HL Deb 22 February 1904 vol 130 cc518-28

who had given notice to move to resolve "That the failure of the Land Act, 1903, to settle the land question, to promote goodwill between landlord and tenant, or even to check emigration, is due to the facts that the only classes it proposes to benefit are the substantial farmers already amply benefited by previous legislation, and that practically nothing has been done for the small tenants and cottiers, while at the same time the employment of labour has been, and will be still more, seriously affected by the displacement and exile of a residential proprietary and of the employing classes dependent on them; and therefore it is advisable to suspend the working of the said Act, as well as the further action of the Land Commission dealing with the fixing of rents, until such time as a proper inquiry can be made into the effect of such legislation on the poorer classes in Ireland," said: I do not think, my Lords, that the Leader of the Government in this House will deny that already the Irish Land Act has failed, for, if I mistake not, the noble Marquess has been obliged to notify his tenantry that there can be no talk of selling his estates on the ridiculous terms which their agrarian agitators are instructed to offer. The case of the noble Marquess is no isolated one; the fame story comes from all parts of Ireland. Although the tenantry are ready to give from thirty-five to fifty years' purchase to any other than a landlord, they are instructed to offer their landlords terms so absurd as not even to disguise the intention of open confiscation and robbery. The reason of this general conspiracy is notorious; it is the realisation of a vast combination, directed by the Clerico-Jacobin leaders against the gentry, mainly because they are generally Protestant, and partly because, notwithstanding the confiscatory action of Parliament, they still continue astonishingly loyal.

Your Lordships will permit me to produce a specimen which will illustrate the organisation and the campaign that are directed against the gentry of Ireland. When your Lordships were induced to pass that Land Act, which was intended to result in separating the Irish landlords from their estates forever—estates which it may not be irrelevant to remark were as lawfully acquired as any in Great Britain—it cannot have occurred to your Lordships that your legislation would be made the occasion for such proceedings as this. The pastoral letter which I am about to read from the Roman Catholic Bishop of Kildare must not be supposed to imply any exceptional animosity towards the Irish gentry on the part of this Prelate. On the contrary, I feel assured that the most reverend Bishop is a perfectly fair average of his brethren, with one or two exceptions. Writing on the 16th of September last year, the Roman Catholic Prelate of Kildare reminded his flock that the new Land Act would come into operation on November 1st, and proceeded to recommend his faithful people— To lose no time about ascertaining from the various landlords of the country whether they are willing to sell their properties to the tenants, and, if so, upon what terms. Your Lordships will admit that so far already this is a sufficiently surprising illustration of what the episcopal office may signify in Ireland. What business a bishop of any denomination has to poke his nose into the private affairs of the landlords and farmers of any country I am at a loss to understand. The bishop proceeds to ordain the following extraordinary measures for organising hostile pressure against the unfortunate landowners within the area of his apostolic exertions— I would suggest, wrote the right rev. Prelate, that after last mass, on next or the following Sunday, meetings of the tenants of the various estates should he held and representatives appointed for the purpose of communicating with the several landlords. It would he advisable that these representatives should as far as possible be selected from the tenantry of the estates in question. As soon as an answer to the questions is received from the landlord, second meetings of the tenantry should be held at which the tenants might be able to agree upon the amount which they would be prepared to offer for their holdings. The representatives should receive instructions to convene a third meeting as soon as they had carried proceedings to the furthest point which they might find possible. Every precaution should he taken with a view to making the best bargain possible. I have no doubt that the clergy will be found willing to do everything in their power to facilitate the holding of the preliminary meeting, and to assist their people to secure their farms on such terms as shall enable them to look to the future with some degree of hope if not with absolute confidence. Such, my Lords, in the moderate and guarded language of one of the ecclesiastical generals of the campaign, is an outline of the instructions disseminated throughout Ireland for the organisation of ultimatums to the proprietors, and for substituting intimidation by organised masses for the regular agreement between a landlord and his tenants. Nor does the Bishop forget the part which the clerical Press has to play in the work of expropriation. He says— The Press too, I know will also lend its aid by publishing from week to week the answers received from the various landlords. How may your Lordships like the prospect to which Imperial legislation condemns the Irish landlord? 'The Roman Catholic bishops as organisers general of the campaign; the order of battle to be read out at mass and from the altar steps to the obedient people; the priests directing the masses of the tenantry; the newspapers publishing appropriate comments on the conduct of such landlords as decline to yield to the episcopal ultimatum. Is this really how your Lordships' House intended to settle the Irish land question?

For over a third of a century, whenever the occupants of the Treasury Bench in this country found themselves in want of Parliamentary support, they flung a slice of the Irish landlords' property to the greedy populace whose votes they thought to buy. Indeed, the fiction of amending Acts and Land Commissions might have been dropped with advantage and economy, and the simple provision might have been enacted once for all, that every fifteen years or so an additional 20 per cent. of the remaining estates of the landlords should be confiscated for the benefit of the persons who had already benefited by the previous spoliations. The taxpayers would have been saved the costly farce of the Land Courts with their tribes of salaried officials, while the robbery of the landlord would have been not less open and quite as expeditious.

The last Land Act is already a failure. A mere handful of estates, forced by necessity, have come under its proposals. One great estate, which used to support the highest dignity in the Irish Peerage, has been sacrificed for ready money by the guardians of a minor, with little respect for the future of a title divorced from property and residence. But all these cases form a miserable fraction in comparison with the general failure of the Act. Though the country has been divided into districts under clerical and episcopal brigadiers, though the tenantry have been marched under their reverend colonels and to the military music of pastoral letters, to bombard their landlords with ultimatums of robbery, strange to say the Act has not worked; and, still more strange, peace and goodwill have not been promoted between landlord and tenant.

But, my Lords, there are consequences of the recent Act still more grievous than the perpetuation and envenoming of evil relations between cultivators and proprietors. The whole land, my Lords, has been struck with a paralysis and wasting disease. Even emigration, which it was hoped would decrease, still continues. Every month since the passing of the Land Act there are numbers flying from the Irish shores. Even Roman Catholic Bishops, such as Dr. Sheehan of Waterford, have lamented that— Hope itself has failed to induce the people to stay in their own land, and test the promised panacea of the new legislation. The coming of the new Land Act was at once the signal for the going of tens of thousands of the agricultural community to the United States, to New Zealand, anywhere out of the reach of the agrarian activity of the present Government legislation. By the same blow the landowners have been disheartened by the menace of final ruin, while the cultivating and labouring classes are flying from the prospect of a new race of small landholders without either the will or the capacity to give employment to industry.

This, my Lords, is the really serious feature of the Land Act's failure, that-all its promises, deceptive though they be, have been for that class of well-to-do farmers, already demoralised by confiscatory legislation and deliberate deterioration of land with a view to continual reduction of rents by the Land Courts, and nothing has been even promised to the vast majority of the population of Ireland. Not only to the town trades and industries, not only to the small tillers and agricultural labourers generally, but especially in the congested districts, the new Land Act has been the merest mockery of the distress of the population. It seems to have been the sole object of the authors of the lest Land Act, like its predecessors, to tickle the cupidity of the well-to-do farmers from whose ranks Maynooth is recruited; and provided that Maynooth and its partisans were encouraged, all the rest of the country, gentry and artisans, civilisation and labour, might go to ruin. The Land Act has improved no congested district; it has prevented no small farmer, no agricultural labourer, from realising his little property and flying beyond the Atlantic.

The operation of the Land Act must inevitably diminish the demand for labour, must diminish the demand for the products of trade and industry, must diminish every kind of employment which is given in a country by the higher classes of the community. As you place Ireland in the hands of men of low culture, of uncultivated tastes, with little desire for improvement, with no call upon their exertions but the demand for fresh extensions of ecclesiastical edifices and endowments, you strip all the higher classes of town trades, as well as the mass of agricultural labourers, of the whole of those employers and customers, who, belonging to the gentry and the learned professions connected with the gentry, have been condemned to impoverishment and banishment by such legislation as is embodied in the recent Land Act. My Lords, you cannot have the two things together; you cannot have a country deprived, by your legislation, of all the classes who in all countries are the chief employers of labour, and the chief patrons of culture and taste, and at the same time have a country abounding in all things which your legislation has deliberately destroyed. If you shut up the castles, mansions, and country houses, and the residences of all those professions and callings which go with a resident nobility and gentry, you must deprive that country and community of the classes, the industries, the occupations, and the employments which are fostered by the higher classes of society. I may be told that in a generation, or three generations, the descendants of the rough and violent farmers of the Land League will develop tastes for refinement and culture which will cause the revival of all the artistic trades and all the higher professions. My Lords, I doubt it.

The tendency of ignorance is to beget ignorance, and the incentives to progress come from above and not from below. But even granting that towards the middle of the century we may hope to see a peasantry with the manners and requirements of men of culture and taste, what is to become of all Ireland in the meanwhile? It is true that the Maynooth party, which is not without admirers in the existing Government, proposes to improve the situation by jealously educating the different creeds in separate and hostile academies, and by the practice of estrangement, and the inculcation of sectarianism, to promote a millennium of patriotism and Christianity. My Lords, I think that such an educational policy would be as great a success as the Land Act. The Land Act, like all its predecessors, has been that worst of failures—it has done evil and promoted dishonesty with no resulting advantage even to the classes in whose name its misdeeds were committed. The farmers are more demoralised and discontented than ever. One of their more moderate leaders, Mr. T. W. Russell, M.P., avows that nothing short of compulsory confiscation will now meet the appetites of his clients. A more numerous class of the community, the notorious Catholic Association, have been encouraged to proceed from the ruin of the landlord to the boycotting of all traders and professional men of a different religious denomination. This, my Lords, is the nemesis of public dishonesty, of robbery inculcated by Act of Parliament. In proportion as such legislation extends its hold upon the public fancy and debilitates the public conscience, its teaching and inspiration tend to contaminate all the springs of public life, and every class of the community becomes involved in the pestilence that you let loose upon the gentry and the landlords, thinking the gentry and the landlords would be the victims alone.

Moved to resolve, "That the failure of the Land Act, 1903, to settle the land question, to promote goodwill between landlord and tenant, or even to check emigration, is due to the facts that the only classes it proposes to benefit are the substantial farmers already amply benefited by previous legislation, and that practically nothing has been done for the small tenants and cottiers, while at the same time the employment of labour has been, and will be still more, seriously affected by the displacement and exile of a residential proprietary and of the employing classes dependent on them; and therefore it is advisable to suspend the working of the said Act, as well as the further action of the Land Commission dealing with the fixing of rents, until such time as a proper inquiry can be made into the effect of such legislation on the poorer classes in Ireland."—(Lord Muskerry.)


My Lords, I have listened with great attention to the speech of the noble Lord, and I regret very much that he should have thought it necessary to bring on this Motion at the present time. He is not supported by the Irish Peers in this House, nor will he meet with the approval of any class in Ireland who take an interest in the extension of land purchase. I believe the noble Lord's Motion to be premature and immature—premature from the fact that he has not allowed the Land Act sufficient time in which to judge of its working; and immature because he has not proved his case that the Act is a failure. The noble Lord began by saying that the Act was a total failure, and he quoted the case of the tenantry of the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, and the fact that they could not agree as to terms of purchase. There is no reason to think, because the terms of purchase cannot be at once agreed upon between the landlord and tenant, that the Act which was passed to effect such purchase is a failure. We must give it time to work. When sufficient time has been given, I think that without doubt it will be clearly proved that the Act is not a failure. It is within your Lordships' recollection that the Land Bill of last year occupied the attention of both Houses of Parliament for a considerable period, it became an Act at the end of the session, and came into operation in the beginning of November; it has therefore barely been working for four months. Yet the noble Lord stands up in his place and says, without any proof, and really without any authority, that the Act is a total failure. The noble Lord is a gallant sportsman and wants to drive his coach and four through that Act; but I am afraid that his horses are not well-trained at the present time, and that he must wait a considerable period before he will be able to attain his object. I have risen merely to say that I think it is a pity the noble Lord has brought forward this question at the present moment. He began his speech with a tirade against the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland. Those gentlemen are well able to take care of themselves. At the same time I would suggest to the noble Lord that he should postpone his Motion for a period of three or five years so as to give the Act sufficient time to work, and then if he is able to come before your Lordships and prove the statements which he has submitted to-night, no doubt he will get a patient hearing from everyone.


My Lords, after the observations of the noble Duke but little remains for me to say. The noble Lord who has introduced this Motion has rested it upon doleful prophecies and utterly unsupported statements. I believe, so far as I know, that he stands alone in your Lordships' House in presenting those views. There are very many noble Lords connected with Ireland, either as representative Peers or connected by family or property, who take a keen interest in everything that affects Ireland, and in the legislation relating to it, and I should be very much surprised if any of those noble Lords were found to range themselves by the side of the noble Lord who moved this Motion and say one word in support of the speech which he has made. The noble Lord really has not moved his Motion. For proof of that your Lordships have only to glance at the Paper which contains the terms of the extraordinary Motion that he has put before the House. I doubt if my noble friend can have realised the extent or the scope of what he was presenting, or that he at all realised the remedy that he suggests; he certainly has not said a syllable about that remedy in his speech. He said something about differences of opinion that have arisen in the ascertainment of the price of an estate and the value of farms and properties, but I would point out that the first offers and first refusals often have to be reconsidered again and again. I absolutely decline to be drawn into a discussion on the administration of the Act, which must be left to those who are entrusted by Parliament with the great responsiblity of seeing what is just and right in that behalf. It would, I venture to think, be entirely unbecoming for your Lordships to allow yourselves to be drawn into a discussion as to the way in which an Act, which has only just been passed, is approached by the different parties, who are deeply interested in the manner in which it is to be carried out.

My noble friend repeated two words seven or eight times—one was the word "culture," and the other was the word "failure." He seemed to derive comfort from the repetition of the word "failure," and sometimes he said "the admitted failure." Who admits it? Anyone in his senses will deny it. The Act has only been working some three months, and we know from debates elsewhere, and from figures that have been published, that its operation has been sound and beneficent. Already something like £1,500,000 worth of land has been sold, and surely that is very satisfactory in the short time that the Act has been in operation. Again, over 3,000 holdings have been purchased by the occupying tenants. The work is still going on well, every attention is paid to the administration of the Act, and there is every expectation that its operation will grow and extend. Is it not unreason-: able, in the case of such a great Act as this, to come forward in such a short period and expect that you will be able to be in a position to pass any judgment upon it? There is nothing to prevent small tenants availing themselves of the provisions in the Act. There was a considerable struggle when the Act was passing through the other House, and also here, to ensure that the larger tenants were not excluded. That was a great and legitimate struggle, but there was no struggle the other way, because there was nothing in the Act to prevent the smaller tenants availing themselves of it.

What remedy has the noble Lord suggested? I believe in the power of an Executive Government and of a Sovereign as much as anyone, but his remedy is that we should wave a magician's wand and arrest the working of the Land Act. Did your Lordships ever hear anything like it. How is the Government to suspend an Act of Parliament that is working, and whose operations are being carried on daily by a staff appointed and selected for that purpose? Such a thing as that is not within the region of argument or discussion. My noble friend goes on to say that by a similar exercise of impossible power we are to stay all the fair-rent inquiries in Ireland. Well, my Lords, anyone who knows anything of Irish land administration knows that it dates back to Mr. Gladstone's Bill of 1881. That is now the law of the land, and it has been dealt with by amendment in repeated legislation since; and the idea that it is within the scope or power of any Executive Government, without coming to Parliament, to suspend the working, not only of the last great Act, but of the entire Land Code in Ireland, is not a matter which is within the range of practical discussion. I venture to hope that my noble friend, if he is not satisfied entirely with what has been said,' will see that his Motion is, at all events, a little out of place at the present time.


In reply to the noble and learned Lord I may say that I am not at all satisfied, for the principal points mentioned in my Motion and in my speech have not been alluded to. I refer to the question of the unfortunate agricultural labourers of Ireland and also that of the town trade, neither of which questions has been dealt with. As, however, I am not going to meet with any support in your Lordships' House I can only ask permission to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave of the House, withdrawn.