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On the Home Rule Bill of 1886

On the Home Rule Bill of 1886

8 April 1886

William Gladstone

The outcome of the general election of 1885, in which Irish nationalist MPs won eighty-six seats, helped to convince the Liberal prime minister William Gladstone to identify his party with Irish self-government. His speech introducing the Home Rule bill in April 1886 was designed to persuade other politicians that Ireland deserved to be governed in accordance with "Irish ideas," and that any other course would require the persistent use of coercion, which good Liberals found abhorrent. When ninety-three Liberals defected on the second reading of the bill in June, Home Rule was defeated by thirty votes.

SEE ALSO Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Unionism from 1885 to 1922

I could have wished, Mr Speaker, on several grounds, that it had been possible for me on this single occasion to open to the House the whole of the policy intentions of government with respect to Ireland. The two questions of land and of Irish government are in our view closely and inseparably connected, for they are the two channels through which we hope to find access, and effectual access, to that question which is the most vital of all—namely, the question of social order in Ireland. . . .

Since the last half-century dawned, we have steadily engaged in extending as well as in consolidating free institutions. I divide the period since the Act of Union with Ireland into two—the first from 1800 to 1832, the epoch of what is still justly called the Great Reform Act; and secondly, from 1833 to 1885. I do not know whether it has been as widely observed as I think it deserves to be that in the first of those periods—32 years—there were no less than 11 years—it may seem not much to say, but wait for what is coming—there were no less that 11 of those 32 years in which our statute book was free throughout the whole year from repressive legislation of an exceptional kind against Ireland. But in the 53 years since we advanced far in the career of liberal principles and actions—in those 53 years from 1833 to 1885—there were but two years which were entirely free from the action of this special legislation for Ireland. Is not that of itself almost enough to prove we have arrived at the point where it is necessary that we should take a careful and searching survey of our position? . . .

Well, sir, what are the results that have been produced? This result above all—and now I come to what I consider to be the basis of the whole mischief—that rightly or wrongly, yet in point of fact, law is discredited in Ireland, and discredited in Ireland upon this ground especially—that it comes to the people of that country with a foreign aspect and in a foreign garb. These coercion bills of ours, of course—for it has become a matter of course—I am speaking of the facts and not of the merits—these coercion bills are stiffly resisted by the members who represent Ireland in parliament. The English mind, by cases of this kind and by the tone of the press towards them, is estranged from the Irish people, and the Irish mind is estranged from the people of England and Scotland. I will not speak of other circumstances attending the present state of Ireland, but I do think that I am not assuming too much when I say that I have shown enough in this comparatively brief review—and I wish it could have been briefer still—to prove that if coercion is to be the basis for legislation, we must no longer be seeking, as we are always laudably seeking, to whittle it down almost to nothing at the very first moment we begin, but we must, like men, adopt it, hold it, sternly enforce it, till its end has been completely attained—with what results to peace, goodwill, and freedom I do not now stop to inquire. Our ineffectual and spurious coercion is morally worn out. . . .

Now, I enter upon another proposition to which I hardly expect broad exception can be taken. I will not assume, I will not beg, the question, whether the people of England and Scotland will ever administer that sort of effectual coercion which I have placed in contrast with our timid and hesitating repressive measures; but this I will say, that the people of England and Scotland will never resort to that alternative until they have tried every other. Have they tried every other? Well, some we have tried, to which I will refer. I have been concerned with some of them myself. But we have not yet tried every alternative because there is one—not unknown to human experience—on the contrary, widely known to various countries in the world, where this dark and difficult problem has been solved by the comparatively natural and simple, though not always easy, expedient of stripping of law of its foreign garb and investing it with a domestic character. I am not saying that this will succeed; I by no means beg the question at this moment; but this I will say, that Ireland, as far as I know, and speaking of the great majority of the people of Ireland, believes it will succeed and that experience elsewhere supports that conclusion. The case of Ireland, though she is represented here not less fully than England or Scotland, is not the same as that of England or Scotland. England, by her own strength and by her vast majority in this House, makes her own laws just as independently as if she were not combined with two other countries. Scotland—a small country, smaller than Ireland, but a country endowed with a spirit so masculine that never in the long course of history, excepting for two brief periods, each of a few years, was the superior strength of England such as to enable her to put down the national freedom beyond the border—Scotland, wisely recognised by England, has been allowed and encouraged in this House to make her own laws as freely and as effectually as if she had a representation six times as strong. The consequence is that the mainspring of law in England is felt by the people to be English; the mainspring of law in Scotland is felt by the people to be Scotch; but the mainspring of law in Ireland is not felt by the people to be Irish, and I am bound to say—truth extorts from me the avowal—that it cannot be felt to be Irish in the same sense as it is English and Scotch. The net results of this statement which I have laid before the House, because it was necessary as the groundwork of my argument, are these—in the first place, I admit it to be little less than a mockery to hold that the state of law and of facts conjointly, which I have endeavoured to describe, conduces to the real unity of this great, noble, and world-wide empire. In the second place, something must be done, something is imperatively demanded from us to restore to Ireland the first conditions of civil life—the free course of law, the liberty of every individual in the exercise of every legal right, the confidence of the people in the law, apart from which no country can be called in the full sense of the word a civilised country, nor can there be given to that country the blessings which it is the object of civilised society to attain. Well, this is my introduction to the task I have to perform, and now I ask attention to the problem we have before us.

It is a problem not unknown in the history of the world; it is really this—there can be no secret about it as far as we are concerned—how to reconcile imperial unity with diversity of legislation. Mr Grattan not only held these purposes to be reconcilable, but he did not scruple to go the length of saying this—"I demand the continued severance of the parliaments with a view to the continued and everlasting unity of the empire." Was that a flight of rhetoric, an audacious paradox? No; it was the statement of a problem which other countries have solved, and under circumstances much more difficult than ours. We ourselves may be said to have solved it, for I do not think that anyone will question the fact that, out of the six last centuries, for five centuries at least Ireland has had a parliament separate from ours. That is a fact undeniable. Did that separation of parliament destroy the unity of the British empire? Did it destroy it in the 18th century? Do not suppose that I mean that harmony always prevailed between Ireland and England. We know very well there were causes quite sufficient to account for a recurrence of discord. But I take the 18th century alone. Can I be told that there was no unity of empire in the 18th century? Why, sir, it was the century which saw our navy come to its supremacy. It was the century which witnessed the foundation of that great, gigantic manufacturing industry which now overshadows the whole world. It was in a preeminent sense the century of empire, and it was in a sense, but too conspicuous, the century of wars. Those wars were carried on, that empire was maintained and enormously enlarged, that trade was established, that navy was brought to supremacy, when England and Ireland had separate parliaments. Am I to be told that there was no unity of empire in that state of things? Well, sir, what has happened elsewhere? Have any other countries had to look this problem in the face? The last half-century—the last 60 to 70 years since the great war—has been particularly rich in its experience of this subject and in the lessons which it has afforded to us. There are many cases to which I might refer to show how practicable it is, or how practicable it has been found by others whom we are not accustomed to look upon as our political superiors—how practicable it has been found by others to bring into existence what is termed local autonomy, and yet not to sacrifice, but to confirm imperial unity. . . .

What is the essence of the union? That is the question. It is impossible to determine what is and what is not the repeal of the union, until you settle what is the essence of union, Well, I define the essence of the union to be this—that before the Act of Union there were two independent, separate, co-ordinate parliaments; after the Act of Union there was but one. A supreme statutory authority of the imperial parliament over Great Britain, Scotland, and Ireland as one United Kingdom was established by the Act of Union. That supreme statutory authority it is not asked . . . in the slightest degree to impair. . . .

I will deviate from my path for a moment to say a word upon the state of opinion in that wealthy, intelligent, and energetic portion of the Irish community which, as I have said, predominates in a certain portion of Ulster. Our duty is to adhere to sound general principles and to give the utmost consideration we can to the opinions of that energetic minority. The first thing of all, I should say, it that if upon any occasion, by any individual or section, violent measures have been threatened in certain emergencies, I think the best compliment I can pay to those who have threatened us is to take no notice whatever of the threats, but to treat them as momentary ebullitions which will pass away with the fears from which they spring, and at the same time to adopt on our part every reasonable measure for disarming those fears. I cannot say it is otherwise when fivesixths of its lawfully-chosen representatives are of one mind in this matter. There is a counter voice; and I wish to know what is the claim of those by whom that counter voice is spoken, and how much is the scope and allowance we can give them. Certainly, sir, I cannot allow it to be said that a Protestant minority in Ulster or elsewhere is to rule the question at large for Ireland. I am aware of no constitutional doctrine tolerable on which such a conclusion could be adopted or justified. But I think that the Protestant minority should have its wishes considered to the utmost practicable extent in any form which they may assume.

Various schemes, short of refusing the demand of Ireland at large, have been proposed on behalf of Ulster. One scheme is that Ulster itself, or perhaps with more appearance of reason, a portion of Ulster, should be excluded from the operation of the bill we are about to introduce. Another scheme is that certain rights with regard to certain subjects—such, for example, as education and some other subjects—should be reserved and should be placed to a certain extent under the control of provincial councils. These, I think, are suggestions which reached me in different shapes; there may be others. But what I wish to say of them is this—there is no one of them which has appeared to us to be so completely justified, either upon its merits or by the weight of opinion supporting and recommending it, as to warrant our including it in the bill and proposing it to parliament upon our responsibility. What we think is that such suggestions deserve careful and unprejudiced consideration. It may be that free discussion, which I have no doubt will largely take place after a bill such as we purpose shall have been laid on the table of the House, may give to one of these proposals, or to some other proposals, a practical form, and that some such plan may be found to be recommended by a general or pedominating approval. If it should be so, it will at our hands have the most favourable consideration. . . .

In 1782 there were difficulties that we have now before us. At any time it might have been very fairly said that no one could tell how a separate legislature would work unless it had under its control what is termed a responsible government. We have no such difficulty and no such excuse now. The problem of responsible government has been solved for us in our colonies. It works very well there; and in perhaps a dozen cases in different quarters of the globe it works to our perfect satisfaction. It may be interesting to the House if I recount the fact that that responsible government in the colonies was, I think, first established by one of our most distinguished statesmen, Earl Russell, when he held the office of colonial secretary in the government of Lord Melbourne. But it was a complete departure from established tradition; and if I remember right, not more than two or three years before that generous and wise experiment was tried, Lord Russell had himself written a most able despatch to show that it could not be done; that with responsible government in the colonies you would have two centres of gravity and two sources of motion in the empire; while a united empire absolutely required that there should be but one, and that consequently the proposition could not be entertained. . . .

There is only one subject more which I feel it still necessary to detain the House. It is commonly said in England and Scotland—and in the main it is, I think, truly said—that we have for a great number of years been struggling to pass good laws for Ireland. We have sacrificed our time, we have neglected our own business, we have advanced our money—which I do not think at all a great favour conferred on her—and all this in the endeavour to give Ireland good laws. That is quite true in regard to the general course of legislation since 1829. But many of those laws have been passed under influences which can hardly be described otherwise than as influences of fear. Some of our laws have been passed in a spirit of grudging and of jealousy. . . .

But, sir, I do not deny the general good intentions of parliament on a variety of great and conspicuous occasions, and its desire to pass good laws for Ireland. But let me say that in order to work out the purposes of government there is something more in this world occasionally required than even the passing of good laws. It is sometimes requisite not only that good laws should be passed, but also that they should be passed by the proper persons. The passing of many good laws is not enough in cases where the strong permanent instincts of the people, their distinctive marks of character, the situation and history of the country, require not only that these laws should be good but [that] they should proceed from a congenial and native source, and besides being good laws, should be their own laws.

Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, series 3, ccciv, cols. 1036–1085.

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