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The Lighter Side of My Official Life
by Sir Robert Anderson, 1910.
Full text below.


CHAPTER VI

Drawn back into Secret Service work by Sir W. Harcourt - 1880 an epoch in Ireland - " Boycotting,, inaugurated - Mr. Forster's " Suspects Act " - Nature of and necessity for " Coercion Acts " - Meaning of " Secret Service " - Angling for informants : mode in which two were secured - Preventing crimes - Gladstone's Leeds speech of October, 1881 - Parnell's contemptuous reply and Gladstone's rejoinder - The " Kilmainham Treaty " - The Premier and Mrs. O'Shea - The Phoenix Park murders - Gladstone's finance and " Free Trade."

DR. JOHNSON held that no one but a scoundrel would write except for profit. And a contemporary genius lately declared that it is only donkeys and fools who ever work ; but this philosopher propounded his thesis to the unsympathetic ears of a Police Magistrate, who sent him to "hard labour" under the Vagrant Act. Though it is only in late years that I have joined the "unemployed," I have always felt a sneaking sort of agreement with their principles. And though I have never acted on them, I thoroughly believe in idleness-not change of work, but sheer idleness-as a temporary relaxation from work ; and I took advantage of the change of Government in 1880 to secure a holiday in the sense of " taking things easy " for a while. The six months that followed were indeed the nearest approach to an adequate holiday that I ever enjoyed in my official life. I was careful not to offend Sir Edmund du Cane by displaying any zeal in the business of his Department, and my deep and growing distaste for Secret Service work led me to contemplate withdrawing from it altogether. As a matter of fact, I had openings for other work, both literary and professional, which would have made me independent of it.

Having these ends in view I refused the usual introduction to the new Secretary of State. But " the best laid plans of mice and men," &c. ! On the 3rd of November Sir William Harcourt sent for me. No man could say kinder things than he when in that mood ; and telling me that he was fully aware of my past services to Government, he appealed to me to give him the same help I had rendered to his predecessors. He there and then sent for the Commissioner of Police and the head of the Criminal Investigation Department, and bespoke the goodwill of Scotland Yard for me in the duties he was entrusting to me.

The year 1880 was an epoch-making time in Ireland. Then it was that "boycotting" was inaugurated--that crime which, as one of the Irish judges lately said from the Bench, makes the life of its victim a living death. If taken in hand at once, boycotting might have been easily checked. But once the people were allowed to prove the power of this terrible system of coercion, counter-coercion of a drastic kind was needed to suppress it. And, as Lord Morley's "Life of Gladstone " tells us, any proposal to coerce the lawless who were thus coercing the law-abiding was resisted by the Premier. The magistrates and police were encouraged to do all that was possible under "ordinary law" to check the forces of disorder. But the effort was hopeless, and when Ministers returned to London after the vacation, the Cabinet at last decided to take action. Parliament met a month earlier than usual (6th of January, 1881), and three weeks afterwards Forster's "Suspects Act," as it was called, was introduced, a statute under which 955 persons were imprisoned under warrants issued by the Lord-Lieutenant. If all the guilty had been arrested under it the arrests would have been tenfold more numerous. For the reported outrages in the preceding year totalled 2,590, and these were only a fraction of the crimes committed. But the guilt of these crimes does not rest mainly upon the peasantry of Ireland. For they were the outcome of persistent incitement by their political leaders, and they were condoned by the Gladstone Government.

Ireland cannot be governed without a " Coercion Act." There have been shameful and disastrous intervals, such as 1880-1882 and 1907-1909, during which the Government of the Crown has been practically suspended in many parts of the country. But government has never been maintained there without "coercion"; and when the legislative Union rescued that unfortunate land from the intolerable evils of " Home Rule," a drastic coercion code, framed in the Irish House of Commons, passed as a legacy to the Imperial Parliament.

A Coercion Act, I should explain, is defined to be a statute which is not a part of the general law, but applies only to some specified portion of the kingdom. And within the limits to which it applies it arms the police with powers unknown to the ordinary law, and sometimes foreign to the spirit of that law. For example, under one leading statute of this character any police constable may call anybody to account whom he finds loitering in any place after sunset. And if the constable considers that the account which the loiterer gives of himself is unsatisfactory, he may arrest him and bring him before a police magistrate, who may send him to hard labour for a month, and this without appeal. If such a law were enforced in disturbed Ireland to-day we should hear very little about cattle-driving !

"Monstrous!" the reader will exclaim. " No free people would ever tolerate such a law," As a matter of fact, seven millions of free people in London tolerate it ; for it is a typical clause of the Police Acts under which the Metropolis has been governed for seventy years. There is no great city in the world in which life and property are so safe as in London, and this is largely due to our being governed, not by ordinary law, but by police law. For London, like Ireland, could not be governed without a Coercion Act.

I have been betrayed into this digression by impatience with the claptrap we hear about coercion - " blatherumskite " they call it in Ire land. When I went off the rails I was about to explain that in the year 1880 the immunity enjoyed by agrarian crime in Ireland stimulated the fomentors of political crime ; and a revival of Fenian activity on that side of the channel excited the conspirators over here. And it was in these circumstances that Sir William Harcourt re enlisted me for Secret Service work.

In this country we know nothing of Secret Service in the continental sense of the term. In England the duties thus designated are such as any competent police force would discharge. But with us the expenditure of public money must be open, and subject to audit. In the annual estimates, therefore, a specified amount is taken for Secret Service ; and, as regards this fund, the controlling authority must accept a certificate under the hand of a Secretary of State that it is expended for purposes authorised by the statute in that behalf. Were it not for this no Government could obtain information about conspiracies against the State.

Such work was never to my taste, and at this time I had definitely turned away from it. I was still in communication with Major Le Caron and some other prominent American Fenians, but I was out of touch with the leaders of the organisation at home. To ascertain who the London leaders were was an easy task, but how to get hold of them was the problem. They solved that problem for me by forming a plot to discover who their enemy was at Whitehall. A letter came to Whitehall from a man whom I knew by repute as one of the most active and dangerous of the London Fenians. He wished to give information to Government-that was the bait-but he would deal only with " the gentleman at the head of the Intelligence Department." He would hold no communication with the Police.

I met the fellow by appointment one night in a house in Westminster. He lied to me for an hour, during which I listened as though I believed all he was telling me. This, as I expected, led him to ask for money. I then pretended to lose my temper. He had asked to see me in order to give information to Government, and I had come prepared to pay him handsomely, but I was not to be fooled by the yarns he had been giving me. As I spoke I took a handful of sovereigns out of my pocket, and jingled them before him. The greedy look on his face told its own tale. He pleaded that if I would give him time he would tell me all I wished to know, and he meekly asked for his "expenses." I saw that the bait had taken, so I gave him a couple of pounds.

The man made good his promises ; but lest he should fail me, I was anxious to get hold of another of the leaders. The London Fenians at this time had copied the American plan of having a public side to the conspiracy ; and in furtherance of this scheme they had started a brass band, and the instruments were placed in charge of one of the most trusted of their members. I learned by chance one day that, being " behind with his rent," this fellow had pawned these instruments, and that he was in a state of trepidation owing to their being wanted for an anniversary procession, and he had not money to redeem them. This gave me my chance ; and within a few weeks of my being commissioned by the Secretary of State I had the two most influential London Fenians in my pay.

These particulars may be given to-day without breach of confidence, or injury to the public service, and they will explain what Secret Service work means. What grand copy it would have been for the newspapers of that time, if, in describing the Fenian procession that followed, they could have added that the band instruments had been taken out of pawn with money supplied by the Home Office ! I will only add that the hold I thus obtained upon the London organisation prevented the commission of Fenian outrages at a critical time; and further, that the information I received from these men was never used to bring a criminal charge against any member of the conspiracy.

To prevent outrages was by no means an easy task ; for the Fenians were exasperated by the action of the Government in introducing the " Suspects Act," as it was called, and in arresting Michael Davitt on the forfeiture of his licence, but I warned the leaders who were in my pay that if outrages occurred I should possibly denounce them and certainly stop their stipends. I use the word " stipend " advisedly. In work of this kind payment by results may operate as a positive incitement to crime, whereas the regular payment of a fixed amount has a marvellous influence on the recipient. He learns to count upon it, and is careful to do nothing to forfeit it. I give my experience for the benefit of others who may hereafter have similar duties to discharge. But I am bound in honesty to add, that if they consult their personal interests they had better not follow my advice. For in Secret Service work, kudos is not to be gained by preventing crimes, but by detecting them, and successfully prosecuting the offenders.

These pages are neither biography nor history, and the eventful period ending with the Kilmainham Treaty and the Phoenix Park murder shall receive but passing notice. In his famous Leeds speech of October, 1881, Mr. Gladstone proclaimed that no labouring population in Europe had made such progress as the Irish (a fact which the agitator ignores or denies) ; but he went on to say that Parnell and the Land League stood between the people and the prosperity which the Land Act would bring them. Parnell was a living proof that the Irish question of the moment was a conflict between law on the one side and lawlessness on the other. But, the Premier declared, " the resources of civilisation are not yet exhausted." This was on Friday, October 7th. Speaking at Wexford on the following Sunday, Parnell launched his reply. He poured contempt and ridicule on Mr. Gladstone's philippic, comparing him to a schoolboy whistling to keep up his courage while passing through a cemetery at night.

Three days later the Cabinet met, and after five hours' discussion it was decided to send Parnell to Kilmainham Gaol under the Suspects Act. The Land League immediately replied by issuing the "No Rent" manifesto, and on the 18th the Government responded by suppressing the League. On the 27th came the great Liverpool oration, in which Mr. Gladstone vehemently denounced the assertion that Parnell " commanded the support of the people of Ireland."

"We are at issue," he exclaimed, "with an organised attempt to override the free will and judgment of the Irish nation. . . . It is a conflict for the very first and elementary principles upon which civil society is constituted. It is idle to talk of either law or order or religion or civilisation if these gentlemen are to carry through the reckless and chaotic scheme they have devised. Rapine is the first object, but rapine is not the only object. These gentlemen wish to march through rapine to the disintegration and dismemberment of the Empire."

What a cynical smile must have lit up Parnell's handsome face as he read this speech in his snug room in Kilmainham ! The whistling was growing louder ! Six months later the secret treaty of Kilmainham was settled. Mr. Gladstone acknowledged that Parnell and the Land League " commanded the support of the majority of the people of Ireland," and he undertook to promote their policy ; and Parnell on his part promised to use his influence to put an end to the outrage campaign, and to give parliamentary support to the Government in " forwarding Liberal principles." And, as Mr. Gladstone declared in the course of the Home Rule debates of 1893, "from that date forward no hard word, and no word of censure, in any speech of mine respecting Mr. Parnell was to be found."

That charming historical romance, the Irish section of Morley's "Life of Gladstone," gives an account of the Kilmainham treaty which, I suppose, will pass into history. The Premier's colleagues in the Cabinet attributed his change of policy to the assurances received through Captain O'Shea, M. P. (the emissary of Lord Morley's story), "that Mr. Parnell was desirous to use his influence on behalf of peace." These assurances were communicated by Mr. Chamberlain to the Cabinet on April 25th ; and at the next Council, held that day week, it was decided to release the Irish outrage-mongers and to allow the Act under which they were imprisoned to lapse.

By several of the Ministers that decision was accepted with misgivings. But the author of the Leeds and Liverpool philippics was its staunch and enthusiastic advocate. Of the real grounds on which he supported it his colleagues knew nothing, for until April, 1893, the real Kilmainham treaty was a profound secret. The high contracting parties to that treaty were the Prime Minister on the one side, and on the other the only person on earth who enjoyed the unreserved confidence of the Irish leader. I refer, of course, to Mrs. O'Shea, who afterwards became his wife. And the negotiations took place in a tête-a-tête in Thomas's Hotel in Berkeley Square. Cherchez la femme. Many a great man has been fooled by a woman.

On Saturday morning, May 6th, Lord Spencer landed in Ireland to inaugurate the new policy which was to bring peace to the country. Just twelve hours later Lord Frederick Cavendish, the newly-appointed Chief Secretary, and Thomas Henry Burke, the Permanent Under-Secretary at Dublin Castle, were murdered in the Phoenix Park. The policy of the Kilmainham treaty, which not a hundred hours before had been deliberately adopted by the Cabinet, was instantly discarded ; and not only the British public but the Ministers of the Crown gave themselves up to a fit of blind passion and panic. What wonder is it if English government is despised by the Irish people ! If the Cabinet's decision on the Tuesday was right, the murder on the Saturday in no way justified the reversal of it. For however deep might be the responsibility of the Ministry for this crime, Parnell was clear of it ; and the horror which it excited in the breast of almost every Irishman would have afforded him the leverage without which he could never have fulfilled his part of the Kilmainham compact.

And real statesmanship would have recognised that Cavendish's murder was an event of no special significance. As a matter of fact it was a mere accident. That the Invincibles had planned the death of Forster, Burke, and my own brother-the Crown Solicitor-was known at Dublin Castle. I myself had given definite warnings of these plots. But Cavendish was a stranger to the assassins, and it was not till after the event that they learned the identity of their second victim. It was indeed a brutal murder ; but the criminal returns of the time record a long list of murders quite as brutal and far more significant of the condition of the country. But the savage crimes which marked the rule of the League only led up to the surrender to the League. So long as it was only the Irish who were the victims, Downing Street was callously indifferent. And if poor Tom Burke had been alone that evening, his murder would have been condoned, and the Kilmainham treaty would have stood. And it must in honesty be acknowledged that, if Parnell had been given a free hand, Ireland would have suffered less during the year which followed than it did under Mr. Gladstone's administration.

The Phcenix Park murder was one of the turning-points in my official life. The Secret Service is thankless work, and, moreover, I had never taken to it con amore. So in the winter of 1881-2 I again decided to turn from it. This resolution was due in part to offers of work that was more to my taste. One was in the sphere of journalism, a second related to literary work of a higher kind, and the third was professional. A gentleman, whose name looms large in public life, called on me to say that R. S. Wright (afterwards Mr. Justice Wright), who had been advising him in his parliamentary work, was obliged to withdraw his services on account of his receiving a Treasury appointment, and he had recommended me as his successor. I have often been gratified to find how highly I am esteemed by people who don't know me ! And here was a signal instance of it, for Wright and I were strangers.

The work I thus undertook was thoroughly compatible with my duties in the Prison Department, and it was altogether congenial. But that hateful and fateful murder drew me back into the toils from which I thought I had escaped ; and all that remains to me of that episode in my life is that I made a friendship which I have valued ever since, and that I became inoculated with views about Tariff Reform, which were then deemed not only heretical but eccentric.

In dealing with a legal point relating to taxation, I had occasion to refer to the Budget of the previous session. This led me for private purposes to enter on the study of Gladstone's system of finance, and two discoveries took possession of my mind. First, that in prosperous years Gladstone drew his pen through entire pages of the tariff list, simply because the money was not needed. And secondly, that in numerous cases the remission of taxation brought no benefit to the public, and in various instances it proved an embarrassment even to the trades affected by it; for they had been used to accept Customs measurements for trade purposes, and the remission involved them in expense which, in some cases, nearly equalled the amount of the duty.

Here are some facts which merit prominence to-day. First, that Mr. Gladstone reduced the number of articles taxed at the Customs from 1163 to 48. Secondly, that of the amount now received annually from the Customs some £13,500,000 come from taxes on food, and chiefly on tea and sugar, which are necessaries of life to the poorest of the poor. Thirdly, this means that in the interval since Gladstone's day many hundreds of taxable imports have year after year entered the country free, while hundreds of millions of pounds sterling have been levied on the food of the people. And fourthly-the strangest part of all-this is called "Free Trade"! The English have no sense of humour. What wonder is it that the Irish think them a stupid people !