John Redmond and Home Rule (2)

Eleanor Hull
John Redmond and Home Rule | start of chapter

A very important movement was initiated in 1894, largely through Redmond’s energy, to inquire into the financial relations between Great Britain and Ireland, the Report of the Commission showing, according to the calculations then made, that the smaller country was being overtaxed to the extent of 2¾ millions per annum.

A still more forward step was taken by the passing of Gerald Balfour’s Local Government Bill of 1898, which, in Redmond’s words, “made the Irish people masters of all the finance and local affairs of Ireland,” and which he warmly welcomed as a step in the direction of Home Rule.

In 1900 Redmond’s hands were strengthened by the reunion of a large number of the party under his leadership, Dillon having announced his resignation of the chairmanship of the anti-Parnellites. The ‘party pledge’ by which these Members bound themselves, undertaking to sit and vote only with their party, and to accept no office under Government, thus giving up for the benefit of their cause all hope of promotion, welded them into a compact body and bound them to their leader in a remarkable way; it was a severe test of their devotion to the principles they represented in the House.

But in the country Healy, Davitt, or William O’Brien was more popular, especially during the period of the Boer War, which Ireland strongly disapproved, and to which some of the extremists sent a brigade to fight against the English troops—an act which excited much anger in England and threatened to postpone indefinitely the further consideration of Home Rule.

The Imperialist wing of the Liberal party refused all connexion with men who had provided a contingent to fight on the side of the enemies of their country; and Redmond found his position increasingly difficult. His speech on the Boer War was admirable; it put the Irish point of view with great skill and temperance of language; men of weight were learning to listen to his arguments with respect and to rely with confidence on his judgment. His acceptance of the leadership of the reunited party had thrown him out of the ranks of the extremists, and he held his party together as much by the personal regard that he inspired as by his consummate tact in leading them.

The strong Unionist party that was returned to power on the conclusion of the Boer War seemed likely to postpone Irish affairs indefinitely. But a number of incidents showed that events were becoming more favourable to their consideration. Chief of these was the appointment of George Wyndham, who was pledged to a policy of Land Reform, as Chief Secretary; early in his term of office he brought in the Land Purchase Bill of 1903, which was supported by Redmond and by William O’Brien, with the weight of the United Irish League behind him.

Associated with Wyndham was another administrator who was sent over with the express purpose of seeking a settlement. This was Sir Antony (later Lord) MacDonnell, who had during a period of service in India, where he had been offered the Governorship of Bombay, been largely responsible for a scheme of land settlement in that country. That he was a Catholic and a Home Ruler made his appointment by a Unionist Government all the more remarkable, and showed a desire for the success of the project. Sir Antony gave up a seat on the Indian Council and accepted the post of Under-Secretary in Ireland, in order to lend his aid in settling outstanding problems.

Meanwhile, the experiment of treating distinctively Irish questions on Irish lines had taken a new and startling leap forward by the assembling at the Mansion House in Dublin in December 1902 of the Land Conference, with the expressed intention of ending the land questions which had disturbed the relations between owners and tenants since the days of the plantations, by a mutual compromise beneficial to both the parties concerned.

The first suggestion of this memorable conference was made in a letter published from the pen of a Galway landlord, Captain Shawe-Taylor, who wrote to suggest a meeting of a number of leading gentlemen, both landowners and members of the Parliamentary party, whom he named, to try and put an end to the land war and with it “the paralysis of commercial business and enterprise, and the hatred and bitterness between the various sections and classes of the community.”

Little attention might have been paid to this olive-branch offered by an unknown hand had it not been followed up two days later by a communication from Wyndham, announcing in unambiguous terms:

“No Government can settle the land question. It must be settled by the parties interested. … Any conference is a step in the right direction if it brings the prospect of a settlement between the parties near.”

The recognition of the Irish national standpoint, with the implied invitation to Irishmen to show their capacity for the home government they demanded, carried with it the implication that legislative effect would be given to their decisions.

It may have aided the ultimate plans of the Conference that the proposal, which was denounced by Dillon as a landlord plot, was rejected also by the Daily Express, the chief organ of the landlords, and that some members of the Landowners’ Convention, such as the Duke of Abercorn, The O’Conor Don, and Lord Barrymore, refused to attend.

But leading country gentlemen like the Earl of Dunraven, the Earl of Mayo, Colonel Nugent Everard, and Colonel Hutcheson-Poe, stepped forward to prevent the proposal being dropped, and Redmond, “Tim” Harrington, William O’Brien, and Mr. T. W. Russell, a shrewd Ulster Presbyterian farmer, declared themselves ready to meet them. They had to face the fiercest opposition not only from members of the unbending Landowners’ Convention, but from a considerable body of Nationalists, led by Dillon and Sexton, who had taken over the editorial command of the Freeman’s Journal.

No effort was spared to misrepresent their conclusions or to wreck their work; but in spite of all prophecies to the contrary a scheme of sound and rational land purchase was drawn up, on more liberal financial lines than the earlier scheme or even than the Ashbourne Act.

To induce the landlords to sell, the Government provided a State bonus of four years’ purchase; this facilitated transfers of land where the landlords would have been otherwise impoverished by a compulsory sale.

The immediate conversion of all tenants under £50 valuation into tenant-proprietors was contemplated—that is, some 445,000 out of the 480,000 agricultural tenants in Ireland—while to the remainder their rights to the judicial revised rents were to be preserved unimpaired pending the completion of land purchase in their own cases. Thus was substituted an occupying proprietary in lieu of the existing dual ownership.

The Report presented on January 4, 1903, was unanimous, and legislation on the lines recommended followed immediately, though the significance of this great advance, which pointed to the restoration of Butt’s fundamental policy that self-government should include the whole nation and not only a majority of the nation, was lost for the moment in a storm of obloquy cast upon all who were concerned in the transaction.

Even Davitt “launched a determined campaign”; against conclusions that seemed to convert his own theories into actualities. But the conclusions of the Land Conference were accepted by the National Convention, and though in some directions Wyndham’s Act did not do all that the Conference hoped, amendments were made during the passage of the Bill through the House which materially improved it in other respects. This was especially the case with regard to Mr. Duke’s amendment enabling tenants to make direct bargains for their land in order to obviate what were known as ‘zone’ prices.

The usefulness of the Act, which became law in 1903, was later extended by the passing of two smaller measures in favour of evicted tenants and for the better housing of labourers. The latter Act provided £5,000,000 (raised afterward to £8,000,000) for the building of dwellings for agricultural labourers; to its operation are to be ascribed many of the cottages that now dot the landscape in the South, often prettier than the farmers’ own homes, with their plots of ground and gardens, their pig and poultry, their jasmine branches climbing over the porch—healthy and pleasant places of abode for the families of the labouring man.

In 1909 the Land Act was to receive further extensions by the Birrell Act, intended to hasten and complete compulsory sale. In the course of some years, nearly a quarter of a million occupying tenants had purchased their holdings, and some £77,000,000 worth of property had changed hands on terms considered fair to both parties and accepted by the whole Irish nation through their representatives.

Wyndham, the chief author of this beneficent advance, had to retire in face of violent attacks from all parties, but chiefly from the Orange party of the North, and his further plans of reform were dropped, his sympathy with some form of devolution to Ireland or of a measure of self-government being denounced by them as playing into the hands of the extremists. He was succeeded by Walter Long, afterward Lord Long.

But projects of modified Home Rule were in the air, especially among the members of the Land Conference, who felt encouraged by its success to plan further efforts for the good of the country. They resolved themselves into a new association called the Irish Reform Association, to advance a policy of goodwill and reform, and a union of all moderate and progressive opinion irrespective of class or creed.

The idea had originated between Wyndham, Lord Dunraven, and Sir Antony MacDonnell, and in the House of Lords on February 17, 1905, the Earl of Dunraven announced his scheme of “the devolution to Ireland of a large measure of self-government” without disturbing the Parliamentary union between Great Britain and Ireland.

When the plan was first brought forward in the previous August, Redmond, who was in America, cabled:

“The announcement is of the utmost importance. It is simply a declaration for Home Rule and is quite a wonderful thing. With these men with us Home Rule may come at any moment.”[11]

The proposal was discussed, apparently with favour, by the then Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Dudley, and also, it would seem, by the Marquess of Lansdowne. It certainly contained the elements of Home Rule, in the devolution to Ireland of her own internal concerns, thus, incidentally, relieving the overburdened Imperial Parliament and giving it more time for matters of Imperial concern. But the Times denounced the proposal as “worse than Gladstone’s Home Rule”; it was violently attacked by the Unionists, among whom Sir Edward Carson, Solicitor-General for England, was becoming conspicuous, and it was ridiculed by a section of the Nationalists as “the devolution dementia.”

It was not till the appointment of Birrell as Chief Secretary that any form of Home Rule was again taken up. It took the shape of an Irish Councils Bill introduced in May 1907, but it was found to suggest merely a co-ordination of the chief Castle Boards, with a central popular council, similar to the original idea of Lord Dunraven’s scheme. It was rejected by the National Convention; and Redmond, though unwilling to refuse any proposal that made in the direction of future self-government, saw in it only a makeshift which might damage or indefinitely postpone a final settlement of the question. He believed that by rejecting it as unsatisfactory a larger measure would have to come before the country as the policy of the Liberal party before the next general election.

Many of Redmond’s friends disapproved his action; Lord Dunraven maintained that the rejection of the Bill would give Ireland a heavier blow than her worst enemies could have devised, and William O’Brien definitely broke off from Redmond’s leadership and formed the All-for-Ireland group.

In 1909 began the final phase of the struggle with the House of Lords which ended in the extinction of their power of veto. It began with the introduction of Mr. Lloyd George’s Budget, and Redmond believed that it was only on the favourable issue of this great constitutional struggle that Home Rule could have a chance of being carried into law. All his tactics were therefore directed to making good use of the opportunity, but meanwhile he stood aloof, watching the course of events.

On December 10, 1909, Asquith, who had succeeded Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as Liberal Prime Minister, declared that the breaking of the Lords’ power of veto would remove the greatest obstacle to Home Rule, and he announced a full measure of Irish self-government as the policy of his Cabinet and party. But at this critical moment in Irish affairs the party of Redmond was violently attacked by the versatile and brilliant Mr. Timothy Healy,[12] and weakened by the defection of William O’Brien, who carried with him a body of eight Independents.

But Redmond still had a sufficient following to threaten Asquith (who now proposed to substitute reform of the House of Lords for limitation of the veto—a very different thing from the Home Rule point of view) that if the change was made, his party would refuse to pass the Budget. “No veto, no Budget,” became the slogan. Finally the Government capitulated. The Parliament Bill was carried through the Commons, but the Lords showed no sign of yielding, and Parliament was dissolved. The Government came in again with a slightly increased majority, and again Redmond held the balance of power.

On April 11, 1912, the third Home Rule Bill was introduced by Asquith. Redmond, who was able to point to a great change in public feeling toward Home Rule, many former Unionists having declared in favour of Irish self-government, took his stand on the precedent of Canada, and also on the later experiment of the large measure of self-government bestowed on South Africa after the Boer War. He considered that the Bill of 1912 would prove a measure adequate to carry out the objects of its promoters.

“It is a great measure,” he declared, “and we welcome it. … If I may say so reverently, I personally thank God that I have lived to see this day. I believe (this Bill) will result in the greater unity and strength of the Empire … I believe it will put an end to the wretched ill-will, suspicion, and dissatisfaction that have existed in Ireland … I believe that it will have the effect of turning Ireland in time into a happy and prosperous country, with a united and contented people.”

In words that were prophetic he showed that for England the reconcilement of the four millions of Irish who had gone to the States and to the self-governing Dominions, was a source of potential strength to the Empire. “The goodwill of the Irish race is worth having,” he exclaimed, quoting the words of Sir Edward Grey: “it counts for something in every part of the world that you most care for.”

The Bill was read for the third time in January, 1913. In addressing an assembly of over a hundred thousand people in Dublin some months before, Redmond had prophesied that a Parliament would be sitting in College Green sooner than the most sanguine men in the crowd believed. But unforeseen events were long to postpone that looked-for day.