James Liston, the assistant bishop of Auckland, was found not guilty of sedition following a high-profile court case. He found himself in the dock following a St Patrick’s Day address in which he allegedly described the Irish Republican ‘martyrs’ of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin as having been ‘murdered by foreign troops’.
Many New Zealanders staunchly loyal to Britain believed these comments to be rebellious. The New Zealand Welfare League believed the speech engendered ‘bitterness and strife amongst our people’ and encouraged ‘those who efforts are directed to the destruction of the Empire’. Others within the New Zealand Irish Catholic community, including groups such as the Hibernian Society, were united in their defence of the bishop. Their support was as much in support of the church as to the Irish nationalist cause. In the end an all-Protestant jury found Liston not guilty of sedition, but guilty of a ‘grave indiscretion’.
Irish migrants who had settled in New Zealand brought with them the controversies that divided their countrymen at home; there had been many examples of sectarian conflict in this country prior to the 1916 drama in Dublin. The fallout from the Easter Rising saw some of New Zealand’s minority Irish Catholic community express sympathy and support for the republican cause in Ireland. In 1917 Dr James Kelly, a former Irish priest and editor of the New Zealand Catholic newspaper, the Tablet, had caused outrage with a number of anti-British Empire comments. On one occasion he referred to the deceased Queen Victoria as ‘a certain fat old German woman’. The solicitor-general urged that Kelly be arrested and prosecuted for sedition. The government, perhaps hoping to calm the situation, took no action.
Sectarian tensions intensified after Howard Elliot, an Auckland Baptist minister, founded the Protestant Political Association (PPA) in 1917. The PPA soon claimed 200,000 members and enough political clout to topple former Prime Minister and Catholic politician Joseph Ward in his Awarua electorate in 1919.
Following Liston's acquittal, much of the the bitterness surrounding the ‘Irish issue’ in New Zealand seemed to dissipate, although its effects lingered. Over the next two decades the Catholic Church seemed to isolate itself from the rest of the country and what it regarded as ‘institutional bigotry’.
Image: James Liston (DNZB)