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How We Became Home Rulers
by [?]

In the Home Rule contest of the last eighteen months no argument has been more frequently used against the Liberal party than the charge of sudden, and therefore, it would seem, dishonest change of view. “You were opposed to an Irish Parliament at the election of 1880 and for some time afterward; you are not entitled to advocate it in 1886.” “You passed a Coercion Bill in 1881, your Ministry (though against the protests of an active section of its supporters) passed another Coercion Bill in 1882; you have no right to resist a third such Bill in 1887, and, if you do, your conduct can be due to nothing but party spite and revenge at your own exclusion from office.” Reproaches of this kind are now the stock-in-trade, not merely of the ordinary politician, who, for want of a case, abuses the plaintiff’s attorney, but of leading men, and, still more, of leading newspapers, who might be thought bound to produce from recent events and an examination of the condition of Ireland some better grounds for the passion they display. It is noticeable that such reproaches come more often from the so-called Liberal Unionists than from the present Ministry. Perhaps, with their belief that all Liberals are unprincipled revolutionaries, the Tories deem a sin more or less to be of small account. Perhaps a recollection of their own remarkable gyrations, before and after the General Election of 1885, may suggest that the less said about the past the better for everybody. Be the cause what it may, it is surprising to find that a section commanding so much ability as the group of Dissentient Liberals does, should rely rather on the charge of inconsistency than on the advocacy of any counter-policy of their own. It is not large and elevated, but petty, minds that rejoice to say to an opponent (and all the more so if he was once a friend), “You must either be wrong now, or have been wrong then, because you have changed your opinion. I have not changed; I was right then, and I am right now.” Such an argument not only dispenses with the necessity of sifting the facts, but it fosters the satisfaction of the person who employs it. Consistency is the pet virtue of the self-righteous, and the man who values himself on his consistency can seldom be induced to see that to shut one’s eyes to the facts which time develops, to refuse to reconsider one’s position by the light they shed, to cling to an old solution when the problem is substantially new, is a proof, not of fortitude and wisdom, but rather of folly and conceit.

Such persons may be left to the contemplation of their own virtues. But there are many fair-minded men of both political parties, or of neither, who, while acquitting those Liberal members who supported Home Rule in 1886 and opposed Coercion in 1887 of the sordid or spiteful motives with which the virulence of journalism credits them, have nevertheless been surprised at the apparent swiftness and completeness of the change in their opinions. It would be idle to deny that, in startling the minds of steady-going people, this change did, for the moment, weaken the influence and weight of those who had changed. This must be so. A man who says now what he denied six years ago cannot expect to be believed on his ipse dixit. He must set forth the grounds of his conviction. He must explain how his views altered, and why reasons which formerly satisfied him satisfy him no longer. It may be that the Liberal party have omitted to do this as they ought. Occupied by warm and incessant discussions, and conscious, I venture to believe, of their own honesty, few of its members have been at the trouble of showing what were the causes which modified their views, and what the stages of the process which carried them from the position of 1880 to that of 1886.