I am sure that most Senators have already, through the Dáil Reports, made themselves acquainted with the chief features of this Bill. At the same time, I suppose it is right I should give the Seanad a full explanation of the whole position. Most Senators know that the purpose of the Bill is to dispose of certain funds which were lodged in court as far back as 1924. These were funds that belonged to the Sinn Féin organisation. As Senators know, the organisation was established first in 1905, then reorganised in 1917, becoming a great national organisation and commanding the support of the vast majority of the Irish people up to 1922.
In 1922 the division took place, mainly as the result of a difference of opinion with regard to the Treaty which was signed in December, 1921. When the Treaty was signed, and the difference of opinion had made itself manifest, an effort was made to keep the Sinn Féin organisation from dividing. That effort was continued, with a certain amount of success, up to about the 28th May, 1922, when it was agreed that the election which was pending should be held under certain conditions, the conditions being such that they enabled the organisation to remain united. After the attack on the Four Courts and the opening of the civil conflict, of course, the division then became such that there was no hope of the organisation remaining united.
Some time about 1923 an effort was made by those of us who opposed the Treaty to rebuild the organisation. The position at that time was that some of the principal officers remained on one side and some had gone to the other. It happened that, of the officers who went on the other side—that is on the side in favour of the Treaty— were the two treasures of the day. They had been the treasurers, and they were Mr. Eamonn Duggan and Mrs. Wyse Power. In 1924, in view of the division and on taking legal advice, they lodged these moneys in court. Perhaps I should mention a circumstance which I mentioned in the Dáil, that is, that at the first post-Treaty meeting, I think, of the Sinn Féin executive which was a body of 24 members—nine consisting of members of the officer board and 15 other members of the standing committee— it was proposed and agreed unanimously that I should be constituted as sole trustee. There was no trustee, as such, in the organisation other than the treasurers. I, however, did not seek to get at that time—because I had hoped that one way or another it would be possible to get the organisation reunited notwithstanding the differences of opinion—and I did not press to get control of these moneys, although on one occasion, shortly after the resolution being passed under which I was made trustee, one of the treasurers approached me and asked did I wish to have the moneys handed over to me. I said I did not want to show at the time any particular anxiety to get the funds handed over to me because I did not want to take any action that might suggest that the division was absolutely inevitable.
That gives the House the conditions under which the moneys were lodged in court, as I have said, by the treasurers of the day. Now these moneys remained there until the two treasurers died. Mr. Duggan died in 1936, and Mrs. Wyse Power died in 1941. After her death, her personal representative, her son, Judge Wyse Power, came to me and suggested that these moneys should now be disposed of. He suggested a method of using them, and suggested to me legislation. I suggested then that he should see the surviving members of the old executive of the organisation with a view, if possible, to getting agreement as to the proposed method of the disposition of the funds. He interviewed, I think, all of the surviving members of the standing committee of Sinn Féin and reported to me that, with one exception, they were prepared to meet me to discuss the matter. As far, I think, as he could find out, they were not opposed to the method that was proposed for the disposition of the funds. There was one exception and there were some further negotiations with the person concerned and later he died.
Now, during the period in which these considerations were taking place, which would be about the autumn of 1941, apparently the members of the organisation, as it exists at present, became aware of the proposal. I do not know whether it was with a view to stopping or trying to prevent the proposed legislation or for what other reason, whether it was to make good what they regarded as their claim, but they gave notice that they would claim them in court. That claim, I think, was formally made early in 1942. The Attorney-General and Judge Wyse Power were cited as defendants. When I heard this my first feeling was: "Well, all right, let the matter be decided in the courts." I thought that was going to be the position, until the years passed and finally no action being taken by the plaintiffs the defendants gave notice of motion that the case be dismissed for want of prosecution. There were some preliminary hearings, but at any rate the date for the trial was fixed for October, 1946. Meantime a new action arose. The plaintiffs had some differences with their solicitor. He was not willing to give them the papers when they were changing over to another solicitor. They brought an action in court demanding possession of these papers, and the application was dismissed. Then there was a question of an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Somewhere about that stage I made inquiries as to what costs had been incurred and as to what the further costs were going to be. To my amazement, I was told that the costs before the hearing at all would have amounted to something between £7,000 and £8,000. If the matter then went to hearing, and as it was likely to last for some two or three weeks, the costs of the hearing would run to from £6,000 to £7,000, and if there was to be an appeal the costs were going to run to another £6,000 or £7,000. These were the estimates that were given to me by our law department, which had no interest in any way in exaggerating what the costs were likely to be. Altogether, it was estimated that the legal costs of this case, if it were conducted to a finish, would be about £20,000. That is in respect of a sum of, as I was informed, £24,000. I felt that it was outrageous that moneys which had been collected in the way in which these moneys were collected should be spent in that manner. The Government came to the conclusion that the proper thing to do was to proceed, as was intended originally, with the legislation which had been actually in hands before the plenary summons had been issued in the pending action.
As regards these expenses, some of the lawyers in the Dáil, who know more about these things than I do, were astonished at the amount. I assure the House that I was more than astonished when I heard that, before the case went to hearing at all, a sum of £7,000 or £8,000 had been spent. The explanation I got was that the case of the claimants had been traversed by the Attorney-General so that they would have completely to prove their claim. That meant a very close history of a certain period and an examination, year by year, of the position of the organisation which claims the funds. When disclosure of documents was asked for, a pile of documents was presented without any selection.
Of course, with every step taken by the plaintiffs, the defendants had to take a similar step in protecting the interests with which they were concerned. These documents were printed. I intended to bring to the House the big printed volume containing these papers. I understand that it was thought that, when there was such a mass of documents, it would be as easy to print them as to have them typed. It was felt, too, that that would make for the convenience of counsel and those who would be dealing with the case—that the time which they would lose otherwise would justify the printing. I am not a judge of these matters. I have no experience of court proceedings, but I do know that there are cases on record in which a dispute between parties was carried to such an extent that, when the case concluded, the successful litigant had nothing but the success of his contention as a result. The money had all been spent on law charges.
I felt, perhaps, more keenly about this matter than I should have felt if I had not been personally associated with the collection of the funds or if I had not occupied the peculiar, nominal, trustee-position which I had occupied. I felt that it was not right that money collected in that fashion should, in a dispute between parties, be wasted. I should say that, back in an earlier period—1924-26—I had endeavoured to bring about agreement between the various parties—into which the original organisation had been split up—for the use of these moneys for a purpose which would be regarded as a common purpose by all of them. You had the big organisation to which the moneys had been subscribed from 1917 to 1921. That was split roughly in two at the time of the division over the Treaty. Then, those with whom I was associated reorganised the Sinn Féin organisation, doing our best to maintain the constitution as it was and to maintain the continuity of the organisation. During the period I tried to get agreement. I thought that the purpose most likely to secure agreement was the language cause and that the moneys should be devoted to that cause. The old Sinn Féin organisation, the Sinn Féin organisation revived or reorganised in 1923 and the organisations that continued afterwards had the restoration of the language as a common objective. It seemed to me that that was a right and proper purpose and one to which the funds might be devoted. However, efforts in that direction met with failure.
Perhaps, I should say that not merely was the great national organisation of 1917-21 divided into roughly equal parts in 1922 but, in 1926, as a result of a proposal as to the future programme of the organisation which I put forward, there was a division again. Again, the division was very close—about fifty-fifty also. We left the organisation and formed Fianna Fáil. The other organisation dwindled until the position was reached that the body claiming the moneys to-day would represent only a tiny fraction of our people—very tiny compared with the great organisation to which the moneys were subscribed. If this case were decided by the court, I do not know on what principles the claim would be determined. I do not know any case which could be regarded as parallel to it. It might, for instance, be decided on the basis of continuity. For myself, I can say that everything I could do to preserve continuity in the period 1923-26 I did. What was done afterwards, I do not know. I do not know what case could be made for continuity.
It was suggested in the other House that one of the reasons for the action we are taking was some reluctance on my part to go into the witness-box. I should have nothing whatever to worry about in the witness-box. I should have only to give the facts as I knew them. I should not have to formulate any thesis, once the matter had left my hands and I had not to determine the issue. I should only have to give the facts to the court, as I knew them, and those facts, so far as I am concerned, would be very easy to give. I have given them in the main here. It was suggested that I might have been parading as president of Sinn Féin. I was president of reorganised Sinn Féin between 1923 and 1926. There was no question of "parading"; it was a fact. That organisation, under that name, which had been disputed, fought elections all over the country and a number of its candidates were elected. So far as I am concerned, all I should have to do would be to give the facts in court as well as I could remember them or, if documents were brought to my notice, to state whether, to my knowledge, these documents were genuine or not.
In cases of this kind what one has to satisfy oneself about is whether one is acting justly or wisely, as I said in the Dáil. So far as justice is concerned, I have no doubt whatever that the proposal here is a just proposal, because the body concerned never had possession of these moneys. It is a mistake to suggest that we are confiscating moneys, as if the existing Sinn Féin organisation had had possession of them. They never had possession of them. The moneys remained unclaimed from 1924 until the date of the action, which followed proposed action by us to bring in legislation. The body which claims the moneys on the basis of continuity would not represent the substantial organisation to which the moneys were subscribed. If a test could be applied as to what purpose the subscribers of these moneys— assuming they roughly represented the organisation—would desire them to be devoted to, I have no doubt, if there were any means of ascertaining their wishes, they would, by an overwhelming percentage, say that these moneys should not go to the body claiming them at present. I have no doubt, therefore, that what we are proposing to do is just. I do not know what principles may be applied in court in regard to determining how far continuity could be proved, and if it could be proved how far it would be a determining consideration. The next thing is: Is it wise that we should do this? I say it is wise. I think it is extremely wise that the money subscribed should not be merely wasted in law costs. A question may arise as to whether the method of disposition, as proposed in this Bill, is the best method. I have confessed in the other House, and I am repeating it here, that I had one objection myself to this method of disposition. There is the fear that the administration costs would be so high that the money that would eventually go to the people who are intended to benefit might be substantially diminished. That was a serious objection. There is no pretence about this being an attempt to meet the case of persons who are not in good circumstances as a result of their activities.
It was better in my opinion that this money should be spent in the relief of distress of this particular type than wasted on law charges. The objection, of course, has been made to this that it is legislation of a peculiar character, that it is retroactive and so on. Well, the same consideration arose here before and anybody who cares to look up the debates of the Seanad will find it. It was when the Land Act of 1926 was being passed here. The Senators who were here at that time will remember. It was the famous Lynam v. Butler case. There was a good national reason put forward at the time for the Bill. So far as principle was concerned, it was opposed for the same sort of legal reasons that were put forward in the Dáil against this Bill. You will remember what happened on that occasion was that the Supreme Court had come to a certain decision and there was a proposal to take the Bill from the Supreme Court to the Judicial Committee of the British Privy Council. That was objected to on national grounds and also on the grounds that it was not in accordance with certain agreements reached at the time. The arguments that were put forward very ably at the time by Senator Browne, who was a distinguished lawyer, were based on the same sort of grounds as they were based on in the Dáil. From his point of view, leave had been given in the courts to appeal and the case being in the courts, should not be interfered with here and we should not come in in the middle of a judicial process.