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Casement Diaries

LONDON COUNTY COUNCIL (GENERAL POWERS) BILL [Lords] (By Order) – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 27th July 1959.

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2.48 a.m.

Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire

I wish to turn the attention of the House to another matter, and that is the statement made last week by the Home Secretary relative to the Casement Diaries. I do this because it would appear to be the last opportunity which will be open to me in this Parliament, and I wish to put certain questions to the Home Secretary so that he may change his recently declared policy of placing the Casement documents in the Public Record Office, and instead hand them over to where I believe they rightly should go, to the authorities in Dublin.

This, indeed, has been a very sudden change of policy on the part of the Home Secretary. It came about, as he told us, as a result of the fact that there have been recently published in France what purport to be the original diaries, with certain obscene entries which have long been a source of historical controversy. The House will remember that many times during recent years we have asked the Home Secretary to give an opportunity for investigation of what a large school of Irish people have regarded as forgeries.

These documents are the diaries and documents relating to Sir Robert Casement which the Home Secretary told us last week were discovered on 25th April, 1916. The Home Secretary said then: The Casement diaries consist of five volumes found in a trunk which the landlord of Casement's lodgings in London handed to the police at their request on 25th April, 1916, two days after Casement had arrived in London under arrest."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd July, 1959; Vol. 609, c. 1523.] This seems to me to have been the first definite statement and declaration of a date ever given by the Home Secretary on how these documents came to be discovered. I have good reason to remember 25th April, 1916, because by a strange coincidence I was arrested on the same day as was Sir Roger Casement I was, of course, on a different front.

Let us turn to the statement made at the time by the chief representative at Scotland Yard, Sir Basil Thompson. This is not the story presented by the Home Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman gives the date as 25th April, but Sir Basil Thompson, who conducted the investigation and had more to do with these diaries than anyone else, says in his book "Queer People": Some months earlier, when we first had evidence of Casement's treachery, his London lodgings had been visited and his locked trunks removed to New Scotland Yard. That was not on 25th April at all. Apparently, it was several months before. How does the Home Secretary explain that discrepancy? Here he is giving a date when these alleged documents were discovered which is in direct contradiction to the date given by Sir Basil Thompson on this vital point. How can this be explained? It is quite true that Sir Basil Thompson, on whose evidence much rests about these diaries, has given no fewer than five different accounts of how these documents came into the possession of Scotland Yard.

I am not interested as an Irish nationalist—I am not a nationalist of any kind—but, as a result of the silence of the Home Office on these matters, there has existed in Ireland up to the present time a suspicion that the indecent entries in these documents were forgeries, interpolations which emanated from someone in the intelligence department at Scotland Yard. I do not express an opinion one way or the other. But there are allegations that Sir Roger Casement was a homosexual. Since the time of Casement we have been used to talking more frankly in the House about homosexuality. We have had the Wolfenden Report, we have had debates in the House and in another place on prostitution, and people are now less shocked than they used to be about the subject of obscenity.

I am not arguing the case one way or the other except to say that we have to satisfy the people of Ireland that these documents are genuine and that their suspicions that there has been forgery is due purely to the imagination of Irish people. A very considerable number of Irish writers have argued—they have put up a very interesting case—that the documents were actually forged by somebody in the intelligence department at Scotland Yard and that the entries in the diaries were not made by Casement himself.

Forgery was recognised at the time as a legitimate means of waging war. We know that there was a special intelligence department at Scotland Yard which carefully forged diaries and letters arid placed them on the corpses of German soldiers. We know quite well now as a result of the revelations of people responsible that through forged documents it was conveyed to the German people that the bodies of German soldiers were boiled down to make fat. That was an "atrocity" story which has been admitted as the invention of those who were waging war at the time. There is an old adage that all is fair in love and war. There is no doubt that at the time—it has been admitted by the people responsible—there was in the employment of the Government a special department engaged in forging documents for war propaganda purposes. The allegation of the Irish is that these alleged indecent entries emanated from people who were intending to ruin the reputation of Sir Roger Casement.

At long last the Home Secretary has decided to release these documents from the secrecy of his archives. The way that he is to do it is to hand them over to the Public Record Office where they will be open to inspection, not by ordinary people, but by selected people who will have to apply to a certain department of the Home Office for permission to inspect the diaries. These people will have to explain what qualifications they have as historians. I believe also that certain Members of Parliament will be entitled, if they satisfy the test, to inspect these documents.

I do not think that this will satisfy the people who think that these documents should be open to public inspection so that the truth can be established to the satisfaction of the Irish people. That is why I want every opportunity given to the Irish authorities to examine these documents and to compare them with documents in Dublin. What is unreasonable about that? Documents relating to Scotland are taken to the Register Office at Edinburgh. If it had been a Scotsman who had been convicted of high treason instead of an Irishman, by law the documents would now be in Edinburgh. Why should not these documents go to Dublin?

The Home Secretary told us last week that there had been some confidential discussions between representatives of the Irish Government and himself, but he did not tell us—we had to find it out later from the communication issued on behalf of the Irish Government—that the Irish Government had put in a claim that these documents should be returned to Ireland. Why were we not told that? Are we not entitled to hear from the Home Secretary the arguments that he produced? What reason can there be, forty-six years after the event, when the Home Secretary is convinced that the documents are authentic, for saying that the documents are to be kept in London and put in the Public Record Office and that the Lord Chancellor has given his judgment that they will not be publicly inspected for another one hundred years?

Who will be qualified to examine these documents? Last year an Irish historian asked me if I would use my influence with the Home Secretary so that he could see these documents. I told him that I had no influence with the Home Secretary, but I gave him the necessary letter. He applied to the Home Secretary for permission to inspect the documents and permission was refused. He was a reputable historian connected with an American university. He was also refused permission to enter the prison to look at the grave where Sir Roger Casement's body is buried.

What will be the position now of that American historian? His Irish name of Guiseppe Costigan may be held against him. Will this historian be allowed to inspect these documents so that he may be convinced that they were not forged? If he is to be allowed to see these documents, why should not the examination be open to a wider circle?

The Home Secretary was asked whether photostat copies would be taken. He argued that there was a question of copyright and that, as a result, it would be very dangerous to allow the Irish authorities to inspect the documents at first hand. Surely it is the risk of the Irish authorities if they publish anything which is copyright. It is not the Home Secretary's responsibility. I fail to see why the Home Secretary, once having taken the decision that these documents are to be taken out of the Scotland Yard archives and handed to the Public Record Office, does not go the whole distance and say, "We believe these documents to be genuine and, as proof of their genuineness, we are prepared to hand them to the Irish people".

The Home Secretary was very badly briefed when he made that statement, because on Thursday he told us that he believed these documents had got into the hands of a writer who had published them in Paris, they having been obtained from Dublin. In answer to the hon. Member for Farnham (Sir G. Nicholson), he said that there were copies of the diaries in Dublin, which probably accounted for their publication abroad. It is true that there are copies 06 certain of Casement's writing in Dublin, but there are no indecent passages there. It is rather curious that only in these specialised documents which we acquired and which turned up in such curious circumstances contain these indecent entries.

The next day the Home Secretary had to admit that he had been mistaken. He had not been briefed properly, because there are apparently no originals of any such diaries in Dublin. I will give way if the Home Secretary wants to intervene. He prefers silence, in case he should have to correct his remarks tomorrow. When I asked him about the photostat copies of the documents he said he was quite satisfied that they were genuine. If that is so, why not give full opportunities for inspection by representatives appointed by the Irish Government? If the Home Secretary thinks that the Irish Government should not be trusted to judge of the authenticity of the documents, why not agree to the suggestion of a gentleman in whom the Home Secretary places such implicit confidence that he accepted his word on Friday, and agree to place these documents before a commission of neutrals or an international commission?

He tells us that we have taken great care to submit these documents to a gentleman who is an authority on handwriting. He said: They have been examined by a handwriting expert. They were examined by Dr. Wilson Harrison, Director of the South Wales and Monmouthshire Forensic Science Laboratory."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd July, 1959; Vol. 609, c. 1525–6.] I presume this gentleman is regarded as an expert. This person is a Home Office expert. He is the gentleman who appears for the Crown, and yet the Home Secretary wants us to accept him as the sole authority for the decision that these entries are not forgeries. This is a peculiar judicial way of going about things, because in a court of law when there is a dispute as to handwriting and forgery, other experts are called in. We cannot expect the Irish people to accept as the final verdict the opinion of a specialist witness employed by the Home Office. This is not likely to satisfy the demand in Ireland that there should be a really independent inquiry and that these documents should go to Ireland.

Let us remember that there is a very large number of Casement documents in Dublin to which historians have full access. I believe that there is a voluminous collection of diaries and manuscripts in Dublin and it is surely a reasonable request to make that these documents should be handed over to take their place alongside the other documents. I do not know what these might reveal. It might be revealed that Casement was a pervert; that he was, at one time, a homosexual.

We were told in the last debate on this subject that the diaries could not be published because the Home Office did not wish to blacken the reputation of Casement, even though they were used for the purpose of hanging him. Historical controversies fade away and, after forty-three years, we are surely entitled to have this matter disposed of once and for all. Why do we need to cling to these documents? In point of fact, the Home Secretary knows that one of the reasons why they have been given to the Public Record Office is that there is an action pending in the High Court which will force him to give them up. That is the reason for this sudden and dramatic climax.

It has been discovered that one of the executors and next-of-kin has a legal claim to these documents while the Home Office has illegally held them for years. Let the Home Secretary ask one of his hon. Friends who represents one of the Belfast constituencies and who has taken an interest in this matter.

Although this may appear now, after forty-three years, to be a matter of academic interest, so long as this attitude is adopted there will always be suspicion and hatred displayed towards us in Ireland. I want these hatreds between ourselves and the Irish to be removed. I want the Government to redeem what was done after the trial of Casement. It will be remembered that after he had been sentenced to death, these diaries, although they had nothing to do with the trial and dealt with events of five years earlier, were taken around London and displayed to certain people so that Casement should not be reprieved.

This was a far more disgusting and indecent thing than was ever written even though all the entries in the Casement Diaries were true. No lawyer, no decent person, would defend it. Therefore, I say that we have to do something to remedy a wrong which we have done to Ireland. The Irish Rebellion resulted in freedom for the Irish Republic and I say that the Irish Republic for which Casement died has a right to these historic documents.

3.15 a.m.

Photo of Mr Hector Hughes Mr Hector Hughes , Aberdeen North

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) has covered a wide range and I do not intend to follow him into all his labyrinth, but I support his plea to the Home Secretary and to the Government that the Casement Diaries should be returned to the Republic of Ireland. These diaries are the work of an Irishman They were his property. On his death they descended to his personal representatives. In default of any personal representatives, in my submission they should go back to his own country. His own country desires to have them and has an excellent museum of antiquities in which to preserve them so that they may be placed at the disposal of scholars who may wish to see and to use them.

It is true that the author was executed by Britain for sedition, but I submit that is no reason for keeping his property. Although he was executed by Britain for sedition it should be remembered that Ireland honours him as a patriot. Certain legalistic arguments have been raised from time to time, but after the passage of the years they should be forgotten and merged in history; they should take their part in the attempt made both by Britain and Ireland to forget their antagonisms.

Today the Government have an opportunity to help to that end. The author of these diaries played a notable part in British colonial history, in constitutional affairs and in legal history. It may be that his experiences are embodied in the diaries in such a way as to make a contribution to human knowledge. It should not be forgotten that the British Parliament and the Irish people entered into a treaty of peace with a view to removing any antagonisms which existed and this is an opportunity to go a step further. I would go a little further than my hon. Friend and ask the Home Secretary to return not only the diaries but also Casement's ashes to the Irish Republic. They have been asked for by the Government of the Irish Republic, and there is no reasonable ground why they should not be returned.

I summarise my submission to the Government by saying that they are now retaining property which in common honesty belongs either to the next-of-kin of Casement or to the Irish people. The Government rely on some outmoded technicalities. They are attempting to resurrect buried antagonisms. They are not trusting the good sense of either the Irish or the British people not trusting the good sense of the people who might have access to these diaries for literary or historical purposes. For all these reasons I support the plea of my hon. Friend, and ask the Home Secretary to use such influence as he may have with his Government to see that these diaries are sent back to the Republic of Ireland. I hope he will accede to this plea.

3.21 a.m.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) made a number of points which I can describe only as being of historical interest, some supported by a good deal of lurid detail, and I do not think he will expect me to answer all those matters tonight. But I will attempt to deal with his main point, which was the same as that raised by the hon. and learned Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hector Hughes), namely, how it has been decided that these documents should be placed in the Public Record Office in London, and not handed over to the Irish Government. My right hon. Friend decided to place the Roger Casement Diaries in the Public Record Office for two principal reasons: first, because they are clearly public records within the meaning of the Public Records Act, having been in the Home Office since 1925 and having been, since April, 1916, and prior to 1925, in the custody of the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis.

Photo of Mr Hector Hughes Mr Hector Hughes , Aberdeen North

Before the hon. and learned Gentleman departs from that, he has said dogmatically that they are public records, and his reason for saying that is that they have been in the custody of the Government since 1916. That does not make them public records. They are still the property of the next-of-kin of Casement.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

If the hon. and learned Gentleman will refer to the First Schedule of the Public Records Act, 1958, under paragraph 2 (1) he will find that among public records are Departmental records, namely, records held in any Department of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom. He will further find that there are various bodies established under Government Departments, and they are listed in the table appended to the Schedule. Among those bodies coming under the Home Office is the Office of the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis. I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that they are clearly public records within the meaning of the Act.

Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire

If they are public records and are definitely public property, how is it explained that the Home Secretary has said we did not have the copyright of them?

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

It is possible in law, for the Government to have the right to the possession of documents in which the Government do not hold the copyright. It may well be that in this case the copyright is held by one or other of the possible claimants. Nevertheless, the documents can be public records. That is the position in law.

I was coming to the second reason why my right hon. Friend decided that these records should be placed in the Public Record Office. It is that not only are they public records, but they are public records of great historic interest. Before reaching his decision, my right hon. Friend arranged through my noble Friend the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations that confidential discussions should take place with the Irish Ambassador, but of course these discussions were confidential and, therefore, I cannot say what transpired. Neither can I say what view of the matter has been formed by the Republican Government. It is best that they should speak for themselves in this matter.

As to the suggestion that there are Irish people who will still believe that the diaries are forgeries because they cannot be examined in Dublin Museum, I say this. I find it hard to understand that the authenticity of the diaries should depend in any way upon the place where they are kept. As my right hon. Friend pointed out in answer to a Question by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire, these diaries have been examined by Dr. Wilson Harrison, who is a very great handwriting expert and who, after comparing the handwriting of the diaries for 1910 and 1911 and the ledger with that in the documents attributed to Casement in the Foreign Office and Home Office files, he concluded there was ample evidence to show that all the entries in the diaries and the ledger were made by the same hand as the documents in those files.

My right hon. Friend and my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, have together made arrangements for the diaries to be inspected by persons qualified to express an informed opinion on their authenticity. The details of the arrangements which have been made have already been published in HANSARD and I shall not burden the House with them. I simply say that to people who are genuine seekers after truth and who come within the categories mentioned by my right hon. Friend when he made his statement to the House the other day, an opportunity is given of satisfying themselves whether or not these diaries are authentic. That does not preclude people whose credentials can be verified who come from Ireland and have a good intention in this matter. By a good intention, I mean a desire to arrive at the truth if they have any doubt about the truth. As has already been pointed out, by right hon. Friend has no doubt himself about the authenticity of these diaries.

In conclusion I say this—

Hon. Members:

Order.

Photo of Mr Hector Hughes Mr Hector Hughes , Aberdeen North

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. An hon. Member opposite is arrogating to himself your rights and pretending he is Mr. Speaker. The hon. and learned Gentleman gave way.

Photo of Mr David Renton Mr David Renton , Huntingdonshire

I was about to say in conclusion that relations between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Irish Republic, and between the peoples of our two countries have grown steadily more friendly with the years and the clearing up of the long-felt doubts about the custody and authenticity of the diaries will undoubtedly improve our relations still further.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.