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Why did Jacob Rees-Mogg drag Parnell into last night's Brexit debate?

The Irish nationalist leader got an unexpected mention from the Tory arch-Brexiteer yesterday evening.

CHARLES STEWART PARNELL made an unexpected cameo in the Brexit debate last night as the recently-appointed leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg raised the Irish nationalist leader in an attack on the opposition’s tactics. 

Tory rebels and opposition MPs successfully grabbed the Brexit steering wheel from Boris Johnson’s government yesterday evening, inflicting a major defeat on the new prime minister as they seized control of the parliamentary timetable to schedule a bill delaying the current 31 October deadline. 

“The approach taken today is the most unconstitutional use of this House since the days of Charles Stewart Parnell, when he tried to bung up Parliament,” Rees-Mogg insisted during the debate leading up to the late-night vote. 

Usurping the Executive’s right is unconstitutional, the abuse of emergency debates to do so is unconstitutional and the Bill itself is yet more unconstitutional.

On what was already an unconventional day in the increasingly bizarre (apparently never-ending) Brexit debate, the reference was immediately seized upon by Irish political-watchers and was trending on Twitter within minutes. 

As for which event from Parnell’s parliamentary career the Tory MP was referencing, most likely it was the Wicklow politician’s 1881 filibuster, when his Irish MPs kept the Commons sitting for 41 hours to obstruct a coercion bill. 

Until then, according to a BBC history article, the term ‘filibuster’ had been used only by US newspapers to describe the tactics of Parnell and his members.

In 1881, British papers began to employ it.

“The Irish members continued their filibustering tactics throughout Tuesday night, two of them occupying more than four hours and a half in… their speeches,” the Bristol Mercury said at the time. The Western Mail described it as a “degrading spectacle”. 

Parnell 

Born to a family of Anglo-Irish landowners, Parnell became a member of parliament in 1875 and began his campaign for the reform of Irish land laws in the years that followed. 

He became president of the National Land League in 1879 to lead the fight for reduced rents for tenant farmers and in 1881 was jailed for his opposition to Liberal leader Gladstone’s Second Land Act.

He was freed in 1882, and Parnell’s party went on to hold the balance of power after the 1885 election, convincing Gladstone to back home rule for Ireland. Gladstone’s bill backing home rule was defeated, in the end, by the Conservatives and defecting Liberal MPs.  

Renowned for his parliamentary performances, a bust of the Irish Parliamentary Party leader remains in place in Westminster today after a campaign for a memorial by former SDLP leader John Hume in the 1980s. 

Rees-Mogg’s reference to him in the Commons is by no means an outlier, either. His record has been invoked several times in recent years – usually (and unsurprisingly) by Scottish National Party MPs.

For example, Stewart Malcolm McDonald, an SNP MP for Glasgow South, asked in June of last year: 

May we have a debate on the legacy of Charles Stewart Parnell? He, of course, along with his colleagues at the time, successfully used the Standing Orders of the House to frustrate Government business, which is an entirely legitimate tactic, to force them to take Irish issues seriously, including in a 45-hour sitting on the 1877 South Africa Bill. Given the way that Ireland has this Government over a barrel at the minute, it might just be that those tactics are of interest to hon. Members at the present time.

Patrick Grady, McDonald’s SNP colleague, asked David Mundell, the then-Secretary of State for Scotland earlier this year:

Is he really channelling Charles Parnell in reverse and saying to Scotland, ‘Thus far shalt thou go but no further’?

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader in the House of Commons, made a more direct reference to Parnell’s famous quote, during an address on devolution in 2018. Referring to the Irish politician’s “powerful and pertinent words”, he told the House: 

No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further.’

shutterstock_472802494 Source: Shutterstock/Attila JANDI

As far as we could discern from a search of the official parliamentary transcripts, this is the first time Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was appointed Leader of the House by Johnson, has mentioned the Irish leader. 

The arch-Brexiteer crossed swords with another well-known Irish politician earlier this year however, after former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern addressed a Commons committee to discuss Brexit.

Ahern later accused the Tory of having “no idea what the border was”, describing him a “lovely fella when he’s asleep” and a “strange fish, in and out of the water”. 

Rees-Mogg responded on Twitter by saying the criticism was “quite funny but regrettably untrue”, adding “perhaps Ireland had a comedian as its leader before Ukraine”.

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About the author:

Daragh Brophy

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