Mismanagement and Deceit (1912)

We have seen that the first year of "the Home Rule Parliament" was sold away to Mr. Lloyd George for his Insurance Act. The most precious part of the second year was still more curiously wasted. After the formality of the Second Reading of the Home Rule Bill and the first Clause of a Bill consisting of 48 Clauses and four Schedules disposed of, the substantial work in Committee was postponed over the summer months and was only approached in the languor of an Autumn Session. There was no overpressure of other work to excuse this second encroachment upon the time of what was to be known as "The Home Rule Session." Two days of every week during the wasted months were given up to the academic Motions and Bills of private Members, which are unceremoniously bundled out of the way by any Government intent on real business. When the business of Committee was really tackled it was prefaced by a Closure-by-Compartment Motion, the object of which too plainly was to guillotine any attempt to amend the Bill from the Nationalist standpoint, and which had the no less mischievous result in Britain of creating a suspicion that a constitutional revolution of so much consequence was to be hustled through without giving England time to discuss, or even understand it. The dilapidation of the second year of "the Home Rule Parliament," like the surrender of the first, could not, of course, have occurred without the complicity of the Hibernian Party. The Bill must go through without amendment or discussion in the shape fixed by that super-Parliament at the Downing St. breakfast table. My friends and myself (we never formed ourselves into a Party nor elected a leader) were so determined to put any imputation of wasting time out of the question that we only proposed to persevere with two amendments, of which no man will now be found to dispute the necessity. The closure-by-compartment time-table, as will be seen presently, managed to strangle even the few hours' discussion that would have sufficed for these two amendments, and did so by tricks which reflected discredit, and indeed dishonour upon the Ministers who had recourse to them. We made our protest against methods which we feared "might be peculiarly dangerous to the ultimate fate of the Bill," and which would have been quite unnecessary had not progress in Committee during the most valuable months of the Session been unaccountably blocked. Nevertheless, we added: "If the Government and their Irish advisers, who are responsible for the management of business, tell us that there is nothing else for it, if the Bill is to have any chance of going through this Session, we acquiesce." Let us now see how our appeal to the Prime Minister, "whom I had always found to be a man to his word," for "a fair and square discussion" of the two amendments that remained was answered.

1. A Bill of 48 Clauses contained only a single line referring to the tremendous subject of completing the abolition of Landlordism, and this so peculiarly worded as seemingly to rule any discussion of the subject out of order. The result would have been to confront the infant Irish Parliament with more than one hundred thousand farmers whom the Act of 1909 had disabled from purchasing, and either to transfer to Ireland the Imperial task of financing the operation, or to replunge the country into stark anarchy. This, indeed, it was too obvious, was the very design of the equivocal line of reference to Land Purchase, for Mr. Dillon in his crazy quarrel with the landlords and the Land Conference settlement, thought he was serving the cause of Home Rule by publicly bragging at this juncture that the Bill would leave the landlords at the mercy of the Irish Parliament, and that the Imperial Parliament would no longer be there to protect them. Parnell had foreseen the difficulty of leaving an Irish Parliament loaded with so intolerable a responsibility. One of the two stipulations as to the future of Home Rule upon which he insisted during our Boulogne negotiations of 1891, and which were formally accepted by Gladstone and Morley, was that any Home Rule Bill must provide for the whole land settlement being undertaken by the Imperial Parliament simultaneously or all but simultaneously under a penalty which no Imperial Parliament was likely to incur of leaving "the English Garrison" to their fate as the passions or the financial necessities of an Irish legislature might decide it. Our Land Purchase Amendment was simply a paraphrase of the words and figures of the compact between Gladstone and Parnell:

"It would be obviously inconsistent with the concession of Home Rule to Ireland that the power to deal with the laws relating to land in Ireland should be permanently confined to the Imperial Parliament. It will have to be exercised simultaneously with the establishment of Home Rule or within a limited period thereafter to be specified in the Home Rule Bill or the power to deal with it must be committed to the local legislature."

When I questioned the Prime Minister whether he would give effect to the undertaking of Gladstone by accepting our amendment, he first denied any knowledge of such an undertaking. Pressed to make inquiries, he made a shambling acknowledgment that the undertaking had been given as the condition for Parnell's retirement from the leadership, but Parnell not having retired the Boulogne compact fell to the ground and nothing further came of it. This amazingly deceitful reply must have been supplied by Mr. Morley, who was himself the medium for Gladstone's acceptance of the Boulogne stipulations. In assuring the House of Commons that Gladstone's undertaking on the land went no further, he was the victim of a lapse of memory so egregious as to lay himself open to the suspicion of misleading the House of Commons in a vital matter of good faith between the two countries. Mr. Healy's memory—an encyclopaedia of the Parliamentary affairs of the previous quarter of a century—enabled me to meet the Prime Minister with a staggering exposure of the untruth. Not only was it untrue to represent that nothing further was heard of the Boulogne stipulation, but I was able to read out for him the clause of the Home Rule Bill of 1893—framed by the Government of which Mr. Asquith and Mr. Morley were members—by which Gladstone honourably acquitted himself of his promise to Parnell in almost the very words of the Boulogne Compact. Clause 35 read as follows:

"35—During three years from the passing of this Act, and if Parliament is then sitting until the end of that Session of Parliament, the Irish Legislature shall not pass an Act respecting the relations of landlord and tenant, or the sale, purchase, or letting of land generally."

The Prime Minister admitted the House of Commons had been led astray as to a capital fact in the history of the Gladstone Cabinet, of which he was himself a member, but he took no steps to make amends by honestly incorporating in his own Bill the Clause which Gladstone had conceived himself bound in honour to insert in the Bill of 1893. Once more no doubt it was his Hibernian advisers who carried the day. Mr. Redmond who first came into prominence as Parnell's chief supporter in the Split of 1890 and who, with Parnell and myself, had negotiated the Boulogne compact with Gladstone and Mr. Morley, opened not his lips to compel this act of justice to be done to his dead chief. The leader felt himself compelled as usual to follow his followers, and they celebrated as if it were in some curious way a triumph for Ireland our failure to get the Prime Minister to reincorporate in his Home Rule Bill the clause which Gladstone had felt bound to add to the Bill of 1893, to Parnell's honour and to his own. In a measure purporting to take thought for Ireland's future peace and concord the unsettled portion of the Land Problem was deliberately left unsettled as a standing provocation to chaos and bad blood.

The way in which our amendment was shelved by a new and equally delusive promise was characteristic. By a coincidence which was now becoming chronic, the Prime Minister was indisposed when the debate came on, but he commissioned Mr. Birrell to give a pledge "given with such solemnity on a subject of so much seriousness, given on the word of a British Minister across the floor of the House," that Mr. Healy generously accepted it as "a pledge as good for us as if it were the law of the land." Mr. Birrell promised with almost passionate eagerness on behalf of the Prime Minister that, if our amendment were withdrawn, "this Government absolutely recognises its full and complete responsibility quite apart from the fate or fortunes of the Bill now in Committee," and that "we are absolutely committed to the completion of Land Purchase at the earliest possible day." He even protested that he himself, whose Act of 1909 had repealed the great measure of 1903, was so fanatically devoted to Land Purchase that in his judgment "the completion of Land Purchase is more important than Home Rule itself." Nothing could be sweeter nor more deceptive. Parnell's design for forcing the Imperial Parliament to action was to compel them by a clause in the Statute to hand over the whole subject to the Irish Parliament if the Imperial Parliament should prove dilatory. That security was now gone. The subject was to be wholly reserved to the Imperial Parliament with, indeed, the Government's all too vehement pledge to settle it "at the earliest possible moment whatever the fate of the Home Rule Bill." The promise thus solemnly sworn in order to evade our amendment, was, like all the rest, shamelessly broken. Mr. Asquith during the years of his Premiership at the head of the Home Rule Government and of the First Coalition never budged an inch to complete Land Purchase. Mr. Lloyd George's Second Coalition Government later undertook to pass simultaneously with their latest "Home Rule" performance (the disastrous Partition Act of 1920) an Act for the completion of Land Purchase on Imperial credit. As these pages are written, nine years after the rejection of our amendment, Irish deputations are ghosting the British Ministers and the Treasury with vain lamentations that their promises to Ireland have been once more cynically broken, and the promised Land Purchase Bill stands adjourned to the Greek Kalends.[23] But an amendment, which might have aided powerfully in disarming the opposition of Ulster to Home Rule, as well as healed the last running sore of social disturbance in the country, was successfully got out of the way, and in the words of old Gaspar, on the field of Blenheim: "It was a famous victory!"

2. Our interference on the question of Finance was limited to a single appeal for the modification of a scheme for which no responsible man will now offer a word of defence. Our case was one to which nothing short of sheer Parliamentary bullying could have denied a fair hearing. I pointed out to Mr. Lloyd George, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, that the freedom proffered to Ireland point-blank refused her freedom of taxation—the first postulate of all true liberty. Ireland would be left at the mercy of an Imperial taxmaster in the Westminster Parliament—a Parliament too in which Ireland's representation was to be cut down by two-thirds. The derisory powers of taxation nominally given to the Dublin Parliament could only be exercised after the Imperial Chancellor had first exacted his last pound of flesh. The refusal of fiscal independence was the more flagrant a wrong that its concession was recommended by the Primrose Committee of experts called in by the Cabinet themselves to advise them—a Committee of whose seven members only one was an Irishman. There was little difficulty in showing that the Budget actually worked out under the Bill as it stood was a mass of contradictions and injustices. It was founded upon the repudiation of Ireland's historic claim—endorsed by the Childers' Royal Commission of 1896 and by the Cabinet's own financial advisers, the Primrose Committee, that Ireland had been wronged by the English Treasury every year since the Union in over-taxation estimated by so competent an authority as Lord MacDonnell to amount to £315,000,000 in all. For this balance-sheet between the two countries was now substituted without a word of protest except our own from the representatives of Ireland the new and impudent claim on which Mr. Herbert Samuel based the finances of the Bill, namely that, contrary to all the Childers' Commission and the Primrose Committee had placed on record, Ireland had really been shirking her fair share of Imperial taxation and was at this moment indebted to the English Treasury to the tune of £2,300,000 a year for the luxury of being governed by her bountiful masters.

The fraud of the Samuel profit and loss account was an audacious one. He strove to give plausibility to his invention of an Irish "Deficit" by two tricks more worthy of the book-keeping of a fraudulent company than of the financial honour of a great Empire. The first was to repudiate Gladstone's recognition in his Bill of 1886 of her "collected" revenue as an asset to the credit of Ireland and to substitute for it a "true" revenue as depleted and doctored by the Treasury, thus at a stroke appropriating to the Treasury £2,000,000 a year which Gladstone made open confession to be Ireland's property. His second device was to charge against Ireland as though for her own private joy and luxury huge sums of Imperial expenditure—e.g., £1,300,000 for the Royal Irish Constabulary which were incurred wholly for Imperial purposes as the means of maintaining an alien military rule. I reminded the Chancellor that the Gladstone Bill of 1886 made a contribution of £500,000 a year to the Constabulary charges, as a force in its essence as Imperial as the army and navy and that Sir E. Hamilton, the Under Secretary, told the Childers' Commission that two-thirds of the Constabulary vote was properly Imperial. But to eke out the Samuel-made "Deficit," a fraud was to follow of such a character that it almost passes belief how the financial conscience of a great nation could ever have stained itself by practising it upon Ireland in a measure purporting to endow her with her freedom. The great Purchase Act of 1903—the first shining success of England in all her dealings with Ireland for seven centuries—could only have been passed by providing an "Aid Fund" or Bonus as an Imperial Free Gift to cover the difference between the price the tenant could afford to pay and that which the landlord could afford to accept. That the Bonus should be a free Imperial gift for the highest of Imperial achievements was the only condition on which any party in Ireland could have consented to pass the Act. Mr. Samuel impudently proposed (and again without protest from the Hibernian benches) to repudiate this Bonus of £16,000,000 to £20,000,000 as an Imperial debt and to transfer it to the shoulders of Ireland, together with the whole expense of the Irish Land Commission then amounting to £616,000 a year, in order to bring out the required "Deficit" in his honest balance-sheet between the two nations. Finally, while the Gladstone Bill of 1886 fixed Ireland's nett Imperial contribution from her "collected" revenue at £1,132,000 for thirty years, the Treasury under the Asquith Bill, was to retain £5,000,000 of the cooked "true" revenue of Ireland of £11,000,000 for the "Home Rule" year, with the certainty of an unlimited increase, as the British Chancellor of the Exchequer dictated. (Since the world-war Ireland's Imperial contribution has actually mounted to £18,000,000 per annum).

Here was a case, however imperfectly expounded, which was at least worth weighing well. My single speech on the subject as the spokesman of half a million of Nationalists, was not, it might be supposed, an unpardonable offence. Not so in the opinion of Mr. Lloyd George and his Hibernian advisers. He leaped into the fray not to reason with his adversary but to butcher him, with a tomahawk for his weapon, and in the temper of the tomahawk's original patentees.

For him it was the getting of a scalp, and not the future of a nation that was at stake. He made no pretence of understanding, much less of answering the arguments for Ireland's claim, but with the delicate taste which makes the joy of a country Petty Sessions Court, set himself to ridicule my qualifications as a financial expert, which truly were no deeper than his own; but he overlooked the circumstance that the facts and figures he was deriding were those of a British Royal Commission and of the Committee of Experts called in by his own Cabinet. Any personal wound to myself was healed easily enough by the spectacle of a British Minister on a great occasion floundering along from one tipsy blunder to another as to which any Irish schoolboy of intelligence might have set him right. It was not so easy to pardon the indecency of Ireland's own representatives. They went wild with exultation while Mr. Lloyd George slashed and danced and whooped as he tore to shreds the financial claims which every great Irishman for generations had declared to be the first elements of justice to their country. Not even one's deep contempt could lessen the pain of listening to the resounding Hibernian chorus, which greeted the defence of every fraudulent device of the Financial Clauses by the man whom they had egged on in the days of his "great and good Budget," and of his Home Rule-blocking Insurance Bill, and between whose knees they were yet to yield their consent to the Partition of Ireland.

One hope remained, if not of modifying in the smallest degree the finances of the Bill, at least of laying them open to reconsideration. Our amendment proposed that at least the financial relations between the two countries should be revised after an experimental period of five years. But once more the Home Rule Cabinet was adamant, and their Hibernian followers turned down their thumbs. The amendment must not even be discussed. The expedient by which this noble result was achieved was a singularly dirty, as well as dishonest, one. According to the Government time table, Clause 14 on which alone any alteration in the general financial scheme would be in order was put down at the end of the sitting after the debates on a Report stage of other matters which was certain to occupy the time up to 10.30 o'clock, when the guillotine fell; so of course it happened automatically and Clause 14 was added to the Bill without a word of debate. The design was all the more impudently revealed by the time-table arrangement that the two next days were given up to other Financial Clauses (15 and 16) which immediately followed, but on which the discussion of our amendment would have been ruled out of order. The discussion, even for a minute, of the future finances of Ireland was effectually stamped out. Once again the Hibernian Party saw it was good and roared with joy over our discomfiture. And so perfect was the apparatus for smothering public opinion, no whisper of the above transaction was suffered to reach, or could ever till now reach ninety nine out of a hundred men in Ireland, or even the remaining one per centum in Britain.

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The Irish Revolution

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William O'Brien was a County Cork M.P. who participated in the negotiations for Home Rule in Ireland. In this account, first published in 1923, he provides an insight into the politics and politicians of the time - John Redmond, John Dillon, Arthur Griffith, Sir Edward Carson, Bonar Law, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, etc. - and gives his analysis of the origins of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish Civil War. From his own perspective, O'Brien was very much anti-Partition, and was evidently frustrated at the failure to give adequate reassurance to the Northern Unionists.

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