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Isaac Butt and the Home Rule Party

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This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.
Isaac Butt was born in September 1813 in Co. Donegal. He trained as a barrister and became a member of both the Irish and English bar. He was a noted conservative lawyer but after the famine of the 1840’s he became increasingly liberal. He defended participants in the young Ireland revolt (1848). He entered parliament as a liberal conservative in 1852 and managed to become deeply in debt. He defended Fenians after the revolt of 1867 and led the Amnesty Association that campaigned for their release. In 1869 he founded the Tenant League to renew the demand for tenant right.

Federalism was the political policy favoured by Butt as the solution to Irish political and economical problems. Butt proposed that a separate Irish parliament be set up in Dublin to control domestic affairs. There was no question of Ireland leaving the British Empire and Irish MPs would continue to sit at Westminster. In May 1870 a meeting was called to organise a new body that would try to win support for the idea of an Irish parliament. As a result the Home Government Association was formed as a constitutional movement to campaign for this cause. It attracted a wide range of views (including Protestants, Catholics, landlords, tenants and Fenians) that contrasted with each other. This movement would dominate Irish politics for most of the next fifty years.

The early years, 1870-1873, saw only limited growth for the movement. This was because Butt’s original intention was that the association would be a pressure group rather than a political party. Also Butt did not attempt to link Home Rule with other issues such as land reform and the Catholic Church was suspicious of the movement. However in 1872 the Secret Ballot Act allowed voters to vote in secret. The Liberal party failed to satisfy the Catholic wish of funding for Catholic schools and the church began to support the idea of Home Rule. The Association became better organised and financed and Home Rulers began to link the issue to other causes thus gaining more support. It was becoming more Catholic and nationalist. Finally in 1873 Butt turned the movement into a proper political party calling it the Irish Home Rule Party. In the election of 1874 the party won 59 seats.

After the election the party committed itself to a policy of independent opposition. However the Conservatives under Benjamin Disraeli had an overall majority in the House of Commons and this made it hard for the party to make much of an impact. However it was soon clear that the Home Rule Party had problems. Only about 20 of the Home Rule MP’s were committed to its cause. Butt’s tactics were to win the respect of English MP’s by peaceful persuasion. Butt himself proved to be a disappointment as he was regularly absent from parliament. He had to work constantly as a barrister to pay off his debts. By 1875 a small radical fraction became frustrated with Butt’s leadership and began to act on their own. This was clear evidence of weakness in leadership and in the party.

Obstructionism was the policy of interrupting the business of parliament by adopting delaying tactics. The main method was to talk continuously during debates in the House of Commons. One of the main leaders was Joseph Biggar. The policy was widely condemned in Britain and by Butt who believed it would damage the Home Rule cause in Britain. However the obstructionists argued that since British MP’s blocked Irish reforms, they were entitled to do the same with laws the British wanted. The party was becoming deeply split and Butt had little control over the radicals who openly defied him.

Butt’s influence was waning. Much of the reason for this was the emergence of a more charismatic political figure, Charles Stewart Parnell. He was elected an MP for Meath in 1875 and joined with the obstructionists. Parnell was viewed as an alternative leader to Butt. In 1877 he replaced Butt as leader of the Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain. Butt’s parliamentary tactics were openly criticised by some of his own MPs. His failure to control his party gave the impression to many that the whole Home Rule cause was collapsing. In 1879 Butt died and Parnell was elected leader in 1880. Butt’s weakness as a leader was an opportunity for Parnell to rise to power so quickly.

Butt left behind a very divided party. His policy of federalism was not a weak idea but it was clear that it meant different things to different people. He never really controlled his party. His definition of Home Rule was more limited than many of his party. Other important issues such as land reform were not given the same attention by Butt. However he outlined a reform of the government of Ireland and this idea would dominate politics for decades. He also left behind a national organisation that would be reorganised by Parnell into a powerful political movement

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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