HC Deb 14 July 1875 vol 225 cc1459-66

Order for Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, he did not expect to be able to make much progress with the measure, but hoped to obtain from the Government an assurance that would be satisfactory to himself and his friends. In his short experience of Parliament he had become convinced that whatever might be the differences and animosities of Party, there was underlying them a friendly desire to consider every proposal that had for its object the promotion of the material welfare of Ireland. English Members on both sides of the House had said to him—"We do not understand your sentimental grievances, but show us anything practical, that will not violate the principles of political economy nor entrench upon the rights of property, but which will be for the benefit of all classes in Ireland without being injurious to the Empire at large." It was in that spirit he had prepared the present measure, without wishing at all to depreciate the sentimental grievances of the country, which grievances were always the deepest felt, just as sentimental aspirations were always the noblest. In explanation of the necessity which existed for the measure, he might mention that there were in Ireland about 21,000,000 of acres. Of this area towns and plantations occupied about 1,000,000 acres, so that there remained 20,000,000 of acres more or less available for culture; but of that quantity there were 2,250,000, or more than one-fifth, totally barren. In some counties it was even worse. In King's County one-quarter of the land was barren; in Tyrone one-quarter; in Kerry and Gal-way one-third; and in Donegal and Mayo one-half. Not to overstate his case he would admit there was 1,000,000 acres of high mountain land and 1,000,000 acres of bog and morass, which might be left out of consideration; but still there was the broad fact that there were 2,250,000 of acres of land which could be reclaimed, which were not reclaimed, and this waste disfigured the country in a way which struck every traveller—from Arthur Young to Thackeray—who had visited the country. He believed all those lands could be reclaimed, and that even the Bog of Allen might be brought into culture. It was an historical fact that the Dutch soldiers in the invading army of William III. proposed to reclaim it if they were offered the security of the Dutch law. Again, in their own times the celebrated engineer, Mr. Nimmo, undertook to reclaim it at the price of £3 per acre; but neither of those offers received any countenance, and consequently the Bog of Allen was the Bog of Allen still. Were Ireland a manufacturing country she might perhaps be able to bear this ratio of waste to barren land; but as her only industry was agriculture it was simply so much taken away from the raw material of that industry, and which, if brought into cultivation, would obviate the expenditure of £4,000,000 per annum on foreign breadstuffs. Coexistent with this state of things there was such an eager competition for land that many holdings were let as high as the value of the fee-simple, while most of the agricultural population was flying from the soil because they could not obtain land on which to settle—one day or other to come back, but with no intention to advance the material interests of the Empire. Independently of those considerations the presence of the wastes and morasses was injurious to the adjacent soil which was under cultivation, rendering it so damp as to be almost unfit for the growth of cereal produce. It was, too, from those uncultivated spaces the weeds were derived which disfigured Irish agriculture generally, while the climate of the country was deteriorated from the same cause. This was a matter which had engaged the attention of Government and statesmen from the time of the Brehon lawgivers down to the days of Earl Russell, and it was upon the basis of that nobleman's measure—itself based on the Report of the Devon Commission—that he had proposed the present Bill. The object of the Bill was to bring about the re- clamation of the waste lands. Its general purport was that the Commissioners of Public Works might purchase the lands in question from owners who were willing to sell. Limited owners as well as others were empowered by it to convey to the Commissioners. An hon. Friend had called attention to the fact that the Bill did not provide specially for payment to the occupiers by the Commissioners. That, no doubt, was an error, which ought to be rectified in Committee, if the Bill should be fortunate enough to get so far. The Bill gave powers to the Commissioners to make roads, divide the lands into allotments, and dispose of those allotments; but it expressly provided that the general work of reclamation should be carried out, not by the State, but by the occupier. He hoped that at least the principle of the Bill would be accepted on the present occasion. It would be observed that the measure infringed no right of property and violated no rule of political economy. He submitted it to the House, not as involving a difficulty, but as an opportunity, and he did it confident in the earnestness of the desire of the Government to promote the material prosperity of Ireland. Objections might be raised to the details of the measure, but he was sure its principle would be acceptable to all classes. It proceeded on the teaching of Arthur Young—" If you want to reclaim land, plant it with men." The Bill was endorsed by Members on both sides of the House. It was petitioned for by all classes of Irishmen, irrespective of creed or of party, being an effort to benefit the Irish people, by adding to the productive area of their country. If he was a public benefactor who made two blades of grass grow where one only grew before, it was a noble ambition to bring the waste into smiling culture, following in the footsteps of Pericles, who planted Hymethes with the olive and the vine.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. MacCarthy.)


regretted that the discussion on this most important subject had begun at an hour when it was impossible to enter into it at the length which it deserved. The attention of the House could hardly be occupied with any question of greater importance to Ireland. He fully appreciated the feelings with which the hon. Member had brought the matter forward, and would be sorry to say anything that would lead hon. Members to suppose that he did not sympathize with the object the hon. Member had at heart; but he felt bound to say that he feared the scheme which had been submitted to the House was scarcely of a practicable character, and was unlikely to secure the benefits which the hon. Member anticipated. It involved an entirely new principle. The existing Statute Law contained provisions—which, so far as he knew, had been found ample of their kind—by which the State could advance money to owners for the purpose of improving land, or to persons who were desirous of purchasing land for the purpose of reclamation. Under the Land Act of 1870 the tenants on an estate which was for sale might have the assistance of the Treasury to the extent of two-thirds of the value of their occupations, repayable with 5 per cent interest in 35 years, for the purpose of enabling them to become proprietors of their farms; and powers were given to the Landed Estates Court with the object of securing that the lands for sale should be disposed of in lots, so as to meet the capabilities of small capitalists. The proposal of the present Bill was that the Government should take upon itself works which had hitherto been left to private individuals—that it should become the owner of the waste lands, improve them up to a certain point, and then re-sell them, or, in default of purchasers, let them on terms of lease. That proposal involved a principle of great importance, which could not be adequately discussed on the present occasion. Before, however, they imposed on the Government by legislation duties which had hitherto been left to private enter-prize, it ought to be shown first that in no other way could such necessary work be done, and next that such duties could be advantageously performed by the Government. The hon. Member had not proved either of those points. The hon. Gentleman had referred to a proposal made by Lord Russell at the time of the Famine, when it was necessary for the State to inaugurate large works of relief to keep the people from starving; but the circumstances of Ire- land were now very different, and they had arrived at a point in the history of that country when the means at the disposal of those engaged in agriculture were greater than they had ever been before. It was desirable to glance for a moment at what had already been done under the existing law in regard to reclaiming and draining land in Ireland. Since 1844 there had been drained, under the Land Improvement Act, 274,000 acres; by landlords and tenants another 300,000 acres had been drained; there had been nominally reclaimed by tenants 300,000 acres more. He said nominally reclaimed, because reclamation by the tenant too often meant cropping for a few years without supplying the necessary manures, in consequence of which the land became exhausted, and was soon allowed to return to a state of nature. In addition to that, there were 400,000 acres of mountain pastures which were now let to tenants. These, taken together, made a total of 1,274,000 acres added to the productive parts of the country during the last 30 years. What more could be done under the Bill brought in by the hon. Gentleman? Ireland comprised 20,800,000 acres, of which there were in pasture and tillage, 15,400,000 acres; in bog and waste lands, 4,390,000 acres; the remainder consisting of woods, lakes, and towns. Of the 4,390,000 acres of bog and waste lands, to which that Bill related, 1,300,000 were in the low country and in the centre of Ireland. If it was sought to improve that land for agricultural purposes, it would be necessary to convey to it, at great expense, materials to adapt it for cultivation, so that the result of an attempt to reclaim a very large portion, if not the whole, of that area, would be an absolute loss to those who undertook it. There was next an area of 1,100,000 acres of mountain land, at from 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the level of the sea. It was absurd to talk of that as being susceptible of profitable cultivation as arable land. Then, there was a further area of 1,000,000 acres, averaging 1,000 feet above the level of the sea, which was to a certain extent now employed as mountain pasture, and which could be more profitably used in this way than if broken up and cultivated. Lastly, there were 990,000 acres of lower mountain pasture, which might, no doubt, be improved for cattle grazing, but which could not be profitably improved as arable land. It might, therefore, be said that nearly the whole area to which the hon. Member alluded in his Bill was of a description that either could not be improved for the production of food of any kind, or could only be improved for the purposes of pasture, or would cost in improvement more money than it could possibly return. For, after all, a most important part of the question was, would the reclamation of the lands to which the hon. Member referred pay, whether it was undertaken by private enterprize or by the State? If it would pay the private owner to reclaim it he would do it for his own interest, on the advantageous terms which the State now held out to him. If it would not pay the private owner to do it, was it likely to pay the State? If anything could he done by way of Government interference to secure that works of arterial drainage should be more generally and thoroughly carried out than they were at present, that was a matter which the State might reasonably undertake. But that was a very different thing from the proposal contained in that Bill. An experiment, not without interest, of the kind suggested by the hon. Member (Mr. MacCarthy) had been made in the county of Cork. In the reign of William IV. the Commissioners of Woods and Forests began to improve certain waste lands in the West Riding of Cork, situate about 850 feet above the level of the sea. They expended £17 an acre in reclamation, and nearly £8,000 was presented by grand juries of Cork and Kerry for the formation of roads. The land was portioned out into small farms, roads having been made and steadings for tenants. A model farm, a village school, and tradesmen's houses were all built, and the land drained and divided into fields. Mr. Caird visited the district in 1850, and he found that the scheme prospered so long as the potato remained sound; but when money wages had to be paid, it did not succeed. Mr. Caird's general opinion on that experiment was as follows:— Better far that this tract should he left in undisturbed possession of the curlew and the solitary raven than that it should be made the means of perpetuating a system which only thrives through the misery of the people. At this moment, if the fee simple of the model farm, with the stock and crop on it, were sold, they would not repay the capital sunk in the undertaking, while it is acknowledged that without conacre labour the returns will not pay the expenses. The experiment at King William's Town may therefore serve as a beacon to warn others against a similar attempt. The estate was afterwards sold. But if past experience, and present probabilities, showed that it was not likely that the proposal of the hon. Gentleman would succeed financially, why should the taxpayers of the country be called on to bear a loss for the benefit of the present owners of these waste lands? The hon. Member proposed that they should buy the waste lands by voluntary agreement from the existing owners; but it was hardly likely that they could do so except for a price above the real value. Then the waste lands were to be sold by private tender or by auction. It was not very probable, considering that there did not seem to be any general desire among those engaged in agriculture in Ireland under existing circumstances to become purchasers of the fee simple of land, that they would buy at a price fixed by the Government, land that was not yet under cultivation. Then, if the land was not sold, it was to be leased by the Commissioners to tenants. He did not think it would be beneficial either to the State or to Ireland that the Government should thus become the largest landowner in the country. The Bill was permissive; but if it was not carried out on a large scale, if the Commissioners of Works did not become land-jobbers to an almost unlimited extent, the scheme would obviously fail to produce the effect intended by its authors, and there would be a feeling which would urge on the Commissioners to the expenditure of public money under the measure. The best way to improve Irish agriculture and to increase the productive power of the country was not to add to the area under cultivation land which could not be cultivated profitably, but to do everything in their power to secure that the area already under cultivation should be better farmed. If that area were farmed even up to the standard of England and Scotland, more good would be done to Ireland than by any of the proposals of that Bill. The great object of all who had looked at that matter from the point of view of economical science was that as great an amount of food as possible should be raised from a given area, with the lowest amount of expenditure. In conclusion, the Government were not indifferent to that important question, and he had already admitted that, in regard to arterial drainage, their influence might be of advantage; but that they should, through the Public Works Commissioners, become the purchasers of large tracts of land in Ireland was a project to which they could not assent, because they believed it would be injurious to the United Kingdom, and do no real service to Ireland.


confessed that he was disappointed at the course the Government had taken in the matter. It was with great pain that he had seen the coercive legislation passed for Ireland early in the Session, and he certainly thought that when a practical measure like the one before them was introduced by an Irish Member, Her Majesty's Ministers might have given it their support. He believed that the proposal would do much to lift Ireland out of its present difficulties. Year after year Select Committees had pointed out that the reclamation of waste lands was the only remedy for the agricultural population of Ireland.


, thinking it would be highly inconvenient to take a division on the measure after so imperfect a discussion, then moved the adjournment of the debate.

Motion agreed to.

Debate adjourned till To-morrow.