The election of 1868 was a turning point in the history and legislation of this country. The Reform Bill of Mr. Disraeli, practicality household suffrage, had raised the working classes of the country to a position and influence that they had never occupied before. As an illustration of its effect, I may mention that the electorate of Belfast was increased from three or four thousand to thirteen or fourteen thousand -- be it remembered that the population then was not more than 158,000. The main Imperial issue of the election was the Disestablishment of the Irish Church, a question that had been forced to the front by such Irishmen as John Francis Maguire, Sir John Gray, Sir Colman O'Loughlin, and others, supported by a large section of the British Liberals, and notably Mr. John Bright. While Mr. Disraeli's Government was tottering to its fall, Mr. Gladstone introduced his famous resolution declaring the doom of the Irish Established Church, which was carried by a majority of 65. And from that time on, a matter of a few months, Mr. Disraeli kept struggling om till he dissolved at the end of the summer of 1868, when a battle of giants began, one of the most remarkable electoral battles in my memory.
Belfast was moved on that question almost as much as it has been moved since by Home Rule. Mr. Gladstone had described the Irish Church as a upas tree, and its destruction was the aim of himself and his party. In Belfast the majority was undoubtedly Conservative, and the feeling against Disestablishment was strong, deep, and intense. The members of the Established Church, with some exceptions, were all in favour of it. The majority of Presbyterian laity were also in favour of it. But in regard to the ministers of the Presbyterian Church, I am satisfied the majority of them were in favour of the Disestablishment of the Irish Church, though a vote in the Assembly in favour of the principle of Establishments was represented as a vote in favour of the Church. It is only necessary to say that while the Rev. Richard Smyth, afterwards Professor Smyth, voted in the majority in support of the principle of Establishments, he openly declared that it did not commit him to the support of the Irish Establishment. And he and others like him acted on that principle throughout the contest, and supported Liberal candidates.
But while parsons in speech, and pamphlet on both sides discussed the election as if that were the only question, it could not have been said to have been the deciding issue in Belfast. In point of fact, while rival platforms and the Press rang with declamations and diatribes as if this was the there was another issue which
But while parsons in speech and pamphlet on both sides discussed the election as if that were the only question, it could not have been said to have been the deciding issue in Belfast. In point of fact, while rival platforms and the Press rang with declamations and diatribes as if this was the only issue, there was another issue which came nearer to the hearts and homes of the masses of the Protestants even than the Irish Church. And that was whether or not, or if how far the newly enfranchised Protestant democracy would have a voice in the choice of Parliamentary candidates. I do not think I am displaying any old partisanship, or violating historical fact when I say that up to that time the artisan class had little to say, and that the old leaders were disinclined to listen to them on account of the circumstance and auspices under which the new demand was made.
To explain the local circumstance that led to this exciting controversy it will be necessary to recall that in 1867 Mr. Disraeli's Government -- I think with Lord Mayo as his Irish Secretary -- had made a bold attempt to mollify the Roman Catholic feelings of the country by proposing to grant a charter to the Queen's University in a form which might induce the hierarchy to abandon their hostility to and boycott of the godless colleges, as they described the colleges of Belfast, Cork, and Galway, and formed the old Queen's University, and by bringing in a Party Processions Act, suppressing party processions with emblems and bands. This latter struck a blow at the Twelfth of July demonstrations, which was greatly resented by the Orange party in Ulster. In deliberate violation of that Act a monster demonstration was held in Bangor on the 12th July, 1867, at which Mr. William Johnston, then a young man of some literary ability, and a very strong and hot Orangeman, took a leading part. He had already come to the front as an Orange advocate, but while Conservative in politics he did not spare the Conservative party for its action in regard to processions. Indeed, the Conservative leaders looked upon him with coldness ever after, suspecting and suggesting that there was too much Liberal blood in him, which, so far as the land question was concerned, afterwards proved to be true.
For his action at Bangor he was arrested and arraigned, and at a subsequent Assizes at Downpatrick was tried and convicted, and sentenced to two months in jail, or, rather, to one month in jail with the alternative of another month in default of bail, which Mr. Johnston refused to give. Mr. Johnston submitted to his imprisonment like a man and a gentleman, differing in that respect from many before and since, who, on the other side of the political fence, were subjected to jail discipline. It is worthy of note that the police officer who gave the principal evidence against Mr. Johnston was the Sub-Inspector Montgomery who was afterwards executed for the murder of his friend Glass, the bank clerk, in Newtownstewart some years after.
While Mr. Johnston had been somewhat of an Orange hero before this event, he now became a martyr hero. Two months in jail had sent him up higher than all his previous efforts, which were many. He had owned and edited the "Downshire Protestant," a paper published in Downpatrick, and specially devoted to the Orange cause. He had made speeches at Orange demonstrations by the dozen, and at any number of July demonstrations. But his martyrdom did more for him than all. There was some talk of his getting into Parliament for somewhere, but even while he was in the jail his friends got their eye on Belfast; and the Orange and Protestant Working Men's Association seem to have been formed for the purpose of making his election, or, at least, selection, sure. The men who founded and developed it were chiefly working men, who were good talkers and good manipulators. They had two prime leaders, however, who were not -- Mr. John Clark and Mr. Charles H. Ward. The former worked a good deal behind the scenes, but he was a real power, financial and otherwise, behind the movement.
Mr. Johnston received a great demonstration in the Ulster Hall some time after his release from prison, and from that time onward his appearance as a candidate was assured. The old Conservative party did not relish the prospect, and Mr. Johnston and the Protestant Working Men's Association got little countenance from the "News-Letter," while the "Northern Whig" patted him and the working-men on the back, and lauded their independence to the sky.
Belfast had been long represented by Conservatives, but as the Presbyterians represented a large section in the community and in the ranks of the party, it had been the custom to select a member of the Irish Church and a Presbyterian as members, Belfast having enjoyed at the time two members. For some years Sir Hugh (afterwards Lord) Cairns and Mr. S. Gibson Getty represented the Presbyterians. But on the promotion of Sir Hugh Cairns to the Bench and a peerage, Mr. Lanyon took his place. This at the General Election left Mr. Getty as the second member, but on the ground of the state of his health he declined to come forward, thus leaving an opening for a new candidate. For some time Mr. John Lyttle, an ex-Mayor of Belfast, and one of the most prominent Presbyterians, as well as one of the most prominent political leaders, was up to to fill the gap. The name of Mr. ----- Lewis, a London solicitor, who afterwards figured prominently in Ulster politics and Parliament, was also spoken of. But at last Mr. John Mulholland was chosen.
And this must be said. No man from his high position as an industrial magnate, his high personal character, his knowledge of economic questions could have been better entitled to a seat. And so in time he entered the lists with Mr. Lanyon, and for weeks "Lanyon and Mulholland" was the cry of the old Conservative leaders and of the Conservatives so far as they adhered to the old party. There was, however, one chink in his armour. He was not a Presbyterian, but a member of the Irish Church. This was bad enough, in the eyes of many Presbyterians, but what made it worse he was stated to have been originally a Presbyterian and had gone over to Prelacy, which was then, and still is, a poor claim to the political favour of Presbyterians.
The appearance of Mr. (afterwards Sir) Thos. M'Clure in the field as the nominee of the Liberals and Presbyterians of Belfast, and of Mr. Wm. Johnston as the nominee of the Orange and Protestant working men, raised an issue which was fought out for weeks with a vigour, and, I will add, bitterness, almost without parallel. But if possible the bitterness was greater between the followers of Mr. Johnston and those of the official Conservatives than between the latter and the followers of Mr. M'Clure, though I do not mean to suggest that there was any love lost between them. But as is usually the case when the ranks of one party become divided, the feelings of hostility of one to the other are most envenomed -- we have it at present in the split in the Nationalist ranks. The "News-Letter," then under the proprietorship of Mr. Jas. Alex. Henderson, and the editorship of Mr. W. H. Kisbey, afterwards County Court Judge, took little notice of Mr. Johnston or his meetings; and Mr. Johnston's followers retorted by taking notice of the "News-Letter" reporters, and keeping or putting them out of their meetings. This they did very pronouncedly on at least two occasions in the Ulster Hall.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 11th August 1916.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.