Home Rule

William Ewart Gladstone became British prime minister in 1868. "My mission is to pacify Ireland", he immediately affirmed. Among his first measures was the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, a recognition that it was inappropriate to have a formal link between the state and a denomination supported only by a small minority of the Irish people. His Land Act of 1870 gave greater security to some tenants, and those who left their holdings could claim compensation for improvements they had made. However, the act proved unsatisfactory in practice, and agitation for land reform steadily increased. Equally important was the demand for home rule.

In 1870 Isaac Butt, a Protestant lawyer who had represented Fenian prisoners and campaigned for an amnesty, founded the Home Government Association. He initially envisaged a Dublin parliament responsible for domestic affairs, with Irish MPs continuing to sit at Westminster. The association was replaced in 1873 by a more aggressive Home Rule League, and after the following year's general election (the first with a secret ballot) fifty-nine MPs were committed to home rule. Butt died in 1879, and after a further general election in 1880, the Irish parliamentary party (now sixty-one in number) elected Charles Stewart Parnell as its leader. During the next decade he dominated Irish affairs as Daniel O'Connell had once done.

Parnell, a wealthy Protestant land-owner from County Wicklow, might have seemed an unlikely advocate of home rule. However, his American mother had always been hostile to England, and he himself was horrified by the execution of the Manchester martyrs. Soon after entering parliament, he shocked the House of Commons by saying, "I never shall believe any murder was committed at Manchester." He quickly adopted the obstructionist tactics initiated by his fellow MP, the Fenian Joseph Biggar, exploiting parliament's rules of procedure to delay business and force the government to attend to Irish grievances.

Parnell's militancy found favour among such Fenian leaders as Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League, and John Devoy, who was active in America. The Fenians were still committed to the use of physical force, and there were many agrarian outrages during the "land war". However, Parnell's support for land reform was valuable, and the three men formed a loose alliance known as the "New Departure". Parnell became president of the Land League, but he was dissatisfied with Gladstone's Land Act of 1881 and his provocative language resulted in imprisonment in Dublin and suppression of the league. Seven months later, secret negotiations led to his release, and to new legislation which helped tenants with arrears of rent.

A new organisation, the Irish National League, switched the emphasis to home rule. After the 1885 election the eighty-six members of Parnell's party held the balance of power at Westminster, and Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule Bill. Ninety-three of Gladstone's own Liberal MPs voted against the bill, and it was defeated. In 1889 Parnell was cited as co-respondent in a divorce case, and the scandal cost him the leadership of his party. Two years later he was dead.

The struggle for home rule continued, and Gladstone introduced a second bill in 1893, only to see it defeated in the House of Lords. However, the Liberal Party was now firmly committed on the issue, and after the 1906 general election enjoyed a huge majority in the House of Commons. The Parliament Act of 1911 reduced the peers' veto on legislation to a delaying power. A new Home Rule Bill, introduced in 1912, was rejected by the Lords, and became law in 1914. With the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 it was agreed that this Government of Ireland Act should not be implemented until the war was over but by 1918 much had changed.