Ireland! Ireland! That cloud in the West! That coming storm! That minister of God’s retribution upon cruel, inveterate and but half-atoned injustice! Ireland forces upon us those great social and great religious questions. God grant that we may have courage to look them in the face!
What is this horrid government going to do with Ireland? I don’t exactly wish they’d blow up Mr Gladstone but if a mad bull would chivy him there and he would never come back any more, I should not be sorry.
(Samuel Butler, Way of All Flesh, Ch. 86)
In unforgettable words Gladstone declared, when it became clear in 1868 that he was to become prime minister, ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland. ’ He had already acknowledged to John Bright that an attempt to fulfil this ‘mission’ might ‘lead the Liberal party to martyrdom’;1 but he had informed his sister that he would proceed with his task as an agent of ‘the God of truth and justice’. This ‘mission’ of Gladstone’s was to rend and distort the politics of England for most of the next thirty years and his failure to carry it out—a failure perhaps made inevitable by the intemperate, holier-than-thou methods he adopted—was a disaster. Had he employed the rapier of political subtlety he might possibly have succeeded, but given that his favourite
1 See Philip Magnus, Gladstone (London, Murray, 1954), p. 191, but curiously, see also ibid., p. 196 on this question of ‘martyrdom’.