Speech Advocating Consideration of Home Rule by the House of Commons
Speech Advocating Consideration of Home Rule by the House of Commons
30 June 1874
Though the son of an Anglican clergyman and himself conservative in temperament and general political inclination, Isaac Butt defended the Fenians as a barrister in the 1860s, was a staunch advocate of tenant right, and founded the Home Government Association in September 1870. Butt sought to dress up Irish Home Rule as a cause that even Conservatives could support because in its federal form it would not threaten the British empire and would draw the teeth of legitimate Irish grievances. He struck these notes when commending Home Rule to the House of Commons in late June 1874. His motion was defeated by 458 to 61.
The resolutions he now submitted to the House were very clear, and if they were debated, it would be seen that they were quite sufficient to guide the House to a conclusion. In the next place he would direct their attention to this fact—that they involved no change in the constitution, and he was anxious that the House should clearly understand this. He proposed no change in the imperial parliament, and if his scheme were adopted, the House would meet next year just as it had done this; there would not be a single change in members or constituencies; there would be the members for Leeds, Glasgow, Dublin, and Limerick; the only change would be to take from that assembly some of the duties which it now discharged in reference to Irish business and to relegate them to another. That being so, he was tempted to ask whether the removal of the Irish business from that House would be regarded by the hon[ourable] members as an intolerable grievance? Some might be of opinion that it would be no great grievance if the Irish members were sent away; but the great majority, he believed, would be of opinion that if the Irish business were transacted elsewhere, more time would be left for the transaction of the legitimate business of the House. Now, he might be asked what he called Irish business; and further, if, should Irish members go into a parliament of their own to transact their own business, they would still claim the power and privilege of voting on English questions in this House? He would answer the second question by saying emphatically "No." . . .
The English parliament, including the Scotch members—he would perhaps have a word to say on the last point presently—would meet to discuss purely English affairs, and when there was any question affecting the empire at large, Irish members might be summoned to attend. He saw no difficulty in the matter. The English parliament could manage English affairs as before the union; but now the English parliament undertook a duty it was unable to perform—namely, to manage the internal affairs of Ireland to the satisfaction of the Irish people. He did not seek to interfere with the right of taxing Ireland for imperial purposes, providing always that Ireland had a voice in imperial matters. He was asking only for a constitutional government and the benefit of those free institutions which made England great. If he succeeded in showing that Ireland had not a constitutional government, then he thought he could rely on the justice and generosity of the English parliament and of the Commons at large to give it to her. What was constitutional government? It consisted of adequate representation in parliament—a control of the administration of affairs by a representative assembly of the people, so as to bring the government of the country into harmony with the feeling, the wants, and the wishes of the people. Did the representation by 103 Irish members in the English House of Commons amount to that? Could it be said that the House discharged the great function of constitutional government to Ireland? If it did not, then it followed that Ireland was deprived of that constitutional government which was its inherent right. He knew it might be said that this involved the question whether Ireland and England were not so blended into one nation that the same House might discharge the duties of a representative assembly for both. That again was a matter of fact. The House might wish that they were all West Britons, but wishes would not alter facts. . . . The two countries were not blended together, because in every department in Ireland the distinction was marked. They had a separate government, a separate lord lieutenant, separate courts of law, and exceptional laws were passed for Ireland which would never be tolerated for England. How, then, could one representative assembly act for both? Was not the consequence that the weaker country had no constitutional government? In this country there was constitutional government. The House of Commons administered the affairs of the nation in harmony with the sentiments of the English people. Statesmen in that House breathed an atmosphere of English feeling; they discussed English questions in an English assembly; they were driven of necessity to mould the administration of the government in accordance with the wants and wishes of the people. They asked the same for Ireland, and they asked for no more. . . .
As a matter of fact, the whole government of Ireland was based upon distrust of all classes in the community. Stipendary magistrates were substituted for the resident gentry of the country, and a sub-inspector of constabulary was a more influential person than the lord lieutenant of a county. The whole record of the legislation for Ireland since the union was made up of successive Arms Acts, suspensions of the Habeas Corpus Act, to Party Processions Prevention Acts and Coercion Acts, each one being more severe than its predecessor. And this record was the more gloomy because it was a record of the doings of well-intentioned parliaments. Notwithstanding all that had been done, the curfew bell of the Norman conquerors was rung in many parts of the country, and in others blood money was exacted after the example of the Saxons. Even if it were true—which he denied—that such a course of legislation had been necessary, that very fact would be its most grievous condemnation. He was therefore justified in saying that up to now the government of the country had failed, and in asking that the Irish people might have an opportunity of managing their own affairs. He was told that parliament having passed the Land Act [of 1870] and the Church [Disestablishment] Act [of 1869], the Irish people were ungrateful in coming forward and demanding Home Rule also. It was even said that such a course was an act of ingratitude towards the individual minister who had been mainly instrumental in passing those acts. All he could say was that such assertions showed the faultiness of the system under which they could be possible. Who ever spoke of the English people being grateful for the passing of a good act? . . . Was there an Englishman in the House who would not be glad to get rid of the opprobrium attaching to the government of Ireland? If the wish was really entertained, the way to get rid of it was by allowing the Irish people an opportunity of trying to govern themselves. If they succeeded, great and glorious would be the reward of those who gave the opportunity; if they failed, theirs alone would be the blame. And where was there to be found any valid objection to granting what they asked? The imperial parliament would hold the army, the navy, and all that was connected with affairs purely imperial, and no difficulty would be found in separating from imperial questions those with which an Irish parliament might properly deal. The United States of America afforded an illustration of a successful federal government with independent state legislatures, and in some of our own colonies they found instances of people owning the imperial sway of England, but at the same time managing their own internal affairs. Even supposing that there might be some disaffected members of an Irish parliament—and this he did not admit—they would be in a miserable minority, and the fact of their disaffection being open to the light would give the strongest assurance of its speedy extinction. In two English colonies were to be found men who, driven out of Ireland because they could no longer endure the system of government existing there, had become ministers under the British crown, and were doing honour alike to the colonies in which they served and to the sovereign who had appointed them. Sir George Grey, the governor of the Cape of Good Hope, wrote strongly in favour of giving a federal parliament to Ireland, and he believed in his soul that it would be the means of effecting a complete union with England. Wrong had driven a large proportion of the Irish people into the madness of insurrection or sympathy with insurrection. It was indeed the consciousness of this fact which made him set himself earnestly to work to devise a means of stopping this miserable series of abortive insurrections and revolts by which Ireland had been torn, and some of the best and bravest of her sons driven into exile. He believed he had devised a plan which would satisfy the just demands of the people without producing a disintegration of the empire; therefore, he had asked the people to give up the madness of revolt and join with him in constitutionally and peacefully making an appeal to England. Many of the people who supported this moderate proposal would waste their lives in useless struggles against England if they saw no other redress for the sufferings of their country. . . . He believed the Irish people were essentially conservative. It was only misgovernment that had driven them into revolt. Give them fair play, and there was no people on earth who would be more attached to true conservative principles than the Irish nation. The geographical position of Ireland made it her interest to be united with England. They were allied to England by ties of kindred and ties of self-interest which bound them to maintain inviolate the connexion with this country, and the way to maintain that connexion was to give them justice in the management of their own internal affairs. . . . Give us—continued the hon[ourable] and learned gentleman—a full participation in your freedom and make us sharers in those free institutions which have made England so great and glorious. Give us our share, which we have not now, in that greatest and best of all free institutions—a free parliament representing indifferently the whole people.
Hansard's Parliamentary Debates, third series, ccxx, cols. 700–717.