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1886 - First Home Rule Bill

It was at the end of January 1886, that the Salisbury ministry resigned. On February 1, 1886, William Gladstone, the "Grand Old Man" of British politics, began his third premiership determined to complete a twenty-year effort to pacify Ireland. Although the introduction of his Irish Home Rule bill was still several months away, some constituencies in Ireland and Britain were already feverish with excitement or fear over the prospects of Irish self-government. Foremost among the latter group were Ulster Protestants. An astute assessor of political opportunity, Lord Randolph Churchill had previously decided, "If the GOM went for Home Rule, the Orange card would be the one to play." Churchill would begin the process of playing that card with a much-publicized trip to Belfast on February 22-23, 1886. Prominent loyalists had organized Churchill's visit, which featured numerous addresses from Orange lodges and noisy public affirmations of Ulster's Protestant identity and loyalty.

Two methods of meeting the Irish demand had been considered by Gladstone, repeal of the Act of Union and statutory home rule. There seems to have been a slight hesitation at first in his mind as to which of these plans it would be best to pursue; but in December, 1885, when there was still the possibility that home rule would be adopted as a Tory policy, Gladstone wrote to Lord Hartington that "a statutory basis seems to me better and safer than a revival of Grattan's Parliament."

A statutory measure of home rule would leave the British Parliament still supreme and able to legislate for Ireland over the head of any Irish Parliament it might create. Repeal would have revived a condition of things under which the acts of the Irish Parliament could be disallowed by the crown on the advice of the ministers, but under which any alteration in the government of Ireland would have to be accomplished by the act of the Irish Parliament - the condition which had made union in 1800 possible only with the aid of unlimited bribery and corruption.

From the time that Gladstone decided upon a home rule bill, no other method of granting self-government to Ireland was under discussion; the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament was an essential part of each successive proposal. In the bill of 1913 this principle was expressly set out in the first clause, which reads: "Notwithstanding the establishment of the Irish Parliament or anything contained in this Act, the supreme power and authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished over all persons, matters and things within His Majesty's Dominions." No such explicit statement appeared in the Home Rule Jiill of 1886, but this bill never reached committee stage.

In 1893 imperial supremacy was affirmed both in the preamble and in the body of the bill. Even without any specific reservation of supreme power, the creation of an Irish Parliament could not affect the complete legal supremacy of the imperial Parliament. The Irish Parliament would be the creature of the imperial Parliament, and it could be modified or extinguished by the act of the Parliament that created it. Since the demand for statutory home rule took the place of the demand for repeal of the Act of Union, it has been clear to the Irish leaders that an Irish Parliament would not be a coordinate legislature, united with Great Britain only by the link of the crown, but would be in the same position as any colonial Parliament.

Five prominent members of Gladstone's previous cabinet refused office - Hartington, Derby, Northbrook, Goschen and Bright. Chamberlain waited until he had seen the draft of the bill before casting in his lot with the Unionists, but resigned in March, before the bill was made public. With his forces thus weakened, Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule Bill in the House of Commons on April 8, 1886. After four days of hot discussion, the bill was allowed to pass its first reading without division, and the second reading debate began on May 10. So great was the opposition offered to certain clauses of the bill by members of his own party that Gladstone offered to withdraw it and to bring forward an amended bill in the autumn session. This overture was refused, and the division was finally taken in the early morning of June 8. Gladstone was beaten by thirty votes - 313 to 343 - and as there was no possibility of getting a working majority for either Liberals or Conservatives, Parliament was dissolved. The general election which followed gave the Conservatives 316, the Liberal-Unionists 78, the Liberals 191 and the Irish Nationalists 85 seats. Conservatives and Unionists combined had thus a majority of 118 over Gladstone's party reinforced by the Nationalists.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:00:32 ZULU