Italian Risorgimento in the 1860s were attracted by Radical Unionism
Indeed, both before and after the Parnell split â€“ which was followed by
an upsurge in clerical influence on elections â€“ Mazziniâ€™s and Cavourâ€™s
â€˜opinionâ€™ on Home Rule was posthumously canvassed and quoted with
approval (both had been strongly against).122 By the same token, some-
what inconsistently, the cause of Ulsterâ€™s freedom was often compared to
These points were made, respectively, by â€˜One of the massesâ€™, â€˜The National League
and trade unionismâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, 22 June 1887, 199; and by G. Pitt Lewis, QC,
MP, â€˜Trade unionism and the National Leagueâ€™, ibid., 27 Apr. 1887, 65â€“6.
Oâ€™Brien, William Oâ€™Brien, 48. Although this glossed over the fact that the Plan was only
put into operation on selected estates.
See the reports â€˜Ireland: the reign of terror in Tipperary: the killing of Captain Plunkett:
inhumanity of the Nationalist pressâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, Jan. 1890, 106â€“7; and â€˜The
Cronin murder trialâ€™, ibid., 107â€“9.
An Irish Liberal, â€˜The clerical conspiracy in Irelandâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, May 1891,
181; Isabella Tod, â€˜The Orange cryâ€™, ibid., Aug. 1891, 2â€“4.
A good example is Bennet Burleigh, a well-known Daily Telegraph correspondent who
had served with Garibaldi in Sicily in 1860 (throughout the rest of his life he continued
to be interested in the Garibaldian movement, reporting the operation of the Italian
Legion in the 1896 Greek-Turkish war). In 1886 Burleigh stood unsuccessfully as a
Liberal Unionist candidate. However, this was not a sign of incipient Conservatism: on
the contrary, in 1892 he stood as a Labour candidate, proclaiming himself a radical and a
socialist. (ODNB, vol. VIII, 866â€“8, A. Viotti, Garibaldi: the revolutionary and his men
(Poole, 1979), 196â€“7, and information in the authorâ€™s personal possession.)
â€˜Mazzini and the Irish question, by one of his friends [P. A. Taylor]â€™, The Liberal
Unionist, Dec. 1887, 77; â€˜Cavourâ€™s opinion as to Home Ruleâ€™, ibid., Aug. 1892, 13.
The rise and fall of Radical Unionism 243
that of Italian independence from the Austrians: the Irish Protestant
horror at the idea of subjection to a Home Rule Parliament was â€˜the
same feeling that would make the people of Lombardy or Venice quiver
at the bare idea of a revival of Austrian dominionâ€™.123 Elsewhere in
Ireland what was at stake was whether the modern state would be
replaced by a latter-day theocracy turning â€˜Leinster, Munster and
Connaught . . . into a new â€˜â€˜State of the Churchâ€™â€™ governed by a secret
conclave of bishops in the heart of the British Empire.â€™124
The popular impact of these press reports was compounded by the
itinerant propaganda of the Liberal Unionist vans. The latter had been
organized in emulation of the Liberal anti-coercion vans, and â€“ like their
counterparts â€“ emphasized the emotional side of the Irish question: while
the Gladstonians insisted on the inhumanity and brutality of the evic-
tions, the Liberal Unionists depicted the identical aspects of the
Nationalist outrages (sometimes with the help of a stereoptican projector
and slides).125 Given that ordinary law was not obeyed in Ireland, it was
pointless for Liberals to shut their eyes to the violent reality that impelled
the government to introduce special criminal laws. The latter â€˜can only
affect the guilty . . . all others are perfectly safe and exempt from its
provisions . . . It simply affords protection to the law abiding, and provides
the machinery of justice, which is now lacking, for criminals.â€™126 Besides
Chamberlain, other leading Nonconformist Liberals such as R. W. Dale
and John Bright â€“ who had supported Gladstonian coercion in 1881â€“2 â€“
now stressed again that â€˜it [was] one of the elementary duties of
Government to provide for the detection and punishment of crimeâ€™ and
confirmed their support for â€˜measures of repression for the sake of law
and orderâ€™.127 In September 1887 and again in October 1888 Bright
publicly denounced Gladstoneâ€™s duplicity, pointing out that his govern-
ment had implemented equally arbitrary and severe coercion Bills in
1881â€“2 â€“ measures which Bright had endorsed in the same spirit in
For the impact of the Nationalist split on this aspect of Liberal Unionism see â€˜An Irish
Unionistâ€™, â€˜McCarthytes and imperial supremacyâ€™, ibid., Aug. 1891, 161, and
E. Dawson, â€˜ â€˜â€˜Poperyâ€™â€™ and â€˜â€˜clericalismâ€™â€™ â€™, ibid., Dec. 1891, 8.
E. Dawson, â€˜The shadow of the swordâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, Sep. 1890, 21.
An Irish Liberal, â€˜The clerical conspiracy in Ireland: II.â€™, The Liberal Unionist, June 1891,
201â€“3. Cf. J. Loughlin, â€˜Imagining â€˜â€˜Ulsterâ€™â€™: the north of Ireland and British national
identity, 1880â€“1921â€™, in S. J. Connolly (ed.), Kingdoms united? Great Britain and Ireland
since 1500 (Dublin, 1999).
Rep., â€˜Union Jack vansâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, June 1890, 217; on their role see
Goodman, â€˜The Liberal Unionist partyâ€™,121.
L.a., â€˜Ireland, Parliament and the Speakerâ€™, LW, 10 Apr. 1887, 1.
â€˜Dr Dale on the Crimes Billâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, 27 Apr. 1887, 70; â€˜Mr Bright and
coercionâ€™, ibid., 4 May 1887, 87.
244 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
which he endorsed Balfourâ€™s Crimes Act in 1887.128 Gladstoneâ€™s own
words of 1882 â€“ when he denounced boycotting as â€˜combined intimida-
tion made use of for the purpose of destroying private libertyâ€™ â€“ were now
quoted against him to show the inconsistency and opportunism of his
stance, in contrast to Liberal Unionist integrity and high-mindedness.129
Viewed in this context of continuity, and sanctioned as it was by the
authority of reputedly incorruptible and disinterested Liberal leaders,
Gladstoneâ€™s anti-coercion agitation appeared foolish and naive: â€˜How is
it that the coercion or punishment of criminals raises such pious horror in
England and there is not a word of sympathy for the honest labourer,
tradesman or farmer coerced grievously by the National League? (For,
recollect, it is hardly the wealthy aristocrat that is boycotted).â€™130
Gladstone â€˜[had] thrown the aegis of his great name over anarchy and
disorderâ€™,131 having himself lost all respect for the law. His arguments in
defence of the League could be â€˜as legitimately applied to the defence of
the Gunpowder Plot, or of any other attempt at rebellion or assassination
recorded in our historyâ€™, and amounted to a â€˜new doctrine that a man may
choose which laws he would obeyâ€™, a doctrine which was â€˜a treason to
Thus, as Judd has pointed out, the Radical Unionists played the â€˜anti-
terrorist cardâ€™ in the attempt to generate an emotional response and the
cry of â€˜no surrenderâ€™ â€“ namely, that Britain would never submit to â€˜the
dagger of the assassin . . . and the threats of conspirators and rebelsâ€™.133 By
contrast, what Gladstone proposed was, allegedly, unconditional surren-
der. The age believed, as Romani has put it, in â€˜the primacy, logical and
historical, of national character over institutionsâ€™134 and rural unrest was
taken as evidence of sad deficiencies in the Irish character. How could any
true lover of liberty seriously consider the establishment of a separate
Parliament in a country disgraced by â€˜scenes of inhuman outrage . . . when
scoundrels shoot old men in the legsâ€™ and â€˜mock and jeer at the widow of
See â€˜Mr Bright and the North Hunts electionâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, Sep. 1887; and his
letter of 9 Dec. 1887, published in ibid., January 1888, 87.
â€˜The Liberal Unionist party and coercionâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, July 1888, 177; it was an
editorial and included a reprint of a Unionist leaflet endorsed by Lord Hartington.
Letter by â€˜An Irish Radicalâ€™, The Scotsman, 29 Apr. 1886, 7.
L.a., â€˜Recruiting at Nottinghamâ€™, LW, 23 Oct. 1887, 1.
â€˜The coercion debateâ€™, WT&E, 1 July 1888, 8; â€˜Mr Chamberlain and the work of
reformâ€™, LW, 24 Feb. 1889, 1.
Judd, Radical Joe, 155.
Romani, â€˜British views on the Irish national characterâ€™, 195, 206. See also S. Collini,
â€˜The idea of â€˜â€˜characterâ€™â€™ in Victorian thoughtâ€™, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society,
5th series, 35 (1985), 29â€“50, and H. A. McDougall, Racial myth in English history
The rise and fall of Radical Unionism 245
the man whom they have assassinatedâ€™?135 Such a Parliament would
inevitably consist of terrorists like Oâ€™Donovan Rossa, the man who had
directed the first nationalist bombing campaign in mainland Britain
Yet, from the Radical Unionistsâ€™ point of view these arguments were
uncomfortably double edged because they implied that the terrorists
enjoyed actual democratic support and legitimacy in Ireland. If that was
granted, then it was difficult to escape the Gladstonian conclusion that
only Home Rule could pacify Ireland. One way around this embarrassing
conclusion was to stress that the Irish party did not consist entirely of
terrorists, but of three distinct groups: first, there was a â€˜genuineâ€™ con-
stitutional section, including â€˜some honest and able men, smitten with the
dual Parliament crazeâ€™; then there were the â€˜malcontentsâ€™ and â€˜blind
partisansâ€™ of all descriptions; and finally there were â€˜Michael Davitt and
his more or less unscrupulous associatesâ€™ closely linked to â€˜the violent
Fenian section of the irreconcilablesâ€™.137 In other words, terrorists could
â€˜infiltrateâ€™ the National party and mislead â€“ or intimidate â€“ electors into
supporting them. This analysis had a further important implication. If the
Nationalists were either easily gullible idealists or separatists and rebels,
then, in the event of a future European war, the country over which they
held sway would be a potential enemy, as it had been in 1798 when the
rebels tried to stab Britain in the back as the latter was facing a French
invasion. Thus, if such was the case, coercion was a question of national
security, rather than merely a matter of law and order.138
This â€˜patrioticâ€™ argument was particularly endorsed by John Bright.
From as early as October 1881 he had warned that Parnellâ€™s â€˜main object
[was] a break-up of the United Kingdom for he hates us & England even
more than he loves Irelandâ€™. Bright was despondent about the prospects
of democracy in Ireland where he saw little opposition to â€˜the rebel faction
led by Parnellâ€™, and â€˜no expression of opinion in support of public law &
public orderâ€™ â€“ a situation which he attributed to the absence of a â€˜middle
class as there [was] in Englandâ€™. Partly as a consequence, he was more
inclined to endorse the use of military force in Ireland than in Egypt, his
main qualification being that â€˜[u]nfortunately when disaffection takes the
shape of passive resistance it cannot be successfully met by troops and
â€˜The prospects of Liberal re-unionâ€™, LW, 13 Mar. 1887, 1.
Letter by â€˜A Dumfriesshire Liberalâ€™ to The Scotsman, 8 July 1886, 10.
â€˜The end of Parnellismâ€™, WT&E, 16 Sep. 1888, 8.
L.a, â€˜Mr Balfour and Irelandâ€™, LW, 18 Dec. 1887, 1; l.a., â€˜Irish facts and fictionâ€™, LW,
2 Sep. 1888, 1; l.a., â€˜What is meant by Home Rule?â€™, LW, 2 Dec. 1888, 1; W. Morrison,
â€˜A vital questionâ€™, The Liberal Unionist, 1 June 1887, 145â€“6.
246 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
constabularyâ€™.139 In 1884, during the discussions which preceded the
Redistribution Bill, he urged Gladstone to keep the Irish representation
at over one hundred MPs, as in the Act of Union, and to retain two-
member constituencies.140 The first measure would counteract the
Nationalist claim that Ireland was powerless within the Union; hopefully
the second would provide a measure of â€˜proportionalityâ€™ in the parliamen-
tary representation of political opinion â€“ helping to preserve Irish Liberals
from the electoral extinction anticipated by Lord Spencer, on the basis of
his detailed knowledge of the country.141 With the 1885 Redistribution
Act, Ireland did not lose seats, despite being over-represented in relation to
its population. Thus in 1886 Bright could claim that, within the Union, the
Irish had no reasonable constitutional grievance to complain of: in fact they
were as well represented at Westminster as the southern states had been in
the US Congress before the Civil War.
This was a historical parallel of which Bright was particularly fond. In
rejecting Home Rule, he repeated the arguments which in 1861 he had
already used to denounce the Confederates as â€˜rebelsâ€™ against the
American Union, within which they had enjoyed all the privileges of full
and equal representation. Accordingly, he also rejected â€˜any scheme of
federation as shadowed forth by Mr Chamberlainâ€™ and objected even
more strongly to Home Rule, which he regarded as â€˜a surrender all
along the lineâ€™ to the â€˜Rebel Partyâ€™, consigning the hapless Irish, â€˜includ-
ing Ulster and all her Protestant families, to what there is of justice and
wisdom in the Irish party now sitting in the Parliament at Westminsterâ€™.
Moreover, he argued that Home Rule would create insoluble constitu-
tional difficulties for London, by enabling â€˜the Rebelsâ€™ â€˜to war with
greater effect against the unity of the three kingdoms with no increase of
good to the Irish peopleâ€™.142 He believed that â€˜[a] Dublin Parl[iamen]t
would work with constant friction, and would press against any barrier
[Gladstone] might create to keep up the unity of the 3 Kingdomsâ€™.143 If
Home Rule was granted, he saw no chance of a permanent subordination
of Dublin to London, for â€˜[a] Parliament is a great weapon if once created
Bright to Gladstone, 4 Oct. 1881, in Gladstone Papers, Add. MSS 44113, ff. 160â€“3.
Bright to Gladstone, 26 Nov. 1884, ibid., ff. 208â€“9.
It is interesting that at this stage Spencer was actually more optimistic than Bright about
the results of franchise reform, hoping that, even if the Liberals faced defeat in the short
term, they would eventually â€˜again find their place among Irish MPsâ€™ and that the
admission of the labourers would â€˜moderateâ€™ the farmer vote, as well as reduce the
recruiting pull of the â€˜outrage mongersâ€™ â€˜if they felt that some of them had a
Constitutional voice in Public Affairsâ€™. Lord Spencer to Lord Hartington, 21 Oct.
1883, in Gordon , The Red Earl, vol. I, 254.
Bright to Gladstone, 13 May 1886, in Gladstone Papers, Add. MSS 44113, ff. 224â€“7.
Walling, The diaries of John Bright, entries for 12 and 20 Mar. 1886, 535â€“6.
The rise and fall of Radical Unionism 247
and openedâ€™. This weapon would largely be controlled by foreigners, the
Fenian â€˜gangâ€™ of New York, â€˜by whom outrage and murder were and are
deemed patriotism in Ireland, and who collect the funds out of which
more than half of the Irish party in the Parliament at Westminster
received their weekly and monthly payâ€™.144
As for Gladstoneâ€™s â€˜historicalâ€™ case against the Union as an inequitable
arrangement fraudulently imposed on a recalcitrant Ireland, Bright
thought it was â€˜somewhat one-sided, leaving out of view the important
minority and the views and feelings of the Protestant and loyal portion of
the peopleâ€™.145 While most modern historians agree with him against
Gladstone on this particular point, Brightâ€™s real objection was ultimately
that he could not believe the Irish party to consist of men who were either
â€˜honourableâ€™ or â€˜truthfulâ€™.
As we have already seen, the link between â€˜characterâ€™ and capability for
political self-government ran deep in Liberal Unionist arguments: the real
Irish question consisted ultimately in the allegedly â€˜childishâ€™ character of
the Irish people.146 This contemptuous attitude was sometimes framed
within the language of â€˜raceâ€™ â€“ especially in contrasting Irish barbarism
and cruelty with Anglo-Saxon loyalty and chivalry. For example, a recur-
rent Radical Unionist argument consisted in pointing out that, despite
the parallels one could trace between the Irish Nationalists and the
secessionists of the rebel states, the Confederates were never â€˜assassinsâ€™
like the Fenians147 â€“ a claim which would probably have come as a
surprise to William Quantrill and his infamous Raiders.148 The â€˜racialâ€™
dimension of the Unionist discourse reflected both the influence of
pseudo-biological determinism on the post-Darwinian generations and
the old fear about peasant â€˜fanaticismâ€™ and violence.