May 3rd 1916: Parliament Debates the Easter Rising

First Easter Rising: pages from Punch
Second Easter Rising Debates
Third Easter Rising Debates

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Tuesday, April 25th. – The Government, which has sometimes been accused of not having sufficient confidence in the House of Commons, has made ample amends. Information about the Army, too grave to be imparted to the people who provide the men and the means for maintaining it, is to be freely given to four or five hundred Members of Parliament (not to mention a similar number of Peers).

THE PRIME MINISTER opened the Secret Session in one of his briefest speeches. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “ I beg, Sir, to call your attention to the fact that strangers are present.” The historic form of this advertisement, “I spy strangers,” is briefer still, but inadmissible in these ticklish times. One does not want to see, in the enemy Press, “British Prime Minister confesses to spying.”

Then the Press Gallery was cleared, and the Great Inquest of the Nation became a Vehmgericht. The wretched scribe who should attempt to peer behind the veil that shrouds its proceedings has been warned in advance of the unnamed pains and penalties that await him if he should venture to describe or even “refer to” the proceedings of the Secret Session. I am unable to say, therefore, whether it is true that the occupants of the Treasury Bench forthwith donned helmets and gasmasks to protect themselves from the fiery darts and mephitic vapours launched at them from above and below the Gangway.

One of the picturesque details the official report, compiled by MR. SPEAKER., who is understood to have seized the opportunity offered by his recent stay at Bath to learn Pitman’s shorthand, is unfortunately silent.

All we learn from its severely restrained pages is that the PRIME MINISTER made a long statement about recruiting. From this we gather that if fifty thousand of the unattested married men do not enlist before the end of May they will be compelled to do so; and that altogether the Government will insist on getting 200,000 men from this source. The German General Staff will be surprised to learn that our requirements are so modest, and will wonder, as we do, what all the pother is about.

Perhaps Mr. LOWTHER did not take notes of the other speeches that were delivered. At any rate he gives us no indication of their drift. All we know is that in the course of some seven hours no fewer than sixteen Members addressed the House. From this it may be inferred that the absence of reporters has at least the negative advantage of conducing to brevity of utterance. May we also infer that the speaking was as plain as it as it was brief, and that for the time being the Palace of Westminster has become the Palace of Truth?

Wednesday, April 26th:- So far as we are permitted to know what took place – for the House of Commons had another Secret Session – in both Houses it was Ireland, Ireland all the way. The Commons began by granting a return relating to Irish Lunacy accounts, and then by an easy transition passed to the report of the Sinn Fein rebellion in Dublin.

Colonel SHARMAN – CRAWFORD, who bears a name that all Ireland has solid reason to respect, desiring to return to his native country, asked Mr. BIRRELL what routes, if any, were open. Mr. BIRRELL did not know, but intimated genially that he might be able to take over the gallant Colonel under his own protecting wing. The House appeared to find humour in the idea of the CHIEF SECRETARY returning to his post, and an Hon. Member inquired why he had ever left it.

The PRIME MINISTER gave a brief and, so far as it went, rosy-coloured report of the situation in Dublin. Some Nationalist Volunteers were helping the Government. The forces of the Crown were to be further strengthened by a party of American journalists, armed to the teeth with quick-firing pencils, who were going over to deal with “this most recent German campaign.”

This may have reminded Mr. ASQUITH that there were British journalists in the Press Gallery. The DEPUTY SPEAKER’S attention having been called to this fact, the House voted for their expulsion, and again passed into Secret Session.

The Lords were again in Open Session, to the regret, perhaps, of the Government representatives, who heard some very plain speaking from Lord MIDLETON. According to his information the rebels were still in possession of important parts of Dublin. The Government had been warned on Sunday last that an outbreak was imminent, but had nevertheless allowed many officers to go on leave, while others were permitted to assist at the races on Monday.

Thursday, April 27th:- Mr. GINNELL does not believe in the supinences of the Irish Executive. His information is that quite a long time ago it had resolved to place Dublin in a state of siege, to imprison Archbishop WALSH and the LORD MAYOR in their respective official residences, and to arrest the leaders of sundry Nationalist associations. Mr. T. W. RUSSELL, as spokesman for the ruthless Mr. BIRRELL, denied emphatically that these drastic steps had been contemplated.

The PRIME MINSTER subsequently announced that the situation still had “serious features.” This mild phrase covers the continued possession by the rebels of important parts of Dublin, the prevalence of street fighting, and the spread of the insurrection to the wild West. Martial law had been proclaimed all over the country; Sir JOHN MAXWELL had been sent over in supreme command, and the Irish Government had been placed under his orders – the last part of this announcement being greeted with especially loud cheers.

SIR EDWARD CARSON and Mr. JOHN REDMOND joined in expressing horror of this rebellion and hoped that the Press would not make it an excuse for reviving political dissension on Irish matters – a sufficient rebuke to The Westminster Gazette and The Star, both of which by a curious coincidence had found the moment auspicious for preaching the text of the old tag, “There but for the grace of God,” etc.

Sir H. DALZIEL attempted to secure an immediate debate upon the Irish trouble. But the eminent Privy Councillor found little support in the House, and was first knocked down by the DEPUTY-SPEAKER and then trampled upon by Mr. ASQUITH.

If the Secret Sessions were intended to make smooth the way of the Military Service Bill they failed miserably in their object. Mr. LONG, to whom was entrusted the task of introducing it, felt his position acutely. Only when explaining that one of the principal objects of the bill was to extend the service of time-expired soldiers for the duration of the War did he wax at all eloquent, and then it was in lauding the chivalry of these men and in expressing his extreme distaste for the task of coercing them. The whole speech justified the poet’s remark that “long petitions spoil the cause they plead.”

Not a voice was heard in favour of the measure. Sir EDWARD CARSON damned it for not going far enough, and Mr. LEIF JONES because it went too far; and Mr. STEPHEN WALSH, as representative of the miners, who have given so much of their blood to the country’s cause, bluntly demanded that the House should reject this Bill “and insist on the straight thing.”

Mr. ASQUITH, recalled to the House by his agitated colleague, recognised that his old Parliamentary hand had got into a hornet’s nest, and promptly withdrew it. To the best of my recollection this is the first time on record that a Government measure has perished before its first reading. Conceived in secrecy and delivered in pain, its epitaph will be that of another unhappy infant:

“If I was to be so soon done for

I wonder what I was begun for.”

Essence of Parliament April 1916

Parliament debates the Easter Rising.

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