‘The British government’s policies towards Ireland between 1846 and 1885 only worsened conditions for the Irish people’. Assess the validity of this view (25)

Introduction

  • There were a number of issues which still existed in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century.
  • These included religious inequality, political disenfranchisement, repeal and land inequality.
  • The government responded to a variety of different pressures regarding these issues throughout the period.
  • Although much of the government’s policy towards Ireland was ineffective in solving the complex problems in Ireland, it was not entirely responsible for the poor conditions experienced by the majority of peasants.

The Great Famine 1845 the Repeal of the Corn Laws 1846

  • A year after the start of a severe potato famine in Ireland, Peel and his conservative government repealed the Corn Laws which had been in place since 1815.
  • It was an attempt to reduce the price of grain, making it more affordable for those that needed it.
  • However it was ineffective for two reasons:
    1. Firstly, many Irish peasants were too poor to afford to new price of grain and therefore, even though gradual improvements were made, the majority did not benefit.
    2. Secondly, Peel decided to continue with food exports in order to maintain the economy, after the population of Ireland decreased from 9 million to 6.5 million (death or migration). Some would argue that this food should have stayed at home with the Irish people who were suffering.
  • Therefore, it can be argued that government policy did little to help the conditions for Irish people.

Violent Disturbances of 1850s and 1860s

  • The famine also contributed towards violent disturbances by pressure groups during the 1850s and 60s who were inspired to hold the aristocracy to account over the situation in Ireland.
  • Uprisings such as the Young Irelander Rebellion in 1848 saw leading political figure William O’Brien arrested and transported, charged with sedition. The Fenian Uprising of 1867 also resulted in arrests and the execution of the Manchester Martyrs.
  • One could argue that the British government actually improved conditions for the Irish people by keeping law and order. The violent and radical nature of these groups was such that the government was actually acting in the interests of Irish peasants.
  • One could further argue that it was really the pressure groups, as opposed to the British government, which worsened the conditions for Irish people as the violent disturbances would have hindered economic growth.

The Fight for Home Rule

  • The emergence of the Home Rule League under Isaac Butt in 1873 and later under Parnell in 1880 showed the failure of the British government to address the problems in Ireland.
  • The failure of several home rule bills in the last 20 years of the period also showed the continued oppressive attitudes towards the Irish people (CONTINUITY).
  • However, there are a number of ways in which the above evidence shows the government working to solve Irish issues:
    1. Firstly, Gladstone’s support for the Home Rule Bills showed the government was beginning to understand the complex situation in Ireland. This had arguably held back their response in the past.
    2. Secondly, the passage of the 1884 Third Reform Act meant that the Home Rule Party, as it was known by 1882, was able to gain 86 seats in the elections in 1885. This put Irish issues more firmly on the agenda.
    3. One could also argue that the reason for which so many ministers opposed the idea of Home Rule was that they genuinely believed that Irish people were better off within the union.
  • The above ideas show that rather than the government deliberately working to oppress the Irish people, as is implied in the statement, they rather failed to understand the problems and therefore their response up until the later part of the 19th century had been flawed.

Religious Inequality

  • From 1869-1871, the church of Ireland was abolished.
  • This ended the dominance of the protestant church within Ireland, which had long been unpopular as the majority of Irish peasants were Catholic.
  • This helped to curb the problems of religious inequality in Ireland.
  • However, the trend still followed that the landowners in Ireland were protestant and Ireland’s poorest were Catholic.
  • In addressing religious inequality in Ireland, the government were taking steps to improve the lives of Irish people, which directly contradicts the statement.

The Land Issue

  • There were repeated attempts to address land issue in Ireland.
  • Gladstone’s Land Act 1881 addressed the Three Fs. This included setting fair rents and prohibiting landlords from evicting tenants if they had paid their rents in full and on time.
  • There were some flaws in this, which were addressed by the Irish National Land League during the Land Wars 1879-1882.
  • These flaws though can be attributed to the government’s lack of understanding of Ireland rather than a deliberate attempt to oppress the Irish people.
  • The Ashbourne Act of 1885 addressed one of Land League’s most serious concerns by making it less profitable for a landlord to evict his tenant.
  • This created more security for Irish peasants and therefore some of the government’s policy did not directly worsen conditions for Irish people.

Conclusion

  • It is not a fair judgement to suggest that government policy towards Ireland only worsened conditions for the Irish people.
  • In most cases, the response was limited as the government did not fully understand Irish problems, as opposed to a deliberate attempt to oppress peasants, which is implied in the interpretation.
  • Many of the government’s policies had good intentions and in fact paved the way towards greater religious and land equality in Ireland.
  • Many ministers were still committed to the union and therefore it was more difficult for them to support devolution.
  • However, this was not unjustified and therefore it is incorrect to say that government policy towards Ireland ONLY worsened conditions for Irish people.
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