Wednesday 29 March 2017

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1816-1917) part 39



“The earth moves, nevertheless,” Galileo reported to have said after he had compulsorily declared to the Vatican authorities that it did not. The world has moved fast and far since 1886, and in some respects, too, has the most perturbing portion of it, which is Ireland. In some respects the change has been for the better and in some for the worse. We had rumours of war then in various parts of the world, but we have actual war now, the most horrible the earth has seen. We had political crimes in Ireland and threatening of more crimes, and we have the same to-day. We had talk about the importance of settling the Irish question on Home Rule lines, and we have the same to-day. We were told that if the Government did not concede Home Rule the United States might be called in to redress the injustice, until some one at the time asked whether Great Britain or the United States should have the deciding voice in the government of Ireland. We knew at that time that Mr. Parnell had his hand on the safety valve of Irish crime, and could open and shut it at his will. We cannot say whose hand is on the safety valve to-day, but we know from Mr. Dillon that if the Government do not settle the question now there will be such an opening of the valve as will astonish, if it does not overwhelm, the kingdom and the Empire. We were told in 1886 that, unless Home Rule was granted, and the machinations and obstruction of the Nationalist members removed, it would be impossible to carry on the Government, and we are told to-day that unless something of the same kind is done it will be impossible to carry on the Government or the war.

The common feature of both times and the question is that the merits of the question itself, the justice, fairness, or wisdom of the demand, played, and is playing, a very
small part. Mr. Gladstone favoured Home Rule because the Irish Nationalists who had come into the House in extended and in excessive numbers would not let him carry on the Government, and hot because it was either right or just to grant the demand. No doubt, he tried to argue himself, or to use arguments to convince others, just as a barrister makes up a case and presents it with such forensic ability as to impress a jury with the fact that he believes and feels all he says. We have had the same line since. Mr. Asquith went one better than Gladstone as a lawyer and a pleader, and submitted even more to the Nationalist shackles. And now the present Government has taken up the burden in the hope that something may turn up that will enable them to sacrifice British authority in Ireland with the least sacrifice to Ulster Unionists. I make that concession to them, though very many that I know would not go even so far. But all I will say is that if the satisfaction of the Nationalist demand, which is the pretext for the new departure, involves the surrender of Ulster Unionists to their avowed  enemies, their cry will be now as it was in 1886, No Surrender — not No Surrender as an old battle cry of the past, but as a newer battle cry with, if possible, greater determination than in the past.

I have just spent another morning in glancing over the files of “The Echo” of the first half of 1886, so far as the news related to the Home Rule question, and I have been surprised to find that all the local arguments that prevailed then against the measure are just the arguments that prevail to-day, that the classes and masses that opposed the measure then are, with a few exceptions, those who oppose it to-day. The only difference seems to be that the experience of the interval has strengthened every argument, intensified every dread, and made more clear the utter impossibility as well as the absolute danger of granting Home Rule on the lines on which few Nationalists demand it.

The majority of the General Assembly opposed it then, as the General Assembly opposes it still. A special meeting of the General Assembly was held in March of that year, and an entire day was spent in a full and friendly discussion of the question, which resulted in the passing of a series of resolutions in public Assembly in the evening. The only protestant was the Rev. Matthew Macaulay, of Castleblayney, a fine good-natured and good-humoured clergyman of the school who had so much of the Irish Adam in him as to be “agin” the Government in the State, and because of that “agin” it in the General Assembly too. The resolutions were moved in open Assembly by the Rev. Dr. C. L. Morell, of Dungannon, a fine gentleman, minister, and humorist, with a good deal of a Tory crust, and Mr. Thos. Sinclair, who then, as in his later years, supported the principle of orthodox and constitutional Liberalism in Church and state. No better men at the time could have been selected to represent the Church or to represent it with a higher sense of duty and dignity. The resolutions were long and exhaustive, filling nearly a column of the newspapers of the day. They declared the loyalty of the Church to Crown and Constitution, deplored the lawless state of the country, admitted the unsatisfactory state of the land question, and appealed for a just measure of settlement; deprecated as “disastrous to the best interests of the country a separate Parliament, an elective Council, or any Legislation that would interfere with the unity and supremacy of the Imperial parliament,” and declared the hopelessness and impossibility of securing any guarantees for the rights of the minority in civil, religious, or educational matters. The resolutions met with general acceptance of Presbyterians in Ireland; but I must admit that the policy advocated did not meet with such strong support from the ministers of the U.P. and Free Church, who at the time were given over to the Gladstonian idol, or even to American Presbyterians. One telegram from the States that caught my eye stated that the Rev. Dr. John. Hall was the only Presbyterian of note who had expressed himself in full agreement with the Assembly declarations. Many changes have taken place in all these Churches since, and the changes in the men have been in retrocession from the principles and policy of the majority of that day so far as this question in concerned. I do not doubt, however, there are still many who adhere to Mr. Asquith, as their predecessors adhered to Mr. Gladstone on the question.

I think I have previously referred to local meetings of protest which took place both before and after the Bill, including the Belfast merchants, the town as a whole in public meeting in the Ulster Hall, and the Liberals of the town in the same building. The latter meeting took place after the Bill was introduced. With regard to the town meeting, it was called cm public requisition by Liberals and Conservatives in almost equal proportion, and among the signatories to the requisition I observe the name of W. J. Pirrie. On looking over the list of speakers at the town meeting and the Liberal meeting I find that the only two speakers at the former meeting were Sir William Q. Ewart and Mr. Adam Duffin, and at the Liberal meeting Mr. David Lindsay. At the Liberal meeting, Mr. (afterwards Right Hon.) Thomas Sinclair told Mr. Gladstone “That Ulster would not consent to yield up its British citizenship, to be expelled from the Imperial Parliament, or be degraded to a junior partnership in a subordinate colony.” Mr. Robert MacGeagh said “Loosing landlords in a Dublin Parliament was suggestive of games in a Roman amphitheatre.” “Perhaps,” he said, “the amphitheatre is too colossal an image. A rat pit would be a less classical, but it is a more honest and perhaps appropriate illustration. I ask you to protest against being handed over to the machinations of such a burlesque Parliament [and he had made it burlesque indeed], such a travesty of a Legislature, such a mockery of representatives, ana to hold fast to the time-honoured principles of Ulster Liberals — the maintenance of the Legislative Union between Great Britain and Ireland. The Rev. R. J. Lynd (afterwards D.D.) said — “We solemnly aver that there are no legitimate means which the ingenuity of man can devise, short of what is sinful in the sight of God, we will not employ in order to defeat the Bill and render it inoperative.” In these days, when women are so much to the front on this question, I must mention that Miss Isabella Tod in those days was one of the most effective platform opponents of Mr. Gladstone’s policy,

I think in the light of the present situation these incidents are worth recalling as illustrating not only the unbroken continuity of Ulster Protestants and Unionists against Home Rule, but the unbroken continuity of Irish Nationalist hostility to Great Britain and the Empire as exhibited by their action to-day. It was on the 8th April, ’86, that Mr. Gladstone introduced his first Home Rule Bill, and on the 16th he introduced his Irish Land Purchase Bill, and the local excitement continued, and on the 7th June the Home Rule Bill was defeated. I need not recall the enthusiasm with which Belfast received the news of the defeat of the Bill by thirty votes, and the gratitude they felt to Lord Hartington, Mr. Chamberlain, Sir Henry James, and other stalwarts of the party who had voted against the Bill. In the vote, those known as Liberals numbered 250, and the Parnellites 83. Against Home Rule, 240 Conservatives and 93 Liberals voted. Six hundred and fifty-six members voted — the largest on record — and 313 voted for the second reading, and 343 against. It should be remembered that the original Bill provided for the exclusion of the Irish members from Parliament, but Mr. Gladstone kept juggling with that and other questions in the hope of warding off hostility, but ignobly failed. There were one or two matters I noticed in my glance through the file that will be interesting in the light of recent developments. I notice that my own comment in “The Echo” was — “The only people for whom Mr. Gladstone never seems to have any consideration is the loyal minority in Ireland.” The “Manchester Guardian,” which is now the most servile advocate of the worst kind of Home Rule and defender of the worst form of Nationalist disloyalty and rebellion, said — “This is not a scheme of Home Rule such as we have been accustomed to understand it. It is a scheme of legislation for the repeal of the Legislative Union.” The “Daily Chronicle,” referring to a defence of the measure by Mr. John Morley, then Irish Secretary, said — “Is the general wish of Mr. Morley to be gratified by a great betrayal of Ulstermen to a bondage almost worse than death, and in coercion immeasurably more horrible than that which the Chief Secretary considered so dreadful when applied to Nationalists?” Both papers have since fallen from the high estate represented by such other statements. The “Daily News,” of course, gushed over the Bill, as it gushes still over everything that makes for the depression of Ulster and the disruption of the Empire, and, I sometimes even fear for the failure of the war since Mr. Asquith, the only possible and entirely irreplaceable Prime Minister, ceased to direct affairs.

I may just add that Ulster and its threatened coercion was the main feature of the Press comments, so far as the Bill was concerned. “The Sacrifice of Ulster,” “The Coercion of Ulster,” and similar lines appear in column after column of extracts as illustrative of the character of the criticism, the importance and the position Ulster held in the decision on the question, and, except in the “Daily News” and one or two others of the baser sort of Radical papers, and in the Nationalist papers, was there anything but condemnation of the sacrifice of Ulster and the impossibility of coercing it. And it is so to this day, save that the “Manchester Guardian” and the “Daily Chronicle” have gone over to stew in Nationalist juice.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 30th March 1917.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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