We now come to a dark year in the history of Belfast and of the kingdom. We had dark periods in Irish history before, many of them; but the darkness of this year was dismal, and the shadows that it brought have not departed even yet. It was in that year Mr. Gladstone turned his back on his early creed, which was at once Liberal and Unionist; shed not only his own Unionism, but shed the best Liberals of his time and party; and embarked on the stormy sea of Home Rule, in which he floundered for so many years, and in which, politically, he foundered. He brought Home Rule, with all its war, into the stage not so much of practical as of pragmatical politics; and there it remains to this day; as dividing and disintegrating as it was in his time, as unsatisfying from every point of view as it was in his time, as dangerous, and in some of its developments as diabolical, as it was in his time, and I will add in any final or satisfactory sense as far from settlement as it was in those days. In fact, it was confidently anticipated by the Nationalists that once Mr. Gladstone and the Liberal party took it up the early establishment of Home Rule was assured. We were told that the Liberal party had never taken up anything that did not succeed, and that this would succeed. And so confident were the Nationalists that it would come that in many parts of the country they had met and balloted for the lands of the Protestant farmers and landlords in the various districts which they expected were to be theirs to seize and hold after the Bill became law. I have been told that something of the same kind is going on now in the South and West on a smaller scale; but as the Government are now the landlord of the majority of the large properties at all events, they will probably have to be content with farms rather than estates, though, of course, there will be much grass land to transfer, on which so many Irish Leaguers are casting hungry eyes.
The darkness of ’86 was specially felt in Belfast, where there were, as there are, many industries and much money, which the Nationalists wanted to get into their hands, if not as individuals, at any rate as a Government to tax and trample as it pleased. There was the feeling and the fear that the mere possibility that Home Rule was to come would injure the credit and interests of the commercial community. Certainly while the shadow rested, which was till Home Rule was defeated, the value of the shares in all stocks in which the Belfast community were interested had fallen heavily. And then the shadow was deepened because of the intense loyal and Imperial spirit that pervaded Belfast and Ulster, and the feeling that the effect of Home Rule would not only mean the separation of the two countries and the deprivation of the Protestant and Unionist minority of the protection of the Imperial Parliament, but it would mean the disintegration of the kingdom and Empire that had so long stood strong and united four-square to all the winds that blow. It is now thirty years since that date, and there was not a feeling or a fear entertained then that is not entertained now, and with even greater intensity, having regard to the intermediate observation and experience which, make the dangers even more real and possible.
For the first two or three months of 1886 we were all in a state of anxiety and ferment. Mr. Parnell and his party had, by the redistribution of seats, received such a large following that he practically held the balance of power in the House of Commons. No doubt some of the Conservative leaders were coquetting with the Parnellite Delilah, and she had got some of them into her toils. Lord Carnarvon, the Lord Lieutenant, and Lord Randolph Churchill at least were suspected of having been won over by her or having won her over; and it is a fact that in the election at the close of 1885 the Conservatives all over the country got the support of the Parnellites. On the other hand, the Conservatives were repudiating this; and to do Lord Salisbury, who was the head of the party, justice, I do not think he ever pandered as his subordinates did; but it must be admitted that he secured much of his following by the aid of Parnellite votes in England and Scotland! The Liberals more than suspected this game on the part of the Conservatives; but while admitting the temptation the situation offered to Mr. Grindstone to surrender, the majority of them refused to believe that a man whom they regarded as the personification of honour and patriotism would sacrifice the unity and the interests of the kingdom for the purpose of obtaining power. Even when the “pilot balloon” was sent out – as we learned later, by Mr. Herbert Gladstone, though that gentleman denied it at the time—suggesting that Mr. Gladstone was considering the adoption of Home Rule, they refused to believe it.. In order to refresh' my memory,
I looked up the files of the “Whig” and the “Echo” for this period, and found that not only both journals, but the party generally refused to believe it, regarded the statement as a weak invention of the enemy, and imagined Mr. Gladstone indignantly asking, “Is thy servant a dog that he should do this thing?” But the excitement and the agitation continued. The Rev. Dr. Kane and the Rev. Dr. Hanna were then at the height of their power and influence, in the Orange body, and meetings and letters of protest were general. The leaders of the Conservative party wanted the leaders of the liberals to join in some of these political demonstrations; but they declined, not from any lack of sympathy with the object; but as they felt that an independent expression of opinion as Liberals would be more valuable. And time gave proof of that, for I have every reason to know that the Liberal Unionist Committee formed after the Gladstonian surrender was an important factor in influencing the opinion of the British public and Government, and in suggesting the satisfactory legislation which the Unionist Government subsequently adopted. There were, however, two or three great meetings outside of party politics which had a most important effect on public opinion. One of these was a meeting of Belfast business men held early in the year, at which both Liberals and Conservatives attended; and the second was a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, composed, of course, of men of all parties, at which speeches were made and resolutions passed strongly condemnatory of Home Rule and all that it was intended by Nationalists to secure and accomplish.
I had some further matter on this topic prepared, but I am holding it over till next week in consequence of the space occupied by and the special interest in the proceedings of the House of Commons on Wednesday. In the light of these, however, I may say that the period with which I am dealing has special interest, justifying, as they do, the wisdom and prudence of the resistance offered, and showing that time, instead of weakening the case against Home Rule, has I strengthened it, so that it has become irresistible.
To be continued...
From The Witness, 9th March 1917.
The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle, editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.