§ MR. JOHN DILLON (Mayo, E.)
moved, as an Amendment to the Address, to add at the end—And humbly to represent to your Majesty that the great fall in the value of agricultural produce, combined with the disastrous character of the last season, has rendered it impossible for farmers in Ireland to pay their present rents without depriving themselves of the capital essential to the cultivation of their farms; that the Land Act of last year has failed to provide any effective remedy for this condition of things, nine-tenths of the Irish tenantry 158 being debarred from obtaining any present relief under its provisions; that by the operation of the 7th section of the Act of 1887 and other exclusions, large bodies of tenant-farmers are debarred from all benefit under the Land Acts; and that a state of extreme distress prevails in several districts in Ireland; and humbly to represent to Your Majesty that the condition of the agricultural population in Ireland demands the immediate attention of the Government with a view to comprehensive measures of relief.He said that, before dealing with the subject of his Amendment, he desired to say a few words in respect to the general 159 character of the Speech from the Throne, particularly as it referred to Ireland. In the late autumn the hon. Member for South Tyrone made a speech in Tyrone, in which he said that now, when Ireland was comparatively quiet and peaceable, when Irish Nationalists were broken up into warring factions, there was a chance of settling many questions without trouble and killing Home Rule, not with kindness, but with justice. In view of that speech it was natural that they should look to the Speech from the Throne for some comprehensive programme calculated to kill Home Rule with justice. They found but one reference to Ireland in the whole course of that Speech, and that reference only amounted to a promise to set up one more Castle Board. He did not intend to criticise, favourably or unfavourably, the project for the institution of a Board of Agriculture in Ireland—it might be that they would be in a position to support the plan of the Government when it was revealed to them—but he confidently declared that to offer Ireland, which was already overridden with Government Boards, another Board was like offering people who were clamouring for bread a stone. He believed that the Speech would cause the bitterest disappointment throughout Ireland. ["Hear, hear!"] He was grateful to the Leader of the House for offering a day for the discussion of the subject of the financial relations between the two countries. The opportunity thus afforded would, no doubt, be a more favourable and suitable one for the discussion of the subject than the Debate on the Address, for one reason, if for no other, and that was that it had been, and would be, the desire of himself and his colleagues to keep the question apart from party politics, to keep it as a platform upon which all sections of the Irish representation could agree and fight shoulder to shoulder. [Cheers.] In view of the extraordinary change in the state of Irish public life he would gladly have left the agrarian question to sleep for the present, if that were possible, and nothing but a deep sense of the absolute necessities of the case and of the duty he owed to his constituents would induce him to raise the question now. No Irish Member would deny that there existed in Ireland a most wide-spread feeling of alarm 160 in regard to the agrarian situation. Before he turned to the condition of the agricultural population generally and to what had been the effect of the recent Land Act, he wished to direct the attention of the House to two special aspects of the question. One of the clauses of the Land Act of last year, assented to by both Houses without opposition, was passed with the object of promoting the reinstatement of the evicted tenants. The Irish landlords supported the clause; it was passed by a Unionist Government; and it was evident that, apart from certain points of controversy, men generally were of opinion that it was well that the trouble should be got rid of, in the interests of peace and order. In view of those facts, he, for one, had hoped that the evicted tenants would be dealt with in a way to bring a subject of bitter contention to an end. The Nationalists did all they could to facilitate the working of the clause. Boards of Guardians also in the districts where evicted tenants existed joined in the effort, and they appointed Conciliation Committees with a view to bring the landlords and tenants together in order to facilitate a settlement. But he was sorry to say that all those efforts had been almost a total failure, and they had failed because the consent of the very landlords who had treated their tenants unreasonably in the past, and who had been the cause of the trouble, was required to make the clause operative; whereas other Irish landlords who had no evicted tenants were ready and anxious to do all they could to bring about peace. Hence the problem still remained unsolved, and the Irish people deeply regretted it, for they had great sympathy with the evicted tenants. ["Hear, hear!"] The other special aspect of the agrarian question to which he referred was the condition of the unfortunate people in the congested districts in the west of Ireland. In speaking on this matter in that House he felt as one crying in the wilderness. For 12 successive years, in Session after Session, he had drawn the attention of Parliament to the evils under which the poor people in those districts suffered, and although he granted that some progress had been made to remedy them, yet the steps hitherto taken to do so had been of a very partial and ineffective character. Every year, as 161 surely as winter followed summer, dire distress afflicted the people, and during the last 100 years no six successive years had passed without the fell hand of Famine falling upon them. It would hardly be possible to exaggerate the extent of demoralisation caused in the congested districts by the suffering that had been undergone, and by the injudicious and wasteful expenditure of public money for the relief of distress. Any man who had studied the matter would be forced to agree that if only one-third of this money had been laid out 30, 40, 50, or 60 years ago on some well-considered scheme of re-arranging or re-planting the people, as it were, or, in other words, of placing them in a position in which they could keep themselves and thus become a self-supporting population, this famine evil might have been successfully combated. It was not to the credit of England that the evil should be allowed to continue year after year—that no really earnest and practical effort should be made by Government to deal with it. He might be told that a Congested Districts Board had been formed to deal with the matter. He admitted that the Board attempted to grapple with the problem, and had done some good. It had, at all events, recognised that it was the duty of the Government to deal with the evil. He was glad to say the Congested. Districts Board was not a Castle Board, and had some power of independent action. It was not until recently, however, that any Nationalist was allowed a seat on the Board—
§ MR. DILLON
said he would not go into the point then, but he believed the Nationalists on the Board were only there on recent appointments. His point then, however, was, that from an early stage the Board recognised the true root of the difficulty in the congested districts. They had placed on record their conviction that until they had the power and means of enlarging the holdings of the people they could not possibly hope to apply an effective remedy to the evil which devastated the west of Ireland. They had further stated that there was ample land almost close to the doors of the people which might afford them and their families a decent living, and to 162 which they might be transferred. This distressing condition of things in the congested districts had gone on for years in pretty much the same way, although every year the attention of Parliament had been drawn to it. And before long the painful wail of those poor people would be again heard appealing for assistance. More public money would then have to be sent promptly to their relief, because the Government could not allow starvation to exist in Ireland. According to the information he had received from many districts in the west of Ireland the inhabitants were now again almost at the last extremity, and such was the distress that even if the landlords did not press for their rents the population would soon be thrown on public charity for support. There was no greater or more lasting disaster to a population than to be thrown periodically on public relief to meet their necessities, and he confessed, knowing these people as he did, it had been a matter of wonder to him to find that there was so much industry, so much spirit of independence, so much desire for honest work, and so much self-respect left among these unfortunate people as did undoubtedly exist. These poor people had been accused sometimes of laziness and idleness, but he represented a body of men who but for the persistent industry and the bravery which induced them to face the terrible hardships of agricultural and casual labourers in this country would be entirely unable to make a living at all. He appealed to the Government with regard to this special feature of the Irish agrarian question. They had now great power and great opportunities, for dining their term of office the wealth of England had increased by unparalleled leaps and bounds. Now, then, was the time, when Famine was stalking abroad in the west of Ireland, to really face this problem and to bring forward some Bill, which might well be perfectly non-contentious, and which would enable the Congested Districts Board really to set their hand to work and make those congested districts no longer the hotbed and breeding-places of famine, but the homes of an independent and, in an humble way, a prosperous peasantry. He turned now to the larger question of the general condition of Ireland from the agricultural point of view. In doing so he was at 163 a loss for arguments to use in support of the proposition that a remedy, and a very far-reaching and comprehensive remedy, was required. And why was he at a loss? Because there was no statement on the other side. He had watched carefully throughout the autumn and winter the course of public opinion in Ireland, and he was not able, during the last six months, to point to a single case where at a public meeting resolutions were passed declaring that the agrarian question was at all, or even temporarily, in a satisfactory condition. Nor did he know of a single newspaper—except one or two which were violently opposed to all agrarian legislation—which did not take the view that something must be done, and that something without delay. A great many public meetings had been held during the last winter, and those meetings, without exception, had passed strong resolutions demanding some measure which would give to the tenants an opportunity of getting their rents reduced or revised. They did so on the ground—a ground that appeared to him unanswerable—that the fall in agricultural prices had been so great during the last 10 years, continuing down to the present year, that actually the tenants who had been to the Courts were in a very much worse condition as regarded paying their rents than they were before the Act of 1881 was passed, and that reductions which had been made had not been nearly proportionate to the loss incurred by the tenant-farmers through the fall in the value of agricultural produce. These resolutions were passed at meetings of Unionist farmers—meetings with which the Nationalists had no part whatever in the organisation—as well as at mixed meetings of Nationalist and Unionist farmers. He would not weary the House by reading all these resolutions, but he would take one passed at a meeting of tenant farmers on the 19th of November last in the County Down. This resolution declared—that the recent increases by the Chief Commissioner were grossly unjust, and that the rents as fixed before were already too high;and further declaring—that the downfall in agricultural prices was so great that it was absolutely impossible for them to continue paying their present rents.He turned for a moment to an important declaration made by a Member of the Government, the hon. Member for South Tyrone, in Ireland in October last. He 164 combated the view "held by several Irish landlords" that "this depression does not affect Ireland so seriously as elsewhere," and proceeded to quote the fall which had taken place in several articles of agricultural produce. He then said:The farmer may improve his methods or he may strike out new lines for himself, but I am sure of one thing as I am of the sunset this evening, and it is my opinion that he ought to face the situation. Up to the present, when pressed by hard times, the farmer has struck at rent, and it is fair and reasonable for him to do so, as the partners in the soil should each bear his share of the loss. But we have reached a time when any further abatement in the rent will not suffice.That was the opinon of the Member for South Tyrone. He held that the condition was so desperate that no more abatement of rent would suffice. If no more abatement of rent would suffice, a fortiori they ought to have an abatement of rent, for if the condition was desperate with an abatement, how much more desperate would it be if there were no abatement! He must say that the picture drawn by the hon. Member for South Tyrone was no exaggeration. That was the condition of things they had to face. He wished that the present condition of politics in Ireland was so far developed that the Irish landlords and the Unionists would at last come to see wherein, in his judgment, lay their true interest, and how they could best provide for a future which some of them were beginning to think was not very safe in the hands of that House. If they would, even at the eleventh hour, deal generously, even justly, with their tenantry—meet them fairly, and say they were prepared to make every concession that circumstances would admit—then they might carry on together, united in the union which now existed—their movement for the rescuing of Ireland from the abyss of financial ruin and economic misery into which she had been plunged by a long course of years of unjust taxation. Then, in his judgment, the Irish landlords would show great wisdom. If they showed a really reasonable spirit it would be an easy task to obliterate before very long many of the bitter events and memories of the past. He was sorry to say that up to the present he did not see any indications to satisfy him that such a determination existed in the breasts of the great body of Irish landlords. If he had seen 165 any evidence of that spirit, he certainly would have endeavoured to avoid moving this Amendment, with a hope that by quieter means of conciliation there would be obtained such means of relief as were absolutely essential for Irish farmers. He turned to the widest aspect of this case, for it seemed to him that the extent of the economic ruin that threatened Ireland had not been fully placed before the House and the public. After all, looking at the whole matter, there was a certain annual fund out of which all those classes who depend on agriculture in Ireland must draw their means. These classes included, probably, four-fifths of the population of Ireland. All these families and people must draw their means out of this one fund, and there was a means of making a rough estimate of the rise and fall in this common fund, out of which all these classes must be supported. A statement of the full value of the output of the whole agricultural produce of Ireland was given by Dr. Grimshaw, of the Statistical Department, and, in order to make this available for calculating the wealth of the country, he had abstracted the profits assumed by capital, and made allowance for consumption by farmers. The total value of the agricultural produce of Ireland, including stock and crops, was on the average in 1855,£ 71,900,000 per annum. The average of the five years, 1866 to 1870, was £72,200,000 per annum, a rise of £300,000. In the years 1884 to 1888, the last years for which the figures were given, the amount had fallen to 54 millions per annum, a net loss of 18 millions per annum on a total sum of 72 millions. That was down to 1888, the figures not being made up to a later date, but there was not the slightest doubt, and everybody must admit, that the fall since 1888 had been very considerable, and he did not think he put it too high at an additional five millions, which would make a total fall in the agricultural output of Ireland of 23 millions on a gross original total of 72 millions. ["Hear, hear!"] This was a frightful fact that any Government should take into consideration, it was a condition of things full of alarm and danger. How was that loss distributed? Beyond all controversy it mainly fell upon the farmers. A little over two millions fell upon the 166 landlord class, none of it, or not much of it, on the labouring classes, though some may have suffered from loss of employment. Wages, except in some very poor districts, had not fallen in Ireland. Consequently the main portion of the loss had fallen on the farmers. ["Hear, hear!"] No doubt this loss had been partially met by the power which small farmers had of reducing their food. It was a fact well known in the history of Ireland, and it was one of the main reasons why small farmers had survived periods of agricultural depression more successfully than large farmers, that small farmers, when driven to the wall by adverse seasons, economise in the actual necessaries of life, reducing expenditure on food, clothing, and other necessaries of life. In this way, he had no doubt, a great deal of this loss had been met. It was a terrible fact to be faced or explained, that this enormous loss had to be borne mainly on the shoulders of Irish farmers, and no adequate provision was made by law to meet this state of things. As au illustration, and coming from the general to the particular, he gave the figures published by Mr. Sheehy, an intelligent dairy farmer of County Limerick. He alluded to this case because it had been supposed that dairy farming had not suffered so severely from the depression as other forms of agricultural industry. The results given by Mr. Sheehy showed that the total net produce of the latter from. 30 cows, during the five years 1877 to 1881, was annually £377. The produce from the same number of cows in the years 1891 to 1895 averaged 827, a net loss of £500 a year, or 40 per cent. on the total produce. But Mr. Sheehy said the state of things revealed last year was still worse. He had sent milk to the local creamery, and though the returns were not made out for the year, he computed from the dockets that the amount would not be more than £130, a loss of 50 per cent. from the gross return in 1881. Even supposing all the tenants who had had their rents fixed before 1888 were now to go into the Courts and get reductions of from 30 to 40 per cent., as some tenants had, in spite of the constitution of the Laud Courts, he held even if that were the case that reductions would not divide the burden of loss fairly and equally between the landlords and tenants. Inquiry would show that the general 167 expert opinion was that a general reduction of 30 or 40 per cent. would leave the tenants paying by far the greater portion of the loss, and putting out of account the question of tenants' improvements. He turned to the Land Act of last year. That Act was introduced for the alleged purpose of applying a remedy. It was only right to state that the condition of the agricultural population in Ireland—he did not know as to this country—had grown much worse than it was last year, from the continued fall of prices and an especially bad season. A Bill was introduced last year with the object of applying a remedy to this state of affairs among the agricultural population, and to settle the Irish Land Question, at least for a time. He confessed he had used strong language about that Bill, and had been found fault with for so doing. But Irishmen were accustomed to use strong language, and he did not know that he was a greater sinner in that respect than a great number of his countrymen. The hon. Member for South Belfast (Mr. Johnston) seemed, by his gesture, to question this as a characteristic of Irishmen, but even he "in his green and salad days" was not exempt from it. [Laughter.] In anything he said last year about the Land Bill, regarding it from the point of view as a settlement of the Land Question, he still maintained he had said nothing too strong. The Act had not gone near to settling the Irish Land Question. Whereas the main point brought before the House last year, and previously before the Committee upstairs, was that there existed immediate and urgent necessity for some relief in regard to revision of rents, the Act had given no immediate relief, except to a very small section of Irish tenants, the great body of tenants being in precisely the same condition as they were before the Act passed. ["Hear, hear!"] It was said by the Government, when they resisted the almost unanimous opinion of Irish Members, that though they admitted some present rents were exorbitant, this was a grievance that would remedy itself by effluxion of time. He maintained that in the cases of thousands of farmers this would not be remedied by the efflux of time, because these unfortunate men would be reducer to such a condition of poverty by the time that the remedy was offered to 168 them that it would be useless and illusory. Their capital would have all gone. That House had always delayed before giving any relief to the farmers, and, as a result, the great mass of the population had fallen into arrears of rent, and by the operation of those very arrears they had been debarred from participating in the benefits of legislation. Many thousands of the farmers who were now compelled to wait and to be on the rack of extortionate rents would be unable to meet the landlords' demands. Arrears would accumulate, and when the time arrived for them to appeal to the Land Courts, they would be unable to do so except by permission of their landlords. The time of the House would inevitably be occupied with the consideration of further Arrears Bills, and for that it would have to thank its own carelessnesss, ignorance, or indifference to Irish interests. As to the Land Act of last year, he could not be contradicted when he said that the manner in which it was passed through the House was a disgrace and scandal. The complication of the Irish Land Laws was due to the fact that it had been necessary to wring successive instalments from an unwilling and ignorant House, too busy to attend to Irish affairs. That the Act of last year teemed with complicated legal points was clear, and yet it was rushed through the House in the hours of the night when Members were overwhelmed with weariness and nearly asleep. That would not be the right way to do business of much less importance, and the circumstances added one more argument to strengthen the conviction of Ireland that that House was not the proper place in which to transact Irish business. He admitted that there were good points in the Act of last year, but that measure had not nearly settled the Land Question. It had left out of its purview seven-eighths of the tenantry, who now stood in precisely the same position, as regarded their present immediate necessities, as they would have been in had no such Bill been introduced. The Act had not shortened the statutory term; it had not completely settled the question of improvements; it had not improved the position of the 30,000 or 40,000 tenants who were deprived of their rights under the Land Acts by the infamous, seventh clause of the Act of 1887, which was thrust down their 169 throats by the Government of that day as a great boon, but which had worked immeasurable injury to the Irish peasantry; it had left the question of town parks unsettled, and it had not dealt with the enormous question of arrears, which stood just where it was before. A tenant in arrears had recently gone to the agent of his landlord, Lord Clanricarde, and paid two years' rent in the hope that he might be allowed to go into the Land Court. His request, however, was refused. A Bill shortening the judicial term and facilitating entrance to the Land Court would undoubtedly confer enormous advantage on the tenants, and to a great extent mitigate the extraordinary stringency of the present position. He was not satisfied with the arrangements for the administration of the Act of 1896, and was inclined to think that the list of new Sub-Commissioners would not give very general satisfaction. He would give an illustration showing the grotesque absurdities to which this series of Land Acts, passed without due consideration, had led in Ireland. In Armagh, about two months ago, three Sub-Commissioners adjudicated in a series of rent cases and made large reductions. They were second term cases, and the average reduction was between 30 and 40 per cent. on the previous judicial rents. When appeals were lodged in these cases, two Court valuers were sent down to examine and report upon the farms. One of these valuers, a Sub-Commissioner himself, agreed in his valuation with the three Sub-Commissioners, but the other Court valuer fixed the value of the farms at about 20 per cent. more than the estimate of his colleague. What was the result? The Court of Appeal raised the rents by about 10 per cent.; so four gentlemen of equal standing, who had examined the farms and agreed upon a fair rent, were overruled by one man who had no greater qualifications than they had. Such were the results of the system of appeals in Ireland. He trusted that in the Queen's Speech the Government had not said their last word as to what was going to be done for the agricultural population of Ireland. He claimed to speak in this matter, not only for Nationalists, but also for the Unionist farmers of the North of Ireland, who, he hoped, would watch closely the language and votes of their representatives in Par- 170 liament. He begged to move the Amendment standing in his name.
§ MR. JAMES DALY (Monaghan S.)
seconded the Amendment, and expressed disappointment that so small a portion of the Queen's Speech had been devoted to Ireland. A Board of Agriculture was to be constituted; and he was struck with the fact that last year the Land Act occupied the last place in the Queen's Speech, the same position being allotted to the Board of Agriculture this year. He supposed the Government imagined that by dangling this kind of bribe before the eyes of the Irish Members it would be a sufficient reason to hinder him and his hon. Friends from compelling the Government to do their duty in the same way as last year in connection with the Land Act. He regretted to say that the Land Act of last year had fallen far short of the anticipations of the Irish farmers; and if the Government thought that the Board of Agriculture to be set up was going to satisfy the Irish people they made a great mistake. A great many Boards already existed in Ireland, and if the Board of Agriculture was to be constituted on the same lines as the Board of Works and the Local Government Board, then he frankly told the Government that they would be better without it. The question was not so much one of Boards as of the manner in which they were administered. A short time ago drainage works were necessary in Dundalk, and the town offered to lend money to the Guardians at 3 per cent. But the Local Government Board would not allow them to accept that loan; they were compelled to come to the Treasury and pay 5 per cent. for the loan. It was notoriously difficult for Irish Members to make English Members understand Irish affairs. Many hon. Gentlemen knew absolutely nothing about Ireland except what they read in the newspapers, and especially in the hostile Press; but on the knowledge so acquired they were in the habit of voting against Irishmen in that House. English Members were accustomed, for example, to see all the produce grown in the country consumed in it; not so Ireland. Ireland was dependent on England to consume the produce grown in Ireland. All the produce raised in Ireland was sent to England, and it was almost impossible for Irish 171 farmers to obtain a price that would compensate them for their outlay and labour, or make farming productive at the present time. The depression in Irish agriculture was very great. In September last year, £250,000 less of cattle were exported from Ireland to England than in the previous year, and this was due to the number of cattle imported from America. Again, barley in Ireland at the present time was almost unsaleable, and horses were a drug in the market. Turnips and potatoes were also unsaleable, and indeed there was not an article of produce in which the Irish farmer could compete with the foreigner. He hoped the Government would see their way to consider in what respect they could benefit Ireland by devoting to its aid some of the large surplus which would be at their disposal shortly; the time had come when Ireland deserved justice. She had been long enough the step-child of this country; 1895 was a bad year for the Irish farmer, but 1896 was worse. The prices of crops were lower now than they had been before, and the Irish farmers were practically at their wits' ends to know how to make ends meet. He hoped that the Government would not turn a deaf ear to the appeal made by the hon. Member for East Mayo. Distress largely existed in the country, and the farmers had not been able to pay their shopkeepers' bills. If it had not been for the toleration of the shopkeepers, many persons in Ireland would be starving at the present time.
The hon. Member was speaking at half-past five o'clock, when the Debate stood adjourned.
Debate to be resumed to-morrow.