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Seanad Éireann debate -
Friday, 1 Apr 1927

Vol. 8 No. 16


(Certified by the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil as a Money Bill.)

Before we take the final Stage of this Bill, I wish to ask the Minister for Finance to answer a question of which I sent him notice to the following effect:—"To define the term ‘Public Debt' of the United Kingdom as used in Article 5 of the Treaty and in the Agreement contained in the Schedule to the Treaty (Confirmation of Amending Agreement) Act, 1925, with special reference to the British White Paper Command 2798 of 1927, Art. 4, and to state what debts or classes of debts such terms include."

I think I need only say there is, so far as I know, no such thing as an agreed definition of the term "Public Debt of the United Kingdom." If the negotiations that might have taken place under Article 5, if that Article had not been wiped out, had been proceeded with possibly an agreed definition of the term "Public Debt of the United Kingdom" would have been reached between the two Governments; and if not, then I assume it would be for the arbitrator to finally fix a definition. But there would be no use in my giving my particular definition of the term "Public Debt of the United Kingdom." An entirely different definition might be given by somebody on the British side. There is no use in my giving a one-sided definition of any particular term in the Treaty.

Question proposed —"That this Bill be received for final consideration and do now pass."

On this Motion, I should like to say something in respect of what the Minister has just said. The reason I do so is because a number of items are being paid away from our Treasury to Britain which it seems to me ought not to be paid. It is a noteworthy point that Article 5 of the Treaty, which involved the Free State in the debt of the former United Kingdom, mentions the Public Debt not the National Debt. I can find no definition, or even reference, to the Public Debt in any authoritative book, whereas National Debt is pretty fully explained. I take it that the phrase "Public Debt" if there is any difference, has a wider significance than the phrase "National Debt" but for the moment I confine myself to the term National Debt. Lord Halsbury, in his "Laws of England" lays down what he conceives to be the meaning of the phrase and enumerates the items of which it is composed. Under the heading "National Debt of the United Kingdom" he sets out the following:— (1) The funded debt; (2) terminable annuities; (3) unfunded debts; (4) certain capital liabilities incurred by the State in respect of undertakings authorised by recent Acts of Parliament; (5) contingent liability in respect of loans guaranteed by the British Government not at present involving any charge on the National Exchequer; (5a) that, on the other hand, the State has certain liquid assets of ascertained value in 1912 of £47,000,000.

Now, I wish to call attention to the fact that among these items are included (a) terminable annuities; (b) capital liabilities under Acts of Parliament; (c) contingent liabilities, and against these he credits liquid assets of the State. The British White Paper shows that we have paid over £125,000 on account of annuities. Several of these, such as Public Offices, 1903; Telegraph Acts, 1892-1907; Telephone Transfer, 1911; Military Works Acts 1897-1903 are specially mentioned by Lord Halsbury as amongst the capital liabilities of the National Debt. This is remarkable and strange. He sums up all the items I have mentioned and computes them at a total of £718,000,000 in 1912. A little further on he enumerates other guarantees still under the head of National Debt, and among them I find Irish Land Stock 2¾ per cent. and 3 per cent., and, he adds, in all cases, there is some primary security for the loan.

That is, no doubt, true, but in the case of the Land Stock the British Government has, in my view, by the abolition of Article 5 of the Treaty, taken over liability for that primary security. I can see no other interpretation of the agreement to cancel Article 5 of the Treaty, unless Lord Halsbury is wrong in including them and the Public Offices, Telegraphs, Telephones and Military Works under the head of National Debt.

I turn now to another authority, John Scott Keltie. He says:—

"All modern States have been compelled to have recourse to loans either to meet war expenses, to carry out great public undertakings, or to make up the recurrent deficit of a mismanaged revenue. Resources obtained in this way are what constitute a National Debt proper. There are two classes of loans — perpetual and terminable. Terminable loans consist of life annuities and terminable annuities. The National Debt was decreased during a number of years by terminable annuities which did not weigh on the people."

Keltie points out that to balance these annuities the British Government holds enormous assets. Among them he mentions Suez Canal shares worth in 1912 £25,000,000. Why have we surrendered our share to those? He goes on to say:—

"Annuities held by the Government Departments are financed by the British Government in this capacity as the banker of savings banks and other funds on the one hand and on the other in its capacity of custodian of the National Finances."

In other words, the British Government used the money of the savings banks in Britain and Ireland to finance the Government Buildings and other public works I have mentioned. Whatever annuities are recoverable from Ireland are due to the Government of Ireland, and those recoverable from England are due to the British Government.

If people could clear their minds of the false belief that Britain is the true inheritor of all the assets of the United Kingdom a solution would be easier. Our Ministers seem to have abandoned the assets and accepted the debt. As far as I can see, therefore, the annuities mentioned in the British White Paper as having been paid last year for Public Offices, etc., are either part of the National Debt or part of the assets of Irish money in Irish savings banks lent to Ireland for Irish purposes. They may be considered under both heads and can in no way be due to Britain, and they should be paid into the Irish Treasury. So much for the second authority I have quoted. Lord Halsbury and John Scott Keltie tend in the same direction.

I have already given some reason for claiming the land purchase annuities as part of the public debt of the United Kingdom. I now quote another authority, which is direct to the point, as my third witness. The Government of Ireland Act, 1920, was passed by the British Parliament. In the body of that Act the land purchase annuities and local loans are transferred to the Governments of Northern and Southern Ireland respectively. Now, if they had not been recognised by the British Government as part of the National Debt that would have been an end to the matter. But in Appendix 6 a list of items which the British Government considered to be integral portions of the National Debt is set down in detail. One of the items under this heading is land purchase annuities and another local loans. It does not matter whether this Act is in force or not. That does not affect my argument. But we have it set down by the British Government in the most authoritative way possible, in an Act of Parliament passed by the King's Lords and Commons that in its opinion the land purchase annuities and local loans are integral portions of the National Debt. The British Government cannot have it both ways, and we have a right to claim that this is not only an argument but an authoritative statement making further discussion unnecessary and superfluous. Some people have taken refuge in the moral argument; they say that the money was lent to the people by the British Government, and the Free State credit would be ruined if the matter were questioned. These people put legalities aside and say: "Pay up in any case." Is there any individual who would take up such a stand in his own case? Moreover, the money was lent by England and Ireland, not by Britain. The Act of 1920 was imposed on Ireland by Britain and was the origin and cause of the partition of Ireland. We were cheated, again, by the Boundary Commission, and paid with Six Counties and five millions of money for the cancellation of Article 5. The President, when he came back, stated that by the arrangement we were free from debt. Are we to be cheated again? For my part, I will lay this matter before the people of Ireland, the ultimate authority, and the next Dáil will be able to cancel an agreement that does us wrong. We cannot pay six millions a year to Britain, and if we attempted it bankruptcy stares us in the face.

I need only say that the Senator's brief refers entirely to National Debt. He may take it that the term "Public Debt of the United Kingdom" used in the Treaty was used advisedly instead of the term "National Debt" about which he was speaking.

Does the Minister not consider the term "Public Debt" much wider than the term "National Debt"?

Question put and agreed to.