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The "Unionist" Position
by [?]

Next to Lord Salisbury the most prominent member of the Conservative party at that date was Lord Randolph Churchill. On the 3rd of January, 1885, when it was rumoured that Mr. Gladstone’s Government, then in office, intended to renew a few of the clauses of the Crimes Act, Lord Randolph Churchill made a speech at Bow against any such policy. The following quotation will suffice as a specimen of his opinion: “It comes to this, that the policy of the Government in Ireland is to declare on the one hand, by the passing of the Reform Bill, that the Irish people are perfectly capable of exercising for the advantage of the Empire the highest rights and privileges of citizenship; and by the proposal to renew the Crimes Act they simultaneously declare, on the other hand, that the Irish people are perfectly incapable of performing for the advantage of society the lowest and most ordinary duties of citizenship…. All I can say is that, if such an incoherent, such a ridiculous, such a dangerously ridiculous combination of acts can be called a policy, then, thank God, the Conservative party have no policy.”

Within a few months of the delivery of that speech a Conservative Government was in office, with Lord Randolph Churchill as its leader in the House of Commons; and one of the first acts of the new leader was to separate himself ostentatiously from the Irish policy of Lord Spencer and from the policy of coercion in general. Lord Randolph Churchill, as the organ of the Government in the House of Commons, repudiated in scornful language any atom of sympathy with the policy pursued by Lord Spencer in Ireland; and Lord Carnarvon, the new Viceroy, declared that “the era of coercion” was past, and that the Conservative Government intended to govern Ireland by the ordinary law. Lord Carnarvon, in addition, and very much to his credit, sought and obtained an interview with Mr. Parnell, and discussed with him, in sympathetic language, the question of Home Rule. In his own explanation of this interview Lord Carnarvon admitted that he desired to see established in Ireland some form of self-government which would satisfy “the national sentiment.”

It is idle, therefore, to assert that the question of Home Rule for Ireland, in some form or other, was sprung on the country as a surprise by Mr. Gladstone in the beginning of 1886. The question was brought prominently before the public in the General Election of 1885 as one that must be faced in the new Parliament. All parties were committed to that policy, and the only difference was as to the character and limits of the measure of self-government to be granted to Ireland; whether it was to be large enough to satisfy “the national sentiment,” as Lord Carnarvon, Mr. Chamberlain, Mr. Gladstone, and others desired; or whether it was to consist only of a system of county boards under the control of a reformed Dublin Castle. There was a general agreement that the grant to Ireland of electoral equality with England necessitated equality of political treatment, and that, above all things, there was to be no renewal of the stale policy of Coercion until the Irish people had got an opportunity of proving or disproving their fitness for self-government, unless, indeed, there should happen to be a recrudescence of crime which would render exceptional legislation necessary. The election of 1886 turned almost entirely on the question of Irish government, and it is not too much to say that Conservatives and Liberal Unionists vied with Home Rulers in repudiating a return to the policy of coercion until the effect of some kind of self-government had been tried. Of course, there were the usual platitudes about the necessity of maintaining law and order; but there was a consensus of profession that coercion should not be resorted to unless there was a fresh outbreak of crime and disorder in Ireland.