Gladstone’’s 1886 Manifesto

As appeared in The Times on Monday June 14th 1886.

Mr Gladstone has issued the following address to the electors of Mid Lothian:-

Gentlemen, – In consequence of the defeat of the Bill for the Better Government of Ireland, the Ministers have advised and Her Majesty has been pleased to sanction a dissolution of Parliament for the decision by the nation of the gravest and likewise the simplest issue which has been submitted to it for half a century.

It is only a sense of the gravity of this issue which induces me at a period of life when nature cries aloud for repose, after sitting in 13 Parliaments, to seek a seat in a 14th, and with this view to solicit for the fifth time the honour of your confidence.

At the last election I endeavoured in my address and speeches to impress upon you that a great crisis had arrived in the affairs of Ireland.

Weak as the late Government was for ordinary purposes it had great advantages for dealing with this crisis. A comprehensive measure proceeding from them would have received warm and extensive support from within the Liberal party. It would probably have closed the Irish controversy within the present session, and have left the Parliament of 1885 free to prosecute the no stagnant work of ordinary legislation, with the multitude of questions that it includes. My earnest hope was to support the late Cabinet in such a course of policy.

But on the 29th of last January the opposite policy of coercion was declared to have been the choice of the Government, Lord Carnarvon alone refusing to share in it. The Irish question was thus placed in the foreground to the exclusion of every other; the hour as all felt, was come, and the only point remaining to determine was the manner in which it should be dealt with.

In my judgement the proposal of coercion was not justified by the facts and was doomed to a certain and disgraceful failure. Some method of governing Ireland other than coercion ought, as I thought, to be sought for and might be found. I therefore viewed without regret the fall of the late Cabinet, and when summoned by Her Majesty to form a new one I undertook it on a basis of an anti-coercion policy, with the fullest explanation to those whose aid I sought as colleagues that I proposed to examine whether it might not be possible to grant Ireland a domestic legislature under conditions as such as to maintain the honour and consolidate the unity of the Empire.

The Cabinet was formed and the work was at once put in hand.

You will now, gentlemen, clearly understand how and why it is that the affairs of Ireland have, not for the first time, thrown aside every other subject and adjourned our hopes of useful progressive legislation. As a question of the first necessities of the social order, it forced itself into the van. The late Government, right in giving that place, were, as we thought, wrong in the manner of treating it. It was our absolute duty, on taking the government, if we did not adopt their method to propose another. Thus, gentlemen, it is that this great and simple issue has come upon you and demands your decision. Will you govern Ireland by coercion, or will you let her manage her own affairs?

To debate in this address this or that detail of the lately defeated Bills would be only to disguise this issue and would be as futile as to discuss the halting, stumbling, ever shifting, ever vanishing projects of the intermediate class which have proceeded from Seceding Liberals.

Two clear, positive, intelligible plans are before the world. There is the plan of the Government and there is the plan of Lord Salisbury. Our plan is that Ireland should, under well-considered conditions, transact her own affairs. His plan is to ask Parliament for new repressive laws, and to enforce them resolutely for 20 years, at the end of which time he assures us that Ireland will be fitted to accept any gifts in the way of local government or the repeal of coercion laws that you may wish to give her.

I leave this daring project to speak for itself in its unadorned simplicity and I turn to the proposed policy of the Government.

Our opponents, gentlemen, whether Tories or Seceders, have assumed the name of Unionists, I deny their title to it. In intention, indeed, we are all Unionists alike, but the Union which they refuse to modify is in its present shape a paper union, obtained by force and fraud, and never sanctioned or accepted by the Irish nation. They are not Unionists, but paper Unionists. A true union is to be tested by the sentiments of the human beings united. Tried by this criterion, we have less union between Great Britain and Ireland now than we had under the settlement of 1782.

Enfranchised Ireland, gentlemen, asks through her lawful representatives for a revival of her domestic Legislature, not on the face of it an innovating, but a restorative proposal.

She urges with truth that a centralisation of the Parliament has been a division of the peoples, but she recognises the fact that the Union, lawlessly as it was obtained, cannot and ought not to be repealed. She is content to receive her Legislature in a form divested of prerogatives which might have impaired Imperial interests and better adapted than the settlement of 1782 to secure her the regular control of her own affairs.

She has not repelled, but has welcomed, stipulations for the protection of the minority. To such provisions we have given, and shall give, careful heed. But I trust that Scotland will condemn the attempts so singularly made to import into this controversy the venomous element of religious bigotry. Let us take warning from the deplorable riots at Belfast and some other places in the North.

Among the benefits, gentlemen, which I anticipate from your acceptance of our policy are these:-

The consolidation of the unity of the Empire and a great addition to its strength; the stoppage of a heavy, constant and demoralising waste of public treasure; the abatement and greater extinction of ignoble feuds in Ireland, and that development of her resources which experience shows to be the natural consequence of free and orderly government; the redemption of the honour of Great Britain from a stigma fastened upon her from time immemorial in respect to Ireland by the judgement of the whole civilised world and lastly, the restoration to Parliament of its dignity and efficiency and the regular progress of the business of the country.

Well, gentlemen, the first question now put to you is, How shall Ireland be governed? There is another question behind it and involved in it – How are England and Scotland to be governed? You know how, for the last six years especially, the affairs of England and Scotland have been impeded and your Imperial Parliament discredited and disabled. All this happened while Nationalists were but a small minority of Irish members, without support from so much as a handful of members not Irish. Now they approach 90 and are entitled to say, “We speak the voice of the Irish nation.” It is impossible to deal with this subject by half measures. They are strong in their numbers, strong in the British support which has brought 313 members to vote for their country and strongest of all in the sense of being right. But, gentlemen, we have done our part. The rest remains with you, the electors of the country. May you be enabled to see through and to cast away all delusions, to refuse the evil and to choose the good.

I have the honour to be, gentlemen, your most faithful and grateful servant,

W.E Gladstone
10 Downing Street, June 12th 1886