The Worse Case of Parliamentary Disorder in British History?

Eugene Wolfe

5 mins

20 Sep 2019

Parliament long has been a dangerous workplace. For more than two hundred years, starting in the early 17th century, both Houses repeatedly interrupted their business to prevent “hot words” in debate from escalating into potentially fatal duels.

Fisticuffs, scrums and lesser mayhem have been present even longer, most recently manifest in a scuffle connected with the prorogation of parliament on 9 September. So it is perhaps surprising that only once has it been thought necessary to summon the police to restore order.

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Irish Home Rule

Individual episodes of misbehaviour stretch back to the beginning of parliament, but it was the supporters of Irish Home Rule who pioneered disorder on an industrial scale.

After attempts to win self-government by conventional means failed, Irish nationalist MPs turned to obstructionism in the late 1870s. By speaking frequently, and at great length but rarely on matters germane to the issue at hand, the Irish brought parliament to a virtual standstill in an effort to force concessions from the government.

Instead, it responded with procedural changes aimed at limiting debate and punishing those who misbehaved. Having previously honoured the letter, if not the spirit, of the rules, the Irish became more unruly as one of their only sources of influence was curtailed.

Confrontations between MPs and the Speaker, rare up to this point, burgeoned as a result.

Unprecedented action

A painting of William Gladstone in 1879. Gladstone committed a lot of time during his premierships to pass legislation that would allow Home Rule for Ireland.

One of the first, and most notable, of such “scenes” came in early 1881. On 2 February, near the end of a 41-hour sitting, the Speaker peremptorily ended debate in a manner that was not only unprecedented but also was unauthorised by parliamentary rules.

The next day, angry Irish MPs repeatedly challenged the presiding officer. By the end of the day, 36 of them had been suspended. Many came very close to physical resistance. When the Speaker asked them to withdraw following their suspensions, they refused.

When the Serjeant-at-Arms approached them and put a hand on their shoulders, implicitly threatening to forcibly remove them, the MPs declined to budge. Only after the Serjeant mustered sufficient reinforcements to carry out this threat did the MPs finally leave the chamber.

This mass defiance to the Speaker’s authority further inflamed partisan tensions and created a real danger that warfare would break out on the floor of the Commons. Physical confrontations between MPs, largely in abeyance since the end of parliamentary duels decades earlier, resumed.

There were (unfounded) rumours that the government had prepared 60 prison cells for Irish MPs in anticipation of resistance to contentious legislation in 1887.

Six years later, a riot erupted on the floor of the Commons as Unionist MPs fought with their Irish counterparts after the Liberal government sought to limit debate to expedite passage of a Home Rule Bill.

A caricature of Henry Erskine, the Serjeant-at-Arms in the UK House of Commons in 1894. The Serjeant was responsible for maintaining order in the Commons.

The disorder reaches a climax

The events of 5 March 1901 therefore represented something of a natural evolution in parliamentary disorder. Amidst Nationalist efforts to obstruct ministerial business in order to force discussion of Irish matters, the government terminated debate on the education estimates.

As often has been the case, such a move enraged those on the Opposition benches.

Several dozen Irish MPs refused to leave the chamber for a division. The Speaker suspended, and ordered to withdraw from the chamber, sixteen of them. They declined to depart.

The Serjeant was summoned. He asked the MPs to leave. Again they refused. The Serjeant’s assistants then sought to evict Eugene Crean, who was sitting on the aisle. He resisted fiercely, aided by others nearby who tried to hold him in his seat.

A dozen police constables were summoned to assist the Serjeant’s men. They struggled mightily both with Crean and with other Irish MPs who endeavoured to protect their colleague. After several minutes, an overwhelmed Crean finally was carried out of the House by his arms and legs.

The Speaker then ordered the removal of John Cullinen, who was sitting in the middle of a bench. As the police sought to reach him, they became involved in physical confrontations with other Irish MPs seeking to defend the Member for South Tipperary.

After a fierce and prolonged fight, the constabulary managed to drag Cullinen over the top of two benches and out of the House.

As a third Irish MP was suffering the same fate, Patrick O’Brien appealed to the Speaker to adjourn the sitting, in the hopes that tempers would cool during a break. The Speaker responded by asking the remaining suspended MPs to leave peaceably. When they shouted that they would do no such thing, the Speaker ordered their forcible removal.

Patrick O’Brien.

In the end, the police carried almost a dozen Irish MPs from the Commons on this day. It could have been even worse. When the House tried to resume regular business, the roughly fifty Irish MPs who remained refused to participate in a division.

The presiding officer avoided further chaos by indicating that, as no tellers against the matter under consideration had been appointed, it was carried and the House adjourned.

Aftermath

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Reaction to the unprecedented use of police against MPs inside the Commons was intense, with the finger of blame pointed (depending on one’s political inclinations) at the Irish, the government or the Speaker.

Some (unsuspended) Irish MPs threatened to employ similar tactics when parliament met the next day, prompting an augmented police presence at Westminster Palace.

The Commons responded this distasteful episode by changing its rules to provide for the suspension for the remainder of the session of those who forcibly resist the Speaker’s order to withdraw from the chamber, but only after an amendment, providing for the imprisonment of such MPs, was rejected unanimously.

And a year later it introduced a new parliamentary procedure, authorising the Speaker to suspend a sitting amidst “grave disorder.”

Its provisions, hitherto deemed unnecessary, have been employed almost forty times to date. But the Speaker has been spared the embarrassment of again asking the police to restore order to the Commons, at least so far.

Eugene Wolfe earned a PhD from the University of Chicago before teaching political science at DePaul, the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and Northwestern. He began researching British parliamentary violence after moving to England in 2007. Dangerous Seats: Parliamentary Violence in the United Kingdom, is his first book, and will be published by Amberley Publishing on 15 October 2019.