The open secret of Ireland



If the reader cares to push forward the line of thought suggested in the preceding pages and to submit it to a concrete test he can do so without difficulty. He has but to compare the post-Union history of linen with that of cotton. Linen in Ireland had been a perfect type of the State-created, spoon-fed industry characteristic of the period of mercantilism. Within certain limits – such as the steady resolve to confine it, in point of religion, to Protestants, and, in point of geography, to Ulster – it had behind it at the Union a century of encouragement. It is calculated that between 1700 and 1800 it had received bounties, English and Irish, totalling more than,£2,500,000. In other words it had a chance to accumulate capital. Even linen declined after the Union partly from the direct effects of that measure, partly from the growing intensity of the Industrial Revolution. But the capital accumulated, the commercial good name established under native government carried the manufacturers through. These were able towards 1830 to introduce the new machinery and the new processes, and to weather the tempest of competition. Cotton, on the other hand, was a very recent arrival. It had developed very rapidly, and in 1800 gave promise of supplanting linen. But the weight of capital told more and more as changes in the technique of transportation and production ushered in our modern world. Lacking the solid reserves of its rival, involved in all the exactions that fall on a tributary nation, the cotton manufacture of Ireland lost ground, lost heart, and disappeared. But let us resume the parable. If the “business man” responds to capital, he will certainly not be obtuse to the appeal of coal. In this feeder of industry Ireland was geologically at a disadvantage, and it was promised that the free trade with Great Britain inaugurated by the Union would “blend” with her the resources of the latter country. Did she obtain free trade in coal? Miss Murray, a Unionist, in her “Commercial Relations between England and Ireland” tells the story in part:

“Coals again had hitherto been exported from Great Britain at a duty of gd. per ton; this duty was to cease but the Irish import duty on coal was to be made perpetual, and that at a time when all coasting duties in England and Scotland had been abolished. Dublin especially would suffer from this arrangement, for the duty there on coals imported was is. 8-4/5d. per ton, while that in the rest of Ireland was only 9-1/2d. This was because a local duty of 1s. per ton existed in Dublin for the internal improvement of the city; this local duty was blended by the Union arrangements with the general duty on the article, and its perpetual continuance was thus enforced. All this shows how little Irish affairs were understood in England.”

But was it a failure of the English intellect or a lapse of the English will? Except through the Platonic intuition which reduces all sin to terms of ignorance I cannot accept the former explanation. What is certain is that there was no lack of contemporary protest. There existed in Dublin in 1828 a Society for the Improvement of Ireland, an active body which included in its membership the Lord Mayor (a high Tory, of course), Lord Cloncurry, and a long list of notable names such as Latouche, Sinclair, Houghton, Leader, Grattan, Smith O’Brien, George Moore, and Daniel O’Connell. In the year mentioned the Society appointed a number of committees to report on the state of Irish agriculture, commerce, and industry. One of these reports is full of information touching the drain of capital from the country, and its consequent decay, as registered by contemporaries; we shall learn from another how things stood with regard to coal. At the time of the Union the Irish Parliament granted a bounty of 2s. per ton on Irish coal carried coastwise to Dublin, and levied a duty of 10-1/2d. per ton on coal imported from Great Britain. The effect of the Union was to abolish the bounty and double the levy on imports. Writing twenty-eight years later the Committee summarise in a brief passage the disastrous effects of a policy, so foolish and so unjust. The last sentence opens up sombre vistas to any student of economic history:

“Severe, however, as the operation of the coal duty in arresting the progress of manufacture may have been in other parts of Ireland, in Dublin, under the circumstances to which your Committee are about to call the attention of the Society, it has produced all the effects of actual prohibition, all the mischiefs of the most rigorous exclusion. It is a singular circumstance that, in the metropolis of the country, possessing local advantages in respect to manufactures and facilities for trade with the interior, superior, probably, to any other city or town in this portion of the empire, with a population excessive as to the means of employment, in a degree which probably has not a parallel in Europe, there is not a factory for the production of either silk, linen, cotton, or woollen manufactures which is worked or propelled by a steam engine.”

The writers go on to ask for the repeal of the local duty on coal in Dublin, and to suggest that the necessary revenue should be raised by a duty on spirits. This course Belfast had been permitted to follow – one of the numberless make-weights thrown into the scale so steadily on the side of the Protestant North. In my part of the country the people used to say of any very expert thief: “Why, he’d steal the fire out of your grate.” Under the Union arrangements Great Britain stole the fire out of the grate of Ireland. And having so dealt with capital and coal the predominant partner next proceeded by a logical development to muddle transportation.

The Drummond Commission, appointed in 1836 to consider the question of railway construction in Ireland, issued a report in 1838 which practically recommended public and not private enterprise as appropriate “to accomplish so important a national object.” What came after is best related in the official terminology of the Scotter Commission of 1906-10:

“This report was presented in July 1838, and early in the following year a great public meeting, held in Dublin, passed a resolution that inasmuch as an adequate system of railways could not be constructed by private capital, the Government should be urged to take the work into its own hands, thereby saving the cost of Private Bill legislation. Promises were also made that the lands necessary for railway construction would be given free of cost. Similar resolutions were adopted at another meeting held about the same time in the north of Ireland. In addition, an address to the Queen was presented by a number of Irish Peers, headed by the Duke of Leinster, praying that action might be taken on the Drummond Commission Report.”

The government saw the light, and proceeded to sin against it. They embodied the Dublin programme in resolutions which were adopted by the House of Commons in March 1839, and they then abruptly abandoned the whole business. The last chance was not yet lost. During the Great Famine of 1847 the Opposition proposed to raise, £16,000,000 by State loans for the construction of railways as relief works. A suggestion so sane could not hope to pass. It was in fact rejected; the starving peasants were set to dig large holes and fill them up again, and to build bad roads leading nowhere. And instead of a national railway system Ireland was given private enterprise with all its waste and all its clash of interests.

The two most conspicuous gifts of Unionism to Ireland have been, as all the world knows, poverty and police. Soon after 1830, that is to say when the first harvest of government from Westminster was ripe to the sickle, Irish destitution had assumed what politicians call men-acing proportions. One person in every three of the population never had any other alimentary experience than the difference between hunger and starvation. In these circumstances a Royal Commission was appointed to consider the advisability of extending the English Poor Law to Ireland. Their report is a pioneer document in the development of economic thought. Just as the Railway Commission a few years later was to give the watchword of the future, nationalisation, so the Poor Law Commission gave within its province the watchword of the future, prevention before relief. They pointed the contrast between the two countries. I quote the words of the later Irish Poor Law Commission of 1903-6:

“Having regard to the destitution and poverty that were prevalent in Ireland owing to want of employment, the Royal Commissioners in their Report of 1836 came to the conclusion that the English workhouse system would be unsuitable for Ireland, because after unchecked demoralisation by profuse out-door relief in England, the Work-house system was devised in order to make the lazy and idle seek ordinary employment which could be got. The situation in Ireland was, on the contrary, one in which the able-bodied and healthy were willing and anxious to work for any wages, even for twopence a day, but were unable to obtain such or any employment.”

Ireland at the end of a generation of Unionism was suffering, as the commissioners proceed to point out, not from over-population, but from under-development. They tabled two sets of recommendations. The relief programme advised compulsory provision for the sick, aged, infirm, lunatics, and others incapable of work; in all essential matters it anticipated in 1836 that Minority Report which to the England of 1912 still seems extravagantly humane. The prevention programme outlined a scheme for the development of Irish resources. Including, as it did, demands for County Fiscal Boards, agricultural education, better cottages for the labourers, drainage, reclamation, and changes in the land system, it has been a sort of lucky bag into which British ministers have been dipping without acknowledgment ever since. But the report itself was, like the Railway Report, too sane and too Irish to stand a chance. There was sent over from England a Mr Nicholls, who, after a six weeks flutter through the country, devised the Poor Law System under which we still labour. Mr Nicholls afterwards became Sir George, and when he died it is probable that a statue was erected to him. If that is so the inscription must always remain inadequate until this is added: “Having understood all about Ireland in six weeks he gave her, as the one thing needful to redeem her, the workhouse.”

But, of course, the capital exploit of the Economics of Unionism was its dealing with the problem of land tenure. I shrink from inviting the reader into the desert of selfishness and stupidity which constitutes English policy, in this regard, from the Union to the triumph of the Land League. Let him study it at large in Davitt’s “Fall of Feudalism.” We are not concerned here to revive that calamitous pageant. Our interest is of another kind, namely to signalise the malign influence introduced into the agrarian struggle by government from Westminster as against government from Dublin. Even had Grattan’s Parliament remained, the battle for the land would have had to go forward; for that Parliament was an assembly controlled by landlords who, for the most part, believed as strongly in the sacredness of rent as they did in the sacredness of nationality. But by the Union the conflict was embittered and befouled. The landlords invented their famous doctrine of conditional loyalty. They bargained with Great Britain to the effect that, if they were permitted to pillage their tenantry, they would in return uphold and maintain British rule in Ireland.

It was the old picture with which M. Paul-Dubois has acquainted us, that of the “Garrison” kneeling to England on the necks of the Irish poor. In this perversion, which under autonomy would have been impossible, we find the explanation of the extreme savagery of Union land policy in Ireland. Its extreme, its bat-eyed obtuseness is to be explained in another way. Souchon in his introduction to the French edition of Philippovich, the great Austrian economist, observes with great truth that England has not even yet developed any sort of Agrarpolitik, that is to say any systematic Economics of Agriculture. In the early nineteenth century her own land problems were neglected, and her political leaders were increasingly dominated by an economic gospel of shopkeepers and urban manufacturers. Forced into the context of agrarian life such a gospel was bound to manifest itself as one of folly and disaster.

If we put these two elements together we are enabled to understand why the Union land policy in Ireland was such a portentous muddle and scandal. In 1829 the question assumed a fresh urgency, in consequence of the eviction campaign which followed the disfranchisement of the small holders under Catholic Emancipation. That Irish opinion, which in an Irish Parliament would have had its way, began to grapple with the situation.

Between 1829 and 1858 twenty-three Irish Land Reform Bills were introduced in the House of Commons; every one was rejected. In the same period thirty-five Coercion Bills were introduced; every one was passed. So it began, so it continued, until at last Irish opinion did in some measure prevail. The Westminster Parliament clapped the “agitators” into prison, and while they were at work breaking stones stole their programme…. But I have promised to spare the reader the detailed hideousness of this Inferno, and this section must close without a word said about that miserable triad, famine, eviction, and emigration. What may be called the centre of relevancy lies elsewhere. We have been concerned to show how Unionism, having wrecked the whole manufacturing economy of Ireland, went on, at its worst, to wreck, at its best, to refuse to save, its whole agricultural economy.

But why recall all this “dead history”? For two reasons: first, because it illustrates the fundamental wrongness of Unionism; secondly, because it is not dead.

On the first point no better authority can be found than Mr W.A.S. Hewins, the intellect of Tariff Reform. The differences between England and Ireland, he writes in his introduction to Miss Murray’s book, are of “an organic character.” In that phrase is concentrated the whole biology of Home Rule. Every organism must suffer and perish unless its external circumstances echo its inner law of development. The sin of the Union was that it imposed on Ireland from without a sort of spiked strait-jacket which could have no effect but to squeeze the blood and breath out of every interest in the country. What was meat to England was poison to Ireland, and even honest Englishmen, hypnotised by the economists of the day, were unable to perceive this plain truth. Let me give another illustration. The capital exploit of Union Economics was, as has been said, its dealing with the land question, but perhaps its most pathetic fallacy was the policy with which it met the Great Famine. Now the singular thing about this famine is that during it there was no scarcity of food in Ireland; there was only a shortage of potatoes.

“In 1847 alone,” writes Mr Michael Davitt in his “Fall of Feudalism,” “food to the value of £44,958,000 sterling was grown in Ireland according to the statistical returns for that year. But a million of people died for want of food all the same.”

The explanation is obvious: the peasants grew potatoes to feed themselves, they raised corn to pay their rents. A temporary suspension of rent-payments and the closing of the ports would have saved the great body of the people. But the logic of Unionism worked on other lines. The government opened the ports, cheapened corn, and made rents harder to pay. At the same time they passed a new Coercion Act, and reorganised the police on its present basis to ensure that rents should be paid. To the wisdom of this policy, history is able to call witnesses by the million – unhappily however it has to call them from famine graveyards, and the waste womb of the Atlantic.

This essential wrongness of Unionism, so amply illustrated in every year of its working, continues. But at least, our bluff Englishman urges, the dead past can be suffered to bury those crimes and blunders of Unionism which you have enumerated. Let us start with a clean slate. Now, as will have been gathered from a previous chapter, we recognise in this invitation an accent of soundness. We modern Home Rulers desire above all to be loyal to the century in which we live. We are sick of that caricature which depicts Ireland as the mad heroine of a sort of perpetual suttee, in which all the interests of the present are immolated on the funeral-pyre of the past. But let us come closer to things. How do you clean a slate except by liquidating the debts of which it keeps the record? The late Vicomte de Voguë wrote an admirable novel, “Les Morts qui Parlent.” The dead are always speaking; you cannot stop their strong eloquence with a mouthful of clay. The “business man” thinks no doubt that the Napoleonic War is no more than Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba. But he pays annual tribute to it, for he has to make annual provision for the £600,000,000 which it added to the National Debt. And just as Mr Pitt’s foreign policy is in that respect a living reality of our own time, so also, but in a much graver form, are the past depredations and ineptitudes of Unionism living realities in the present economy of Ireland.

The ruling fallacy of the English mind on these matters consists in the assumption that the mere repeal of an old oppression restores a people to the status quo ante. In the case of Ireland the old oppressions have not been repealed except in two or three points, but even if they had been wholly cancelled it would be absurd to expect immediate recovery from their effects. If you have been beating a man on the head with a bludgeon for half an hour, and then leave off, there is no sense in saying to him: “There, I have given over bludgeoning you. Why on earth don’t you get up, and skip about like me?” If you have been robbing a man’s till for ten years, and then decide – by the way you have not yet decided – to leave off, there is no sense in saying to him: “Why the devil are you always hard up? Look at me doing the same sort of business as you on absolutely equal terms, and I’m able to keep two motor-cars and six servants.” But that is precisely what is said to us. You are eternally expecting from Ireland new miracles of renaissance. But although she does possess recuperative powers, hardly to be paralleled, even she must have time to slough the corruptions of the past. You cannot, as some Englishmen imagine, cancel six centuries before breakfast. Your Penal Laws, for instance, have been long since struck out of the Statute Book, but they have not yet been eliminated from social habitudes or from certain areas of commercial life.

You began to tax Ireland beyond her capacity in 1801, and you are still overtaxing her. In the interval you withdraw from her economic life a tribute of not less than £325,000,000. You broke her industrial tradition, injured her credit, depressed her confidence. You forced upon her a fiscal system devised to suit your needs in utter contempt of hers. To clean that slate you must first, by some measure of restitution, clean your conscience. And when that has been done you will have to wait for the curative effects of time to undo the Economics of Unionism.

You suffered landlordism to devastate Ireland unchecked. The capital that should have gone to enrich and develop the soil was squeezed out of it in rack-rents, largely absentee. The whole agricultural economy of the country was stricken with a sort of artificial anæmia. Then very late in the day you enact in shreds and fragments a programme of reform proposed half a century before by the leaders of the Irish people. To-day rural Ireland is convalescent, but it is absurd to rate her if she does not at once manifest all the activities of robust health. It is even more absurd to expect her to glow with gratitude.

You muddled our whole system of transportation; your muddle stands to-day in all its ruinous largeness unamended, and, it may be, beyond amendment. You muddled the Poor Law; and, in the workhouses which you thrust upon us, 8000 children are year by year receiving on their lives the brand of degradation. You marred education, perverting it into a discipline of denationalisation, and that virus has not yet been expelled.

What economic, what intellectual problem in Ireland have you not marred and muddled, England, my England (as the late Mr W.E. Henley used to say)? You have worsened the maledictions of the Bible. The sins of your fathers will lie as a damnosa hæreditas, a damnable heritage, upon the mortgaged shoulders of our children. It is better, as Plato taught, to suffer injustice than to inflict it. In the light of that ethical principle you are long since judged and condemned. But with the customary luck of England you are allowed what others were not allowed, the opportunity of penitence and reform. The messengers of the new gospel are at your doors, offering you in return for the plain rudiments of justice not only forgiveness but friendship. It is for you to accept or reject. We, the Irish, whom you have wronged, look to your decision with interest rather than with concern. Why should we be concerned? Our flag has been an Aaron’s serpent to swallow yours. Your policies, your ambitions, your administrations have passed by us like the transient and embarrassed phantoms that they were. We remain. All the roads lead to Rome, and all the years to retribution. This is your year; you have met the messengers on your threshold. Your soul is in your own wardship. But yet we cannot wholly separate your destiny from ours. Dedicated as we are to the general progress of humanity and to all the generosities of life, we await expectantly your election between the good and the evil side.

Dantonien Journal