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Parnell and Rees-Mogg: The ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ and the unworkable British parliament

Historian Donal Fallon writes about Charles Stewart Parnell, and how the Irish Parliamentary Party brought filibustering to Westminster.

Donal Fallon

IN RECENT YEARS, the British public have had to brush up on their Irish politics, thanks to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) holding significant sway for a long period over the Tories following the hung parliament of the 2017 General Election.

Google’s trending reports at the end of the year indicated that the eighth most Googled question in the United Kingdom was “who are the DUP?”.

In the late nineteenth century, the balance of power in the London parliament also fell into the hands of an Irish political party, with the Irish Parliamentary Party of Charles Stewart Parnell returning 86 Home Rule MPs to the hung parliament of 1885.

While the DUP may have baffled and confused the British public of our day, there was no question of who Charles Stewart Parnell was or what Home Rule stood for back in 1885.

Parnell succeeded in bringing the paramount Irish political issue of the day – Irish legislative independence – to the very top of the British political agenda. The evocation of his name on Tuesday night by Jacob Rees-Mogg has returned the name of Parnell to the record of the Westminster House of Commons, where he was both a respected and reviled figure.

That Rees-Mogg is not an admirer of Parnell, or Home Rule more broadly, is evident to anyone who endures his recent foray into history writing, The Victorians: Twelve Titans who Forged Britain.

Political machine

Amidst a defence of the values of Victorian British society (one reviewer of the book maintained that “all he achieves with this awful book is to make a shipwreck of his own pretensions as they are repeatedly dashed on the rocks of his incoherent thoughts”), the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) emerge as the dangerous wreckers of the period, a party with no respect for the British constitution or parliamentary structure.

In truth, they were perhaps the most effective party political machine in the Westminster parliament. In the words of writer Nan Sloane, author of a history of the Labour Party, the IPP was a machine others envied:

It was the first party able to enforce parliamentary discipline, the first to have a recognisably modern election machine and the first to understand how to use the power its electoral strength gave it.

Parnell, the product of a Protestant landowning family, was perhaps an unlikely leader for the IPP machine. First elected to the House of Commons as MP for Meath in April 1875, he had stood on a platform which promised a new land policy, “embracing fixity of tenure and fair rents”.

From the beginning, his language flirted with radicalism, with him telling one election rally that “England should remember the example set by her American colonies and bear in mind that if she refuse to Ireland what her people demand as a right, the day would come when Ireland would have her opportunity in England’s weakness”.

By the following year, many IPP MPs were committed to a policy of obstructionism, designed to make it impossible for the House of Commons to function, and to focus the attention of British politicians and the press on Ireland. Delivering long, filibustering speeches, IPP MPs provoked the ire of many on both sides of the floor.

Particularly effective at the tactic was Joseph Biggar MP, a colourful character from Belfast. A former pork butcher, and once sworn into the Fenian secret society the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Biggar would stand and read long passages from parliamentary Blue Books, former parliamentary acts or the contemporary press.

At first, Biggar was concerned with obstructing Coercion laws aimed at Ireland, but in time focus turned to just grinding down parliamentary business. One sketch writer who worked in Westminster noted wryly in his diary, after spending some 26 hours in parliament as a result of the IPP, that “it is clear enough that Home Rule means not going home all night yourself, and keeping as many other people as possible out of their beds”.

Parnellism

Parnell himself was also brilliant at the act of filibustering, but that was not the key strength of what became known as Parnellism.

His ability to mobilise crowds in numbers unseen since the days of Daniel O’Connell, his oratorical skills and the wildcard of Fenianism, which he kept close to his chest, all ensured that the British political class understood that Parnell was a figure who could not be ignored.

Sections of the conservative British press worked themselves into a frenzy denouncing Parnell, while one particularly inflammatory pamphlet insisted that “if the Parnellites cannot appreciate British Freedom – the largest the world ever saw – it shows they are not fit for Home Rule … To those who threaten dagger and dynamite I again point out there is plenty of rope in England”.

Parnell’s only loyalty in the British parliament was to the cause of Irish self-governance, lending and dropping political support to Conservatives and Liberals as it suited the agenda of the IPP.

Those who wrangled with him politically recognised his ability; to the Liberal William Gladstone, who would ultimately adopt a Home Rule policy in no small part as a result of Parnell’s agitation, he was “the most remarkable man I ever met. I do not say the ablest man; I say the most remarkable and the most interesting. He was an intellectual phenomenon.”

British politicians ignore Ireland, and all of its historic complexities, at their peril. Still, in even mentioning the name of Parnell, Rees-Mogg has shown more awareness of Irish history than some of his colleagues in recent times.

The comments of Conservative MP Priti Patel, when she suggested using the possibility of food shortages in Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit to encourage the EU to drop the backstop, were roundly denounced in recent times. In the words of Labour MP David Lammy, “Priti Patel’s comments expose either extreme callousness or ignorance. Shame on her either way for throwing salt at old wounds.”

Donal Fallon is a historian and editor of ‘Come Here To Me’ (www.comeheretome.com). He is the author of several studies of Irish history, including Revolutionary Dublin: A Walking Guide (Collins Press, 2018).

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