Land and politics

The dominant issue in Ireland following the Great Famine was the land question – how Irish agriculture could be improved to support a population dependent upon it for food.

This was the consensus in Parliament and in Ireland, but the conflict between landlords and tenants was a barrier to progress. An Act to facilitate the sale of land was passed in 1848, and another the following year.

Disappointing results

The results were disappointing. Only around 3,000 estates were sold under the Encumbered Estates Act, and there was not the expected influx of either new landlords or money to stimulate improvements.

Tenants began to assert their rights, and in 1850 the Irish Tenant League was formed, which resolved to field parliamentary candidates.

An Irish Franchise Act of 1850 increased the electorate from 61,000 to 165,000, the majority of whom were in county constituencies and inclined to support the League.

Tenant-Rights Party

Forty Members representing the Tenant-Rights Party were returned to the House of Commons, but when Lord Derby refused to back their Bill, they defeated his government along with other opposition elements in December 1852. The Party died with the government.

Several other Bills, some from Private Members, were introduced between 1852 and 1869 of which only two, both government measures, became law in 1860. Neither had much impact.

Gladstone Bill

William Gladstone, who became Prime Minister in 1868, laid the Irish Land Bill before the House of Commons on 15 February 1870.

This protected by law the Ulster Custom through which tenants enjoyed security of tenure (as long as they paid their rent) and the freedom to sell the right to occupy their holding to another tenant.

Although this passed through Parliament, it failed in its primary purpose. Legal protection meant little in practice, while only 877 tenants bought their holdings under the Act.

Reform at last

It did, however, mark the beginning of a series of Land Acts brought in by Liberal and Conservative governments which finally reformed much of the landholding and tenure structure in Ireland.