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Gladstone and Ireland 1880-1886

This page is a joint effort; I am grateful to Arthur Reeves for adding a great deal of information to the original material.


The Liberals won the election of April 1880 with an overall majority of 100. Hartington was leader of the Liberals in the Commons; Granville was leader in the Lords: frequently opposition parties had two leaders — one in the Commons and one in the Lords. The election victory was a surprise for the Liberals as it was generally expected the Conservatives would win a majority of around 30. The first question was therefore: who was to lead the Liberal Government. Gladstone had resigned in 1874, following his defeat by Disraeli and it was generally assumed that he had retired.

In 1880 Gladstone was 70 years old. However, he had conducted a massive and popular campaign in the run up to the election of 1880 in which he proposed a certain manifesto. The Midlothian Campaign —  so called because Gladstone was running for election in Midlothian though the campaign had more impact on the country as a whole and Gladstone’s victory in Midlothian was almost guaranteed — focused on the agricultural depression and a promise to extend the franchise to agricultural labourers, as well as criticising Disraeli’s expensive foreign policy. Above all, the campaign ensured Gladstone had immense popularity among the people and Liberal MPs.

When Queen Victoria attempted to establish who ought to form the next government, Hartington had to seek Gladstone’s assurance of support. Gladstone’s reply was that — if he were to join the Cabinet — he would do so only as Prime Minister. Otherwise, whilst he would not seek to destroy the Liberals, he could not offer unconditional support. Gladstone’s immense and powerful skills as an orator and parliamentarian must not be forgotten; Hartington could not afford to have Gladstone as an enemy. Thus the Queen was forced to offer Gladstone the chance to form a government even though she did not want to.

Gladstone’s cabinet consisted heavily of Whigs:

Bright, Forster and Chamberlain —the latter to Gladstone’s distaste —were all non-Whigs.[1]

The Parliamentary session was expected to end in June/July (as it tended to) and thus little legislation was planned for 1880. It is clear the Liberals had no policy for Ireland. Whilst Disraeli had played an ‘anti Irish’ appeal in the 1880 election, Gladstone ignored Ireland completely in his campaign. However, circumstances were to keep Ireland at the forefront of the Liberal agenda for the next five years.

In April 1880 John O’Connor Power, an Irish MP, introduced a motion to compensate tenants for eviction if the tenants had been evicted through non-payment of rent as a result of the recent failing harvests. In response, Forster introduced a Liberal bill with the same effect, to replace Power’s motion. The Compensation for Disturbances Bill was passed through the Commons but failed in the Lords.

From October 1880 Parnell and the Land League began a new campaign, commonly known as ‘Captain Boycott’. This involved encouraging tenants to refuse to pay their rents, resisting evictions and attacking land agents. English-owned farms were burned, the animals were killed or maimed, and English people were attacked. Tenants who refused to participate, in Parnell’s words, should be 'isolated from his kind as if he were a leper of old'.

Since the Union in 1800, special powers of coercion had frequently been introduced to deal with the additional violence in Ireland. Forster and the Viceroy of Ireland, the incompetent Earl Cowper, both came to realise that special powers were going to be essential. Forster came to the belief that only the suspension of Habeas Corpus would suffice, and this was an immediate need. He threatened to resign if the Cabinet refused to recall Parliament, which was in recess, and pass through such legislation. At the same time, Chamberlain spoke of the moral outrage of coercion and threatened to resign. A cabinet split would have weakened Gladstone’s ministry, especially so early on in his new term. Gladstone remedied the situation by suggesting that coercion ought to be proposed in the new session alongside land reform.

In April 1881 the suspension of Habeas Corpus under the Protection of Persons and Property Act was passed, as well as an Arms Bill limiting the right for people to hold arms. In August 1881 Parliament passed Gladstone’s Second Land Act: it is rightfully called Gladstone’s Act since it was he who wrote it.

This Land Act gave the "Three F's" which the Land League had demanded:

  1. Fair rents would be fixed by land courts for a period of 15 years
  2. Fixed tenancies gave rights of land to the tenant. They could only be evicted if they did not pay rent. 
  3. free sale of his lease would be permitted to a tenant who wished to give up farming

The success of the Act is hard to ascertain. In the short term it can be seen as a success: over 250,000 rents were decreased and agrarian outrage diminished considerably but the Act ignored peasant proprietorship, economic development and relief of distress. Furthermore, it excluded leaseholders because Gladstone believed leaseholders had entered a separate agreement with landlords. It also excluded tenants in arrears because Gladstone believed that tenants had to be solvent to deserve fair treatment.

Further, the Land League's reign of terror continued, stirred up by Parnell, though it is clear that support for the Land League was diminishing. Whilst general outrage was on the decline, serious harm against individuals was on the rise. In October 1881, after a rousing speech by Parnell, the leaders of the Land League were imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol.  A "no rent" movement was launched in protest at his imprisonment, though it largely failed.

 The Kilmainham Treaty

Parnell was released in April 1882. He and the other prisoners posed a problem for the Liberal government since the government had imprisoned a leading Parliamentarian for no obvious reason. The Coercion Act passed in April 1881 was also due to expire in September 1882, so Parnell and the others needed to be released before September, or be further detained under new powers, which had not been passed . O’Shea, acting as Parnell’s intermediary, made suggestions to Chamberlain that Parnell may be interested in a settlement. Kitty O’Shea was about to give birth to Parnell’s illegitimate child, and Parnell’s leadership of the Land League was looking increasingly doubtful, though Chamberlain did not know these reasons. No treaty was ever signed, but a series of letters between O’Shea, Parnell and Chamberlain suggested that

  1. political prisoners would be released
  2. the government undertook to reform the 1881 reform act to include tenants in arrears.
  3. Parnell was to uphold and observe law and order

Cowper resigned the Viceroy in April, though not on issue with Kilmainham: the main reason was because he was bored and frustrated with the job. Forster resigned in May partly as a result of the treaty, though it is clear he was also despondent generally with the job and feared for his life. His reputation as a coercionist had earned him two assassination attempts already.
The new Viceroy was Lord Spencer; the new Chief Secretary was Lord Frederick Cavendish, who just happened to be the husband of Gladstone's niece.

On 6 May 1882 the Phoenix Park murders took place. Lord Frederick Cavendish and Mr. T.H. Burke,the under-secretary, were hacked to death with long surgical knives while they were walking in Phoenix Park. A group known as the Invincibles was responsible: this was a small murder club of which Dublin Castle, arresting suspects left and right, had remained in ignorance. The Invincibles wanted to murder Burke; Lord Frederick Cavendish was just unlucky, but his murder shook the Fenians and even Parnell. The murderers eventually were caught in 1885; five were hanged and three were sent to penal servitude. One turned Queen's Evidence, but was shot while escaping to South Africa.

In 1882, George Otto Trevelyan was appointed as the new Irish Secretary. He enforced a new Crimes Act which gave the administration in Dublin great summary powers and the Arrears Act which fulfilled the Kilmainham Treaty. Violence still raged and murder was commonplace but gradually law and order were restored.

Also in 1882, the National League was set up by Parnell to replace the outlawed Land League. The League had been prohibited after the ‘no rent manifesto had been proclaimed. Its avowed aim was Home Rule for Ireland.


Lord Spencer, the new viceroy in Ireland, came to believe that Ireland needed time to calm down and allow the effects of the 1881 and 1882 acts to seep through. Relative to 1880-1, Ireland was peaceful in this period. Reform measures were passed in 1883: Fisheries, Labourers Act and Tramways. A proposal to pass land purchase was rejected in 1884.

It was generally expected that parliamentary reform would occur sometime in this ministry: Gladstone had made that promise in his Midlothian Campaign and, following the 1867 Act, it was largely perceived that further enfranchisement was going to occur. In 1884 Gladstone presided over the Reform Bill, which extended the franchise to agricultural labourers and increased the franchise to around 5 million from 3½ million In April 1885 the Redistribution Bill was passed, which for the first time attempted to measure constituency size to the proportion of population and introduced only single-member constituencies. Both of these are still in practice today.

Gladstone resigned in June 1885 when his government was defeated by a combination of Conservative and Irish MPs, over an amendment to the budget. The Liberals were generally tired, internal arguments were rife and many cabinet ministers had offered their resignations to Gladstone before June. A general election was not possible because the new electoral rolls had not yet been compiled, following the 1884 Reform Act, so Salisbury formed a Conservative ministry. It is sometimes called the 'Ministry of Caretakers'. The ministry lasted for about eighteen months but it was during this period that Gladstone was 'converted' to Home Rule.

Salisbury's first ministry: June 1885-January 1886

Following Disraeli’s death in April 1881, the Conservatives entered a wilderness. Northcote led the party in the Commons, Salisbury in the Lords. They failed to become an effective opposition between 1881-1885 for several reasons:

  1. Northcote was a weak leader often humiliated by members of his own party, notably Lord Randolph Churchill
  2. Conservative Irish Landlords tended to support Irish reform, on the basis that getting some rent from their tenants was better than getting none. This was why Salisbury’s attempt to get the Lords to destroy the Arrears Act failed.
  3. Tory MPs in the Commons were concerned over their positions. With reform likely to widen the electoral franchise, MPs in the countryside were especially keen not to upset labourers who may see similarities between themselves and the Irish labourer. Many Tory MPs simply abstained, rather than risk upsetting their constituents.

In 1885 Salisbury only formed a ministry on agreement that Gladstone would support him. Even with Irish support, Gladstone still held a majority. Salisbury’s aim in this short period is similar to that of Derby’s and Disraeli’s in 1866 — to show the conservatives were a party of government.

Under the Conservatives:

  1. the Coercion Act was withdrawn, and the 'firm government' carried out by Lord Spencer for the previous three years, with steadily increasing success, came abruptly to a halt. Violence erupted again forcing the Conservatives to propose a bill in January 1886.
  2. Lord Ashbourne's Act (1885) authorised a state-assisted scheme of Irish land purchase, to please Parnell who advocated a peasant proprietary. It was a modest reform but provided the basis for a future solution of the land problem
  3. Carnarvon, the new Viceroy of Ireland, held secret meetings - with the P.M.'s approval - with Justin McCarthy, Parnell's right-hand man, and Parnell. He proposed a Home Rule status for Ireland, though his views were not supported by the Conservative party. 

The election of November 1885 was another surprise for all. Whilst the Liberals maintained a majority, it was slashed to only 86 and did not exert an overall majority. The Conservatives gained seats, as did Parnell: who held a powerful 86 seats. This gave Parnell the balance of power.

Result of the election:



a difference of 86

Irish Nationalists



Parnell was therefore able to keep out either party but could only keep the Liberals in. Parnell became the arbiter of parliament. The Irish MPs held the balance of power in the House of Commons and chose to support Gladstone because of a press rumour that he was in favour of Home Rule.

The Hawarden Kite

In December 1885 Herbert Gladstone, son and secretary of Gladstone, sank all hopes of a Liberal-Conservative alliance to give Home Rule to Ireland, which Gladstone had suggested to Salisbury’s nephew, the MP Balfour, by publicly announcing that his father had become 'converted' to the idea of Home Rule. It is suggested that Gladstone set up his son to do this so that if the idea backfired, Gladstone could deny all knowledge of it. He was accused of capitulating to Parnell so that Gladstone could get back into office. Parnell had to turn to Gladstone as his best hope for Home Rule, although his election support for the Conservatives had angered the Liberals and he had given 30 seats to the Conservatives who would now vote against Home Rule.

Salisbury abandoned Home Rule and the Conservatives prepared to fight on new ground as defenders of the Union against moonlighters and cattle-maimers. Salisbury seemed to have dropped the Irish because they were of no use to him politically. Salisbury continued in office until he was defeated in the Commons on 27 January 1886 by the Irish voting against the government on an English agrarian amendment which would have allowed municipal authorities to purchase, and then provide for allotments and smallholdings to be available for rent or sale to farm labourers: the so-called "three acres and a cow" amendment. Salisbury then resigned.

Why did Gladstone convert to Home Rule?

Moral:  the basis of this interpretation is that Gladstone came to believe that Home Rule was the only solution to pacify Ireland and complete his 1868 ‘mission’. It is clear Gladstone read a lot over the summer of 1885 and came to the conclusion that the Union had been unjust to the Irish. Did his reading change his mind, or did he use these arguments to justify other motives?
Opportunistic: It is now said that Gladstone thought that the issue of Ireland would re-unite an obviously fragmenting Liberal party: he was out of touch with the Liberal MPs, and failed to appreciate that he had to coax them, not dictate to them. Chamberlain had become a radical leader, with the publication of a Radical Programme and general speeches in an ‘unauthorised programme’. The liberals were a split party, and Gladstone — so this interpretation goes — needed to reassert his authority. Gaining Parnell’s support would give Gladstone a huge majority even if - as happened - Hartington and Chamberlain became opponents. In fact, this may benefit Gladstone as clear leader of the Liberals.

Consequently, he made an error of judgment over Irish Home Rule. Chamberlain and the Whigs gathered enough support to beat Gladstone. Subsequently, at the election in June 1886, the electorate voted in the Conservative Unionists. 

Gladstone's third ministry: February to July 1886

Gladstone told the Liberals that he was forming this ministry to enquire into the possibility of Home Rule for Ireland.

First Home Rule Bill: 8 April 1886

Gladstone made one of his greatest speeches when he introduced this Bill. He explained how Home Rule would restore the dignity of parliament by removing the reason for Irish obstruction. He said that the concession of 'local self-government' would strengthen the unity of the three kingdoms. He proposed:

  1. a separate parliament in Dublin to deal with Irish affairs
  2. that Britain should continue to control foreign affairs, defence and trade
  3. an end to Irish representation at Westminster

What followed was a complicated series of events. Chamberlain resigned from the Cabinet in April after Gladstone rejected his Home Rule policy — that of a legislative body for Ireland — in favour of an independent parliament. Chamberlain thus demanded that all Irish MPs remain at Westminster in order to gain his support. There was no way Gladstone (and other liberals, who saw exclusion of the Irish as a benefit) would agree to this and it is likely Chamberlain realised this. Gladstone did yield slightly, suggesting the establishment of a permanent Select Committee for the Irish and their inclusion in debates on Irish matters. Chamberlain did not change his mind. Both Chamberlain and Hartington held several meetings to dissuade Liberals from supporting the Bill. Gladstone also held a meeting in April at the Foreign Office asking MPs to vote for the principle of the bill at the second reading, and not the details which could be worked out at Committee stage.

The Home Rule Bill made no mention of Ulster with its Protestant majority. Gladstone was insufficiently aware of this problem because it was a new problem in the sense that until 1885 the representation of Ulster had divided on normal political lines between Liberals and Conservatives. However, the advent of Home Rule nationalism in southern Ireland had provoked an upsurge of Orangeism in the north. Lord Randolph Churchill dramatically announced that ' Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right'. His words became a rallying call both then and subsequently. Churchill also described Gladstone as 'that dreadful old man in a hurry'. John Bright opposed the Home Rule Bill partly because it disregarded the 'loyal and Protestant' people of Ulster. G.J. Goschen included the Ulster question and the problem of Irish representation at Westminster among the 'bundle of impossibilities' associated with Home Rule. Public opinion outside parliament also opposed Home Rule. Many intellectuals opposed it (e.g. Matthew Arnold, Herbert Spencer), and the apparent suddenness of Gladstone's decision was not a recommendation for it.

The English middle-classes were horrified by the violence of the Land League period, and disliked Gladstone's apparent over-readiness to give way to force and his readiness to lavish taxpayers' money on his land purchase Bill. Joseph Chamberlain, who advocated 'devolution all round', led a large section of Liberals who opposed the Bill. The Bill was debated for 16 days then it was defeated by 343 votes to 319 (i.e. it failed by 24 votes). 93 Liberals voted against it, led by Joseph Chamberlain. Gladstone resigned and appealed to the country. He was defeated because the average voter saw Parnell as the leader of murderers.

The Conservatives won with a majority of 118, and Chamberlain's Liberal Unionists became firmly associated with, and later joined, the Conservatives.

[1] Who, exactly, were the Liberals?

In short, the Liberal Party consisted of men who respected forms of reform. They were not 'Liberals' in the modern sense of the word — far from it. They consisted of Whigs, those ideologically closest to the Conservatives, who believed in slow and gradual reform. They differed from Conservatives in certain key regards: Tories were defenders of religious establishments, very cautious over land reform and obstructive over reforms of local government. Whigs on the other hand were more inclined to appreciate incorporation of other (or no) religions. Whigs tended to be predisposed to believe that legitimate reform should be supported.

Among the Liberals was also a small but growing and significant group of ‘radicals’. This term ought to be used carefully, for they were not a homogenous group. Among the ‘old’ radicals were John Bright, one of the founders of the Anti Corn Law League, and Forster. It is true that Joseph Chamberlain - a ‘new’ radical - had a great deal of respect for Bright. They both stood for Birmingham which was a three seat constituency until 1885, and Bright convinced Gladstone to allow Chamberlain into the Cabinet. However, Bright and Chamberlain were not allies, and Forster and Chamberlain had a distinct dislike for one another.

Bright was a respected supporter of Gladstone until 1886. Chamberlain symbolised an emerging radicalism in the Liberal party, which favoured reform, for Chamberlain this included above all land reform in terms of labourer ownership. It was not until the mid 1880s and particularly in 1885, that Chamberlain emerged as a Radical leader and even then it is debatable how many of the party he ‘led’ against Gladstone and the Home Rule Bill in 1886 and how many simply detested the idea of Home Rule.

However, some Radical presence was needed for the Cabinet in 1880 and the two leading spokesmen for the radicals were Dilke and Chamberlain. Gladstone, through Bright’s persuasion, allowed Chamberlain to enter as President for the Board of Trade in the belief that he was more acceptable to the Queen, since Dilke was overtly a republican. However, Chamberlain was largely isolated in the Cabinet and his opinions often overridden by the Whigs.

Gladstone’s position in the liberal party is interesting. He certainly is not a radical, though he favoured reform when he deemed it necessary (see his 1868-74 ministry for evidence). He also was not a conventional Whig, though his good friends, for example Granville, Spencer, Rosebury, Kimberley, Hartington, were. It was because Gladstone was distinctly not a Whig, in the Hartington sense anyway, that radicals were far more supportive of Gladstone than the others.  

The Parliamentary context of the nineteenth century also has to be remembered. Although by the turn of the century Parliament had changed drastically following the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884, the Secret Ballot Act of 1872 and the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883, parliament in the 1880s was still undergoing this transition. In many ways it remained the ‘country club’ where party loyalty was not strict. In fact, parliament tended to be made up of groups of friends. It is true that this was changing, but quite slowly. The Whips did not exert much control over members and the Cabinet was not as ‘executive’ as it is these days: the Commons was a true debating chamber where legislation could be radically modified or withdrawn. [back]

Further reading:

A must is Roy Jenkin’s biography Gladstone (1995). Hammond’s Gladstone and the Irish Nation (1964), though a little too sympathetic to Gladstone, provides a detailed analysis of the events. Also Lyons’ Charles Stewart Parnell (1977).

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