CHAPTER IX. THE LAND QUESTION AND ITS SETTLEMENT
"One could count on one's fingers," said the Cowper Commission in 1887, "the number of Irish estates on which the improvements have been made by the landlord." The Irish landlord class never did a thing for Ireland except to drain her of her life-blood - to rob and depopulate and destroy, to make exaction after exaction upon the industry of her peasants, until their wrongs cried aloud for redress, if not for vengeance. In England it was estimated in 1897 that the landlord class had spent in investments in landlord property a sum estimated at L700,000,000. These can justly claim some right in the land. In Ireland the landlord was simply the owner of "the raw earth" - the bare proprietor of the soil, a dead weight upon the industry and honest toil of the tenant, receiving a rent upon the values that the labour and the energy of generations of members of a particular family had created. The Irish landlord and his horde of hangers-on - his agents, his bailiffs, his process-servers, his bog-rangers, his rent-warners - created a system built upon corruption, maintained in tyranny, and enforced with all the ruthless severities of foreign laws enacted solely for the benefit of England's garrison. "I can imagine no fault," said Mr Arthur Balfour, speaking as Prime Minister in the House of Commons, 4th May 1903, "attaching to any land system which does not attach to the Irish system." Evictions in Ireland came to be known as "sentences of death," so cruel and numerous were they until the popular agitation was strong enough to check them.
Even the Gladstonian legislation of 1881, though it admittedly did something substantial towards redressing the balance between landlord and tenant by securing to the tenants what were known as "the three F.'s " - viz. Fixity of Tenure, Fair Rent, and Free Sale - yet left the question in a wholly unsettled state. The fixing of fair rents, no doubt, acted as a curb on landlord rapacity, but from the tenants' point of view it was a wholly vicious, indeterminate and unsatisfactory system. It was incentive to indifferent farming, since the commissioners who had the fixing of rents, and the inspectors who examined the farms, made their valuations upon the farms as they saw them. True, the tenant could claim for his improvements, but in practice this was no real safeguard. The more industrious the tenant the higher the rent - the less industrious and the less capable the lower the figure to be paid.
Hence, after the failure of countless Acts of Parliament, it was borne in upon all earnest land-reformers that there could be only one final and satisfactory solution: that was the abolition of dual ownership - in other words, the buying out of the landlord and the establishment of the tenant in the single and undisputed ownership of the soil on fair and equitable terms. A tentative start had been made in land purchase by the Land Purchase Act of 1885 - called, after its author, the Ashbourne Act. This experiment had proved an immense success, for in six years the ten millions sterling assigned for its operations were exhausted and 25,867 tenants had been turned into owners of their farms.
It became clear that a scheme of purchase which would, within a definite period, root out the last vestige of landlordism was the one only real and true solution for the land problem. And now, blessed day, and glory to the eyes that had lived to see it, and undying honour to the men whose genius and sacrifices had made it possible, the decree had gone forth that end there must be to landlordism. And, wonder of wonders, the landlords themselves had agreed to the fiat decreeing their own extinction as a ruling caste. It was with heartfelt hope and relief, and with the sense of a great victory achieved, that the country received the wondrous news of the success of the Land Conference. The dawn of a glorious promise had broken through the long night of Ireland's suffering, but the mischief-makers were already at work to see that the noonday sun of happiness did not shine too strongly or too steadily.