May 10th 1916: Further Parliamentary Debate on the Easter Rising

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

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Tuesday, May 2nd:- The House of Commons was unusually well attended this afternoon. Members filled the benches and overflowed into the galleries, and many Peers looked down upon the scene, among them LORD GRENFELL, formerly Commander in Chief in Ireland, and Lord MACDONNELL, once Under Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant. All were curious to learn what the PRIME MINISTER would have to say about the painful events of the past week. Would he announce that the Government, conscious of failure, had decided to resign en bloc? Or would it be merely pruned and strengthened by the lopping of a few of the obviously weaker branches?

Nothing of the sort. Mr. ASQUITH made the barest allusion to the surrender of Kut – an incident which was “not one of serious military significance.” As for the insurrection in Dublin, there would be a debate upon it as soon as the Government had completed its enquiries. The main purpose of his speech was to announce that the Government had decided to introduce a Bill for general compulsion, and to get rid of the piecemeal treatment of recruiting to which the House had objected. Members were, I think, hardly prepared for the vigour with which the PRIME MINISTER turned upon his critics, reminding them that just the same denunciation of “vacillating statesmen” was current in the days of PITT. No doubt there had been blunders both in policy and strategy, but nevertheless the contribution of the Kingdom and this Empire to the common cause was growing steadily, and the military situation of the Allies was never so good as it was to-day. If the Government no longer had the confidence of the people, he thundered out, “let the House say so.”

While the immediate answer to this challenge was a volley of cheers, most of the speakers in the subsequent debate disguised their confidence in the Government so successfully that it almost appeared to be non-existent. From Sir EDWARD CARSON, who acidly remarked that it was unnecessary for him to praise the Government, as “they always do that for themselves,” down to Sir JOHN SIMON, who declared that compulsion was being introduced from considerations of political expediency rather than military necessity, no one seemed to be convinced that the Government even now quite knew its own mind.

The House of Lords, after listening to a moving tribute to the memory of Lord ST. ALDWYN from his old colleague, Lord LANSDOWNE, settled down to a debate on the new Order in Council prohibiting references to Cabinet secrets. It met with equal condemnation from Lord PARMOOR as a constitutional lawyer and from Lord BURNHAM as a practical journalist. The Ministers who “blabbed” were the real criminals. Lord BURNHAM recommended to them the example of the gentleman of the French Revolution, who always wore a gag in order to retain his self-control.

Lord BUCKMASTER, that “most susceptible Chancellor,” made a very ingenuous defence of his colleagues. They were the unconscious victims of adroit interviewers, who obtained information from them by a process of extraction so painless that they did not know the value of what they were giving away.

It is time that these innocents were protected against themselves. A gag must in future be issued to every Minister with his Windsor uniform. The discarded G.R. armlets of the V.T.C might very well serve the purpose.

Wednesday, May 3rd:- When, some nine years ago, Mr. AUGUSTINE BIRRELL was appointed Chief Secretary to the Lord-Lieutenant a friend who had some knowledge of Irish affairs wrote to him: “ I do not know whether to congratulate you or condole with you, but I think it is the latter.”

It was an easy guess, but its confirmation took an unusually long time. Indeed, at one moment it looked as if Mr. BIRRELL would escape the almost invariable fate of Irish Secretaries, and leave Dublin with his political reputation enhanced. When he had placed the National University Act on the Statute-book, thus solving a problem that had baffled his predecessors since the Union, he might have sung his Nune Dimittis in a halo.

Perhaps he was not sufficiently ambitious to demand release; perhaps none of his colleagues was anxious to take his job; perhaps the Nationalist leader insisted on keeping him in the silken fetters of office as a hostage for Home Rule. Anyhow, the opportunity as missed; and thenceforward Nemesis dogged his track.

Two years ago it seemed that Ulster would be his stumbling-block. The War saved him from that, but only to bring him down through more sinister instruments. In his pathetic apology this afternoon he confessed that he had failed to estimate accurately the strength of the Sin Fein movement. He might have been wrong in not suppressing it before, but his omission to do so was due to a consuming desire to keep Ireland’s front united in face of the common foe.

This frank admission of error would in any case have disarmed hostile criticism; but its effect was strengthened by the unseemly interjections with which Mr. GINNELL accompanied it. If the Member for Westmeath is a sample of the sort of persons with whom the CHIEF SECRETARY has to deal, no wonder that he failed to understand the lengths to which they would go.

Mr. REDMOND, obviously disgusted by the pranks of his nominal supporter, chivalrously shouldered part of the blame that Mr. BIRRELL had taken upon himself; and even Sir EDWARD CARSON, though a life-long and bitter opponent of his policy, was ready to admit that he had been well-intentioned and had done his best.

Later on, when the PRIME MINISTER had introduce the new Military Service Bill, establishing compulsion for all men married or single, Colonel CRAIG made a vain appeal to Mr. REDMOND to get the measure extended to Ireland. Nothing would do more to show the world that the recent rebellion was only the work of an insignificant section of the Irish people.

Thursday, May 4th: - Although Mr. GINNELL was one of the Members to whom the Government were ready a week ago to impart secrets of State with which the Press was not deemed fit to be trusted, I gather that he has other sources of information which he considers much more trustworthy. Among various tit-bits with which he regaled the House this afternoon was a suggested reason why British aircraft have not yet bombarded Essen. He has his suspicions that it is because members of the British Cabinet have shares in some of Frau KRUPP’S subsidiary companies.

Most people know that all leave from the Front was stopped just before Easter, and have hitherto assumed  that the stoppage was due to the exigencies of the military situation. To Mr. PETO, an earnest seeker after truth, as befits his name, Mr. TENNANT admitted that there was another reason. Last year, it seems, some returning warriors got so much mixed up in the congested Easter traffic that they never reached home at all, so this year the authorities resolved to keep them out of the danger-zone.

The Government welcomes any suggestion that may help to win the War. Mr. EUGENE WASON’S latest idea is that if the War Office and the Admiralty were to put their heads together they might make it easier for outdoor artists in Cornwall to obtain permits to pursue their studies, at present restricted, in military areas; and Mr. TENNANT assured him that this important matter was still “under consideration.”

The Second Reading of the Military Service Bill brought forth some rather trite arguments from Mr. HOLT and other opponents of compulsion, and a lively defence from Mr. LLOYD GEORGE, who thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity, and after a long silence, of being able to speak his mind without fear of complications with his colleagues. With examples drawn from France and the American Civil War he argued that compulsory service was an essential incident of true democracy. But an even more effective backing for the Bill came from Mr. ARTHUR HENDERSON. Hitherto, according to his own description, “the heaviest drag-weight of the Cabinet,” he now lent it increased momentum, and carried with him into the Lobby all but nine of his colleagues of the Labour Party. Altogether, Sir JOHN SIMON and his friends mustered just three dozen, and the Second Reading was carried against them by a majority of 292.

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Parliament debates the fallout from the Easter Rising.

Debate on the Easter Rising stretches into May.

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