William Gladstone tried all he could to help Ireland and Gladstone’s name is frequently mentioned in Irish history from the 1880’s to Gladstone’s retirement from politics in 1894. Home Rule and the issues surrounding it was central to Gladstone’s Irish policy.

The Great Famine had deeply impacted British politics. The 1 million deaths and the 1 million emigrants who left Ireland – some on so-called ‘coffin ships’ – had left their mark. In 1858, the Fenian Society was started in America. In Ireland, Fenians committed acts of violence to bring attention to their grievances. Those who wanted issues resolved in a constitutional manner formed a Home Rule party in 1870. The introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, allowed those who could vote in Ireland to vote free from intimidation by landlords. As a result, from 1872 onwards, there were usually about 80 Irish MP’s in Westminster who were committed to home rule. These Irish MP’s always had the hope that a Tory or Liberal government would be elected on a very small majority and would need to support of the Irish MP’s to stay in power.

What were the grievances of the Irish MP’s?

Politically, they could not accept British domination of the island. However, it would be wrong to assume that all MP’s resented the position Britain had in Ireland.
The privileged position of the protestant Church of Ireland in a predominantly catholic country did cause resentment.
The abuses committed by many landlords was also a major cause of resentment.

In 1868, Gladstone became Prime Minister for the first time. He declared that it was his mission to “pacify Ireland”. Gladstone was a man who held strong religious views but he was not a bigot. He was driven by what he considered to be right and wrong and he viewed that many things in Ireland were wrong. Therefore, he set himself the task of righting those things he considered to be wrong.

In his 1868 to 1874 government, Gladstone disestablished the Church of Ireland. This meant that Catholic farmers no longer had to pay tithes to the Church. Gladstone also pushed through the first Irish Land Act. This meant that any farmer who had been evicted but had done improvements to his land, was entitled to compensation. This law barely had any impact in Ireland as the landlords and the legal system in Ireland were seemingly interlinked, with the latter supporting the former. Also very few farmers could afford to pay a lawyer to represent them if they had a claim against a former landlord. However, the land law was symbolic that someone in the highest authority was doing something for Ireland, and any measure could be built on.

Trouble continued on the land in Ireland when Gladstone started his second ministry in 1880. Violence against landlords or their agents was becoming more common as support for the Fenians grew. Whilst Gladstone wanted to work for Ireland, he was not willing to tolerate violence. As a result, he brought in the Coercion Act for Ireland which temporarily suspended Habeas Corpus so that those people suspected of committing an offence could be detained without trial. However, Gladstone’s ministry also passed a second Irish land Act which guaranteed the ‘Three F’s’: fixity of tenure, fair rents and free sale. The Coercion Act did not stop the disorder in Ireland’s rural community, but the second Land Act was seen as a way forward which could reduce the violence being experienced in Ireland. The faith Gladstone put in his acts was blown away by the Phoenix Park murders of 1882.

Up until 1882, violence had been perpetrated against landlords, their agents or against Irish families that had taken up land from which a family had been evicted. Politicians were not seen as targets. The murder of Lord Cavendish (Chief Secretary of Ireland) and T Burke (Permanent Under-Secretary of Ireland) in Phoenix Park by a gang armed with knives, shocked Victorian society. The murders were a blow to Gladstone who was trying to persuade not only his party but also Parliament to persevere with reforms for Ireland. He expanded the legal powers that the police had in Ireland but at the same time passed an act (the Arrears Act) which meant that any tenant with a total annual rent of under £30, no longer had to pay rent arrears if they had any. This was one way Gladstone tried to stop the flood of evictions that Ireland was experiencing after Europe was hit by an agricultural depression in the 1870’s and 1880’s.

Gladstone’s third ministry was from 1886. Gladstone had made it public knowledge that he supported Home Rule for Ireland, and, as a result, got the political backing of the Irish MP’s in the House of Commons who had temporarily gone over to the side of the Tory Party who had promised to repeal  coercion laws introduced by Gladstone in Ireland. By declaring support for Home Rule, Gladstone trod a dangerous political path. The Tories were adamantly against it; many Liberals did not support it and many people in the street felt that the Irish were not up to governing themselves at that time in history. Gladstone also failed to carry support from Queen Victoria who simply did not like the man:

“(I have) the greatest possible disinclination to take this half-crazy and in many ways ridiculous old man.” (Victoria having to accept Gladstone as Prime Minister for the third time in 1886.


In 1886, Gladstone announced that he was “examining the practicality” of introducing Home Rule to Ireland. But some senior Liberals assumed that they knew what this meant – that he had already made up his mind – and refused to serve in his government. This meant that the 76 year old Prime Minister had to work with a cabinet of younger men who were probably more compliant to his ideas. In March 1886, Gladstone and his cabinet formally announced their support for Home Rule.

In April 1886, a Home Rule Bill was placed before Parliament. Its main proposals were:

A separate parliament and government should be set up in Dublin

This parliament would control all Irish affairs except defence issues, foreign relations, trade and issues relating to customs and excise. Westminster would deal with these issues.

Westminster would no longer have any Irish MP’s in it.

There were two main criticisms of the Bill:

1) It failed to take on board the fears of Protestant Ulster who were deeply concerned by a parliament being based in an essentially Catholic Dublin. Who would look after the people of Ulster?

2) Many were concerned that there would no longer be Irish MP’s at Westminster. As Westminster planned to maintain control over certain key areas, surely Ireland needed a voice actually in Westminster? Also, as Ireland would continue to pay its share into Britain’s budget (regardless of whether it had its own parliament), it should have MP’s in Westminster to see where this money was going to be spent.

Sixteen days were spent arguing about the bill. On June 8th 1886, the Home Rule bill was defeated by 30 votes. Of those who voted against it, 93 MP’s were Liberals and 46 of these MP’s were known to be radicals. Gladstone decided to take the issue to the people.  Parliament was dissolved and a general election was set for July 1886.