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Friday, July 9, 2010

Charles Stewart Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell

Some have dubbed Charles Stewart Parnell "The Uncrowned King of Ireland".
Charles Stewart Parnell (27 June 1846 – 6 October 1891) was an Irish Protestant landowner, nationalist political leader, land reform agitator, and the founder and leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. He was one of the most important figures in 19th century Ireland and Great Britain and described by Prime Minister William Gladstone as the most remarkable person he had ever met.

Parnell led the Irish Parliamentary Party as Member of Parliament (MP) through the period of Parliamentary nationalism in Ireland between 1875 and his death in 1891. Future Liberal Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, described him as one of the three or four greatest men of the nineteenth century, while Lord Haldane described him as the strongest man the British House of Commons had seen in 150 years. The Irish Parliamentary Party split during 1890, following revelations of Parnell's private life intruding on his political career. He is nevertheless revered by subsequent Irish parliamentary nationalists.

Charles Stewart Parnell was first elected to the House of Commons (the lower level of British legislature), as a Home Rule League Member of Parliament (MP) for County Meath on April 21, 1875 in a by-election backed by Fenian Patrick Egan. He replaced the deceased League MP, veteran Young Irelander John Martin. He subsequently sat for the constituency of Cork City from 1880 until 1891.

During his first year, Parnell remained a reserved observer of parliamentary proceedings. He first came to attention in the public eye when in 1876 he claimed in the Commons that he did not believe that any murder had been committed by Fenians in Manchester. This drew the interest of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a physical force Irish organisation that had staged a rebellion in 1867. Parnell made it his business to cultivate Fenian sentiments both in Britain and Ireland and became associated with the more radical wing of the Home Rule League, which included Joseph Biggar (MP for Cavan from 1874), John O'Connor Power (MP for County Mayo from 1874) (both, although constitutionalists, had links with the IRB), Edmund Dwyer-Gray (MP for Tipperary from 1877), and Frank Hugh O'Donnell (MP for Dungarvan from 1877). He engaged with them and played a leading role in a policy of obstructionism (i.e., the use of technical procedures to disrupt the House of Commons' ability to function) to force the House to pay more attention to Irish issues, which had previously been ignored. Obstruction involved giving lengthy speeches which were largely irrelevant to the topic at hand. This behaviour was opposed by the less aggressive chairman (leader) of the Home Rule League, Isaac Butt.

Parnell visited America that year accompanied by O’Connor Power. The question of his closeness to the IRB, and whether indeed he ever joined the organisation, has been a matter of academic debate for a century. The evidence suggests that later, following the signing of the Kilmainham Treaty, Parnell did take the IRB oath, possibly for tactical reasons. What is known is that IRB involvement in the League's sister organisation, the ‘’Home Rule Confederation of Great Britain’’, led to the moderate Butt's ousting from its presidency (even though he had founded the organisation) and the election of Parnell in his place on 28 August 1877. Parnell was a restrained speaker in the House but his organisational, analytical and tactical skills earned wide praise, enabling him to take on the British organisation's presidency. Butt died in 1879 and was replaced as chairman of the Home Rule League by the Whig-oriented William Shaw. Shaw's victory was temporary, however.

Parnell’s party emerged swiftly as a tightly disciplined and, on the whole, energetic body of parliamentarians. By 1885, he was leading a party well-poised for the next general election, his statements on Home Rule designed to secure the widest possible support. Speaking in Cork on 21 January 1885, he stated:

We cannot ask the British constitution for more than the restitution of Grattan’s parliament, but no man has the right to fix the boundary of a nation.No man has the right to say to his country, "Thus far shalt thou go and no further", and we have never attemptedto fix the "ne plus ultra" to the progress of Ireland’s nationhood, and we never shall.

Parnell's unified Irish bloc had come to dominate British politics, making and unmaking Liberal and Conservative governments in the mid-1880s as it fought for self government for Ireland, initially within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Both UK parties discovered common ground on which they could negotiate political understanding with Parnell. When Gladstone’s government fell in June 1885, the delayed November general elections, (boundaries were being redrawn) brought a complete Parnellite dominance of 86 Irish Home Rule MPs. holding the balance of power in the Commons. Parnell’s task was now to win acceptance of the principle of a Dublin parliament.

He at first supported a coalition with the Conservatives, but after renewed agrarian distress arose when agricultural prices fell and unrest developed during 1885, the Conservative government announced coercion measures in January 1886. Parnell switched his support to the Liberals and the government fell. The Liberals regained power, their leader Gladstone, now under Parnell’s sway, moving towards Home Rule, which Gladstone’s son revealed publicly under what became known as the "flying of the Hawarden Kite".

The prospects shocked Unionists. The Orange Order, revived in the 1880s to oppose the Land League now openly opposed Home Rule. On 20 January, the Irish Unionist Party was established in Dublin. By 28 January, Salisbury’s government had resigned. On 8 April 1886, Gladstone introduced the First Irish Home Rule Bill, his object to establish an Irish legislature, although large imperial issues were to be reserved to the Westminster parliament. The Conservatives now emerged as enthusiastic unionists, Lord Randolph Churchill declared, "The Orange card is the one to play". Gladstone committed the more progressive section of his party to support the cause of Irish Home Rule. In the course of a long and fierce debate he made a remarkable Home Rule Speech, beseeching parliament to pass the bill. However, Unionist anti-home rule protest demonstrations resulted in a split between pro- and anti-home rulers within the Liberal Party and the defeat of the bill on its second reading in June by 341 to 311 votes.

Parliament was dissolved and elections called, Irish Home Rule the central issue. The result of the July 1886 general election was again Liberal defeat; the Conservative anti-Home-Rulers and the Liberal Unionist Party returned with a majority of 118 over the combined Gladstonian Liberals and the retained 85 Irish Party seats.

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