Charles Parnell
Charles Parnell

The brief Gladstone administration of 1886 may be taken as marking the moment after which it becomes no longer possible to view party politics with the impersonal detachment proper to a historian. From that date one of the two great political parties has been definitely committed to the doctrine that Ireland ought to have a separate legislature of her own to deal with Irish affairs. To the other party that doctrine has seemed to be fraught with such danger to imperial unity that resistance to it must be the paramount consideration to which all other questions must give way.

Whatever other complications there may be, whether Liberal leaders have actually made Home Rule a definite part of their programme or not, they have always affirmed their adherence to the doctrine. Only at one general election has the party received substantial support from Unionists, because on that one occasion it was clearly understood that they would not introduce a bill for Home Rule. The Gladstone administration introduced a new line of cleavage which has continued until the present year, 1912, when a Home Rule Bill is before parliament. If that bill becomes law that line of cleavage will disappear, and it appears almost certain that economic policy will take its place, as it did in the case of the one general election referred to, that at the close of 1905.

1886 Gladstone Administration
When, in February 1886, Mr. Gladstone undertook to form a Cabinet on the defeat and resignation of the Salisbury Government, it immediately became clear that he intended to introduce a measure of Home Rule. Hitherto the overwhelming majority of Liberals as well as of Conservatives had regarded the idea of establishing a parliament at Dublin as entirely outside the sphere of practical politics.

Advanced Radicals had indeed been suspected of leanings in that direction; but their minds were very much more set upon democratic reforms in England, while the Whig wing at least had absolutely no sympathy with the Irish demand. Mr. Gladstone succeeded in carrying the bulk of his party with him, but some of the most prominent of his former colleagues refused to join the Cabinet or left it as soon as his proposals were formulated, and formed a separate Liberal Unionist party in parliament. This group included on the one side Whigs such as Lord Hartington and Mr. Goschen, and on the other the personal followers of the then recognised champion of Radicalism, Mr. Joseph Chamberlain.

Home Rule Bill ... defeated
The features of the new policy were presented in two measures, a Home Rule Bill and a Land Bill. The purpose of the first was to provide Ireland with a legislature of her own for the control of Irish affairs. While to the bulk of the Unionists, Conservative or Liberal, any conceivable scheme of Home Rule would have been obnoxious, opposition concentrated upon the point that Ireland was to cease altogether to be represented at Westminster. While the tactics of Parnell seemed to make the exclusion of Irish members eminently desirable from the point of view of the conduct of public business, it carried with it the separation of Ireland from all interest in imperial concerns, and it was therefore denounced as being emphatically separatist in its effects - an encouragement, that is, to the Irish people to sever their slender surviving link with the Empire.

Land Bill
The Land Bill was opposed no less heartily. The intention was to remove the land question from the scope of action of the proposed Irish parliament by a huge scheme of land purchase on the part of the British Government which would have established a peasant proprietary. The real intensity of the opposition to the whole scheme lay in the rooted belief that the leaders of the Irish people were separatists who would merely use the new machine as an instrument for breaking down the British connection altogether, coupled with the anticipation that "Home Rule means Rome Rule." The Home Rule Bill was defeated on its second reading.

Mr. Gladstone appealed to the country; the Conservatives did not contest the seats of Liberal Unionist candidates; seventy-eight members of that party were returned; and the Conservatives outnumbered the British and Irish Home Rulers together by thirty-five. Mr. Gladstone resigned, and Lord Salisbury took office with an administration formed entirely from the Conservative party, since his own proposal for a Coalition Government with Lord Hartington at its head was rejected by the Liberal Unionist leader.

The measures for Ireland had effected little towards the relief of agri­cultural distress. Tenants were in arrears with their rent, and evictions multiplied. Mr. Parnell introduced a Tenants' Relief Bill, which, among its provisions, authorised the land courts to stay evictions if half the rent was paid. The bill was thrown put and the Irish leaders instituted the ingenious device known as the Plan of Campaign.

The tenants were to combine and offer the landlords a fair rent, or what they considered a fair one. If the landlords refused it the tenants were'to pay over that fair rent not to the landlords but to a committee charged with carrying on the struggle. When parliament reassembled at the beginning of 1887 new rules of procedure were adopted in the House for the repression of obstructive tactics. The application of the "closure" and its subsequent developments were invariably condemned by the Opposition of the day as shameless interference with the right of free speech, and were defended by the Government of the day as necessitated by the gross abuse of free discussion by the Opposition.

After settling procedure the Government went on to introduce a. new Crimes Bill for Ireland, conferring upon the Lord Lieutenant new powers of condemning leagues or combinations as illegal, and of proclaiming disturbed districts, which were thereupon subjected to a practically arbitrary government. The long and angry debates were brought to an abrupt conclusion by the application of the closure. The Act, however, was accompanied by a new Land Bill, in which the most important concessions gave some facilities for a revision of rents, and authorised the county courts to grant time for the payment of arrears.

O'Donnell's Libel Suit
The bill was considerably modified in favour of the tenants, at the instance of the Liberal Unionists. Still Ireland continued to be the scene of violent disorders, of constant collisions between the peasantry and the police, who were employed to assist at evictions or to suppress illegal meetings, and of much excitement over the arrests of leaders who encouraged the populace to defy the "tyranny" of the law. The language of partisanship was at this time peculiarly acrimonious, and was perhaps made the more so by the placid persistence with which the Chief Secretary, Mr. Arthur Balfour, treated offenders in Ireland precisely as if they had been ordinary law-breakers, while he remained calmly impervious to the most virulent personal attacks. In the course of a controversy so bitter as was then raging no accusations were too gross to be readily believed. An exceedingly comprehensive attack upon the Land League in general, upon all the Irish leaders, and most uncompromisingly upon Mr. Parnell, in the Times newspaper, led to one of the Irish members bringing a libel action against that paper.

The Parnell Commission
The action failed on the ground that Mr. O'Donnell, the plaintiff, had not been singled out; but the republication in evidence of certain letters purporting to have been written by the Irish leader roused Mr. Parnell to action. He repeated his previous contemptuous condemnation of the incriminating documents as forgeries, and he demanded the appointment of a select committee of enquiry upon the specific question of the letters. The Government rejected his demand, but they passed an Act to appoint a commission virtually to investigate all the charges which had been publicly brought against the Land League and the Irish leaders in general. In effect sixty-five prominent Irish leaders were put on their trial on a series of definitely formulated charges.

The Parnell Commission, as it is always called, met in September 1888. Hitherto it may be said that almost the entire British public, whatever its political creed, had no doubt whatever that the Parnellites had habitually incited resistance to the government, that they had been enabled to carry on their operations by means of financial assistance from the American Irish, that they had not repudiated connection with the most extreme section of that body, and that they had rather encouraged than attempted, to restrain agrarian crime. When, after a year had passed, the report of the judges confirmed these ideas, but with distinct modifications in favour of the Irish members, some of whom were proved to have actively endeavoured to check outrages, the verdict was taken by most Unionists to be a decisive condemnation of the Home Rule movement, and by most of the other party to prove that the most serious objection to Home Rule was less serious than they had previously supposed.

Pigott's Forgeries
But, as a matter of fact, public interest in the trial was only in a very minor degree concerned with the political question at issue; it was almost confined to the personal charges against individuals, and, above all, Mr. Parnell. The worst of those charges rested upon the evidence of letters, and, most conspicuously of all, one particular letter which, if genuine, would have proved Mr. Parnell's condonation of the Phoenix Park murder. But when it was proved in the course of the trial that this letter with others had quite certainly been forged and sold to the Times by a man named Pigott, there was a strong revulsion of public sentiment.

The Times had permitted itself to be deceived quite honestly; but it would never have done so if the virulence of political feeling had not made it incapable of testing evidence. The recklessness with which the forgery had been accepted recoiled upon the heads of Mr Parnell's accusers at large, and from that time there was no longer the old readiness to assume as a matter of course the worst possible interpretation of everything said or done by any Irish member. Mr. Parnell almost became popular.

The Parnell Scandal
Yet in the year following, 1890, the Irish parliamentary party suffered a grievous blow from a scandal in which the leader was the most prominent figure. [Ed. The author refers rather obliquely here to a legal case naming Parnell as a third-party in a divorce suit. His affair with Kitty O'Shea was no secret, but the attitudes of the times meant that bringing it out in the open was a disaster for Parnell and his cause]. The Nonconformist conscience came into play, and the Irish party was split between those who stood by their old chief and those who declared that he could no longer be parliamentary leader. His death shortly afterwards did not for a long time suffice to heal the animosities which had arisen in this connection, and the affair went far to paralyse the activities .of the disunited Irish parliamentary party.

Meanwhile, Mr. Balfour's drastic application of the Crimes Act in Ireland was accompanied not unsuccessfully by further remedial measures, an extension of Lord Ashbourne's Land Purchase Act, the reclamation of waste lands, and the development of light railways. By 1891 the Government found itself in a position not only to introduce still another Land Purchase Act, but at the same time to suspend the Crimes Act over almost the whole country. In the next year, however, a general election gave the Gladstonian Liberals in conjunction with eighty Irish Nationalists a majority of forty in the House of Commons; the defeat of the Government was followed by Lord Salisbury's resignation, and Mr. Gladstone formed his last administration.

Gladstone's Home Rule Bill
Again the old leader returned to the one object which he had now set before himself, and introduced a new Home Rule Bill. The fundamental difference between this bill and its predecessor was that the Irish members were to be retained at Westminster, but with their numbers reduced to eighty. The proposal which it had first embodied for limiting the subjects on which they might vote was subsequently dropped. The bill was fought stubbornly line by line, and was ultimately forced through the House of Commons by the use of the closure, now vehemently denounced by its original authors. But the House of Lords declined to recognise that the authority by which the bill had been carried was that of the nation. They rejected the bill.

Very shortly afterwards Mn Gladstone, who was now eighty-four years of age, retired, and was succeeded in the leadership by Lord Rosebery. When, in 1895, the Government resigned, when defeated by a snap vote on a side issue, the electorate at the general election which immediately followed emphatically endorsed the action of the House of Lords by returning the combined Conservatives and Liberal Unionists with a majority exceeding one hundred and fifty. Not for seventeen years was another Home Rule Bill to be introduced in parliament.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

Prehistory - Roman Britain - Dark Ages - Medieval Britain - The Tudor Era - The Stuarts - Georgian Britain - The Victorian Age