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History of the Year 1869

History of the Year - The Queen's Speech - The Irish Land Question - General Interest in the Question - The Government Bill is introduced by Mr. Gladstone: Its Provisions - Bill read a first time - Debate on the Second Reading - Attitude of the Opposition - Mr. Disraeli's Objections - The Bill is read a second time - Committee - Amendments in the Commons - General Success of the Government - The Third Reading - The Bill in the Lords- Lord Salisbury's and other Amendments - Compromises - The Bill sent down - Its Final Stages - It is read a third time.
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By the side of the vast continental events which have made the year 1870 one of the memorable years of the world, domestic politics look small and feeble. And yet they are by no means small; few recent years, in fact, have so much to show of work actually done and finished by the cumbrous parliamentary machine. It is a well-known maxim of English politics, that a Ministry can never depend upon carrying more than one measure of first-rate importance in a single session. Whatever nominal majority may sit behind a minister, he knows that in the present state of society interests are so complicated, prejudice so many sided, that it is hard enough to lead the majority into the lobby once in the year on a great question, and he seldom attempts to do more. Yet the year 1870 presents the strange phenomenon of a session marked by the carrying of two great measures, each of them met by vigorous opposition, each of them full of interference with vested interests - the Irish Land Act, and the Education Act. Mr. Bright expressed the general sense of the difficulty of much legislation when he said at Birmingham, in January, " You cannot easily drive six omnibuses abreast through Temple Bar." But Mr. Forster happily took up his metaphor a short time after: " Let the Irish Land omnibus pass through first, and Lord de Grey and I will drive our Education omnibus in afterwards."

In the first month of the year, before Parliament met, a terrible catastrophe occurred in the Eastern seas, through which a fine ship-of-war belonging to a friendly nation was run down by an English mail steamer, and sunk, the accident being attended by a lamentable loss of life. The United States steam corvette Oneida left the anchorage at Yokohama, the port of Jeddo, in Japan, at about five o'clock on the evening of the 24th Jan., 1870. The ship was homeward-bound, the wind was fair, and as she moved out of the harbour, with all sails set and under full steam, the crews of the various vessels at anchor cheered her loudly, and wished her a prosperous voyage. Two hours later, the noble vessel had sunk beneath the waves, and the greater part of her crew had been swept into eternity. It was nearly 7 p.m.; the officers were at dinner below, when the look-out man shouted, " Steamer lights ahead," and the midshipman on watch gave the order to port the helm. The approaching vessel (which proved to be the Peninsular and Oriental Company's steamship Bombay) was steering due north, and making for the port of Yokohama; the Oneida appears to have been steering a south-easterly course. Captain Eyre, commanding the Bombay, afterwards deposed on oath, that when the Oneida was first sighted, she was about a mile distant, and that he immediately ported his helm, and kept porting it for a considerable time, in order to clear her. There must be some error on one side or the other in the accounts of the movements of the two vessels, for if both ships had kept the helm ported from the time that they first observed each other, no collision could possibly have taken place. While the Bombay was still heading off to starboard, Captain Eyre deposed that he saw the stranger putting her helm hard a-starboard, and crossing the bow of the Bombay with full sails and steam. The night being dark, the vessels were at that moment not more than a hundred feet apart. Captain Eyre instantly stopped his engines, and put his helm hard a-starboard, hoping to go clear of the approaching vessel. Unfortunately, the vessels were too close together for this, and a collision occurred; the bows of the Bombay cutting into the starboard side of the Oneida, about the mizen rigging. Neither ship was entangled with the other; and Captain Eyre, not hearing or seeing, as he said, any signal of distress from the other ship, and being informed that the Bombay was making water, ordered the engines to be set going at full speed, and made the best of his way for Yokohama. The unfortunate crew of the Oneida felt themselves to be cruelly abandoned; for, besides the shock and the danger of the collision itself - in consideration of which the unharmed or slightly harmed vessel ought in common humanity to have waited to ascertain the effects of the accident upon the other, before proceeding on her course - several of the Oneida9s guns, which happened to be loaded at the time, were almost instantly fired, to attract the attention of the Bombay, and bring her back. No one on board the Oneida could have supposed it possible that the sound of the guns would not reach the Bombay. Within ten minutes after the collision, the Oneida went down. The few who were saved reported that, when it became evident that there was no hope of saving the ship, the officers gathered round Captain Williams, and he was heard to say, that if the ship went down, he would go down with her. Two of the ship's boats, containing fifty-six men, floated after she had gone down, and were picked up and brought safely to Yokohama; the rest of the officers and crew - a hundred and twenty in number - went down with the ship. A court of inquiry was held at Kanagawa, in Japan, to investigate the circumstances of the collision, and the result was that Captain Eyre's certificate was suspended for six months. The Board of Trade afterwards ratified the finding of the court of inquiry, and expressed their opinion that the sentence of suspension was " inadequate to the gravity of the offence."

Parliament met on the 8th February, and the great measure of the session - the Irish Land Bill - was soon afterwards brought forward. Of the three branches which, according to Mr. Gladstone's figure, had grown upon the tree of Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, one - the Church - had fallen; there remained the Land and Education. The last, which, as we know, proved in the end the most difficult question, was to be left to a future year; but with regard to the Land, the Queen's Speech was explicit. " It will be proposed to you," it said, " to amend the laws respecting the occupation and acquisition of land in Ireland, in a manner adapted to the peculiar circumstances of that country, and calculated, as Her Majesty believes, to bring about improved relations between the several classes concerned in Irish agriculture, which collectively constitute the great bulk of the people. These provisions, when matured by your impartiality and wisdom, as Her Majesty trusts, will tend to inspire, among persons with whom such sentiments may still be wanting, that steady confidence in the law, and that desire to render assistance in its effective administration, which mark her subjects in general; and thus will aid in consolidating the fabric of the Empire."

This utterance, clothed in the English peculiar to Queen's Speeches, showed definitely that the Government was committed to a measure of a comprehensive kind. All through the previous autumn and winter, in fact, public opinion had been ripening for such a measure. The newspapers began to be full of articles on the subject; statistics - official, semi-official, and unofficial - were being collected and published in all directions. The Times sent a special commissioner to Ireland, and published his letters in a place of honour. Pamphleteers abounded; every one, from crotchety landlords or crotchety tenant-right-men or peasant-proprietor-men, up to such authorities as Mr. George Campbell, the well-known Indian administrator, wrote down their views. The class in possession were uneasy; and yet, as the event proved, there was very little for them to be uneasy about - or rather, the limitations that were finally imposed on them were not very severe. In fact, the history of the treatment of the Irish Land question is throughout extremely singular. It is perfectly true, as Lord Cairns said, that " at all times and in all countries there is no kind of agitation which ever has been so serious or so difficult to deal with as an agitation on the subject of land." It is also true in a measure, to continue his words, that " for fourteen months this subject had been exciting the minds of the people." Agrarian crime was rife in Ireland - the Fenian spirit was for the moment all the more savage for the attempt at conciliation made in the passing of the Church Disestablishment Act. Fifty-nine grave cases - cases of delicta majora - were recorded in 1869; and of these, eighteen were murders, most of them agrarian. On the other hand, as we have said, the public press, both in England and in Ireland, was teeming with discussion of land-problems. Yet, in spite of all this evidence of excitement, it is undoubtedly true that the Land Bill was passed through both Houses with far less difficulty than had been the case with the Church Bill; and that the debates upon it, the criticisms passed on it, and the reception it met with, were, on the whole, quiet, satisfactory, and dignified. The " agitation " of which Lord Cairns spoke was, except for the numerous single crimes which accompanied rather than belonged to it, singularly temperate. The importance of the occasion, the strong sense in almost every mind of a dangerous existing injustice, seemed to compel the advocates of both sides into a course of mutual forbearance. Fenianism had done at least that good: it had shown that Irish discontent was a reality, and that its first element was an agrarian element.

The debate on the Address showed clearly what the expectations of both parties in Parliament were: Mr. Disraeli's speech consisted of indications of what, ac cording to him, the Government bill ought not to be; and Mr. Gladstone's answer was an appeal for a patient hearing. On the 15th February, Mr. Gladstone brought forward his Land Bill - the anti-Fenian character of which was shown by a motion proposed a short time before by him, to the effect that O'Donovan Rossa, the Fenian convict, who had been elected member for Tipperary, " had become, and continued incapable of being elected or returned as a member of the House," and 293 members had voted for this motion, against 16 on the other side. The formal motion of the Prime Minister was " to obtain leave to bring in a bill to amend the law relating to the occupation and ownership of land in Ireland," and the bill which he brought forward was divided into five parts. The first part (secs. 1 - 31) deals with the Law of Compensation to Tenants, giving a legal status to the " customs " known as the Ulster tenant- right custom and others that prevail in different parts of Ireland, and establishing the principle of compensation to the tenant for improvements and for disturbance by the act of the landlord. The second part deals with the Sale of Lands to Tenants; the third, with Advances by, and Powers of, the Board of Works; the fourth, with Legal Proceedings and the Court which was to try cases; the fifth, with miscellaneous questions relating to new tenancies. In his speech - as lucid and interesting as his great expository speeches always are - Mr. Gladstone began by a review of the history of the parliamentary treatment of the question since the first Reform Act. That history was to be summed up in one word - procrastination. " What I hope is," he said, " that having witnessed the disaster and difficulty which have arisen from this long procrastination, we shall resolve in mind and heart by a manful effort to close and seal up for ever, if it may be, this great question which so intimately concerns the welfare and happiness of the people of Ireland." The Government had certainly made, he declared, and were making, this "manful effort;" they had cleared their mind of all the anti-Celtic prepossessions so common in England; they had made themselves masters of all the facts which the recent voluminous literature of the question had brought to light. Then he passed to the " present sensitiveness " of Ireland, which he traced to recent interruptions of Irish prosperity, to evictions, and to the conversion of much land from tillage to pasture. But the flaws of existing legislation had much to do with it also; notably the Act which in some respects had done much good, the Encumbered Estates Act. This Act had sprung from a desire to introduce capital into Ireland, and it created great facilities in the sale of land owned by impoverished proprietors. But it contained "one fatal oversight." Lord Devon's Commission in 1845, endorsed by Sir Robert Peel's Government, had recognised the right of the tenant to be invested with a title to improvements - that is, to claim a full allowance for the value of improvements effected by him in the land he occupied. This claim, Mr. Gladstone said, was doubt less generally admitted by the landlords; but when the properties came, as they so often did, into the Encumbered Estates Court, the tenant found himself legally robbed of his equitable claim. The Court sold the lands just as they were, and took no notice of the distinction between the soil itself and the improvements made by the tenant. " So," he went on to say, " the improvements were sold away from the tenant to persons who paid a price for them, and the price was paid to the outgoing landlord, who undoubtedly ought not to have been entitled to claim the property in them, and would not have been so entitled if the legislation recommended in 1845 had been adopted." In this and similar ways the Prime Minister showed that Acts which had been passed at various times with the most benevolent intentions towards Ireland, had defeated themselves, and helped to ruin, instead of strengthening, the peace and prosperity of the country. The same thing, he added, might be said about emigration - a process natural and divinely beneficial when voluntary and free; but when compulsory, as was practically the case with Ireland, hardly to be distinguished from banishment.

These being some among the practical grievances of the Irish people with regard to their land, it was pro posed to do away with them, or at least to diminish their force, by law. Free contract, said Mr. Gladstone, is undoubtedly the best arrangement, ideally speaking, in the relations between landlord and tenant, as in the other relations of life; but free contract is often practically impossible, and in some cases is with general approval overridden by the law. " You will not allow the man who has a factory to contract with the persons he employs on terms which suits their inclinations, but which you have forbidden.... These are cases which justify interference; but much stronger is the case for Ireland, because in substance these contracts, though nominally free, have not been really free under the peculiar conditions of life which that country offers." The Irishman is practically dependent on the soil - he has no choice of careers as he has in a mining and manufacturing country. " Strict freedom of contract, then, having been proved to be a great evil, what is the precise nature of that evil? The Devon Commission has pointed it out. It is that insecurity of tenure which not only abridges the com forts of the cultivator of the soil, but which limits and paralyses his industry, and at the same time vitiates his relations in a number of cases with the landlord, and in a still greater number with the law under which and the society in which he lives." To remedy this insecurity, a number of plans were extant; and already some were crying out for stability, some for perpetuity, some for fixity of tenure - phrases which all meant the same thing, the conversion of occupiers into owners. These plans Mr. Gladstone rejected, and went on to ask if no more moderate arrangement had been discovered, or could be found in the actual facts of Ireland. Certainly such arrangement could be found, notably in the " Custom of Ulster," and in the customs more or less analogous to it prevailing in other parts of Ireland; and to lands held under those customs Mr. Gladstone first looked. " It is not necessary at present," he said, " to investigate the history of the Ulster custom; whether it represents the ancient Irish ideas derived from the period of tribal possession; whether it represents the covenants which were inserted by James I. in the charters granted to the settlers in the province; whether it has grown out of the happy political relations subsisting, for the most part, between the landlords and the occupiers, which have induced landlords to view favourably the growth of such an usage; or whether, lastly, it represents the payment of a kind of insurance for the safety of the incoming tenant when he obtains that possession of land which is so prized and valued in that country." Whatever were the origin of the custom, the Government was content to take the Ulster custom as matter of fact, to convert it into a law, and to allow it to be examined into as a simple question of fact, in cases where a dispute might arise, by the Courts which would be established under this bill. As such the Ulster custom would be regarded, where it existed, as including two elements - compensation for improvements, and the price of goodwill. The customs which prevailed in other parts of Ireland, being all of them much more partial, vague, and uncertain, were only to be made law under certain conditions. First, under such customs, a tenant was only to be allowed to claim payment of money on leaving his holding, if he was disturbed in his tenancy by the act of his landlord. Secondly, he was not to be allowed to claim if evicted for non-payment of rent. Thirdly, he was not to be allowed to claim if he sublet his land (except for cottages) without his landlord's consent. Fourthly, not only arrears of rent, but damages done to the farm might be pleaded by the landlord as a set-off. Fifthly, a land lord might bar the pleading of any such custom if he gave the tenant a lease, under certain conditions, of not less than thirty-one years.

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