HC Deb 16 July 1867 vol 188 cc1628-37

, in rising to move an Address to Her Majesty, on the subject of a loan for the purchase and re-sale of landed estates in Ireland brought into the Landed Estates Court of Ireland, with the view to encourage and assist an independent proprietary of small freehold estates in that country, said, that he did not conceal from himself in the least the extreme importance of the task which he had undertaken, nor could he avoid an expression of regret that the question had not fallen into abler and more experienced hands. The social and political condition of Ireland had for many years occupied the attention, not alone of that House, but of the whole kingdom. It was a subject which had engaged the energies of their most profound thinkers, of their ablest writers, and it had presented to many Administrations a problem which he regretted to say still remained unsolved. Yet he believed that if that problem were only fairly and temperately taken in hand it would be found there was no real difficulty in its solution. For the last sixty-seven years Ireland had been in close union with England, and yet he found that no permanant, no wholesome result, had followed that union. Hon. Gentlemen might suppose that in arguing this question he was taking an extreme view. He wished to heaven that it was so. He wished that he could believe that that union had brought with it the advantages which he freely and cordially admitted it might have brought, but be maintained that its results amply proved that it had been a failure; and in saying this he wished to guard against its being understood that he desired any alteration whatever in the Act of Union. What he did desire was simply that the spirit, the letter and the principle of that union, should be closely adhered to, and that the feelings which governed the men who proposed it should be carried out in their integrity. But if those principles had been disregarded, and if, in consequence, the results of the union had, as he hoped to be able to show, been disastrous, not only to Ireland but to the United Kingdom, he did say that it was time for the Legislature of England to interfere to bring about a change in so unjust a state of things. The land question—that weary land question—had been for many years the leading thought of the Irish mind, and he did not think the House could feel much surprise that it should be so. One of the earliest acts of this country in connection with Ireland was an act of despoilment, by which a great bulk of the land was made to change hands; it was what was afterwards known as the Act of Settlement. From the date of that Act to the present day there could be no doubt that the people had felt that they had been robbed of their property. But there was an interval when the nation might seem to have been weaned from the ordinary nutriment of its discontent—he meant the brilliant period between 1782 and 1800. That was the period when Ireland enjoyed an unfettered legislation. The change that took place in these eighteen years was a striking one. In the years before 1712 the records of our country's history show that a course of legislation had been pursued towards Ireland which was highly discreditable. That great statesman, Mr. Pitt, in speaking of the relations which had prevailed between the two countries, said— The object aimed at is to make Ireland completely subservient to the interests of England, and to draw all the profit and advantage that could be made out of the connection without taking a single step to develop the resources of the country. In another year he used this language— Ireland has long felt the narrow policy of Great Britain, which, founded on views of trade and commercial advantages, and inspired by selfish motives, has treated her with partiality and neglect, and never looked on her prosperity as that of the nation at large. Similar language was adopted by Lord Grenville, Arthur Young, and many others. But what followed? As soon as the Irish people, had achieved their independence through the manly efforts of the Volunteers of 1782, a time of prosperity ensued, which was described by Lord Plunket, than whom no man never lived who was better competent to estimate its full extent and effect, as one in which the trade and manufactures of Ireland flourished beyond those of any other country, and Lord Clare, in 1799, thus expressed himself— No nation in the civilized world has advanced in cultivation, in trade, in agriculture and manu- factures, with the same extraordinary and unexampled rapidity. In the midst of this prosperity came the Union He did not desire to dwell on the circumstances which led to that Union. He had no disposition to touch, except very lightly, on that dark page of our national history, which contained the facts connected with the annihilation by themselves of the Irish Parliament, unparalleled as that proceeding was in any history; but had the Union, such as it was, been carried out in a fair spirit, and measures passed that were calculated to cherish feelings of conciliation and harmony, he believed that large benefits might have been realized by both countries. That was not the case; it was a union of the strong with the weak; a union in name and not in reality—a union which deprived Ireland of her trade, and her people of employment, which threw her back on the land, and thus produced agrarian outrages, absenteeism, increased taxation, and disorganization of the people. More than that, it uprooted her nationality and paralyzed her industry, leaving her, after sixty-seven years, in a state which was a blot upon the escutcheon of the United Kingdom, and which cried aloud not only to that House, but to the Empire and to Europe generally, shame upon the legislation which permitted a large portion of our territories to be so go-veined, or rather to be occupied, I have no desire to dwell upon these painful passages, but it is absolutely necessary to advert to them in order to lead the House to think with me, as I hope it will be disposed to think, that land is really the cause of the serious disturbances which have been witnessed in Ireland at all times within the last century. With the exception of the interval between 1782 and 1800, the legislators of that period possessed a thorough understanding of the nature of the laws that were adapted to the country, as the result demonstrated, for they had produced an enormous and unparalleled increase in the social welfare and prosperity of the nation. From the period of 1800 to the present time many results of a different and less wise system, tending to the destruction of all our trade, were to be found sys a natural consequence. The population, being without any occupation or employment, were forced to fall upon the soil for their food. What but outrages and violence could be the result of a struggle for the possession of land, which was, in fact, nothing but a struggle for existence? Are we not called upon to deal with this particular question? If it be a fact that a large portion of the difficulties of the country do arise from the state of the land tenure, am I not justified in asking the House to consider that subject as at least one of the obstacles that stand in the way of the welfare of the country? If I am wrong in attributing the whole disorganization into which we are thrown to the state of the landlord and tenant question, no hon. Member, I am sure, will stand up in his place and contend that a large amount of misery and wrong is directly traceable to that particular source. If, then, the House agree with me that the land question is at the bottom of the evils with which we have to cope, it becomes us to look out for a remedy, and I ask Government to propose one? [The hon. Member here referred to the opinions of the late Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Daly, Mr. Goulburn, Sir George Lewis, Earl Kimberley, and other, in reference to the necessity for improved legislation upon the land question.] The next question to look at was the question of the capability and means of purchase. The average value of the landed estates which passed through the Incumbered Estates Court in each of the six years ending 1860 was £1,500,000. The deposits in the Irish banks were the best evidence of means to purchase, and he found that in 1859 they were £16,000,000, and were now about £14,000,000. The number of accounts at the banks not exceeding £500 each was 12,500; that of accounts not exceeding £1,000 was 3,600; and that of accounts not exceeding £1,500 was 2,000. It was unnecessary to debate the advantages of the small proprietary system; there was a host of authorities, and he need not quote more than one or two. The hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. Stuart Mill) in his able work, says— Nothing can be done for Ireland without transforming her cottier tenantry into something else. Those who know neither Ireland nor any other country propose to transform them into hired labourers. I contend that the object should be to transform them, as far as possible, into landed proprietors, which would elevate them from a miserable and degraded condition into one of ease and comfort. The example of Prussia, and the great change which at the beginning of this century transformed a people of poor downtrodden serfs into one of wealthy cultivators and formidable soldiers, was well known. That result was obtained by what we should consider a complete revolution, and a total sacrifice of rights of individuals, for the proprietors were required to abandon three-fourths of their property. But the consequence was, that the remaining fourth became so enormously increased in value as to be more than equal to the former value of the whole. To the opinion he had quoted he might add that of Sir M. Kaye, who declares that no country has yet exchanged her tenants-at-will for small proprietors without becoming suddenly and marvellously benefited by the change. He had now stated to the House the views with which he submitted the present Resolution. He regretted that the consideration of it came so late; but he felt so strongly its importance, and the greatness of the change it would work, that he hoped it would be seriously entertained, not only by the House, but by Her Majesty's Ministers. He felt deeply that the condition of Ireland was a disgrace to this country, and he asked how long this state of things was to continue? Let them not blind the subject. Ireland was full of discontent, of distrust, of dissatisfaction, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer said a few days ago, and there was but a very short step from dissatisfaction to disaffection. The noble Lord the Chief Secretary had a great power in his hands; he could apply a remedy to the poison that had so long acted upon the Irish nation, as to be almost historic; he could, by a bold, a broad, and an honourable policy, turn back wide-spreading disaffection; he could restore peace, prosperity, and happiness to that country; he could arrest the ever-increasing outflow of emigration, and be the means of establishing a state of things which would induce the capitalist to seek the Irish labour market, as a rich and tempting field for the increase of his wealth. Then, indeed, might they hope to see the people emerge from the depression—the serfdom—in which they had been so long plunged. That, Sir, would be a task worthy the abilities of the noble Lord. Its successful accomplishment would reach in its effects the full measure of his largest political ambition, and he would confer a lasting benefit upon the Empire at large, as well as upon that particular part of it which the special legislation he suggested would be intended to more directly apply. But to effect such a great and good end — to turn the wretched home of the Irish peasant into a comfortable and prosperous and a contented home—to instil into his mind the conviction that Imperial legislation meant Imperial justice, not British coercion—to lead him to estimate the advantages which the British Constitution was stated to extend to those who live within its influence, they must do more than fill the air with vague promises. Earnest, honest steps must be taken to grapple, and at once, with existing and admitted evils. The people must begin to feel that their wants, their comforts, their interests have found a place—that place to which they are entitled, in the legislative thought of the Empire; that impression, that conviction once firmly fixed in the minds of the people, you will find that when they feel their social emancipation is at hand, their hearts will vibrate with the best feelings of good subjects—itinerant preachers of sedition will find no home, no encouragement in the country; and they would have a living, widespread, eloquent example of the great political truth— That although rebellion may be restrained by military power, or crushed by armed force, it is to justice, and justice alone, you must look for that only real safety of an Empire, the true and lasting loyalty of its people.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House will, upon Monday next, resolve itself into a Committee, to consider an humble Address to be presented to Her Majesty, praying that She will be graciously pleased to take into consideration the expediency of recommending to the House to grant a sum by way of loan, not exceeding one million sterling, to be employed in the purchase of estates which may be offered for sale in the Landed Estates Court in Ireland, such estates to be re-sold, in subdivided farms, of not less than ten or more than one hundred acres each to the occupying tenants of such estates; or in the event of the tenants declining to purchase, then to such other persons as may be willing to purchase the same in subdivided farms, the purpose being to assert and encourage an independent proprietary of small freehold estates in Ireland."—(Mr. O'Beirne.)


said, the Motion had been on the Paper since the earlier portion of the Session, and, being preceded by one of considerable importance, he had not expected that it would be brought on that evening; he was not, therefore, without the statistics he should otherwise have produced, prepared to follow the hon. Gentleman at length into the subject to which he had referred. He should not think at any time of following the hon. Gentleman through his dissertation on the events which had taken place in Ireland since 1672. The hon. Member had enunciated many opinions which might be refuted and con- tradicted. He should not think of admitting that the Union of Ireland with this country had inflicted any misfortune upon the Irish. It would be easy to prove that the contrary was the case. The progress and prosperity of Ireland had—though not so rapid as in some other parts of the United Kingdom—been very great. There had been no decay consequent upon that Union; but such facts were rather for the historian than the House of Commons. Their duty was rather to examine into matters as they at present stood than to discuss the wisdom of the policy which had dictated the Union between the two countries. No sensible man would think of reversing that, great settlement. He was not disposed to admit that, even of late years, there had been any falling off in the prosperity of Ireland. Though it was true that the progress made had not been so great us that which had been made in some portions of England and Scotland, it should be borne in mind that Ireland was purely and entirely an agricultural country. Hitherto she had been unable to establish manufactories like those which were to be seen through the breadth and length of England. They should therefore only compare the condition of Ireland with that of the districts of England to which mining find manufacturing operations had not extended. It would be found that, for the last thirty years, there had been a decided mid continuous advance in the agricultural affairs of Ireland; and, if he had anticipated that this discussion would take place, he would have been able to bring down statistics to establish the truth of what he stated. From the nature of her soil and climate, industry was found more profitably employed in the breeding and rearing of cattle than in the cultivation of the land and the raising of cereal crops. Although there was still much to be done, nevertheless there were certain districts in Ireland which had improved as rapidly as any other agricultural districts in the United Kingdom. With reference to the proposal made by the hon. Gentleman, he wished to say a few words. That proposal was that the State should interfere and purchase large portions of land in Ireland for the purpose of re-selling it again to persons who might be inclined to buy it in small lots; but there was nothing in the present state of things in Ireland which would prevent that being done. The hon. Gentleman was mistaken when he said that the operation of the Landed Estates Court was to prevent small lots from coming into the market. Out of the 1,600 lots sold in the last two years, 460, or more than one quarter, were sold in lots of under 100 acres each. The total annual value of those 460 allotments might be put at something like £17,000 a year. Taking those lots at twenty-five years' purchase, a sum not far from £500,000 had been spent within the List two years in those small purchases. That fact proved that, if there were a real desire on the part of persons possessed of small capital to invest money in small lots of land, there was ample opportunity for them, at that moment, to do so. The duty of the Judges of the Landed Estates Court was to sell the land in the mode which would be most remunerative to the occupier. When there was a general desire on the part of capitalists to purchase small lots, the land sold in a most remunerative manner, so that, if an estate were set up for sale, and if it were shown to the Judges of the Encumbered Estates Court that, by dividing it into small lots, they would get a higher price, it would be their duty so to divide it. If, therefore, the process which the hon. Gentleman desired did not take place to a greater extent, it was not the fault of the law, or of the system; but because of the absence of a demand for that particular description of estates. It would be both impolitic and unwise to take so very serious a step as to interfere with the ordinary course of the land market in Ireland. The reason why small lots of land were not in more general demand was that there was an indisposition on the part of small capitalists to become small proprietors, He had himself put the question to people who held reasonably-sized farms of 150; acres, and who had a little money. He had been told by them that, if they bought lands, they would not get more than 4 or 4½ per cent for their money, while by employing their capital as tenant-fanners they would make 10 per cent. These persons were the best judges how they could most profitably employ a small capital. The reason why they did not buy small estates was that they could employ their money in a more profitable way. The question of the general advantage of a small proprietary had been discussed most ably—among others, by the hon. Member for Westminster (Mr. Stuart Mill). Put statements and arguments of equal force and ability had been made in opposition to his theories; and it was very doubtful whether small farms were or were not best for the general interests of the country. This, however, might be said, that whatever led to such a minute subdivision of land as prevailed in Ireland in the early part of the century would inflict one of the greatest curses that could befall that country. The only thing that could reconcile a Statesman to the dreadful occurrences of 1845, 1846, and 1847 was that they had to so large an extent put an end to the system of letting land through middlemen, and to the practice of subdivision which had been such a curse to the country. If they looked back to the state of things that existed in the early part of the century, and afterwards during the famine, they would find that the small proprietors were in just as miserable a state as the persons who had land on lease. He could point to several cases where persons had squatted upon commons, and had obtained proprietary rights over farms of five and ten acres; just that class of proprietors whom the hon. Member would like to see multiplied in Ireland, who were described in books as of so much benefit to the country. From his own experience he could say that it was in the very district to which he referred that the horrors and miseries of the famine fell with the greatest force. Long before the effects of the famine fell upon those who had leases these unfortunate creatures were swept away. Their lands were bought up by small capitalists, were re-let in farms of twenty-five and thirty acres, and were now the most thriving portion of the district. He entreated the House to observe the danger of advocating any measure which would tend to the recurrence of such a system. Whether the object which the hon. Gentleman had in view were brought about by a loan from the Government, or by the exertions of private companies or associations, it would be difficult to obviate the results to which he had referred. In the neighbourhood of some towns, there was a tendency—although the Encumbered Estates Act had been so short a time in existence—to that extreme subdivision of land, which was so much to be deprecated. If the Irish gentlemen thought the plan advocated by the hon. Member was wise and good, there was nothing to prevent their trying the experiment. A small sum of money of about £2,000 would enable gentlemen who attached so much importance to small holdings to purchase land and re-sell it in small lots. The loss at first could not be large; even a gain might be made. Until some such experiment had been tried, and until hon. Gentlemen could point to its success, it was impossible to ask the House to entertain the question for a moment, or to interfere with the ordinary sale of land in Ireland. If the Government went into the market and bid against private proprietors for the purchase of land, it would throw everything into confusion. It was because he sincerely believed that the object which the hon. Gentleman had in view would not increase the prosperity of the country, but would rather discourage than promote it, that he was forced to say, on the part of the Government, that they Could not accede to the Motion.


said, be regretted that so important a Motion should be brought forward in so thin a House, and in the third week in July, when it was impossible to secure proper attention to the subject. At present it was a matter of indifference to the tenant-farmers of Ireland whether their country was ruled by the Queen of England, the Emperor of the French, the United States, or "the Irish Republic." They felt sure that they could not be in a worse position than now whoever ruled them. But if some means were provided so that the farmers could become possessed of the soil and work it as their own, instead of on an uncertain tenure, they would want nothing. The most vital question for Ireland would be to form a larger occupying proprietary. The tenants ought to have the same facilities for purchasing land as they had in France. The noble Lord had spoken of the misery occasioned by too great a subdivision of land; doubtless this misery was felt among tenants holding small occupations at will, but it would not exist among small occupying proprietors. He hoped the question would on a future occasion be brought forward at an earlier period of the Session, when it would have a chance of being more fully considered that at the present moment.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.