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Disraeli and Ireland 1874-1880

This page is a joint effort; I am grateful to Arthur Reeves for adding a great deal of information to the original material.


Disraeli was keen to ignore Ireland as far as possible because he had concerns that attempting to deal with Ireland would cause difficulties within his party. The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, passed by Gladstone in 1869, caused Disraeli great problems. On the one hand the Conservatives had to defend the established Church, for this encompassed one of the integral cornerstones of the Conservative Party principles (Church, Crown and ‘Constitution’ – i.e. House of Lords). On the other, many within the Conservative party knew that the maintenance of an established Protestant Church in Ireland was almost impossible to defend, since Ireland was largely a Catholic country. In some areas the Catholic population totalled over 95%.

Thus Disraeli came to government with no Irish policy in mind, and no intention of dealing with Ireland. Gladstone’s defeat over the University Bill in 1873 further showed that, where possible, it was best to avoid Irish issues. Further, Ireland was relatively prosperous and peaceful and with no political or parliamentary pressure Disraeli could easily avoid the Irish question. This was something that Gladstone’s second ministry, however much some may have wanted to, simply could not do.

Disraeli appointed Abercorn to the Viceroyalty; he was a man with a reputation for laziness. Disraeli also appointed Sir Michael Hicks Beach as Irish Chief Secretary; he was a man with no Irish interest and limited political experience. Neither had a seat in Cabinet. Thus Disraeli successfully avoided Ireland between 1874-6.

In 1876, following Abercorn’s resignation, Malborough was appointed Viceroy of Ireland. Hicks Beach had also been promoted to the Cabinet. It is likely that Disraeli promoted him with the view to removing him from the Chief Secretaryship, since Hicks Beach became committed to remedial education change in Ireland. Malborough, along with Hicks Beach in the Cabinet, believed in change and in 1878 an Intermediary Education Bill was passed. In February 1878 Lowther replaced Hicks Beach as Chief Secretary. Lowther, (who did not sit in the Cabinet, publicly announced he was an ‘out and out Tory’, was wholly reactionary and against all reform for Ireland. Two factors however came to have a major impact on the Conservative government:

  1. In parliament, Isaac Butt - leader of the Irish MPs - was replaced by Charles Stewart Parnell in 1879. Butt had been amiable and moderate: he was content to voice Ireland's grievances and wait for Westminster to do something. He was consistently ignored. Parnell was a formidable political actor. Although obstructionism[1] was not new in Parliament, Parnell began using it to its full extent. O’Conor Don, an Irish MP, proposed a motion for University legislation and thus the Government — in order to ensure the motion did not pass, or have the potential to pass, — was compelled to propose its own legislation. What resulted was a diluted bill passed in June 1879.

  2. The situation in Ireland: After 1870 European states began to impose import duties on goods and Britain was hard hit. There was also an agricultural slump in Europe. Disraeli, in a complete about-face from his position during the debates for the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1845, refused to protect Britain agriculture so that he could maintain cheap food for urban dwellers - the majority of the population. The result was the ruin of British agriculture. This was compounded by fate. 1879 was the wettest and most sunless year of the nineteenth century. It was a severe blow to Britain.

    In Ireland the effect was catastrophic. Ireland had been relatively peaceful between 1851 and 1875 and conditions had improved. Now all was lost in one fell swoop and the round of starvation, eviction and murder began all over again.

    Thus by the Autumn of 1879 the Conservatives were forced to face the problem of Ireland, yet Lowther insisted that the reports of the Irish condition were exaggerated and Cabinet response was merely to grant additional funds for relief measures already in place. Further, following two successful, though misleading, by-elections in Liverpool and Sheffield, Disraeli - now the Earl of Beaconsfield - decided to use the ‘anti-Irish’ message as his key electoral appeal. The electoral landslide which resulted – seeing Gladstone resume office for the second time – was a surprise to many.

[1] The attempt by MPs to delay a bill for as long as possible until time ran out. Parliament runs in sessions. Legislation has to pass through in one session – it cannot overrun into the next. Through the nineteenth century Parliament tended to meet between January-July (although Governments held the prerogative – as they still do – to extend the Parliamentary session or recall Parliament whilst in recess) [back]

Further reading:

In truth, there is very little accessible material on this specific topic. Robert Blake’s The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (1970) provides a good background for the development of the Conservative party in general, and Disraeli’s intentions in his 1868 and 1874 ministries.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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