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Ireland in the New Century (Author: Horace Plunkett)

Chapter 8



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 resolved 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:—


I am sure I need not say that any effort to promote the general welfare of Ireland has my fullest sympathy. I readily acknowledge and entirely believe in the sincerity and good purpose of your effort, but I cannot see my way to associate myself with it. Your frank avowal in your letter of August 27th is the expression of a belief that if your policy could be successfully carried out the Irish people ‘would cease to desire Home Rule.’ Now, I do not believe that anything in the way of material improvement conferred by the Parliament at Westminster, or by Dublin Castle, could extinguish the national desire for Home Rule. Still, I do not feel that I could possibly take part in any organisation which had for its object the seeking of a substitute for that which I believe to be Ireland's greatest need—Home Rule. Yours very truly, JUSTIN MCCARTHY.

73, Eaton-terrace, S.W.,

October 22nd, 1895.

I had not much hope that I could influence Mr. McCarthy's decision; but it was so serious an obstacle to further action that I made one more appeal. I wrote to my respected and courteous correspondent, pointing out the misconception of my proposal, which had arisen from the use made of the six words quoted by him, which were hardly intelligible without the context. I asked him to reconsider his refusal to join in the proposal for promoting the material improvement of our country, on account of a contingency which he confidently declared could not


arise. But in those days economic seed fell upon stony political ground.

The position was rendered still more difficult by the action of Colonel Saunderson, the leader of the Irish Unionist party, who wrote to the newspapers declaring that he would not sit on a Committee with Mr. John Redmond. On the other hand, Mr. Redmond, speaking then for the ‘Independent’ party, consisting of less than a dozen members, but containing some men who agreed with Mr. Field's admission in the House of Commons that ‘man cannot live on politics alone,’ joined the Committee and acted throughout in a manner which was broad, statesmanlike, conciliatory, and as generous as it was courageous. His letter of acceptance ran as follows:—


I received your letter, in which you ask me to cooperate with you in bringing together a small Committee of Members of Parliament to discuss certain measures to be proposed next Session for the benefit of Ireland. While I cannot take as sanguine a view as you do of the benefits likely to flow from such a proceeding, I am unwilling to take the responsibility of declining to aid in any effort to promote useful legislation for Ireland.

I will, under the circumstances, co-operate with you in bringing such a Committee as you suggest together.

Very truly yours, J.E. REDMOND.

October 21st, 1895.

Before these decisions were officially announced the idea had ‘caught on.’ Public bodies throughout the country endorsed the scheme. The parliamentarians,


who formed the nucleus of the Committee, came together and invited prominent men from all quarters to join them. A committee which, though informal and self-appointed, might fairly claim to be representative in every material respect, was thus constituted on the lines laid down.

Truly, it was a strange council over which I had the honour to preside. All shades of politics were there—Lords Mayo and Monteagle, Mr. Dane and Sir Thomas Lea (Tories and Liberal Unionist Peers and Members of Parliament) sitting down beside Mr. John Redmond and his parliamentary followers. It was found possible, in framing proposals fraught with moral, social, and educational results, to secure the cordial agreement of the late Rev. Dr. Kane, Grand Master of the Belfast Orangemen, and of the eminent Jesuit educationist, Father Thomas Finlay, of the Royal University. The O'Conor Don, the able Chairman of the Financial Relations Commission, and Mr. John Ross, M.P., now one of His Majesty's Judges, both Unionists, were balanced by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and Mr. T. C. Harrington, M.P., who now occupies that post, both Nationalists. The late Sir John Arnott fitly represented the commercial enterprise of the South, while such men as Mr. Thomas Sinclair, universally regarded as one of the wisest of Irish public men, Sir William Ewart, head of the leading linen concern in the North, Sir Daniel Dixon, now Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir James Musgrave, Chairman of the Belfast


Harbour Board, and Mr. Thomas Andrews, a well-known flax-spinner and Chairman of the Belfast and County Down Railway, would be universally accepted as the highest authorities upon the needs of the business community which has made Ulster famous in the industrial world. Mr. T. P. Gill, besides undertaking investigation of the utmost value into State aid to agriculture in France and Denmark, acted as Hon. Secretary to the Committee, of which he was a member.

The story of our deliberations and ultimate conclusions cannot be set forth here except in the barest outline. We instituted an inquiry into the means by which the Government could best promote the development of our agricultural and industrial resources, and despatched commissioners to countries of Europe whose conditions and progress might afford some lessons for Ireland. Most of this work was done for us by the late eminent statistician, Mr. Michael Mulhall. Our funds did not admit of an inquiry in the United States or the Colonies. However, we obtained invaluable information as to the methods by which countries which were our chief rivals in agricultural and industrial production have been enabled to compete successfully with our producers even in our own markets. Our commissioners were instructed in each case to collect the facts necessary to enable us to differentiate between the parts played respectively by State aid and the efforts of the people themselves in producing these results. With this information before us, after long and earnest deliberation


we came to a unanimous agreement upon the main facts of the situation with which we had to deal, and upon the recommendations for remedial legislation which we should make to the Government.

The substance of our recommendations was that a Department of Government should be specially created, with a minister directly responsible to Parliament at its head. The central body was to be assisted by a Consultative Council representative of the interests concerned. The Department was to be adequately endowed from the Imperial Treasury, and was to administer State aid to agriculture and industries in Ireland upon principles which were fully described. The proposal to amalgamate agriculture and industries under one Department was adopted largely on account of the opinion expressed by M. Tisserand, late Director-General of Agriculture in France, one of the highest authorities in Europe upon the administration of State aid to agriculture.

[Footnote: The memorandum which he kindly contributed to the Recess Committee was copied into the Annual Report of the United States Department of Agriculture for 1896.]

The creation of a new minister directly responsible to Parliament was considered a necessary provision. Ireland is governed by a number of Boards, all, with the exception of the Board of Works (which is really a branch of the Treasury), responsible to the Chief Secretary practically—a whole cabinet under one hat—who is supposed to be responsible for them to Parliament and to the Lord Lieutenant. The bearers of this burden are generally men of great ability. But no Chief Secretary could


possibly take under his wing yet another department with the entirely new and important functions now to be discharged. What these functions were to be need not here be described, as the Department thus ‘agitated’ for has now been three years at work and will form the subject of the next two chapters.

On August 1st, 1896, less than a year from the issue of the invitation to the political leaders, the Report was forwarded to the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant for Ireland, with a covering letter, setting out the considerations upon which the Committee relied for the justification of its course of action. Attention was drawn to the terms of the original proposal, its exceptional nature and essential informality, the political conditions which appeared to make it opportune, the spirit in which it was responded to by those who were invited to join, and the degree of public approval which had been accorded to our action. We were able to claim for the Committee that it was thoroughly representative of those agricultural and industrial interests, North and South, with which the Report was concerned.

There were two special features in the brief history of this unique coming together of Irishmen which will strike any man familiar with the conditions of Irish public life. The first was the way in which the business element, consisting of men already deeply engaged in their various callings—and, indeed, selected for that very reason—devoted time and labour to the service of their country. Still more significant was the


fact that the political element on the Committee should have come to an absolutely unanimous agreement upon a policy which, though not intended to influence the trend of politics, was yet bound to have far-reaching consequences upon the political thought of the country, and upon the positions of parties and leaders. It was thought only fair to the Nationalist members of the Committee that every precaution should be taken to prevent their being placed in a false position. ‘To avoid any possible misconception,’ the covering letter ran, ‘as to the attitude of those members of the Committee who are not supporters of the present Government, it is right here to state that, while under existing political conditions they agreed in recommending a certain course to the Government, they wish it to be understood that their political principles remain unaltered, and that, were it immediately possible, they would prefer that the suggested reforms should be preceded by the constitutional changes of which they are the well-known advocates.’

It is interesting to note that the Committee claimed favourable consideration for their proposals on the ground that they sought to act as ‘a channel of communication between the Irish Government and Irish public opinion.’ Little interest, they pointed out, had been hitherto aroused in those economic problems for which the Report suggested some solution. They expressed the hope that their action would do something to remedy this defect, especially in view of the importance which foreign Governments had found it necessary to


attach to public opinion in working out their various systems of State aid to agriculture and industries. At the same time the Committee emphasied, in the covering letter, their reliance on individual and combined effort rather than on State aid. They were able to point out that, in asking for the latter, they had throughout attached the utmost importance to its being granted in such a manner as to evoke and supplement, and in no way be a substitute for self-help. If they appeared to give undue prominence to the capabilities of State initiation, it was to be remembered that they were dealing with economic conditions which had been artificially produced, and which, therefore, might require exceptional treatment of a temporary nature to bring about a permanent remedy.

I fear those most intimately connected with the above occurrences will regard this chapter as a very inadequate description of events so unprecedented and so full of hope for the future. My purpose is, however, to limit myself, in dealing with the past, to such details as are necessary to enable the reader to understand the present facts of Irish life, and to build upon them his own conclusions as to the most hopeful line of future development. I shall, therefore, pass rapidly in review the events which led to the fruition of the labours of the Recess Committee.

Public opinion in favour of the new proposals grew rapidly. Before the end of the year (1896) a deputation, representing all the leading agricultural


and industrial interests of the country, waited upon the Irish Government, in order to press upon them the urgent need for the new department. The Lord Lieutenant, after describing the gathering as ‘one of the most notable deputations which had ever come to lay its case before the Irish Government,’ and noting the ‘remarkable growth of public opinion’ in favour of the policy they were advocating, expressed his heartfelt sympathy with the case which had been presented, and his earnest desire—which was well known—to proceed with legislation for the agricultural and industrial development of the country at the earliest moment. The demand made upon the Government was, argumentatively, already irresistible. But economic agitation of this kind takes time to acquire dynamic force. Mr. Gerald Balfour introduced a Bill the following year, but it had to be withdrawn to leave the way clear for the other great Irish measure which revolutionised local government. The unconventional agitation went on upon the original lines, appealing to that latent public opinion which we were striving to develop. In 1899 another Bill was introduced, and, owing to its masterly handling by the Chief Secretary in the House of Commons, ably seconded by the strong support given by Lord Cadogan, who was in the Cabinet, it became law.

I cannot conclude this chapter without a word upon the extraordinary misunderstanding of Mr. Gerald Balfour's policy to which the obscuring atmosphere sur


rounding all Irish questions gave rise. In one respect that policy was a new departure of the utmost importance. He proved himself ready to take a measure from Ireland and carry it through, instead of insisting upon a purely English scheme which he could call his own. These pre-digested foods had already done much to destroy our political digestion, and it was time we were given something to grow, to cook, and to assimilate for ourselves. It will be seen, too, in the next chapter, that he had realised the potentiality for good of the new forces in Irish life to which he gave play in his two great linked Acts—one of them popularising local government, and the other creating a new Department which was to bring the government and the people together in an attempt to develop the resources of the country. Yet his eminently sane and far-seeing policy was regarded in many quarters as a sacrifice of Unionist interests in Ireland. Its real effect was to endow Unionism with a positive as well as a negative policy. But all reformers know that the further ahead they look, the longer they have to wait for their justification. Meanwhile, we may leave out of consideration the division of honour or of blame for what has been done. The only matter of historic interest is to arrive at a correct measure of the progress made.

The new movement had thus completed the first and second stages of its mission. The idea of self-help had become a growing reality, and upon this foundation an edifice of State aid had been erected. When a Nationalist


member met a Tory member of the Recess Committee he laughed over the success with which they had wheedled a measure of industrial Home Rule out of a Unionist Government. None the less they cordially agreed that the people would rise to their economic responsibility. The promoters of the movement had faith that this new departure in English government would be more than justified by the English test, and that in the new sphere of administration the government would be accorded, without prejudice, of course, to the ultimate views either of Unionists or Home Rulers, not only the consent, but the whole-hearted co-operation of the governed.