In contrast to the Orange interpretation of the religious conflict, which
focused on the allegedly inherently intolerant nature of Roman
Catholicism, British Nonconformists argued that it was the link between
church and state â€“ not the teaching of any particular church â€“ which had
â€˜The plebisciteâ€™, The Congregationalist, Aug. 1886, 604.
â€˜Politicsâ€™, Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review, July 1886, 572.
J. Y. Calladine (North Bucks. Liberal Registration Association) to E. Blake, 20 May
1893, inquiring about the Irish Baptists, in NLI, Blake Letters,  4685.
â€˜Politicsâ€™, Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review, June 1887, 571.
â€˜The Liberal party and its Irish policyâ€™, The Congregationalist, June 1886, 467â€“73.
J. M.[orrison] D.[avidson], â€˜The Book of Erinâ€™, RN, 6 May 1888, 5.
â€˜The future of Irelandâ€™, Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review, Apr. 1893, 315.
â€˜Nonconformist Liberals and Unionistsâ€™, The Congregational Review, May 1888, 470â€“1.
78 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
caused religious persecution in the past.143 In Ireland such a link had been
removed in 1869. Before that date, persecution had targeted Catholics
more than Dissenters. Disestablishment â€˜was not done to gratify the vanity
of a few, â€“ but on account of its justiceâ€™ for, although â€˜[t]he natives
of Ireland are Papists . . . they form the greater part of a noble nationâ€™.144
It was precisely â€˜[the Dissentersâ€™] Protestantism . . . because of its very
thoroughness . . . [that] inclined [them] to the side of the Nationalists,
for it . . . taught [them] faith in liberty and rightâ€™.145 The same sense of
fair play had moved these pious Christians to support the claims of the
atheist Bradlaugh in his struggle against religious tests.146 Thus, while true
Protestantism led to true Liberalism, the latterâ€™s primary object â€˜[was] to
guard the rights of the weak . . . give them better chances in life . . . that none
shall be forced to the wallâ€™; and â€˜Home Rule [was] a consistent application
of this fundamental maxim of Liberalism to Ireland.â€™147
If the law was sufficient to protect religious liberty in Italy, where the
Pope (the â€˜Triple Tyrantâ€™) resided, surely it would be adequate in Ireland.
Not only were the Irish no different from the Italians, but also they were
no different from the British working men, nor were they more difficult to
â€˜pacifyâ€™, despite the English notion that they â€˜changed the questionâ€™ every
time the government came up with an answer. â€˜[I]s it any wonder that
partial reforms have made the Irish people resolve to have reforms more
complete?â€™ The British had done exactly the same with parliamentary
In 1867 household suffrage was granted to a part of the people of Great Britain;
but did that satisfy the people? Nothing of the kind; they were more dissatisfied
than ever, and did not rest till household suffrage was granted in borough and
country. This has now been done; but are the people satisfied? Not they. A more
equitable state of the franchise still is demanded, so that men every way qualified
to vote may not be excluded.
Therefore, â€˜[if] Ireland has to be pacified, and if our old methods have
proved unsuitable to secure this end, it is at least time to try some other
â€˜If they would refer to the Bible they would find that . . . Daniel was thrown into the den
of lions simply because he would not obey the State religion. Religious persecution was
the offspring of that unholy alliance of Church and State.â€™ (A. Thomas, MP, in â€˜The
Irish Home Rule question: Open air meeting at Taff â€™s Wellâ€™, Pontypridd Chronicle,
16 July 1886, 5.)
L.a., â€˜Mr Balfour sick of coercionâ€™, Glamorgan Free Press, 6 June 1891, 4.
â€˜Nonconformist Liberals and Unionistsâ€™, The Congregational Review, May 1888, 470â€“1;
F. V. Williams (â€˜A Cornish Quakerâ€™) to E. Blake, 16 Mar. 1893, NLI, Blake Letters 
4685. For the Liberal Unionist answer to this particular argument see chapter 5,
pp. 239â€“44. For the background see T. Larsen, Friends of religious equality (1999), 228â€“9.
C. Leach, â€˜Democracy and religionâ€™, The Congregational Review, Nov. 1885, 844.
â€˜A plea for unionâ€™, The Congregational Review, Mar. 1887, 274â€“5.
Home Rule in context 79
method; and what other method can be tried than that of allowing
Irishmen to have the management of their own affairs, and placing
upon them the responsibility of directing their own local governmentâ€™.148
The Parliamentary Union was founded â€˜upon the idea that the Irish
people are qualified for self-government; that they are amenable to
reason, and that they, like the great mass of mankind, will under fair
conditions organize themselves for common action and a common pur-
pose â€“ the protection of life and property against the selfishness of
individuals and the other objects to be attained by political actionâ€™.149
The empire required â€˜the maintenance of law and orderâ€™. But â€˜where
the form of government is democraticâ€™, as in Ireland, law and order could
only be maintained by â€˜the creation of the law-abiding characterâ€™ among
the people. This, in turn, required the fulfilment of three conditions:
â€˜That the laws are substantially just according to the current standard of
ethicsâ€™, â€˜[t]hat the body which creates the laws and is the source of their
authority commands the confidence of the peopleâ€™, and â€˜[t]hat the execu-
tive and judicial officers who administer and enforce the law are regarded
with respect as the trusted agents of the community, and not with hatred
or fear as the servants of a hostile powerâ€™. In Ireland the Dublin Castle
system signally failed to meet these â€˜conditionsâ€™: in fact, on each count it
produced the opposite, resulting in â€˜[w]idespread disaffection to English
rule, hatred for the officers of the law, contempt for the decisions of the
courts, the use of fraudulent means for controlling the verdict of juries,
and general disorderâ€™.150 Was this merely owing to the â€˜terrorismâ€™ of the
National League which intimidated and coerced the law-abiding major-
ity, as the Unionists argued?
Assuming that the picture is not overdrawn, one cannot help remarking in the
first place that the existence of such a body implies political capacity of a
high order in the Irish mind . . . In the next place one notices that the relations
between the governing body of such a League and its members or those who
are controlled by it, are precisely such as are found, when the three conditions
I have mentioned are fulfilled, to subsist between a regular government and
its subjects. The decrees of the National League are according to the moral
standard of those they control substantially just; the governing body commands
the confidence of is members; and its officers are their friends and not their foes . . .
The power of such a society must be derived from the sympathy of the larger part
of the people.151
â€˜Politicsâ€™, Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review, Apr. 1886, 382.
D. Mabellan, Home Rule and imperial unity, an argument for the Gladstoneâ€“Morley scheme
Ibid., 60â€“1 and 16 (for the â€˜three conditionsâ€™). 151 Ibid., 62.
80 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
In other words, these Nonconformist spokesmen espoused a notion of
political legitimacy similar to the old Chartist view, namely that sover-
eignty resided in the nation and that the United Kingdom was a multi-
national state within which the people of each nation were, or ought to be,
This argument elaborated on Gladstoneâ€™s insistence that three of
the four nationalities of which the Kingdom consisted â€˜[had] spoken for
Irish autonomy in a tone yet more decided than the tone in which the
fourth [England] has forbidden itâ€™. To him the 1886 election had been
contested â€˜upon the question of nationalityâ€™, a fact which in itself gave
new prominence to that issue â€˜as an element of our political thoughtâ€™,
especially if â€˜these nationalities will be inclined to help one anotherâ€™.153
The â€˜four nationâ€™ argument sank deep into British radicalism, and was
unwittingly confirmed by the Unionist governmentâ€™s 1888 county coun-
cil scheme. Because the latter excluded Scotland and Ireland, â€˜the Tories
practically recognize the existence of nationalities they are endeavouring
to ignoreâ€™: â€˜Nationality, as Edmund Burke said, and as Burns felt, is a
â€˜â€˜moral essenceâ€™â€™ which cannot be suppressed by any form of county or
local government, however comprehensive or democratic . . . Hence the
argument in favour of Home Rule first and Local Government
Coercion and â€˜slaveryâ€™
As we have seen (chapter 1, pp. 10â€“11), the defeat of the Home Rule Bill
and subsequent Liberal rout at the general election of 1886 created a
political context within which the Unionists could implement their Irish
strategy without any need to compromise with the Home Rulers. As far
as the British public was concerned, the weakest part of such a strategy
was the governmentâ€™s recourse to repressive legislation. This strengthened
the Liberal claim that the Union itself was the cause of the peopleâ€™s unrest
in Ireland and that it would be unsustainable without destroying their
liberties.155 Unlike previous measures, which had been temporary and
designed to lapse unless renewed periodically, the 1887 Coercion Bill was
â€˜part of the permanent statute law, without any limitation of timeâ€™.156 As
Barker has argued, the resulting erosion of personal and political rights in
â€˜The political situationâ€™, The Congregational Review, Apr. 1887, 860.
W. E. Gladstone, The Irish question (1886), 15 (pamphlet in the Gladstone Library,
Bristol Univ. Library). This view was broadly echoed within the NLF.
L.a., â€˜Ritchieâ€™s revolutionâ€™, RN, 25 Mar. 1888, 1.
â€˜Politicsâ€™, Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review, Jan. 1887, 189.
â€˜Politicsâ€™, Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review, June 1887, 573.
Home Rule in context 81
a constituent part of the United Kingdom â€˜did more to engender the
celebrated â€˜â€˜union of heartsâ€™â€™ than any commitment to establish a
Parliament on College Greenâ€™.157 It also encouraged Dissenters to
indulge in an apocalyptic rhetoric reminiscent of their campaign to stop
the Bulgarian atrocities in 1876, while the Liberal propaganda machine
further stirred up popular emotion with the use of the visual aids provided
by contemporary technology to illustrate the suffering of the evicted
Gladstone himself was largely responsible for the resulting rhetorical
climate. In 1887 after listening to one of his speech, the leading Baptist
minister John Clifford commented that â€˜[t]he hearer felt he was witness-
ing a fight for righteousness, for humanity, for Godâ€™.159 It is easy to see
that people steeped in the culture of Dissent and the values of labour were
likely to hold strong views about the use of repression, the â€˜cruel conductâ€™
of the â€˜heartlessâ€™ evictors, and their readiness to demolish and burn the
homesteads of a panic-stricken peasantry. A town meeting in the
Workmenâ€™s Hall, Walthamstow (Essex) invoked â€˜the condemnation of
the civilized worldâ€™ on those who perpetrated â€˜such infamous and wicked
proceedingsâ€™.160 Even in Somerset and Dorset â€“ solid Unionist heart-
lands â€“ crowds of â€˜many moreâ€™ than fifteen thousand (according to one
Unionist estimate) attended demonstrations to condemn the â€˜blind,
indiscriminate, blundering forceâ€™ used by the government: â€˜They had
suppressed meetings, they had imprisoned . . . members of Parliament,
they were going to lock up the clergy, they were proceeding against the
freedom of the Press.â€™161
The plight of the Irish reminded Nonconformists and trade unionists of
their own past history of suffering persecution for the sake of conscience
and the right of association. Coercion relied on â€˜deceit â€“ a species of
political fraudâ€™ because it professed to target crime, but in reality â€˜[was]
Barker, Gladstone and radicalism, 78. See for a few examples the reports in WT, 17 Apr.
1887, 9, â€˜The coercion agitationâ€™, about the meetings in Derby and London. For the
Irish enthusiastic response see â€˜Mr Herbert Gladstone on the Irish party and their
traducersâ€™, FJ, 5 May 1887, 5; and â€˜The government and Ireland: the right of public
meetingâ€™, Cork Examiner, 28 Sep. 1887, 3.
Rep., â€˜Extraordinary eviction sceneâ€™, RN, 17 Apr. 1887, 1. At the 1887 Northwich
by-election â€˜[the] mural literature was of extraordinary abundance. The Gladstonians
displayed in large numbers photographs and cartoons illustrative of Irish evictions.â€™
(â€˜The Northwich electionâ€™, FJ, 15 Aug. 1887, 5.)
Cited in J. F. Glaser, â€˜Parnellâ€™s fall and the Nonconformist conscienceâ€™, Irish Historical
Studies, 12, 46 (1960), 120.
Rep., â€˜English sympathy with the evictedâ€™, Cork Examiner, 21 Jan. 1887, 3.
John Morley speaking at Templecombe, at a meeting said to have numbered fifteen
thousand: â€˜Great Liberal demonstration in the Westâ€™, WT&E, 2 Oct. 1887, 16; and
â€˜Mr. Morley on Irelandâ€™, LW, 2 Oct. 1887, 1.
82 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
directed against political combination, and . . . associations for [the]
protection of the poor and oppressedâ€™. It gave power to the â€˜Castle
partyâ€™ to suppress â€˜all constitutional agitation such as we in England are
allowed to conduct freelyâ€™ and to â€˜strike down, not criminals, but political
opponentsâ€™.162 It was altogether unconstitutional in so far as â€˜[t]he liberty
of the subject is the first object of the British constitutionâ€™.163
Commenting on a petition signed by more than 3,200 Nonconformist
ministers, The Congregational Review insisted that â€˜[w]hether â€˜â€˜political
discontentâ€™â€™ should be put down by force, is a matter of principle about
which ministers of the gospel have a title and . . . a special fitness to speakâ€™
because of their own historical experience.
It has been said that the law is only made for the disobedient, and that an Irishman
can escape its penalties by not violating its provisions. Of course, if those
provisions had relation to actual crime this would be true enough. But this Bill
will fail of its object if it does not prevent the formation of political associations
and the expression of political opinions . . . There was a law once passed by
the ancestors of the party now in power which made it criminal to attend a
conventicle. Will it be maintained that the law was unobjectionable inasmuch as
no Dissenter needed to incur its penalties, and all might be perfectly free by
abstaining from conventicles altogether?164
While some Nonconformists celebrated the Irish as â€˜a [fellow] subject
raceâ€™,165 the class-conscious Reynoldsâ€™s saw Fenianism as a reaction not to
â€˜racialâ€™, but to social oppression, as the equivalent of nihilism in Russia
and socialism in Germany.166 In this sense Fenianism was indeed the
product not of a Nationalist plot, but of a conspiracy â€˜of English, Irish
and Scottish land robbers against the honest toilers of the three nations.
Nay, more, it is a foul conspiracy against the God-given rights of manâ€™,
resulting in a class war in which the British working man had a stake, for
â€˜the cause of Ireland is the cause of universal democracyâ€™.167 Therefore,
for both Michael Davitt and Frederic Harrison, resistance to coercion
was a labour question; it was the Irish equivalent of the struggle that
British trade unions had fought from 1824 to 1875 to secure the repeal
of â€˜the obscure and sinister law of conspiracyâ€™.168 Under the Coercion
â€˜Politicsâ€™, Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review, June 1887, 572â€“3.
L.a., â€˜Liberty and lawâ€™, RN, 4 Sep. 1887, 4.
â€˜The Nonconformist protestâ€™, The Congregational Review, May 1887, 403â€“4.
â€˜Nonconformist politics: Home Rule and disestablishmentâ€™, The Congregational Review,