Lords of Misrule

SOONER or later, most Irish articles (and this one will be no exception) get dishevelled by history. It is as if you were walking along the hills above Belfast, with an argument neatly in hand, on a fine day when all seems soluble. And then this argument sees a thicket of contentious memories looming up ahead and starts to fidget.

You can feel it doing so. It loses all sense of proportion. Its steps quicken, its palm grows clammy, and the more you try to calm it down, the worse the symptoms grow, until suddenly this rational construct breaks away altogether, and dives into a gorse bush marked "What happened to Parnell' or something similar. After a lapse, it emerges on the other side quite unrecognisable. Its hair spikes out in tufts, its clothes are torn and there is a thin trickle of blood oozing from recent scratches.

But what appals you most of all is what has happened to the eyes, now wild and categoric, its mouth a lopsided grin. You realise that, at best, reason is over for today. From somewhere, from nowhere, the mists descend; and you are left to grope your way back, as best you can, to point one, where you wait for the next occasion, the next time for discussion, the next friendly stroll which, who knows, may turn out better?

I have been reading a clutch of Contemporary Review articles written nearly a century ago about Ireland, at that critical time between 1886 and 1893, between Gladstone's first Home Rule Bill, which split the Liberal Party, and his second, passed by the Commons but defeated by the Lords, which marked the effective end of the Grand Old Man's ministry.

For most of this period, however, the Tories under Lord Salisbury were in power, with A. J. Balfour at the Irish Office, determined to preserve law and order, and with the new Criminal Law Amendment Act (Ireland) of 1887 to assist him.

To describe these seven years in Anglo-Irish history would require a book of its own. But to assess the events in Anglo-Irish terms would be to ignore the wider dimensions, a myopia which few of the Contemporary Review contributors of the period, from Gladstone himself to Sir Charles Duffy and Tim Healy, would have shared. As important as the Irish background itself, is the background to that background. Ireland was thought to be the Achilles heel of the Empire; but it was also the country where (if a political solution could be found) the transformation of the Empire could begin.

The liberal aim was to move forward from a mother country with colonies and dominions to an international, democratic union of states. The best political minds in the country were trained upon Ireland, whether they had Irish interests or not, because what, at root, they were seeking was some new way of administering an empire which would not lead eventually to anarchy.

Why, after so many years, were the problems of the Empire, which had for the most part been accumulated randomly and governed with mixed fortunes from Whitehall, of particular importance in the 1880s? The answer lies in their growing economic strength, in the improved communications and the comparative ease of travel. In 1856, Sir Henry Bessemer had casually announced to the British Association a method for producing cheap steel. Refinements and new uses for this wondrous alloy were discovered, it seems, almost an almost daily basis. Steel (instead of iron) provided the material for steel rails, steel ships, steel engines, steel cables, and eventually, such by-products as refrigeration in the ships.

In 1882, London housewives could for the first time buy butter from Australia, bacon from Canada or fruit from the West Indies. By 1887, to take a different example, the first 100,000 nautical miles of cable had been laid. Instead of having colonies which could be used as dumping grounds for younger sons and convicts, which existed in benign neglect for years with a governor and a little army in charge, Britain found herself at the hub of a flourishing international market, whose peace and stability were of prime importance to maintain. Its separate colonial parts were so interacted with the whole, that trouble in the Sudan spelt danger for both Sydney and London.

The statesmen of the time were thus looking for some political coherence which would ensure stability among this unwieldy collection of dominions and colonies. They were generally divided between those who sought a federal solution, with an Imperial Parliament representative of all parts of the Empire; and those who sought a commonwealth of completely independent states, who might be linked by tradition, family ties or common trading interests, but by no formal political structure whatso ever.

I am, of course, simplifying. There were also those who believed in maintaining the old Empire at all costs, ruling by force, if necessary, from London, who would assert that the English were a master race with a divine right; and there were also those who wanted to destroy the Empire, who regarded pax Britannica as a vicious fraud and the market system as a capitalistic con-game. They constituted the far right and the far left for the period. They did not contribute to Contemporary Review, whose attachments were to a liberal centre.

The various factions in the Contemporary Review debate about the future of Ireland, such as the Gladstonian Liberals, Nationalists, Unionists, radicals, and academics were all in their different ways conscious of the imperial dimension. They were proposing solutions for Ireland which could be adapted for other countries too, and which drew parallels from foreign federations with problems. Perhaps the Empire was a fatal dis-traction, but it did endow the contributors with a certain width of vision, and depth, which allowed them to move from Antrim to the Antipodes with an easy assurance that both were to be considered.

An example of this imperial vision would be that of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, an Irish Nationalist MP, who published three substantial articles in 1886/1887, including a retort to Gladstone's Home Rule proposals, A Fair Constitution for Ireland* (September 1887, Contemporary Review, Vol. 52). Duffy (1816-1903) was not like Parnell, animated by a hostility towards Britain.

He had lived in Australia, taken part in colonial governments appointing government officers and his range of constitutional examples extends from Canada to Spain, the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the U.S. Nor was his retort to Gladstone couched in anything but friendly terms. Had not Gladstone himself invited constitutional suggestions while framing the Home Rule Bill, No. 1? Nor was Duffy opposed to maintaining strong, and indeed constitutional, links with Britain. He even believed that the Constitution Statute might start with these words:

“That the Sovereign or Regent de facto of England shall be Sovereign or Regent of Ireland.”

What such a statement might mean, however, rested with unforeseeable circumstances. Duffy tried to anticipate them. If the British Empire were to be held together, there must be a d federal union, in which taxation and representation went together. A Parliament of the Empire, in which the popular chamber consisted of a convenient number of members, not much exceeding 200, allotted to the mother country and the colonies in strict proportion to populations and resources, and an Upper House of life peers selected on the same principle, would be a truly Imperial Parliament.

To such a Parliament, his newly united, dominion-status Ireland would send members as of right; and for an Irish Nationalist to put forward such a proposal is worth noting.

The Nationalists were not all anti-Empire; and Duffy was grasping the nettle which was stinging Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, and many other politicians of all parties. In the event of Home Rule, should the Irish government have representatives in the Imperial Parliament? Joseph Chamberlain, the Liberal who opposed Gladstone on Home Rule and led the Unionist faction, believed that they should, in that under any scheme of Home Rule, the Imperial Parliament was expected to retain certain rights, notably over defence, customs and excise, and coinage.

Without representation in the Imperial Parliament, the new Irish government would find itself at a considerable disadvantage, a dependency in all but name, and subjected to limited taxation without representation. Gladstone was prepared to discuss the issue; but his remarks were equivocal. The Liberal Unionists were purporting to stand up for Irish rights. Many ironies emerge from this exchange. Here was a Nationalist who wanted to strengthen the Empire, confronting a Unionist who sought to protect Irish rights.

Gladstone had every political reason to be evasive although, in his second Home Rule Bill, 80 Irish members were retained for Westminster, after an amendment to the First Draft which suggested that they should only be retained on certain occasions and for certain purposes. In his Contemporary Review article, Further Notes and Queries on the Irish Demand', (March 1888), Gladstone keeps away from this topic, preferring to attack Lord Salisbury and the Unionists.

His political motives derived from the fact that in the 1885 General Election the Irish Nationalists held the balance of power. The result was 335 Liberals, 249 Tories (of whom 18 came from Ireland) and 86 Nationalists. In that parliament, Parnell should have held the whip hand, forming a pact with Gladstone until such time as the Home Rule Bill had been placed on the Statute Book. Gladstone may even have dreamed of a time when with the support of the Irish Nationalists, the Liberals would have had an unchallengeable lead in the House of Commons.

He dared not argue too forcibly for the retention of Irish members after Home Rule, lest his enemies accused him, with reason, of chicanery. But at the same time, he dared not risk alienating the moderate Home Rulers by appearing to deny reasonable rights to the Irish electorate.

He left the question open. It proved a continual bone of contention. Were Gladstone's intentions to retain Irish members in Westminster or not? Chamberlain insisted that they should. The powers of the Irish parliament should be downgraded to that of a Central Council, with powers delegated to it by Westminster, but with no authority to act on its own. The Liberal Party was split between the Gladstonian Liberals and the Liberal Unionists who joined with the Tories.

The old Liberal Party was in pieces. More, however, was at stake than the fate of the Liberals; for Ireland, as well as being a model for a proposed imperial federal union, was also a test case for democracy. The Franchise Bill of 1884 had been intended to extend the vote to agricultural workers, as the Reform Bill of 1867 had given it to the new industrial workers. This meant there were 2 million new voters on the register, twice as many additions as in the original Reform Bill.

The constituencies had not been redrawn to everyone's satisfaction. There were many anomalies, among them that the Irish were over-represented at Westminster. J. A. R. Marriott calculated that two Irish votes were equivalent to three English ones; but Alfred Frisby, in his 'Home Rule in Ireland' (Contemporary Review, November 1880) conducted a more detailed analysis based on the pre-Franchise Bill Elections of 1874 and 1880, in which he concluded that In 1874, instead of having been 54 Home Rule members, there should have been only 41. If represented proportionally to the Liberals and Conservatives of the UK, only 20. In 1880, instead of 64 Home Rule members, there should be only 45; or, if proportionally represented as in and the last case, only 22.

In both the present and the late Parliament, he concluded, Home Rule voters were excessively over-represented. The Franchise Bill raised the number of Home Rulers to 86, together with 18 other non-Home Rule Tory Irish MPs. Ireland returned 104 MPs to the House of Commons, held the balance of power and wielded an influence quite out of proportion to the size of its population or any other index, such as wealth or economic power. While the Parnellites complained about the undue influence of the English in Irish affairs, there were many Englishmen of all party persuasions who argued that, on the contrary, the Irish had a stranglehold on the British parliamentary system; and that Gladstone was their creature.

Gladstone in their view should have reformed the electoral system before even contemplating such a measure as Home Rule; because with the Irish bias in parliament, how could the matter be debated properly? Duffy, the enlightened Nationalist, was fully aware of such arguments. He interpreted them in a civilised way. He believed that the flaw in the ‘first past the post' electoral system was that it gave potentially totalitarian power to a bare majority. It favoured regional concentrations of voters (such as the Nationalists) against higher numbers of voters who were spread around the country and that it prevented a proper representation of their views in parliament.

In his Fair Constitution, he therefore proposed a system of proportional representation for Ireland, with multi-member constituencies. He surmised that Irish government could succeed in no other way, for there were too many entrenched minorities. His Constitution was designed to protect the rights of minorities, while enabling majority opinion to be expressed.

He recognised that Ulster protestants were frightened that, with Home Rule, they would be swamped by a Catholic majority who would seek to take revenge for centuries of misrule. Unionism in Ulster, in his opinion, was based upon fear rather than loyalty to the crown; and he sought to placate the Unionists on both these counts by keeping the ties to the crown and by devising a constitution in which minority rights were scrupulously observed.

He proposed two Chambers, of which the Commons would be elected by his proportional representation system while the Upper House would consist of nominated Life Peers, representing different shades of religious, commercial and land interests, whose purpose was to act as a check on the elected government. Like the House of Lords in Britain, it would not be able ultimately to block the will of the elected government, but it would check rash or bigoted government by guarding the constitution (which guaranteed, among freedom of speech and worship) and by being able to refer back contentious legislation to the Commons.

The protection of minorities was crucial not only to Duffy but to all Liberal Unionists, who believed that, under Chamberlain's federal solution, the appointment of magistrates would stay in the hands of Westminster. That meant that to all intents and purposes, the law would be administered from London, and all the backing of the law, such as the police force. Hence, the Unionists, like the Tories, sought an amelioration of intolerance through the presence of a common law which operated throughout the British Isles. They were prepared to make almost every concession to the Nationalists short of Home Rule to remedy past wrongs, to speed through the processes whereby tenant farmers in Ireland could obtain their lands from absentee English owners, to remove the instabilities of government caused by vacillating British policies and to stabilise the economy of Ireland, which had suffered from centuries of neglect that although the memories of the potato famines were fading.

The population in Ireland, however, was still dwindling from emigration and other factors, unlike almost any other part of Europe where it was on the increase. Among the many fears of the Unionists concerning Home Rule, the economic issue was of considerable importance.

The Nationalists and the Unionists produced conflicting sets of statistics, to prove either (a) that Ireland was capable of self-sufficiency, or (b) that it was not. J. G. Colclough in Contemporary Review (June, 1893) derided Ulster's claim to be the industrial heartland of Ireland; to which Thomas Sinclair in July trenchantly replied. On balance, Sinclair seems to win that particular exchange, if only because he was able to prove that Colclough had absurdly underestimated the importance of trade from Belfast.

On the wider question of Irish self-sufficiency, opinions were balanced. There was no doubt that Ireland was industrially backward, in comparison with Britain: Belfast linen was the exception to the rule. But was this backwardness caused by Irish dependence on Britain, which, the Nationalists argued, would be solved by Home Rule; or by plain lack of investment, which, as the Unionists claimed, would decline still further after Home Rule. Ireland had no steel industry. To develop its trade, it required the benefits of the imperial ties.

On these, as on other issues, the contributors to Contemporary Review seemed much more rational and high-minded than our knowledge of history would lead us to believe or indeed than the mixture of brutality and farce which has characterised Irish history over the past 100 years would cause us to suspect. On all sides, there was a determination that the Irish grievances should be put to rights; that bigotry had no place in a civilised society and that Unionists and Nationalists alike had many ends in common, however different their means.

Nobody sniped at Parnell for his relationship with Kitty O'Shea or attacked the Pope for red bed socks. The famous forgery by Richard Pigott of a Parnell letter (published in the Times in April, 1887) in which Parnell was smeared with condoning violence, was treated with contempt as a vicious distraction. R. W. Dale remarks, as a Unionist more in sorrow than in anger, that:

The charges brought by the Times against Mr. Parnell and his lieutenants, and the Crimes Bill of the Government, have renewed the heat and passion of last Autumn; and the political temperature for many weeks past has not been favourable to the calm consideration of the differences which have split the Liberal party, or to any serious attempt at the solution of an intricate political problem.

It was Dale's intention to reconcile these differences, without abandoning what seemed to him the crucial features of the Unionist position. Although he was not to know that the Parnell letter was a forgery, he disdained to make political capital out of it.

Duffy, Dale, Gladstone and the other contributors to Contemporary Review shared, for the most part, a Victorian optimism and a belief that sweetness and light should be spread wherever possible. Outbursts of bigotry, although they appeared, were rare; and calmly answered.

From our perspective, they seem like modern versions of the ancient Greek leader, Penthius, who in The Bacchae desperately tried to keep the forces of Dionysus at bay. The moderate Home Rulers were aghast when, having finally got their bill on the statute books in 1914, the war intervened, leading to delays and eventually to the Easter Rising. Many Unionists were appalled by the rise of Carson and the eventual partition of Ireland.

None could anticipated the violence and the failure to rise to the political challenges, economic, constitutional and political; or the forthcoming whole century of Irish Troubles.