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The History of Ulster
First Home Rule Bill


Gladstone, Premier—The Irish Land Act of 1870—The Ballot Act—The Home Rule League founded—Gladstone resigns in 1874, and Disraeli becomes Premier—Motion on Home Rule moved in the House of Commons by Isaac Butt—It is defeated by a Very Large Majority—Advent of Charles Stewart Parnell—Commencement of "Obstruction" — Failure of Potato Crop—Foundation of the Land League — Relief of Distress Act—W. E. Forster, Chief Secretary; Earl Cowper, Lord-Lieutenant—Protection of Life and Property Act —"The Three F's"-—The Land League proclaimed—Parnell imprisoned—The Phœnix Park Murders—Earl Spencer, Lord-Lieutenant—Gladstone introduces his First Home Rule Bill—Excitement in Ulster—An Irish Land Purchase Bill —Loyalists arm in Ulster—Riots in Belfast—Home Rule Bill defeated.

The Liberal Government formed under the Premiership of W. E. Gladstone included for the first time members of the Advanced Liberal or Radical party. Chief of these was John Bright, who became President of the Board of Trade. An Irish Land Act was the chief legislative work of the session of 1870. So rapidly had opinion ripened on the question that Gladstone's Bill passed through Parliament without meeting any very serious opposition. The Act, which received the royal assent in August, gave legal recognition to tenant-right in Ulster, and to a similar custom in other parts of Ireland. It conferred on tenants rights of compensation for being turned out by the landlord and for improvements made by them during their tenure. "In appearance", said Professor Richey, "it gave the tenant no new rights, nor in anywise deprived the landlord of any; but attempted to effect its object in a circuitous manner by affixing what was essentially a penalty to the exercise of rights which it admitted to be legal."

A Ballot Act was one of the achievements of the session of 1872. The House of Lords inserted a clause limiting its operation to eight years; but when the time came for renewing the Act it was made permanent. The Ballot Act abolished the ancient custom of the public nomination of candidates on the hustings.

A ministerial crisis was brought on in 1873 in connection with an Irish University Bill introduced in the House of Commons by Gladstone. The Bill proposed the erection and endowment of a non-denominational university in Dublin, from which the teaching of mental and moral philosophy, of theology, and of modern history should be excluded. On the second reading the Bill was thrown out, and Gladstone resigned. As the Conservatives were not prepared either to carry on the Government with a majority of the House of Commons against them, or to appeal to the country at once, Disraeli declined to take office, and Gladstone returned to power.

Gladstone's Irish measures had produced quietness in Ireland but not contentment. It was seen, however, that the Fenians had gone too far in demanding total separation from England. A more moderate demand was made towards the close of 1870—a demand for legislative independence under a federal scheme. To carry out the scheme there was formed in Dublin the Home Government Association of Ireland, a body in which Conservatives and Liberals, Protestants and Catholics, were brought together by their common belief in self-government as the remedy for Irish evils. The scheme of the association (which was reconstituted in 1873 under the name of the Home Rule League) provided for an Irish Parliament, which should manage the internal affairs of Ireland, and have control over Irish resources and revenues, subject to the obligation of contributing a just proportion towards imperial expenditure, Ireland continuing to be represented on imperial questions in the Imperial Parliament.

In January, 1874, Gladstone suddenly dissolved Parliament. Although he put in the forefront of his manifesto a promise to abolish income-tax, the country declared against him. Nearly sixty Home Rulers were returned for Irish constituencies, and Home Rule made its first appearance in Parliament when a motion on the subject was made by its exponent of the scheme, Isaac Butt, the member for Limerick. In the new Parliament the Conservatives had a majority of 50 over Liberals and Home Rulers combined. Gladstone at once resigned, and Disraeli became Premier for the second time. The pleas for Home Rule were that Ireland was entitled to manage her own affairs, and that the Imperial Parliament was overburdened with work. Disraeli heaped ridicule on the proposal, which was rejected by 458 votes to 61. Notwithstanding this rebuff, Butt, the leader of the Home Rule party, brought the proposal before the House of Commons year after year without success. This led to a division in the Home Rule ranks. The main body, under Butt, and after his death, in 1879, under Shaw, still favoured a moderate policy; while a minority, led by Charles Stewart Parnell, determined to carry on a more vigorous mode of procedure.

The session of 1877 is memorable for an extraordinary development of "Obstruction" in the House of Commons by the Irish members. Feeling themselves powerless to obtain the Home Rule measure they demanded, from a Parliament in which they formed a small minority, they resolved to punish the majority by preventing the ordinary business of the House from being advanced. Obstruction was practised systematically, and was reduced to a science. The forms of the House, which were designed to facilitate business, were ingeniously used to retard it by Parnell, aided by Biggar, O'Donnell, and other Home Rulers. Butt did not approve of these tactics, and ultimately threw up his leadership of the party in disgust. The Government proposed and carried new Rules of Procedure, limiting the powers of members in speaking and in repeating motions in Committee. The remedy was only partially successful, and it was found necessary to amend the rules again and again.

A wet season in 1878 led to a failure of the potato crop, and also of the peat supply. Famine seemed imminent. Political agitators took advantage of the distress to incite the people against the Government. The Home Rulers, now led by Parnell, put themselves at the head of the discontent. The Land League, an association organized by Michael Davitt, was formally established under the presidency of Parnell, its objects being, firstly, to bring about a reduction of rack-rents, and, secondly, to facilitate the obtaining of the ownership of the soil by the occupiers. The league soon acquired a position of popular power such as no organization had ever held in Ireland before, but owing to the state of the franchise it had not a representation in Parliament of corresponding strength. It advised the farmers not to pay rent. Landlords and their agents were shot; the cattle and goods of those who obeyed the law were destroyed. There came into vogue a system of social persecution which consisted in refusing to associate or to trade with anyone who submitted to the law. This was termed "boycotting", from a Captain Boycott who was its first victim.

The Queen's Speech at the opening of Parliament in February, 1880, expressed deep sympathy with the condition of the population in certain parts of Ireland, and announced that a grant would be made from the Irish Church surplus with the view of alleviating the distress. A Relief of Distress Act, in fulfilment of this promise, was at once passed. In March, Disraeli, who had been raised to the peerage as Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876, deemed it prudent to appeal to the country. In the general election which followed the Liberals had a majority of 46 over Conservatives and Home Rulers combined. Gladstone was recalled to power, and formed a Ministry which included a still larger representation of the Radical party than his former Ministry.

Though this general election increased the Home Rule vote to 64, not more than half this number joined Parnell, either in the agrarian revolt which he headed or in his continuous and violent resistance during the Gladstone administration to the severe repressive measures that accompanied the new land legislation. The serious view of the state of Ireland taken by Gladstone was shown by his appointment of W. E. Forster as Irish Chief Secretary and of Earl Cowper as Lord-Lieutenant. The Government now allowed the Peace Preservation Act to lapse, and passed a second Relief of Distress Act. These conciliatory measures were, however, of little avail in presence of the growing distress and disorder. The withholding of rents at the instigation of the Land League was met by evictions on the side of the landlords, and agrarian outrages of a terrible type became common.

Early in the session of 1881 a Protection of Life and Property Act and a new Peace Preservation Act were passed in the Commons, in the face of determined obstruction. At one sitting 36 Irish members were suspended for defying the authority of the Speaker. A new Land Act was passed, granting to tenants more liberal terms than the Act of 1870. These included "the three F's "—Fair Rents, to be fixed by a Land Court; Fixity of Tenure; and Free Sale of their holdings by tenants. Forster's rule in Ireland was strong. Persons suspected of agitating in a manner calculated to endanger life or property were imprisoned. Among those imprisoned as "suspects" were Parnell and two other Irish members of Parliament. The Land League retaliated by issuing a No-Rent Manifesto. Thereupon the Government proclaimed the Land League as "an illegal and criminal association".

In May, 1882, the three imprisoned Irish members of Parliament were released, and Forster, disgusted at this leniency, resigned, his office of Chief Secretary being filled by Lord Frederick Cavendish. At the same time Earl Spencer took the place of Earl Cowper as Lord-Lieutenant. At five o'clock in the evening of the very day on which he arrived in Dublin to take up his duties, Lord Frederick Cavendish and the Chief Under-Secretary, Burke, were done to death with knives by a gang of men employed by a secret society calling themselves "the Irish Invincibles", whose avowed object was "to make history". Nearly twelve months elapsed before any of the murderers were captured, when five were hanged and others imprisoned. Immediately after the murder of these innocent officials the Government passed a stringent Prevention of Crimes Act, and also an Arrears Act for the relief of tenants. The Crimes Act was vigorously administered by Earl Spencer and by G. O. Trevelyan, who had taken the post of Chief Secretary. During the two years following, the number of agrarian crimes steadily diminished.

The Parliament of 1880 was dissolved in 1885, having passed the Reform Act, which established the household franchise in Ireland. This great increase in the electorate enabled Parnell to carry all before him, and in the result, out of the total Irish representation of 103, no fewer than 85 members were elected on a strict pledge to follow him. Even in Ulster, 17 out of the 33 seats were gained by the Nationalists. Gladstone accepted the large majority of Nationalists returned from Ireland as proof that the Irish people demanded Home Rule; he therefore made a Government of Ireland Bill his first measure.

The most important features of the Government of Ireland Bill, which was introduced on the 8th of April, 1886, were the establishment in Dublin of a legislative body with executive powers and comprising two orders; the exclusion of the Irish members from the Imperial Parliament; the committing of all taxation in Ireland, except Excise and Custom duties, to the hands of the legislative body; and the granting of securities for the unity of the Empire and for the protection of minorities and of Protestants.

In Ulster excitement was at its highest pitch. On the evening when the measure was developed the morning papers in Belfast published editions containing Gladstone's speech at intervals as it was transmitted through the telegraphic wires, and large crowds assembled round the newspaper offices eagerly buying copies. The part of the Bill which was most severely scrutinized was the proposal to secure the rights of the minority. It was read with dismay by the Protestants and more respectable Catholics of Ulster. "In a moment they found themselves apparently defenceless and handed over by the statesman in whom many of them had trusted, to a hostile Nationalist majority, from whom they could expect no consideration, and by whom their very loyalty would be regarded as treason to that Irish nationality which has not and never had any impelling, any animating object but hatred of England and of everything English."

A week later Gladstone introduced an Irish Land Purchase Bill which proposed the issue of £50,000,000 of new three-per-cent stock, for the purpose of buying up the estates of landlords who were willing to sell their lands, which were to be allotted to the tenants on easy terms of purchase. These measures were accepted by the Irish Nationalists, but they were strongly opposed by the Conservatives and by a section of the Liberals who broke off from Gladstone and formed the party known as Liberal Unionists. This secession caused the defeat of the Government on the Home Rule Bill, which was, on a second reading, thrown out on the 6th of June, 1886, by a majority of 30.

Before the fate of the Bill was decided, preparations for resistance were being made in the counties of Ulster. Sir James Haslett, member for the West Division of Belfast, said to a correspondent of the Birmingham Gazette: "There can be no doubt that the Loyalists are arming". Advertisements for the supply of 20,000 rifles and for the services of competent drill-instructors appeared in many Ulster newspapers. A statement which produced a great effect was that Lord Wolseley had declared his intention to put himself, in the event of resistance, at the head of the Ulster Unionists. It was a Wolseley, it will be remembered, that commanded the Inniskillings at Newtownbutler when the shout of "Advance!" was raised, and who again won distinction at the Battle of the Boyne. The Irish Nationalist members maintained that Ulster was in a state not far off rebellion. Hostile demonstrations by Catholics and Protestants alike led to serious rioting, one fight between the sects lasting nearly twenty-four hours. The riots in Belfast threatened to extend overall Ulster.

Gladstone, on the defeat of the Bill, dissolved Parliament, and appealed to the country on the single question—self-government or coercion for Ireland. Lord Salisbury, on the other hand, declared the issue to be separation or union. Gladstone was defeated at the polls by a majority of 115, and at once gave way to Lord Salisbury, who took office with the promise of the support of the Liberal-Unionist party. "Had the Home Rule Bill not been defeated, and in consequence of that defeat a new Parliament elected and a new Government constituted, the civil war," said the editor of the Northern Whig, "which has been so often threatened, and which I had predicted to Mr. Gladstone himself, would that summer have begun."


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