Gladstone and the Irish Question
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The new Gladstone administration  rested at the outset mainly upon what was called the Whig element; its most prominent members were Lord Hartington, Lord Granville, and the Duke of Argyle. There were members of the extreme Radical wing who had strong claims to office, but the avowed or suspected republicanism of such men as Sir Charles Dilke and Mr Joseph Chamberlain made it difficult to find a place for them in the ministry.
Sir Charles withdrew his own claims in favour of the member for Birmingham, who was for some time regarded by the Opposition, or at least by their organs in the Press, as the scarcely veiled influence which was hurrying the Prime Minister along the paths of destruction. In later years he was destined to assume a curiously different character in their eyes.
The Irish Question
For four years domestic interests and domestic legislation were almost confined to Irish questions. Outside these islands public attention was engaged for the first eighteen months upon Afghanistan and South Africa, while from the summer of 1882 Egyptian affairs became absorbing, almost at the moment when Irish affairs had reached a startling climax. How the Afghan affair was settled we have already narrated, but we have only hinted at the next scene in the South African drama.
The burghers, as the citizens of the Transvaal called themselves, expected that a Liberal Government would be prompt to reverse the annexation carried out by its predecessors, and to restore the independence which a previous Liberal Government had granted without any reluctance.
They were disappointed by emphatic pronouncements that there was to be no reversal of policy. Before the end of the year the Government was in fact reconsidering the question; but this was not known to the burghers. Shepstone had been mistaken in his belief that the majority of the white men had been in favour of his action; the majority resented the annexation, and when they understood, that it was definitive they preferred defiance to submission.
In December, on the anniversary of their great victory over the Zulu king Dingan, they proclaimed the Republic and successfully attacked two small British detachments at Potchefstroom and Bronkhorst Spruit. While Sir Hercules Robinson at the Cape was endeavouring to obtain a solution of the dispute' through the mediation of President Brand of the Orange Free State, Sir George Colley, who had taken Sir Garnet Wolseley's place, advanced to the Transvaal border with a British column to suppress what was unquestionably in a technical sense the rebellion of the burghers.
On January 28th, 1881, he met with a reverse at Laing's Nek and a month later his force was routed by a handful of the farmers at Majuba Hill, where he himself fell.
Before this event the home Government had made up its mind that the annexation had been a blunder, not, as represented by Shepstone, in accordance with the will of the people of the Transvaal. Retrocession was resolved upon and despatches to that effect had reached South Africa.
On the face of it, it appeared that the disaster at Majuba made another change of front imperative. The authority and power of the Empire must be vindicated before any concession could be made. Nevertheless, the Government resolved to set aside expediency in favour of the most elevated ethical principles.
On these principles the burghers ought not to be penalised for their success in fighting for a cause which the Cabinet had already recognised as a just one. What would have been granted without their victory at Majuba should not be denied them because of that victory. Hostilities were suspended, and terms for the retrocession of the Transvaal were arranged.
The Convention of London
The Republic was to be reinstated, endowed with complete self-government within a territory of which the boundaries were definitely delimited. The suzerainty of Great Britain was to be recognised, which precluded the Boer government from making treaties on their own account, and a British Resident was to be established at the capital, Pretoria.
Two years later it must be remarked the arrangement was modified by a new "Convention of London," under which the Resident was withdrawn, and it became a disputable question whether the British could thereafter legally claim any control over anything except the foreign relations of the Transvaal Republic.
It was not perhaps surprising that the lofty morality by which the Government claimed to have been guided was not recognised either by the Opposition in England, the bulk of the Transvaal Boers themselves, or a large proportion of the white population of South Africa. The magnanimity of the mighty power which abstained from demonstrating its overwhelming strength was regarded as mere pusillanimity and weakness, at the best dictated by a paltry economy; out of which conviction a brood of troubles, was to be born in the future.
Ireland and the first Boycott
Gladstone assumed office in 1880 under the belief that Ireland was pacified by what he had done before, and by the expectation of what he would do in the future. It was immediately announced that the Peace Preservation Act would not be renewed. The Irish members, led by Parnell, clamoured for an immediate extension of remedial measures, while the Opposition clamoured against the withdrawal of the exceptional powers of the Executive.
The Government introduced two bills, one a measure for the relief of distress, the other to provide compensation for evictions following upon the non-payment of rent, where the failure had been due to a bona fide inability to pay.
In the Lords this bill was mercilessly criticised and decisively rejected. At the same time the Peace Preservation Act ceased to operate. Immediately there broke out a fresh crop of agrarian outrages, and the new weapon was brought into action which has taken its name from its first victim, Captain Boycott.
The Land League
In the face of this new departure, commonly attributed to the influence of the Land League, it was impossible to rely merely upon the ordinary law. A fresh coercion bill was brought in by the Chief Secretary for Ireland, W. E. Forster, the parent of the Education Act of 1870. It was passed after fierce and stormy opposition by the Irish members, but was followed by a new Land Bill of which the primary purpose was to secure fair rents.
A new principle was introduced. Land courts were to be established for the assessment of fair rents on the application of tenants or of landlords and tenants acting in concert. The Irish members denounced the bill as wholly inefficient, the Opposition denounced it as a flagrant invasion of the rights of property, and the Duke of Argyle retired from the ministry which had repudiated the principle of freedom of contract. The bill was greatly mutilated in the House of Lords, and a deadlock was only averted by a compromise which satisfied no one.
Some months earlier Gladstone's great antagonist had passed away. His strange and mysterious personality had fascinated first his party and then the country in spite of themselves, and the most audacious innovator among modern British statesmen was conceived as the ideal Conservative.
He was a brilliant statesman who had inspired the nation with a new spirit of imperialism, a diplomatist who had triumphantly vindicated the position of the country in the councils of Europe, a parliamentarian who had fought his way to an unqualified leadership against apparently overwhelming odds.
But he was a singular person to have been selected as the great representative of Conservatism, a title which was absolutely appropriate to his successor in the leadership of the party, Lord Salisbury.
The Parnellites made no pretence of being satisfied with the Land Bill; outrages continued; and since English opinion held that Parnell and the Land League were responsible for them, several of the Irish leaders were arrested and imprisoned at Kilmainham. They replied by issuing a manifesto calling upon the tenants to pay no rent until they were released. The response was the condemnation and suppression of the Land League as an illegal organisation, though, according to the unfailing rule, it was presently revived under a new name.
The Cavendish Assassination - background
In the spring of 1882 the Peers, on a resolution of Lord Salisbury, appointed a committee to enquire into the working of the Land Act. Gladstone replied by a resolution in the Commons virtually censuring the action of the House of Lords.
Neither resolution "could have any immediate material effect; but that of Lord Salisbury marked a definite political purpose on the part of the great Conservative leader. Unlike Lord Beaconsfield, Salisbury, who as Lord Cranborne had withdrawn from the last Derby administration on account of the Reform Bill, feared the new democracy and the power of the democratic House of Commons, and hoped to use the House of Lords as a counterpoise.
It may be said that the increased activity of the House of Lords was initiated by their treatment of the Irish Compensation Bill in the previous year, but it was Lord Salisbury who systematically developed the policy.
Immediately after this, the Irish leaders were released from Kimainham and Forster resigned the Irish Secretaryship. There was undoubtedly an understanding that they would use their influence to stop outrages, which was developed in the mind of the Opposition into a corrupt compact for their support of the Liberal Government in parliament; and the whole transaction was vehemently stigmatised as the "Kilmainham Treaty." But it is equally certain that the Parnellites were not conspicuously transformed into allies, of the Liberals.
The Phoenix Park Murder
The leaders had hardly been released when Lord Frederick Cavendish, who succeeded Forster as Irish Secretary, was assassinated in the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Consequently a bill promised for the relief of tenants whose rent was in arrear was preceded by a very stringent "Prevention of Crimes" Bill to be enforced for three years, giving to the Irish Executive abnormal powers of search, arrest, and summary jurisdiction.
The murder in Phoenix Park to some extent silenced the Irish leaders; but in spite of the Crimes Bill there was no cessation of the outrages and murders, and the new organisation called the National League, avowedly political as well as agrarian, took the place of the suppressed Land League.
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 views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.
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