England's Jubilee Gift to Ireland

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England's Jubilee Gift to Ireland.

BY ANNIE BESANT.

Jubilee gifts, Jubilee testimonials, Jubilee memorials, are on every hand. It is not, therefore, an unsuitable time for the presentation by England to Ireland of a Jubilee gift, and with a fine sense of the fitness of things she presents her with a Coercion Act. It would be impossible to choose a more appropriate gift, one that could better crown the fifty years of her Majesty's Irish reign. Mr. Mulhall, in his "Fifty Years of National Progress", says of Ireland:

"The present reign has been the most disastrous since that of Elizabeth, as the following statistics show: Died of famine, 1,225,000; persons evicted, 3,668,000; number of emigrants, 4,186,000. Evictions were more numerous immediately after the famine, the landlords availing themselves of the period of greatest calamity to enforce their 'rights'. Official returns give the number of families, and these averaging seven persons, we ascertain the actual number of persons evicted:

Years. Families. Persons.
1848–51 263,000 1,841,000
1852–60 110,000 770,000
1861–70 47,000 329,000
1871–86 104,000 728,000


Total 524,000 3,668,000

The number of persons evicted is equal to 75 per cent. of the actual population. No country, either in Europe or elsewhere, has suffered such wholesale extermination."

There is a curious sameness in Irish history. Landlord aggression and tyranny gave birth to the Whiteboys, and the Whiteboy Acts were passed to put them down. Landlord aggression and tyranny have in our own times given birth to the Moonlighters, and the Whiteboy Acts are utilised by the present Government to put them down. In the State Trials of 1843, '44, '48, '49, '59, Catholics were excluded from juries, and packed Protestant juries were empanelled. In the trial of John Dillon and his comrades similar tactics were employed. The impossibility of getting verdicts from fairly chosen juries in agrarian cases has long been matter of complaint; the present Bill abolishes trial by jury in the most commonly occurring cases in order to avoid the difficulty. Yet Englishmen from their own struggle for liberty ought to be familiar with the way in which juries have stood between technically guilty but morally praiseworthy prisoners and the penalty oppressors longed to wreak on them. Many a man in the struggle for English freedom has been saved from a prison by the verdict of a jury, which has acquitted the accused in face of proven facts. But in England when it is seen that the conscience of the people rejects a law, the law is changed. In Ireland, when the conscience of the people revolts against a law, the law is enforced from outside.

Without going beyond the fifty years of Queen Victoria's reign it is easy to see how the agrarian rebellion has been brought about by the landlords, and I can scarcely be said to be appealing to ancient history if I confine myself to the events of the present reign. The famine of 1845 onwards was an artificial famine manufactured by the Irish landlords, who drained the country of its agricultural produce and left the people who raised the produce to starve. The exorbitant demands of this odious class drove the people to exist on poorer and poorer kinds of food, until they became dependent almost wholly on potatoes, and when the blight destroyed these nought was left. In 1845 the oat crop was exceptionally good, but it was exported to pay rent, although the potato blight had appeared. From September to Christmas, 1845, five hundred and fifteen deaths from starvation were registered, and three million two hundred and fifty thousand quarters of wheat, besides herds of cattle, were shipped to England during the same time. After a while, the country having been drained of its own food supply, Indian meal was sent to it as charity. In 1847, the value of the agricultural produce was £44,958,120; during 1847, 21,770 persons died of starvation, and 250,000 of fever consequent on starvation.

During and after the famine the landlords used their power of eviction remorselessly against this starving and patient tenantry. Hundreds of thousands were driven from the land of their birth, and left Ireland with a burning hatred in their hearts against their oppressors and against the England that enabled them to carry out their tyrannical will. The result of this famine caused wholesale emigration, and was the building up of an Ireland beyond the seas, a New Ireland which gazed ever lovingly and longingly on the Old, ever wrathfully and revengefully on England. At first the Irish emigrants sent money across the Atlantic to their relatives at home for the payment of the landlords' exactions, and the landlords lived for awhile on the funds supplied by the American Irish. Yearly, also, some of the home Irish crossed St. George's Channel into England, and by work here earned enough to pay for the right to live in their own land. Rent as paid in Ireland was in no sense economic rent; rent was paid for land which produced no rent, and the landowners lived on tribute levied by force from the peasantry and provided by their own or by their relatives' toil in other lands. Still rents rose, and ever all succor sent home by successful emigrants went to swell the absentee landlords' bankers' accounts. At last the Irish both at home and abroad grew weary of the continual drain, and those abroad more especially began to question whether they might not utilise their hard-earned money better by helping their friends at home to resist the landlords' exactions than by continually filling the pockets of Ireland's worst enemies. The struggle in Ireland against unjust rents began, and the American Irish contributions began to swell the receipts of the Land League instead of the rent-roll of the landlords. At once they were assailed with every slander, with every term of abuse, which the landlords and a landlord-loving press could devise. Outrages wrought in despairing anger against intolerable oppression were laid at their door; and the wild talk of a few, maddened by a remembrance of wrongs suffered at England's hands, was ascribed to the whole body of American Irish. The funds for the Parliamentary and Land League agitations were provided chiefly by the successful Irish emigrants, and a compact body of members was built up in Parliament, to carry on there the struggle which was being also waged in Ireland itself. Some grievances were got rid of; the Irish Establishment fell; improvements in the Land Laws were made. But still the landlord pressure continued, and, weighing on a people who for the first time had been touched by Hope, it was borne with ever increasing impatience. In 1880 Gladstone sought, by a short Bill, to check evictions during the approaching winter of 1880–81, but the landlords' House gaily threw out a Bill pressed on it by the Prime Minister of England on the plea that it was necessary to prevent civil war in Ireland.

The civil war broke out. Not open warfare; for that Ireland was too weak. But underground warfare, dangerous as smothered combustion, and waged by underground means. Most unhappily, Gladstone met it by coercion, coercion that I am free to blame to-day, as I denounced it when it was before Parliament in 1881. Hundreds of men were imprisoned, many a gross act of injustice was done, and Ireland remained, of course, as hostile as ever, only learning wisdom in the choice of the weapons she employed. The suppressed Land League rose again as the National League, stronger than ever and more unassailable; and at last Gladstone, not too proud to learn from experience, proposed to give Ireland freedom and to permit her to cure her diseases in her own way. He fell in the attempt to use conciliation instead of force as remedy, and Lords Salisbury and Randolph Churchill reigned in his stead.

With the succession to power of the landlord party came the renewal of the struggle. Lord Randolph Churchill, as Leader of the House of Commons, pledged the whole power of the State to the support of the landlords in their exaction of rents, and the landlords, at once inspirited and revengeful, gave full play to their hatred of the Irish tenantry. Preparations were made for wholesale evictions; landlordism was triumphant at last. Then to meet the threatened evictions and to save the people from outrages that would madden them into reprisals, a wise and gentle man formulated the famous Plan of Campaign. By the adoption of this the whole tenantry on an estate was bound together; the rich tenants made common cause with the poor; a fair rent was always to be tendered to the landlord, and only on his refusal to accept it was to be lodged in the hands of trustees. A few "good landlords" voluntarily made reductions; many bad ones were driven into making them by the fear that if they did not yield some they would lose all; some bad ones held out. Prominent among these was Lord Clanricarde, a typical absentee landlord. Unknown by face to the tenantry on whose labor he lived; harsh and exacting in his demands; taking everything and giving nothing; deaf to every appeal for mercy and for pity; how can such a one be forced into decency save by some such plan as that adopted by his tenants? Under the old method a bullet would have been sent through his agent, and Lord Clanricarde would have been none the worse. Under the new plan not a hair of his agent's head was harmed, but Lord Clanricarde found his money bags unfilled. He was touched in his only vulnerable spot, his trousers pocket, and his tenants did well.

Naturally the landlords, helpless before this new development, cried to their own Government for aid. The first attack on the Plan of Campaign failed ignominiously. And then, as the ordinary law proved impotent to check it, it was determined once more to resort to coercion, and to rivet the landlord chain by unconstitutional means since constitutional means had failed. As the people on the whole remained very quiet, despite the terrible provocations of barbarously cruel evictions carried out remorselessly through the months of an exceptionally severe autumn and winter, it was impossible to bring forth in support of the new Coercion Bill such a list of outrages as that whereby Mr. Gladstone thought that he justified his own measure. It was therefore necessary to manufacture them, and terrible accounts appeared of committed outrages, which however familiar in London press circles were wholly unknown in the localities in which they occurred. This wicked local ignorance was, however, of little importance. It took time to investigate and contradict, and meanwhile the lie went on its way rejoicing, and was circulated from habitation to habitation of the Primrose League, and repeated in circles never reached by the contradiction. Thus merrily went on the conspiracy, and at last the Government felt the time was ripe for the introduction of its Bill.

It would be interesting to know how many of those who are in favor of the Coercion Bill are acquainted with its provisions, and realise the position in which Ireland will be placed by its passing. An analysis of it may fitly then find its place here.

The first clause authorises an enquiry on oath in any case in which "the Attorney-General for Ireland believes (!) that any offence to which this section applies has been committed in a proclaimed district", although no person may be accused thereof; a witness examined under this clause "shall not be excused from answering any question on the ground that the answer thereto may criminate or tend to criminate himself". This odious clause is defended on the ground that Scotch law contains a similar provision; the fact that it does contain so unfair an engine for concocting evidence on suspicion may be a very good reason for amending Scotch law, but is certainly no reason for importing an unjust rule into Ireland. Besides, it is admitted that the power has not been put in force in Scotland within the legal experience of the law officers of the Crown, and that it is historically only known to have been used, and that rarely, in cases of murder. The present Bill authorises this inquisition in cases not only of felony and misdemeanor, but also of any manufactured "offence punishable under this Act".

In clause 2 a list of these offences is given, and they are brought within the punitive authority of the courts of summary jurisdiction, the punishment awardable by the court being six months' imprisonment, with or without hard labor (clause 11). The offences are:

"(1) Any person who shall take part in any criminal conspiracy to compel or induce any person or persons either not to fulfil his or their legal obligations, or not to let, hire, use, or occupy any land, or not to deal with, or work for, or hire any person or persons in the ordinary course of trade, business, or occupation; or to interfere with the administration of the law. (2) Any person who shall wrongfully and without legal authority use violence or intimidation" to make anyone do or abstain from doing, or to punish anyone for having done or having abstained from doing, any legal act. "(3)—(a) Any person who shall take part in any riot or unlawful assembly, or (b) within twelve months after the execution of any writ of possession of any house or land shall wrongfully take or hold forcible possession of such house or land or any part thereof; or (c) shall assault, or wilfully and unlawfully resist or obstruct, any sheriff, constable, bailiff, process server, or other minister of the law, while in the execution of his duty, or shall assault him in consequence of such execution. (4) Any person who shall commit any offence punishable under the Whiteboy Acts as defined by this Act. (5) Any person who, by words or acts, shall incite, solicit, encourage, or persuade any other person to commit any of the offences herein-before mentioned."

These make boycotting into a criminal offence, and as "intimidation" is defined (clause 19) to include "any words or acts intended and calculated to put any person in fear of any injury or danger to himself, or to any member of his family, or to any person in his employment, or in fear of any injury to or loss of property, business, employment, or means of living", it seems doubtful whether any person, who pointed out to another the evils that might result to him from a certain course of conduct, would not run a risk of being imprisoned for six months with hard labor. The Plan of Campaign will have to be carried on secretly when this clause becomes law. (b) and (c), under (3) will delight the hearts of the existing landlords, for a man will be liable to six months' hard labor if he obstructs the sheriff's officer by locking his door against him. It ought to be made a crime for a man not to offer to carry out his own furniture when he is ejected from a cabin built by his own hands.

Clauses 3 and 4 give power to order a special jury or to change the venue to England, so as to enable the Crown to obtain verdicts against political prisoners from prejudiced juries.

Clause 5 gives power to the Lord Lieutenant to proclaim a district, and clause 6 authorises him to declare that the enactments of the Act against dangerous associations shall come into force; these "dangerous associations" are such as the Lord Lieutenant shall be pleased to consider "are (a) formed for the commission of crimes; or (b) carrying on operations for or by the commission of crimes; or (c) encouraging or aiding persons to commit crimes; or (d) promoting or inciting to acts of violence or intimidation; or (e) interfering with the administration of the law or disturbing the maintenance of law and order". It would have been shorter to have said, "any association formed for the purpose of protecting poor and helpless tenants against heartless and wicked robbery by tyrannical landlords". The law which throws out a young child to die in a pigstye is so admirable a thing that none ought to wish to interfere with it.

Clause 7 authorises the Lord Lieutenant to proclaim "any association which he believes to be a dangerous association", and anyone who assists in any way the proclaimed association becomes liable to six months' hard labor. By this monstrous clause the Lord Lieutenant is given the power to destroy any political association of which he disapproves; all liberty of combination vanishes, and secret conspiracy is left as the only weapon of the oppressed. What this clause may become in the hands of a Tory Lord Lieutenant, egged on by irate landlords, it is easy to conceive.

Clause 8 continues for five years Gladstone's most objectionable Coercion Bill. Clauses 9 and 10 regulate proceedings with special juries and change of venue. Clauses 11–19 deal with Punishment, Procedure, and Definitions. The court to which is awarded the power of imprisoning for six months with hard labor, is to consist in Dublin of a divisional justice, and elsewhere of two resident magistrates, i.e. of the bitter enemies of the persons who are to be tried. Thus shall "law and order" become admirable and lovable things in Ireland.

Remains the question, what can be done to prevent the Bill becoming law in face of the overwhelming majority in Parliament, and what can be done to resist it after it has become law? The Parliamentary opposition is in good hands, and it may be impertinence even to make a suggestion. But to a humble outsider like myself it seems as if every possible means should be adopted to delay the passage of the Bill. The more the closure is applied during the course of the debate the more obvious will it be that the Bill is being forced through the House against the will of a very large minority. The longer the question is kept in debate the more familiar will the English democracy become with the odious principles embodied in the Bill. The main thing now is to prepare for the reversal of the Tory policy at the next election, and prolonged Parliamentary debate is the best educative process now attainable.

In Ireland, when the Bill becomes law, matters will assume a graver aspect. No Liberal who justifies the English Revolutions of the seventeenth century can deny that the Irish might rightfully resist this confiscation of their constitutional liberties. But though they have right on their side they have not might, and to take up arms against England would be a heroic folly. All that a nation can do by passive resistance carried to extremest lengths, ought, however, to be done. Every Government official should be rigorously boycotted, and so should be every non-official who makes common cause with the officials. Every eviction should be passively obstructed in every possible way. Orderly meetings should be held in every proclaimed district. Combinations should be carried on, and the proclamations of the Lord Lieutenant quietly ignored. This policy, steadily adhered to, would make the Act unworkable, for prison accommodation is limited, and when the gaols are filled with political prisoners, what can the Government do? It will become ridiculous as well as detestable, and will find its boasted weapon blunted after the first few strokes. Of course, the condition of the success of such a policy is that there should be no violence; but the Irish people have lately shown so strong a self-control that it does not seem impossible that they may offer to the world the sublime spectacle of a small nation standing like a rock against the oppression of a large one, and guarding its rights with bruised but unstained hands.

One thing at least is gained by the protest going up day by day both from inside and outside Parliament. Ireland sees that the wrong inflicted on her is felt to be a wrong by large numbers on this side St. George's Channel, and therefore one thing at least this latest Coercion Bill shall not do: it shall not widen the gulf between the two democracies; it shall not deepen the wound which has been bleeding for centuries, but which now, at last, begins at the touch of loving hands to close.

ONE PENNY.


Printed by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, 63, Fleet St., E.C.—1887.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1933, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.