Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891

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Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1870 to 1891

The Home Rule movement that animated Irish political life for over forty years began with the formation of the Home Government Association in May 1870. It was an inauspicious beginning, a meeting of forty-nine mostly Conservative Protestants in Dublin, but it came at a propitious time for Irish nationalism. The Fenian rising of 1867, although a failure in its immediate goal of winning Irish freedom from British rule, had focused the attention of the Irish and British public on Irish grievances and compelled both British political parties to address those grievances, if for no other reason than to satisfy moderate nationalist aspirations while discrediting the radical ones of the Fenians and their supporters. In this environment Isaac Butt, the driving force behind the formation of the Home Government Association, was well situated to attempt to bring the disparate elements of Irish nationalism together.

A former Tory, an opponent of Daniel O'Connell, and a man committed to the propriety of parliamentary politics and to a continued constitutional link with Britain, Butt had distinguished himself by defending Fenian prisoners following the 1867 rising. At the time of the setting up of the Home Government Association he was president of the Amnesty Association, which he had founded in the previous year to advocate amnesty for Fenian prisoners, and was leader of the Irish Tenant League, also established in 1869. Within the Home Government Association he was able to bring together, albeit briefly, Conservatives who had become disillusioned with the union with Britain because of the disestablishment of Church of Ireland, Liberals, constitutional nationalists, and Fenians around a loosely defined platform of federalism within the United Kingdom. The Conservative Protestants and landlords were the first to bolt, realizing quickly that any form of Home Rule for Ireland would threaten their ascendancy over politics and the land. Butt's hope for a comprehensive and inclusive nationalist organization was never realized because Catholic nationalists soon dominated the association, bringing with them commitments to land reform and denominational education, along with the sanction of the Catholic hierarchy.

Throughout its three years of existence the Home Government Association remained little more than a Dublin-based organization whose primary role was to coordinate the activities of local Home Rule bodies. It had no central executive and refused to endorse candidates for election or advocate causes other than Home Rule, although Butt understood that Home Rule and land reform were inseparable. Nonetheless, a series of by-election victories for candidates professing allegiance to Home Rule demonstrated the growing strength of the movement and the ability of cadres of Fenian-inspired local nationalists, often in tenuous collusion with sympathetic priests, to turn out the vote. In November 1873 more than 800 delegates met in Dublin for a conference during which the Home Rule League was founded to replace the Home Government Association. Like its predecessor, the new league was a single-issue, inclusive organization with few resources and a desire to preserve a fragile unity under the banner of Home Rule.

The Formation of the Home Rule Party

Two months later, the growing strength of the Home Rule movement was demonstrated when fifty-nine candidates professing Home Rule sympathies were elected to seats in the House of Commons. At least half of these MPs were former Liberals who had responded to the changing political climate, but whose allegiance to Home Rule was not always firm. Soon after the election, forty-six of the Home Rule MPs established the first formal Irish political party, the Home Rule party, agreeing to work together to promote Irish reform legislation in Parliament. As its chairman, Butt had no authority to enforce discipline, and with the Tories controlling a secure majority in the House of Commons, there was little incentive to do so. Furthermore, ever-respectful of parliamentary decorum and willing to give the Tories a chance to propose reform for Ireland, Butt urged patience at a time when the countryside and a radical cadre of MPs were not inclined to do so. To Butt's dismay, Joseph Biggar, MP for Cavan, Frank Hugh O'Donnell, MP for Dungarvan, and John O'Connor Power, MP for Mayo, initiated a practice of using parliamentary procedures and interminably long speeches to obstruct legislation as a means of bringing attention to Irish grievances. They were soon joined by Charles Stewart Parnell, who in 1875 had been elected MP for Meath.

During the 1877 session of parliament Biggar and Parnell took obstructionism to new levels, and in so doing, gained attention and support in Ireland and within the Irish community in Britain while further distancing themselves from Butt and the moderate majority within the Home Rule party. The obstructionists' case that Ireland's voice must be heard in the House of Commons was strengthened by the disinterest of the Tory government in reform legislation for Ireland and the consequent failure of Butt's strategy of giving the government a chance. In August 1877 the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain, a more radical and working-class organization than its Irish counterpart, replaced Butt with Parnell as its president, signaling a shift in public opinion that would soon sweep Ireland as well. Although Butt remained in control of the Home Rule party until his death in May 1879, Parnell demonstrated a command of parliamentary procedures and the ability to gauge and exploit popular opinion that would lead him quickly to the leadership of the party and the nation.

Parnell and the Land War

Parnell's obstructionism and growing popularity attracted the attention of influential Fenians, who had broken formally with Butt in August 1876 but were facing the reality that their dream of an armed insurrection against Britain was on hold, if not dead. Foremost among them were Michael Davitt, recently released from Dartmoor prison after serving seven years for arms running, and John Devoy, who had also been imprisoned for Fenian activity before emigrating to New York City, where he was a journalist and an active member of Clan na Gael, the U.S. wing of the Fenian movement. Together they worked out the details of an alliance between Parnell and the Fenians, dubbed the "New Departure." It called for an aggressive but constitutional campaign for land reform leading to peasant proprietorship through compulsory purchase, and for Irish self-government. Although a limited version of an alliance between Fenians and constitutional nationalists had been operating in the west of Ireland since 1873, the alliance proposed in 1878 brought with it the dynamic leadership of Parnell and Davitt at a time when a deteriorating economy was radicalizing the Irish countryside. Moreover, it carried with it the potential of linking effectively for the first time the land and national movements in a united campaign.

Between 1879 and 1881 the campaign for Home Rule was on hold while the immediate needs of tenant farmers for relief and the campaign for a permanent solution to the land question dominated the political agenda. The passage of the Land Act in 1881, the subsequent arrest of Irish National Land League leaders, including Parnell, and the suppression of the league in October 1881 brought an end to the first phase of the land movement. This end was formalized in May 1882 with the "Kilmainham Treaty," by which the league leadership was released from prison after Parnell agreed to curtail the land agitation in return for assurances that tenants in arrears with their rent, who had been excluded from the Land Act, would become eligible to take advantage of its provisions. Although the first phase of the Land War had not moved the campaign for Home Rule forward appreciably, it had demonstrated the potential of a mobilized rural Ireland to force concessions from a Liberal administration.

Accordingly, when in October 1882 Parnell replaced the Irish National Land League with the Irish National League, Home Rule was fixed at the head of its program. The Land League goal of peasant proprietary was included, but rather than being brought about through compulsory purchase, it was now to be accomplished through amendments to the purchase clauses of the Land Act of 1881. In keeping with this focus on parliamentary activity, Parnell sought and received assurances that the new league would be controlled by the parliamentary party and would serve its agenda. To a considerable degree, between 1882 and 1885 the National League was an organization waiting for an opportune time to mobilize the Irish countryside again. That opportunity came with the general election of 1885.

Anticipating a general election, the parliamentary and local leadership moved quickly to form league branches, with the number growing from 242 in January 1884 to 592 a year later. By the time of the general election in November–December the league had more than 1,200 branches, many of them formed solely to act as electoral agents for the Irish Parliamentary Party. In this role they functioned splendidly, mobilizing an electorate that had more than tripled as a result of franchise reform enacted in1884. The local branches sent delegates to carefully orchestrated county conventions where they chose preselected candidates, assured that the newly enfranchised voters completed the required forms and paid their poor rates in order to be enrolled on the voters' register, and transported voters to the polling places. Parnell insisted that the general election in Ireland be fought on the single issue of Home Rule. When the polling ended, Home Rulers had secured eighty-six seats—eighty-five in Ireland and one in Britain. They had taken all but eighteen constituencies in Ireland, sixteen of those in Ulster, with the remaining two being those allotted to Trinity College, Dublin. Parnell's eighty-six supporters matched exactly the total that separated the victorious Liberals from the defeated Conservatives, thus ensuring that a Home Rule bill would be presented in the upcoming session.

The First Home Rule Bill and Its Aftermath

Although Liberal Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone did not consult with the Irish members as he prepared his Home Rule bill, the measure that he presented to the House of Commons on 8 April 1886 went a long way toward satisfying the aspirations of Parnell and his party. The Government of Ireland Bill of 1886 proposed to create an Irish parliament and executive with responsibility for the domestic affairs of Ireland, although the government could neither support nor discriminate against any particular religion. In addition, it would have limited control over revenue and trade, while the Royal Irish Constabulary would remain controlled from Westminster, along with defense, foreign and colonial affairs, and the powers and prerogatives of the Crown. No special provisions were made for Ulster, although the antidiscrimination provisions were clearly designed to ease Protestant concerns that Home Rule would mean "Rome Rule." Nonetheless, concerns for the religious and economic position of Protestants and for the allegedly special circumstances of Ulster featured prominently in the parliamentary debate, as did the question of whether Ireland warranted or could be entrusted with self-rule. On 8 June the bill was defeated on its second reading, forcing the resignation of the government and the dissolution of Parliament. In the subsequent general election the Conservatives were returned to office.

The Home Rule debate had solidified the alliance between the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Liberal Party. It had also demonstrated that there was a political consensus that reform was needed in the governance of Ireland. The new Conservative government was committed to reform, seeing it as an alternative to Home Rule and as a means of undermining Parnellism in Ireland. Conservative policy toward Ireland over the next six years has been characterized by L. Perry Curtis as one of "coercion and conciliation." Its primary architect was J. Arthur Balfour, Irish chief secretary from 1887 to 1891. His tenure of office began amid falling agricultural prices in Ireland which, along with a renewed militancy unleashed by the failure of the Home Rule bill, brought unrest and a restoration of the land movement that Parnell had succeeded in keeping under wraps during the previous four years. The government responded with the Criminal Law and Procedure Act of 1887 that gave the authorities emergency powers to deal with unrest, and especially with the proponents of the Plan of Campaign that had been declared in October 1886 by prominent Parnellites, although not endorsed by Parnell himself. The government also introduced the Land Act of 1887, which allowed leaseholders to take advantage of the provisions of the 1881 Land Act and for the first time enabled tenants in arrears with their rents to have them judicially reviewed and reduced, even if those rents had been fixed by the land courts established in 1881, something previously not possible. This was soon followed by the Land Purchase Act of 1888, which increased the funds available for tenants to purchase their holdings. As Virginia Crossman has pointed out in Politics, Law, and Order in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Balfour's intention was to criminalize the land movement and the National League while bestowing some of its objectives from a supposedly benevolent government.

This process of criminalization of the land movement ran parallel with a judicial commission established by the government in 1888 to look into allegations made by The Times that Parnell and his associates in the Land and National Leagues were connected with, if not responsible for, agrarian and political crime in Ireland. Although the initial claims by The Times were proved to be based on forged letters, the commission heard extensive testimony and reviewed numerous documents that demonstrated the degree to which criminal acts were associated with the land and national movements. However, it was not able to establish direct connections between crime and the leaders of the movements. Although historians are not of one mind as to the degree of damage that the commission's proceedings did to Parnell, in the short term he seemed vindicated in the eyes of the Liberals, who renewed their overtures to him to pursue the alliance and to plan for a new Home Rule bill.

The Fall of Parnell

To all appearances, Parnell seemed again to be in full control of the party and the Home Rule movement. The agrarian agitation associated with the Plan of Campaign was on the decline, thanks in large part to Balfour's coercion efforts as well as to the popularity of his land-reform measures. This enabled Parnell to reestablish Home Rule at the top of the agenda and to do so in the context of a revival of the alliance with the Liberals, who understood their dependence on the Parnellites if they were going to be restored to government at the next general election. In mid-December 1889, just weeks after the commission had issued its final report, Parnell and Gladstone met at Hawarden, Gladstone's estate, to plan a new campaign for Home Rule. Five days later, Captain W. H. O'Shea filed for divorce from his wife Katharine, naming Parnell as the corespondent. The full impact of this action was not apparent for nearly a year, during which time Parnell continued to command loyalty within the party and within Ireland. However, when he failed to offer a defense after the divorce petition went to trial in November 1890, Parnell's position and the Liberal alliance, on which his hopes for Home Rule rested, quickly deteriorated.

Immediately, Gladstone, pressed by British Nonconformists who formed the core of Liberal support, withdrew his support from Parnell and made it clear that both the alliance and quite possibly his own leadership of the Liberal Party would collapse if Parnell did not stand down from the leadership of the Irish party. Confronted with the prospect that the very foundation of the Home Rule campaign would be destroyed, forty-five Irish MPs split from Parnell in December 1890, leaving him with twenty-eight loyalists. This bitter split, which was to remain in effect until 1900, quickly spilled over into the Irish countryside, where in a series of byelections in 1891 Parnell's defenders were defeated. Parnell campaigned vigorously, increasingly appealing to the more radical elements in the land and national movements from whom he had distanced himself over most of the previous decade, while at the same time condemning Gladstone and the Liberals with whom he had formulated political strategy since 1882. This campaign, during which Parnell vilified the very policy and strategies that he had been responsible for, undermined much of his authority in Ireland and weakened his already fragile health. He died on 6 October 1891 at the age of forty-five. With Parnell gone, the Liberal connection was salvaged, resulting in subsequent Home Rule bills in 1893 and 1912.

SEE ALSO Butt, Isaac; Davitt, Michael; Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Ladies' Land League; Land Acts of 1870 and 1881; Land War of 1879 to 1882; Local Government since 1800; Parnell, Charles Stewart; Plan of Campaign; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Protestant Ascendancy: Decline, 1800 to 1930; Sullivan Brothers (A. M. and T. D.); Primary Documents: Resolutions Adopted at the Home Rule Conference (18–21 November 1873); Speech Advocating Consideration of Home Rule by the House of Commons (30 June 1874); On Home Rule and the Land Question at Cork (21 January 1885); On Home Rule at Wicklow (5 October 1885); On the Home Rule Bill of 1886 (8 April 1886); The Irish Parliamentary Party Pledge (30 June 1892)

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