THE INFLUENCE OF POLITICS UPON THE IRISH MIND.
Among the humours of the Home Rule struggle, the story was current in England that a peasant in Connemara ceased planting his potatoes when the news of the introduction of the Home Rule Bill in 1886 seemed to bring the millenium into the region of practical politics. Those who used the story were not slow to suggest that, had the Bill become law, the failure of spontaneous generation in the Connemara potato patch might have been typical of much analogous disillusionment elsewhere. Even to those who are familiar with our history, the faith of the Irish people in the potentialities of government, which this little tale illustrates by caricature, will give cause for reflection of another and more serious kind. The moral to be drawn by Irish politicians is that we in Ireland have yet to free ourselves from one of the worst legacies of past misgovernment, the belief that any legislation or any legislature can provide an escape from the physical and mental toil imposed through our first parents upon all nations for all time.
'The more business in politics, and the less politics in business, the better for both,' is a maxim which I brought home from the Far West and ventured to advocate publicly some years ago. Being still of the same mind, I regret that I am compelled to introduce a whole chapter of politics into this book, which is a study of Irish affairs mainly from a social and economic point of view. But to ignore, either in the diagnosis or in the treatment of the 'mind diseased,' the political obsession of our national life would be about as wise as to discuss and plan a Polar expedition without taking account of the climatic conditions to be encountered.
In such an examination of Irish politics as thus becomes necessary I shall have to devote the greater part of my criticism to the influence of the Nationalist party upon the Irish mind. But it will be seen that this course is not taken with a view to making party capital for my own side. As I read Irish history, neither party need expect very much credit for more than good intentions. Whichever proves to be right in its main contention, each will have to bear its share of the responsibility for the long continuance of the barren controversy. Each has neglected to concern itself with the settlement of vitally important questions the consideration of which need not have been postponed because the constitutional question still remained in dispute. Therefore, though I seem to throw upon the Nationalist party the chief blame for our present political backwardness, and, so far as politics affect other spheres of national activity, for our industrial depression, candour compels me to admit that Irish Unionism has failed to recognise its obligation--an obligation recognised by the Unionist party in Great Britain--to supplement opposition to Home Rule with a positive and progressive policy which could have been expected to commend itself to the majority of the Irish people--the Irish of the Irish Question.
To my own party in Ireland then, I would first direct the reader's attention. I have already referred to the deplorable effects produced upon national life by the exclusion of representatives of the landlord and the industrial classes from positions of leadership and trust over four-fifths of the country. I cannot conceive of a prosperous Ireland in which the influence of these leaders is restricted within its present bounds. It has been so restricted because the Irish Unionist party has failed to produce a policy which could attract, at any rate, moderate men from the other side, and we have, therefore, to consider why we have so failed. Until this is done, we shall continue to share the blame for the miserable state of our political life which, at the end of the nineteenth century, appeared to have made but little advance from the time when Bishop Berkeley asked 'Whether our parties are not a burlesque upon politics.'
The Irish Unionist party is supposed to unite all who, like the author, are opposed to the plunge into what is called Home Rule. But its propagandist activities in Ireland are confined to preaching the doctrine of the status quo, and preaching it only to its own side. From the beginning the party has been intimately connected with the landlord class; yet even upon the land question it has thrown but few gleams of the constructive thought which that question so urgently demanded, and which it might have been expected to apply to it. Now and again an individual tries to broaden the basis of Irish Unionism and to bring himself into touch with the life of the people. But the nearer he gets to the people the farther he gets from the Irish Unionist leaders. The lot of such an individual is not a happy one: he is regarded as a mere intruder who does not know the rules of the game, and he is treated by the leading players on both sides like a dog in a tennis court.
Two main causes appear to me to account for the failure of the Irish Unionist party to make itself an effective force in Irish national life. The great misunderstanding to which I have attributed the unhappy state of Anglo-Irish relations kept the country in a condition of turmoil which enabled the Unionist party to declare itself the party of law and order. Adopting Lord Salisbury's famous prescription, 'twenty years of resolute government,' they made it what its author would have been the last man to consider it, a sufficient justification for a purely negative and repressive policy. Such an attitude was open to somewhat obvious objections. No one will dispute the proposition that the government of Ireland, or of any other country, should be resolute, but twenty years of resolute government, in the narrow sense in which it came to be interpreted, needed for its success, what cannot be had under party government, twenty years of consistency. It may be better to be feared than to be loved, but Machiavelli would have been the first to admit that his principle did not apply where the Government which sought to establish fear had to reckon with an Opposition which was making capital out of love. Moreover, the suggestion that the Irish Question is not a matter of policy but of police, while by no means without influential adherents, is altogether vicious. You cannot physically intimidate Irishmen, and the last thing you want to do is morally to intimidate a people whose greatest need at the moment is moral courage.
The second cause which determined the character of Irish Unionism was the linking of the agrarian with the political question; the one being, in effect, a practical, the other a sentimental issue. The same thing happened in the Nationalist party; but on their side it was intentional and led to an immense accession of strength, while on the Unionist side it made for weakness. If the influence of Irish Unionists was to be even maintained, it was of vital importance that the interest of a class should not be allowed to dominate the policy of the party. But the organisation which ought to have rallied every force that Ireland could contribute to the cause of imperial unity came to be too closely identified with the landlord class. That class is admittedly essential to the construction of any real national life. But there is another element equally essential, to which the political leaders of Irish Unionism have not given the prominence which is its due. The Irish Question has been so successfully narrowed down to two simple policies, one positive but vague, the other negative but definite, that to suggest that there are three distinct forces--three distinct interests--to be taken into account seems like confusing the issue. It is a fact, nevertheless, that a very important element on the Unionist side, the industrial element, has been practically left out of the calculation by both sides. Yet the only expression of real political thought which I have observed in Ireland, since I have been in touch with Irish life, has emanated from the Ulster Liberal-Unionist Association, whose weighty pronouncements, published from time to time, are worthy of deep consideration by all interested in the welfare of Ireland.
It will be remembered that when the Home Rule controversy was at its height, the chief strength of the Irish opposition to Mr. Gladstone's policy, and the consideration which most weighed with the British electorate, lay in the business objection of the industrial population of Ulster; though on the platform religious and political arguments were more often heard. The intensely practical nature of the objection which came from the commercial and industrial classes of the North who opposed Home Rule was never properly recognised in Ireland. It was, and is still unanswered. Briefly stated, the position taken up by their spokesmen was as follows:--'We have come,' they said in effect, 'into Ireland, and not the richest portion of the island, and have gradually built up an industry and commerce with which we are able to hold our own in competition with the most progressive nations in the world. Our success has been achieved under a system and a polity in which we believe. Its non-interference with the business of the people gave play to that self-reliance with which we strove to emulate the industrial qualities of the people of Great Britain. It is now proposed to place the manufactures and commerce of the country at the mercy of a majority which will have no real concern in the interests vitally affected, and who have no knowledge of the science of government. The mere shadow of these changes has so depressed the stocks which represent the accumulations of our past enterprise and labour that we are already commercially poorer than we were.'
My sole criticism of those leaders of commerce and industry in Belfast, who, whenever they turn their attention from their various pre-occupations, import into Irish politics the valuable qualities which they display in the conduct of their private affairs, is that they do not go further and take the necessary steps to give practical effect to their views outside the ranks of their immediate associates and followers. Had the industrial section made its voice heard in the councils of the Irish Unionist party, the Government which that party supports might have had less advice and assistance in the maintenance of law and order, but it would have had invaluable aid in its constructive policy. For the lack of the wise guidance which our captains of industry should have provided, Irish Unionism has, by too close adherence to the traditions of the landlord section, been the creed of a social caste rather than a policy in Ireland. The result has been injurious alike for the landlords, the leaders of industry, and the people. The policy of the Unionist party in Ireland has been to uphold the Union by force rather than by a reconciliation of the people to it. It has held aloof from the masses, who, bereft of the guidance of their natural leaders, have clung the more closely to the chiefs of the Nationalist party; and these in their turn have not, as I shall show presently, risen to their responsibility, but have retarded rather than advanced the march of democracy in Ireland. If there is to be any future for Unionism in Ireland, there must be a combination of the best thought of the country aristocracy and that of the captains of industry. Then, and not till then, shall we Unionists as a party exercise a healthful and stimulating influence on the thought and action of the people.
I cannot, therefore, escape from the conclusion that whilst the Irish section of the party to which I belong is, in my opinion, right on the main political question, its influence is now for the most part negative. Hence I direct attention mainly to the Home Rule party, as the more forceful element in Irish political life; and if it receives the more criticism it is because it is more closely in touch with the people, and because any reform in its principles or methods would more generally and more rapidly prove beneficial to the country than would any change in Unionist policy.
In examining the policy of the Nationalist party my chief concern will be to arrive at a correct estimate of the effect which is produced upon the thought and action of the Irish people by the methods employed for the attainment of Home Rule. I propose to show that these methods have been in the past, and must, so long as they are employed, continue to be injurious to the political and industrial character of the people, and consequently a barrier to progress. I know that most of the Nationalist leaders justify the employment of these methods on the ground that, in their opinion, the constitutional reforms they advocate are a condition precedent to industrial progress. I believe, on the contrary, and I shall give my reasons for believing, that their tactics have been not only a hindrance to industrial progress, but destructive even to the ulterior purpose they were intended to fulfil.
It is commonly believed--a belief very naturally fostered by their leaders--that, if there is one thing the Irish do understand, it is politics. Politics is a term obviously capable of wide interpretation, and I fear that those who say that my countrymen are pre-eminently politicians use the term in a sense more applicable to the conceptions of Mr. Richard Croker than of Aristotle. In intellectual capacity for discrimination upon political issues the average Irish elector is, I believe, far superior to the average English elector. But there is as yet something wanting in the character of our people which seems to prohibit the exercise by them of any independent political thought and, consequently, of any effective or permanent political influence.
The assumption that Irishmen are singularly good politicians seems to stand seriously in the way of their becoming so; and yet it is a matter of the greatest importance that they should become good politicians in a real sense, for in no country would sound political thought exercise a more beneficial influence upon the life of the people than in Ireland. Indeed I would go further and give it as my strong conviction that, properly developed and freed from the narrowing influences of the party squabbles by which it has been warped and sterilised, the political thought of the Irish people would contribute a factor of vital importance to the life of the British empire. But at the moment I am dealing only with the influence of politics on Irish social and economic life.
I am aware that any political deficiencies which the Irish may display at home, are commonly attributed to the political system which has been imposed upon Ireland from without. If you want to see Irish genius in its highest political manifestation, it must be studied, we are told, in the United States, the widest and freest arena which has ever been offered to the race. This view is not in accordance with the facts as I have observed them. These facts are somewhat obscured by the natural, but misleading habit of reckoning to the account of Ireland at large achievements really due to the Scotch-Irish, who helped to colonise Pennsylvania, and who undoubtedly played a dominant part in developing the characteristic features of the American political system. The Scotch-Irish, however, do not belong to the Ireland of the Irish Question Descended, largely, as their names so often testify, from the early Irish colonists of western Scotland, they came back as a distinct race, dissociating themselves from the Irish Celts by refusing to adopt their national traditions, or intermarry with them, and both here and in America disclaiming the appellation of Irish.
Leaving, then, out of consideration the political achievements of the Scotch-Irish, it appears to me that the part played in politics by the Irish in America does not testify to any high political genius. They have shown there an extraordinary aptitude for political organisation, which, if it had been guided by anything approaching to political thought, would have placed them in a far higher position in American public life than that which they now occupy. But the fact is that it would be much easier to find evidence of high political capacity and success in the history of the Irish in British colonies; and the reason for this fact is not only very germane to the purpose of this book, but has a strong practical interest for Americans as well. Irishmen when they go to America find themselves united by a bond which does not and could not exist in the Colonies--though it does exist in Ireland--the bond of anti-English feeling, and by the hope of giving practical effect to this feeling through the policy of their adopted country. Imbued with this common sentiment, and influenced by their inherited clannishness, the Irish in America readily lend themselves to the system of political groups, a system which the 'boss' for his own ends seeks to perpetuate. The result is a sort of political paradox--it has made the Irish in America both stronger and weaker than they ought to be. They suffer politically from the defects of their political qualities: they are strong as a voting machine, but the secret of their collective strength is also the secret of their individual weakness. This organisation into groups is much commoner among the Irish than among other American immigrants, for the anti-English feeling with which so many of the Irish land in America is carefully kept alive by the 'boss,' whose sedulous fostering of the instinctive clannishness and inherited leader-following habits of the Irish saps their independence of thought and prevents them from ceasing to be mere political agents and developing a citizenship which would furnish its due quota of statesmen to the service of the Republic. They lack in the United States just what they lack at home, the capacity, or at any rate the inclination, to use their undoubted abilities in a large and foreseeing manner, and so are becoming less and less powerful as a force in American politics.
The fallacious views about the nature and sphere of politics, which the Irish bring with them from Ireland, and which are perpetuated in America, have the effect not only of debarring the Irish from real political progress, but also, as at home, from gaining success in industrial pursuits which their talents would otherwise win for them. They succeed as journalists owing to their quick intelligence and versatility, and as contractors mainly owing to their capacity for organising gangs of workmen--a faculty which seems to be the only good thing resulting from their political education. They are as brilliant soldiers in the service of the United States as they are in that of Britain--more it would be impossible to say--and they have produced types of daring, endurance, and shrewdness like the 'Silver Kings' of Nevada which testify to the exceptional powers always developed by the Irish in exceptional circumstances. But in the humdrum business of everyday life in the United States they suffer from defects which are the outcome of their devotion to mistaken political ideals and of their subordination of industry to politics, which are not always purely American, but are often influenced by considerations of the country of their birth. On the whole, a quarter of a century of not unsympathetic observation of the Irish in the United States has convinced me that the position they occupy there is not one which either they or the American people can look on with entire satisfaction. The Irish immigrants are felt to belong to a kind of imperium in imperio, and to carry into American politics ideas which are not American, and which might easily become an embarrassment if not a danger to America. Hence the powerful interest which America shares with England, though of course in a less degree, in understanding and helping to settle the complex difficulty called the Irish Question. The Irish remember Ireland long after they have left it. They are not in the same position as the German or English immigrants who have no cause at home which they wish to forward. Every echo in the States of political or social disturbance in Ireland rouses the immigrant and he becomes an Irishman once more, and not a citizen of the country of his adoption. His views and votes on international questions, in so far as they affect these Islands, are thus often dictated more by a passionate sympathy for and remembrance of the land he no longer lives in, than by any right understanding of the interests of the new country in which he and his children must live.
The only reason why I have examined the assumption that Irishmen display marked political capacity in the United States is to make it clear that the political deficiencies they manifest at home are to be attributed mainly to defects of character, and to a conception of politics for which modern English government is very slightly responsible. I admit that English government in the past had no small share in producing the results we deplore to-day, but the motives and manner of its action have, it seems to me, been very imperfectly understood.
The fact is that the difficulties of English government in Ireland, until a complete military conquest had been effected, were of a peculiarly complex character. Before the English could impose upon Ireland their own political organisation--and the idea that any other system could work better among the Irish never entered the English mind--it was obviously necessary that the very antithesis of that organisation, the clan system, should be abolished. But there were military and financial objections to carrying out this policy. Irish campaigns were very costly, and England was in those days by no means wealthy. English armies in Ireland, after a short period spent in desultory warfare with light armed kernes in the fever-stricken Munster forests, began to melt away. For many generations, therefore, England, adopting a policy of divide et impera, set clan against clan. Later on, statecraft may be said to have supervened upon military tactics. It consisted of attempts made by alternate threats and bribes to induce the chiefs to transform the clan organisation by the acceptance of English institutions. But any systematic endeavours to complete the transformation were soon rendered abortive by being coupled with huge confiscations of land. The policy of converting the members of the clans into freeholders was subordinated to the policy of planting British colonists. After this there was no question of fusion of races or institutions. Plantations on a large scale, self-supporting, self-protecting, became the policy alike of the soldier and the statesman.
The inevitable result of these methods was that it was not until a comparatively late date that a political conception of an Irish nation first began to emerge out of the congeries of clans. In the State Papers of the sixteenth century the clans are frequently spoken of as 'nations.' Even as late as the eighteenth century a Gaelic poet, in a typical lament, thus identifies his country with the fortunes of her great families:--
The modern political idea of Irish nationality at length asserted itself as the result of three main causes. The bond of a common grievance against the English foe was created by the gradual abandonment of the policy of setting clan against clan in favour of impartial confiscation of land from friendly as well as from hostile chiefs. Secondly, when the English had destroyed the natural leaders, the clan chiefs, and attempted to proselytise their adherents, the political leadership largely passed to the Roman Catholic Church, which very naturally defended the religion common to the members of all the clans, by trying to unite them against the English enemy. Nationality, in this sense, of course applied only to Celtic Roman Catholic Ireland. The first real idea of a United Ireland arose out of the third cause, the religious grievances of the Protestant dissenters and the commercial grievances of the Protestant manufacturers and artisans in the eighteenth century, who suffered under a common disability with the Roman Catholics, and many of whom came in the end to make common cause with them. But even long after this conception had become firmly established, the local representative institutions corresponding to those which formed the political training of the English in law and administration either did not exist in Ireland or were altogether in the hands of a small aristocracy, mostly of non-Irish origin, and wholly non-Catholic. O'Connell's great work in freeing Roman Catholic Ireland from the domination of the Protestant oligarchy showed the people the power of combination, but his methods can hardly be said to have fostered political thought. The efforts in this direction of men like Gavan Duffy, Davis, and Lucas were neutralised by the Famine, the after effects of which also did much to thwart Butt's attempts to develop serious public opinion amongst a people whose political education had been so long delayed. The prospect of any early fruition of such efforts vanished with the revolutionary agrarian propaganda, and independent thinking--so necessary in the modern democratic state--never replaced the old leader-following habit which continued until the climax was reached under Parnell.
The political backwardness of the Irish people revealed itself characteristically when, in 1884, the English and Irish democracies were simultaneously endowed with a greatly extended franchise. In theory this concession should have developed political thought in the people and should have enhanced their sense of political responsibility. In England no doubt this theory was proved by the event to be based on fact; but in Ireland it was otherwise. Parnell was at the zenith of his power. The Irish had the man, what mattered the principles? The new suffrages simply became the figures upon the cheques handed over to the Chief by each constituency, with the request that he would fill in the name of the payee. On one or two occasions a constituency did protest against the payee, but all that was required to settle the matter was a personal visit from the Chief. Generally speaking, the electorate were quite docile, and instances were not wanting of men discovering that they had found favour with electors to whom their faces and even their names were previously unknown.
No doubt, the one-man system had a tactical value, of which the English themselves were ever ready to make use. "If all Ireland cannot rule this man, then let this man rule all Ireland," said Henry VII. of the Earl of Kildare; and the echo of these words was heard when the Kilmainham Treaty was negotiated with the last man who wore the mantle of the chief. But whatever may be said for the one-man system as a means of political organisation, it lacked every element of political education. It left the people weaker, if possible, and less capable than it found them; and assuredly it was no fit training for Home Rule. While Parnell's genius was in the ascendant, all was well--outwardly. When a tragic and painful disclosure brought about a crisis in his fate, it will hardly be contended by the most devoted admirer of the Irish people that the situation was met with even moderate ability and foresight. But the logic of events began to take effect. The decade of dissension which followed the fall of Parnell will, perhaps, some day be recognised as a most fruitful epoch in modern Irish history. The reaction from the one-man system set in as soon as the one man had passed away. The independence which Parnell's former lieutenants began to assert when the laurels faded upon the brow of the uncrowned King communicated itself to some extent to the rank and file. The mere weighing of the merits of several possible successors led to some wholesome questioning as to the merits of the policies, such as they were, which they respectively represented The critical spirit which was now called forth, did not, at first, go very far; but it was at least constructive and marked a distinct advance towards real political thought. I believe the day will come, and come soon, when Nationalist leaders themselves will recognise that while bemoaning faction and dissension and preaching the cause of 'unity' they often mistook the wheat for the tares. They will, I feel sure, come to realise that the passing of the dictatorship, which to outward appearances left the people as "sheep without a shepherd, when the snow shuts out the sky," in fact turned the thoughts of Ireland in some measure away from England into her own bosom, and gave birth there to the idea of a national life to which the Irish people of all classes, creeds, and politics could contribute of their best.
I sometimes wonder whether the leaders of the Nationalist party really understand the full effect of their tactics upon the political character of the Irish people, and whether their vision is not as much obscured by a too near, as is the vision of the Unionist leaders by a too distant, view of the people's life. Everyone who seeks to provide practical opportunities for Irish intellect to express-itself worthily in active life--and this, I take it, is part of what the Nationalist leaders wish to achieve--meets with the same difficulty. The lack of initiative and shrinking from responsibility, the moral timidity in glaring contrast with the physical courage--which has its worst manifestation in the intense dread of public opinion, especially when the unknown terrors of editorial power lurk behind an unfavourable mention 'on the paper,' are, no doubt, qualities inherited from a primitive social state in which the individual was nothing and the community everything. These defects were intensified in past generations by British statecraft, which seemed unable to appreciate or use the higher instincts of the race; they remain to-day a prominent factor in the great human problem known as the Irish Question--a factor to which, in my belief, may be attributed the greatest of its difficulties.
It is quite clear that education should have been the remedy for the defects of character upon which I am forced to dwell so much; and I cannot absolve any body of Irishmen, possessed of actual or potential influence, of failure to recognise this truth. But here I am dealing only with the political leaders, and trying to bring home to them the responsibility which their power imposes upon them, not only for the political development but also for the industrial progress of their followers. They ought to have known that the weakness of character which renders the task of political leadership in Ireland comparatively easy is in reality the quicksand of Irish life, and that neither self-government nor any other institution can be enduringly built upon it.
The leaders of the Nationalist party are, of course, entitled to hold that, in existing political conditions, any non-political movement towards national advancement, which in its nature cannot be linked, as the land question was linked, to the Home Rule movement constitutes an unwarrantable sacrifice of ends to means. And so holding, they are further entitled to subject any proposal to elevate popular thought, or to direct popular activities, to a strict censorship as to its remote as well as to its immediate effect upon the electorate. I know, too, that it is held by some thinking Nationalists who take no active part in politics that the politicians are justified on tactical grounds in this exclusive pursuit of their political aims, and in the methods by which they pursue them. They consider the present system of government too radically wrong to mend, and they can undoubtedly point to agrarian legislation as evidence of the effectiveness of the means they employ to gain their end.
This view of things has sunk very deep into the Irish mind. The policy of 'giving trouble' to the Government is looked upon as the one road to reform and is believed in so fervently that, except for religion, which sometimes conflicts with it, there is scarcely any capacity left for belief in anything else. I am far from denying that the past offers much justification for the belief that nothing can be gained by Ireland from England except through violent agitation. Until recently, I admit, Ireland's opportunity had to wait for England's difficulty. But, as practised in the present day, I believe this doctrine to be mischievous and false. For one thing, there is a new England to deal with. The England which, certainly not in deference to violent agitation, established the Congested Districts Board, gave Local Government to Ireland, and accepted the recommendations of the Recess Committee for far-reaching administrative changes, as well as those of the Land Conference which involved great financial concessions, is not the England of fifty years ago, still less the England of the eighteenth century. Moreover, in riveting the mind of the country on what is to be obtained from England, this doctrine of 'giving trouble,' the whole gospel of the agitator, has blinded the Irish people to the many things which Ireland can do for herself. Whatever may be said of what is called 'agitation' in Ireland as an engine for extorting legislation from the Imperial Parliament, it is unquestionably bad for the much greater end of building up Irish character and developing Irish industry and commerce. 'Agitation,' as Thomas Davis said, 'is one means of redress, but it leads to much disorganisation, great unhappiness, wounds upon the soul of a country which sometimes are worse than the thinning of a people by war.' If Irish politicians had at all realised this truth, it is difficult to believe that the popular movement of the last quarter of a century would not have been conducted in a manner far less injurious to the soul of Ireland and equally or more effective for legislative reform as well as all other material interests.
Now, modern Nationalism in Ireland is open to damaging criticism not only from my Unionist point of view, which was also, in many respects, the view of so strong a Nationalist as Thomas Davis; it is also open to grave objection from the point of view of the effectiveness of the tactics employed for the attainment of its end--the winning of Home Rule.
Before examining the effect of these tactics I may point out that this conception of Nationalist policy, even if justifiable from a practical point of view, does not relieve the leaders from the obligation of giving some assurance that they are ready with a consistent scheme of re-construction, and are prepared to build when the ground has been cleared. In this connection I might make a good deal of Unionist capital, and some points in support of my condemnation of the political absorption of the Irish mind, out of the total failure of the Nationalist party to solve certain all-important constitutional and financial problems which months of Parliamentary debate in 1893 tended rather to obscure than to elucidate. I am, however, willing for argument's sake to postpone all such questions, vital as they are, to the time when they can be practically dealt with. I am ready to assume that the wit of man can devise a settlement of many points which seemed insoluble in Mr. Gladstone's day. But even granting all this, I think it can easily be shown that the means which the political thought available on the Nationalist side has evolved for the attainment of their end, and which ex hypothesi are only to be justified on tactical grounds, are the least likely to succeed; and that, consequently, they should be abandoned in favour of a constructive policy which, to say the least, would not be less effective towards advancing the Home Rule cause, if that cause be sound, and which would at the same time help the advancement of Ireland in other than political directions.
Tactics form but a part of generalship, and half the success of generalship lies in making a correct estimate of the opposing forces. This is as true of political as it is of military operations. Now, of what do the forces opposed to Home Rule consist? The Unionists, it may be admitted, are numerically but a small minority of the population of Ireland--probably not more than one-fourth. But what do they represent? First, there are the landed gentry. Let us again make a concession for the sake of argument and accept the view that this class so wantonly kept itself aloof from the life of the majority of the people that the Nationalists could not be expected to count them among the elements of a Home Rule Ireland. I note, in passing, with extreme gratification that at the recent Land Conference it was declared by the tenants' representatives that it was desirable, in the interests of Ireland, that the present owners of land should not be expatriated, and that inducements should be afforded to selling owners to continue to reside in the country.
But I may ignore this as I wish here to recall attention to that other element, which was, as I have already said, the real force which turned the British democracy against Home Rule--I mean the commercial and industrial community in Belfast and other hives of industry in the north-east corner of the country, and in scattered localities elsewhere. I have already admitted that the political importance of the industrial element was not appreciated in Irish Unionist circles. No less remarkable is the way in which it has been ignored by the Nationalists. The question which the Nationalists had to answer in 1886 and 1893, and which they have to answer to-day, is this:--In the Ireland of their conception is the Unionist part of Ulster to be coerced or persuaded to come under the new regime? To those who adopt the former alternative my reply is simply that, if England is to do the coercion, the idea is politically absurd. If we were left to fight it out among ourselves, it is physically absurd. The task of the Empire in South Africa was light compared with that which the Nationalists would have on hands. I am aware that, at the time when we were all talking at concert pitch on the Irish Question, a good deal was said about dying in the last ditch by men who at the threat of any real trouble would be found more discreetly perched upon the first fence. But those who know the temper and fighting qualities of the working-men opponents of Home Rule in the North are under no illusion as to the account they would give of themselves if called upon to defend the cause of Protestantism, liberty, and imperial unity as they understand it. Let us, however, dismiss this alternative and give Nationalists credit for the desire to persuade the industrial North to come in by showing it that it will be to its advantage to join cordially in the building up of a united Ireland under a separate legislature.
The difficulties in the way of producing this conviction are very obvious. The North has prospered under the Act of Union--why should it be ready to enter upon a new 'variety of untried being'? What that state of being will be like, it naturally gauges from the forces which are working for Home Rule at present. Looking at these simply from the industrial standpoint and leaving out of account all the powerful elements of religious and race prejudice, the man of the North sees two salient facts which have dominated all the political activity of the Nationalist campaign. One is a voluble and aggressive disloyalty, not merely to 'England' and to the present system of government, but to the Crown which represents the unity of the three kingdoms, and the other is the introduction of politics into business in the very virulent and destructive form known as boycotting.
Now, hostility to the Crown, if it means anything, means a struggle for separation as soon as Home Rule has given to the Irish people the power to organise and arm. And (still keeping to the sternly practical point of view) that would, for the time being at least, spell absolute ruin to the industrial North. The practice of boycotting, again, is the very antithesis of industry--it creates an atmosphere in which industry and enterprise simply cannot live. The North has seen this practice condoned as a desperate remedy for a desperate ill, but it has seen it continued long after the ill had passed away, used as a weapon by one Nationalist section against another, and revived when anything like a really oppressive or arbitrary eviction had become impossible. There seems to have been in Nationalist circles, since the time of O'Connell, but little appreciation of the deadly character of this social curse; and the prospect of a Government which would tolerate it naturally fills the mind of the Northern commercial man with alarm and aversion.
Again, the democratisation of local government which gave the Nationalist leaders a unique opportunity of showing the value, has but served to demonstrate the ineffectiveness, of their political tactics. North of Ireland opinion was deeply interested in this reform, and appreciated its far-reaching importance. Elsewhere, I think it will be safe to say, people generally were indifferent to it until it came, and the leaders seemed to see in it only a weapon to be used for political purposes. To the great vista of useful and patriotic work opened out by the Act of 1898, to the impression that a proper use of that Act might make on Northern opinion, they were blind. It is true that the Councils when left to themselves did admirably, and fully justified the trust reposed in them. But at the inauguration of local government it was naturally not the work of the Councils but the attitude of the party leaders which appeared to stamp the reception of the Act by the Irish people.
It is true, of course, that many thoughtful men among the Nationalist party repudiate the idea that the methods of to-day would be continued in a self-governed Ireland. I fail to see any reason why they should not. Under any system of limited Home Rule questions would arise which would afford much the same sort of justification for the employment of such methods, and they could hardly be worse for the welfare of the country then than they are now. There is abundant need and abundant work in the present day for thoughtful and far-seeing men in a party constitutionally so strong as that of the Irish Nationalists. If those among them who possess, or at any rate can make effective use of qualities of constructive statesmanship are as few as the history of recent years would lead us to suppose, what assurance can Ulster Unionists feel that such men would spring up spontaneously in an Ireland under Home Rule? I admit, indeed, that a considerable measure of such assurance might be derived from the attitude of the leaders of the party at and since the Land Conference. But this adoption of statesmanlike methods which cannot be too widely understood or too warmly commended is a matter of very recent history; and though we may hope that the success attending it will help materially in the political education of the Irish people, that will not, by itself, undo the effect of a quarter of a century of political agitation governed by ideas the very reverse of those which are now happily beginning to find favour.
I have thought it necessary to examine at some length the defence on the ground of tactics which is often made for Nationalist politics, because it is the only defence ever made by those apologists who admit the disturbing influence upon our economic and social life of Nationalist methods. A broader and saner view of political tactics than prevailed ten years ago is now possible, for circumstances are becoming friendly and helpful to the development of political thought. Though the United Irish League apparently restored 'unity' to the ranks of the Nationalists, the country is, I believe, getting restless under the political bondage, and is seething with a wholesome discontent. In this very matter of political education, the stir of corporate life, the sense of corporate responsibility which in every parish of Ireland are now being fostered by the reformed system of local government, must make their influence felt in wider spheres. Even now I believe that the field is ready for the work of those who would bid the old leader-following habit, the product partly of the dead clan system, partly of dying national animosities, depart as a thing that has had its day, and who would endeavour to train up a race of free, self-reliant, and independent citizens in a free state.
In this work the very men whose mistaken conception of a united Ireland I have criticised will, I doubt not, take a leading part. In many respects, and these not the least important, no one could desire a better instrument for the achievement of great reforms than the Irish party. They are far beyond any similar group of English members in rhetorical skill and quickness of intelligence and decision, qualities which no doubt belong to the mechanism rather than the soul of politics, but which the practical worker in public life will not despise. But even when tried by a higher standard the Irish members need not fear the judgment of history. They have often, in my opinion, misconceived the true interests of their country, but they have been faithful to those interests as they understood them, and have proved themselves notably superior to sordid personal aims. These gifts and virtues are not common, but still rarer is it to see such gifts and virtues cursed with the doom of futility. The influence of the Irish political leaders has neither advanced the nation's march through the wilderness nor taught the people how they are to dispense with manna from above when they reach the Promised Land. With all their brilliancy, they have thrown but little helpful light on any Irish problem. In this want of political and economic foresight Irish Nationalist politicians, with some exceptions whom it would be invidious to name, have fallen lamentably short of what might be expected of Irish intellect. For the eight years during which I represented an Irish constituency I always felt that an Irish night in the House of Commons was one of the strangest and most pathetic of spectacles. There were the veterans of the Irish party hardened by a hundred fights, ranging from Venezuela to the Soudan in search of battlefields, making allies of every kind of foreign potentate, from President Cleveland to the Mahdi, from Mr. Kruger to the Akhoom of Swat, but looking with suspicion on every symptom of an independent national movement in Ireland; masters of the language of hate and scorn, yet mocked by inevitable and eternal failure; winners of victories that turn to dust and ashes; devoted to their country, yet, from ignorance of the real source of its malady, ever widening the gaping wound through which its life-blood flows. While I recall these scenes, there rises before my mind the picture vividly drawn by Miss Lawless of their prototypes, the 'Wild Geese,' who carried their swords into foreign service after the final defeat of the Stuarts:--
Irishmen have been long in realising that the days of the 'Wild Geese' are over, and that there are battles for Ireland to be fought and won in Ireland--battles in which England is not the enemy she was in the days of Fontenoy, but a friend and helper. But there will be little gain in replacing the traditional conception of England as the inexorable foe by the more modern conception, which threatened to become traditional in its turn, of England as the source of all prosperity and her favour as the condition of all progress in Ireland. In the recent Land Conference I recognise something more valuable even than the financial and legislative results which flowed from it, for it showed that the conception of reliance upon Irishmen in Ireland, not under some future and problematical conditions, but here and now, for the solution of Irish questions, is gaining ground among us. If this conception once takes firm hold, as I think it is beginning to do, of the Nationalist party in Ireland, much of the criticism of this chapter will lose its meaning. The mere substitution of a positive Irish policy for a negative anti-English policy will elevate the whole range of Nationalist political activity in and out of Ireland. And I am certain that if the ultimate goal of Nationalist politics be desirable, and continue to be desired, it will not be rendered more difficult, but on the contrary very much easier of attainment if those who seek it take possession of the great field of work which, without waiting for any concessions from Westminster, is offered by the Ireland of to-day.