I began this series of articles in the present, before getting in my time machine and taking us back to the 19th century,and then the 17th Century.
In this article I am going to press Fast Forward back to the late 19th Century up to the 20th Century.
After the Famine, the price of food rose rapidly and Irish farmers began to get better off. In response, the Irish landlords raised taxes. However, after 1876, the food-bubble burst and many farmers fell on hard times. Despite this, as well as poor harvests in 1877-1879, the landlords did not reduce the taxes. Many farmers found they could not pay their rent and were evicted from their cottages and land. Many of these evicted farmers, who were now homeless, formed a new land-reform movement. They wanted to change the law to reduce the power of landlords and allow peasants to own their land.
At the same time another man, Isaac Butt, had started the Home Rule Party. The aim of this party was to repeal the Act of Union and reinstate Ireland’s Parliament. He wanted a regional Irish Parliament that could pass laws separately from the main Parliament in London, but did not want complete Independence from Britain. This was viewed by some as a perfect in-between solution for Ireland. In 1874, the Home Rule Party won 59 seats in Parliament. In 1879, Charles Stewart Parnell, had become the leader. His problem was apathy – most Irish didn’t really care about regaining their own Parliament.
However, his fortune changed when Davitt invited Parnell to speak out against evictions and to call for an increase in peasant land rights. He got massive support, and by merging the Home Rule and Land campaigns, he had boosted his own cause as well. In 1879, the Land League was formed and Parnell became its President. Its aims were to get more rights for tenant farmers and reduce evictions. He also believed that a Nation could be forged out of the people living in Ireland. This belief was called ‘Irish Nationalism’.
There were now several groups in Ireland. The Home Rulers wanted the Act of Union repealed and Ireland given back its own Parliament, but not made an independent country.
Against the Home Rule movement were those who felt that the Act of Union was good for Ireland and wanted to retain it. These were called the ‘Irish Unionists’. They were mostly wealthy Protestants, because Catholics had not recovered from the years of segregation that had gone before.
Against the Unionists were those who felt that Ireland could be made into a self-governing nation. These were called the ‘Irish Nationalists’. The Nationalists had to tackle several problems because some aspects of what constituted a nation (a unique and widely spoken language and a common religion) were missing. Irish was only spoken in small areas and the Irish were both Protestant and Catholic.
The final group was those who wanted to create a self-governing republic in Ireland. These were called the ‘Irish Republicans’. They differed from Nationalists in that they wanted an independent country above anything else. Nationalists were more interested in nationhood of the island, and did not place as much emphasis on independence.
In 1886, the Liberal Party Prime Minister of the UK, William Gladstone, decided that in order to end the problems in Ireland, some action would have to be taken. He felt that giving Ireland back their local Parliament, which was removed in the Act of Union of 1800, would solve the problem. So in 1886, Gladstone introduced the First Home Rule Bill. However it was defeated in the London Parliament because others, especially, the Conservative Party were against Home Rule which they thought would weaken the United Kingdom.
After this attempt to introduce Home Rule, the Irish Unionists formed an organisation called the ‘Irish Unionist Alliance’ to fight Home Rule. This organisation was very influential, despite being small in numbers, and received large donations from rich businessmen in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. These were the people who stood to lose most from Home Rule. The IUA also gained support with the opposition in the UK Parliament (the Conservatives) because they felt that if Ireland broke away from the UK, other parts of the British Empire would try to as well. These people were called the ‘British Unionists’. This meant that the two sides in the London Parliament were against each other when it came to the issue of Home Rule.
After the First Home Rule Bill had failed, the Conservative leader had come to Ulster, where Irish Unionism was significantly stronger than anywhere else. He told the Unionists that they could count on British Unionists to help them resist Home Rule. He famously commented that ‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’. In 1892, the Unionists started to use the slogan ‘Erin go bragh’ which is Irish for ‘Ireland for ever’ to show their commitment to maintaining Ireland’s position as a part of the UK. There was also some sporadic rioting in Belfast, because the Unionists in Ulster had begun to be regarded as anti-Catholic. This was a charge they didn’t face in the rest of Ireland, where there was less trouble. In 1886 alone, 50 people were killed in the city of Belfast.
Are we seeing here at this point in History the real beginnings of the modern day Sectarian troubles of the 2oth Century?
Meanwhile in the UK, shortly after Gladstones second government had seen the third reform act safely onto the statute book in 1885, it suffered a defeat on the budget and resigned. Lord Salisbury formed a minority Conservative government that called an election when the new enlarged electoral register was ready.
The Liberals gained in the counties though the unexpected offsetting losses in urban seats resulted in a House of Commons of 86 Irish Nationalists, around 250 Conservatives and around 334 Liberals, not all of whom could be relied on to support the party whip.
The fine balance in the Commons put the issue of Irish government centre stage.
As always, Gladstones aims were conservative to preserve the ties of union by reducing the tensions between the two parts of the kingdom.
He had recognised that neither repression nor conciliation had dampened the Irish appetite for a repeal of the union with Britain but he had also recognised that Parnells party was essentially constitutional. A devolved parliament in Dublin dealing with local but not imperial matters would satisfy their demands for Home Rule and remove the principle obstruction to legislative progress in the British parliament.
To Gladstones opponents within the party, Home Rule was an unacceptable first step to casting off the ties of union, a large stride on a short road to Irish independence.
And do we see here the same arguments which were put against Scottish Devolution back in 1979??
Between February and June 1886, Gladstone sought to find a Home Rule bill and an Irish land bill, which would hold the Liberal Party together.But the bill was defeated by 341 to 311 with 94 Liberals voting against the government.
Rather than make way for a minority Conservative government, the cabinet called an immediate general election. Rather than wait for Gladstones retirement or other suitable opportunity to re-unite with former colleagues, Hartington and Chamberlain set up separate Liberal Unionist parties.
The outcome of the election was inevitable. Caught by surprise and without the opportunity to replenish funds or choose fresh candidates, 219 seats were uncontested. The Conservatives gained 66 seats, the Irish Nationalists consolidated their position and 77 Liberal Unionists were returned. The Gladstonian Liberal party was reduced to 191.
Salisbury offered to serve under Hartington but a Conservative government sustained in office by Liberal Unionists was a more practical proposition.
Your original Conservative/Liberal Coalition??
Over the life of the parliament, Gladstones converted his party to the merits of Home Rule. He was assisted by a foolish Conservative attempt to implicate Parnell in terrorist activities and hindered by the moral shock of the divorce case that revealed Katherine OShea to be Parnells mistress. As the national press became more unionist so did the need for Liberals to organise their own propaganda and respond to increasing competition from both the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists!
A Unionist Press,who would believe it? Lies about non British opposition backfiring? Whatever next?
Meanwhile back In Ireland, In 1884, the Irish Nationalists began the first phase of forging a single Irish national identity. This started with the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) to promote Irish sports. In 1893, the Gaelic League was founded by two (Nationalist) Protestants. Its purpose was to promote the Irish language. Both organisations were extremely successful, attracting thousands of members. Together, they instituted what is now referred to as the ‘Gaelic Revival’ in Ireland.
Again note Protestant Irish Nationalists, It never was always as clear cut as some like to portray!
This brings us up nicely to the 20th Century,and when things really do start getting messy!
You will note that in the period up to the 20th Century, most dispute is political not religious! Although religion is always sitting there in the background because of the previous history,migration, introduction of the plantations and land grabs in James II’s reign. The real driving force though on both sides is politics, and British Imperialism versus National Statehood.
Next Up:Home Rule,Independence, Troubles and quite possibly Rabbits?