Home rule

The debates over the church question and land reform had a wider impact on Irish sentiment. Both convinced Isaac Butt, the MP for Harwich and then Youghal from 1852-65, that Irish affairs were not properly handled by Parliament at Westminster.

In 1869 Butt published a proposal for the formation of a united nationalist party to fight for the restoration of an Irish Parliament, or home rule, a term that passed into common use for the first time in the 1870s.

By-elections

Between 1870-73 Butt’s Home Government Association contested a series of by-elections with mixed success. But when Parliament was dissolved in January 1874 the Association was renamed the Home Rule League and won 59 seats in the ensuing general election, nearly twice as many as they expected.

For the next 40 years the new party represented the majority of the Irish population, advocating home rule within a federal Parliament.

On 30 June 1874 Isaac Butt presented a powerful case in the Commons but won little support. Tactics then switched to the obstruction of Parliament, the deliberate manipulation of procedure in order to delay business.

Skilled

Charles Stewart Parnell, elected to represent Meath at a by-election in 1875, was a skilled practitioner of obstruction and following the death of Butt – and the election of 61 home rule MPs at the March 1880 general election – Parnell became leader of the League.

William Gladstone, meanwhile, turned again to the land question, this time resolving to restrain landlord power more effectively than in 1870.

Demands

In April 1881 he introduced a Bill that essentially conceded the Land League’s demands, known as the three Fs: fair rent, fixity of tenure and freedom for the tenant to sell his right of occupancy at the best market rate.

Parliament accepted the measure with few changes. The League, meanwhile, went from strength to strength.

A Franchise Act in 1884, together with a Redistribution Act in 1885, meant that after the general election of November 1885 Parnell commanded 85 MPs, including 17 out of 33 in Ulster, and held the balance of power in the House of Commons.