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Independent Irish Party

Independent Irish Party

The Independent Irish Party of the 1850s, also known as Independent Opposition, marks an intermediate stage in the evolution of Irish party politics. Daniel O'Connell had utilized his fellow repeal MPs to constitute one of the interest groups on the Whig side of the House of Commons, and from 1835 to 1840 this had won him influence over government policies and patronage. The thirty-five repealers returned in 1847 after O'Connell's death but had no effective leader and did little to disturb Lord John Russell's Liberal government during the worst years of the Great Famine. That catastrophe brought to the forefront the clash of interests between landlords and tenant farmers. By 1850 campaigns for tenant right were afoot in Ulster and in the southeast, led by Presbyterian and Roman Catholic clergy respectively. Charles Gavan Duffy, running the Nation in greatly changed circumstances, saw in the tenant movement a substitute for the more heady nationalism of preceding years and gave it the oxygen of newspaper support. He was joined in this by several other newspaper proprietors. Duffy led the way in the organization of a conference in Dublin in early August 1850 at which representatives from all over the country formed the Irish Tenant League and adopted the program of the three Fs—fair rent, free sale, and fixity of tenure. The intention was to return to Parliament at the next election with a group of MPs pledged to make satisfactory legislation on the landlord-tenant relationship a condition for supporting any government on any issue. Two considerations gave credibility to this strategy: The party system at Westminster was in such flux that any solid block could exercise some bargaining power; and Parliament was in the process of enacting new franchise legislation for Ireland that would give the vote to many farmers.

Matters were greatly complicated a few months later when the restoration of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England and Wales provoked a popular reaction that induced the government to introduce the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill. This proposed restriction on religious freedom was viewed by Catholics in Ireland as a reversion to the penal laws and up to twenty Irish Catholic MPs were outspokenly opposed to the measure. As they fought against the progress of the bill, a sympathetic journalist dubbed them "the Irish brigade," and many of them—including George Henry Moore, John Sadleir, and William Keogh—gained wide prominence. Their tactics included voting against the government on issues other than the offending legislation; this was a remarkable departure for a group drawn from the repeal and Whig/Liberal ranks, since it involved voting with the Tories. The opposition of the Irish brigade made a large contribution to the destabilization of the ministry, leading to its resignation in February 1852 and the accession of a caretaker Tory government under the earl of Derby.

At a conference in Dublin in late August 1851, a few weeks after the enactment of the ecclesiastical titles legislation, the Catholic Defence Association of Great Britain and Ireland had been formed. The brigadiers were prepared to take their cause to the country and seek support for their stance. At this juncture the radical MP for Rochdale, William Sharman Crawford, brokered an agreement between the tenant-right and Catholic campaigners whereby the latter agreed to support a diluted version of the Tenant League's demands in return for cooperation at the next election. It was not a happy union, but rivalry at the hustings would have been disastrous for both. At the fiercely fought general election of 1852 most constituencies were offered a candidate or candidates advocating both tenant right and Catholic rights, and many of the new voters risked the wrath of their landlords to support this compelling combination. At a conference organized by the Tenant League in September 1852, forty of the newly elected MPs, including all the brigadiers, pledged to hold themselves "perfectly independent of and in opposition to" any government not adopting tenant-right policy. Subsequently, about half of the group took a similar pledge with regard to Catholic rights.

The pledged members united to vote with the majority that ousted the Tory government on 17 December. The next administration was a Peelite-Liberal arrangement with Lord Aberdeen as prime minister. He had opposed the Ecclesiastical Titles Act and had no need to give concessions on policy in order to make himself attractive to Catholic interests. His accession marked the end of the titles conflict and vindicated the opponents of the legislation. This meant that for those pledged MPs who were tactical refugees from the Whig-Liberal camp, the new government was very much to their liking, and about twenty of them at once became reliable supporters. This they did without any government undertakings on tenant-right policy and so in contravention of their pledges. Two of them went further and accepted office in the new administration: These were John Sadleir and William Keogh, who were denounced as renegades and subsequently became two of the most reviled figures in nationalist demonology.

Duffy fought to maintain the coherence of the much reduced Independent Party and was supported by Moore, Archbishop John MacHale of Tuam, several newspaper proprietors, and the Tenant League. The pro-government MPs were supported by another faction of the Catholic leadership elite, most notably Archbishop Paul Cullen of Dublin. He was intent on doing business with the administration, and he used his contacts with Liberal-Catholic MPs most effectively to influence government policies affecting the church. The policy of independent opposition would in Cullen's eyes leave Irish Catholic interests unprotected. He used ecclesiastical authority in what opponents saw as an oppressive fashion to undermine clerical activism on the other side, and the resulting grievance helped exacerbate the conflict to the point that in 1854 Frederick Lucas of the Tablet appealed to Rome against Cullen, inevitably in vain. Support for the party gradually ebbed away, and in 1855 Duffy sold his interest in the Nation and left to start a new career in Australia. Agricultural prosperity had blunted the enthusiasm of farmers for agitation. The 1857 general election was a tame affair. The Independent Oppositionists entered it with about a dozen MPs and came out with the same number, and mostly the same personnel. Cooperation between Tories and Independent Oppositionists was noticeable at the 1857 elections. In office in 1858 and 1859, the Tories made various overtures to Catholic interests and seemed to be less inimical to the secular power of the papacy than were the Liberals. In a vote of confidence in the government on 31 March 1859 the identifiable Independent Oppositionists split seven against six. This marked the end of any pretense to coherence, but the Independent Oppositionists lost no ground in the general election of 1859, and as a faction in Irish politics they endured until 1874. The aspiration to the status of a party had been much less enduring. The punishment of the Liberals for the Ecclesiastical Titles Act had been the main success of the party, and once that had been secured with the accession of Aberdeen, there no longer existed the extraordinary provocation that had induced instinctive Liberals to break the conventions of parliamentary conduct. The remnant that tried to function after 1852 had an extraparliamentary organization in the shape of the Tenant League—that last met in 1858—but little else by way of party structure and no commanding leader. Even the most devoted of the Oppositionists adhered to conventional assumptions about the independence of the individual MP. The party machine was more than a generation away.

SEE ALSO Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union


Comerford, R. V. "Churchmen, Tenants, and Independent Opposition, 1850–56." In A New History of Ireland, vol. 5, 1801–70, edited by W. E. Vaughan. 1989.

Knowlton, S. R. Popular Politics and the Irish Catholic Church: The Rise and Fall of the Independent Irish Party, 1850–59. 1991.

White, J. H. The Independent Irish Party, 1850–59. 1958.

R. V. Comerford

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