The Home Rule Movement

'No man has the right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to his country - thus far shall you go and no further' (C.S. Parnell, 1885)

'Before Irish Home Rule is conceded by the Imperial Parliament, England as the predominant member of the three kingdoms will have to be convinced of its justice and equity.' (Earl of Rosebery, Liberal Prime Minister (1894-95), 1894)

As English politicians became more interested in redressing the key Irish grievances during the later Victorian years, the Irish themselves began making efforts to use constitutional means to affect decisions concerning Ireland's future. This is seen in analysis of Irish MPs: in 1868 the Liberals and Conservatives shared 105 Irish MPs, but by 1885 this number had dwindled to 18, against 85 who were committed to effecting the principle of Home Rule through the Westminster polity. An important factor in this development was the 1872 Secret Ballots Act, which was important in removing the element of fear of landlord reprisals against the Irish voter. Another key development was parliamentary reform of 1884. This increased the Irish Catholic electorate, duly voted in support of Irish candidates who stood for constitutional revision.

The IHGA (Irish Home Government Association) called for a separate Irish Parliament of Protestants and Catholics, though such a concept had a narrow appeal. However, it won the support of the Catholic Church in 1873 and was renamed the Home Rule League. The Catholic Church had lost confidence in the British government's commitment to furthering Catholic education. Unexpected election success in 1874 (59 Home Rulers were elected mostly at the expense of Liberals) led to the formation of the Irish Parliamentary Party. However though Ireland now had its voice in the House of Commons it lacked an effective leader.

Isaac Butt was more of a paper than a political tiger with his talents residing in persuasion and force of argument. Butt remained leader of the Home Rule movement until his death in 1879, though the leading figure of the next era, Charles Stewart Parnell had already emerged onto the scene by this time.

Parnell was born in 1845 to a family that was a product of the Protestant Ascendancy and was also half American. His personality was tempestuous; his education at Cambridge had been cut short by his expulsion for fighting outside the town's train station. However, in politics his character and personality was less self-destructive, although he could not exclude this trait completely. He adapted his fiery nature to political acumen and tactical sense and channelled his emotion into vehement political rhetoric. He soon latched on to J.C. Biggar's concept of "Obstructionism".

Parnell replaced Butt as President of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain in 1877, but he had to wait another two years until he could assume the mantle of leader of Irish Home Rule. By 1879 the Fenians had become interested in aligning with Parnell, keen as they were to agitate for land reform at a time of agricultural crisis in Ireland (i.e. to cash in on the inevitable wave of support they would muster). The two sides of the nationalist movement at this time, the constitutionalist and revolutionary, converged in Parnell who became allied with the radical Michael Davitt and his Land League (Parnell became President). This so-called "New Departure" opened the way for Parnell to come to the forefront of the Home Rule movement after the death of Isaac Butt in 1879.

In 1880 Gladstone was Prime Minister again, at the head of a Liberal Party acutely aware of the importance of the land issue for Irish affairs. The government waited on the submission of two investigations into agriculture, one covering Britain as a whole and the other specific to Ireland. A Liberal proposal for compensation for disturbance was rejected by the House of Lords. Gladstone was still hampered by his continued belief that 'good' legislation and a hard line on violence would eventually provide a solution in Ireland. Parnell replied to this by urging the most openly damaging protest against the government in rent strikes, withholding harvests, boycotting of landlords and obstructionism in the House of Commons (what he called 'The Four Gospels According to Biggar'). In Parliament the Parnellites seriously disturbed proceedings and procedure, indeed what became a rule of 'closure' in parliamentary debates (i.e. when a discussion lasts over 40 hours) originated with the delaying tactics of Parnell and his followers in the 1880s.

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