Home Rule—The Elections of 1885 & 1886

Contributors: GD, TOR.


William Ewart Gladstone (1809-98), became British prime minister in 1868, and remained in office until 1874. “My mission is to pacify Ireland”, he immediately affirmed. The fear of Fenian violence, especially in England, as well as the growing awareness of the strength of nationalist feeling, compelled Gladstone to tackle the ‘Irish Question’. He also had a sincere desire to bring peace to Ireland. Among his first measures was the Disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, a recognition that it was inappropriate to have a formal link between the state and a denomination supported by a minority of the Irish people. His Irish University Bill failed to pass both Houses of Parliament. The Land Act of 1870 gave greater security to some tenants, and those who left their holdings could claim compensation for improvements they had made. However, the act proved unsatisfactory in practice, and agitation for land reform steadily grew. Equally important were the increasingly loud demands for Home Rule.


1. Chronology of the Home Rule Movement to 1886


19 May 1870. Home Rule movement formed by Isaac Butt.
1 August. Gladstone’s first Irish Land act.
1 September. First meeting of the Home Government Association.

2 April 1871. Census taken: population recorded as 5,412,377.

18 July 1872. Ballot Act established secrecy in voting.

8 January 1873. Formation of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain.
12 March. Defeat of Gladstone’s Irish University Bill.
18-21 November. Formation of the Home Rule League (Dublin).

February 1874. General election: 60 Home Rulers returned.
3 March. Home Rule parliamentary party created.
30 July. Obstruction campaign begins in parliament.

22 April 1875. Charles Stewart Parnell enters the House of Commons (MP for Meath).

20 August 1876. IRB Supreme Council withdraws support from the Home Rule movement.

31 July 1877. Acceleration of obstructionist strategy by militant Home Rule MPs.
28 August. Charles Stewart Parnell elected President of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain.

24 October 1878. John Devoy (Clan na Gael) proposes a ‘New Departure’ to the Parnellites.

20 April 1879. Launch of the land agitation at Irishtown, Co. Mayo.
5 May. Death of Isaac Butt, founder of the Home Rule movement.
16 August. National Land League of Mayo formed.
21 October. Irish National Land League formed.

March-April 1880. General election, United Kingdom.
17 May. Parnell elected Chairman of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
19 September. Parnell launches the boycott campaign against those defying the Land League.

31 January 1881. Ladies’ Land League launched in Ireland.
3 April. Census taken: population recorded as 5,174,836.
22 August. Gladstone’s second land act: legislation of the ‘three Fs’.
15-17 September. Parnell advises Land League to test the new act.
13 October. Arrest of Parnell.
18 October. Land League leaders’ ‘no rent’ manifesto.
20 October. Proscription of the Land League.

2 May 1882. Parnell released after the Kilmainham ‘treaty’ with Gladstone.
6 May. Lord Frederick Cavendish and T. H. Burke are assassinated in the Phoenix Park.
17 October 1882. Irish National League formed.

11 December 1883. Parnell National Tribute handed over (£38,000 raised).

1 October 1884. Agreement between the Catholic hierarchy and the Irish Party over the representation of Catholic educational claims.

6 December. Representation of the People Act: Irish electorate increased from 224,000 to 738,000.

21 January 1885. Parnell’s ‘ne plus ultra’ speech.
1 May. Irish Loyal and Patriotic Union founded.
25 June. Redistribution of Seats Act reforms constituency divisions.
14 August. Ashbourne Act: land purchase extended.
24 November-9 December. General election: Liberal victory, with Parnellites holding 86 seats.
17 December. Reports of Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule published.

8 April 1886. Introduction of the First Home Rule Bill.
8 June. Defeat of Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill.
1-17 July. General election: Conservative victory.
23 October. Launch of the Plan of Campaign (agrarian agitation).

2. What was Home Rule?

‘Home Rule’ is the name of the movement that aimed to get internal government for Ireland within the British Empire. In 1870, Isaac Butt, a Protestant lawyer, formed the Home Government Association. It called for the formation of an Irish parliament. The term ‘Home Rule’ was first used by Reverend Joseph A. Galbraith, a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin and a member of the Association, but it was Butt who popularised it as the movement’s slogan. In 1873 the Home Rule League replaced the Home Government Association. The conciliationist Butt vied for authority and influence with the more aggressive obstructionist Charles Stewart Parnell. Parnell was elected President of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain when Fenians held sway, but in Ireland, Butt remained leader until his death. Parnell, however, won the leadership battle within a year of Butt's death—after the general election of 1880.

The nationalist organisation, the National League, was formed in October 1882 as a replacement for the suppressed Land League. Local branches of the League existed to represent local nationalist opinion, especially in the strict selection of parliamentary candidates. The movement reflected Parnell’s wish to leave aside agrarian struggle and begin a constitutional campaign for Home Rule. The Nationalist Party or Irish Parliamentary Party grew into a strong, centralised, tightly structured organisation—the first modern political party in the true sense. By-election results in the early 1880s showed increased support for the Irish Parliamentary Party. By the end of 1883 Home Rule candidates were successful in Monaghan, Tipperary, Mallow, Wexford, Waterford and Sligo. There was much-needed Catholic Church support, too, particularly after Parnell condemned inter-denominational education. By 1886 there were 1,200 National League branches spread across the country. The Catholic clergy played a prominent role in the local branches. This ensured that the League had the backing of the Catholic Church but it alarmed Protestants. They saw Catholic Church involvement as evidence of the political power which Catholic priests might wield under a Home Rule parliament. Nevertheless, the land question was no longer at the centre of the political arena. Home Rule had become the cause of the day.

3. Who were the voters?

The Reform Act of 1884 gave the vote in parliamentary elections to all male householders who owned or rented property (i.e. men who owned or rented even a single room). As a result, the Irish electorate rose from 224,018 to 737,965. Before 1884 only 4.4% of Irish people had the vote. In England, nearly 9.7% of the population had the vote. After the Act was made law, roughly 16% of the population were given the vote in both countries. Indeed, Ireland was slightly over-represented. The Act gave Ireland 25 extra parliamentary seats. This created a much-enlarged Catholic electorate that included not just the wealthier classes but also cottiers and agricultural labourers. Many of these poor farmers were strong supporters of Parnell. The reforms favoured the Home Rulers who gained at least ten extra seats. The Home Rule movement became a momentous issue in the years 1885–86 when both the Tories [the Tory Party, ancestor of the modern UK Conservative Party] and Liberals courted it. The Redistribution Act of 1885 had abolished the preference given to the boroughs in the past where only 2% of the population elected 15% of the MPs. Tory and Protestant influence was virtually ended in the southern counties outside of Trinity College, Dublin. Catholic voters vastly outnumbered the Protestant minority in Ireland outside of Ulster.

Electoral reform had consequences for Home Rule in Great Britain as well. An Irish population, variously estimated between 750,000 and 2,000,000, was spread across Britain, and some constituencies had large numbers of Irish voters. Before the electoral changes the Irish immigrant influence on British elections was not important. After 1885, the situation appears to have changed to the advantage of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Parnell argued that this increased Irish vote could be used to pressurise Liberals into responding to Ireland’s needs.

4. How was the Irish Parliamentary party organised?

In 1885, the Irish Parliamentary Party used a parliamentary pledge. A candidate, if elected, would ‘sit, act and vote’ with the party as a whole. Each candidate also promised to resign if the majority of the party felt that he had not kept his word. The local organisation of the Party, the National League, proved very effective. Few of the former controlling members of the Land League were on the executive of the National League. It organised county conventions to control the candidates who ran on the Home Rule platform. Local branches also had a wider social mix than their Land League predecessors. Nevertheless, the Home Rule Party after 1880 was a predominantly middle-class organisation with a tendency towards the lower end rather than the upper end. The growth of the National League was slow until the 1885 general election. Following the electoral reforms of 1884–5, the number of branches expanded threefold and reached 1,200 by 1886. Parnell managed the nearly impossible task of satisfying almost everyone by giving no clues about what specific reforms he had in mind. Neither did he state what he meant by Home Rule, but he kept citing Grattan’s Parliament as the limit of the demand possible under the British Constitution.

5. Keeping Ireland quiet!

As 1884 ended, Ireland was high on the British political agenda. The Prevention of Crime Act was due to expire in July 1885. The Coercion Act empowered the Lord Lieutenant to proclaim a district as disturbed, allowing the introduction of a curfew and various other restrictions. Some were heavy-handed measures to keep the country quiet. Suspects could be detained without trial for up to three months. Extra police could also be drafted into troubled districts, the cost being paid by the inhabitants. The Coercion Act, modified in 1856, was regularly renewed up to 1875. Habeas Corpus (a writ or summons requiring the production in court of a detained person) was suspended in 1871 and again in 1881. The Protection of Persons and Property Act of March 1881 temporarily reintroduced detention without trial. The Prevention of Crime Act, in force for three years from 1882, permitted trial for specific offences by a panel of three judges and created the legal offence of intimidation. The subject of coercion in particular was to dominate discussion of Irish affairs between November 1885 and June 1886.

6. Joseph Chamberlain’s Plan for Ireland

Joseph Chamberlain, the radical MP for Birmingham and President of the Board of Trade in the Liberal administration, was young and ambitious. He hoped to make his name and political fame as the man to bring about ‘the settlement of the Irish difficulty’. Chamberlain disliked Home Rule as defined by Isaac Butt: it was too close to independence for his taste. Instead, he developed a scheme for the reform of Irish local government that included a Central Board to deal with central concerns such as education and land. Democratic county councils would elect the Central Board for Ireland. As part of any deal, the Government would also soften its crime legislation. Parnell saw the scheme as a limited and temporary measure until the Irish Parliament was restored. Chamberlain saw it as a more lasting alternative to full Home Rule. Cardinal Manning of Westminster gave Chamberlain the impression that the Catholic bishops were satisfied. William O’Shea, in turn, told Chamberlain that Parnell was very satisfied with the scheme as an answer to the demand for Home Rule.

In fact, Parnell had told O’Shea that the Central Board Scheme was acceptable only as a step towards Home Rule. When Chamberlain finally heard this, he blamed Parnell for deceiving him and took a personal dislike to him. Chamberlain failed to impress his ministerial colleagues (although Gladstone supported it) and on 9 May 1885, the Central Board proposal was thrown out by the cabinet. Chamberlain resigned his ministry. Gladstone now indicated to a select few colleagues that ‘the field is open for the consideration of future measure [for Irish autonomy]’ and that he was prepared to go ‘rather farther’ than the scheme outlined by Chamberlain.

7. The fall of the Liberals

Tory leaders were alarmed with the government. They felt that Gladstone was incompetent, especially in foreign and imperial policy. News of General Charles Gordon’s death at Khartoum, Sudan, in February 1885 confirmed Tory fears. The British public reacted to his death by acclaiming ‘Gordon of Khartoum’ as a martyred warrior-saint and by blaming the government, particularly Gladstone, for failing to relieve the siege. Critics inverted his “G.O.M.” nickname (for “Grand Old Man”) to “M.O.G.” (for “Murderer of Gordon”). Nor were Tories content with his conduct of Irish affairs. Most leading Tories accepted the need for land purchase, supported denominational education, and many were prepared to set up local government. Irish MPs had been effective critics of Gladstone’s government, they attended the House of Commons regularly, and their co-operation with the Tories brought satisfying results. Some politicians felt that that the Irish vote in Britain might be used against the Radicals.

The government renewed coercion and on 9 June 1885 a combination of Tories and Irish, assisted by Liberal absentees, defeated the government on a budget amendment. Gladstone resigned and Lord Salisbury, the Tory leader, formed a caretaker government with the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Parnell did not worry himself too much about alienating Chamberlain but, as we shall see, he made a fatal error in doing so. Normally, a general election would follow the collapse of Gladstone’s government. This, however, could not take place because the work of drawing up the new constituencies, demanded by the Reform Act of 1884, was not finished. Lord Salisbury and his Tories therefore formed a caretaker government with the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party. It was partly with the intention of keeping Home Rulers’ support and partly with an eye on the elections due in 1886 that the Tory government made serious concessions to nationalist Ireland.

8. ‘Tory Kindnesses’

Lord Carnarvon was appointed Lord Lieutenant. He had been responsible for the introduction of federal self-government in Canada in 1867 and was known to be in favour of some form of self-government in Ireland. This was taken as an indication by the Home Rulers that the Tory party as a whole might possibly be considering granting a parliament in Dublin. While in Ireland Carnarvon made friendly gestures to Catholics; in late summer he toured the west to learn at first hand about conditions there. On 1 August he held a secret interview with Parnell. The Coercion Acts were not renewed.

The Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Lord Ashbourne, sponsored a Land Act in 1885 that provided £5 million for tenants who wished to buy out their holdings. Tenants could borrow the full purchase price of their farms. Repayments were made over 49 years (at 4 per cent interest) and they were generally less than the old rents had been. The Act was hugely successful and 25,367 tenants bought out their farms. Lord Ashbourne himself had huge estates in Co. Meath and he was one of the first landowners to seel under the Act. It marked a major step in the destruction of the Irish landlord class, a class that was among the Tories’ staunchest allies.

But the Tories abandoned them, indeed helped destroy them. They had outlived their usefulness and they were cast aside ruthlessly. The Ballot Act 1872 had destroyed the landlords’ political influence over their tenants. The tenants, would-be petty landowners to a man, were the coming political force in the land and the Tories were keen to win them over.

The Education Endowments Act also benefited Catholic education in Ireland to the tune of £140,000. As hope of a settlement rose, so too did political funds from the United States. The National League had collected £11,686 in the period 1884-85, but contributions rose to over £47,000 during 1885–86. From a modest base up to the end of 1884 (371 branches in April 1883) the League expanded to 818 in July 1885, possibly reaching 1,261 by the end of the year.

However, the Irish Party was unaware that Carnarvon did not have the support of his party. Any self-government proposal for Ireland that was supported by the Tories stood a much greater chance of getting through the House of Lords than any Liberal measure. Tories dominated the House of Lords. The Liberals frequently proclaimed their affection for Ireland but they were reluctant to apply very radical solutions to the problem of landlord-tenant relations. Because of this failure, Home Rulers distrusted the Liberals and hoped for more from the Tories than they would ever get. However, Gladstone’s contacts with Parnell were not alone. Other Liberals kept in touch with various Irish politicians. It was clear that the Liberals, like the Tories, were prepared to agree to a significant granting of local control over Ireland’s affairs. How much control and what kind remained very unclear.

9. ‘Promises, promises ...’

Between June and November 1885, Parnell tried hard to persuade either the Tories or the Liberals to commit themselves openly to Home Rule. Both parties needed the support of Home Rulers in the Commons and Parnell’s influence with Irish voters in Britain. But the Home Rule cause was generally unpopular in Britain and neither party was willing to give Parnell the commitment he sought. Neither Gladstone nor Salisbury would talk directly with Parnell although their followers did. Chamberlain talked vaguely about his Central Board Scheme which Parnell and his own party, the Liberals, had already rejected. Lord Carnarvon and the highly unstable Lord Randolph Churchill also spoke vaguely of concessions to Ireland and Salisbury declared ‘that the Tories’ first principle was to extend to Ireland as far as they could all the institutions of this country’. In other words, Ireland, an integral part of the United Kingdom, might sometime in the future, be treated as such—if and when the circumstances suited.

Gladstone’s calculations had to take account of the strengthening bond between the Tories and Parnell. He feared that Parnell, when courted by both parties, might inflate his demands. Gladstone was adamant that he would not be part of any ‘counterbidding of any sort against Lord Randolph Churchill’. The Tory courtship raised the question whether the party might concede something in the nature of Home Rule. This would probably help ease the measure through the House of Lords. When it later became clear that this would not happen, Gladstone was quick to point out that they:

‘might have made one of those Party sacrifices which seem now to have gone out of fashion, but which in other days—the days of Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington—were deemed the highest honour’.

10. The 1885 General Election

Lord Salisbury’s keynote speech at Newport on 7 October 1885 was read by some Liberals as not entirely ‘closing the door’ on an Irish settlement. Finally, on 21 November 1885, Parnell issued a ‘Manifesto to the Irish in Great Britain’ calling in November on them to vote for the Tories. It seemed that Tories were prepared to deal. On 15 December Gladstone approached A. J. Balfour, the Tory President of the Local Government Board (Salisbury’s nephew), urging a cabinet response to the issue of Irish government. He believed it was of crucial importance in light of the recent victories of the Panellises and the risk of violence in Ireland if the demand for Home Rule was resisted. He followed this with a letter on 20 December promising that, if the Tories were willing to settle the ‘whole question of the future Government of Ireland’, his party would give their full support.

The general election took place between 24 November and 9 December 1885. Three hundred and thirty-five Liberals, 249 Tories and 86 Home Rulers were elected. It has been estimated that Parnell’s manifesto cost the Liberals between 20 and 40 seats. Parnell had hoped that Home Rulers would hold the ‘balance of power’ after the election, i.e. that the Liberals and Tories would each have roughly the same number of seats in parliament and that therefore the Home Rulers would be able to put into power whomsoever would grant Home Rule.

On 17 December 1885 Gladstone’s son, Herbert, speaking at Hawarden, announced that his father had been so impressed by the success of the Parnellites in taking 85 of the 103 seats in Ireland, that he was now convinced that Home Rule by orderly secession was possible. He further declared that if Gladstone was elected Prime Minister he would introduce Home Rule legislation. This was one of the most momentous changes in policy in British politics during the nineteenth century—‘the mighty heave in the body politic’. By flying this ‘kite’, Herbert Gladstone hoped to break the Home Rule/Tory alliance and win the support of the Home Rulers for his father in his campaign to become Prime Minister. This was something that Gladstone had been approaching for quite some time, but he did not formally adopt it as policy since he felt that his party was not yet ready to embrace Irish Home Rule as a cause. He was presiding over a divided party, and the ensuing tension was also his raison d’être as leader—the Irish question was a sufficient ‘Supreme Moment’ to suspend his plans for retirement.

His tactics gave the Tories every opportunity to take the initiative, which they failed to do, and he showed them to be the party of coercion. As a result the Irish Nationalists transferred their support to the Liberals. The Irish issue came to the test on the ‘three acres and a cow’ amendment to the Queen’s Speech on 28 January 1886—the vote on which would determine whether or not Gladstone would form a Home Rule government. Liberals and Irish Nationalists voting that he should, numbered 332. Against were 234 Tories and 18 Whigs, elected as Liberals, with 76 Liberals absent or abstaining. The historian, Roy Jenkins, saw this division as the:

‘the beginning of the volvulus [obstructive twist] which knotted British politics for the next thirty years.’

On 26 January 1886, Salisbury announced that the Tories intended to re-introduce coercion and next day the Home Rulers combined with the Liberals to defeat the Tory government and instal a Liberal administration under Gladstone on 1 February 1886. It paved the way towards the generous response to Irish demands that Gladstone had promised.

E. J. Feuchtwanger concluded that:

‘it was a remarkable achievement, demanding consummate skill and tactical dexterity, that Gladstone managed to form a government, outmanoeuvring his recalcitrant and self-seeking colleagues yet keeping his hands free to take whatever course he wished.’

11. Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill

The entire Home Rule project was extremely complex and Gladstone had to formulate a bill that would give Ireland a meaningful measure of self-government while at the same time preserving the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament. He had to devise financial arrangements that would allow Irish trade and industry to develop without damaging British trade and industry. He needed to reconcile Unionists and Protestants with Catholics and nationalists. He believed that it was essential to solve the land problem once and for all by buying out the landlords. However, he devoted far too little time to considering how Ulster’s Unionists and Protestants might react to Home Rule. The same accusation could be levelled at Parnell and his followers, many of whom were in daily contact with the self-same Protestants and Unionists.

Ulster or those people who were Unionist and Protestant, were not going to be dismissed so easily. Lord Randolph Churchill had long before decided that ‘the Orange card was the one to play’ and much of the Tories’ campaign against the First Home Rule Bill centred on the evils likely to be inflicted on Protestants and Unionists, especially in Ulster by vengeful, savage, and sub-human Catholics and nationalists. It is unlikely that many Tories actually believed their own propaganda. However, they were quite prepared to use it in order to undermine the Liberals. Unfortunately, very many ordinary Unionists and Protestants, in Britain as well as in Ireland, believed it and it served to poison the political atmosphere on both islands for generations.

Gladstone worked quickly and secretly in drafting a measure for Irish self-government. Most of his cabinet colleagues were kept in the dark. He told Sir William Harcourt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, only on 7 March. The wider issue was first brought up at cabinet, by Chamberlain, on 13 March. A complete draft was discussed by cabinet on 26 March, when Chamberlain and G. O. Trevelyan resigned in protest. Gladstone’s desire for Home Rule lost him some valuable supporters, the most notable being Chamberlain, who now formed a group of dissident Liberals into a group of Liberal Unionists.

Although Gladstone was not in favour of negotiations over terms with the Irish, he met Parnell for talks in early April, a few days before the launch of the measure. Parnell fought for a reduction in the Irish contribution to imperial expenditure, and conceded control of customs and excise to the Westminster. On 7 April 1886, Parnell informed his party colleagues of the measure’s contents. The following day, the Bill was first introduced into the Commons.

The feared Home Rule Bill was, in reality, rather tame. There was to be an Irish legislature (the word ‘parliament’ was avoided), with two orders. The first order with 103 peers and landowners (possessing capital of £4,000 or property worth £200 a year) elected for ten years on a restricted franchise. The second order with 204 representatives was to be elected by the ordinary voters. The two orders would sit together but each order had a right of veto over legislation introduced by the other. Controversially, there was to be no Irish representation at Westminster.

12. How was Ireland to be governed?

The Irish legislature would be responsible for numerous domestic Irish concerns but the Crown, war and peace, the colonies, coinage, foreign trade, the lighthouses and many other matters would remain under the control of the imperial parliament. The Lord Lieutenant (who could now be a Catholic) would act for the monarch, and was responsible for appointing ministers and summoning or dissolving the legislature. He was not compelled to choose ministers from the majority party, or even the legislature. Parnell feared British government interference in the Irish legislature and argued that there should be no Lord Lieutenant or:

‘offices in Ireland under the Crown connected with the domestic affairs of the country’

Under the terms of the bill, the Irish government was to be responsible for domestic tax charges, although control of Irish customs revenue remained at Westminster. Ireland would provide one-fifteenth of the revenue needed to run the empire. She would contribute £1.46 million as the annual Irish share of the National Debt (calculated at £48 million), £1.66 million as a contribution to the maintenance of the British army and navy, £1 million to fund the Dublin Metropolitan Police and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). The RIC would also remain under imperial control for the foreseeable future through the local authorities in Ireland might be allowed to set up their own forces in time. A further £110,000 per annum would be required to pay for Imperial Civil Service expenditure in Ireland.

There were strong safeguards to prevent any form of religious discrimination. These were designed to quieten Protestant fears of Rome Rule without offending Catholics. The Irish legislature could not endow any church, restrict any religious practice, or impose any religious tests for public office. Neither could the legislature require children to receive religious instruction at school.

A new land purchase scheme was also to be introduced. It was seen by Gladstone as a complementary part of the wider project to help maintain social order in Ireland. Parnell welcomed the Land Purchase Bill, although some of his colleagues, such as Davitt and Healy were less enthusiastic. Gladstone and Parnell were concerned that the existing landed elite should assume an influence in the new Ireland.

The first Home Rule Bill was debated between 8 April and 7 June 1886. There was a parallel debate on the land purchase measure (16 April to 3 May). The Tories opposed the Home Rule Bill on predictable racial, religious, economic and imperialist grounds. Chamberlain and his radical followers within the Liberal Party feared that it would be the first step in the destruction of the empire and Lord Hartington (brother of Lord Frederick Cavendish who had been assassinated in the Phoenix Park by the ‘Invincibles’), believed that the Irish people were temperamentally unfit for self-government. Parnell welcomed it as ‘the first cup of cold water that has been offered to our nation since the recall of Lord Fitzwilliam’, but he also stated that it contained ‘great faults and blots’.

Unionists did not believe Parnell when he declared that:

‘we look on the provision of the Bill as a final settlement of this question, and I believe that the Irish people have accepted it as such a settlement.’

Nor did they believe Tim Healy when he said that:

‘I want to live at peace with my fellow countrymen; I want to give them all the guarantees that we can give … if I thought there would continue … those horrid religious animosities, I would rather see my country perish forever from the face of the earth.’

Ireland under Home Rule, it was claimed, would be the haunt of ‘Captain Moonlight’ (i.e. agrarian terrorism) and the activities of the National League. A number of Irish, particularly Ulster, Unionists leaders suggested that armed resistance could be expected if the bill succeeded. Other Unionists were less threatening but just as determined that Ireland should not be reduced to the status of a rural backwater—and they had reason.. The North Down MP, Thomas Waring, said on 8 April that:

‘Irish loyalists were now part of one of the greatest Empires of the world … and were utterly determined that they should not be changed into colonials’.

On 22 February 1886, Churchill came to Belfast during the Home Rule crisis ‘to play the Orange card.’ He landed at Larne and, after travelling by rail to Belfast, spoke that evening at a monster demonstration of Unionists in the Ulster Hall. ‘The Hall was crowded to excess’, the Belfast Newsletter reported. Churchill had urged loyalists to organise and prepare so that Home Rule might not come upon them ‘as a thief in the night’, and in an open letter published shortly afterwards, he first proclaimed the well known slogan:

‘Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right’.

Some Ulster loyalists took Churchill at his word and began to buy arms. Most Ulster Liberals deserted Gladstone and when William Pirrie was asked whether or not he would transfer Harland & Wolff to the Clyde if Ireland got Home Rule he replied:

‘Most certainly this would be done.’

The Orange lodges, which had been disbanded in the 1830s, were re-established when the Home Rule Bill was introduced.

13. Defeat of the Home Rule Bill

By mid-May, it was clear that the bill was in trouble. Parnell and the Irish had nothing to gain by making any further demands. On 8 June 1886, the First Home Rule Bill was defeated by 341 votes to 311. Ninety-three Liberals voted with the Tories. Parliament was quickly dissolved, and the country went to the polls in early July. It is possible, though of course not certain, that if Parnell had supported the Liberals in the 1885 election, enough Liberal MPs might have been elected to offset the 93 who voted against the Home Rule Bill. Chamberlain and his party followers,the Liberal Unionists, generally voted with the Tories and finally joined them.

Gladstone’s hopes were dashed—the Liberals won 191 seats, the Home Rulers won 85 but the Tories and Liberal Unionists won 317. With his very comfortable majority, Lord Salisbury formed a government, which remained in power until 1892. Parnell did not worry too much about alienating Chamberlain—a fatal error. His personal dislike of Parnell was a major factor in truing him against Home Rule.

14. The 1886 Home Rule riots

Serious riots were already taking place in Belfast as Home Rule was being debated in the House of Commons. On 4 June 1886, at noon, shipwrights marched out of Queen’s Island to Alexandra dock. The day before a Protestant navvy had been expelled by Catholics who taunted him, saying that after Home Rule:

‘none of the Orange sort would get leave to work or earn a loaf of bread in Belfast.’

The yard men attacked with so fiercely that ten Catholic navvies had to be taken to hospital and another, 18-year old James Curran, drowned in full view of the combatants while trying to escape across the river Lagan. On Tuesday, when the Home Rule Bill was defeated, the Catholics generally followed their priests’ advice to remain indoors. People in the Falls set their chimneys on fire in protest, while Protestants burned tar barrels and lit bonfires in celebration. That evening 400 police reinforcements pulled into Great Victoria Street railway station and went into action almost immediately against Protestants looting a public house beside the brickfields. The Irish Constabulary—renamed the Royal Irish Constabulary after their success in putting down the Fenian Rising in 1867—were loathed by Belfast loyalists as southern Catholics, though nearly all the officers were Protestant. Their most vocal critic was the Reverend Hugh Hanna, commonly called "the Roaring Red Hanna". He called for their removal and the reinstatement of the Town Police. The riots continued for several months until mid-September when torrents of rain began to fall. About 50 people had been killed, 371 police had been injured, 190 Catholics had been expelled from the shipyards, 31 public houses had been looted, and the damage to other property was substantial. The report of the government inquiry was more than 600 pages and put much of the blame on the fighting talk of politicians earlier in the year. The 1886 rioting in Belfast was probably the worst episode of violence in Ireland in the nineteenth century.

15. Conclusion.

Many of those who wanted Home Rule, dismissed some of its details as unworkable. The land purchase measure attracted even sharper criticism, especially among Liberals and nationalists. Self-government was previously seen as extensive local government with perhaps some central body exercising limited legislative functions. After 1886, it meant a Dublin assembly, with or without regional sub-authorities, legislating on virtually all matters exclusively Irish. The 1886 Home Rule Bill had an immense impact on British political life. Down to 1914 and after, the Irish problem was dominated by that bill. By the winter of 1886 most of the Liberal party had gone back to their old position—local government in the short-term as a step towards wider Irish legislative autonomy in the future. It is clear that many nationalists did not fully understand what exactly Home Rule would involve—indeed, they were largely unprepared for it. Parnell contributed little to the debate about the making of the bill although he did recognise the merits of Gladstone’s measure.

It is clear that Gladstone was driven by a strong sense of a moral mission and by the fear of the consequences for Westminster of a strong group of disaffected Irish representatives. He had a sense of history, and was conscious of previous injustices done to Ireland. But his Home Rule project was expected to bear too many political burdens—the solution to all of Ireland’s social problems. Gladstone made significant errors in the handling of Home Rule. His failure to allow the country, and even most of his cabinet colleagues, to know his intentions laid himself open to the charge of changing his principles. Secondly, he introduced the proposal too early in the new parliament instead of preparing the ground. Thirdly, when it became apparent that the bill was not going to be passed, he should have admitted that the country required more time to consider the matter. The British public was simply not yet ready for such an experiment. No serious effort was made to reconcile the Irish national aspiration with Ulster Unionism, something which soon became glaringly evident. In Ireland, the Home Rule Crisis of 1886 helped to strengthen organised Unionism and led to the formation of many loyalist protest bodies. The Home Rule Bill could not have been a final solution of Irish claims.

One of the most striking features of the whole episode is the extent to which the British party system accommodated the revolutionary challenge of Irish nationalism. The historian William C. Lubenow said that:

‘the party system revolutionised the Home Rule issue by domesticating it, by making it a creature of parliamentary politics, and by so containing it for thirty years’.

Despite the defects of the bill, it remains the high point of two great Victorian lives—Gladstone’s and Parnell’s. Parnell survived the defeat of the bill with his reputation enhanced rather than diminished. Gladstone went on to become Prime Minister for the fourth time in 1892 (in his 80s). He introduced his second Home Rule Bill in February 1892, but it was defeated in the House of Lords.

Today he is acknowledged as one of the greatest statesmen of the 19th century.


Gillian M. Doherty & Tomás O'Riordan (with contributions from Fidelma Maguire).