THE RECESS COMMITTEE.
The new movement, six years after its initiation, had succeeded beyond the most sanguine expectations of its promoters. All over the country the idea of self-help was taking firm hold of the imagination of the people.
Co-operation had got, so to speak, into the air to such an extent that, whereas at the beginning, as I well remember, our chief difficulty had been to popularise a principle to which one section of the community was strongly opposed, and in which no section believed, it was now no longer necessary to explain or support the theory, but only to show how it could be advantageously applied to some branch of the farmer's industry. It was not, strange to say, the economic advantage which had chiefly appealed to the quick intelligence of the Irish farmer, but rather the novel sensation that he was thinking for himself, and that while improving his own condition he was working for others. This attitude was essential to the success of the movement, because had it not been for a vein of altruism, the "strong" farmers would have held aloof, and the small men would have been discouraged by the abstention of the better-off and presumably more enlightened of their class.
Perhaps, too, we owed something to the recognition on the part of the working farmers of Ireland that they were showing a capacity to grasp an idea which had so far failed to penetrate the bucolic intelligence of the predominant partner. Whatever the causes to which the success of the movement was attributable, those who were responsible for its promotion felt in the year 1895 that it had reached a stage in its development when it was but a question of time to complete the projected revolution in the farming industry, the substitution of combined for isolated methods of production and distribution. It was then further brought home to them that the principle of self-help was destined to obtain general acceptance in rural Ireland, and that the time had come when a sound system of State aid to agriculture might be fruitfully grafted on to this native growth of local effort and self-reliance.
From time to time our public men had included in the list of Irish grievances the fact that England enjoyed a Board of Agriculture while Ireland had no similar institution. As a matter of fact a mere replica of the English Board would not have fulfilled a tithe of the objects we had in view. That much at least we knew, but beyond that our information was vague. What, having regard to Irish rural conditions, should be the character and constitution of any Department called into being to administer the aid required? Here indeed was a vital and difficult problem. Even those of us who had given the closest thought to the matter did not know exactly what was wanted; nor, if we had known our own minds, could we have formulated our demand in such a way as to have obtained a backing from representative public bodies, associations, and individuals sufficient to secure its concession. Instead, therefore, of agitating in the conventional manner we determined to try to direct the best thought of the country to the problem in hand, with a view to satisfying the Government, and also ourselves, as to what was wanted. We had confidence that a demand presented to Parliament, based upon calm and deliberate debate among the most competent of Irishmen, would be conceded. The story of this agitation, its initiation, its conduct, and its final success will, I am sure, be of interest to all who feel any concern for the welfare of Ireland.
I have accepted the common characterisation of the Irish as a leader-following people. When we come to analyse the human material out of which a strong national life may be constructed, we find that there are in Ireland--in this connection I exclude the influence of the clergy, with which I have dealt specifically in another chapter--two elements of leadership, the political and the industrial. The political leaders are seen to enjoy an influence over the great majority of the people which is probably as powerful as that of any political leaders in ancient or modern times; but as a class they certainly do not take a prominent, or even an active part in business life. This fact is not introduced with any controversial purpose, and I freely acknowledge can be interpreted in a sense altogether creditable to the Nationalist members. The other element of leadership contains all that is prominent in industrial and commercial life, and few countries could produce better types of such leaders than can be found in the northern capital of the country. But, unhappily, these men are debarred from all influence upon the thought and action of the great majority of the people, who are under the domination of the political leaders. This is one of the strange anomalies of Irish life to which I have already referred. Its recognition, and the desire to utilise the knowledge of business men as well as politicians, took practical effect in the formation of the Recess Committee.
The idea underlying this project was the combination of these two forces of leadership--the force with political influence and that of proved industrial and commercial capacity--in order to concentrate public opinion, which was believed to be inclining in this direction, on the material needs of the country. The General Election of 1895 had, by universal admission, postponed, for some years at any rate, any possibility of Home Rule, and the cessation of the bitter feelings aroused when Home Rule seemed imminent provided the opportunity for an appeal to the Irish people in behalf of the views which I have adumbrated. The appeal took the form of a letter, dated August 27th, 1895, by the author to the Irish Press, under the quite sincere, if somewhat grandiloquent, title, "A proposal affecting the general welfare of Ireland."
The letter set out the general scope and purpose of the scheme. After a confession of the writer's continued opposition to Home Rule, the admission was made that if the average Irish elector, who is more intelligent than the average British elector, were also as prosperous, as industrious, and as well educated, his continued demand, in the proper constitutional way, for Home Rule would very likely result in the experiment being one day tried. On the other hand, the opinion was expressed that if the material conditions of the great body of our countrymen were advanced, if they were encouraged in industrial enterprise, and were provided with practical education in proportion to their natural intelligence, they would see that a political development on lines similar to those adopted in England was, considering the necessary relations between the two countries, best for Ireland; and then they would cease to desire what is ordinarily understood as Home Rule. A basis for united action between politicians on both sides of the Irish controversy was then suggested. Finding ourselves still opposed upon the main question, but all anxious to promote the welfare of the country, and confident that, as this was advanced, our respective policies would be confirmed, it would appear, it was suggested, to be alike good patriotism and good policy to work for the material and social advancement of the people. Why then, it was asked, should any Irishman hesitate to enter at once upon that united action between men of both parties which alone, under existing conditions, could enable either party to do any real and lasting good to the country?
The letter proceeded to indicate economic legislation which, though sorely needed by Ireland, was hopelessly unattainable unless it could be removed from the region of controversy. The modus co-operandi suggested was as follows:--a committee sitting in the Parliamentary recess, whence it came to be known as the Recess Committee, was to be formed, consisting in the first instance, of Irish Members of Parliament nominated by the leaders of the different sections. These nominees were to invite to join them any Irishmen whose capacity, knowledge, or experience might be of service to the Committee, irrespective of the political party or religious persuasion to which they might belong. The day had come, the letter went on to say, when "we Unionists, without abating one jot of our Unionism, and Nationalists, without abating one jot of their Nationalism, can each show our faith in the cause for which we have fought so bitterly and so long, by sinking our party differences for our country's good, and leaving our respective policies for the justification of time."
Needless to say, few were sanguine enough to hope that such a committee would ever be brought together. If that were accomplished some prophesied that its members would but emulate the fame of the Kilkenny cats. A severe blow was dealt to the project at the outset by the refusal of Mr. Justin McCarthy, who then spoke for the largest section of the Nationalist representatives, to have anything to do with it. His reply to the letter must be given in full:--