A History of Ireland in Ten Englishmen (4): Gladstone and the Irish Question

In 1930, Sellars and Yateman published 1066 and All That, a lighthearted run through what might be called the old prep school version of Whig History. Historical facts were ‘a good thing’ or, ‘a bad thing’. One of its witty and truest comments was that Gladstone ‘spent his declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish Question; unfortunately, whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question’.

What was the Irish Question? No less wittily, the historian Patrick O’Farrell rephrased it thus: Ireland’s English Question. O’Farrell dated it from 1534, when Henry VIII began the Irish Reformation and, at length, the process of making himself king of Ireland. Many have, traditionally dated it to the 12th century, when an unholy trinity of Strongbow, Henry II and the only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear (Adrian IV), brought the English into Ireland. Some might date it to the Glorious Revolution, others to the Union of Ireland and Great Britain in 1800.

The variety of dates might help us understand why the Irish Question was so difficult. There was more than one Irish Question. The first was only of politics, and sovereignty. Before 1540, the English crown had claimed overlordship of Ireland, from then on, the English king was also king of Ireland. In 1800, the independent Irish Parliament was abolished, and (like Wales and Scotland) Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, returning MPs to Westminster. Ireland was ruled from London, which in turn directed Ireland’s government from Pheonix Park and Dublin Castle. So the first question was how should Ireland be goverened; should the Union be reformed, or repealed; should Ireland sever the link with Britain altogether?

This was not the only Irish question. The second was land. Like most European societies, land ownership was in the hands of a socio-economic elite; like many, Ireland was also still very much a peasant based economy. Traditional patterns of landholding, allied to a profound socio-economic conservatism found amongst both landlords and their tenants, left many landlords strapped for cash and mortgaged to the hilt, while many more tenants found themselves at the mercy of desparate poverty on ever more marginal land, eviction and even, when catastrophe struck, famine. As Ireland emerged from tha abyss in the 1860s, the land question became no less central.

Then came religion. Ireland’s Reformation had, just like in England and Wales, created an established Protestant and Anglican Church; what it never did was convert the Irish people. With the majority of its population Catholic, Irish Protestantism was always the preserve of a beleaguered minority. However, its government was led by British state which was fixedly, and often militantly, Protestant. In the aftermath of Catholic rebellions which were finally crushed after the Glorious Revolution, political power in Ireland was vested in the hands of what was known as the Protestant Ascendancy. The Penal Laws placed restrictions on the liberties of Catholics, and prevented them from entering parliament. Thus, the third question was a religious one: if you like, Ireland’s Sectarian Question.

The three were inexorably mixed. Most landlords were Protestant, and the Protestant Asecendancy supported the crown. By the late 18th century, the new politics of the American and French Revolutions could also be added to the mix; by the 19th, the new liberal nationalism. Thus the Patriots of the 1770s sought to maintain and extend the independence of the (staunchly Protestant) Irish Parliament under the crown; the leaders of the United Irishmen of 1798 modelled themselves on revolutionary France. The failure of that would-be revolution led directly to the Act of Union.

William Gladstone was born in 1809, nine years after the Union, into a northern family of a mercantile background, also noted for its Anglican evangelicalism and Tory politics. After Eton and, yes, Christchurch, Oxford, Gladstone entered politics in the aftermath of the Great Reform Act. His political career began just as modern mass politics came to these islands, and his transformation from high Tory into ‘The People’s William’ and the giant of Victorian liberalism was symbolic of the way in which the political elite adjusted to the new world of mass politics. It was more than symbolic, though. It was Gladstone that would fight the first modern British electoral campaign, the Midlothian campaign of 1878-80. It was also Gladstone that sought to bring a high moral tone to British politics, most famously in his campaign against the ‘Bulgarian Atrocities’. He also came to believe that reform was the correct response to the startling socio-economic changes he saw in his lifetime. For Gladstone, a firm believer in virtues of the established order, reform would tie the new Britain to the old by showing that ruling elites could govern morally, and in the interests of the people, an idea advanced by Peel in the 1830s. Indeed, his slow road across the floor from Toryism had begun when the party split over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, in part a response to a great early liberal campaign; he supported Peel when the majority of his Tory colleagues did not. In some ways he remained very much attached to his Peelite past.

As Gladstone cut his political teeth, the Irish Question began to bedevil Westminster politics. The first great mass political campaign in The history of these islands was Irish. In the 1820s, the great Daniel O’Connell, above, had created a mass political movement, The Catholic Association, campaigning for Catholic Emancipation, the end of the legal restrictions on Irish Catholics (most notably, the one that stopped them being MPs). By 1830, he had won. He then turned his attention to a greater issue: the repeal of the Union. That campaign failed, and with The Liberator’s death and the coming of famine, Irish nationalist parliamentary politics seemed to go quiet.

By the 1860s, the Irish Question had return with a vengeance, and dynamite. The Fenian movement was a mass protest movement which called for not merely the end of the union, but complete separation from Britain. In that sense, it echoed the Republicanism of the United Irishmen. It echoed them in another sense, being militaristic in its appearance and structure. In truth, that mostly added up to weekends away drilling and marching with broom handles, militant language and then a game of cricket. Before too long, the movement began to break up and fragment in the face of arrests, many of its leaders fleeing to the United States and others turning to terrorism.

The Fenian dynamiting campaign shocked England, primarily because it blew bits of it up. The government responded with sharp repression: the last man publicly hanged in Britain, Michael Barrett, was a Fenian. The problem was, repression only inflamed Irish opinion and Irish nationalist politics has always liked a victim and a martyr: the execution of the Manchester Martyrs convulsed nationalist Ireland.

One of the great reforming movements of the mid-19th century was educational. The problem was that in 19th century Britain, education was inexorably bound up in religious controversy. In Ireland, even more so. Bitter arguments over Irish university education had railed through Gladstone’s career. Ireland’s ancient university, Trinity College, Dublin, was Anglican. That all Catholic Ireland had was St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, seemed iniquitous. When, in the 1840s, Peel had proposed to endow that college with a grant, Gladstone had resigned in protest. Later, he had changed his mind.

His decision to disestablish the Church of Ireland was significant, and done dramatically. He would claim he had turned against the Irish church at the same time as changing his mind over Maynooth. The position of an established church that could not command the loyalty of the vast majority of its own people was, he came to believe, untenable. it was also, remember, the duty of government to show that legitimate aspirations of its people (in this case the Irish people), could be met by the established (Westminster) political order. Thus, reform was necessary. There were rather more political motives too. In 1867 a short lived Tory government had seen his great rival, Disraeli, pilot the Second Reform Act through parliament, stealing Gladstone’s reforming clothes in the process. In Ireland, land reform might have been the more pressing issue, but it was also more politically difficult. Thus, the Gladstone sharpened the axe in readiness for the Church of Ireland.

Not generally a man for frippery, Gladstone had some interesting pastimes. Two were scholarly: theology, and Homeric studies (he read The Iliad, in Greek, at least 36 times and published widely on the subject). Three others were less conventional, and psychologically suggestive: rescuing prostitutes, self-flagellation (in the aftermath of his dealings with the aforementioned ladies) and chopping down trees. On December 1st 1868, he was chopping down trees on the family estate when the telegram came asking him to kiss hands (meaning, form a government). Gladstone read it, and continued to work away with the axe. Then, he stopped and said, with all due solemnity and no little self-dramatisation, ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland.’

The 1869 act disestablishing the Church and a rather timid Land Act did meet at least some Irish aspirations. They didn’t meet enough. By the time Gladstone formed a government for the second time, in 1880, Ireland would be once more at the very centre of Westminster politics. In part this was due to protest and disorder in Ireland: Michael Davitt’s Land League had organised and radicalised the Catholic Irish tenancy and land reform was, once more, very much on the agenda. What made matters different was a new political force. 

Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party had united nationalist Ireland behind a new demand, Home Rule (something like the devolution we have today in Scotland). If Davitt’s campaign convulsed Irish society, Parnell (right) did the same to Westminster, using prodeural chicanery to bring the Commons to a standstill on a regular basis. Gladstone tried conciliation, in the form of a second Land Act, and coercion by arresting Parnell and his supporters.
Neither worked. It seems Gladstone’s ever restive mind began to engage seriously with the notion of Home Rule in 1885. The embrace of Home Rule, once more, fitted Gladstone’s view of politics, and his political circumstances. Once again, the embrace of Home Rule showed Westminster delivering reforms which met the legitimate demands of Irish nationalism. It also gave Gladstone, who had both lost office and talked of retirement, another great cause to carry on for. It would also help him exert his control over his own party. When his son flew the Hawarden Kite, that is leaked the idea, it split his party.

It was never going to become law, either: even if the Commons had passed it, the Lords would not (the remaining Whig peers jumped ship to the Tories over Home Rule). What it did, instead, was tie the Irish Party to the Liberals. Hopes for Home Rule depended on the Liberals, and it wasn’t until the constitution was changed in the aftermath of The People’s Budget of 1909 and the Parliament Act that followed in 1911, that Home Rule became likely.

By then Gladstone was dead. After him, a Conservative government had passed the third Land Act, which did break the power of Irish landlords. By then though, the political demand for Home Rule was fixed. When the Lords’ veto was abolished, and Asquith’s government depended on the Irish to stay in office, Home Rule’s hour had come. 

In doing so, just as it had in 1886, it brought another Irish question to the fore. The vast majority of Irish Protestants were violently opposed: ‘Home Rule is Rome Rule’ ran the mantra. By 1912, the bitter resistance of what was a significant, but not too significant, minority in all of Ireland was pretty much a busted flush. In parts of Ulster, where an often militant unionist and passionately Protesant majority held sway, the story was very different. Aping the Covenanters of 17th century Scotland, Protestant Ulster put up ferocious political resistance and, more threateningly, armed itself. The attempt to introduce Home Rule brought Ireland to the brink of civil conflict by 1914. 

It also brought Britain itself to the verge of the most serious constitutional crisis in generations. When faced with Gladstone Lord Randolph Churchill had promised to ‘play the Orange card’. For Churchill, this was a largely cynical act of political manoeuvre. For many Conservatives in 1912, led by a passionate Unionist in the form of Andrew Bonar Law, a deep attachment to Ulster Protestantism was visceral: it was so serious an issue that it led them to brink of supporting an armed rebellion against the sovereignty of the crown in parliament. The Irish Question now threatened the political stability of Britain itself. It is still one of the more intriguing what ifs of British history: if the Kaiser hadn’t put the kibosh on Home Rule, what might have been.

In the end, attempts to meet Irish Catholic aspirations under the umbrella of the United Kingdom failed. Measures such as those to disestablish the Church of Ireland, or create a (Catholic) National University, did as much to feed as satisfy such aspirations. Land reform was, in the end, not too little, but was probably too late. As Gladstone discovered, Home Rule aroused great passions in Britain; that was as nothing to the passions it aroused among Ulster’s Protestants. Nonetheless, it is at least possible that Home Rule for Nationalist Ireland, based on a form of partition excluding the northern enclave, could have worked in a similar way to the creation of the Free State in 1922. If that had been the case, Ireland would probably have been spared much of the tragic parts of its modern history.

If the Irish did change the question, it was well after Gladstone’s death, and it changed for the same reason that Home Rule was shelved in 1914: the war. Home Rule was designed to meet Irish nationalist aspirations, to satisfy a political and national identity (and, yes, to some extent a religious one). As Parnell said, it did not represent and end, a fixed point, a ne plus ultra. The problem was, with the potent mix of Irish nationalism and unionism, sectarian loyalties, the land issue, and British attachment to the union, there were too many Irish questions for England to solve. Then, Ireland’s English question was framed with such rhetorical and actual violence on both sides of the Irish divide, that even Gladstone found himself, in life and death, unequal to it.


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