Sunday, May 6, 2007

Home Rule - 1

The first colony in the British Empire was Ireland. For centuries it had been both a possession and a thorn in Britain’s side. A piece of it still is today.

“Too close for independence, too far for Union”, an opponent said during the 1800 Union Bill Fight. He lost. The bill added Ireland to the United Kingdom and added some 80 + Members to Parliament to a total of 670. By the 1880’s its wisdom was still in doubt.

The Irish had never fit into the Empire or into the Kingdom. The English were Protestant; the Irish were Catholic. The English were masters; the Irish were servants. The English owned the land in Ireland; the Irish rented it and worked it.

Emigration became the dominant feature of Irish society. The Potato Famine of the 1840’s made Irish emigration not only desirable but a matter of survival. By 1870 there were more Irish in America and overseas than in Ireland. The last two decades of the century saw a steady decline in population in Ireland because of this. The annual Christmas gift from the family overseas became a basic necessity of the Irish economy.

What to do about Ireland? Disraeli expressed the Conservatives’ perplexity:

I want to see a public man come forward and say what the Irish question is. One says it is a physical question; another, it is a spiritual. Now it is the absence of aristocracy, then the absence of railroads. It is the Pope one day, potatoes the next.
In the Nineteenth Century the Irish had produced a number of talented champions of their cause: Grattan, O’Connell, and Butt. Each of these moved closer towards a truly Irish Party in the country and in Parliament.

Charles Stewart Parnell took over the leadership of the Irish Party just in time for the 1880 elections. His predecessors had formed a Party. He knew how to use it.

The first leg of his vision was obstruction. He adopted a calculated campaign in Parliament to obstruct its business. This policy required absolute obedience from the Party’s members. Parnell expected each MP to vote the way he told them to vote and say exactly what he told them to say.

The second leg was the use of the boycott.

The third leg was an alliance with the militant Irish organizations such as the Land League. When the more terrorist-oriented organization the Fenian Brotherhood held back, the Land League started absorbing its members. These kept the land in continual unrest.

The fourth leg was support from Irish organizations abroad especially in the United States. These furnished money and materials for the cause.

His overall plan was to bring coordinated pressure upon Britain from all quarters for Home Rule for Ireland. His secondary objective was to contain the terrorism that the militants were providing.

Winston Churchill in “My Early Life” gives this story:

…from this house there came a man called Mr. Burke. He gave me a drum. I cannot remember what he looked like, but I remember the drum. Two years afterwards when we were back in England, they told me he had been murdered by the Fenians in this same Phoenix Park we used to walk every day.
He was eight years old when Mr. Burke was killed.

Murders and violence had begun while Marlborough was governor and continued through the time of Gladstone’s Liberals. Parnell denounced the murders.

…no act has ever been perpetrated in our country, during the exciting struggle for social and political rights of the past fifty years, that has so stained the name of hospitable Ireland as this cowardly and unprovoked assassination of a friendly stranger.
Parnell tried to use civil disobedience while controlling violence. In his hands it was a weapon that hurt his own cause as well as the one he opposed. The world would have to wait until the next century for Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King to show it how to use civil disobedience as an effective weapon. He failed to appreciate the importance of enforcing non-violence.

His other tools were far more effective. In Parliament, his party could tip the scales against one party or another. Irish had emigrated to Britain itself in large numbers and could vote in its elections. This meant that Parnell could not only influence most of the Irish borough’s voters but large numbers of voters in Britain, too. Irish in America and elsewhere could not contribute votes to Parnell’s organizations, but they could contribute money.

The most important part of Parnell’s campaign was the moral part. The essence of British imperialism (and of Europe’s) was that its empire was a benevolent force for progress and good in the world. To Parnell, it was not. Supporting Parnell meant rejecting the heart of Britain’s accomplishments over centuries, in fact, since Columbus’ time. By 1885 he had made the issue of Irish Home Rule the dominant issue in British Politics.

Excerpt from a book in progress. Churchill Stories. (from Chapter 1.)