I hope my readers will pardon me if I make an excursion into local politics, as revealed in the election of 1880. I admit we have no politicos now; but we had them in excelsis in the past. We had Liberals and Tories forty years ago, as we had for many decades before that; but though the names have not disappeared, the distinctive divisions have passed away. Liberalism, in its good old sound Imperial sense, went with Mr. Gladstone's conversion, or rather perversion, to Home Rule, and Tory disappeared when the necessities of Empire and the Kingdom rendered a fusion of the forces of Imperial patriotism absolutely necessary. Liberalism has become Radicalism, with a political war chest largely filled with German gold and with a heterogeneous collection of Socialists, Labourists, pacifists, and Irish Nationalists. Toryism has become Unionism, with its ranks swelled by Liberals who put Empire before party and patriotism before politics.
We have now a Government in power which, while nominally partially composed of Radicals, is really Unionist in its determined effort and enthusiasm to carry on the War with a single eye to the interests of the country instead of as on the Radical lines. With one eye, and that the one most in evidence, on party. It is true that the present Prime Minister was a Radical of Radicals and a pacifist of pacifists, a Little Englander, if you will, in his old and unregenerate days; but when his eyes were opened to the treachery to the Empire that the carrying out of his old principles involved, he had the patriotism to cast off the old man and put on the new; and in forming his Government he had the courage to shed such of his old colleagues as he knew or feared would prefer “wait-and-see” to “push-and-go,” and who would pander to the agents of a German peace rather than pursue a righteous and rigorous campaign against German Junkerism. The Radicals themselves practically admit this, and Mr. M'Kenna, the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer, banned the Premier and his Government as outside the ranks of the Liberal party, and declared that the Liberal party, with Mr. Asquith at its head, were in opposition to the Government. It is true Mr. Asquith tried by some characteristic
words to remove the impression that his lieutenant had produced. But what was said was said. And said, I verily believe, with truth so far as the party, and especially, the interests of the party war chests, are concerned.
In 1889, however, we had just Liberal and Tory. In the ranks of the former, or at least as their supporters, were the Roman Catholics, who at that time were only asking for equality, for which the Liberals were working, and not clamouring for ascendency as they are doing now. In the ranks of the Tories were the Protestant working men of Belfast, the remnant of the Jonstonites of 1868, who objected to being only hewers of wood and drawers of water for the old Tory clique, and they called the leaders of that party, and who might be described as democratic Tories. When the General Election of 1880 took place, Mr. Disraeli was Prime Minister, memory of “Peace with honour” still fresh upon him. Mr. Gladstone had, like Achilles in his tents, retired from the leadership of the Liberal Party; but he emerged during the Russo-Turkish war, and roused the country by his savage indignation at the Bulgarian atrocities, for the disclosures of which to the country the “Daily News” and its brilliant Irish-American correspondent, Mr. M'Gahan, were chiefly responsible. Mr. Disraeli had described as “coffee-house babble” the stories in which Mr. M'Gahon had founded his articles; and Mr. Gladstone started his [--eat] crusade, which roused this country to its centre, and the Disraeli-despised crusader became the hero of the nation and the head of the new Government after the election. But I am anticipating.
It is doubtful if the great issues of the nation at the time had much effect on the elections in Belfast, where local feelings and differences dominated — Home Rule or Parnellism had not really appeared upon the horizon to any marked extent at the time. Mr. J. P. Corry and Mr. Wm. Ewart — the honour of baronetage came to both later — had been the sitting members, and offered themselves for re-election, basing their claim in their personal services to the constituency and the Disraelian, or rather Beaconsfield Government, for Mr. Disraeli had then entered the kingdom of the Lords and the service of the Premier and his Government of the country. For a time it seemed as if these gentlemen were to have the field to themselves; but after ten days a new candidate appeared. Mr. Charles Ward and the Protestant Working Men's Association still remembered 68, determined to challenge the seat, and selected as their candidate Mr. Robert Seeds, a member of the North-East bar, and a member of a family prominently identified with the legal profession as solicitors — Messrs. H. and W. Seeds. Dr. Seeds championed the democracy, and championed it well.
In the “Ulster Echo” at the time we championed the cause of Dr. Seeds as representing the most Liberal element of the three, though Dr. Seeds did not, and dare not, use the unblessed word Liberal. The “Evening Telegraph” at the time rather [---lied] in its support of the representative of the fierce democracy; and we wrote up Dr. Seeds in “The Echo,” with the result that we could scarcely print at the time efficient paper to meet the demands of the Shankill Road. Our newsboys, who had ever been very welcome in that district, were cheered and besieged as they rushed up with our words in praise of Dr. Seeds. I had, and have, a strong impression that if no other candidate had appeared in the field, Dr. Seeds would have secured one of the seats, if popular acclaim counts for anything.
But in the second week of the contest a Liberal appeared on the scene, and changed the entire aspect, both for ourselves and the election; and while we supported Dr. Seeds as a means of defeating the old Tory leaders, when a Liberal light in the person of Mr. John Shaw Brown appeared the entire situation changed. We supported Mr. Brown with greater enthusiasm than we had supported Dr. Seeds, and while still regarding the latter as representing the least evil, so far as the Conservative party were concerned, concentrated our energies on Mr. Brown. And we ceased to be the favourite of the Shankill Road that we had been for the previous days — crowns were changed to kicks in that region till the heat of the contest was over.
While Messrs. Corry and Ewart dealt in generalities, Mr. Brown dealt in particularities. Tenant-right, free sale, fair rents and permanent possession, peasant proprietary, the assimilation of the franchise with that of England, compensation for injuries to workmen, the consideration of local public Bills in Belfast instead of Westminster were among the objects he favoured. I doubt if any of these, save perhaps the last two, had much local interest or influence for them. I must truly say we were all for party. But at any rate his address suggested a programme and a principle wider than his opponents. I may say, however, that though Mr. Brown fought a good fight and kept the sound Liberal faith, he did not win. Messrs. Corry and Ewart were returned in the order mentioned. Dr. Seeds came third, and Mr. Brown fourth. Taking the vote in thousands, Mr. Corry was eight, Mr. Ewart seven, Dr. Seeds six, and Mr. Brown five, which was not at all a bad vote having regard to the political complexion of the constituency at the time.
There were some interesting developments in the election. It was claimed on the side of the old Conservative party that this was an alliance between the supporters of Dr. Seeds and Mr. Brown, while on the democratic side there was an allegation that there was an alliance between the other two candidates. This meant that as each voter had two votes, the voters for the one set would give one vote for each of the candidates. But this could not have been the case, as Mr. Corry was about a thousand above Mr. Ewart, and Dr. Seeds was about a thousand above Mr. Brown. In that case there must have been considerable plumping or cross-voting — that is, an old Conservative supporter voting for one or other of the two remaining candidates or giving one vote to one of the two and another vote to one or other of the successful candidates. What did likely happen was that some of the Presbyterian Liberals voted for Mr. Brown and gave their second vote to Mr. Corry, and that some of Mr. Corry's Presbyterian voters, which, however, was less likely, gave their votes for Mr. Brown. In the same way it is likely that some of the Episcopalian democrats voted for Mr. Ewart and that some of the latter's friends voted for Dr. Seeds. No doubt the Roman Catholic vote must have largely gone to Mr. Brown, though at the time the Rev. Mr. Cahill, who was the fiery leader, with journalistic proclivities and opportunities, of at any-rate a section of that party, was a Conservative. I have no recollection of the result of his influence in Belfast, but I remember that he supported Lord Castlereagh (afterwards Lord Londonderry) for County Down. Mr. Parnell had then set out on the warpath; but his incursion into the North was later.
There was a good deal of cross-firing between the “Whig” and “News-Letter” and their respective followers at the time; and the rivalries of these newspapers found developments among the supporters, as the “News-Letter” was groaned at Dr. Seeds' meetings and the “Whig” groaned at the meetings of Messrs. M'Clure and Corry. There were one or two anomalous incidents during this election. The Rev. John Rogers, of Comber, afterwards professor, who had supported Mr. Corry at the previous election, and who had supported the Conservative candidates in 1888 (I admit on the promise of Mr. Disraeli, which turned out to be of no value in fact, whatever may be the intention, that he would, if returned, raise the Regium Donum to £100 a year for each Presbyterian minister), entered the lists against Mr. Corry, and discharged two or three epistolary bullets at his head. He alleged that Mr. Corry had neglected Presbyterian interests, and that he had supported the Bill for abolishing the old Queen's University and establishing the Royal University, whose ill-starred life continued for a couple of decades. It was under this Bill, or simultaneously with it, that the Faculties of the Assembly's and Magee Colleges were enabled to confer degrees. As might be expected, Mr. Rogers' attacks were severe, for Mr. Rogers spared no one when his caustic tongue or pen was brought into action. Professor Watts, who was Moderator at the time, and who, though an ardent Liberal, was also an ardent Presbyterian, defended Mr. Corry so far at least as his attention to Parliamentary calls in Presbyterian interests were concerned, on behalf of the Church, and because of the measure for conferring D.D.'s, for which Mr. Corry got credit, came to the defence of that gentleman; and so, I think, did one or two other Presbyterian ministers. And this may have secured votes from Presbyterians who were not Conservative.
There was another element that was suggested by Mr. Corry as having had an influence on Mr. Rogers' action. A vacancy had occurred in the Presidency of the Queen's College some time before, and the Rev. Dr. Porter, who had been a professor in the Assembly's College, had received the appointment. It was an open secret at the time that, at any rate the friends of Mr. Rogers thought he should have received the Presidency on account of the electoral support he had given the party in 1868 and since, and many, therefore, were not surprised when Mr. Corry, with, whom the nomination rested, stated, in reply to these attacks, that if he had given a favourable reply to Mr. Rogers' request for the Presidency, he would not have appeared as his electoral enemy. Mr. Rogers, in reply, denied that he had ever made the request for the position seriously, though he said he had in a passing way on the lobby in Westminster, said to him in a light vein, “Will you give me the Presidency of the Queen's College?” Those of us who were about at the time formed our opinion on the controversy according to our political leanings or according to our knowledge of the men and of human nature. There was another phase of this Presidential vacancy. It was freely reported at the time that the appointment had been given, or was about to be given, to another than Dr. Porter or Mr. Rogers, and that Mr. Corry had blocked it, and secured the high, office for Dr. Porter. This much, however, must be said of Dr. Porter, that he towered head and shoulders above his competitors, as Saul was above the other Israelites. He also excelled all his brethren in dignity, or at any rate in a sense of dignity, and presided over the college till his death.
There was another anomalous incident. Mr. Wm. Johnston was returned in 1868 by the democratic section of the Conservatives, with the assistance of “split” votes from Mr. M'Clure, which “splits” were reciprocated. It was the same association — the Protestant Working Men's Association, and largely the same men — “Charley” Ward, Wm. M'Cormick, Wm. M'Dade, and others, who put forward Dr. Seeds in 1880, and with the same grounds and grievances against the old leaders. Mr. Johnston, however, on this occasion did not identify himself with his old friends, and for a time did not identify himself with any section till after the contest was in progress for some time, when, at a meeting of Messrs. Corry and Ewart's supporters, Mr. Johnston got up and said he was there uninvited, but he hoped not unwelcome; and then he made a speech in support of the two candidates and the Conservative party. I will say this for Mr. Johnston, that while he called himself a Conservative, he boasted more of his Orangeism; and I presume it was the Orangeism in him that led him to give many Liberal votes, especially on the Ballot and the Land Bill. It is quite possible this may have helped to secure the return of the two candidates. I do not think, however, I am straining the sequence of events if I say that an Inspectorship of Fisheries followed. But if that tempted him for a time, it did not tempt him for all time, as I shall have occasion to relate hereafter.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 12th January 1917.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.