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Irish Home Rule

For more than a generation the "Irish Question", the dominated British politics, often to the exclusion of what in retrospect seem to be more important questions, such as the rise of Germany. The Liberal Party was determined to grant Ireland 'Home Rule', with its own parliament within the United Kingdom. Protestant Ulstermen of the north were oppposed to being ruled from Dublin. From 1885 on Ireland steadily elected four-fifths of her 103 members as Home Rulers, and these 81 to 85 members, repeatedly holding the balance of power in the House of Commons, had been able to decide the fate of governments.

The earliest known Irish Parliament for which there is a definitive record met on 18 June 1264 at Castledermot in County Kildare, although there is some evidence to suggest that the word "parliament" may have been in use as early as 1234. The pre-Union Irish Parliament continued to function for more than 500 years. The Houses of Parliament (Lords and Commons) later met in the first purpose built Parliament House in the world, on College Green in Dublin, which was constructed between 1729 and 1739. Under the leadership of the highly gifted orator, Henry Flood, a party was constituted in the aristocratic and Anglican parliament of Ireland, which especially demanded the abolition of the commercial and industrial restrictions which condemned Ireland to helpless poverty. The claims of the Irish increased in proportion as the government was compelled to strip the island of troops on account of the Franco-American war. Under the pretext of preventing a threatened French landing, over 50,000 volunteers seized arms, waiting only for a leader to enable them to extort the fulfilment of the national wishes (1779). They found him in Henry Grattan (born 1746), an advocate of passionate, although occasionally turgid, eloquence, but truly representing the character of his people. "Free commerce " and "free legislation' were the objects for which he contended.

The English governmen surrounded by foes, was in no condition at that time to resist this assault. In 1780 Lord North fulfilled the first of the desires of the Irish by the abolition of the restrictions on commerce, and the permission to enjoy free commercial intercourse with the British possessions. In May, 1782, the Rockingham-Shelburne ministry granted their second wish, — namely, the independence of the Irish parliament from the English one. Only a personal union bound the two kingdoms. Full of gratitude, the Irish parliament voted the sum of £100,000 to its gifted and brave, but poor, leader. People anticipated that unity and content were forever restored between Ireland and Great Britain, — a beautiful, but short-lived dream.

"Grattan’s Parliament" lasted just 18 years. The Act of Union 1800, which came into operation on 1 January 1801, created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and united the parliaments of the two kingdoms. From then until Independence in 1922, Irish Members of Parliament held seats in the parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with its seat at the Palace of Westminster.

The Home Rulers were brought around to the side of the Conservatives in opposition to the Government, and the Gladstone Ministry had to content itself with Liberal support only. At the head of the Home Rule party appeared a new leader in the person of Charles Stewart Parnell. The body of his following was made up exclusively of Irishmen, many of them poor men and of small reputation in the political world, while a few, such as the historian McCarthy and Mr. Shaw, were already leaders of note and influence. All, however, were profoundly devoted to the cause of Ireland, and to this cause every other principle, every other policy, was made subservient.

A state of affairs had supervened in Ireland which could no longer be put aside or hidden under the cloaks of the Ministry. Suffering had come — want, distress, passion, rebellion, hatred, every specter that arises at the conjuration of tyranny, around the huts of the lowly. The celebrated Land League was formed, having for its object the alleviation of the hardships of the Irish tenantry, without much regard to the existing laws. Crime began to express the prevailing sense of the people. Outrages were done to life and property, and the Government was obliged, by the mere stress of the existing conditions, to take up the difficulties of Ireland, to present therefor some sort of remedy.

Gladstone's first bill was defeated in the House of Commons by a split in the Liberal party. His second bill passed the Commons but was rejected by the Lords. A third bill was actually placed on the statute book during Asquith's Premiership, but it had been re- passed over the opposition of the House of Lords and never came into effect owing partly to the militant hostility of Protestant Ulster and partly to the coming of the Great War. The Home Rule bill of 1920 had a smoother course.

In the period following Catholic emancipation, a powerful Irish party emerged with 'Home Rule' as its objective. Led in succession by Isaac Butt, Charles Stewart Parnell and John Redmond and other able political strategists, the Irish Parliamentary Party kept the 'Home Rule' question to the forefront of politics for some 40 years. The question of self-government, or 'Home Rule' had not been settled: attempts by Daniel O'Connell and Isaac Butt in the 1840s and 1870s came to little, but under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s, the Irish Parliamentary Party placed the Irish question at the center of British politics. In 1886, the Liberal party under W.E. Gladstone came to support a limited form of self-government for Ireland. Nationalism was and is a potent populist force in Irish politics. The prospects of Home Rule galvanised the Unionists in Ireland, who were predominantly Protestant, and were a majority in the province of Ulster. Along with their allies in England who feared that Home Rule for Ireland would lead to the break-up of the Empire, Unionists set out to prevent the granting of Home Rule.

From 1800 to 1829 there was no articulate expression in Parliament from the Irish nation, for no Roman Catholic Irishmen were in the enjoyment of the franchise. Catholic emancipation, which was forced from the British government in 1829, was followed by the agitation for "repeal" led by O'Connell. This movement collapsed in 1843, and then followed the bitter years of famine and emigration which reduced the population by almost one-half. From 1848 to 1871, the predominant features of Irish history were discontent and disaffection. Fenianism, which had its rise in the sixties, kept England in panic and nearly embroiled her in war with the United States. In 1869 the disestablishment of the Irish church was thrown as a sop to quiet the discontent; and in 1870 a Land Act, amended into ineffectiveness by the House of Lords, marked the first step in the legislation which culminated in Wyndham's Land Purchase Act of 1903.

On more constitutional lines than those followed by the Fenians, the first home-rule movement in Parliament began in 1871. At first this was largely an Ulster movement, and it was made possible by the granting of the franchise to workingmen living in the Parliamentary boroughs. The first Parliamentary leader of the movement was Isaac Butt. He was succeeded in 1880 by Charles Stuart Parnell, who had already proved his power by the introduction of obstructive tactics in the House of Commons, had won the confidence of the Fenian leaders and had identified himself with the Land League movement. The reply of the British government to the lawless tactics of the Land League was Gladstone's Land Act of 1881 - the act which may be regarded as the real beginning of the long series of remedial measures passed to still the agrarian agitation which had kept Ireland in a constant turmoil.

It was not until after the Reform Act of 1884 had enfranchised the working classes living outside the limits of the Parliamentary boroughs that the home rule question became a pressing one for the British Parliament. From 1885 on Ireland steadily elected four-fifths of her 103 members as Home Rulers, and these 81 to 85 members, repeatedly holding the balance of power in the House of Commons, had been able to decide the fate of governments. From the Reform Act of 1884 through 1914 there were eight general elections. In 1886, 1895 and 1900 the Conservatives obtained majorities over Liberals and Nationalists combined. In 1885, 1892, 1906, January, 1910, and December, 1910, the Liberals had the support of the majority elected to the House of Commons; but in one only of these elections - that of 1906 - were the Liberals returned in such numbers as to make them independent of the support of Irish Nationalists.

In 1885, at the first general election at which the workingmen of Great Britain and Ireland were able to express their opinions throughout the constituencies, there were returned to Parliament 250 Conservatives, 335 Liberals and 85 Irish Nationalists. In the Parliament of 1880-1885, during the greater part of which the Liberals had been in office, the Irish had been inclined to act with the Conservatives. The Gladstone Cabinet had been defeated in June 1885, nominally on the question of the duties on beer and spirits in the budget, but really because of the death of General Gordon at Khartoum and the conduct of affairs in the Sudan. Lord Salisbury was prime minister when the appeal was made to the new electorate in November 1885, and in his famous speech at Newport, on October 7, 1885, he had made a definite bid for the Irish vote.

The Liberal policy in Ireland had been a combination of repression and removal of grievances. Side by side with the Land Act, which was intended to secure to the tenant the value of his improvements and to fix the rents on a fair valuation of the landlord's property, the Liberals had passed a Coercion Act. This measure had been obstructed in the House of Commons by the Irish under the leadership of Parnell; and resentment against this drastic law, which is described by Lord Morley in his life of Gladstone as an act which "practically enabled the viceroy to lock up anybody he pleased and detain him as long as he pleased," was stronger than gratitude for the land legislation.

During the short-lived administration of Lord Salisbury, in 1885-86, an attempt was made to bind to the Conservative party in power the Irish Home Rulers who had acted with it in opposition. Lord Carnarvon, the new viceroy, definitely abjured coercion as a means of government and, as soon as he arrived in Ireland, entered into negotiations with Parnell. In the Newport speech, Lord Salisbury made a declaration of the policy of his party, which was taken by many to foreshadow some measure of home rule for Ireland. He stated that there were two reasons for not renewing the Coercion Act: "We could not, and it would have done no good if we could. . . . To follow the extension of the franchise by coercion would have been a gross inconsistency. To show confidence by one act and the absence of confidence by a simultaneous act would be to stultify Parliament. Your inconsistency would have provoked such intense exasperation that it would have led to ten times more evil, ten times more resistance to the law than your crimes act could possibly have availed to check."

In this Newport speech there was a forecast at least of wide powers of local government for Ireland. In treating the question of extending English institutions to Ireland, Lord Salisbury touched upon the necessity of protection for the minority. His remedy was not the division of Ireland into small independent local governing areas. On this point he said: "Local authorities are more exposed to the temptation of enabling the majority to be unjust to the minority when they obtain jurisdiction over a small area than is the case when the authority derives its sanction and extends its jurisdiction over a wider area. In a large central authority the wisdom of several parts of the country will correct the folly and mistakes of one."

Gladstone, after devoting serious thought to the subject, declared himself in favour of a generous measure of local government; but insisted on the necessity of securing a large Liberal majority independent of the Home Rulers, in order to enable him to deal with the question satisfactorily. Parnell, who was watching eagerly, seized the occasion to invite Gladstone to formulate a plan of Home Rule on his own lines. This Gladstone refused to do. Thereupon Parnell, on November 21, issued a manifesto calling on the Irish of Great Britain to vote solid for the Tories. In view of this pronouncement and of the policy of conciliation inaugurated in Ireland, there was some expectation that the Conservatives would continue to hold office by the help of the Irish Nationalists.

The result of the general election of 1885 was satisfactory to no one but Parnell. There was no majority for either party - Liberals, 335 ; Conservatives and Nationalists, 335 - but, in a letter to Balfour of December 20, 1885, Gladstone offered his support if the Conservatives should undertake to devise a plan of government for Ireland. Lord Salisbury was too prudent to risk his political career by any such adventure, and the settlement of the Irish question was turned over to the Liberals. The defeat of the Conservative government did not come, however, on the Irish question, but on an amendment to the address in reply to the speech from the throne affecting the English rural laborer. The vote on this amendment was taken on January 27, 1886, and the division showed 252 for the government and 331 for the opposition - composed of 257 Liberals and 74 Irish Nationalists. By this time the Nationalist leaders had learned from Gladstone that he was willing to commit himself and his party to the introduction of a home-rule bill.

It did not seem that a pre-revolutionary situation existed in Ireland in the decade before the 1916 Rising. Ireland had 103 constituency seats at Westminster, 75 of which were held by the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party, (IPP) led by John Redmond. The early twentieth century witnessed the party recovering from the political demise and death of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891. Re-unified in 1900, it was dedicated to achieving home rule for Ireland through constitutional means, a commitment it succeeded in extracting from the British government in 1912. When the First World War broke out, the implementation of home rule was postponed until the conflict was over, and the nationalists hoped unionist opposition would be overruled.

Irish people generally enjoyed the right to free speech, free assembly, free organisation, and a varied and (mostly) uncensored media. Many initiatives had been taken by the British government to satisfy different sections of the population; old age pensions gave a weekly payment to those aged over 70, and the National University of Ireland Act of 1908 seemed to reflect an increasingly confident Catholic church that had succeeded in achieving its demands in the area of education. Most Irish farmers owned their own land, some 11 million acres having been purchased as a result of the Land Acts of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

After the Great War commenced, Irish agriculturalists benefited from the extra demand in Britain for Irish foodstuffs. Conscription to the armed forces was not imposed in Ireland, but many Irish men volunteered for service in the British army, with over 200,000 serving during World War One. The Royal Irish Constabulary, mostly Catholic, and a respected force, was policing an island relatively free of serious crime.

On the surface therefore, the years before the Rising seemed some of the more peaceful and prosperous in Ireland’s history. In many respects, it is necessary to look below the surface in order to locate “the legion of the excluded”, represented in the movements identified by Markievicz, which declared war on the British Empire in April 1916. Although the rebellion was crushed and its leaders executed, it led to a change in public opinion that saw Sinn Féin (‘We Ourselves’- a political movement that had emerged in 1905 under the leadership of Arthur Griffith) triumph in the general election of 1918, with Eamon de Valera as its president, and the commencement of a war of Independence in 1919.

The military conflict between British armed forces and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) consisted of sporadic guerrilla fighting overseen by the IRA’s director of organisation and intelligence Michael Collins, and was paralleled by the efforts of the self-proclaimed government of the Irish republic -the first Dáil (Irish parliament) assembled in January 1919- to achieve an independent Irish Republic. In the midst of this, the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 created a separate parliament for the six counties of Northern Ireland, partitioning the island.

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Page last modified: 08-09-2017 18:19:01 ZULU