CHAPTER IX. THE LAND QUESTION AND ITS SETTLEMENT
Some of the older men of the Party were pessimistic about the new campaign. Messrs Dillon, Davitt and T.P. O'Connor wrote a letter to Mr O'Brien remonstrating with him, in a tone of gentle courtesy, on the extreme character of his speeches and actions. But Mr O'Brien was not to be deflected from his purpose by any friendly pipings of this kind. The country was with him. The country was roused to a pitch of passionate resistance to the Wyndham Bill, and the Government, seeing which way the wind blew, and realising that the time for half-measures was past, withdrew their precious Purchase Bill. Then followed a fierce conflict along the old lines. The Government sought to suppress the popular agitation by the usual antiquated methods. Proclamation followed proclamation, until two-thirds of the Irish counties, and the cities of Dublin, Cork and Limerick, were proclaimed under the Coercion Act and the ordinary tribunals of justice abolished. Public meetings were suppressed. The leaders of the people were thrown into prison: at one time no less than ten members of Parliament were in jail. The country was seething with turmoil and discontent and there was no knowing where the matter would end. The landlords, feeling the necessity for counter-action of some kind, organised a Land Trust of L100,000 to prosecute Messrs Redmond, Davitt, Dillon and O'Brien for conspiracy. The United Irish League replied by starting a Defence Fund and arranging that Messrs Redmond, Davitt and Dillon should go to the United States to make an appeal in its support. All the elements of social convulsion were gathering their strength, when an unknown country gentleman wrote a letter to the Irish newspapers dated 2nd September 1902, in the following terms: -
"For the last two hundred years the land war in this country has raged fiercely and continuously, bearing in its train stagnation of trade, paralysis of commercial business and enterprise and producing hatred and bitterness between the various sections and classes of the community. To-day the United Irish League is confronted by the Irish Land Trust, and we see both combinations eager and ready to renew the unending conflict. I do not believe there is an Irishman, whatever his political feeling, creed or position, who does not yearn to see a true settlement of the present chaotic, disastrous and ruinous struggle. In the best interests, therefore, of Ireland and my countrymen I beg most earnestly to invite the Duke of Abercorn, Mr John Redmond, M.P., Lord Barrymore, Colonel Saunderson, M.P., the Lord Mayor of Dublin, the O'Conor Don, Mr William O'Brien, M.P., and Mr T.W. Russell, M.P., to a Conference to be held in Dublin within one month from this date. An honest, simple and practical suggestion will be submitted and I am confident that a settlement will be arrived at."
The country rubbed its eyes to see who it was that had put forward this audacious but not entirely original proposal. (It had been suggested by Archbishop Walsh fifteen years before.) Captain John Shawe-Taylor's name suggested nothing to the Nationalist leaders. They had never heard of him before. In the landlord camp he stood for nothing and had no authority - he was simply the young son of a Galway squire, with entire unselfishness and boundless patience, who conceived that he had a mission to settle this tremendous problem that had been rendered only the more keen by forty-two Acts of the Imperial Parliament that had been vainly passed for its settlement. It is surely one of the strangest chances of history that where generations of statesmen and parliaments had failed the via media for a final arrangement should have been made by an unknown officer who prosecuted his purpose to such effect that he forced his way into the counsels of the American Clan-na-Gael, and even, as we are told, "beyond the ante-chambers of royalty itself." It is probable that Captain Shawe-Taylor's invitation would have been regarded as the usual Press squib had it not been followed two days later by a public communication from Mr Wyndham in the following terms: -
"No Government can settle the Irish Land Question. It must be settled by the parties interested. The extent of useful action on the part of any Government is limited to providing facilities, in so far as that may be possible, for giving effect to any settlement arrived at by the parties. It is not for the Government to express an opinion on the opportuneness of the moment chosen for holding a conference or on the selection of the persons invited to attend. Those who come together will do so on their own initiative and responsibility. Any conference is a step in the right direction if it brings the prospect of a settlement between the parties near, and as far as it enlarges the probable scope of operations under such a settlement."
This official declaration gave an importance and a significance to Captain Shawe-Taylor's letter which otherwise would never have attached to it. The confession that "no Government can settle the Irish Land Question" was in itself a most momentous admission. It was the most ample justification of nationalism, which held that a foreign Parliament was incompetent to legislate for Irish affairs, and now the accredited mouthpiece of the Government in Ireland had formally subscribed to this doctrine. This admission was in itself and in its outflowing an event comparable only to Gladstone's conversion to Home Rule. It amounted to a challenge to Irishmen to prove their competence to settle the most sorely-beset difficulty that afflicted their country. Not only were Irishmen invited to settle this particularly Irish question, but they were given what was practically an official assurance that the Unionist Party would sponsor their agreement, within the limits of reason.