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History of the Year 1869 page 2


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But what was to be done where no such protecting custom could be pleaded? Outside Ulster - outside the shelter of similar usages - the tenant, if not protected by any lease, " felt the full force of that tremendous evil of insecurity of tenure." To meet the case of such persons, the Government proposed a scale of damages for evictions, with power to those tenants " having a farm not rented, but valued in the public valuation at 100 and upwards, to contract themselves out of this section of the Act." This was the most important clause in the bill, and, as will appear, the most memorable divisions afterwards took place upon it and in connection with it in committee and in the Lords. The compensation was, of course, to be decided by the Courts established by the bill; and in applying the scale, the judge, said Mr. Gladstone, " is required by the Act to have regard to two things - first, the improvements which have been executed by the tenant on his farm; and, secondly, the loss which the occupier is a bout to sustain by being ejected from his holding." The "improvements" were to include ordinary improvements, such as draining and fencing, and also the greater improvements, such as permanent buildings and reclamation of land. The scale was to be - if the holding was valued in the public valuation at over 10, the judge might award to the tenant a sum not exceeding seven years' rent; if the holding was between 10 and 50, he might award a sum not exceeding five years' rent; if between 50 and 100, a sum not exceeding three years' rent; if above 100, a sum not exceeding two years' rent. "In the ordinary case of eviction for non-payment of rent," Mr. Gladstone added, "or for subdividing the land, the House will understand that the scale does not apply at all." More over, the word "improvement" was rigidly defined, and was to be taken to mean " something which would add to the letting value of the land, and suitable to the nature of the holding as an agricultural holding " - not any fancy improvements which were not suitable to the purposes of agriculture. The great change which the bill effected was, in fact, a change in the legal presumption. Previously, as Mr. Gladstone said, the law had presumed all improvements to be the work of the land lord, and had given them to him. The bill proposed to reverse this presumption, and to presume that improvements were the work of the occupier, giving to the land lord the business of showing the presumption wrong in any special case.

The importance which the Government attached to these enactments about improvements is shown by the elaborate machinery which they devised to enable the landlord, if he chose, to bar the claim. This was a machinery of leasehold tenure, which was to allow the landlord to keep the general claim for goodwill off his estate. " This cannot be done by one lease," said Mr. Gladstone, " for if the landlord, at the end of one of these statutory leases, does not think fit to continue the system of leases, goodwill will immediately grow up as a plant grows from the ground." A series of leases would be required to do it, and, by continuous leases, a landlord might keep his land perfectly free from any claim to goodwill.

"I may now, perhaps, be asked," added Mr. Glad stone, " what we have done for the Irish labourer. For him we have done what the case will permit. We have allowed the tenant to subdivide and sublet for cottages and gardens.... We have offered advances from the Public Funds.... But the one great boon - and it is a great boon - which it is in the power of the Legislature to give to the agricultural labourer in Ireland, w to increase the demand for his labour, and, by impart ing a stimulus to that part of the country, to insure its requiring more strong arms to carry it on, and thereby to bring more bidders into the market for those arms, and raise the natural and legitimate price of their labour.... If we can only convince every man that, from the time this Act passes, lie will be able to prosecute his industry in security and in the manner most advantageous to himself, we shall confer upon the agricultural labourer the greatest boon which it is in our power to bestow."

These were the main features of the bill which Mr Gladstone committed to the House in a peroration singularly dignified and self-restrained. It was not, he said, to be expected that evils of such long standing as Irish evils were should be cured in a day, and it was impossible that they should be cured if the bill were to be " poisoned by the malignant agency of angry or bitter passions." the passing of the bill was to be looked on, not as the triumph of party over party, but "as a common work of common love and goodwill to the common good of our common country." " With such objects and in such a spirit," he concluded, " the House will address itself to the work and sustain the feeble efforts of the Government. And my hope, at least, is high and ardent that we shall live to see our work prosper in our hand; and that in that Ireland which we desire to unite to England and Scotland by the only enduring ties - those of free will and free affection - peace, order, and a settled and cheerful industry will diffuse their blessings from year to year and from day to day over a smiling land."

A bill of this complicated kind could obviously not be discussed on the first reading, so no debate took place until the second reading on March 7. From the reception given to Mr. Gladstone's statement on February 15, it was clear that the Conservatives did not mean to offer a point-blank opposition to the principle of the bill. Mr. Gathorne Hardy, who acted as leader of the Opposition on that night, owned that his party " had a keen sense of the evils existing among the landlords, tenants, and labourers of Ireland at present," and hinted that they would reserve their principal criticisms till the bill was in committee. The direct hostility to the bill came from another quarter - from the extreme " Irish " party, who have since then consistently raised the cry of Home Rule. Mr. Bryan, who was one of them, and Captain White, member for Tipperary, proposed and seconded an amendment to the second reading, to the effect that the bill should be read again that day six months. But the views of members who protested against the principle of a landlord being ever allowed to raise his rents, and who openly asked not only for " fixity of tenure," but for fixity at nominal payments, could hardly hope to find favour in a Parliament of landlords. The principal speakers who criticised the Government plan were men of quite other views. Dr. Ball, Colonel Wilson-Patten, Mr. Henley, Mr. Ward Hunt, and Mr. Disraeli protested, not against the insufficient rights bestowed upon the occupier, but against the injury done to the landlord. Dr. Ball, the member for Dublin University, who brought to the Conservative side a remarkable contribution of eloquence and force, protested very strongly against the principle of interfering with freedom of contract. " You in England," he said, " have been working for centuries to make landlord and tenant not ascertain their rights by litigation, but have them established on the solid basis of contract.... I say you have got the best system; and I believe it to be the best because I believe that Englishmen, having set their hearts on the best system, would be content with nothing less. What do I ask for my country? I ask the right to rise to the same standard as yourselves. I demand that you will not lay down a rule of this kind and say, ' This is good enough for Ireland. There is a positive incapacity in the Irish landlord to deal with his tenants by contract, and in the Irish tenant to take care of himself by contract. The Scotch and English are able to do it. Therefore the true system shall be reserved as a Privilegium for them; but the Irish shall not be able to attempt it, because we shall put a clause in an Act of Parliament to prevent it.' " And Mr. Disraeli, in a similar straiu, protested both against legalising the custom of Ulster (" Because it does not exist," he said) and against interference with the freedom of contract. And yet, as we said, it was plain that the Conservative party were too well convinced of the strength of the Government to attempt a wholesale rejection of the bill. In the division that closed the debate on the second reading, Mr. Gladstone carried them into the lobby with him, and the principle of the bill was affirmed by 442 against 11.

This majority was a clear enough intimation that the principles of the Government bill were accepted by the House. Among the eleven "Noes" were found only three Tories - among them the veteran Mr. Henley, whose staunch adherence to landlord-right was not to be shaken by any amount of " political necessity," such as Mr. Disraeli talked of. But Mr. Henley, Sir W. Bagge, and Mr. Lowther - who for once found themselves in the strange company of the Extreme Left of Home Rulers and Roman Catholics - could only offer an ineffectual protest against the " tenants' bill." The principle, that of legalising customs of compensation where found, and of making a statutory scale of compensation for loss of occupancy in the absence of any custom, had been once for all affirmed. It was evident, however, that the bill would be severely handled in committee; and the prospect became all the clearer from certain fresh signs of agrarian terrorism which began to appear just after the second reading. County Mayo began to be disturbed by the visits of masked and armed men to the farmhouses, with the object of making the farmers swear to " break up their pasture lands." These outrages - more like the proceedings of Australian bushrangers or American Ku-klux men than of inhabitants of these islands - did not dispose Parliament to leniency in regard to Irish disaffection. Mr. Chichester Fortescue proposed, on March 17, a bill which would effectually meet these agrarian cases; and in a fortnight it became law. Its effect was to place certain districts of Ireland practically in a state of siege; it forbade the possession of firearms by unlicensed persons; it gave rights of search to con stables; it took more stringent measures against threatening letters; it allowed discretionary arrests of suspected persons; it allowed the grand jury to give damages, chargeable on the county, to the families of murdered men; and it increased almost indefinitely the right of the Government to seize newspapers. This bill, which nothing but extreme necessity could have justified, passed Commons and Lords almost without a struggle; the Lords especially agreeing with Lord Salisbury, who said, " You must teach the Irish people to fear the law before you can induce them to like it."

Never has a bill been visited with a more imposing show of amendments than the Land Bill in committee. Three hundred alterations, like the three hundred conspirators against King Porsenna, were banded together to work its fall, or at least to hamper its activity. The Ulster custom was debated for many hours, and met with all kinds of observations - from those alike who said with Mr. Disraeli, " You cannot legalise the custom of Ulster, because it does not exist," and those who regarded the bill as a poor instalment of reform, to be accepted under protest. When the third clause came before the House, Mr. Disraeli brought forward an important amendment, directed against the principle of compensation for eviction as distinguished from compensation for improvements. He wished to insert the words, limiting the compensation, "in respect of inexhausted improvements made by him, or any predecessor in title, and of interruption in the completion of any course of husbandry suited to the holding." Mr. Disraeli charged the Government with changing their original bill in one most important point - namely, with intending to bring in a new clause practically extending the Ulster custom to the other parts of Ireland. The third clause, as originally drawn, proposed to give the outgoing tenant compensation for the improvements - "a subject on which both sides were unanimous; the marrow of all Land Bills; the result on which investigation and discussion have enabled the country to arrive at a mature conclusion, and which, if secured," said Mr. Disraeli, " would, in my opinion, do all that in justice is required." But there were words at the end of the original clause which were ambiguous; " that compensation should be given for the loss sustained by the tenant on quitting his holding." These words Mr. Disraeli declared that he and his friends had understood to mean what his amendment now stated - namely, that over and above receiving compensation for his improvements, " the tenant would, on quitting his holding, be secured the fair usufruct of any husbandry or skill in the tillage of the land which he had not yet received." So that Mr. Disraeli had originally intended his amendment to be a mere declaratory amendment, for the removal of a verbal ambiguity. But to his great surprise, he finds that at the last moment the Government have themselves amended the clause; that they have thrown the proposal for compensation for improvements into the background, and bring out as a chief part of the clause "that compensation is to be given to any tenant at the termination of his lease, on the assumption that the termination of his occupancy is a grievance for which the tenant ought to be compensated. This clause, then, at present, is a clause which does not conceal that, in the opinion of the framers of the bill, occupation involves a right of property".

Here was ground on which the question of the bill might very well have been fought on the second reading; and it is not unlikely that, if the clause had originally been drawn as it afterwards was, the Government would not have been allowed to wait so long without a struggle. That " occupation should be held to involve a right of property " - that a tenant should have a right to claim part- ownership in the land he occupied - is a notion which the English landlord shudders to contemplate. Mr. Disraeli played very skilfully upon that landlord sentiment. He dwelt upon the fact that the principle was " opposed to all the fundamental principles of our legislation for the country generally; " and protested against applying principles to Ireland without considering their effect upon England and Scotland. And even in Ireland, he maintained, this admission of tenant-right in so extreme a form would have disastrous results. The landlord, finding that the new law gave his tenant a right to a third of his freehold - seven years' rent; twenty-one years' rent being the average value of a freehold in Ireland - and seeing an escape from this claim in the clause which barred the right in the case of non-payment of rent, would take advantage of this, " the only position of strength left him." He would wait till the tenant did not pay his rent - a very frequent occurrence in Ireland - and then he would evict mercilessly. To escape a repetition of the danger, he would consolidate his farms, and the old tenants would have to wander away to new homes. They, to avoid tills last extremity, would appeal to "those rural ethics with the consequences of which we are all familiar." The rural logic of the Irish tenant would run thus: " I have lost my holding because I did not pay my rent. Can anything be more flagrantly unjust than that a man should be deprived of his contingent right to a third of the freehold because he does not pay his rent? " Or in other words, " Am I to lose seven years' rent because I have failed to pay half a year's?" As a consequence the Irish tenant would act upon his rural ethics, and either have his land lord's land or his life. "' So far from the improvement of the country, so far from terminating all these misunderstandings and heartburnings which we seem now so anxious upon both sides of the House to' bring to a close, you will have the same controversies still raging, only with increased acerbity, and under circumstances and conditions which inevitably must lead to increased bitterness and increased perils to society."

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