HC Deb 27 May 1879 vol 246 cc1389-99

said, he was pleased with the frank but tardy conduct of the front Opposition Benches, in at length acting upon the policy so long since advocated by the seven Irish Home Rule Members. If the Government could not, within the ordinary time available for Public Business, give an opportunity for the discussion of urgent Irish subjects, they should reduce the Whitsuntide Holidays in order to afford the necessary time for that purpose. Much of the time of the House had been taken up by discussions provoked by the innumerable blunders of the Government. He rose for the purpose of calling attention to the deplorable and unendurable condition of the landed interest in Ireland. It was impossible that agriculture could be developed in Ireland—that Irish tenants could put that labour, skill, and capital into the land upon which the flourishing state of agriculture depended, so long as insecurity of tenure hung over the head of the tenant. The present system was a premium in favour of sloth and negligence, and an obstacle to diligence and the advance of every kind of prosperity. Two hundred and ninety landlords owned one-third of the Island, and 744 owned about half; and the question was, was the prosperity, or the chance of a livelihood, of 1,000,000 homesteads to depend upon a small battalion of 760 persons, monopolizing half the land—750, with their sisters, and their cousins, and their aunts, in comparison with the entire population of Ireland? The Land Bill of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Gladstone) was a monument of the good intentions of the right hon. Gentleman rather than of the capacity of English Parties to deal with Irish questions. If Irish tenants were to continue to be subject to the evils of capricious eviction, to the screwing up of rents beyond the point of endurance, to confiscation of improvements—if that was to continue much longer, Parliament would have to solve a greater problem than that which startled them a few years ago, when the whisper of liberty reached Ireland from the other side of the Atlantic. He should move an Amendment to the Motion for adjournment to the effect that the adjournment be only till June 2nd, instead of till June 9th. He did not know whether those who were devoted to Irish legislation would present such attractions to English Members as to induce them to give up the enjoyments of the country in order to take part in Irish discussions; but he was sure that the majority of the popular Irish Members would be quite prepared to take full advantage of any extra time that might be given to them for the consideration of Irish Business. If the English Members absented themselves, it would only be carrying out the policy they generally pursued. They usually absented themselves from the discussion of Irish Business, and presented themselves only when it was necessary to vote down Irish demands. If during the extra week, which he proposed to give for the discussion of indispensable Irish Business, the English Members absented themselves from the Divisions, as well as the discussions, he was not sure that it would not be hailed as a long-desired improvement. If the Government were not prepared to grant them the House next week, he hoped they would grant thorn time for the discussion of two or three of the most pressing Irish grievances which demanded a remedy. By attempting to postpone the redress of Irish grievances—particularly the unendurable evils of the Irish tenant system.—they would not succeed in avoiding or evading the energetic prosecution of those questions by the Irish Representatives in Parliament. He concluded by moving his Amendment.


, in seconding the Amendment, said, he had not the slightest desire to interfere with the holidays of hon. Members; but he thought it would not be right that the House should separate for the Whitsuntide Recess without some words being spoken as to the question which was most important to the Irish people. They had been occupied three hours in discussing the foreign policy of the Government. Not a moment of that time was wasted. It was most properly given up to that great subject. He only regretted that it had not been possible to extract more clearly the genuine intentions of the Government with regard to South Africa. But that time having been occupied fairly, it was not too much to ask the House to give a few minutes' consideration to a question of the greatest importance to Ireland. Think of how little importance to Ireland, except for the loss it entailed in men and money, was this war with its doubtful glory! Let them, therefore, turn their attention to the Land Question in Ireland. He knew there was a theory that when war was going on the attention of the Government was absorbed in it, and that it was almost impossible to withdraw their attention to matters of domestic interest. But even if they accepted that ancient theory with regard to the great Leaders of the Government, it could not be held that the heads of the various Departments were equally absorbed. He could not imagine that the Chief Secretary for Ireland was passing anxious days and feverish nights turning over the maps of South Africa to find a policy for his Chief. He had very little doubt that were the Chief Secretary provided with a mission to South Africa, he might with his blandishments tempt Cetewayo over very soon to good terms of peace; but he had no such mission, and it was not too much to expect that even amid the clash of arms the right hon. Gentleman should be able to give a little of his attention to Ireland. The Chief Secretary had an able Colleague in the Irish Attorney General, who was officially free to take only an historic interest in these great wars, and who might find some time to bestow on the Irish Land Question. He was perfectly certain that the distress in Ireland had become so great as to render an attempt by Parliament to deal with the question imperative and unavoidable. They heard from farmers, priests, and peasants alike, that the crisis was imminent, urgent, even perilous. He was speaking the other day with an Irish landlord on the Conservative side of the House, who assured him that he had never known a season so bad for many of the Irish tenants. He told him that he had written to his agent only to press for rents from the men who really could pay, and to be lenient with those who could not, and that the agent wrote back to say that none were able to pay, and that they were all sufferers alike. That was a condition of things representative of the Land Question in at least one or two counties in Ireland, and surely it was one which ought to attract attention from the House of Commons. One or two Motions had been introduced during the Session which seemed to point to some promise. There was the debate on the Motion of the hon. Member for Heading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre) on the "Bright Clauses" of the Land Act. They had a flat denial of assistance from the Chief Secretary for Ireland, and then a liberal promise from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Now, the Irish Members would like to know before the House separated whether anything was going to be done—whether any efforts were to be made to improve the condition of the tenantry of Ireland; or whether the only contribution the Chief Secretary was about to offer was his piece of legislation for the regulation of dogs in Ireland? That Bill rather reminded him of an amusing-passage in the pleasant story of Alice in Wonderland, where some one of the mysterious personages found Alice weary, and tired, and gasping with thirst, and said to her—"Oh, you poor little girl, I know exactly what you want—you want a dry biscuit." That was the kind of contribution which the Chief Secretary had made to the settlement of the Irish Land Question, he appealed to the House not to go away for the Holidays until the Government had made some promise and given some assurance with regard to the Irish Land Question. He hoped he would not be met with the stereotyped excuse that such an appeal was interfering with the Business of the House. Nothing could be more legitimately or more urgently the Business of the House than that the Government should give some assurance to the Irish peasantry which might send them a gleam of hope, and let them know oven when Parliament was not sitting there, yet that some thought would be taken of their condition, and that some effort was about to be made to improve their future.

Amendment proposed, to leave out "9th," in order to insert "2nd,"—(Mr. O'Donnell,)—instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That '9th' stand part of the Question."


supported the Amendment, and expressed a hope that some Member of the Government would answer the two able speeches that had just been delivered. When a majority of the Representatives of a nation came solemnly before the Legislature to make a proposal, it was their duty to urge the proposal in and out of season, at convenient and inconvenient times, and to select especially those occasions on which they were likely to attract the attention of the country. This was the position of the Irish Members in that House with regard to the Land Question. He complained that there had been a want of candour on the part of the Government in appointing a Committee on the subject of the Irish Land Laws the Session before last. After that Committee had been at the trouble of investigating the subject, and coming down to the House with distinct recommendations, the Government had taken no pains whatever to carry out those recommendations. They had even failed to give any satisfactory promise that they intended to carry them out. Again, when a private Irish Member had this Session presented a Bill to secure fixity of tenure, it had been received with but scant courtesy from the Government. How long did they think the Irish people would submit to have their grievances postponed for the convenience of the Government? The patience of the Irish people was well nigh exhausted; and if Parliament did not come forward within a reasonable time with some measure of legislation calculated to relieve the depression of the present state of agriculture in Ireland, scenes would arise in Ireland that would be far more dangerous to the rights of property and to the order and tranquillity which should prevail in that country than any that Ireland had been afflicted with in her long struggle with the ignorance, if not the incompetence, of the English Parliament. If these warnings were unheeded, and Parliament should plead for further delay, the consequences must be fixed on their own shoulders.


said, there could be no doubt that there was alarming distress amidst the agricultural interests not only of Ireland but of Great Britain, and was sure that when the case was fairly and reasonably presented to hon. Members they would feel that, however serious might be the state of matters in Afghanistan and South Africa, they ought to turn from those places to the interests of Great Britain and Ireland. An hypothetical advantage might be gained from this country making another sweep of territory in South Africa, a territory which they could not colonize, but precious land at their own door was at that moment being thrown upon the hands of landlords, because tenants were not able to cultivate it. He would neither express, nor join in expressing, any wholesale indictment against the landlords of Ireland. They fell, in his opinion, far short in many respects; but he had never failed to admit that in their errors and shortcomings they might be the creation and the creatures of circumstances, and that they possessed a great many excellent qualities which were not always remembered. When he looked at the English newspapers, what was the story which he read on every hand? It was a story of farms, untenanted and arable, to be let; but, at the same time, and more important in its significance, and certainly very commendable to the English landlords, it was a story of reductions of rents on the part of those gentlemen. It was with extreme pleasure he observed that amongst the first of the English landlords who had adopted this kindly, humane, and just course of procedure, was the first Commoner of England, who had the proud privilege of presiding over the deliberations of the House of Commons. But let them cross the Channel to Ireland, and did they there see a similar line of conduct to that of the English landlords as a palliative to the fast prevailing distress? He was bound to say that he saw nothing like it. There might be a solitary instance or two where the example had been followed; but there was no attempt on the part of the body of Irish landlords to imitate the English landlords in this particular matter. It was not from any intention to play the part of Shylock that this state of matters arose; but an evil tradition prevailed in Ireland, whereas a kindly custom prevailed in England. The tradition, as regarded Ireland, was that the distress was all pretended; and in England the landlord felt that the tenant was part of himself. He entered quickly into his sympathies, and he provided for him when the necessity arose. In the depth of the Irish Famine, when it was already eight or ten months old, that Famine in which 1,000,000 souls were lost, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. Newdegate), who was not a hard-hearted gentleman by any means, absolutely declared at a farmers' dinner in England that the cry of famine in Ireland in 1847 was a pretence of agitators. The hon. Member laughed at it. He scoffed at it, and there was a considerable misleading of public opinion on the subject. There was yet sufficient time on the part of the Legislature to take preventative measures and to grapple with the evil. He maintained that the House owed a great deal to the Irish agricultural interests, and that Great Britain had never repaid in money, or in money's worth, what was due by it upon a fair balance to Ireland when England adopted Free Trade. England adopted Free Trade because the manufacturing element was predominant in her councils; and the agricultural interests of Ireland were sacrificed to what was rightly believed to be the general interest of the time. England was a manufacturing country, and it was her right to have Free Trade; but the agricultural Ireland was destroyed for the moment by that measure, which meant the sweeping away of thousands of acres, and. which involved the destruction of thousands of Irish farmers, and the enforced emigration of thousands of the Irish peasantry. At the period of which he spoke it would only have been a just act on the part of England to have compensated Ireland with, at least, £20,000,000, £30,000,000, £40,000,000, or £50,000,000. Parliament would be forced to deal with the question of what was to become of the agricultural interests of the country. He recollected the present Prime Minister achieving one of his greatest triumphs by moving a Resolution as to the necessity of considering distress which prevailed amongst those interests; and he hoped that on the present occasion the country Gentlemen in the House would, irrespective of Party, agree to unite in impressing upon the Government the desirability of affording an assurance that, on the re-assembling of the House after the Holidays, an opportunity would be given for considering the position of the Irish and the British farmer—in other words, that an hour would be taken from the Antipodes to consider the exigencies of our position at home.


said, he had listened with respectful attention to the Notice of Motion given by the hon. Member for Meath (Mr. Parnell), because the condition of agriculture, both in this country as well as in Ireland, was that of the gravest depression, and there was no doubt they were justified in saying that the depression was of such a character that it deserved the attention of the Government. What, however, he wished to point out was that he did not think any practical result could be found by pressing the Motion on that occasion; because he had placed a Motion on the Paper to inquire into the condition of agricultural affairs in the whole of the United Kingdom and Ireland. After the Motion for the adjournment of the House was carried, a ballot would take place, and he hoped to be successful, and secure a day after the Whitsuntide Recess; but if he did not, he fully intended to ask the Government if it would not be in their power to afford him facilities for bringing forward a subject of such vital importance to a large portion of the population, not only of England and Scotland, but also of Ireland?


said, he knew from experience that great agricultural distress prevailed in Ireland. He was talking the other day with a collector of the cess tax, who told him that lie had never had such great difficulty since 1847 in getting money from the farmers. Owing to the great depression, and to the competition of the American market in corn, meal, and butter, the profits of the farmer had gone down considerably, and he knew that both the graziers and the small farmers experienced the greatest difficulty in making both ends meet. He believed that even on fairly-rented properties, it was a necessity for the tenant to have such security of tenure as would develop to the fullest the capabilities of the soil. Ireland at present was not more than one-third cultivated as it ought to be, and even its cultivated lands ought to produce three times as much as they did. It was necessary for the House to consider how best to devise a measure for the protection of the industry and exertions of the tenant—a measure of protection for the value which he added to the land; and he had no hesitation in saying that they must be prepared to adopt an exceptional measure of land reform for Ireland, as compared with England. He would not prolong the discussion on that occasion; but, unless the Government were ready to afford some opportunities for the consideration of this subject after Whitsuntide, and unless they intended, at all events, to do something in the direction of the recommendations of the Select Committee that sat upon the matter last Session, under the Presidency of the hon. Member for Beading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre), the question was one which would have to be taken up by the Irish Members in a firm and determined fashion. It was one which deeply affected their constituencies; and even if they were disposed to hang back a little on the subject, the constituencies would not allow them.


thought the Irish Representatives were entitled to know whether Her Majesty's Govern- ment were prepared to adhere to the declaration which was made by the Chief Secretary during the last debate on this subject—That any proposal calculated to give the Irish tenant security in his holding was a measure which might be called a measure of confiscation and of Communism? He had listened to a great many debates on the Land Question in that House. He had heard a great many unfavourable replies from Governments on both sides; but he had never listened to language which had produced a greater sense and feeling alike of consternation and of anger throughout Ireland than that of the right hon. Gentleman. It was only natural that his hon. Friend (Mr. O'Donnell) should ask for some declaration on the subject before the House adjourned for the Holidays. He was glad to find that the Motion of which the hon. Member for Mid-Lincolnshire (Mr. Chaplin) had given Notice would include the case of Irish agricultural depression; but he warned the Government against the way in which they appeared to be treating the question. Did Her Majesty's Ministers suppose that the interests of good government in this country, or the Business of the House of Commons, would be promoted by their obstinately preserving a contemptuous silence on the matter? The Irish Members were in earnest on the question. They knew their own minds upon it; and they were backed by 5,000,000 of people across the water. They were determined to vindicate their rights, by quiet and orderly means if possible; but they were prepared, if need be, to resort to all the means which the House had put into their hands in order to bring before the Legislature and the country the great interests which they were sent there to represent.


said, the hon. Gentleman had complained that Her Majesty's Government viewed with nonchalance the distress which existed among the agricultural classes in Ireland. If the sentiments evoked in the breasts of the Government were those of nonchalance, it, at any rate showed that they were not too thin-skinned with respect to expressions which hon. Members made use of about their individuality. He did not complain of the plain-speaking in which the hon. Gentleman had indulged, and must claim a similar privilege himself, and say that he must adhere to anything that he had said standing in that place on former occasions; but that in nothing which he or any of his Colleagues had said had they ever expressed any want of sympathy with the depression which he admitted to exist in the agriculture of Ireland. He was glad, however, to think that that depression, although undoubted, was neither so prevalent nor so acute as the depression at present existing in other parts of the United Kingdom. He thought that the hon. Member for Mid-Lincolnshire (Mr. Chaplin) had done good service in drawing the attention of the House to the fact that the Motion which he proposed to bring forward would deal not merely with an isolated branch of a great subject, but would deal with the entire question in all its bearings. That Motion would afford a legitimate opportunity for the expression of opinion on the part of hon. Members representing all sections of the United Kingdom. In the course of the debate, allusion had been made to the landlords of Ireland as not having been so generous as the landlords of England in regard to agricultural depression; but it was the fact that great personal sacrifices had been made by many of them in their efforts to relieve the present distress. In justice to the landlords of Ireland, he had thought it right to say so much. He trusted the House would not disperse for the Recess in the spirit of the hon. Member for Galway, or with any idea in their minds that the landed distress in Ireland was viewed with unconcern by Her Majesty's Government, who had every desire to see what could be done to remedy it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Original Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House, at its rising, do adjourn until Monday 9th June.