CHAPTER IX. THE LAND QUESTION AND ITS SETTLEMENT
Immediately Captain Shawe-Taylor's proposal became canvassed of the newspapers and the politicians. Mr Dillon seemed to be sceptical of it, as a transparent landlord dodge. It was, however, enthusiastically welcomed by the Freeman, whilst The Daily Express, the organ of the more unbending of the territorialists, denounced it mercilessly, and no sooner did the Duke of Abercorn, Lord Barrymore, the O'Conor Don and Colonel Saunderson learn that Mr Redmond, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Mr T.W. Russell and Mr O'Brien were willing to join the Conference than they wrote to Captain Shawe-Taylor declining his invitation. The Landowners Convention, the official landlord organisation, also by an overwhelming majority decided against any peace parley with the tenants' representatives. But the forces in favour of a conference were daily gaining force even amongst the landlord class; whilst on the tenants' side a meeting of the Irish Catholic Hierarchy, attended by three archbishops and twenty-four bishops, with Cardinal Logue in the chair, cordially approved the Land Conference project and put on record their earnest hope "that all those on whose co-operation the success of this most important movement depends may approach the consideration of it in the spirit of conciliation in which it has been initiated." The Irish Party, on the motion of Mr Dillon, also unanimously adopted a resolution approving of the action taken by Messrs Redmond, O'Brien and Harrington in expressing their willingness to meet the landlord representatives. The mass of the landlords were so far from submitting to the veto of the Landowners' Convention that, headed by men of such commanding position and ability as the Earl of Dunraven, Lord Castletown, the Earl of Meath, Lord Powerscourt, the Earl of Mayo, Colonel Hutcheson-Poe and Mr Lindsay Talbot Crosbie, they formed a Conciliation Committee of their own to test the opinion of the landlords over the heads of the Landowners Convention. The plebiscite taken by this Committee more than justified them. By a vote of 1128 to 578 the landlords of Ireland declared themselves in favour of a Conference, and empowered the Conciliation Committee to nominate representatives on their behalf.
Thus the first stage of the struggle for a settlement by consent was victoriously carried.
The next stage was the discussion of the terms upon which the landlords would allow themselves to be expropriated throughout the length and breadth of the land. Here there were, unfortunately, violent divergences of opinion on the tenants' side. Mr O'Brien postulated, as an essential ingredient of any settlement that could hope for success, that the State should step in with a liberal bonus to bridge over the difference between what the tenants could afford to give and the landlords afford to take. When this proposal was first mooted it was regarded as a counsel of perfection, and Mr O'Brien was looked upon as a genial visionary or a well-meaning optimist. But nobody thought it was a demand that the Government or Parliament would agree to. Happily, however, for the foresight of Mr O'Brien, it was his much-derided bonus scheme which became the very pivot of the Land Conference Report.
Meanwhile events were moving rapidly behind the scenes. It was conveyed to Messrs Redmond, Davitt, Dillon and O'Brien that Mr Wyndham had offered the Under-Secretaryship for Ireland to Sir Antony MacDonnell, who had lately retired from the position of Governor of Bengal. They were told by his brother, Dr Mark Antony MacDonnell, who was one of the Nationalist members, that Sir Antony was hesitating much as to his decision. Sir Antony conveyed that he had made it clear to Mr Wyndham that, as he was an Irish Nationalist and a believer in self-government, he could not think of going to Ireland to administer a Coercion regime, and, further, that he favoured a bold and generous settlement of the University difficulty. Mr Wyndham, it was understood, had given the necessary assurances, and Sir Antony now wished it to be conveyed to the Irish leaders that he would not accept the post against their will or without a certain measure, at least, of benevolent toleration on their part.
All these happenings foreshadowed a joyous transformation of the political scene, to the incalculable advantage of those who had made such a magnificent stand for Irish rights; but the Irish Party was determined that until rumours had crystallised into realities they were going to relax none of their extra-constitutional pressure upon the Government. It was, for instance, resolved to begin the Autumn Session with a resounding protest against Coercion and to carry on the conflict in the country more determinedly than ever.