Today we take self government for granted both in the Republic and, more recently, in Northern Ireland. The combined population of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 2012 is 6.16 million and 4.58 million men and women (74% of the population) have the right to vote and stand for election. There was an era when democracy could not have been taken quite so much for granted. Approximately 750 families owned over 50% of the land mass of Ireland.
Back in 1880 less than 230,000 Irish men were entitled to vote at a time when the population of the island was approximately 5 million. That meant, for example, that less than 4.4% of Ireland’s population determined who the 103 male MPs that represented Irish interests in Westminster were. Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891) had been an MP from 1875 until his death in 1891 at the age of 45, initially standing for Meath, but from 1880 he was MP for Cork.
There was a general election in 1880 which returned William Gladstone (1809-1898), the Liberal Party Leader installed as Prime Minister, having previously been Prime Minister from 1868 to 1874. Gladstone governed with a majority of 25 seats. Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party won 63 of the 652 seats in that election with 95,535 votes – almost 10% of the seats with 2.8% of the total votes cast. The total number entitled to vote in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1880 was only slightly over 3.3 million.
The next general election took place in 1885 but the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland electorate had been enlarged to about 5.5 million men, of whom 737,965 were resided and voted in Ireland. The number of seats in the House of Commons increased from 652 to 670 which meant that a government needed the support of 336 MPs for a majority.
Gladstone won 319 seats in the 1885 general election but Parnell won 86 with 310,608 votes and as the Conservative and Unionists had won 237 seats Parnell held the balance of power in 1885. The larger Catholic electorate in Ireland now included smallholders as well as the well heeled and the poorer classes were strong supporters of Parnell.
Home Rule in Ireland was a major issue in the 1885 general election with both the Conservatives and Liberals appearing disposed to it. The enlarged electorate greatly diminished Conservative and Protestant influence in all parts of Ireland, apart from the North-East and in the Trinity College Dublin constituency which elected two MPs, both Unionist.
The impact of the Great Famine in 1847 had also swelled the Irish population resident in Great Britain where it was estimated to have been upwards of two million persons, a great number of whom resided in clusters throughout Britain. The Irish influence the rest of the United Kingdom was negligible prior to the legislative changes in 1884, which extended voting rights to all men paying an annual rent of £10, or more and all men holding land valued at £10, or more. The changes of 1884 did not establish universal suffrage because all women and about 40% of the male population were excluded from standing or voting. While two-thirds of men in Britain had voting rights only half the men in Ireland did.
The ambition for Home Rule had existed since the Act of Union shuttered the Parliament of Ireland at College Green Dublin in 1800.
The first of four Home Rule Bills was introduced by Gladstone in April 1886, in the 49th year of the reign of Queen Victoria. It sought to establish a devolved assembly in Ireland. This would have consisted of a single parliamentary chamber consisting of two Orders which could meet jointly, or separately. The first Order was to have consisted of 100 peers: - 28 representative peers, elected by other Irish peers to sit in the House of Lords, plus 75 other peers elected by a very narrowly defined electorate. The second Order was to have consisted of either 204, or 206 parliamentary representatives. There were to have been no Irish MPs sitting in Westminster after the legislation was passed. Executive power was to have been held by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, based at Dublin Castle who was advised by the Irish Privy Council. Abbeville, in Kinsealy, recently the home of former Fianna Fáil Leader, Charles Haughey TD, was one of the summer residences of the Lord Lieutenant.
The first Home Rule Bill was debated for two months before its was voted on and defeated on 8 June 1886 when 341 MPs (including 93 from Gladstone’s Liberals voted against it and 311 supported it. Parliament was dissolved on 26 June 1886 and a general election was called.
The 1886 general election cost Gladstone 127 seats while the Conservatives and Liberal Unionists picked up 144 seats giving them a 57 seat majority. Liberal Unionists (a breakaway faction of the Liberal Party, accounted for 77 seats in this bloc. The Irish Parliamentary Party gained a seat bringing its representation at Westminster to 85. The Prime Minister for the next six years was Lord Salisbury (1830-1903), formerly Robert Cecil and Viscount Cranbourne – and opponent of Home Rule in Ireland. His accomplishments included the setting up of London County Council and spending £20 million on new ships for the Royal Navy making it twice the size of its nearest rival. Salisbury and his wife had eight children and he was considered to be a powerful intellectual heavyweight in the tomes of Conservative Party history.
He appointed Edward Gibson, later Lord Ashbourne (1837-1913) as his Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Gibson was born at 22 Merrion Square, Dublin, educated at Trinity College and was a Queens Counsel by profession who was an MP for the Trinity College constituency from 1875 to 1885.
He had been Attorney General for Ireland and drafted legislation known as the Ashbourne Act which set up a £5 million fund to allow tenants buy land by way of government loan repayable on a monthly basis over 48 years at an interest rate of 4%. Ashbourne remained Lord Chancellor of Ireland for 20 years except for the three-year period from 1892 when the Liberals under Gladstone returned to power. He lived on Pembroke Street in Dublin, died in London and his ashes were interred in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.