CHAPTER X. LAND PURCHASE AND A DETERMINED CAMPAIGN TO KILL IT
I can only rapidly sketch the events that followed the publication of the Land Conference Report. Mr Sexton made it his business in The Freeman's Journal to decry its findings on the sinister ground that they offered too much to the landlords and were not sufficiently favourable to the tenants, sneering at the proposal for a bonus, hinting that no Government would find money for this purpose. Mr Davitt, who was an earnest disciple of Henry George's ideal of Land Nationalisation, naturally enough found nothing to like in the proposals for land purchase, which would set up a race of peasant-proprietors who would never consent to surrender their ownership to the State and would consequently make the application of the principles of Land Nationalisation for ever impossible in Ireland. Besides, Michael Davitt had cause for personal hatred of landlordism, which exiled his parents after eviction, and incidentally meant the loss of an arm to himself, and a violence of language which would be excusable in him would not be justifiable or allowable in the cases of men who had not suffered similarly, such as Messrs Dillon and Sexton. Yet the fault was not theirs if the Land Conference did not end in wreckage and such a glorious chance of national reconciliation and appeasement was not lost to Ireland.
In the meantime Sir Antony MacDonnell, greatly daring and, I would likewise say, greatly patriotic, accepted the offer of the Irish Under-Secretaryship in a spirit of self-abnegation beyond praise. Mr Redmond and Mr O'Brien had, at his request, met him, early in February, 1903, to discuss the provisions of the contemplated Purchase Bill. It may be remarked that Messrs Dillon and Davitt were invited to meet Sir Antony on the same occasion, but they declined. They apparently desired the position of greater freedom and less responsibility, from which they could deliver their attacks upon their friends. They received little support from the country in their guerrilla warfare on the Land Conference findings. The Standing Committee of the Catholic Hierarchy left no room for doubt as to their views. They declared the holding of the Land Conference "to be an event of the best augury for the future welfare of both classes" (landlords and tenants), and they expressed the hope that its unanimity would result in legislation which would settle the Land Question once for all "and give the Irish people of every class a fair opportunity to live and serve their native land." The Irish Party and the National Directory of the United Irish League, the two bodies invested with sovereign authority to declare the national policy, unanimously, at specially convened meetings, approved the findings of the Land Conference and accepted them as the basis of a satisfactory settlement of the Land Question. Neither Mr Dillon nor Mr Davitt attended either of these meetings. Indeed, Mr Dillon ostentatiously took his departure from Dublin on the morning the meetings were held, but strangely enough he attended an adjourned meeting of the Party at Westminster the following day and opposed a proposal to raise the question of the Land Conference Report on the Address. Mr Redmond entered a dignified protest against Mr Dillon's conduct, pointing out that the previous day was Mr Dillon's proper opportunity for submitting any objections of his to his colleagues of the Party and of the National Directory. Mr Dillon did not find a single supporter for his attitude, and he was obliged to disclaim, with some heat, that he had any grievance in reference to the Conference. Next day he went abroad for the benefit of his health.
The debate on the Amendment to the Address had the most gratifying results. Mr Wyndham accepted, in principle, the Land Conference Agreement and announced that the Government would smooth the operations of Land Purchase by a bonus of twelve millions sterling as a free grant to Ireland. The debate accomplished another striking success, that it elicited from all the men of light and leading in the Liberal Party - from Mr Morley, Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, Sir E. Grey, Mr Haldane and Mr John Burns - expressions of cordial adhesion to the policy of pacification outlined by the Chief Secretary, thus effecting the obliteration of all English Party distinctions for the first time where one of Ireland's supreme interests was concerned. It required only the continuance of this spirit to give certain assurance of Ireland's early deliverance from all her woes and troubles. But an adverse fate, in the form of certain perverse politicians, ordained it otherwise.