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Government did introduce a bill, it might not be altogether acceptable to Sir Wilfrid Lawson on such points as compensation and restriction, instead of abolition. Moreover, there were other important questions to be dealt with, such as the land laws, county franchise, etc., for which public opinion might be more ripe than on this question. 'My hon. friend,' said Mr. Bright, in conclusion, 'may take comfort in this—that although the Government are not prepared now to introduce or promote any bill upon the question, the agitation among the people, the discussion of the question going on hereafter, as it has gone on during the last few years, will create a movement of opinion which not only will compel some Government to deal with the question, but enable any Government to deal with it in a manner which will be effective and satisfactory. The motion was carried by a majority of 42, the numbers being—for the resolution, 196; against, 154.
The session of 1881 was almost entirely devoted to Ireland. Unfortunately, before Mr. Gladstone could introduce his promised Land Bill, the Government were obliged to bring forward a Coercion Bill. The information which the Irish Executive possessed of the disturbed and lawless condition of certain districts in Ireland rendered this step absolutely necessary. That it was one repugnant to every member of the Liberal Government need scarcely be said ; but by the close of December it had become obvious that coercion was inevitable. In January, accordingly,
soon after the meeting of Parliament, Mr. Forster introduced the bill, which was fiercely debated. Some of the Irish members charged Mr. Bright with inconsistency, citing in proof of this extracts made from his speeches on the Irish question.
On the 28th of January, in his speech upon the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, the right hon. gentleman defended himself, and gave his reasons why he was compelled to be the unwilling advocate of restrictive measures. He remarked with regard to former repressive measures that he had never denied their necessity, but he had complained that they were not accompanied by remedial measures, and that no case of grievance was admitted. So, he added, if this bill had stood alone, and if it were not notorious that it was to be accompanied by a large remedial measure for the admitted grievances of Ireland, he would not be sitting on the Treasury bench at that moment. Without going into the figures, and leaving the case confidently as it had been stated by Mr. Forster, he held that the deplorable condition of Ireland was fully established by private letters from all classes and conditions of men, by the accounts of the Irish refugees, and by the boast of the Land Leaguers that they had superseded the law of Parliament. He had always condemned the condition of the land tenure of Ireland, but, without pronouncing any judgment on the legality of the Land League, he asserted that the results of it were illegal and in the highest degree mischievous.
Replying to the argument that the Land League agitation was to be defended on the same grounds as the Anti-Corn-Law League agitation, with which it was alleged to be parallel, Mr. Bright said :
'If your League were conducted as our League was, I should not have opposed you. I should have sent you a subscription and become one of your members. Does any one suppose that my right hon. friend the member for Wolverhampton, then the Parliamentary leader of that agitation, ever used such language as we have heard from that bench during the present session? Can any one find in any of my speeches, or of those of the member for Wolverhampton, any passage which leads to the condition of things which not only exists in Ireland, but is boasted of by the voice and with the approbation of gentlemen opposite. (Cheers.) Strong language was used. I am not a bit ashamed of strong language. It is sometimes even necessary. (A laugh.) I recollect a passage in a speech of one of my friends who once sat on this side of the House-I mean Mr. Fox, who was member for Oldham-in which he said, “The Corn Law is the harvest of death as well as of the landowners, and monopoly says to corruption, 'Thou art my brother.'” And that was a strong expression, though it was true. But that language did not stimulate any man to violence. We had branches all over the country, just as the Land League has; and active men in every district—in the boroughs, and in many of the villages in the country. But it was never said that any single person in any of those branches adopted the practice which has become common in your branches. (Cheers.) We have heard lately of the Land League courts. (Hear, hear.) At the time of our agitation there were many incendiary fires in the east of England, particularly, I believe, in Suffolk. But all we did was to ask Parliament to grant a Commission to inquire into the cause of them; and not a single word of ours in the House or out of it, or any single line written in our accredited organs, ever stimulated to crime-either those I just mentioned, or any others. (Cheers and counter-cheers—“Oh! oh!") If that be so, one is driven to the conclusion that your population are less indisposed to crimes or offences of this kind than our population. It has always been my wish, in anything that I have said in the last thirty years, never to cast a slight or a stigma or a slur upon your people. I could spend a few minutes in dwelling upon the virtues of the Irish people, and I believe their offences and their crimes and their vices arise rather from the condition into which those who should be their superiors have brought them—(loud cheers)--than from their own hearts. No, Sir, in our agitation there was no language, no teaching in favour of any crimes, any outrage, any terror. I call to witness every man who remembers the time that our speeches, strong as they might be, condemnatory as they might be of the law which we condemned, hostile as they were to the landowners, were still always conceived in a moral and an elevated tone, and directed the people to their own political friends, and to the element of justice in Parliament, to seek the remedy for their grievances. (Cheers.)' But what have these gentlemen done? They have to a large extent demoralized the people whom they profess to befriend.' (Loud and continued cheering.)
Mr. Bright then referred to the progress which had been made in Ireland during the past fifty years, illustrating it by a rise in wages, a better dressed and better fed population, and other arguments; and observing that it was a grievous trouble to members of the present Administration to be compelled to submit a measure like this, he added, in conclusion: 'It is only under a solemn sense of duty, from which it is impossible to shrink, that we ask the House to support us in a measure of restriction-restriction, as we believe, to the few, and I have no doubt, as it will be exercised, a measure of mercy to the many. This bill will only be temporary. Many persons, not so scrupulous as we are on these matters, will say that it ought to be continued for a longer period than the 1st of September next year. We hope the disturbing elements will only be temporary, and that the measure therefore will only be temporary. I trust that the Land Bill when it comes before the House—and the sooner this bill is disposed of the sooner the Land Bill will be on this table—will be a great and a comprehensive measure, and that it will be a durable monument to the memory of this Parliament and of the Administration of which my right hon. friend is the head.'
The Suspension Bill, after protracted discussions, passed through both Houses and became law, and it had a salutary operation in checking much of the lawlessness which prevailed in the perturbed districts of Ireland.
On the 7th of April, in a House crowded in every part, Mr. Gladstone introduced the Irish Land Bill. He explained that the salient point and cardinal principle of the measure was the institution of a court which was to take cognisance of rent, and which, in taking cognisance of rent, would also, according to the provisions of the bill, not be debarred from taking cognisance of assignment. In discussing the relations of landlord and tenant in Ireland, he detailed the instances in which advances would be required from the public Exchequer; and in further elucidating the principles upon which the measure was founded, he pointed out that it was proposed to set up a system of limited and regulated freedom of contract between the landlord and the tenant, wherein, in consideration of the circumstances of Ireland, the tenant should, notwithstanding, be fortified by certain provisions of the law as to his right of sale, and as to guarantees against arbitrary increase of rent. This would be restrained by certain rules. Compensation for disturbance would be regulated according to different rates, and the right to sell the tenant's interest would be universally established. In a