Last week I referred to the visit of Lord Randolph Churchill, which his opponents said was of an incendiary character; but the only fire it produced was a fire of enthusiasm against Home Rule which has continued for thirty years, and which the efforts of his recreant son were unable to extinguish. I now wish to recall the incident that led to the parting of the ways of the old Liberal party in Belfast and Ulster, the one section, the largest, remaining on the side of sound Liberal Constitutionalism, and the other branching off into the path that led to disruption and disintegration and the breaking up of laws, and if followed to the end would lead to red ruin. The meeting, or rather convention, took place on the 19th March, nearly a month before Mr. Gladstone introduced his Home Rule Bill. It was composed of delegates from the principal Liberal and Tenant Right Associations. We had no definite information as to Mr. Gladstone’s intentions, but most of us had a feeling that they were not good. All that was known at the time, founded in part on the pilot balloon that we now know was really sent out from Hawarden by Mr. Gladstone’s son, and the gossip that was flying about thick as Vallambrosian leaves, and the refusal of Lord Hartington to join Mr. Gladstone’s Cabinet. It was supposed that it was to be a conference of Liberal delegates, and there were tickets of admission. But in those days there was no difficulty or scruple in providing counterfeit imitations; and before the meeting had far advanced — it was held in what was then called St. George’s Hall, in High Street, now devoted to other purposes than public meetings. I recognised a very considerable number of publicans and other Nationalists whose politics were as non-Unionist as their faces. The fact was well known and freely commented on at the time. Nationalists were as resourceful and tricky then as they are to-day, and found it as easy to provide substitutes for true Liberals at meetings as they did to find substitutes for dead men at pollings. I mention this as a preliminary to explain what followed.
The chair was occupied by Mr. Finlay M‘Cance, a member of a family that had long held a foremost position in the commercial and industrial activities of the town, and has still a useful and creditable representative in Mr. John Stoupe F. M‘Cance, the chairman of the Antrim County Council. The first resolution was proposed by Mr. Daniel Taylor, afterwards member for Coleraine, and one of the staunchest of Liberal Unionists and Presbyterians in the province. It was on the lines of all previous resolutions of the party, favouring remedial legislation for the country, and protesting against exceptional coercive legislation, claiming a uniformity in the administration of the law in all parts of the United Kingdom. The main point of his speech was that the land question was the one root of trouble, and if that was settled all would, or at least should, be peace and harmony and respect for law. Mr. John Shaw Brown, who followed him, also traced the trouble to the land, and suggested a Bill for the abolition of landlords as a remedy.
Next followed Mr. Thomas A. Dickson (afterwards the Right Hon.) with the second resolution, which recommended a settlement of the land question by the abolition of dual ownership by purchase from the landlords on such terms as would secure substantial reductions of rent to the tenants. Mr. Dickson made a very full and clear exposition of the question, and I must admit carried his audience with him. His resolution was seconded by Mr. Thomas Swann, of the Maze, who was the original “Practical Farmer” of “The Witness,” and contributed many articles, in which literary grace was as conspicuous as his knowledge of farming. I may here state a fact not without its interest and moral. Mr. Swann lived till the Government of Lord Salisbury extended the compulsory principle to the breaking of leases. He happened to call in to see me immediately after this Act had been passed — I may say Mr. Swann was a gentleman of what I might term a rather pessimistic tempermanent. “Well,” said I to him, “I hope you are quite satisfied now.” “I am not quite sure,” he replied. “I have some leases that I hold at a low rent, and I would not like to have them broken lest I might fare worse.” “Oh,” I said, “you would only want the leases of your high-rented lands broken and maintain the leases of your low-rented lands.” I suggested that this meant a species of legislation that it would be impossible to carry out. He admitted the fact; but all the same did not leave in as happy a mood as I thought he should. It only illustrates the difficulty of providing legislation for a whole country when even one man wanted the legislation to be of a character that would suit him in two separate identities.
Mr. Sam. C. M‘Elroy, of Ballymoney, a grand old tenant-righter, and a very old friend of my own, who, I fear, for a time, if not for all his time, ploughed with the Nationalist heifer, suggested that the word “compulsory” should be placed before the words extinction of dual ownership; and this was agreed to, thus early establishing, so far as the Ulster Liberals were concerned, the principle of compulsion. It was about this period the “Nationalisation of Land” doctrines of Henry George began to spread, and had caught on in some quarters. Mr. Robert Carlisle, a well-known local politician of the time; proposed an amendment practically on these lines, suggesting as a mild beginning that the landlords should pay 20 per cent. of their valuation to the State — he did not think the community should buy out the landlords; but evidently thought the State should make them pay the taxes. Mr. Alex. Bowman, who was then a prominent local agitator of advanced and Labour views, seconded Mr. Carlisle’s amendment, which, however, was defeated.
Let me here say that these two resolutions represented in the main the ideas and aspirations of the Liberals of the time under whose auspices the convention had been called. In their opinion the land question was the root of all trouble, and its settlement was the one thing needful to satisfy Ireland and secure peace and contentment. Mr. Gladstone’s threatened descent into the Parnellite Avernus added another question, which had never been practically raised before — namely, the question of the legislative Union. The necessity of a special pronouncement on that question had never occurred to them before. But in the light of the floating gossip and fears it became necessary now. And Mr. Thos. Sinclair, who long ere this had given proof of statesmanlike qualities as well as powers of eloquent representation of sound Liberal views. Accordingly, the third resolution dealing with the subject of local government was entrusted to him. The resolution began by expressing confidence in Mr. Gladstone’s statesmanship and patriotism, and urging him not to complicate his remedial land legislation with the vexed question of Home Rule. It admitted that the results of the election suggested a desire for more extended powers of local government for Ireland; but declared “Our determined opposition to the establishment of a separate Irish Parliament, as certain to result in disastrous collision between sections of the people holding conflicting views on social, economic, and religious questions, and likely to create such a feeling of insecurity as would jeopardise all industrial and commercial pursuits; and we are satisfied that the maintenance of the Union with Great Britain is the best safeguard for the peace and prosperity of all classes in Ireland.” It further suggested the abolition of the Vice-royalty, and the appointment of an Irish Secretary, with a thorough reform of the departments of Irish government, and the establishment of an extended system of representative local government. Mr. Sinclair had not gone far in his speech till it became apparent that rowdy Nationalism, or a Radicalism as bad, had found representation and voice. He was protesting against an Irish Parliament, “five-sixths of whose members would be elected by the National League, whose ideas of justice were so discredited,” when there was an outburst. At the last statement there was applause, but many hisses from a corner in which the evidently Nationalist sympathisers had congregated. The chairman called for order, and Mr. Sinclair repeated “whose ideas of justice are discredited.” Applause again mingled with hisses and cries of “Shame” and “Withdraw” followed. After some uproar, Mr. Sinclair resumed. He was saying, he said, that a Parliament elected by the National League were so discredited that before they got power they would have to put the landlords beyond their vengeance. A Dublin Parliament, he said, would not be a Constitutional Government at all. It could not be a representative Government when every candidate was forced to sign away his private judgment. [Mr. Parnell had at that time introduced the system of the pledge to vote with the party, or “skedaddle,” which, I believe, is still in force.] Home Rule could never be a policy of Ulster Liberals, he emphasised. This was one of the many fine speeches Mr. Sinclair contributed to the cause of Liberalism and the Union.
I may here pause to say that the National League whose discredited character, Mr. Sinclair so emphasised was the body that was formed after the suppression of the Land League, and carried on the old work under a new name. It was the League in the dark years that followed, during which it was said that Mr. Parnell, its head, kept his hand on the safety valve of crime, that controlled both crime and agitation. It was of its parent that Mr. Gladstone said that “with fatal and painful precision the steps of crime dogged the steps of the Land League.” The League was formed in 1882, and continued to represent the party organisation all through the ’eighties, and was responsible for quite as much crime as its predecessor that had been suppressed. Its agency, the Irish-Americans, contributed the dollars for bread — and lead.
The Rev. Archibald Robinson, of Brough-shane (afterwards D.D. and professor), seconded the motion. Mr. Robinson was not only a great Churchman, but a great land man, and was one of the strongest supporters and one of the best and most popular platform advocates of old tenant-right and all that it represented. But, like all the best, or at least the majority of the best, tenant-righters, he objected to Home Rule. He denounced it and its supporters in no measured terms. He declared that there was not a Liberal candidate at the elections who did not condemn Home Rule, and added that Mr. T. A. Dickson had condemned it in stronger and more eloquent terms than he (Mr. R.) could do. There were cries of “No, no,” at this; but I must say the statement was true as fair at least as the strength went. Mr. Dickson then came forward with his amendment, expressing the hope that in the proposals he was about to submit dealing with the self-government of Ireland, they would urge upon him to make full provision to safeguard the rights of minorities, to maintain the supremacy of the Imperial Parliament, and draw closer the bonds of political union between the people of Great Britain and Ireland. Mr. Dickson dwelt on the cost of Irish Parliamentary Bills and on the question of Mr. Gladstone’s Land Purchase Bill, and expressed his trust in Mr. Gladstone, who, he said, was not going to close his splendid career by weakening the integrity of the Empire. He expressed his disapproval of coercion, and said he was in favour of the Union with the largest scheme of local self-government through which the land question could be finally settled. Still harping on the land question, which was the subject more in his words than that of Home Rule, Mr. T. A. Shillington seconded the amendment, which was opposed by Miss Tod and Mr. W. J. Hurst, of Drumaness; and supported by Mr. A. Bowman and the Rev. J. C. Street — reckless Radicals and rampant extremists both.
It was well on in the afternoon when a vote was called for, and the amendment declared lost and the resolution carried. There was no count of heads or hands; but I must admit that the minority was more considerable than I could possible have imagined. But that can be explained by what I said earlier about the presence of Nationalists. They showed their number and the type of them by the character of their interruptions. There were no interruptions to Mr. Dickson or Mr. Shillington; but there were many to the speakers on the other side.
From that time onward the Liberal majority formed themselves into an association under the name of the Liberal Unionist Association, and the other section disappeared from public notice for many years till an association was called into being to give at least the appearance of a local habitation and name to the Ulster Liberalism that adhered to Mr. Gladstone. This organisation kept in touch with the British Radicals, and was kept in remembrance by them. It put up Home Rule candidates, but kept Home Rule in the background of their public appearances whatever they may have done in private. The only one connected with them who had the honesty in the earlier hours to proclaim himself a Home Ruler was Mr. T. A. Shillington; and I have always respected him since above all the others for his honesty. I well remember when an Editor of the journal established to represent them, in a fit, I suppose, of honest fervour, openly advocated Home Rule in its columns. He was afterwards dismissed on the ground that it was not politic — I am not sure that that was the exact word that was used in the letter or memorandum in which his dismissal was conveyed — at that juncture to make such an open avowal of Home Rule. It had evidently been the intention of the leaders to cloak their Home Rule under their guise of Unionism or of Protestant Liberalism. If their Editor rendered no other public service he rendered one on this occasion by exposing the hollowness under which this so-called Liberal association was endeavouring to serve the Nationalists and Home Rule. It was only a step in motion from the Berry Street Nationalist Club and the home of this association. But there was hardly a step between them in mind so far as the effort and desire to establish Nationalist rule in Ireland was concerned.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 23rd March 1917.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.