Sunday, 17 January 2016

Ireland disrupts British politics

The debate over Home Rule 

The election of 1874 returned a spectacular number of fifty-nine MPs to Westminster who were committed to 'Home Rule', a demand for the repeal of the Act of Union of 1800. From 1878 their leader was an unlikely one -  the Protestant Irish landlord, Charles Stewart Parnell. His tactic of deliberately obstructing the business of the Commons led to the first impositions of the parliamentary 'guillotine'.

Charles Stewart Parnell (1841-91)
the 'uncrowned king of Ireland until
his fall in 1890 over a sex scandal

According to the great Irish historian, Roy Foster, the politics of Parnellism meant that 
'Home Rule was converted under a charismatic leader to an aggressive political campaign of threat and bluff, based on …a disciplined, pledge-bound, dictatorially organised party machine.…The Home Rulers would institutionalise Anglophobia, play publicity politics by demonstrating ostentatious "independence" on foreign policy issues, and emphasise the rhetoric of separatism when it suited them.' Modern Ireland (1989), pp. 398-9

From 1879 the Irish Land League disrupted the life of the Irish countryside in a campaign of implicit (sometimes explicit) rural violence that lasted for three years
Land League poster
and was as near to a revolutionary movement as anything seen in the United Kingdom between 1800 and 1914. Sixty-seven people were killed between 1879 and 1882.


One of the most prominent victims of the Land League policy was Captain Charles Boycott, sent to 'moral Coventry' for bidding for a farm that had previously been held by an evicted tenant.

Gladstone's second administration (1880-85) responded with a mixture of stick and carrot: a Coercion Act designed to restore order, and a land reform that provided tenants with the ‘3 Fs’: fair rents, fixity of tenure, and ‘free sale’ (of their holdings). This was the beginning of a movement that was to transform Ireland into a land of peasant proprietors.

The Phoenix Park murders

Parnell had been arrested under the Coercion Act. However, while in Kilmainham Gaol he negotiated the Kilmainham Treaty with Gladstone in April 1882. The government was to settle the question of rent arrears by paying the landlords the money that was owed them from defaulting tenants, and Parnell would curb the rural violence. On 2 May Parnell was released.


Four days later one of the most notorious atrocities of the period the 'Phoenix Park murders', took place.  On Saturday 6 May 1882 the new Irish Secretary, Lord Frederick Cavendish was walking in Phoenix Park in Dublin with Thomas Henry  Burke, the under-secretary, when a band of men, part of a club called ‘The Invincibles’, surprised the pair and hacked them to death with surgical knives. 


My photograph of the grave of
Lord Frederick Cavendish,
Edensor, Derbyshire


Gladstone's conversion

In January 1886, Gladstone, who had briefly lost power to the Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury, returned to government and headed his third administration. In the preceding general election (November - December 1885) the Liberals had won 335 seats and the Conservatives only 249. But Parnell was the real winner as his party won 86 seats. The 'eighty-six of eighty-six' ensured that the Home Rulers could not be ignored as a parliamentary force.


In his period out of office Gladstone had come to the conclusion that the Irish, like the Italians, the Afghans, the Zulus and the Sudanese were a people rightly struggling to be free, and that Parnell’s demand for Home Rule ought to be conceded. This was a logical outcome of his Liberalism, with its stress on decentralisation and minimal central government.

His conversion was to convulse British politics.


The First Liberal Home Rule Bill

On 8 April 1886 Gladstone introduced his Home Rule Bill. It was based on the Canadian model and was designed to keep Ireland within the United Kingdom.


  1. There would be a single-chamber Irish legislative body.
  2. London would retain control over defence, foreign policy and international trade.
  3. Ireland would bear one-fifteenth of the costs of the Empire.
  4. There would be no Irish MPs at Westminster, though Gladstone had agonised over this question. To exclude them would encourage separatism, but their inclusion in the Westminster parliament would raise what was later called the ‘West Lothian question’.
Gladstone, who had never consulted the Liberals over the question, had presented his party with a ‘take it or leave it’ bill. In the early hours of 8 June the votes on the second reading were taken. Gladstone spoke of Ireland standing ‘at your bar, expectant, hopeful, almost suppliant’.

However, on  8 June 1886 members voted 341/311 against Home Rule; 94 Liberals, including the former party leader, the Marquis of Hartington (the brother of the unfortunate Lord Frederick Cavendish), had gone into the lobby against Gladstone and another half dozen had abstained. Gladstone wrote in his diary: 
‘The defeat is a smash’.
In the debates, Gladstone had argued: 
‘This, if I understand it, is one of those golden moments in our history; one of those opportunities which may come and may go, but which rarely return, or if the return, return at long intervals, and under circumstances which no man can forecast.’
In 1930 George V told Ramsay MacDonald: 
‘What fools we were not to have accepted Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill. The Empire would not have had the Irish Free State giving us to much trouble and pulling us to pieces.’
But the Conservative leader, Lord Salisbury, also had strong arguments against Home Rule: 

  1. It would spell the beginning of the end of the Empire.
  2. It would divide the United Kingdom by setting up a separate devolved administration at a time when other states (the US, Germany, Italy) were consolidating.
  3. It would leave the Ulster Unionists a beleaguered minority: ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’.
  4. Self-government was impossible in a community as deeply divided as Ireland.

Robert Cecil, 3rd marquess
of Salisbury (1830-1903)
In the general election that followed the Liberal Unionists allied with the Conservatives, and in many seats Conservatives stood down to give them a clear run. 

The Conservatives won 316 seats, the Liberals 191, the Liberal Unionists 78, the Irish Nationalists 85.  Scotland, Wales and Ireland all produced Home Rule majorities by almost three to one. Only England voted the other way. 

With Liberal Unionist support, the Conservatives under Salisbury, formed a government that began twenty years of Unionist domination, with only a brief Liberal interruption.


The Second Liberal Home Rule Bill

The 1892 election gave Gladstone a majority of 40  because of Irish Nationalist support. On 15 August, now semi-blind and semi-deaf, he became Prime Minister for the fourth time.


In February 1893 Gladstone introduced a second Home Rule Bill with a two and a half hour oration.  It differed from the bill of 1886 in that there were to be 81 Irish members at Westminster. The proposal that they should be allowed to vote only on Irish affairs (the ‘West Lothian question’ again!) was defeated in committee on the grounds of its impracticality). The bill therefore gave the Irish MPs the full right to vote on all UK affairs. 

Like the 1886 bill, the bill of 1893 ignored the potential problem of Ulster. 

On 1 September the bill passed its third reading by the narrow majority of 34 votes, after 85 Commons sittings.  On 8 September it was rejected by the Lords by 419/41. Every bishop voted against it.

On 23 February 1894 Gladstone resigned as Prime Minister. The Liberals were again out of power and Home Rule seemed further away than ever.