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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 28 Jun 1932

Vol. 15 No. 18

Public Business. - Constitution (Removal of Oath) Bill, 1932—Fifth Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I do not think there will be any other opportunity in this House to say what I think ought to be said. The Bill is now in a form which the House cannot amend at this stage, and it will go to the Dáil, and one may assume that the Dáil will not agree to the amendments made by the Seanad and it will then, presumably, come back to the Seanad. It seems to me that, at this stage, some notice ought to be taken of events that have occurred across the water, particularly since the Bill was before this House. Speeches that have been made by responsible people, giving indication of the minds of responsible people in Britain as regards the position of this Free State, require some action or, at least, some expression of views from this House and from the Dáil. The discussion in the British House of Commons, and, particularly, the speech of Mr. Lloyd George, who was Premier at the time of the passing of the Treaty, and statements made in the public Press by responsible constitutional authorities, show that there has been practically no change of attitude from that which was taken up by them before the Treaty. I refer particularly to the speech of Mr. Lloyd George, and it seems to me that, notwithstanding the developments in constitutional relations from the 1926 and 1930 Imperial Conferences, and the declarations made on these occasions and the subsequent passing of the Statute of Westminster, there is not indicated any change in the mental attitude of responsible British politicians as to the relations between the two countries.

It appears to be still the view of those responsible authorities that this country is now enjoying an extension of self-government, conceded by the British Parliament. I cannot think that that is the view of this Parliament. It certainly was not the attitude of the Ministers of the late Government, and it would appear to me, in view of the fact, which I think is undeniable, that the sentiments expressed by Mr. Lloyd George received the heartiest support from the House of Commons, that the position of this country in relation to Britain, and in relation to the British Dominions, has to be re-asserted by this Parliament, and that the right and proper and appropriate way of re-asserting that position would be for this House, when the opportunity arises after the Bill has been discussed in the Dáil, very definitely to adopt the position that is stated in the Bill as it came to this House from the Dáil. I do not think I shall go into detail with regard to the statements made in the British House. They are on record in the reports of the House of Commons debates of 17th June, and it is quite clear that the attitude of mind is that something has been granted in the way of self-government to this country by the British Parliament, and that nothing can be enacted by this Parliament which the British Government may think detrimental to British interests. These statements were not made in so many words, but that was the effect of Mr. Lloyd George's speech, which was so heartily applauded by members of Parliament, by Ministers and by the Press subsequently.

Then there have appeared certain other speeches by responsible politicians in Britain, and a letter from a responsible constitutional authority, Professor Berriedale Keith, which again seem to me to call for some notice. While I do not think it desirable that Ministers here should take formal notice of letters which appear in the Press, even from so responsible a legal authority as Professor Berriedale Keith, that should not debar one such as myself from taking notice of such a contribution, which undoubtedly expresses views very commonly held by authorities across the water and by some people in this country. The assertion is made, for instance, in a letter to the "Morning Post" of Friday last, that "in Irish constitutional law, which alone is relevant, the legislature"—that is, the Irish Free State legislature—"is not a sovereign body in the same sense as is the British Parliament"; that it is given definite powers by the Constituent Act of 1922 enacted by the Constituent Assembly, and that the courts arc bound to interpret its legislation in the light of the powers accorded them. There is one point that I think should be noted in that regard, and it is, that the constituent assembly, which comprised, I think, 126 members, never recorded more than 50 votes in favour of the Constitution or the Constitution Act. The Second Reading of the Constitution Bill was accorded 47 votes in its favour, and the highest recorded vote in favour of any section of the Bill was 50. Now it is suggested by so high a constitutional authority, that the Oireachtas, the Dáil and Seanad, of 1932, or any subsequent year, a Dáil consisting of 153 members, fully representative, has not the same authority as that assembly of 1922, and that, for all time, this Parliament is limited by the decisions of that assembly, which was known as the Constituent Assembly, or as the Provisional Parliament. This is not the place to decide such a question, but when that thought prevails in the minds of legal authorities, it appears to me that these who conducted the Government of this country for ten years, and made such claims in regard to the powers of this Parliament, ought to be heard in refutation of any such argument.

Then, a further statement is made, which, I think, clearly misrepresents the position of the President and the Government in regard to this Bill, and in regard to the powers claimed for this Parliament. The President's argument is said to run that the power to amend the Constitution and the Constitution Act is unlimited because the power of the Canadian Parliament is unlimited. That is not the position, as I understand it, that is taken by the President or the Government here at all. Even under the constitutional developments which have been formulated in the Statute of Westminster, the position is clearly, that, so far as the Canadian Parliament is concerned, they of their own initiative, and of their own free will, accepted a limitation of their powers in regard to the alteration or amendment of the British North America Act. That is a matter of Canadian governmental policy and not a constitutional limitation imposed upon Canada by the British Parliament. The position of this State, and of South Africa, and the other Dominions, formulated by the Statute of Westminster, as I understand it is, clearly—I mention South Africa in particular, because it is definitely formulated in their own Constitution Act —that there is freedom and no restriction whatever on the legal powers of Parliament, and that if, as a matter of governmental or Parliamentary policy, it is decided to do a certain thing, to wit, to repeal the Oath clause of the Constitution, there is no limitation on these powers. If the Canadian Parliament desire to change their policy, there is really, I am quite certain, no Canadian Minister who would hesitate to affirm that the powers are there, as soon as it became Canadian policy to make the change. As it is Irish policy to make the change, there is no limitation on the powers of this Parliament to make the change. It appears to me that in view of the position that has developed, in view of the attitude taken across the water, in view of all the assertions made in past years, and, particularly, in the past six years, by Ministers representing this State as to the authority of this Parliament, there is only one way of re-affirming our position that there is no limitation on the powers of this Parliament in any matter affecting the concern of the State and that is, when the opportunity comes, for this Seanad to re-assert it by passing the Bill in the form in which it reached this House.

I am not at all sure that the statement made by Senator Johnson will be helpful to this State in its present constitutional strivings. In any case, so far as the section in this House for which I can speak is concerned, we do not propose to enter into any arguments in the matter at this stage. We propose to reserve any comments upon the Bill itself, or any such developments as those to which Senator Johnson alluded, to the stage when and if the Bill should return to the Seanad from the Dáil with the intimation that the Dáil declines to accept the amendments.

Am I to assume that Senator Milroy is basing that on the assumption that the amendments are not going to be accepted in the Dáil, and if on that basis he has been taking the line that has been taken in this House?

Not at all. I shall be very glad indeed if Ministers are wise enough to advise the other House to accept the Bill as it leaves this House. If that should take place, I cannot see that there is any further comment coming from this House that would serve any useful purpose.

Senators and Deputies opposing this Bill have been laying the foundations of their arguments merely on the question of arbitration and negotiations. I have always opposed both, because I do not believe any good would be got from either. However, there have been some negotiations and arbitration, and that ought to satisfy the minds of those people who found their arguments on that alone. I suppose it will not, because they have made up their minds to continue in the same position. We know that arbitration of some sort has been accepted.


In connection with this particular matter?

Yes, so I understand.


If that is your opinion, very well.

On the annuities only.

The statement has been made, and I understand that something of that sort has taken place.

Hear, hear. We are very glad to hear it.

And, as far as I know, the only result has been a torrent of abuse.

Before that impression goes out I would like to make it clear that there has been no discussion or arbitration on the Oath.


Very good.

There was a question of arbitration about something not connected with the Oath.


Not connected with the Bill we are now dealing with.

These things come up more or less in a general way, and the two questions are brought here with the same arguments. Whatever they may be, there has been a great deal of abuse by English politicians, by Ministers and by the English Press. They have fastened their attacks mainly upon the President, because he did not agree with them in every way. We had newspapers in England, "The Times,""The Observer,""The Sunday Times" pouring out abuse, mainly upon the President. Their object seems to be by personal attacks to try as far as they can to get the people of this country to throw out the Fianna Fáil Government and the President. They stated openly that that was their great object. That seems to be the main idea of English Ministers and newspapers. They stated that the President was unyielding, impracticable, and so on, and while making these statements, they at the same time praised Mr. Thomas and Lord Hailsham for their unyielding attitude. General statements were made by these newspapers, and by members of Parliament, and attacks were made on the action of the Ministry and the Dáil. Mr. Thomas has made a good many statements. Mr. Lloyd George said "I am all out for good-will towards Ireland; that is why we signed the Treaty." If that was the only reason he signed the Treaty I wonder what reason there was for sending over the "Black and Tans." What was the object of the shootings in 1916? Every act shows hatred of this country, and hypocrisy.

We are accused of breaking treaties. That seems to be the principal attack made upon us. I suppose in doing so the complaint is about the Oath, because it is the only thing mentioned in the Treaty. There is no question about the annuities in the Treaty. We are attacked, and Mr. Thomas says that he does not want to have anything to do with questions of law. He says that he has to deal only with the question of honour. The question of honour, the question of law and the question of treaties are all brought up against us. I do not remember any case where this country has ever broken a treaty with England. I know hundreds of cases where England has broken faith with this country. Everybody knows that. Mr. Thomas said the Treaty was not a matter of law or status, but a matter of honour. In Ireland we have had a great deal to say to British treaties. Our ancestors regarded the Saxon word as the symbol of treachery. Mr. Thomas said that business was impossible. If business is impossible with people who break an oath I do not know where the British would be, because every treaty they ever made was broken. When the American colonies were engaged in much the same dispute as we are with the British, a treaty was made, and no sooner was it made than Lord North, who was then Prime Minister in England, said it was only a temporary agreement, and that he intended to regain by their strength what they had lost by their weakness.

I might go a great deal further and recall the Home Rule Act, in which certainly both law and honour were broken by the British. Our minds travel back over a series of such broken treaties. As some of the actors are still amongst us, I will recall one broken treaty. The Home Rule Act, the result of half a century of discussion in and out of Parliament, was the culmination of constitutional effort by the Irish people. In 1912, 1913 and 1914 it passed three times through the House of Commons and was finally signed by the King. It was described at the time as the great healing measure between the two nations. It was an all-Ireland Act; Ulster was included, and Mr. Redmond appealed to the people to help him in the war in commemoration of Ireland's freedom. Nearly 100,000 persons enlisted for the war and something like 40,000 were killed. They went to the war with the name of Home Rule on their lips and their blood was shed in vain. The Act was held up in obedience to Lord Carson, backed by Lord Roberts and the leaders of the British Army and Navy. It was then sought to divide Ireland. A compromise was made with Mr. Redmond and the Irish leaders. It was drawn up and signed by Mr. Lloyd George and backed as a public offer in Parliament by Lord Asquith and all the Ministers. Mr. Redmond trusted them, risked his reputation, and got the consent of the people. The pledge was broken publicly in the House of Commons, the Home Rule Act was withdrawn and thrown into the dust-bin of broken treaties. Mr. Redmond and his followers left the House of Commons, and the next year were dismissed from public life at the General Election for trusting British Ministers.

Quoting Edmund Burke in his speech at Westminster on Fox's India Bill, Mr. Lecky said:

(1) I am prepared to prove three propositions. From the Himalayas to Cape Comorin—that is, from the north to the south of India—there was not a single Prince, Potentate or State, great or small, who had come in contact with the English who had not been sold; I say "sold," though sometimes they have not been able to deliver according to their bargain.

(2) Not a single treaty they had made that they had not broken.

(3) Not a single Prince that had ever put any trust in them who is not utterly ruined; and that none are in any degree secure and flourishing, but in the exact proportion to their settled distrust, and irreconcilable enmity to our nation.

Burke then recapitulates the various persons and treaties referred to. The Governor-General, excusing himself, admitted

he had not been very delicate with regard to public faith; he had made an estimate of the sums which would have been lost or never acquired if the rigid ideas of public faith had been observed.

That was enough. His instructions were: "Govern fairly but send more money."

Hastings said then that when he had no money to send, he took it from anybody who had.

We come on then to quite recent times. I remember the time when the British went to Egypt and promised that they were going to move out of it as soon as the people were quieted. Within the next twenty years they made sixteen public promises both to the Egyptian and the Powers in Europe that they would evacuate Egypt. But they did not do it; nor have they done it up to this day and they have made many promises since then.

During the war they made a treaty with the Arabs and got their help by a promise of an Arab Empire extending over Syria and Mesopotamia, and at the very time that they made that treaty they got into connection with the French to divide up between the two of them the very countries which they had promised to the Arabs and for the promise of which they had got the Arab help during the war.

Mr. Thomas tells us that this is a matter of honour—he does not want to have anything to do with the law. He is aware that he has not the law on his side. I think that everybody in this Seanad knows that the Lane Pictures are in honour due to Ireland and that it is only by a very small technicality—the lack of a witness to one of the signatures—that the British Government has been enabled to hold on to these pictures. That is a question of honour. Everybody in England and here admits that it is a matter of honour and that the pictures ought to belong to Ireland, but the Prime Minister and the various Ministers in England have refused to hand over the pictures or have refused to introduce an Act of Parliament to hand them over. I do not know why people should talk to us of lack of honour when we have these glaring incidents before us extending over a whole series of years. While speakers on the other side have been attacking us all this time, their real object has been to get the Ministry here turned out of office. First they directed all their energies against the Labour members and tried by every means to turn them. But the Labour members were honest men and did not desert their country and stood by it, and when they found that they could not do anything there they thought that the Seanad would be the point of attack, and all the newspapers in England and the different people interested have been suggesting that if only the Seanad threw out this Bill, everything would go nicely and pleasantly. All the time, while things are in an uncertain state, these attacks have been going on. There have been attempts to frighten the people in this country. The farmers are told that their cattle will be taxed, and tradespeople are told that they will be taxed too. One thing is certain. If we do not defend our own interests we will go to the wall. Those who are frightened by threats and bogey-man statements like that are bound to be ruined and I think the enemies of the Irish people are only being strengthened and bolstered by all these attacks.

In the old days it was always considered a chivalrous act for those on the losing side to give every credit to those on the winning side for having done their best. I think that every member of the Seanad will agree with me that the majority in the Seanad have done their level best in mutilating this. Bill and leaving it in such a state that it is hardly recognisable whether it is now a Bill for the retention of the Oath or for the removal of it. I always like, when I can, to give credit where credit is due, and I must give credit to pioneer Senator Milroy for rigidly adhering to his chart with the same pertinacity that has always distinguished his whole political career during the past twenty years. In that bland, nice way of his, when he likes, he has thrown out the suggestion to-day—as usual, a pioneer in political warfare— that it would be well for the Executive to reconsider their position and leave the Bill as the majority of the Seanad has left it. Colonel Moore's mind has gone back—my mind has a penchant for going back also—but I remember some of these pioneers, Senator Milroy amongst the number, speaking to the young men of Ireland in that old hackneyed phrase that "the day is not far distant when the green flag shall wave over College Green and we shall be a nation once again." I heard Senator Milroy, somewhere in the Midlands of England, saying that, speaking on behalf of the Irish race at home and abroad, he and they would never rest satisfied until all British allegiance had been barished out of Ireland as St. Patrick banished the snakes. Evidently, however, the fashion now is to turn your coat in politics in this country every ten years.

Is that a charge being made against me? If so, I would like some better evidence than Senator O'Neill's defective memory to substantiate such a gross personal affront as that. I would also like to know is it necessary to indulge in these personalities, and what they have to do with this question that this Bill do now pass?


I think it would be better to avoid personalities.

If Senator Milroy denies that he asked the young men of Ireland to banish all British allegiance out of Ireland as St. Patrick banished the snakes, then I withdraw.

St. Patrick left a few snakes.

We are living in an atmosphere of humbug.


Hear, hear!

Do we not all know, without mincing words, that any Bill, such as the present Bill, that comes to this Seanad, as the Seanad is at present constituted, will never, never pass the Seanad? I did not intend saying anything, but I was a little touched by Senator Milroy's appeal to the Executive, and I felt that before this Bill passed into that state of limbo, which is the ardent desire of the majority of the Seanad, I would take this last opportunity of offering my protest for what it is worth against the way in which the Bill has been mutilated in the Seanad.

Question put.
Division challenged.


How many Senators call for a division?

rose in his place.


I declare the motion carried, Senator O'Neill dissenting.

I was not acting flippantly in doing as I did.

Perhaps I should explain that this is a Government measure, that it has been amended and lacerated here and that it is not the intention of the Government to accept the Bill in its present form. Nevertheless, it is a Government Bill and we shall let it go to the Dáil, as amended, with the results that we may expect.