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Irish Land Reform. (S334c: 1881)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed on page 6 of the 5 January 1881 issue of The Daily News (London). To link directly to this page connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S334C.htm

To the Editor of the Daily News.

     Sir,--As it seems to be generally understood that the Government scheme of land reform for Ireland will include a proposal for the purchase of estates, and of large tracts of unenclosed or uncultivated land, for the purpose of establishing thereon a body of peasant proprietors, I wish to call attention to what seem to me to be the true principles on which any such scheme should be based, in order that it may not only be capable of successful application at first, but may also be calculated to secure the happiness and progress of the community for many generations.

     In order to avoid difficulties and provide a permanent settlement of the land question, it is, I believe, essential that, as regards all land acquired by Government for the purposes above referred to, the property in the soil itself--so far as regards its inherent or natural capacity and value--should be permanently retained by the State, the tenant paying an annual quit-rent which should be fixed by a general valuation of the inherent qualities of the land as dependent on soil, subsoil, aspect, climate, vicinity to markets, means of communication, and generally all such facts and conditions as have not been given to it by the present or preceding owners or occupiers during the past four generations, or say a century. This quit-rent once determined, comparatively, should be a permanent datum, not liable to alteration, except by a general diminution or increase for national purposes. The remaining portion of the value of the land should constitute the tenant-right, and would include all buildings and fences, artificial plantations, roads, and drains, and such other permanent improvements as have been made by the last three or four generations of owners or occupiers. This tenant-right should in every case become the absolute property of the occupier, and when not so already must be purchased by him either by payment of a fixed sum at once, or by annual instalments to be added to his quit-rent for a term of years. This tenant-right would be saleable or transferable like any other property; but, as it would constitute the only real security for the State quit-rent, it must be declared incapable of being mortgaged; while the principle that the occupier of the land must always be in actual possession of the tenant-right would be an effectual bar to all subletting, as well as to any subdivision among pauperised tenants, while it would be no hindrance to any sale or subdivision for purposes of convenience, such as the partition of a man's property among his heirs, or for the remodelling or consolidation of contiguous farms.

     On this system the tenant would possess the three F's in perfection; fixity of tenure, so long as he paid the very moderate State quit-rent; fixity of that quit-rent for long periods with the probability of its being lowered rather than raised; and complete freedom of sale and transfer. In this form of State landlordism there would be no possibility of increased patronage, favouritism, jobbery, or any analogous evils, because it would consist merely in the collecting of the fixed quit-rents, just as the land or house tax is collected now; and it would involve no interference with the perfect freedom of the owner of the tenant-right, who, in all things but the power to sublet and mortgage, would be even more free to deal with his land as he pleased than many nominal freeholders are now. We should thus get rid of all the conflicting interests of landlord and tenant, of the evils arising from excessive competition for land even at rack-rents, of the irritation caused by agents, eviction, and absentee landlords, and of all the difficulties and expenses connected with the equitable fixing of rents, the valuation of improvements and of compensation for disturbance, the freedom of sale of tenant right, and many other sources of perplexity and litigation under the present system; while we should at the same time prevent the great evils of the encumbrance of the land by mortgages, and of the inevitable lapse of many small properties into the hands of wealthy landlords, which are sure to result from the creation of a large number of small independent freeholds. In exactly the same manner and on the same terms a suitable number of single-acre lots could be reserved for labourers, who now often have to pay exorbitant rents for their gardens and hovels, as sub-tenants of the farmers, and are liable to ejectment at their pleasure.

     But in order to apply the system here sketched out with any prospect of success the State must acquire the land on such terms that it could be transferred to the tenants at a moderate cost, and at the same time should not impose any exceptional burdens on the community. With this object in view I would propose that, instead of Government purchasing the fee simple of the land at its present estimated value and by an immediate payment, the plan should be adopted of securing their net rentals to the present owners and their immediate successors in the form of Government annuities. The actual net rental for the average of the last five years having been ascertained, an annuity of this amount should be granted to the present owner, with the right of transmitting it to his direct descendants for two generations--that is, to his sons and grandsons, but collaterally only to one generation, or to any person living at the time of the owner's decease, after which the property should in each case pass to the State. As land would only be taken in districts where, owing to the existing agitation, rents are likely to be very insecure for some years, and sale almost impossible except at a great sacrifice, this arrangement would be highly advantageous to the existing owners, as it would give them and their immediate successors an absolutely secure income equal to the net produce of their land for the last five years, without trouble, anxiety, or risk of any kind; while to the Government it would secure the reversion of the land itself, and thus enable it to carry out whatever financial operations were necessary, and even to advance money to tenants at very low interest, with the certainty of a large ultimate revenue to fall back upon. Extensive tracts of uncultivated or hitherto unproductive land might thus be obtained for a nominal annual payment, and be granted to tenants with a small capital in lots of moderate size at a slightly advanced, but still very low rental, to be improved and cultivated for their own sole advantage and benefit.

     In taking land on these terms from the present owners I maintain that no injustice would be done, because the full net rental would still be paid, not only to the present owner, but to his next heirs, and in the direct line to the second generation. It is true that the land would not belong to his remote descendants; but a man has only a sentimental interest in such continued possession by distant generations of his family--an interest which is altogether intangible and incapable of valuation, and therefore one which the State has a right to ignore for the public good. Besides, it is pretty certain that the Government annuity for three generations in the direct line would, if capitalised, be worth as much as the fee simple of the land itself if put up to auction; so that even from this point of view the owner would receive payment in full for his land. There would thus be the minimum of interference with individual rights, combined with the maximum of public benefit. No large sums of money would have to be raised, since the quit-rents paid by the tenants would be not very much less than the annuities in lieu of rent paid to the landlords; and as, after a few years, the latter would begin to be extinguished owing to the deaths of owners and their heirs, the surplus quit-rents would form a fund by means of which more and more land might be obtained for similar purposes. Ultimately the quit-rents might be reduced, while still leaving a large revenue to be devoted to public uses or to the diminution of oppressive taxation. I believe that some such scheme as that here sketched out will alone render possible any large and immediate action capable of satisfying the just claims of the Irish people to a permanent and beneficial settlement upon their native soil.


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