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A Short History of English Liberalism by Blease

A meeting was held at Mitchelstown


But

before either of these events illustrated the mental habit of Toryism, another had displayed its complete futility. Under the land Act of 1881 rents all over Ireland had been fixed for fifteen years. Immediately afterwards the prices of agricultural produce began to fall, and the rents which had been thought fair became unfair. Good landlords reduced their demands of their own free {301} will. The type of landlord which was more common in Ireland than anywhere else in the world spoke of "the sacredness of judicial rents," and exacted the last penny of their dues. The usual process of eviction, starvation, and riot began. The Plan of Campaign was formed by the more determined Nationalists. Tenants who paid more than they thought fit were to meet and agree what rents they should offer to their landlord. If these were refused, the money was paid to a central fund, which was used to resist evictions. This was a criminal conspiracy. But criminal conspiracies are common in countries whose economic history resembles that of Ireland, and this had at least the merit of being free from violence and outrage. A Royal Commission inquired into the working of the Act of 1881, and reported in favour of a revision of judicial rents. Lord Salisbury, Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, and Mr. Balfour declared emphatically that they would never interfere with the rents.[340] They introduced a Land Bill in March, 1887. This Bill allowed leaseholders, who had been excluded from the Act of 1881, to obtain the
benefits of its provisions. The Bill said nothing about revision. But Nature knew nothing of racial and religious distinctions. The fall in prices had been universal, and the tenants of Ulster complained as loudly as the tenants of Connaught. The Government gave way, and amended the Bill. Then the landlords set up an outcry, and the amendment was withdrawn. The tenants again raised their voices, and seeing that to hold out meant that Ulster and Nationalist Ireland might agree to subordinate their jealousies to their common grievance, the Government again surrendered. When passed, the Act provided for the revision of judicial rents. The first of the twenty years of resolute government had ended in a fresh triumph for agrarian agitation.

Concession involved no change in temper. On the 9th September, 1887, a meeting was held at Mitchelstown, at which English Members of Parliament and English ladies were present. It was not illegal, and no attempt was made to suppress {302} it. But the police wished to have a shorthand note of the speeches, and with gross and unpardonable folly endeavoured to force a reporter through the crowd. A squabble began, the police were hustled and beaten with sticks, they retreated to their barracks and fired upon the people who followed them, and three men were killed. All the facts except one were obscure. There was no question that the police should have applied for accommodation on or near the platform, instead of using force to introduce their reporter. What happened afterwards required thorough investigation. A coroner's jury returned a verdict of wilful murder against six officers, but this was quashed on technical grounds by the High Court. No other inquiry ever took place, though every means was used to put pressure on the Government. Their duty was plain. Even if no policeman had been technically guilty of crime, it was clear that there had been an atrocious blunder. The Government was bound to make a strict investigation, and to punish by censure, reduction of rank, or dismissal from the force the officers who were responsible. Mr. Balfour did nothing of the kind. He treated the affair of Mitchelstown as the Tories of 1819 had treated the affair of Peterloo. Before any thorough inquiry could have been made, he declared that the police were free from blame, and he never made any attempt to do justice between them and the public. Only one meaning was to be attached to his action. His policy was crudely egoistic. The English Government was to decide at its pleasure by what rules of conduct it was to be bound in its dealings with Ireland, and considerations of morality were to be subordinated to the convenience of the executive. Gladstone appealed to the British people to "remember Mitchelstown," and the affair became a potent weapon in the hands of the Liberals. To refuse inquiry where injury has been done to the person is the most unfortunate thing that an English statesman can do. Not even the memories of agrarian crime could prevent sober people from being alienated by this refusal of the opportunity of justice.


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