7 AUGUST 1964, Page 19


The Irish Question


'N a memorable passage in the biography of his father, Sir Winston Churchill compared con- sideration of the first Home Rule Bill with the emotions of a visitor to an old battlefield. Was it really so important? Were the fortunes of kingdoms actually involved in the possession of these few acres of rank grass and scattered stones? As he stands serenely on ground where once the bravest soldier hardly dare to crawl, he can scarcely believe it. Yet, to the men who fought, those rocks meant much more than life or death. Duty was there; honour was there; and in the end victory.'

Churchill, in 1905, was taking a somewhat de- tached view of a controversy which was, within a few years, to leap again into terrible con- flagration; a further twenty years or so were to elapse before the Irish Question; in so far as it affected the course of British politics, was to be resolved. But now, in 1964, the image of the deserted battlefield is striking and true.

The relationship between England and Ire- land presents perhaps the most poignant tragedy In human incomprehension which our history affords. It is a tragedy of such scale and strength that no single man has proved capable of giving it adequate justice. Perhaps no one ever will. Only a Gibbon or a Motley could undertake such a task. We have no historians built on this heroic scale today, and none in sight. It is a tragedy Which not only Englishmen must contemplate With contrition. Goethe's remark that 'the Irish always seem to me like a pack of hounds dragging down some noble stag' barely hints at the animal brutality which scars Irish history. Ireland is terrible, terrible, terrrible,' Shaftesbury once wrote in his diary in 1846. In that sentence Is perhaps best summarised the pathos, agony and shame of the Anglo-Irish relationship.

What was the Irish Question? Disraeli de- clared that 'you have a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien church, and In addition the weakest executive in the world. That is the Irish Question.' Economics lay at the heart of the nineteenth-century Irish Question. As Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote at 'the beginning of his remarkable book, Parnell and. His Party, 'The fear of famine, or rather of having to choose between starvation and eviction, was the great Underlying political reality of the late seventies and early eighties of the nineteenth century in Ireland.' The terrible memories of 1845-47 (re- cently the subject of Miss Woodham-Smith's The Great Hunger) haunted Ireland like a spectre. In 1878 it returned. But this time' the people did not bow their heads to Fate. The Irish Question entered another, and even more ugly, phase. It was cruelly ironic that the storm of long- accumulated hatred and privation should fall on Gladstone's newly elected second Government in 1880. In 1845 he had written to his wife, `Ire-

land; Ireland! That cloud in the west, that coming storm, the minister of God's retribution upon cruel and inveterate and but half-atoned injustice!' In 1868, on coming into power for the first time, he had declared that his mission was to pacify Ireland. He attempted much, and achieved much. But in the years in the political wilderness from 1874 to 1880, Ireland had slipped from the front place in his attentions. 'I frankly admit,' he said in 1884, 'that I had had much upon my hands connected with the doings of the Beaconsfield Government in almost every quarter of the world, and I did not know the severity of the crisis that was already swelling upon the horizon and that shortly after rushed upon us like a flood.' Beaconsfield said in 1880 that Ireland would destroy the Liberal Party; he was right, but neither he nor anyone else could have foreseen the effects it was to have upon the fortunes of the Conservative Party. 1886, the year of the first Home Rule Bill, was one of the most crucial watersheds in modern British politi- cal history.

The process whereby the various streams of Irish nationalist agitation had been canalised into the Home Rule movement, and transformed into an issue in the House of Commons, was of supreme importance to the Irish Question from the 1870s onwards. This was the one major achievement of that almost entirely forgotten Irishman, Isaac Butt, the subject of a detailed and learned biography by Dr. Thornley.* Butt coined the phrase Home Rule and converted the movement into parliamentary form. 'You will not accuse me of self-conceit,' he wrote to a colleague in 1873, `if I say that much of our present success depends on . . . combinations which I planned and carried out alone, and of which in the beginning no one saw the meaning.' This was true enough, and Dr. Thornley is right in giving him belated justice. But it is inescapably the fact that events overtook the genial, patient and responsible Butt. Parnell owed much to him, and which he did not acknowledge. Parnell was cast in another mould from Butt. He did not seek improvement, he bleakly demanded it. With a handful of devoted followers he made a mockery of the hallowed traditions and forms of the House of Commons. He built up a- party of im- placables. He gave Ireland a leadership, a cause and a vision; and Ireland, which treated him so viciously when the O'Shea divorce temporarily wrecked Home Rule in 1890, has never forgotten • ISAAC Burr AND HOME RULE. By David Thorn- ley. (MacGibbon and Kee, 63s.) t GLADSTONE AND TIIE IRISH NATION. By J. L.

Hammond. (Cass, 84s.)

COERCION AND CONCILIATION IN IRELAND, 1880- 1892 : A STUDY IN CONSERVATIVE UNIONISM. By L. P. Curtis, Jr. (Princeton and O.U.P., 55s.) § THE IRISH ADMINISTRATION, 1801-1914. By R. B. McDowell. (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 50s.)

him. It is one of the major literary and political curiosities of our time that Parnell still lacks the biographer he deserves.

Gladstone's connection with Ireland, culminat- ing in his apparently sudden `conversion' to Home Rule in the winter of 1885-86, was the subject of bitter controversy for many years after his death. Morley, who once wearily remarked that 'Ireland would be a simple country to govern, were not the people intractable and the problems in- soluble,' never got to grips with this matter in his magisterial biography. It was a subject to which the late J. L. Hammond devoted his greatest work. But his classic study had an un- happy fate. Only a few hundred copies were sold. Stocks were destroyed in the war. For years it has been virtually unobtainable, and its re-issuef will be warmly welcomed. But it is unfortunate that the opportunity to revise the book in the light of subsequent researches has been missed. Mr. M. R. D. Foot, in a graceful introduction, merely says that `accidentally, there has turned out to be no chance for this sort of revision in detail; the book is here, warts and all, for a new generation to survey.' No doubt no one is to blame, and the re-issue itself is wholly praiseworthy, but the failure to take ad- vantage of a matchless opportunity can only be lamented.

The Conservative attitude to the Irish Ques- tion from 1880 to 1892 is the subject of a detailed study by an American historian, Mr. L. P. Curtis4 It requires emphasis that, until 1886, English politicians of all complexions were united on the need for retaining Ireland. The problem was how to keep the Union firmly pre- served, while at the same time conciliating Irish ambitions. Any latent sympathies for Home Rule in England were dampened by the events of the early 1880s, and, in particular, by the assassina- tion of Lord Frederick Cavendish and the appalling Maamtrasna murders. Dynamite ex- plosions in London also did not help.

Until 1885, the Liberal and Conservative views of the Irish Question varied only in degree. Salisbury described English treatment of Ireland in the 1860s as `a moral slur'; in 1872 he de- clared that 'Ireland must be kept, like India, at all hazards : by persuasion, if possible; if not, by force.' Lord Randolph Churchill, in the course of his fantastically rapid rise to prominence, had frequently supported the Irish nationalists : Lord Carnarvon was known to be conciliatory, as was Sir Michael Hicks-Beach. .Until the autumn of 1885, the difference between the two parties over Ireland was difficult indeed to detect, and, in an evil moment for his country's fortunes, Parnell instructed Irishmen in England to vote Conserva- tive in the 1885 elections.

But from the moment that Gladstone's definite `conversion' to Home Rule was known in December, 1885, the Conservatives hurled zest- fully into a purely party political fray. Lord Randolph, with his inspired flair, 'played the Orange card'; Carnarvon, who showed unmis- takable signs of 'going Green,' was allowed to re- sign; the eager courting of the dissident Liberals was initiated. The first Home Rule Bill split the Liberals asunder. By August, 1886, Salisbury was back. Within a few months Churchill had been led on to his own self-inflicted doom and Beach had left the Irish Chief Secretaryship through failing eyesight.

By now, Salisbury was thinking in terms of giving the Irish 'a good licking' before concilia- tion was given another chance. `Our national fault,' he declared early in 1887, 'is that too much softness has crept into our councils; and we imagine that great national dangers can be con- jured away by a plentiful administration of plati- tudes and rosewater.' In Arthur Balfour he had the perfect instrument for initiating 'twenty years of resolute government.' By 1892 'the stench of the divorce court' had obliterated memories of Michelstown and 'Bloody Balfour; when, in 1893, the Lords contemptuously threw out the second Home Rule Bill, 'not a dog barked.' Parnell was dead, and the Home Rule movement was in shreds. Gladstone's successors thankfully put the subject away until, some fifteen years later, it erupted in their faces again. Salisbury, at least for a time, had backed a winner.

Meanwhile, the administration of Ireland con- tinued as best it could. Mr. R. B. McDowell's elegant and scholarly study of the government of Ireland from the Act of Union until 1914§ fully lives up to the high standards of the Studies in Irish History series, and throws much light on a neglected aspect of the Irish Question. Within its relatively modest scale, it is not perhaps too much to describe it as definitive.

This welcome attention to the Irish Question in the nineteenth century will provide much of the material for the future Gibbon or Motley. Of all the books under review, perhaps only Hammond's rises fully to the scale of the sub- ject; Dr. Thornley is rather too enthusiastic in his advocacy of Butt; Mr. McDowell's work is of principal value to scholars; Mr. Curtis's study is another example of the unfortunate truism that an admirable university thesis does not often make a good book.

And so we are left with the deserted battle- field, the shadows of the long-dead belligerents, and the mouldering traces of the struggle. As Shaftesbury lamented, it was indeed 'terrible, terrible, terrible.'