Irish Home Rule Debate Dominates British Politics Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The long-festering issue of Irish home rule intruded upon British politics as a major factor during the 1880’s. The controversy would soon split the Liberal Party, engender a period of Conservative Party dominance during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and exacerbate the deep fissures in Ireland between Protestants and Catholics over unionism versus nationalism.

Summary of Event

Of the political events of the 1880’s, few held more significant portent for the future of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland than did the conversion of the Liberal Party leader, William Ewart Gladstone, to the idea of Irish home rule. Home rule would undo the Act of Union of 1800 between Great Britain and Ireland, and the issue caused a difference of opinion among Liberals. Nevertheless, on January 27, 1886, six weeks after Gladstone’s son announced his father’s change of heart, the Liberals won the general elections. Gladstone became prime minister for the third time, displacing the Conservative government of the third Marquis of Salisbury. Home rule, Irish Ireland;home rule Great Britain;and Ireland[Ireland] Ireland;and Great Britain[Great Britain] Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Ireland[Ireland] Parnell, Charles Stewart [p]Parnell, Charles Stewart;and Irish home rule[Irish home rule] Liberal Party (Great Britain);and Ireland[Ireland] [kw]Irish Home Rule Debate Dominates British Politics (June, 1886-Sept. 9, 1893) [kw]Home Rule Debate Dominates British Politics, Irish (June, 1886-Sept. 9, 1893) [kw]Debate Dominates British Politics, Irish Home Rule (June, 1886-Sept. 9, 1893) [kw]Dominates British Politics, Irish Home Rule Debate (June, 1886-Sept. 9, 1893) [kw]British Politics, Irish Home Rule Debate Dominates (June, 1886-Sept. 9, 1893) [kw]Politics, Irish Home Rule Debate Dominates British (June, 1886-Sept. 9, 1893) Home rule, Irish Ireland;home rule Great Britain;and Ireland[Ireland] Ireland;and Great Britain[Great Britain] Gladstone, William Ewart [p]Gladstone, William Ewart;and Ireland[Ireland] Parnell, Charles Stewart [p]Parnell, Charles Stewart;and Irish home rule[Irish home rule] Liberal Party (Great Britain);and Ireland[Ireland] [g]Great Britain;June, 1886-Sept. 9, 1893: Irish Home Rule Debate Dominates British Politics[5490] [g]Ireland;June, 1886-Sept. 9, 1893: Irish Home Rule Debate Dominates British Politics[5490] [c]Government and politics;June, 1886-Sept. 9, 1893: Irish Home Rule Debate Dominates British Politics[5490] Hartington, marquess of O’Shea, Katherine Churchill, Lord Randolph

Acting in concert with his former adversary Irish Nationalist leader and member of Parliament Charles Stewart Parnell, Gladstone proposed the Irish Home Rule Bill, which was defeated by only thirty votes in the House of Commons in June of 1886. The difference between victory and success for the bill lay in the ninety-three votes of Liberal Party defectors who refused to support their own premier. The defectors were led by the member from Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain Chamberlain, Joseph [p]Chamberlain, Joseph;and Ireland[Ireland] , and by the Marquis of Hartington Hartington, marquess of (later the eighth duke of Devonshire). Members of this new faction called themselves Liberal Unionists.

In spite of this setback and the fall of the third Gladstone ministry in July of 1886, the momentum for home rule was increasing, and it seemed only a matter of time before the Liberals and Irish Nationalists would be in position to make another attempt with more likelihood of success. There had even been some hope that the Conservatives might decide to “steal a march” on the Liberals and combine with the Irish Nationalists to draft a home rule bill of their own. Subsequent events, however, were to complicate both these possibilities.

Lord Salisbury

(R. S. Peale/J. A. Hill)

Salisbury’s Salisbury, third marquess of [p]Salisbury, third marquess of;and Ireland[Ireland] second government was to remain in power until 1892. Salisbury was adamantly opposed to Irish home rule, but even had he been inclined to compromise on the issue, he would have been limited by the open flirtation of the charismatic Lord Randolph Churchill Churchill, Lord Randolph with the Ulster Protestants. The Protestants feared that home rule would place the Irish Roman Catholic majority in a position to persecute and dispossess them. Churchill, who was known to covet the Tory Party leadership and not known for his scruples, had on occasion deliberately aroused that fear with inflammatory speeches during tours of Ulster. By playing the so-called Orange card, Churchill gained a level of political capital that could not be ignored. Protestants in northeastern Ireland were sufficiently roused to provide formidable and vociferous opposition to even the most moderate of home rule schemes. With Churchill Churchill, Lord Randolph breathing down his neck, Salisbury Salisbury, third marquess of [p]Salisbury, third marquess of;and Ireland[Ireland] was not encouraged to take the risk of alienating influential party colleagues by pursuing too radical a course.

This situation was further altered when singular and traumatic revelations brought both Parnell’s leadership of his party and Gladstone’s alliance with the Irish Nationalists into question. Throughout 1887, The Times Times, The (London);and Ireland[Ireland] of London serialized alleged exposes written by Richard Pigott Pigott, Richard that accused Parnell and his associates of having been involved in a series of terrorist killings during the Irish Land War era Irish Land War (1879-1881) (1879-1881) and of conspiring in the assassinations of Lord Frederick Cavendish Cavendish, Frederick and Thomas Henry Burke Burke, Thomas Henry . These men, respectively the chief secretary and undersecretary of Ireland, had been killed in Phoenix Park, Dublin, on May 6, 1882.

The articles were soon published in book form as Parnellism and Crime (1888), and they created a sensation. This scandal, however, fell apart when Pigott confessed to having lied and forged letters to incriminate the Parnellites. The writer fled to Spain and committed suicide there, and a special investigative commission of three high-court judges, meeting over the course of a year, completely exonerated the Irish Nationalist leader and his colleagues. From December 8 to 19, 1889, Gladstone and Parnell met at Hawarden, England, to iron out the details of a future home rule proposal and to formulate a strategy through which opposition could more effectively be overcome.

No sooner had Parnell’s exoneration and return to power been effected, however, than another scandal broke. On December 24, Captain Willliam Henry O’Shea O’Shea, Katherine , a former supporter, named Parnell as a co-respondent in a divorce suit filed against his wife, Katherine O’Shea (popularly known as Kitty), on the grounds of adultery. This allegation was indeed confirmed by the court on November 17, 1890, and Kitty married Parnell on June 25, 1891. The scandal caused a backlash in Ireland, from the Vatican, and—most important for Gladstone, whose party relied on their support—from English Nonconformist Christians. The Liberal leader was forced to break with Parnell and to mail a letter urging his resignation as Nationalist Party leader. Parnell fought back grimly, even after the Nationalist Party itself voted him out of the leadership in Dublin on December 6, 1890.

Ireland at the End of the Nineteenth Century





With the Irish Nationalists split and Gladstone eager to distance himself from Parnellism, the issue of home rule was temporarily eclipsed. Parnell stubbornly went on campaigning on behalf of sympathetic candidates and refused to acknowledge defeat, despite rapidly deteriorating health. He died suddenly at Brighton, England, on October 6, 1891, and thus became a tragic and heroic figure, a martyr to the Irish Nationalist cause.

These setbacks and the split in the Irish Nationalist Party notwithstanding, Gladstone retained home rule as a major platform in the Liberal Party program. In August of 1892, the Liberals were returned to power, and Gladstone—now eighty-three years of age—formed his fourth ministry. On February 13, 1893, he again submitted a home rule bill. After months of acrimonious debate and of Protestant marches and rioting in Belfast, the House of Commons approved the bill over Tory and Liberal Unionist opposition on September 2, 1893. However, on September 9 in the House of Lords, Cavendish, now the eighth duke of Devonshire, successfully rallied support to kill the measure.


The defeat of Gladstone’s second bill was followed by a lengthy period of inaction. The Liberals lost power in 1895 and did not regain it until 1906. By that time, the Liberal Party and the Irish Nationalist Party were both under new, less aggressive leadership, and the home rule question waned until it was revived in the 1910’s. By then, attitudes had become more radical, and the leaders of both parties would find that time and events had passed them by: They were supplanted by more revolutionary leaders, and home rule was superseded by the issue of complete Irish independence.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyce, D. George, and Alan O’Day, eds. Ireland in Transition, 1867-1921. New York: Routledge, 2004. Collection of diverse essays on an unusually broad theme; the most pertinent are James Loughlin’s essay on nationality and loyalty and Alan O’Day’s work on leadership.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Callanan, Frank. T. M. Healey. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1996. Offers the chance to explore the time and its issues through the eyes of a key Irish political figure and a steadfast opponent of Parnell.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kee, Robert. The Laurel and the Ivy: The Story of Charles Stewart Parnell and Irish Nationalism. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1997. Well-written, sympathetic biography of the personage who was easily the most tragic and controversial among those involved in home rule.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loughlin, James. Gladstone, Home Rule, and the Ulster Question, 1882-1893. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1986. Iconoclastic work, in that the author sees the issue as more complex than the traditional nationalist vs. unionist struggle and views Gladstone as the central figure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mansergh, Nicholas. The Irish Question, 1840-1921. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1975. Extremely thorough and involved account of eighty years of Anglo-Irish government and politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Day, Alan. Parnell and the First Home Rule Episode, 1884-1887. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1986. Considers home rule a set piece of late Victorian politics whose impact is difficult to measure.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peatling, G. K. British Public Opinion and Irish Self-Government, 1865-1925: From Unionism to Liberal Commonwealth. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2001. Expounds upon the ideological and intellectual evolution (or lack thereof) of British attitudes—mainly at more elevated levels. Touches only lightly on the masses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shannon, Catherine B. Arthur J. Balfour and Ireland, 1874-1922. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1988. Renders a Tory (unionist) perspective from the point of view of one of that party’s most accomplished functionaries.

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