HC Deb 07 August 1879 vol 249 cc429-34

, in rising to call attention to the recent resolutions of Grand Juries in Ireland on the state of public security, contended that the only danger to peace and order in Ireland could be effectually prevented by a just recognition on the part of the classes from which Irish grand jurors were drawn that the tenant cultivators of the soil ought not to bear an unfair share of the consequences of agricultural loss and depression. Certain Grand Juries in Ireland, such as those of Mayo and Westmeath—especially the former—had passed resolutions implying that there was a dangerous and groundless agitation in Ireland on this subject, which threatened the peace and order of the country. But the agitation was very far from being "groundless." The present agricultural distress and crisis in Ireland was of a very severe description, and the people were suffering, in addition, from a pressure of high rents. The people all over Ireland, under the direction of their clergy, were passing resolutions, not in favour of the abolition of rent, but for the reduction of rent to a reasonable degree. At Dungarvan an immense meeting was held, at which resolutions were passed laying stress on the existing pressure, and calling for the reduction of rent. The tenants were ready to recognize kindness wherever it was shown, and one of the resolutions at the Dungarvan meeting thanked those landlords in the County Waterford who had reduced their rents to enable their tenants to tide over the present severe season. He asked them not to be frightened by the alarmist resolutions passed by a number of landlord Grand Juries; but would call their attention to a letter from Miss Agnes Eyre, Eyre Castle, County Galway, in which she spoke of the destitution as universal, remarking that whereas in most other rural districts there were various other industrial callings, over a very large area in Ireland there was no industry but the raising of a few crops. It was all very well for capitalist newspapers and the cultured and well-paid correspondents in Dublin of London papers to send over here the heated expressions of some poor peasants, which were then taken as the calm and settled view of the whole class. But he asked the Government to go behind Dublin correspondents and the declarations of landlord Grand Juries and look at the condition of the population of Ireland with eyes not of Liberals or Conservatives, but with the eyes of men, and men of the world. If they did that they would find reason to be very cautious and very gentle in their treatment of the poor peasantry of Ireland during the present distress. Some years ago, Mr. Charles Ormsby Blake wrote to the papers saying that his poor tenants had been dragged out of their beds and obliged by men whom they did not know to swear in the dark that they would pay no rent, and this, Mr. Blake stated, was the cause of dissatisfaction upon his estate. But a meeting of the tenants was held, and each asked who had been pulled out of his bed, and none was to be found who had been so treated. But there were, perhaps, causes of dissatisfaction on the estate. One man whose farm was valued at £12 paid a rack-rent of £18; another, the Government valuation of whose farm was £10, paid £l7 15s., and another paid a rack-rent of £22 10s. on a Government valuation of £15 5s., while he found £13 paid for a farm the Government valuation of which was £12 10s. These excessive rents the tenants said were imposed some few years ago. James Hessian, whose farm was valued for the Government at £12, paid £15; but now he paid £26 13s. 6d., and the majority of the tenants paid in the same proportion. He asked the Government, as humane men and fellow-men, to consider these facts. The tenantry of Ireland were not now able to pay the full rent they paid a few years ago, and that was their complaint now. If it were only to supply recruits to the British Army the Irish tenantry were useful; and he asked the Executive not to quarter military and police in poor districts, which would only make the present heavy burden severer still. The mass of the priests, the hereditary defenders of order and peace, and the mass of the tenants wore pleading for kindness and consideration, and he hoped the right hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary for Ireland would give them cause to remember with gratitude his tenure of Office. He begged to move the adjournment of the debate, in order to give the right hon. Gentleman an opportunity of saying what the Government were prepared to do.


seconded the Motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Mr. O'Donnell.)

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," again proposed.


hoped the Government would do something before the utter hopelessness among the peasantry of Ireland would lead to its natural result of desperation. Since 1847 there never had been such widespread and general distress. This distress had been brought about by causes utterly beyond the control of the cultivators of the soil. When they looked around and saw no relief, and no attempt upon the part of the Government to bring about relief, they were naturally induced to despair of any Constitutional relief. Now, it must be remembered, when dealing with the declarations of the Grand Juries, that they were dealing with by no means representative bodies. Grand jurors were not representative; they were mere nominees; and it had been recognized by the Government that the Grand Juries of Ireland were not public bodies which deserved to be continued. These were under sentence of extinction. A Bill had been introduced to re-model them. Therefore, their opinion, at any time not worth much, must now be taken as quite worthless. They were bodies which would now be non-existent in their present shape but for the pressure of Business before the House. The Boards of Guardians were representative bodies throughout the country; and they had, in many instances, called public attention to the necessity of dealing with the present distress, and of considering the extravagant rents now charged the peasantry of Ireland. He had also to point out that the tenants of Ireland, in the present condition of affairs, were more defenceless by reason of the operation of the Land Act than they otherwise would have been. Whatever the intention of the Land Act, the scheme, which was most complicated, was not one suitable to the Irish people, and was not what they had asked for. They had asked for a simpler plan. They asked for fixity of tenure at fair rents, which they defined to be a rent varying with the varying value of produce. Such men as John Stuart Mill had agreed to regard rent as a share of the surplus profits of the soil; they considered the true economical theory to be that a rent should vary according to the value of what the soil produced. The Government, in framing the Land Act, did not take that view. They took the view that it would be sufficient to inflict a penalty for a wrong done, instead of prohibiting the wrong of eviction. It was evident the framer of the Act never contemplated the possibility of a large reduction in value of land consequent upon a reduction in the value of its produce. The tenant who, under the ordinary working of the laws of supply and demand, would have received from his landlord a reduction of rent proportionate to the reduction of prices—and every landlord would have admitted the propriety of such reduction—found new difficulty under the operation of the Land Act. Landlords where there were a large number of small holdings thought it better to lose one or two years' rent, and clear the land of the incumbrance of small tenants, who could not contract themselves out of their rights under the Land Act and consolidate their holdings into farms of £100 value. The tenants who held the larger farms could contract themselves out of these rights. This Act, passed for the benefit of the tenant, was really destructive of the class of small tenants—the class, indeed, for whose benefit it was devised. That was the reason why the tenantry of Ireland should be treated with exceptional consideration. The Irish tenantry were placed in their present position by a law not passed in compliance with their demands—they recognized its usefulness in protecting tenants' improvements, but did not think the other clauses worth much. The provisions of the Land Act were altogether the scheme of the Government of the day, and not the proposal of the tenants. In the condition of affairs which had arisen the small tenants would be destroyed as a class if the depreciation of the value of produce continued, and there was not the slightest sign that it would not continue. In that case there would be wholesale evictions in Ireland for non-payment of rent. The Chief Secretary for Ireland had been asked a question as to the condition of Ireland, and he had answered it in a manner more curt than satisfactory, that if the reduction were pointed to the Government had no intention of dealing with the matter. If a like question had been put by the hon. Member for Mid-Lincolnshire with reference to England, would he have received such an answer? He knew that not only had the answer of the right hon. Gentleman given the greatest dissatisfaction in Ireland, but that it had induced a feeling that Government had not merely no consideration for the position in which the tenants were placed, but that they considered it a fit subject for jibe and jeer. That was not the way in which the Government should treat great questions of that kind. In a very short time, if things did not change, there would be in Ireland a repetition of the calamities of 1847 and 1848, when 1,000,000 of people were lost to the country through famine and diseases resulting from starvation. Did Parliament, in view of that, contemplate doing nothing? They were entitled to ask Government, at any rate, not to treat this state of things with a jeer which was unworthy of them. They asked the Government to realize their responsibility as statesmen, and to say something which would inspire some glimmer of hope in the hearts of thousands of people who were on the verge of starvation—something to encourage them to take Constitutional action, and not rush to un-Constitutional measures to redress the grievances they felt so keenly. The condition of affairs in Ireland was so grave as to call for the most earnest attention of the Government to the duty of devising some means for the relief of the starving tenantry. There had been an arrangement for a Commission to consider agricultural depression; but no satisfactory assurance that the condition of Ireland would be duly considered. It would not be much to ask that this Commission should sit in Ire- land, and in Ireland investigate the condition of affairs there. It had been acknowledged that the Commission sitting in England could not ascertain the facts with regard to Ireland. Surely there could be no difficulty in the Commission sitting in one or two centres in Ireland and taking evidence. He hoped the Government would give an intimation that this proposal would be favourably considered. If the Government were desirous to preserve the peace of the country, and to prevent the people taking action that would be regretted, some assurance should be given that this great subject would not be overlooked.


I shall avail myself of the opportunity irregularly afforded to me to say that the hon. Member for Tipperary seems to have misunderstood me in referring to some remarks that I made as a sneer at Irish distress and the difficulties of Irish tenants. I meant nothing of the kind. My remarks were in reply to a Question calling for certain legislative action. If I had answered in the hackneyed style that the matter was under consideration, or something of that kind, I would have been charged with giving some countenance to suggestions of a kind not entitled to countenance. I thought the House and the country ought to be informed that if there were such ideas abroad it was not for us to foster them by any vague hopes. As to the Commission on the depression of agriculture, Ireland will be fully represented 'upon it, and the fullest inquiry will be made into the circumstances of Irish agriculture.


hoped they were not to infer from the silence of the Chief Secretary on the point that the Government would act on the extravagant recommendations of Mr. Justice Harrison and the Grand Jury which he addressed. He twitted the right hon. Gentleman with having used the word "Communism" in reference to proposals as to Irish land, just as he would have used the word "Darwinism" if it had expressed something equally unpopular. He hoped the right hon. Gentleman, when he became better acquainted with the educated mind of Ireland, would be ashamed of the description he had given of the demands of the Irish tenants.