Gladstone and Ireland
'Thus you have a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien Church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world. That is the Irish Question.' (Benjamin Disraeli, 1844)
For long the English political elite had long looked upon Ireland as a 'problem' that needed to be solved, yet they remained unable to find the key to the Irish question. Either individually or in concurrence, the methods of concession, coercion, reform and repression had repeatedly failed to solve the problems the English faced in Ireland. From the Irish perspective the problem was simple - the unwelcome imposition of an imperial power that was determined to deny the Irish their independence. Such straightforward divisions would not hold long in Ireland and the Irish question was soon complicated by issues of land, religion and political-constitutional disagreement between Unionism and Nationalism.
Undeniably English attitudes towards Irish affairs were 'problem'-centred. Ireland had caused successive English governments great problems from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The Great Rebellion of 1798 forced the British Prime Minister William Pitt into favouring the incorporation of Ireland into the Union in 1801 in an effort to bring quiet and stability to the island. This attempt to silence Irish nationalism with the Act of Union made for a political-constitutional settlement that would become of great importance for British politics during the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the Irish perspective however it is easily forgotten the English presence was an unwelcome effort to impose political, economic, religious and social (even cultural) control and obedience to Westminster much in the way it treated other imperial territories. Thus the activities of the English in Ireland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when taken from the Irish viewpoint appear as violent manifestations of 'imperialism', religious fervour and economic and political self- interest. In the eighteenth century the British government overreacted to rebellion with the denial of Irish self-determination. In this context, Irish history is that of a 'struggle for liberty'.
"My mission is to pacify Ireland." Such was W.E. Gladstone's declaration in the aftermath of the Liberal election victory of 1868: a reflection of the Victorian Liberals' attitude to the Irish question - i.e. the stress on 'pacify' implied a policy of 'kicks and kindness', the notion that Ireland could be brought into line with 'good' legislation and firm response to disorder. Such an attitude negated Irish nationalism and the idea of Ireland seceding from the Union was alien at this time to most English politicians.
Gladstone was accomplished in religious matters and his personal piety and spiritual fervour led him to address the position of the Irish Church in his first matter of Irish policy as Prime Minister. 90% of the Irish population were Catholics and therefore the existence of a Protestant State Church was a bitter pill for most. Gladstone was hopeful that recognising the Catholic Church's rights would go some way to alleviating tension in Ireland. However the Prime Minister gave little thought to the fact that removing a major religious grievance in Ireland would have little affect on the 'men of violence', fervent nationalists such as the Fenian Brotherhood (see Notes). The bombing of Clerkenwell Prison in 1867, which killed over 100 people, made politicians like Gladstone determined to tackle the Irish question.
The Irish Church was disestablished by an Act of government in 1869. All legal connections with the State were severed thus making the Church a purely voluntary organisation in Ireland. This effectively meant the Church lost around half of its £16 million assets in property, while the remaining half was to be used for the alleviation of poverty. However any hopes that a single piece of 'good' legislation could appease Ireland soon enough proved shallow.
Gladstone realised that he would quickly need to turn his attentions to the Irish land question, for which he desperately required assistance in the form of statistics and advice if he was to persuade Parliament to embark on reform, with its deep-seated commitment to the doctrine of laissez-faire and defence of property rights (especially landlords' rights). The predominantly Catholic population of Ireland was ruled by a predominantly Protestant landlord class. Its long history created a situation of considerable resentment, with many absentee landlords extorting vast profits and giving little back. Tenants were insecure in holding their properties and rarely received compensation for improvements they made to the land. Ulster, where the 'Ulster Custom' operated, was an anomaly in that tenants received greater
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