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The Past And Future Of The Irish Question
by [?]



For half a century or more no question of English domestic politics has excited so much interest outside England as that question of resettling her relations with Ireland, which was fought over in the last Parliament, and still confronts the Parliament that has lately been elected. Apart from its dramatic interest, apart from its influence on the fortune of parties, and its effect on the imperial position of Great Britain, it involves so many large principles of statesmanship, and raises so many delicate points of constitutional law, as to deserve the study of philosophical thinkers no less than of practical politicians in every free country.

The circumstances which led to the introduction of the Government of Ireland Bill, in April, 1886, are familiar to Americans as well as Englishmen. Ever since the crowns and parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland were united, in A.D. 1800, there has been in Ireland a party which protested against that union as fraudulently obtained and inexpedient in itself. For many years this party, led by Daniel O’Connell, maintained an agitation for Repeal. After his death a more extreme section, which sought the complete independence of Ireland, raised the insurrection of 1848, and subsequently, under the guidance of other hands, formed the Fenian conspiracy, whose projected insurrection was nipped in the bud in 1867, though the conspiracy continued to menace the Government and the tranquillity of the island. In 1872 the Home Rule party was formed, demanding, not the Repeal of the Union, but the creation of an Irish Legislature, and the agitation, conducted in Parliament in a more systematic and persistent way than heretofore, took also a legitimate constitutional form. To this demand English and Scotch opinion was at first almost unanimously opposed. At the General Election of 1880, which, however, turned mainly on the foreign policy of Lord Beaconsfield’s Government, not more than three or four members were returned by constituencies in Great Britain who professed to consider Home Rule as even an open question. All through the Parliament, which sat from 1880 till 1885, the Nationalist party, led by Mr. Parnell, and including at first less than half, ultimately about half, of the Irish members, was in constant and generally bitter opposition to the Government of Mr. Gladstone. But during these five years a steady, although silent and often unconscious, process of change was passing in the minds of English and Scotch members, especially Liberal members, due to their growing sense of the mistakes which Parliament committed in handling Irish questions, and of the hopelessness of the efforts which the Executive was making to pacify the country on the old methods. The adoption of a Home Rule policy by one of the great English parties was, therefore, not so sudden a change as it seemed. The process had been going on for years, though in its earlier stages it was so gradual and so unwelcome as to be faintly felt and reluctantly admitted by the minds that were undergoing it. In the spring of 1886 the question could be no longer evaded or postponed. It was necessary to choose between one of two courses; the refusal of the demand for self-government, coupled with the introduction of a severe Coercion Bill, or the concession of it by the introduction of a Home Rule Bill. There were some few who suggested, as a third course, the granting of a limited measure of local institutions, such as county boards; but most people felt, as did Mr. Gladstone’s Ministry, that this plan would have had most of the dangers and few of the advantages of either of the two others.

How the Government of Ireland Bill was brought into the House of Commons on April 8th, amid circumstances of curiosity and excitement unparalleled since 1832; how, after debates of almost unprecedented length, it was defeated in June, by a majority of thirty; how the policy it embodied was brought before the country at the General Election, and failed to win approval–all this is too well known to need recapitulation here. But the causes of the disaster have not been well understood, for it is only now–now, when the smoke of the battle has cleared away from the field–that these causes have begun to stand revealed in their true proportions.