Charles Stewart Parnell

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900
CHAPTER XCI. (continued)

Setting out on its career with the purpose of agitating in parliament for minor reforms beneficial to Ireland, and an annual motion in favor of Home Government, so as to pave the way to the accomplishment of the latter, and having no well-defined plan of pursuing its objects to their attainment, save by obsolete methods, it is not to be wondered at that the Home Rule party disappointed the hopes of its supporters, and earned the contempt of the British assembly. Mr. Butt, notwithstanding his known ability and his undoubted sincerity in the cause he had espoused, showed no originality in party management. His early training and conservative predilections, inclined him to pursue his policy in a deferential manner, careful not to offend the susceptibilities of English ministers by taking a. bold stand, or assuming a menacing attitude on behalf of an oppressed people; but believing in the potency of calm, unanswerable argument, and persistent pleading of his country's cause, he designed to bring the English people to a better mind on the Irish question, and to awaken that mythical adjunct—the conscience of the British ministry! He must have overlooked the fact that seldom was even a brief hearing vouchsafed to an Irish question, and the shelving and procrastinating process was almost invariably the fate of such bills as were debated.

Portrait of Charles Stewart Parnell

An independent, uncompromising attitude, and the preservation of its individuality as a distinct body, were necessary to the status of the Home Rule party; but when division between its leaders showed itself, and defection from its ranks was. followed by recrimination and disunion among its members, to the delight of the hostile English majority, its fate was wellnigh foredoomed. An accession to its ranks, however, saved it from total disruption in the person of Charles Stewart Parnell, who had been elected to fill the vacancy for the county Meath, occasioned by the death of John Martin. Mr. Parnell's fame is world-wide, and his character well known. His most salient traits are courage, coolness of temper and clearness of aim; and that crowning condition of success—perseverance in pursuit of his political ends through all difficulties, and despite every form of opposition. Mr. Parnell has been accredited with inventing the "Obstruction tactics, which so exasperated the British ministers during the sessions of 1877-78, and drove the Commons almost to despair in their efforts to shake off this brake which, by the temerity of one man, had been imposed on the legislative chariot wheels. The idea of obstruction, however, is said to have originated with the late Mr. Joseph Ronayne, formerly member for the city of Cork—"honest Joe Ronayne," as his colleagues were wont to speak of him. Mr. Ronayne's suggestion to the Irish members was in these words:

"You will never get them to listen to you until you begin to take as active an interest in English affairs as they take in Irish ones. I am too old to have the necessary energy for the work. Why don't some of you young fellows try it?"

Mr. Parnell is said to have pondered frequently on these words, and be that as it may, he was the first to put the theory in practice. This he did with good effect on the English Prisons Bill, which he succeeded in having amended to his desires, and afterward insisted that the Irish Prisons Bill which followed, should be on the same model.

"Obstruction"—of which a very fair sample was shown at the opening of the session of 1876—-may be described as an availing of the privileges of the House with a vengeance—that is to say, for the purpose of delaying, rather than of expediting, business. Let it be understood, however, that Mr. Parnell and his confrères had ample cause for adopting a retaliatory course toward the framers of the "half-past twelve rule," as it was called. This rule was evidently made for the thwarting and indefinite postponement of Irish bills, and the fact that it came into use simultaneously with the appearance of the Irish members united as a party, showed what it was intended for. It ordered that no bill, to which previous notice of objection or amendment had been offered, could be advanced a stage after half-past twelve at night. Notice of opposition was, of course, given to every Irish measure, while other bills were left unchallenged.

At the commencement of each session, the Commons elect members to sit on the various committees having duties to discharge in connection with the business of the House. Hitherto, a list of members for each committee, taken impartially from the Liberal and Tory parties, was usually agreed on by their respective leaders. The appearance of a third party—the Home Rulers—disturbed this arrangement; but that difficulty was easily settled by ignoring them altogether. Now it occurred to Mr. Parnell and his co-workers that they would resent this unfair proceeding by challenging every name on the committees. Such a thing as taking a division on any name proposed had never been heard of. There were but six Irish members in the House, but they determined to fight out the matter resolutely. And they did. Every name was challenged, and a division taken on it, which necessitates the adjournment of both parties—the "ayes" and the "noes"—to the lobbies, there to be counted by their respective tellers, and a return to the House. In this way a whole night was consumed to the infinite chagrin and humiliation of the British majority, and the secret joy of Parnell, the Leonidas of this Thermopylae. Victory was with the faithful band, for the majority had to give in, and exclusion from committees was no more thought of. Mr. Parnell, always and ably supported by Mr. Biggar, member for Cavan, Mr. O'Donnell, Mr. O'Connor Power, and sometimes others, pursued the obstructive policy throughout the parliamentary sessions of 1877 and 1878.

The obstruction consisted of giving notice of numerous amendments to a bill, which, when it came up for hearing, was thereby delayed in its passage, and an enormous amount of time spent in considering side issues raised by the Obstructionists, and which they claimed their right of speaking on. Many important changes in the Prisons Bill, the Mutiny Bill and others, are due to the activity of the Obstructionists. Motions that "the chairman leave the chair," and "the chairman do report progress"—all in order—were also quite frequent.

At the outset of his parliamentary career, Mr. Parnell did not at once develop his untried powers as a speaker; but made the Rules and cumbrous procedure of the House his special study: and his mastery of these technicalities proved most useful when, after awhile, his novel tactics were put in practice. Mr. Parnell found able supporters of his methods in Messrs. Biggar, Frank Hugh O'Donnell, and O'Connor Power. Mr. Parnell and Mr. Biggar presented a striking contrast, both in appearance and manner. The former of tall, slight, erect figure, and handsome features; his manner, calm and collected; an innate self-control seeming to subdue any hasty impulse prompted by exciting episodes of debate; his voice clear and distinct; and his diction evincing a train of ideas marshaled on the subject, and a store of facts ready for the occasion. His early training and education in England gave him the advantage of knowing that a cool, dignified demeanor, a perfect sang froid, even under provocation, would be as a bag of wool to a bullet in the conflict which he foresaw his policy would provoke. The impending onslaught he never dreaded; it would strike, but not annihilate him.

Mr. Biggar, in person and voice, had no attractiveness for the assembly beyond the palpable fact of abundant obtrusiveness. In the eyes of the English majority, he was an ogre, an Old Man of the Sea sitting on the senatorial Sindbad, and refusing to be shaken off. He is ill-shapen through a personal deformity, and his voice, flavored with the broad Scotch accent that prevails in the North of Ireland, had no music for the English ear. Mr. O'Donnell is reputed to be a man of varied accomplishments, and had a previous experience which eminently qualified him to enter the lists as an Obstructive. He had graduated in the Queen's College, Galway, and becoming impressed with the evils of the mixed system, set himself to cry it down on every occasion. He attended the annual convocation of the Queen's Colleges every year, and denounced the system publicly, undeterred by the taunts and rebuffs of its supporters. To silence and squelch this small but invincible band, "the first assembly of gentlemen in the world"—as it has been miscalled—lost all self-respect and forfeited their claim to good breeding by the methods they resorted to.

The vulgar groaning, jeering, and hooting, were supplemented by imitations of the rooster and of the scream of the locomotive. The cry of obstruction was raised both within and without the House. Efforts were made to trip up the Obstructionists by calling them to order for words they never uttered. This was notably the case when Sir Stafford Northcote ordered some words of Mr. Parnell to be taken down during the debate on the South African Confederation Bill, and moved his suspension which was voted. This proved merely temporary, however, for there was nothing in his speech to warrant such a penalty; and it became more evident every day that unpleasant as obstruction was to the House—though the "galled jade might wince"—it had to be borne. London and provincial editors were in a white heat, and wrote down Parnell and his followers as incendiaries, and said "something should be done," but could by no means tell what to do. To curtail the privileges of the House was so dangerous an experiment that the Commons, though it chafed and foamed in impotent rage, paused before trying it.

Mr. Parnell and his supporters, however, went on their way undismayed, and he had the satisfaction to make good his threat for which he had been called to order that "by determined action they (the Irish members) would force the House to treat Irish questions properly." On the Irish Judicature Bill and the County Courts Bill, important amendments were carried by the Irish party; beside effecting improvements in the Local Government Board, and having the Phoenix Park police outrage thoroughly sifted, the Army Discipline Act and the Factories Act, also owe their best provisions to the indefatigable Obstructionists. Mr. Butt, it is to be regretted, was behind the time in failing to understand the tactics of the only fighting battalion of his party, and committed the unpardonable blunder of censuring them publicly in the House, which must ever be a blot on his otherwise clear record. Mr. Butt's death occurred in 1879, and Mr. Shaw, M.P., for Cork, succeeded him as Leader of the Home Rule party.