HC Deb 11 April 1912 vol 36 cc1399-404

That inquiry naturally subdivides itself into two branches, according as the problem is regarded from the point of view of Ireland alone or especially, or from the point of view of the United Kingdom and the Empire at large. Let us then first see how the case stands in regard to Ireland. As Mr. Gladstone pointed out, it was not till the General Election of 1885 that the democracy of Ireland was able to give effective utterance to its view as to the way in which it should be governed. From the first moment the Irish people was granted an articulate political voice it pronounced by a majority of four to one of its representatives in favour of Home Rule. That verdict was repeated substantially in the same proportions in 1886 and in 1892, and when Mr. Gladstone spoke in 1893 he had in support of the proposition that "Ireland demands Home Rule" the evidence of three successive General Elections.

Since then nearly twenty years have passed, and from the date of the extension of the Franchise in 1884 we have had eight General Elections. The fortunes of parties in this House have during that time ebbed and flowed; Governments have come and gone; great personalities have filled the scene, and passed away. We have had as a nation peace and war, adversity and prosperity, shifting issues, changing policies; but throughout the welter and confusion, amid all the varying phases and fields of our electoral and Parliamentary campaigns, one thing has remained constant, subject neither to eclipse nor wane, the insistence and persistence of the Irish demand. It remains to-day, in April, 1912 what it was in January, 1886, and what in the interval it has never ceased to be a demand preferred by four-fifths of the elected representatives of the Irish people. Analyse the figures a little more closely, and they become even more significant.

Here in Great Britain, with the exception of a few peculiarly situated areas, we are accustomed to see the Parliamentary complexion of particular constituencies change from time to time in correspondence with the changes in public opinion, but over by far the larger part of Ireland, while this great issue of national self-government dominates the scene, you see nothing of the kind. The vast majority of the Nationalists' seats are not even contested by those who differ from them. Eighty per cent, at the last Election of the Nationalist Members were returned without opposition. In the three provinces of Leinster, Munster, and Con-naught, with, I believe, only three exceptions—one of them the borough of Galway in which there was not a serious fight—the only pollings that took place were between rival Nationalist candidates. Ulster is the only province where there were real contests, and where opinion is genuinely divided. But look at Ulster. Taking Ulster as a whole, the province of Ulster is represented at this moment, how? By seventeen Unionists and sixteen Home Rulers.

These figures in themselves are quite sufficient to show the misleading character of the pretence that Ulster would die rather than accept Home Rule. I have never under-estimated the force, and I have never spoken with disrespect of the motives of the strong and determined hostility which is felt to Home Rule by the majority in the north-eastern counties of Ulster, reinforced, I agree, by a powerful minority in other parts of that province. It is a factor which sane and prudent statesmanship cannot and ought not to leave out of account. I hope presently to show that we have not ignored it in the framing of this Bill. But we cannot admit, and we will not admit, the right of a minority of the people, and relatively a small minority—particularly when every possible care is being taken to safeguard their special interests and susceptibilities—to veto the verdict of the vast body of their countrymen. That verdict, I say again, is to-day as emphatic as it was twenty-five years ago. And if you refuse to recognize it, you are refusing to recognise the deliberate constitutional demands of the vast majority of the nation, repeated and ratified—


What nation?


What nation? The Irish nation—repeated and ratified time after time during the best part of the life of a generation. So far, then, Mr. Gladstone's position is strongly fortified "by our later experience. But, while Ireland remains constant in her political claim, she has, in other respects, not stood still. And it is necessary to consider what is the bearing, if any, of these other changes which she has undergone, upon the Home Rule case. I am glad to acknowledge that the improvement in the conditions of social order—due to a variety of causes, both material and moral—has deprived one of the arguments which used sometimes to be employed of much of its cogency and appositeness. Home Rule can no longer be represented as it used to be sometimes, as a counsel of despair, as a concession to violence, as an appeal to the fears and apprehensions of the British electorate. On the other hand, the social and economic conditions of Ireland and its relations to the United Kingdom have been largely affected since 1893 by Imperial legislation. There are the Local Government Act, the Land Purchase Act, the Labourers Act, the University Act, and last, but not least, the Acts for establishing Old Age Pensions and National Insurance. There are, I know, some critics who say that the mere enumeration of such a catalogue of beneficent measures is in itself a refutation of the supposed necessity for Home Rule, and ought to make an irresistible appeal to the gratitude of the Irish people. That is not, to my mind, a very formidable argument. I can, at any rate, imagine an Irishman—if I were an Irishman, talking as an Irishman—saying that there are still two sides to the account, and that measures such as these, even if they had been shaped more nearly than some have been in accordance with Irish wishes and Irish interests, were but a tardy and inadequate set off against an irreparable past, against the evils wrought, as an Irishman would say and believe, by over-taxation, by depopulation, by the legalised confiscation of the property of the tillers of the soil, which went on unchecked during the forty years that elapsed between the grant of Catholic emancipation and the first of Mr. Gladstone's great remedial Acts.

But I do not wish to burn my feet in the embers of historical controversy. It is more to my purpose—more, at any rate, to my immediate purpose—to observe that the working of these new laws has already done much to weaken the force, and indeed to blunt the point of what twenty years ago were some of the most serviceable arrows in the Unionist quiver. Why do I say that? First because the operation of elective bodies, such as the county councils, which have now been at work for over fifteen years, has not been attended by the jobbery, maladministration, and persecution of minorities, which were so glibly predicted as the inevitable incidence of self-government in Ireland. Next—and this is really a more important point—that the implication upon a large, I might say upon a colossal, scale of Imperial credit in the working out of Land Purchase and in the maintenance of Old Age Pensions makes the idea of separation between the two islands more unthinkable than it ever was. Carlyle used to speak with a certain amount of contempt of the substitution for a sentimental of a cash nexus between employers and employed; but a cash nexus, still more, perhaps, a credit nexus between two countries in the relative geographical and economic conditions of Great Britain and Ireland, is a sensible and measurable addition, if addition were needed, to the countless invisible and immaterial ties which have made them politically one, and which no mutation of time or circumstance can ever put asunder.

I wish now to ask the House to proceed to consider the same problem, and make the same survey from a wider point of view, that of the United Kingdom and the Empire at large. I myself, while recognising to the full the priority and paramount urgency of the Irish claim have always presented the case for Irish Home Rule as the first step, and only the first step in a larger and more comprehensive policy. I said so with the utmost distinctness in a speech which I made on the Second Reading of the Bill of 1893, and in the twenty years which have since elapsed there is not one year which has not illustrated and emphasised with ever-growing cogency and clearness the imperative need, in the interests of the United Kingdom and of the Empire as a whole, for the emancipation from local cares and local burdens of the Imperial Parliament. Look, first of all, at the effect of our present system upon purely domestic legislation and administration. It inflicts every year a double injury upon each of the component parts of the United Kingdom. For the moment I leave Ireland out of the account. In the first place there is no time or room to deal with their separate needs. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that when the, season annually comes round for compiling the King's Speech, the practical question for those concerned with its composition is what is the least instalment of that which is admittedly overdue by which England, Scotland, and Wales can respectively for the Session be bought off. That is what it comes to, and further, not only is our local legislation hopelessly in arrear but under our existing arrangements it is constantly coloured and twisted and warped by the voices and votes of those who have no direct concern in the matter. Local experience, local sentiment, and local interest are over-ridden and set at nought. You will never get—I am speaking the lesson that has been taught me by a quarter of a century of Parliamentary experience—the separate concerns of the different parts of this United Kingdom treated either with adequate time or with adequate knowledge and sympathy until you have the wisdom and the courage to hand them over to the representatives whom alone they immediately affect.