It is indeed an honour, formally to open this summer school, and, more so, to do so here in Avondale, where , as a guest of the Parnell family, Tom Moore composed that lovely ballad “The Meeting of the Waters” celebrating the beauty of the Vale of Avoca, long before Charles Stewart Parnell was born.
HOME RULE…THE STEPPING STONE TO INDEPENDENCE, WITHOUT VIOLENCE
I am delighted that you are putting special focus this year on the 1912 Home Rule Bill, which finally became law in September 1914.
I have spoken in Woodenbridge earlier this year about the tremendous constitutional political achievement the passage of that Bill in 1914 represented, overcoming, as it did, the opposition of the House of Lords, armed threats, and the relative indifference of many members of the Liberal Government.
John Redmond and his party demonstrated a thorough mastery of parliamentary negotiation in achieving that goal, something that could have been a stepping stone to complete legislative and economic independence for Ireland, without resort to the taking of life, the goal for which Redmond’s close friend Charles Stewart Parnell had worked all his life.
It is significant that Gladstone, when he first considered supporting Home Rule, had in mind the then relationship of Norway with Sweden. As events were to prove, that relationship, which Gladstone saw as a model for Home Rule, did turn out to be a stepping stone to complete Norwegian independence.
I will not go over that ground again today, but will focus more, on Parnell himself, and on what his life and work, has to say to Ireland of the 21st Century. Surveying his career, one can find many themes that retain ,or have recently regained, contemporary relevance.
Parnell entered Parliament as a member for Meath in 1875 in a by election.
He had previously contested a by election in Dublin county, but was defeated there, by the Conservative candidate , Colonel Taylor, of Ardgillan near Balbriggan, a result which demonstrates the invincibility of the Taylors in every century!
Interestingly, in light of subsequent events, the 27 year old Parnell relied heavily, in securing the Home Rule nomination to stand in both contests, on a fulsome endorsement from his local Catholic Parish Priest, Father Richard Galvin of Rathdrum.
Fr Galvin described Parnell “up to the mark” on all the great questions of the day, which meant for him, Home Rule, denominational education and fixity of tenure.
After losing in Dublin, in seeking the nomination in Meath, Parnell also had an animated interview with the then Catholic Bishop of Meath ,Thomas Nulty. He secured the bishops support, and the highlight of his successful campaign, according to his biographer, FSL Lyons, was a great meeting in Navan, attended, inter alia, by many parish priests and curates.
RELIGIOUS BELIEF, ETHICS, AND EDUCATION
In the campaign, Parnell committed himself to denominational education, “under the proper control of the clergy”, as he put it. Indeed he subsequently supported denominational education at university level too.
The issue of denominational education has been a live issue in Irish politics since the 1830’s, and remains so to this day. As Parnell recognized, Irish people saw a link between ethical formation and religious belief, and thus favoured denominational involvement in education, as most of them still do. Exactly how this is to be done is a matter of balance, which alters over time. Denominational education preserves diversity, something Parnell wanted in a Home Rule Ireland.
FACING AN ECONOMIC CRISIS
Very early in Parnell’s parliamentary career, Ireland faced something, with which we have unfortunately recently had to cope with again, a sudden fall in income, partly due to the forces of globalization.
The heavy concentration of small holdings on the western seaboard meant that, in that heavily populated part of the country, people had a very precarious livelihood.
In the 1870’s , the immensely fertile grain growing regions of the Mid Western United States gained access to the global market, thanks to massive railway construction and improved shipping.
These regions were able to supply grains to Europe at prices well below those at which Irish, British, and other European farmers could produce them.
This meant an immediate fall in farm incomes in these islands, and a fall off too in the demand for migratory seasonal labour in Scotland and the east of Ireland, on which many western farmers had come to depend to supplement their incomes and to pay their rent.
And then, in 1879, there was a disastrous summer, and blight afflicted the potato crop. Potato production plunged from 4 million tons in 1876 to only 1 million in 1879. People began to starve.
TURNING A CRISIS INTO AN OPPORTUNITY
Parnell saw this crisis as an emergency, but also as an opportunity.
He sent some of his lieutenants to the United States to raise funds to relieve starvation in Ireland , AND to fund a new National Land League to campaign for a change in the basis of land ownership in Ireland. Through the New Departure, he won Fenian support for this campaign, by linking it with the cause of self government for Ireland.
Parnell’s ability to turn, what was objectively a humanitarian disaster into a vehicle for political and economic reform, marks him out as a politician of exceptional talent.
The ideas were not all his own, but he could fuse into something potent. It is fair to say that the disastrous fall in incomes that occurred in the late1870s would have happened, no matter what system of land tenure, or of Government Ireland then had, so it took someone of Parnell’s talent to turn it into something more far reaching.
This is, I think, something that current Irish political leaders can draw from Parnell’s career, in facing today’s economic crisis. In a crisis, it is possible to get people to see things differently, and to agree to changes they might not undertake in calmer and less anxious times
THE ROLE OF DISCIPLINED POLITICAL PARTIES
Parnell’s career also demonstrates the value of grass roots political organisation, and disciplined parliamentary parties.
The Irish Parliamentary Party, of which Parnell became the first leader in 1884, was the first disciplined parliamentary party of its kind in the House of Commons, and perhaps in the world.
It became the model for others. Members were bound by a pledge, signed before they were accepted as candidates, and agreed to sit, act and vote on the basis of collective majority decisions.
I believe it is part of Parnell’s legacy that Irish parliamentary parties in Dail Eireann , 130 years later, are more disciplined in the way they vote, than is the case in equivalent situations in the UK, in most European countries, and certainly than in the US. This is a strength in Irish politics, which can be traced back to Parnell.
While party discipline has downsides, it creates conditions in which decisions, once made, can be quickly and coherently implemented. This is important in dealing with a crisis. I would argue that party discipline in this Dail, and in the last one,was one of the factors which enabled the Irish Governments of the day to act more quickly in dealing with the financial crisis than most other European states were able to do, and certainly than has been the case in the US.
Imagine what it would have been like in the last four years if the Dail consisted of 166 entirely independent members, responsible only to their own particular constituencies or of members , like in United States who were beholden to special interests and who could ignore the collective view of their party. A speedy response to the crisis would have been impossible.
Where the party pledge proved, unfortunately, to be much less operative was in Parnell’s own case.
He did not apply the principle of collective majority decisions to himself and to his own position as leader, after that came into question when Gladstone said that, in the wake of the revelations in the O Shea divorce case, that the Liberal Party’s alliance with the Irish Party would cease, because of the impact on opinion in the Liberal grassroots of the divorce court revelations.
Although a clear majority of the Irish Party MPs wanted Parnell to step down, partially or fully, Parnell would not accept the majority verdict, something that would not happen in any Irish parliamentary party today.
PARNELL’S APPROACH TO THE LAND QUESTION
Parnell’s approach to the land question was more nuanced that one might think. Unlike Michael Davitt and most of his own party, he did not favour what eventually happened, the outright and compulsory transfer of all land from the landlord to the farmer who was already farming it.
He proposed an amendment in 1888 which would have restricted tenant purchase to holdings where the rateable valuation(PLV) was 20 pounds, a small farm of no more than 30 acres. Later he revised the figure up to 50 pounds PLV.
Basically his position seems to have been that he wanted to allow the survival of small residential Irish landlords(like himself), and only wanted compulsory transfer of the holdings of the absentee landlords. He argued that residential landlords were “well fitted” to “take part in the future social regeneration “of a Home Rule Ireland. Frank Callanan has speculated that that he took this course with a view to reducing Protestant landholding opposition to Home Rule, and perhaps as a bridge to Unionism more generally.
But his party did not support his position. Indeed this may explain why, when the party split over his leadership, Parnell’s support was weakest in counties like Carlow, where there was a significant presence of large tenant farmers who aspired to be owner occupiers, without Parnell’s upper limit.
A LOCAL ANGLE
As I said earlier, Parnell was first elected to represent Meath, a county it was my honour also to represent, ninety years later.
I remember in my first campaign in 1969 meeting a neighbor, Charlie Curley of Castlefarm, who told me his father had been ardent Parnellite, who had heard Parnell speak under the Big Tree in Dunboyne village. The tree still stands, a mute memorial to the deceased leader.
Dunboyne was a Parnellite parish, but during the split, the local parish priest preached a particularly strong sermon against Parnell. A majority of local people decided to punish the PP by not making offerings at funerals. As a result, until funeral offerings were finally ended in the 1970s , Dunboyne was the only parish in Meath where they did not take place.
The Parnell split in Meath is well described in an excellent book by David Lawlor, whose own grandfather was involved.
Reading his book ,I was amazed to discover how many of the descendants of the protagonists in the split were still active in local politics. One was the longtime chairman of Meath County Council, and political ally of my own, Paddy Fullam, whose grandfather had been elected as an anti Parnellite MP in South Meath, only to be unseated as a result of a Parnellite election petition.
I am delighted to declare the 2012 Parnell Summer School open.
Speech by John Bruton, former Taoiseach, at the opening of the 2012 Parnell Summer School on Sunday 12 August 2012 at 4.30pm