St Bernard once said of the Church “ante et retro oculata”: she looks back in order that she can see her way forward. If that is good enough for our Church, it is surely good enough for us. However, we must remember that it is never advisable to live in the past, though equally it is foolish not to learn from it. So what does the past teach us about Parliamentary democracy?
On Parnell’s election to Westminster as Home Rule MP for Meath at the by-election in April of 1875 following the death of John Martin, Secretary of the Home Rule League, there were 59 MPs in the Irish Parliamentary Party, under the Chairmanship of Isaac Butt, committed to campaign for Home Rule. Although they were pledged to vote for Home Rule “issues” en masse, on other matters they could vote as their consciences dictated.
From the General Election of 1880 until the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, there were between 80 and 86 Irish Nationalists sitting as the Irish Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons at Westminster. Though at times riven by internal frictions, they always comfortably retained in excess of three-quarters of the Irish seats. In addition, from 1885 the Scotland Division of Liverpool was represented by an Irish Nationalist, T P O’Connor.
Although the Conservative Party in Randolph Churchill’s memorable phrase “played the Orange card” in 1886, many of the early Irish Home Rulers were in fact Tories. On May 3, 1911 as Asquith was introducing the third Irish Home Rule Bill, The Times published a Letter to the Editor from Sir Henry Bellingham of Castle Bellingham, Co Louth. Under the heading “Conservative Home Rulers”, it read:
The present leader of the Conservative Party, and also, I regret to say, other Conservatives in high positions, have recently endeavoured not only to identify the whole party with the extreme Ulster section, but to let it be thought that as a party they never had anything to do with Home Rule. Will you therefore allow me to remind your readers that Home Rule was started by a Conservative, and that for many years Conservatives sat as Home Rulers?
In the year 1880, when I stood as an avowed Home Ruler for this county of Louth, I received the support both of the Carlton Club and the Conservative Whip. Further, during the time I was in Parliament (1880-86) I was regularly summoned to the meetings of the Conservative Party, and I have letters in my possession from some of the Conservative leaders which are complete evidence of complicity with Home Rule.
I am etc.
Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, third son of John Winston Spencer Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, and Frances, eldest daughter of the third Marquess of Londonderry, acted as secretary to his father when he served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 1877-80. He made many friends in Dublin and adopted many of the causes of Dublin Toryism. Through his mother’s Famine Relief Fund, established in 1879, he became aware of, and sympathised with, the miserable conditions in which the peasantry in the west of Ireland lived.
Not only did he advocate conciliation as the best way forward for Unionism, he cultivated relations with leading Parnellites and even attended Parnell’s trial in January, 1881, sitting near him. In 1884 he advocated extending the Irish franchise, and in 1885 was instrumental in securing the entente between the Irish Parliamentary Party and the Tories which enabled the latter to form the Government. The Tories then allowed Parnell to raise the Maamtrasna affair on the floor of the House.
Such is the nature of Parliamentary democracy that when Gladstone won the beauty contest with the Irish Parliamentary Party in 1886, Churchill had no hesitation in ditching his former principles and embracing Orangeism without any trace of embarrassment whatsoever. Indeed, to this day the Tories are still happily and unashamedly in bed with the Orangemen as was witnessed every time Andrew Mackay MP, their former Irish Affairs Spokesman, opened his mouth.