Tory diehards 100 years ago exhibited the same kind of passion against Home Rule as they did against Maastrichtby John Major / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
The aftermath of the crumbling of the Belfast (“Good Friday”) agreement is a good moment to look again at the three Home Rule Bills which dominated British policy towards Ireland in the 30 years before 1914. Edward Pearce’s book is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the political passions which dominate the Emerald Isle. He describes the visceral response to Home Rule from a strand of Conservative opinion which was convinced that the British empire itself would flounder if Gladstone’s Irish policy succeeded. (There are echoes here of the more extreme opposition to Irish policy over the last decade, although the analogy applies more aptly to the resistance to the Maastricht treaty and the European policy of the last Conservative government.)
Britain had not sought to starve Ireland in the potato famine. Although Peel had worried about creating a dependency culture, help was given, but the legend of British callousness took root. Solutions to the Irish question were still available. Isaac Butt offered the Commons an answer which might have reconciled Irish ambitions with British self-interest. But his plan was torpedoed by Disraeli. High politics supplanted cool judgement as the ground was tilled for the mighty battle to come over Gladstone’s Home Rule Bills.
Gladstone and Lord Salisbury occupy centre stage in this tale, but Parnell, Chamberlain, Balfour, Randolph Churchill and others all have their roles. Tragedy and farce have often stalked Irish policy and upset the calculations of rational men. They did so here. Joe Chamberlain-on the path from Radical Joe to Empire Joe-was poorly handled by Gladstone; he became a mortal enemy of the Grand Old Man and his obsession. “Five million Irish have no greater right to govern themselves… than five million Londoners” was Chamberlain’s crisp comment on the policy.
Ireland was already a potent brew in 1885 when Salisbury headed a minority administration with Irish members holding the balance of power (as Unionists were to do in the mid-1990s-although they did not inhibit policy, despite republican claims to the contrary). Salisbury did not like Home Rule, knowing that it would split the Tories. He was content for the party to surrender minority office and leave the problem to the Liberals. Gladstone had no such inhibition. He was arrogant and magnificent as he alienated colleague after colleague by his failure to consult. In March 1886, Chamberlain, seizing his moment, posed four questions in cabinet on…