Killing Home Rule with Kindness

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What was the background to the Conservative policy of ‘killing Home Rule with kindness’? What measures did they introduce to achieve their aims?

The results of the 1886 election in Britain had far reaching consequences for Ireland and the Home Rule Movement. In Britain too, the events of 1886 changed the nature of politics. Between 1885 and 1886 the Liberals had dominated British politics. The split over Home Rule weakened it. For the next twenty years, up to 1906, the Conservatives were the dominant party. As a whole, the party fervently believed that Home Rule was for the good of Ireland and the Empire. They believed that the people of Ireland did not actually want Home Rule but were led astray by clever agitators like Parnell. And so, to quieten the voice of Home Rule in Ireland, the Tory Government adopted a policy sometimes called as ‘killing Home Rule with kindness’ but more formally known as ‘Constructive Unionism’.

Surprisingly, Constructive Unionism originated within the Liberal Party from a leading Radical named Joseph Chamberlain. He felt that the way Britain ran Irish affairs was unfair and undemocratic. The most suitable way to solve this problem he thought was to make local government more democratic. In 1885, Irish counties were run by unelected Grand Juries. Chamberlain wanted to replace them with county councils, elected by people who paid local taxes. He also suggested that Irish MPs and members of the local councils should meet in a ‘Central Board’, which would deal with internal Irish affairs, such as railways and land. He presented this idea to Parnell who originally expressed an interest in the Central Board idea, but later announced that he would not consider it as an alternative to a proper Irish parliament.

New agitation began to arise shortly after the formation of the Conservative government with ‘The Plan of Campaign’ being championed by several leading Home Rulers. In response, Lord Salisbury appointed a new chief Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to deal with it. Balfour planned to use a two-pronged approach to deal with the plan: imprison the leaders of the new agitation while at the same time win over tenants by dealing with the problems they faced. Chamberlain soon wrote a pamphlet called ‘A Unionist Policy for Ireland’. In it he claimed that most people in Ireland did not really want Home Rule, but that they did have real problems with land ownership, poverty and a lack of democracy in local government. If the Westminster Government showed that it could solve their problems, the Irish would realise that they benefitted from the Union and would stop looking for independence.

Steps had been taken by the Tory government to win Irish approval with the 1885 Ashbourne Land Act in which £5 million was made available for land purchase. However, in 1891 Balfour began to put his own ideas into practice. He began with a major land act. This included £33 million being made available for land purchase with tenants repaying the borrowed amount in instalments over 49 years. However, this move proved to be unsuccessful as Landlords were paid in government bonds rather than cash and tenants were to fulfil complicated legal agreements when purchasing their farms. In the 1890s the London Stock Market performed so poorly that the land could not be sold for their full value. Many landlords decided to wait for better times before selling up.

The Act also entailed a second part. A new body called the Congested Districts Board was to be set up in order to aid the poorest tenant farmers whose farms were economically unviable. It identified 3.5 million acres in cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim and Donegal as ‘congested districts’. The Board was to increase the size of farms by buying up and redistributing underused land, and by resettling people from congested districts in areas where land was available. Another aim was to improve farming techniques among the poor farmers and also to...
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