprisoned or restrained at the present time because of his opinions. Anybody can go out and say that he wants a Republic for Twenty-Six Counties, or for 32 Counties, or anything of that sort. Nobody is against that. What we have to resist is any group organising to say: "We are going to achieve that object, by force, ourselves, irrespective of what the Parliament does." If this Parliament were to decide to use force for the national ends, it would be within its right in doing so, but as long as it exists and claims to have rightful authority, as it does, based upon the will of the people, it cannot tolerate any other body setting out on its own with such an objective. There must be some one headship.
Under the Constitution the whole position has been cleared in such a way that any body of citizens who want so to advocate can go out and say: "Elect us. Give us a majority, and the day we have a majority in the Dáil we are going to use force to try to bring back the Six Counties." They can do that. We do not think that that is the way it should be done, but there is nothing to prevent them from doing it. If they have got a majority, and the people are prepared to adopt that method, they can do it. But what we cannot permit them to do is to say: "We do not recognise at all that Assembly or the representatives who have been duly elected by the people". I do not need to pursue the matter. I think our position is clear. On the other question I repeat we cannot give way, on any consideration whatever, to the release of those men on hunger-strike.