Monday, March 28, 2011

April 8, 1886 --- To Pacify Ireland

Despite teeming rain, the way from Downing Street to Westminster is crowded with those who come to cheer or jeer the "Grand Old Man."   Prime Minister Gladstone is to propose Home Rule for Ireland. Believing his mission is to pacify Ireland, Gladstone awoke to "a message," a voice which told him, "Hold thou up thy goings in thy path, that my footsteps slip not."

Gladstone speaks for four hours. He calls for a Parliament in Dublin with "complete and separate self-government in Irish, not in Imperial, affairs;" promising "reasonable safeguards" to the Protestant minority. His daughter Mary looks on from the gallery: "The air tingled with emotion ... Not a sound was heard, not cough even, only cheers breaking out here and there - a tremendous feat at his age. His voice never failed."

Even The Times, rabidly against Home Rule, hailed his performance as "marvelous as the work of a man in his 77th year." In his own journal, Gladstone writes: "Voice and strength... were granted to me in a degree beyond what I could have hoped." Victory, however, was not.

Home Rule split Parliament and London society as did no other issue in Victorian politics. Guest lists were made up to gather or exclude pro's and anti's. Longstanding party alliances ended; 93 Liberals fled Gladstone's banner, led by the Marquis of Hartington, to form a Unionist Party. When Home Rule came to a vote in June, confronting his opposition, both across the aisle and on his own backbenches, Gladstone closed the debate just after midnight: "You have power, you have wealth, you have rank, you have station ... What have we? ... We have the people's heart! Ireland stands at your bar, expectant, hopeful, almost suppliant."

At 1:30 in the morning, the Commons divided; the tally: Nays 343, Ayes 313. With the announcement of the result from the Speaker, jubilant Unionists climb upon their seats, throwing hats in the air. Irish MPs retaliated with "Three cheers for the Grand Old Man!" The single word, "Beaten," spread by human telegraph to a huge crowd waiting in the darkness outside Westminster. Within days of his defeat, Gladstone resigned.

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