Page images
PDF
EPUB

hoped, the Government should succeed in their attempt, this and other difficulties could very soon be dealt with by our own people at home. We knew that with the Liberal Government in office no bill interfering with the landlord's power to evict would be allowed through the House of Lords, and that to introduce such a bill at that time would be simply to place in the hands of the enemies of the Government, and our enemies, a weapon to do them injury. But this was not our only reason for considering it not wise to bring forward this question last spring. "Coming events cast their shadows before;' and whether it was due to the rumours of the coming of Home Rule, or to the influence of Lord Carnarvon, the fact is undeniable that in the winter quarter of 1885 there was a most astonishing falling off in the number of evictions in Ireland. The number of families evicted in the quarter ending the 31st of December 1885 was only 369, of whom 208 were readmitted as caretakers or tenants; as against 642 in the quarter ending the 31st of December 1884, 646 in the quarter ending the 31st of December 1883, and 709 in the quarter ending the 31st of December 1882. And this state of things continued in some measure into the spring quarter of 1886, though here there was an alarming increase--the number evicted in the quarter ending the 31st of March 1886 being 698. But when we came back to Ireland after the election had been decided in the month of July last, what was the state of things with which we were brought face to face?

The people had during the past year been restrained from active agitation by a very considerable exercise of influence on our part; by the hope that their national demands were about to be granted, and the long chapter of their oppressions be closed for ever; and by the tremendous influence of the speeches delivered by Mr. Gladstone during the spring--speeches which were read even in the poorest cabins from one end of Ireland to the other, and which with a people like the Irish had an immense effect in making them patient and content to endure a great deal rather than embarrass such a friend. All these things, which had made it easy for us to restrain agitation in the country up to July last, had ceased to have effect, and at the same time we found that, encouraged by the defeat of Mr. Gladstone's Government, and by the result of the elections, the landlords were making up for lost time, and were carrying on the old game of eviction at an appalling rate. In the quarter ending the 31st of June 1886, there were evicted in Ireland 1,309 families; and from the 31st of June up to the 20th of September, 1,037 families were evicted. Such being the state of affairs in Ireland, and there being now no immediate prospect of a settlement of the National question, we had no choice but to take the earliest opportunity of forcing on the attention of the House of Commons the desperate condition of the Irish tenants, and the great troubles we foresaw if the landlords were

supported in their then course, and nothing done to afford protection to the tenants.

But now it may be asked, Why was the bill introduced in the middle of September, and not at the beginning of the autumn session ? When the session opened, we did not know what the policy of the Government in respect to Ireland was to be. During the debate on the Address we drew attention to the serious condition of Ireland, and the absolute necessity for some measure to put a check on harsh evictions, and it will be remembered that it was only in the course of that debate that the Government proposals were disclosed. On the 3rd of September the Chancellor of the Exchequer moved to take all the time of the house for financial business, and I, at Mr. Parnell's request, moved the following amendment :

That, in the opinion of this House, the state of Ireland is such as to require the proposal of remedial measures by the Government before the time of the House is appropriated entirely to the business of supply.

And it was in the course of the debate upon this amendment that Mr. Parnell showed that the proposals of the Government could by no possibility meet the present difficulties in Ireland, and stated that he himself was ready to introduce a bill which, in his opinion, would ensure peace and quiet in Ireland whilst the Government Commissions were carrying out their inquiries. In making this offer Mr. Parnell was doing what he had been frequently invited to do by all sections of the English press on other occasions. But I must say that the result of the experiment has not been encouraging.

Now what was it that this bill proposed to do? It was a very short and simple bill, consisting as it did of only three clauses, and except as regards the second clause it was of a purely temporary character. The first and third clauses were intended to protect judicial tenants, whose rent had been fixed before the 1st of January 1885, from eviction in cases where their landlords had refused to give them a reasonable reduction. But no tenant could claim protection under this Act unless, first, he paid 50 per cent. of all rent and arrears due by him ; and, secondly, the court was satisfied that he was unable to pay the balance without deprivation of the means of subsistence and of working his farm. If these conditions were fulfilled the tenant got simply a stay of any proceedings for eviction or recovery of the balance of rent due until the Land Court had decided what abatement his landlord ought to give him. And this court which was to decide as to the abatement would have been the very court which had fixed the judicial rent, and would therefore be in a position to decide immediately whether there really was a case for an abatement this year on a rent fixed by themselves three or four years ago.

That was all that the bill

proposed to do for judicial tenants, and a most modest proposal it was.

Under these clauses about 153,000 judicial tenants would have come.

The second clause in the bill proposed to admit the Irish leaseholders to the benefits of the Land Act, from which in 1881 they were most unfairly excluded in spite of the repeated protests of the National party. The leaseholders number about 60,000, they include the very cream of the Irish farmers, are largely men of some capital, and as a rule are very highly rented ; and having been denied all relief under the Act of 1881, they have in many instances during these disastrous years been sinking deeper and deeper into poverty with the most deplorable results as regards the cultivation of their farms and the general prosperity of the country. The justice of their claim to be admitted to the Land Courts has long ago been admitted on all sides, and as on this point Irish members of Parliament, Orange, Unionist, and Nationalist, were absolutely unanimous, Mr. Parnell thought it right to lose no more time in putting an end to an admitted grievance. One thing is certain : that this refusal, without any reason given, to do justice to the Irish leaseholders will tend to aggravate seriously the agitation in Ireland during the coming winter.

Such was Mr. Parnell's bill, and in preparing it he had to keep two things in view:-First, that the bill should be one which would not be repudiated by the people of Ireland represented by the National party. Secondly, that it should be one which would enable us to state honestly to the House that if it were accepted we could look forward with confidence to peace in Ireland during the coming winter. Keeping these two points in view, we did our best to make the bill a moderate one, and in the course of the debate our very moderation was charged against us as a crime. The bill, in fact, amounted to nothing more than an attempt to compel all Irish landlords to act as every reasonable and humane landlord in Ireland will act of his own free will. By rejecting it the House of Commons has placed the peace of Ireland entirely at the mercy of the Irish landlords-I should say, indeed, at the mercy of a section of the Irish landlords. And past experience fully justifies us in believing that this is a most uncertain and dangerous tenure.

The course of the debate on this bill was most characteristic and instructive. Mr. Parnell introduced the measure in a speech of studied moderation-a speech which I believe would carry conviction to the mind of any unprejudiced man who heard it. And on the first night of the debate the only other Irish member who spoke in support of the bill was Mr. Pinkerton, a Protestant farmer from Antrim, a man who had lived all his life at farming, and whose speech was entirely occupied with practical details of the subject. On the second night of the debate no opportunity had been offered to any member of the Irish party to address the House, although several were prepared and anxious to do so; and when Mr. Dillon, who had been asked to speak on behalf of the Irish party, informed the Government whips that he was anxious to address the House at half-past nine, he learnt from them that Sir Michael Hicks-Beach intended to speak at ten o'clock himself. I have dwelt on these particulars because the character of the Chief Secretary's speech makes them of great importance. For any one who has studied the debate, it is impossible to deny that Sir Michael Hicks-Beach's speech was the first, coming from any one of importance, which contained a note of hatred, contention, and strife. He began by refusing to give credit to the promoters of the bill for the intentions which had been stated on their behalf by Mr. Parnell. There was not a word in his speech of regret at being compelled to refuse this concession. He treated the leader of the Irish party and his bill with an unconcealed contempt which very ill became a man who is responsible for peace and good government in Ireland. His arguments—so far as there were any arguments in his speech-were directed to show that no case had been made out for

any

abatement of judicial rents, and the whole tone of his speech was one of insult and of menace, for which no word uttered by any member of the Irish party in the course of the debate could be quoted in justification. It was a speech calculated to blood on the Irish landlords to deeds of oppression during the coming winter, and to fix more firmly than ever in the mind of the Irish tenant the old conviction that his sufferings and persecutions are matters of contemptuous indifference to the English Government.

We really desired to have peace and quiet in Ireland this winter. And we desired it--if for no other reason—because now for the first time in living memory the English public seems willing and anxious to listen to a fair statement of the Irish National cause. And it was plainly our interest that nothing should occur in Ireland which would make it impossible for us to get a fair hearing in England.

After careful consultation we decided to do what we had been over and over again invited to do on similar occasions in the pastwe decided to bring forward a measure which we considered would meet the difficulties of the case and secure peace in Ireland during the coming year. We made that measure as moderate as we dared to do in face of the condition of things in Ireland ; in point of fact we incurred a good deal of blame in Ireland for presenting so moderate a bill. And how were we met by the press of London, and by the Conservatives and the Unionists in the House of Commons ? On all sides we were denounced as dishonest agitators. We did not really want the bill to pass ’; "it was brought in merely to keep up agitation' etc. etc.—the same old story that we listened to in 1880 on the Compensation for Disturbance Bill. And in the debate when we considered that we had made an unanswerable case for the justice of the demand of the Irish farmers for the abatement of judicial rents fixed before last autumn, how was our case met ? Not by any arguments worthy of the name, but by contemptuous incredulity, and jeers at statements of the losses and sufferings of tenant farmers in Ireland, and by idiotic assertions that the wealth of the Irish small farmers was steadily increasing; that the distress was due to drinking too much whisky, etc. And finally, by a repetition on the part of the Irish Secretary of those threats to which we were so well accustomed to listen in 1880 and 1881.

Some of the arguments used in the course of the debate were of such a character that I cannot avoid placing them side by side in order to exhibit all the more clearly the gross inconsistency of our opponents :

1. It was said that no case had been made out for reduction of judicial rents.

2. That the landlords could be trusted to act generously and give reductions.

3. That the bill if passed would give the tenants no material relief.

4. That it would amount to a No-rent manifesto.

So much for the debate on Mr. Parnell's bill. I will pass from it now, and will only say further that it was not of a character to encourage the Irish people to look to the London Parliament for justice.

The Government having, as we think, most unfortunately decided to reject Mr. Parnell's proposal and to promise to Irish landlords the full support of the Irish executive in enforcing their legal rights, what is to be the result in Ireland? The answer to that question depends entirely on the Irish landlords themselves. Some of the largest landowners in Ireland have already offered to their tenants large abatements on the judicial rents. If the rest were to follow their example there would be no trouble in Ireland during the coming winter. If there had been any strong reason to hope that all, or nearly all, the landlords in this country would act reasonably and humanely, Mr. Parnell's bill would have been quite unnecessary ; but that bill was brought in by men who know the Irish landlords better than Sir Michael Hicks-Beach knows them, and better than most Englishmen do, and I am sorry to say that we have the very strongest reason to expect that a large section of the landlords will pursue a course this winter consistent with their past history.

It would be plainly impossible for me, within the necessary limits of this article, to go into details as to the action of individual landlords. Those who desire to pursue this subject further I must refer to the speeches delivered in the debate on Mr. Parnell's bill, and to

« PreviousContinue »