Mr Gladstone & Ireland

By Morrogh, Michael | History Review, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Mr Gladstone & Ireland


Morrogh, Michael, History Review


Michael Morrogh explains why Gladstone took up the cause of Irish home rule and why is policies failed so tragically.

Everyone knows Gladstone's first reaction on being told the news of the General Election result in 1868. Interrupted in his favourite task of tree felling at Hawarden, he turned to the messenger and announced in messianic tones: `My mission is to pacify Ireland'. He then swung round and resumed his duties with the axe.

This preoccupation with Ireland was new. Gladstone's long career before enjoying the Premiership had not seen any particular interest or engagement with that troublesome island to the west. The occasions when he had recommended a policy gave no sign of his later understanding of Irish nationalism. In his priggish youth, as `the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories', he had defended the absolute position of the Anglican church in Ireland. Later, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1850s, he had had no compunction about extending income tax to Ireland. He never visited the place, nor had he intervened in the occasional debates over Irish land.

What had forced his attention had been the Fenian rising of 1867 and subsequent terrorism on the British mainland in 1868. Clearly something had to be done. Gladstone's great strength throughout his life was the ability to seize upon a new subject, immerse himself in the technicalities through voracious reading, and then pronounce the solution with a dramatic bill. This process he now turned on Ireland.

In his first ministry and for much of the second, however, Gladstone was no sympathiser with Irish self-government. He did not see them as `struggling to be free' or deserving of autonomy in any political sense. But he did recognise quickly that Ireland was a special case and that several things, which might have been acceptable in England, were wrong there and needed to be changed. He believed, in short, that he could solve the Irish Question by tackling social grievances. Felling the Upas tree, which poisons everything in its shade, was how he put it. Once cut down, and reforms enacted, the political grievances of the Irish -- the demand for some sort of self-government if not independence -- would fade away. Consequently there should be no consideration for the new project of Home Rule for Ireland. The Liberals obediently followed their leader's line. In 1877, for example, Isaac Butt, leader of the Home Rule party, could find only eight rogue Liberals to support his bill for that measure.

Yet within ten years, Gladstone was to produce one of the most dramatic upheavals in Victorian politics, when he converted to Home Rule for Ireland. At a stroke this shackled the Liberal Party to a most unpopular policy in England (only the Celtic periphery of the Liberals being genuinely enthusiastic) and, moreover, split the party, with a significant minority defecting over this one issue. Part of the whiggish, aristocratic element led by Lord Hartington left -- not surprising in many ways, since they had been waving goodbye since the early 1880s over the various concessions made in Ireland. More unexpected was the departure of some radicals, following the example of Joe Chamberlain and the veteran John Bright. So, what were the reasons for this extraordinary conversion of the Liberals to Home Rule; and, even more intriguing, what explains the particular timing of Mr Gladstone's announcement?

Irish reforms

Once in power in 1868, Gladstone immediately started to implement his programme of reform -- that is socioeconomic, not political reform. There were three subjects to tackle: the church, land, and education. The case of the Church of Ireland -- the Anglican church, established with similar rights and lands as in England -- had been an obvious target for decades. It was unrepresentative of the vast majority who were catholics, of course, and could not even stand for all the protestants since nearly half were dissenters -- mostly Presbyterians in the north. …

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