Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Alfred Russel Wallace, LL.D. (S392a: 1886)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: An essay on free rule written for an 1886 Andrew Reid-edited collection titled Ireland: A Book of Light on the Irish Problem. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with:

     [[p. 42]] It is a fundamental principle of true Liberalism, that every distinct nationality or separate community has a right to be governed in whatever manner it thinks best. This principle may sometimes be in abeyance--in the case of conquered or subject nations who are different in race from their conquerors and lower in the scale of civilization, or in that of colonies or partially settled territories which are either not sufficiently homogeneous or sufficiently populous to render local self-government practicable or even desirable--but for all distinct nationalities who are in the same scale of civilization as their rulers the principle is fully applicable, and Liberals invariably applaud every claim of such peoples for self-government, while they as invariably condemn as tyrannous and unjust the refusal to comply with their demands by any more powerful Government which may have held the claimants in subjection. Our sympathy was given to Greece in its rebellion against Turkey; to Hungary when demanding a national government from Austria; to Italy when fighting to free Naples, Rome, and Milan, and to establish Italian unity; and we now give our best wishes to the Bulgarians in their earnest struggle for union under one free and national Government. And in every case in which it has been fairly tried among a nearly homogeneous people the result has been satisfactory; peace, progress, and contentment taking the place of ever-recurring revolt and chronic discontent.

     [[p. 43]] Liberal opinion being thus so uniformly favourable to the claims of any distinct European nationality to freedom and self-government, it is surely inconsistent for Liberals not to be equally favourable to the claims of Ireland. The case is not, it is true, exactly comparable to that of any of those we have just referred to, but in the eyes of an unprejudiced observer the difference is all in favour of the sister isle. The Irish are a distinct race, with a national history, language, and literature of their own. They differ from us in religion. They have been ruled by us as a conquered nation for many centuries, and they have never ceased to claim and to struggle for their freedom. It is true that the tyranny and oppression which we so long exercised in Ireland is now a thing of the past, but the form of representative government which we have given them is not a reality, because Irishmen are necessarily a minority in the British Parliament; and so great are the prejudices of a conquering race and a hostile religion, that to this day Catholic Ireland is ruled by English rather than by Irish ideas, and by means of Englishmen and Protestants, instead of by Irishmen and Catholics. Such a government, even if good in itself, can never be acceptable to the people governed. We have now by an extended franchise given Ireland the opportunity of declaring its wishes. It has decided almost unanimously that it demands self-government, not as an independent State, but as an integral part of the British Empire; and to refuse this demand is to abandon the first and most essential principle of true Liberalism. At the same time, self-preservation is a primary law of nature for States as for individuals, and we are perfectly justified in insisting upon such a real and effective union of the two countries under the Supreme Government as shall conduce to the stability and peace of the United Kingdom. But with this proviso the demand of Ireland for internal self-government should be granted [[p. 44]] freely and unreservedly. Thus alone shall we be able to satisfy the just expectations of the Irish people; thus alone shall we secure their friendship and respect, and in no distant future find in Ireland a source of national strength, instead of being, as hitherto, a constant thorn in our side and a perpetual drain upon our resources.

     There are, however, two special sources of difficulty in Ireland which require to be considered before we can determine upon the lines within which we may allow complete self-government. These are, of course, religion and landlordism. The Roman Catholic religion prevails over by far the larger part of Ireland; but in the north-east, and especially in the four counties of Londonderry, Antrim, Down, and Armagh, Protestants of a very pronounced type form the bulk of the population. These counties have shown their wish to remain under direct English rule by returning almost exclusively Conservative members to the present Parliament; and exactly the same Liberal principles which compel us to grant self-government to the great bulk of the Irish people forbid us to force these northern districts into a union which is repulsive to them, and which would inevitably lead to extreme dissatisfaction and perhaps even to civil war.

     That it is the only true policy to allow populations, separated from their neighbours by religion, race, or local prejudice, to decide for themselves under what Government they wish to live, is well illustrated by the example of the Canadian Dominion. At first, British Columbia and Prince Edward's Island declined to join the four united provinces, but a few years later they voluntarily entered the Dominion; while Newfoundland still remains a separate colony. Happily, neither England nor Canada seeks to force this small colony to unite with its neighbours, and it is not alleged that evil results have followed this course; while it is almost certain [[p. 45]] that at some future time the union will be voluntarily made. In like manner, if the Protestant and Conservative portion of Ulster is now permitted to choose its own form of government, all the difficulties arising from a forced union will be avoided: while it is not improbable that in course of time the antagonism that now prevails may die out, and the desire to form part of a United Ireland lead to an ultimate voluntary union.

     The other difficulty arises from the fact that the land of Ireland is largely owned by Englishmen or by absentees; that the people have been subjected to much oppression by landlords or by their agents, and have been often evicted to make room for new tenants or to form extensive grazing farms; and that there is still a prevalent wish to get rid of landlords altogether, and to establish a peasant proprietary over the whole country. It is therefore feared that an Irish Parliament will endeavour to obtain the land for the people, either without payment to existing landlords, or with altogether inadequate compensation.

     It cannot be said, however, that the representatives of the Irish National party have given any reason to suppose that they would sanction such a course, while many of them have openly advocated the purchase of the land at its fair value. It must be remembered that a considerable number of the Irish members are themselves landowners; that besides the great landlords there are a large number of others who have comparatively small estates and are mostly residents; and that any general scheme of confiscation would receive so much opposition and lead to such disastrous consequences that it would hardly be attempted. But if there may be supposed to be any danger of such unjust legislation, it would be rendered impossible by the power of veto, which, as in the case of all our colonies, is retained by the Crown, and which, if any attempt were made to confiscate the property of [[p. 46]] British subjects, would certainly be exercised. It may also be urged that to assert beforehand that we know the Irish Parliament will make a bad use of its power, is to repeat the universal plea of the despot who denies freedom to his subjects. Experience shows us that newly enfranchised peoples do not usually make a bad use of their liberty. They are in most cases very anxious to justify themselves in the eyes of other nations, and are careful not to prove themselves unfit for freedom by entering on a course of legislation which would be repugnant to every civilized Government. We shall only condemn ourselves if we declare our belief that seven centuries of English rule has so debased the Irish character that her people are not fitted to enjoy that measure of self-government which Bulgarians and Servians, but newly released from Turkish misrule, have shown themselves well qualified for, and by which they have already so greatly benefited.

     Having thus laid down the general principles which should guide us in approaching the question of Irish self-government, it remains only to indicate in what manner it may best be brought about, and what limitations, if any, we should impose upon its exercise.

     In determining these points we find valuable precedents in the history of the Canadian Dominion. Nearly half a century ago, both Upper and Lower Canada were driven into actual rebellion by somewhat similar causes to those which excite dissatisfaction in Ireland--the action of an executive, appointed by the English Government, in opposition to the wishes of the people. From the time when free representative institutions were granted to the people of Canada all such troubles were at an end. Other difficulties arose, however, from the union of the two Canadian provinces, which differed fundamentally in race and religion; Lower Canada being mostly French and Roman Catholic, [[p. 47]] while Upper Canada was English and Protestant. The antagonism of these two parties often led to disputes and to a dead-lock in the government, which their separation under the Dominion, with the free control of their internal affairs, has completely set at rest. We have here a most important lesson as to the impolicy of attempting to force any considerable population into a union which is opposed either to its racial or religious prejudices.

     The great success which has attended the federal union of the several Canadian provinces invites us to consider how this success has been attained; and we find that we may fairly impute it to our having thrown upon the provinces to be united the responsibility of determining the limits of provincial and federal authority. Delegates from the several provinces settled the details and determined the precise terms of the Act of Union, and Lord Carnarvon, the then Colonial Secretary, bore testimony to the statesman-like qualities which were displayed in the settlement of sectional difficulties, the unravelling of knotty points, the mutual forbearance, and the zeal and assiduity displayed during the prolonged sittings of the conference. When the Bill, thus carefully elaborated, was introduced into Parliament by Lord Carnarvon, it was received with approbation by all parties, and passed through all its stages in both Houses of Parliament in less than a month.

     If now we consider that in this case there were antagonisms of race and of religion hardly less pronounced than those between Ireland and England or between Catholic Ireland and Presbyterian Ulster, that two of the provinces had been in rebellion against the mother country, and that the smaller colonies which were included in the union had many sectional jealousies and local prejudices, it seems probable that the scheme which finally harmonized all these conflicting elements will afford the surest guide in [[p. 48]] our endeavours to formulate a system of union between Ireland and England. It is true that some of the Irish Nationalists claim the larger amount of independence which we have granted to our various colonies, but the more moderate among them have indicated that of the separate provinces of the Canadian Dominion as the minimum they are prepared to accept. If now the Liberal party adopt this same amount of self-government as indicating in general terms the maximum they are prepared to grant, a common basis of negotiation will be established, and there will assuredly be no difficulty in agreeing upon the details of a Bill which, if frankly supported by the whole body of Irish Nationalists and English Liberals, can be carried by an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, and will therefore, after a struggle, be passed by the Upper House.

     The Act establishing the Dominion of Canada gives to the people of each province the complete control of everything pertaining to their internal affairs, subject only to their allegiance to a common sovereign, and their duties as members of the British Empire; while the Federal Government (which in the case of Ireland would be the Parliament of the United Kingdom) enacts all the laws in which the whole community have a common interest, such as those relating to trade and commerce, navigation, fisheries, indirect and direct taxation, postage, and criminal law. Taking this division of functions as a guiding principle, the problem is how to apply it in the case of Ireland, and it is certain that a satisfactory result will never be reached by the method hitherto adopted in all special legislation for that country, that of carefully avoiding direct consultation with the representatives of the Irish people.

     The obvious course seems to be for the British Government (which I assume to be a Liberal one) to appoint a [[p. 49]] body of delegates to meet an equal number of delegates appointed by the Irish Nationalist representatives, in order to draw up a Bill establishing self-government for Ireland on the basis of the relation of a Canadian province to the Dominion. Points of difficulty should be referred back to the general body of Irish representatives, and to the English Ministry, so that when finally settled the Bill may be carried through Parliament without needing substantial alteration.

     At the same time (or before, if possible), a Bill establishing a very broad system of local self-government in the three kingdoms should be brought forward, and this having been carried, the determination of the exact mode of Irish representation in the House of Commons would be greatly facilitated. The usual objection, that if English members take no part in legislation for Ireland, it would be unfair to allow Irish members to interfere in English legislation, would cease to have any weight, because all (or almost all) the powers of self-government given to Ireland as a whole (except Protestant Ulster) would be also given to the counties, or larger divisions of England, Wales, and Scotland; and the Imperial Government would in future have to deal only with matters affecting the external relations of the country at large, or with those branches of legislation expressly excepted from the scope of the Irish Parliament or the English councils. Parliamentary legislation would henceforth be essentially British and Imperial, and in such a Parliament Ireland would have a just claim to her full share of representation, while some of her best men should form part of every British Ministry.

     Whether the Irish Parliament should consist of the same men who are chosen to sit at Westminster, or should form a distinct body, is a question that purely concerns the Irish people, and should be left for them to decide. There would [[p. 50]] evidently be many advantages in having only one body of representatives. The best men in the country would be available for the home government, and they would certainly learn something by experience gained in the British Parliament. The office of representative would rise in importance and dignity, while members of the two Parliaments would more fully realize their responsibility, and be less likely to rush into hasty and ill-considered legislation. It would be easy to arrange the sittings of the Irish Parliament so as not to interfere with ours, and it must be remembered that when all local affairs are settled by local authorities, the sessions of the Imperial Legislature will not require to be nearly so long or so laborious as they are now. This matter is, however, essentially one that Ireland should decide for herself, and no attempt should be made to interfere with her free decision as to the numbers and qualifications of the members constituting her domestic Legislature.

     In thus endeavouring to point out what should be the attitude of the Liberal party towards Ireland at the present crisis I have aimed at formulating principles rather than discussing details. Above all things, it seems to me necessary that Liberals should justify the appellation they have chosen for themselves by approaching the consideration of this momentous question in a spirit of sympathy for the aspirations of the Irish people, and of true charity in avoiding imputations of bad motives or predictions of inevitable failure. If we do this honestly and fearlessly, we shall reap our reward in the establishment, for the first time in history, of a really United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.


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