The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 5

Date: 1886

James Bryce

On the Government of Ireland Bill*
(1886)

My right honorable and learned friend said the union of the crown in the same person did not make a United Kingdom, and he cited the case of Hanover; but he forgot that when our sovereigns were electors of Hanover they were members of the Holy Roman Empire, and afterward, when that empire had already vanished, they became, in 1815, members of the Germanic Confederation. When he says that that which makes unity of laws is the unity of the lawmaking power, does he remember that in a country which has long been united, and which in every decade of its existence tends to become more and more united—I mean the United States of North America—there are thirty-eight separate legislatures which enjoy within their proper sphere supreme legislative power? These legislatures are entirely uncontrolled by the Federal Congress on certain subjects—subjects of wide compass and great consequence. Not only in the different States are the laws different, but the spirit in which these State laws are administered is also different.

The noble lord, the member for Rossendale [the Marquis of Hartington], said, on the first night of the debate, that he looked upon it as a most important thing that an Englishman should find himself at home if he traveled to Ireland; but that he could not do that if the laws of Ireland were to be not only different in themselves, but also administered by a different executive, and in a different spirit. This is exactly what happens in the United States. If a citizen travels from Massachusetts or Pennsylvania to Arkansas or Texas, he will find that the laws are different; that the executive authority is different and independent; and that the laws are administered in these newer western States in a very different and sometimes an unfortunate manner; but that does not prevent citizens of the United States who travel out of one State into another from feeling themselves everywhere at home.

The second argument of my right honorable and learned friend was that under the Bill the imperial Parliament would not be able to legislate for Ireland. He can not mean that it will not be able to do so for imperial purposes, because that power is expressly reserved by the Bill. But, he asks, can it legislate for other purposes? He says: "Perhaps it can, as a matter of abstract right." But what difference is there between an abstract right and any other kind of right? None whatever. There is, indeed, a difference between forms in which fight may exist There are rights which you put inconstant exercise, and there are rights which you suffer to lie dormant. We have the right in this Parliament to legislate for Ireland, and we shall continue to have it when the Bill becomes an Act. We shall retain, as a matter of pure right, the power to legislate for Ireland for all purposes whatever, for the simple reason that we can not divest ourselves of it. There is no principle more universally admitted by constitutional jurists than the absolute omnipotence of Parliament.

This omnipotence exists because there is nothing beyond Parliament or behind Parliament. We are sitting here as the nation, the whole nation; we are not delegates entrusted, like the American Congress, with specified and limited powers; we represent the whole British nation, which has committed to us the plenitude of its authority, and has provided no method of national action except through our votes. And we have, therefore, full power to legislate for every purpose. We are not checked or restrained, as is the Congress of the United States, or any other body existing under a written constitution, because the whole force and power reside in us to be exercised within these walls. The Irish members, I am sure, know perfectly that this is so. It is not a question of their asking us whether we will agree to divest ourselves of this power, because we can not do so. There is one limitation, and one only, upon our omnipotence, and that is that we can not bind our successors.If we pass a statute purporting to extinguish our right to legislate on any given subject, or over any given district, it may be repudiated and repealed by any following Parliament—aye, even by this present Parliament on any later day.

What then, I may be asked, is the position in which we are to be placed after the concessions proposed in this Bill? It will be this: While the ultimate right to legislate will reside in, and for all English, Scottish, and imperial purposes will be exercised by, the imperial Parliament, we shall have conceded to the Irish Legislature the right to legislate on subjects upon which we do not intend to exercise the right of legislating ourselves. This is exactly what we have done with our Colonies. We have yielded to them self-governing powers; the Colonies exercise those powers; and we rarely interfere with the exercise of those powers by them. It has been pointed out in debate that in the Colonial Acts we had expressly reserved all legislative power to the imperial Parliament. But if the House had leisure to listen to a detailed argument, I could show that the reservation to which my right honorable friend seemed to refer in the Act of 1865 had a purpose and meaning different from that which he imagines. In the Act of 1867, which created the Dominion Legislature of Canada, there is no express reservation of the legislative power of the imperial Parliament, yet since then the imperial Parliament has legislatedfor Canada by passing Merchant Shipping Acts, a Copyright Act, and other measures which are now in force in the Dominion.

This contract, like most contracts, is a two-sided engagement. On our side it binds us not to repeal this Statute, or to alter it, or to do anything inconsistent with it, so as to prejudice the position of Ireland without summoning the Irish members; and, on the other hand, it binds the Irish Parliament, on its part, to observe in good faith the Statute in spirit as well as in letter, to act fairly under it, not to abuse or pervert the powers which it gives. While Ireland, through her Parliament, observes this contract, we shall be bound to observe our part of it; and so long as Ireland is faithful to the intentions of the Act on her side, so long will it be our duty, if we desire to modify the Act, to summon the Irish members here. But if the Irish Parliament should transgress the spirit and meaning of the Act, we, on our side, shall be released from our obligation; and then that which is in any case a legal right on our side would become also a moral right, because a breach of the contract on their side would entitle us to use our full legal rights. Now, the imposition of such a moral obligation as this is not a change which will alter the general character of the Constitution. It will leave the sovereignty of Parliament and the consequent flexibility of the Constitution as they were before, since means are provided whereby we can repealthe Act and regain any freedom which it may be supposed we are now morally, tho not legally, parting with.

Now, in the United States, Congress can not deal with the decisions of the supreme court, because those decisions are delivered as interpretations of the written Constitution, the instrument which creates Congress, and which is the supreme law of the land everywhere. The supreme court is out of the reach of Congress, not because it is a law court, but because it is the authorized interpreter, or, as one may say, the living voice of a document superior in authority to the will of Congress. But in this country Parliament is above the privy council, because we have no written Constitution, and all the courts are bound to obey the will of Parliament. Therefore, we shall not tie our hands, as the hands of Congress are tied. Under this Act parliament will still be above the House of Lords, above the privy council, above all the courts of law anywhere within the queen’s dominions. No conflict can therefore arise between the decisions of the English and the Irish judges. There can be no conflict, because the Bill provides that in every case there shall be an appeal to a final court of appeal, and the decision of that court will govern the action of every subordinate court, whether Irish or English. In cases where the construction of this Act is in question the appeal lies to the privy council; in ordinary cases it lies to the Houseof Lords; but in any case it will be final; therefore there can by no possibility be two sets of courts—one set in Ireland and another in England-continuing to give contradictory decisions. I admit that the system under this Bill is complicated. It can not be otherwise, for the complication is in the facts with which we have to deal.

But, sir, there is another class of instances—what I may call the negative influences—furnished us by modern Europe where nations have had this problem presented to them, and where they have shrunk from grappling fairly with it. When confronted by disaffection due to unsatisfied national sentiment, they have refused to recognize and give legitimate scope to that sentiment. What has been the consequence? Do honorable members recollect that for some years before 1830 there was a constant struggle going on between Holland and Belgium? The Belgians demanded some recognition of their nationality, some separate institutions for Belgium; but the Dutch, in their national pride, refused. In 1830 the Parisian Revolution fanned the embers into flame. The Belgians rose; Holland remained obstinate; and at last, because she had refused moderate concessions, she lost Belgium altogether. The same is the moral of the relations between Denmark and the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. During many years the German population of these Duchies continued to plead for a due recognition of their difference fromthe rest of the Danish monarchy; but the Danes said: "No, we are and will be one nation; we will not make in your favor those exceptions and special arrangements which you desire. You are Danish subjects; Danes you shall be." The Danish language was to be taught in all the schools of Schleswig, and every means was to be taken of replacing German by Danish sentiment. What was the consequence! The discontent of Schleswig and Holstein found sympathy in Germany, and the Germanic Powers intervened.

You will say that there is no great Power to interfere between us and Ireland. That is quite true. It is not always in the same way that these problems are solved. But they find their solution nevertheless, and it is a solution which usually punishes the pride and obstinacy of a dominant race. Schleswig and Holstein kept up their discontent so long, that at last the hour arrived for which they had been waiting, and Denmark saw herself deprived of those Provinces which a policy of moderate conciliation would have enabled her to retain. We have also the case of Russia in her dealings with Poland and Finland. Russia allowed Finland autonomy; and it is at this day a peaceable, prosperous, and contented Province of the Czar’s dominions, inspiring him with no fear of conspiracies or revolts, altho the frontier of Finland comes almost to the gates of St. Petersburg. Russia refused to deal in the same spirit with Poland, and what were the consequences! She has, indeed, or sheseems to have, crushed Poland; but I ask honorable members whether they desire to see this country imitate the methods by which Poland has been crushed! This force of nationality is a great force in human affairs. The honorable and learned member for Plymouth [Mr. Edward Clarke] spoke on Thursday night with some contempt of the feeling of nationality. I do not say that it is always a good thing. It is one of those sentiments which, tho primarily and usually good, because it binds men together by common devotion to a fine idea, may also become a destroying power and the instrument of evil. It works for good or ill, just as you choose to treat it. But it is a force which governments ignore at their peril.

We are accused of putting forward this Bill as a counsel of despair. Sir, I do not support it as a counsel of despair; I do not support it as the only alternative to a long course of coercion, altho I believe such coercion to be the only alternative policy; but I support it because I believe it to be a good thing in itself. I believe that Ireland will be better legislated for in a legislature in Dublin by its own members, because that legislature will be in sympathy with the feelings and will understand the needs of its fellow citizens. We in this Parliament—English and Scotch members—are ignorant of the wants of the Irish people. We vote at the sound of the division bell, as the party whips tell us. That has certainly been the ruleof honorable members opposite, even more than of members on this side. And what does the government do? The government is guided by its chief secretary, and the chief secretary is guided by the permanent officials at Dublin Castle, so that to talk of Ireland having any real self-government is altogether idle, because Ireland is governed in and through this House, in which Irish members are in a small, and usually also an unpopular minority.

It is idle to think of legislating satisfactorily for Ireland in a House in which the Irish members constitute a small minority out of sympathy with the majority—a House chiefly composed of members who have never been in Ireland, and have no direct personal knowledge of Irish conditions and Irish sentiment—a House whose acts and votes are checked and nullified by another and an irresponsible House, in which there is not a single representative of Irish national feeling. The thing most necessary to us in this matter at this juncture is to look facts fairly and fully in the face. I have felt this strongly in reading the powerful speeches, delivered during the Easter recess, of my right honorable friend, the member for East Edinburgh [Mr. Goschen], whom I am sorry not to see in his place. He seems to me to speak like a man who does not see—who, at any rate, does not realize—the dominant facts of the situation. Those who desire a strong, repressive government for Ireland talk as if, in order to succeed in ruling and pacifyingIreland, England and Scotland need only to put their foot down; and we have had this very day in the newspapers a vigorous and trenchant expression of that view from the leader of the Tory party.

Now, I admit that England and Scotland can govern Ireland by repression. We in Great Britain are more than thirty millions of people. We have got the men; we have got the ships and the arms; if they wish, we have got the money, too; and if Great Britain chooses to put her foot down, she can crush Ireland under an iron heel. But let me ask the question: Is this what the British people wish to do or mean to do? If our government were a despotism, sir, or such an oligarchy as ruled before the Reform Act of 1832, I could understand my right honorable friend, the member for East Edinburgh [Mr. Goschen], or Lord Salisbury making this proposition. But what are we? We are a democracy, sir—a modern democracy. A modern democracy is fitted neither by its methods of government nor by its sentiments for a policy of that sort. A democracy would not consent to, and, if it had consented, would never persist in such a policy. A democracy has a short memory; and altho it might, in a moment of exasperation, pass severe laws, it would soon forget the occasion of those laws and repeal them.

A democracy loves equality, and it could not bear to think, as it would be apt to think, that in ruling by stern laws it was oppressing themasses of the people in the interest of a landlord class. A democracy has a tender conscience, and a dislike—perhaps too strong a dislike—of severe methods; it would be pained by the fear that it was doing injustice and sanctioning harshness. A democracy loves freedom, and it would refuse to put into the hands of a government such as the Marquis of Salisbury contemplates that suspension of the Irish representation, that subjection of Ireland to arbitrary rule, which would be necessary for his purpose. I am not arguing now whether in all this democracy may be right or wrong, or whether we have done foolishly or wisely in making our government a democracy. With such questions I am not concerned, for what I ask the House is to realize the present facts and their consequences. I say that we are a democracy, and that we must, therefore, govern on democratic principles.

I have noticed that throughout this debate honorable members have been appealing to the Civil War in America, and the conduct of the Northern States in that supreme crisis, as a reason and precedent for our keeping down Ireland. The argument, when once the facts have been duly mastered, points the other way. A part of the United States rebelled on behalf of one of the worst of causes in which men ever took up arms. The North, animated by a strong sentiment of nationality, and by a hatred of slavery, determined to put that rebellion down, and did put it down. So we, if Ireland were tosecede, would determine to keep her attached to this island, and by force of arms we should succeed. But it is not in war that the chief difficulty lies—it is in governing afterwards.

What did the United States do when the Civil War came to an end? First of all, they tried the experiment of governing the Southern States by military occupation, and they found that that system broke down, because it was impossible to keep the people in subjection and the country tranquil by military force alone. Then they tried to govern it by the disfranchisement of all who took part in the war against the Union; and they handed over the government to the negroes and a number of Northern adventurers, and that system broke down. Outrages, perpetrated on the negroes or on the Northern men who had come down into the Carolinas and Tennessee, became frequent, and could not be checked by the civil authorities. The condition of things in the South during those years was a scandal to the country.

Then at last, with the strong practical sense which becomes a free people, and which especially distinguishes the people of America, they came back to their original principles. They set up the Southern States as self-governing communities on the old lines; they restored the suffrage to all citizens, declaring those who had taken part in the war to be exempt from further consequences; and then the outrages came to an end, and those disorderly Southern communitiesbecame speedily prosperous and law-abiding. The example of the United States is the strongest possible case you could have to show that a democratic system must be true to itself, and that only so can it succeed.

As to the cases of Scotland and Wales, these are cases which are not now before us. I do not believe that there exists in Scotland any widespread desire and demand for a separate legislature. If ever such a demand is made by the Scottish people with anything resembling the volume of demand now made by Ireland, it will be time enough for us to consider it; and when it is considered it will be dealt with upon its own merits. No one who knows the Scottish people can doubt that they will obtain whatever they seek. But I venture to ask honorable members below the gangway whether they have realized the effect of the decision they will give if they vote against this Bill? We are exposed here to what I may call a triple fire. Besides the fire that comes from the benches opposite, and that we receive from some of those who sit behind us—the noble Marquis and those who act with him—we have had, if not a volley, yet some dropping shots (I hope they will be nothing more than dropping shots) from below the gangway. I ask those honorable members to consider what the result will be if they join the noble Marquis and the Tory party in throwing out the Bill? We know what the Tory policy is. It is force. It is repression, prolonged andstern repression. What did the Marquis of Salisbury tell his followers on Saturday night? "Remember," he said to them, "that you are the most powerful party." Yes, sir; they are numerically the most powerful of the parties opposed to this Bill; and if this Bill should be rejected, and the reins of government should unhappily pass to them, it is their policy that will and must prevail.

Sir, the democracy of England—the new-born democracy of England—is prepared to do what is right by the Irish people; and I trust that the knowledge of its purpose and its sympathy will enable the Irish people to await in a calm and law-abiding spirit the fulfilment of their wishes—wishes whose justice we have now, at last, admitted, and for which, in this House and out of this House, on every platform in Great Britain, we shall not cease to do battle.

* From a speech in the House of Commons on May 17, 1886. By kind permission of Mr. Bryce and Cornelius Buck&Son.

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The British Empire, 1865-1906

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Chicago: The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 5 in The World’s Famous Orations, ed. William Jennings Bryan (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906), 147–161. Original Sources, accessed December 9, 2019, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=MA13QGA6BQFF742.

MLA: . The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 5, in The World’s Famous Orations, edited by William Jennings Bryan, Vol. The World#8217;s Famous Orations, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, December, 1906, pp. 147–161. Original Sources. 9 Dec. 2019. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=MA13QGA6BQFF742.

Harvard: , The World’s Famous Orations, Vol 5. cited in December, 1906, The World’s Famous Orations, ed. , Funk and Wagnalls, New York, pp.147–161. Original Sources, retrieved 9 December 2019, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=MA13QGA6BQFF742.