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Ireland: Home Rule

In 1868, influenced by the vigour of European nationalist movements and by a practical need to unite the Liberal Party, Gladstone began a legislative campaign to pacify Ireland, intending that Westminster would be amenable to reasonable demands. One of his first actions, passing the Irish Church Bill, addressed the grievances of Irish Roman Catholics and Presbyterians by disestablishing the Anglican Church in Ireland. Catholic farmers no longer paid tithes to the Church and its property was given to a poor relief fund. In 1870, he forced the first Irish Land Bill through Parliament. Although this legislation was largely ineffectual, it gave tenants in Ulster a legal interest in their holdings.

Gladstone's second term as Prime Minister came about when Ireland was suffering agricultural depression and public disorder. Both intellectually and politically Gladstone did not finally commit to Home Rule until the mid-1880s, although he hoped that social order could be restored more quickly by ameliorating the land crisis and brought about a second Land Act in 1881. The Act, intended by Gladstone as a 'conservative' measure to strengthen the existing social order, delivered the Irish Land League's objectives of fair rent (fixed in court for 15 years), fixity of tenure (with evictions only on failure to pay rent) and free sale of leases to anyone who wished to abandon farming but, with land redistribution involving the state and landowners still owning the land, the League was undermined.32In the same year, Gladstone introduced the Coercion Act which suspended Habeas Corpus in Ireland and which was used to imprison Charles Parnell when he attacked the Land Act in the pages of his newspaper, the United Ireland. Gladstone was also working towards extending the franchise in Britain and Ireland and, in 1884, the Representation of the People Act gave substantially more votes to the (largely rural) Irish electorate.

Gladstone left office in June 1885 but led the Liberals into general election victory in November 1885. The Irish problem was a prime motivation for his remaining active in politics, even aged 76.33 Although he had not campaigned on a home-rule programme, Gladstone used the opportunity of serving as Prime Minister for a third time to resume his commitment to it. The first Home Rule Bill, in 1886, proposed that a separate parliament be established in Dublin which would be responsible for dealing with domestic affairs; that Britain would have a continued remit for dealing with Irish foreign affairs, trade and defence; and that Irish representation at Westminster would cease.34The Bill was defeated partly because it ignored the interests of the Ulster Protestants and partly because the British middle class abhorred the violence which they perceived Gladstone to be giving in to.

Whilst in opposition, Gladstone appended a number of mainland reforms to his Home Rule agenda. In 1892, the Liberals were returned to power and Gladstone   ‘A big fire for an old woman to put out,’ political cartoon on the front cover of: Puck, Vol. VIII, no.200, January 5 1881 (New York: Keppler & Schwarzmann, 1881) 19th Century Collection 941.5081 PUC pamphlet
was invited to form a government for the fourth time. He introduced the second Government of Ireland Bill in 1893 but it was rejected by the House of Lords. It was left to a later Liberal government to further Gladstone's efforts. Under Premier Herbert Henry Asquith, the Third Home Rule Bill was enacted by parliament as the Government of Ireland Act (1914). However, its implementation was delayed by the outbreak and prolonged nature of the First World War. After the War a coalition government headed by David Lloyd-George eventually granted Home Rule to the six counties which made up Northern Ireland in 1921. In December of that year the Anglo-Irish treaty agreed to the formation of the Irish Free State (which came into existence in 1922) with dominion status in the British Empire. This was the forerunner of the Republic of Ireland which declared independence from the British crown in 1949.

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