The Liberals and Ireland since 1801

Underneath the surface of this [Irish question], and wrapped up in it, are nearly all the controversies of principle which will agitate the political atmosphere of our time. It is a microcosm of the whole imperial question.

It is the test of our fitness to deal with the other problems which modern circumstances, pressing hard against the old order of ideas and traditions, is forcing upon our attention. The functions of the State, the duties of property, the rights of labour, the question whether the many are born for the few, the question of a centralised imperial power, the question of the pre-eminence of morals in politicsall these things lie in Irish affairs. [John Morley, 1868]

I am oppressed day and night with the condition of Ireland, with the sad and painful spectacle it exhibits to the world, and with the painful consciousness that this springs out of the past and present faults in our government of the country, not out of special obliquity and vice in the people. [William E. Gladstone, 1869]

Measured by the enactment of concrete legislation the Liberals [earlier the Whigs and Radicals] are not incontestably the most successful reforming party in Irish affairs. By that yardstick a good case can be made for the Conservatives who relieved the bulk of Catholic disabilities in 1829, created the Queen’s colleges in 1845, introduced elective local government under the act of 1898, passed the largest land purchase scheme in 1903, dominated a coalition that brought self-government to both parts of contemporary Ireland in 1921 and initiated the main elements of the present-day peace process. Liberals often have had their clothes stolen by the Tories.

Liberals, though, are not bereft of legislative accomplishments; Church disestablishment in 1869, land legislation in 1870, 1881, 1882 and 1909, the University act of 1908, and putting home rule on the statute books in 1914 rightly occupy places in the party portfolio. Since the end of the first world war the Liberals or now Liberal Democrats have been less directly responsible for legislation but have remained prominent in supporting initiatives for the resolution of the post-1968 crisis in Northern Ireland. However, in the long-term the special claim of Liberalism in Ireland does not rest on a mechanical balance sheet; it is embedded in the moral fervour epitomised in the quotations above from two of the party’s icons, Morley and most of all Gladstone cited above.

Liberalism, whether in Ireland or elsewhere, always was as much about ideals and beliefs as the actual nuts and bolts of legislation. Within certain parameters Liberals accepted that ultimately the wishes, wise or flawed, of majorities had to be respected and that differing circumstances within the United Kingdom called for distinct or devolved approaches. The first found expression in Robert Lowe’s appraisal in 1869 during the disestablishment debates, the State Church in Ireland is not the national Church, and the national Church is not the State Church.We should look upon the whole subjectas a matter of justice and conscience. In 1886 the Secretary of the Treasury, H.H. Fowler, declaimed, that home rule would bring about a real Union not an act of Parliament Union but a moral Union, a Union of heart and soul between two Sister Nations.

Gladstone’s democratic conviction found expression on the issue of special provision for Ulster in 1886 when he said, I cannot allow it to be said that a Protestant minority in Ulster or elsewhere, is to rule the question at large for Ireland. Both Gladstone in 1886 and H.H. Asquith in 1912 visualised Irish home rule within an evolving devolution of the United Kingdom, a position that remained integral to Liberal philosophy up to its partial achievement in the late 1990s. Throughout its history the party whether charged with the conduct of government or in opposition has placed Ireland in a prominent place in its agenda; frequently it has done so to the cost of a narrow political self-interest.

In retrospect the Union of Great Britain and Ireland which came into effect on 1 January 1801 appears to have been doomed from its inception. At the time and for two-thirds of the nineteenth century, this was less obvious and, in many respects, the new United Kingdom offered an exciting, as well as a testing opportunity, to mould the whole of the British Isles into a single nation. Under the Union two tendencies centralisation combined with harmonisation and a centrifugal force leading to distinctive solutions to the wants of each of the four nationsoperated, often simultaneously and cutting across conventional party boundaries, prefiguring current debates about the structure of the European Union. The Act of Union introduced two new features, a very substantial Catholic population which actually constituted a vast majority in one geographical portion of the nation, and, a considerable Irish representation in Parliament (100 later 103 MPs into the House of Commons with a further 40 representative Peers in the House of Lords). It was then a Union of nations, peoples and religions rendered the more textured and complex by movements of population, creating a form of nascent multiculturalism.

Not surprisingly, the Union induced sharp changes in the political atmosphere and placed Ireland at the forefront of questions facing the political elite. This sense of urgency is evident in the vast number of acts for Ireland, ranging from the provision for dispensaries for the sick in each county in 1805, the National Board of Education in 1831 to the Queen’s colleges legislation in 1845. In 1836 the Royal Commission on Irish Railways laid the corner-stone of modernised transport in the Emerald Isle. In 1891 an act for compulsory school attendance for children between the age of 6 and 14 was passed under the Liberal government. Between 1810 and 1833 there were 114 Royal Commissions and 60 parliamentary select committees on Irish matters. Even a brief perusal of legislation enacted each year reveals that there was no lack of attention devoted to Ireland even in the era before the Irish Question reached a peak. If Ireland supposedly suffered from bad or unpopular Westminster enactments, this was not a consequence of indifference.

The Irish Question is bounded by three immense themes, religion, land and nationality. Liberals took the lead in dealing with each and Gladstone, in particular, attempted reforms for all three. A lively modern scholarship has reassessed the motives of underlying Liberal attitudes and the actions of key individuals for many of the touchstone issues. Political life was torn asunder by Catholic emancipation during the two decades before its achievement. Whigs and Radicals were persistent advocates of the Catholic relief and Daniel O’Connell duly identified the causes of Irish and British reform. During the 1830s, an era of reform in both countries, O’Connell and the Whigs worked together. The legacy of the Great Famine of the late 1840s did little to enhance Whig reputation in the subsequent historiography but recent scholarship has been rather kinder to the good intentions of Lord John Russell’s Liberal administration. No doubt, though, it is with the name of Gladstone that the greatest era of Liberal involvement is dated.

With his assumption of the Prime Ministership in late 1868 begins the attempt to tackle the trilogy that comprised the Irish Question. In one of the great feats of parliamentary wizardry, he ended church establishment in Ireland, making it the sole secular jurisdiction in the United Kingdom, while satisfying the basic interests of Irish Protestants. His land legislation in 1870 was less successful but Gladstone laid down a marker; in vital areas Ireland was to be governed by Irish ideas and reforms were geared to local needs. His grand plan came unhinged over the university bill of 1873. Irish education remained a Liberal bugbear but the act of 1908 from the hands of another Liberal government created a lasting university structure for Ireland. Moreover, Gladstone saw that in order to win over moderate Irish opinion, it was essential to release the Fenian prisoners.

By the mid-1870s he was toying with self-government ideas. Each of his intentions met with resistance both within his own ranks and from outside; in the end it was more the spirit of Gladstone’s actions than their outcomes that gives him and Liberalism its unique place in Anglo-Irish history. But, nothing proved so incisive as Gladstone’s controversial decision to attempt Home Rule in 1886. This cost him the Prime Ministership and split the Liberals. He was not deterred and remained in political life in order to achieve home rule, putting forward a second bill in 1893 which gained a majority in the House of Commons before being thrown out by the Upper Chamber.

When the Liberals returned to office in 1905 a further period of Irish legislation ensued and although Ireland did not feature prominently in the Liberal election campaigns of 1906 and 1910, this had more to do with electoral opportunism than a desire to abandon the Irish programme. The most important aspect of legislation in this period was another attempt to implement Home Rule between 1912 and 1914. Ireland or rather both Irelands gained self-government in 1921 though at a heavy price. The author this time was David Lloyd George, something of a Liberal pariah at the time, and the success was a factor leading to his ejection from the Premiership in 1922.

Since 1968 Liberals have been consistent advocates of equality, reform of institutions and peace in Northern Ireland, even if, their voice has carried less political punch than in previous generations. At the end of the day the vision of Morley and Gladstone has been a touchstone of modern Liberalism for Liberals Ireland is an issue of moral principle by which the British nation must be measured. Among historians the pendulum has swung back from the cynicism characteristic of reassessments in the 1970s and 80s to a recognition that Liberals responded to Irish problems with a set of core values shaped by Ireland’s circumstances.


Alan O’Day is Fellow in Modern History at Greyfriars, University of Oxford. His publications include, The English Face of Irish Nationalism (1977); Parnell and the Irish Home Rule Crisis (1986);Irish Home Rule, 1867-1921(1998);Charles Stewart Parnell (1998). With D. George Boyce he edited Parnell in Perspective (1991); The Making of Modern Irish History (1996); Defenders of the Union (2001); and Ireland in Trasition, 1867-1921 (2004). This article was written in November 2003.