Labourers (Ireland) Bill

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Labourers (Ireland) Bill  (1904) 
by Daniel Desmond Sheehan
Speech delivered to the British House of Commons, for the provision of funding of rural labourer's housing under the proposed Labourers (Ireland) Bill, during its
Second Reading on 24 June 1904. It was enacted as the Labourers (Ireland) Act (1906) which provided for the erection of over 40,000 cottages each on an acre of land.

MR. SHEEHAN (Cork County, Mid) said the measure before the House was most important in this respect, that it proposed to deal with a subject affecting the lives, the happiness, the comfort, and well-being of the whole labouring population of Ireland. At the outset, however, he might frankly state that he could not congratulate the Government or the Chief Secretary on the manner in which they had approached and attempted to deal with a great social problem and with an evil which was admittedly one demanding the immediate application of efficacious remedies. The history of the Bill before the House was well known. Rather than lose his Land Bill of last year, the Chief Secretary solemnly pledged himself to deal with the labourers' question this year. Yielding to the pressure of circumstances, although many of them on the Irish Benches felt in doing so they were to some extent sacrificing the labourers, they accepted, in all good faith, the pledge given by the Chief Secretary that he would give his personal attention to the matter during the autumn. This distinctly implied that he intended to bring forward a great comprehensive measure which would remove all the grounds of difficulty and delay, of complaint and dissatisfaction, which had made the present Labourers Acts practically inoperative in many parts of the country. He did not know whether the right hon. Gentleman regarded the Bill before the House as a fulfilment of his pledge—given in circumstances which should make it exceptionally binding—but this he did know, that the Irish people and the Irish labourers did not regard it as such, and that the feeling, not alone in Ireland, was that unless it was radically amended and its provisions widely extended, they must condemn the Bill as being but a poor child of promise of whom the parent could have no reason to be proud.

He did not say the Bill was wholly bad, but, knowing what he knew of the condition of the Irish labourers, and of the necessity of hastening and cheapening the procedure for their better housing if the remnant left of them was to be saved to the country, he emphatically asserted that it would not greatly serve the purpose for which it was intended or meet with any degree of approval unless an honest attempt was made to improve it and reasonable time given for its discussion in that House. The Chief Secretary had promised to give his personal attention to this question during the autumn. Had he done so? They knew that inspectors of the Local Government Board toured the country instituting special inquiries, and that even the services of the Royal Irish Constabulary were called in to his aid. What were the results of these investigations, and where were the reports? They had sought for them in vain. They were, told they were private and only for Departmental use. But if there was nothing objectionable in them, why not give them to the light of day. They were not afraid to see them before the public in print. They could not damage their demands, because their case I for legislation was so strong and powerful that nothing that might be contained in the report of any Government official I could weaken it. But the attitude of the Government all along towards this Bill I had not been satisfactory, and there were some of them who feared that this attitude would be reflected in their future action.

The defects of the existing Acts were manifold. Returns had been laid on the Table of that House showing the monstrous waste of expenditure in connection with them in law costs, costs of inquiries, appeals to the Privy Council, and in numerous Other forms of red-tapeism which were as useless as they were extravagant. Indeed, a vastly Undue proportion of the cost of labourers' cottages was wasted in frivolous charges and unnecessary details. They had all along demanded that there should be drastic reform here. He had studied the Bill, and it was not quite plain to him in what specific directions retrenchment was to be effected. They required a simplification of procedure. Under the present Acts it had been computed that no less than nineteen different stages had to be gone through before a single cottage could be erected, and, incredible though it might seem, five and six years had frequently elapsed from the time the representation for a cottage was first received until it was finally built. The; arbitrary powers vested in Local Government Board inspectors was another source of much complaint which was, to some extent, modified in the present Bill. It was certainly a grave scandal that, after a council had gone to the expense and trouble of formulating a scheme with full knowledge of the local requirements, and taking each cottage on its merits, that an official should come down from the Local Government Board, hold an inquiry, and recommend that one-half or more of the cottages be rejected, and rejected they always were by the Local Government Board. As a matter of fact, everything was done to hamper and obstruct the erection of cottages, and to discourage the local authorities from putting the Labourers Acts into force.

Hence, was it to be wondered that, though the Acts had been in operation for over twenty years, only 17,411 cottages had been actually built up to the present? It would be interesting to know how many were forced to emigrate in these twenty years owing to the scarcity or insufficiency of housing accommodation. And if they took the pathetic and the human side of the picture, they could compare in their minds the hundreds of thousands who, in all these years, had been compelled to five in hovels not fit to house the brute beast of the field; who had brought forth children and reared families in these fetid dens of fever, dirt, consumption, and disease; whose homes were worse than a dungeon when they were not a living grave; who were hopeless because there was no hope and who had to be content because rebellion of spirit seemed to bring them no nearer to a modest home and cheerful surroundings. It was for that they pleaded here that day, pleaded earnestly and with all the force at their command, that they might be enabled to take back to Ireland, when this session was brought to a close, such a Labourers Act as would speed forward the day when every tired worker going home from his heavy labour might have the sweet consolation and relief of sitting by a pleasant fireside in the midst of a contented family. But would the Bill as it stood do this? Emphatically no; but the skeleton was there, to which substantial framework a perfect structure might be superadded.

During the discussion on the Vote for the Board of Agriculture, the previous evening, mention was made of the fact that while it was hoped for it that it would have had the effect of arresting the tide of emigration, it had not done so; that it had, on the contrary, stimulated it by the encouragement of the rearing of live stock to the detriment of arable cultivation was his conviction, and he saw no hope whatever for any cessation of the deadly haemorrhage of the nation until the working classes in Ireland were firmly rooted in the soil, until they had fixity of tenure in decent houses and moderate allotments of land, and until the great grass plains, grazing ranches, and the untenanted land of Ireland were restored to the industry of a sturdy Irish peasantry. Would it not be better for the country, for its social,' industrial, and commercial prosperity, that, instead of having vast areas roamed over by oxen and sheep, that these should be parcelled out into economic holdings and distributed amongst the labourers who were now so steadily leaving the shores of Ireland and taking to other lands that energy, that labour, and those powers which should be devoted to the reconstruction and regeneration of their own country? That was a phase of the Irish question which must be seriously considered in the near future if the native labouring population was not to dwindle to vanishing point. The land which was now given over to the rearing of bullocks to feed the British beefeaters must be restored to the industry of the people, and it was in than only would be found the final solution of the agrarian problem in Ireland. Farmers everywhere were complaining of the scarcity of labour and of the fact that they could not carry out their agricultural operations or get full value out of their land owing to this scarcity. But few farmers had constant employment for labouring hands, and when labourers could now get to America for a few pounds it was not in human nature that they would remain in Ireland on the chance of earning a precarious livelihood for five or six months of the year. Sir Horace Plunkett's panaceas would not keep a single labourer in the country. The only means by which that could be effected was by housing them properly, giving them reasonable allotments of land according to the varying necessities of different localities, and by finding for them remunerative outlets for their labour.

Speaking recently in the South of Ireland, the Lord-Lieutenant sympathetically referred to the emigration and pointed out how essential it was, even from a British standpoint, to devise some means of keeping the people in the country. Here and in that Bill was the opportunity for taking a great step forward towards keeping the people at home. His Excellency recognised that the people of any nation were its greatest asset. That was commonplace truth, but why, then, did not the Government bring in some statesmanlike measure which would achieve that, and not be paltering with a great question by petty, tinkering proposals unworthy of anyone claiming a title to statesmanship? He found from emigration statistics for the year 1903, that of the 39,789 natives of Ireland who left the country no less than 12,892 males were returned as labourers and 1,174 as artisans, whilst over 15,000 female servants emigrated. Those figures were startling as showing that it was mainly from the working classes the emigrant ship was filled. That showed that the labour problem and the population were inseparable—were really one and the same. If they solved the one they settled the other. In Ireland they had hoped, as far as they could hope for anything great from a British Ministry, that the present Bill, if not offering a complete solution, would at least do something seriously in the direction of grappling with the great social problem which existed in Ireland. But it was disappointing, it was almost worthless, and it was another scandal of Irish misgovernment and of British neglect of Irish necessities. In Ireland they had no great manufactures to keep the Irish people in the country and to give them employment. The land was the sole source of employment, and surely it was incontestable that if the land of Ireland was properly distributed and its productiveness utilised it could maintain in comfort and contentment at least double the present population. It had done so before and could do so again. When the Land Purchase Bill was before the House last year the Chief Secretary postponed the labourers' claims with fair assurances and smooth promises, and now look at what they had got—where they expected bread they had been given a stone. What answer had the Chief Secretary to make for himself and how could he excuse this shameless breach of faith. What was in the present Act that they were to be grateful for? Little—very little—so little that he wondered the right hon. Gentleman went to all the sham display of instituting special inquiries and of drafting its provisions at all. If this was all they were to get why did he not leave them to fight out this issue on the Land Bill and let them take their chance of forcing what concessions they could from the Government. Doubtless other Members would analyse the clauses in detail and there was only one that he would now refer to, and that was Clause 15 which disqualified for election to a district council any person who was a tenant of a labourer's cottage. That was a most preposterous proposition and one to which the Irish Party could under no circumstances commit itself. It must be removed from the Bill. It was an insult to the Irish labourer and it was not in harmony with the spirit of the times. There were many reasons why the Irish labourer should at least receive fair and liberal treatment from the Government, if not full justice. His scale of life was far below that of the English and Scotch workers. His surroundings were of the most abject description, his life was one of constant toil and of constant struggle. His family were ill - fed and worse clad. He knew no home joys in any real sense. How could he know them kennelled as he was in dwellings which should not be even pig-sties and dragging out an existence on a wage which was no better, if as good, as that given to the Kaffir in the compounds of South Africa. They wanted to bring some light and sunshine into the homes of these poor people who tasted so little of the joys of life, and when they knocked at the door of Westminster, craving for some crumbs of comfort, they were told contemptuously to go about their business, that there was nothing for them, that bloated "Bung" had to be cared for first, and that the millionaire of Park Lane was very poorly off indeed because his dividends were not multiplying with sufficient rapidity. The labourers of Ireland knocked mildly now, but the time might come, and that sooner than was thought, when their knock would be neither timorous nor one that could be put off by soft promises and soothing accents.

They had tabled a series of Amendments in which they put forth their demands. He submitted that they were not extravagant and would do nothing to fundamentally disturb the existing social order. They were based on bed-rock principles of justice, and if they were conceded they would go a great way towards bringing peace, prosperity, and contentment to all classes in the country. At least they claimed for these Amendments, and this Bill, the right of a fair discussion in this House when they could more fully put their views before hon. Members. There was one class of men whom he would wish to bring by right within the four corners of this Bill. They were the fishermen. Replying to a Question of his on the 10th May, the light hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary replied— A fisherman to be eligible for a cottage must come within the definition of the term 'agricultural labourer' prescribed by Section 4 of the Labourers Act, 1886, as amended by Section 93 of the Irish Land Act of 1903. It is not proposed to extend the definition so as to entitle fishermen, as such, to the benefits of the Labourers Acts. He strongly made the claim that fishermen should by reason of their avocation have the right to apply for a cottage. He knew their difficulties and the necessity for this demand, and he hoped it would be conceded. In conclusion he had to thank the House for its kind indulgence and to say that the Bill could be made a reasonably good one if there was any desire on the part of the Government to treat the question fairly. If not, he promised the Chief Secretary that when next they demanded a measure of legislation on this subject it would not be to his charity or good will they should appeal. They should be in the position to dictate the terms of a just settlement of this great question which so much concerned the lives and happiness of the poorest classes in Ireland.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1948, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.