Before these decisions were officially announced the idea had "caught on." Public bodies throughout the country endorsed the scheme. The parliamentarians, who formed the nucleus of the Committee, came together and invited prominent men from all quarters to join them. A committee which, though informal and self-appointed, might fairly claim to be representative in every material respect, was thus constituted on the lines laid down.
Truly, it was a strange council over which I had the honour to preside. All shades of politics were there--Lords Mayo and Monteagle, Mr. Dane and Sir Thomas Lea (Tories and Liberal Unionist Peers and Members of Parliament) sitting down beside Mr. John Redmond and his parliamentary followers. It was found possible, in framing proposals fraught with moral, social, and educational results, to secure the cordial agreement of the late Rev. Dr. Kane, Grand Master of the Belfast Orangemen, and of the eminent Jesuit educationist, Father Thomas Finlay, of the Royal University. The O'Conor Don, the able Chairman of the Financial Relations Commission, and Mr. John Ross, M.P., now one of His Majesty's Judges, both Unionists, were balanced by the Lord Mayor of Dublin, and Mr. T.C. Harrington, M.P., who now occupies that post, both Nationalists. The late Sir John Arnott fitly represented the commercial enterprise of the South, while such men as Mr. Thomas Sinclair, universally regarded as one of the wisest of Irish public men, Sir William Ewart, head of the leading linen concern in the North, Sir Daniel Dixon, now Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir James Musgrave, Chairman of the Belfast Harbour Board, and Mr. Thomas Andrews, a well-known flax-spinner and Chairman of the Belfast and County Down Railway, would be universally accepted as the highest authorities upon the needs of the business community which has made Ulster famous in the industrial world. Mr. T.P. Gill, besides undertaking investigation of the utmost value into State aid to agriculture in France and Denmark, acted as Hon. Secretary to the Committee, of which he was a member.
The story of our deliberations and ultimate conclusions cannot be set forth here except in the barest outline. We instituted an inquiry into the means by which the Government could best promote the development of our agricultural and industrial resources, and despatched commissioners to countries of Europe whose conditions and progress might afford some lessons for Ireland. Most of this work was done for us by the late eminent statistician, Mr. Michael Mulhall. Our funds did not admit of an inquiry in the United States or the Colonies. However, we obtained invaluable information as to the methods by which countries which were our chief rivals in agricultural and industrial production have been enabled to compete successfully with our producers even in our own markets. Our commissioners were instructed in each case to collect the facts necessary to enable us to differentiate between the parts played respectively by State aid and the efforts of the people themselves in producing these results. With this information before us, after long and earnest deliberation we came to a unanimous agreement upon the main facts of the situation with which we had to deal, and upon the recommendations for remedial legislation which we should make to the Government.
The substance of our recommendations was that a Department of Government should be specially created, with a minister directly responsible to Parliament at its head. The central body was to be assisted by a Consultative Council representative of the interests concerned. The Department was to be adequately endowed from the Imperial Treasury, and was to administer State aid to agriculture and industries in Ireland upon principles which were fully described. The proposal to amalgamate agriculture and industries under one Department was adopted largely on account of the opinion expressed by M. Tisserand, late Director-General of Agriculture in France, one of the highest authorities in Europe upon the administration of State aid to agriculture. The creation of a new minister directly responsible to Parliament was considered a necessary provision. Ireland is governed by a number of Boards, all, with the exception of the Board of Works (which is really a branch of the Treasury), responsible to the Chief Secretary--practically a whole cabinet under one hat--who is supposed to be responsible for them to Parliament and to the Lord Lieutenant. The bearers of this burden are generally men of great ability. But no Chief Secretary could possibly take under his wing yet another department with the entirely new and important functions now to be discharged. What these functions were to be need not here be described, as the Department thus 'agitated' for has now been three years at work and will form the subject of the next two chapters.
On August 1st, 1896, less than a year from the issue of the invitation to the political leaders, the Report was forwarded to the Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant for Ireland, with a covering letter, setting out the considerations upon which the Committee relied for the justification of its course of action. Attention was drawn to the terms of the original proposal, its exceptional nature and essential informality, the political conditions which appeared to make it opportune, the spirit in which it was responded to by those who were invited to join, and the degree of public approval which had been accorded to our action. We were able to claim for the Committee that it was thoroughly representative of those agricultural and industrial interests, North and South, with which the Report was concerned.
There were two special features in the brief history of this unique coming together of Irishmen which will strike any man familiar with the conditions of Irish public life. The first was the way in which the business element, consisting of men already deeply engaged in their various callings--and, indeed, selected for that very reason--devoted time and labour to the service of their country. Still more significant was the fact that the political element on the Committee should have come to an absolutely unanimous agreement upon a policy which, though not intended to influence the trend of politics, was yet bound to have far-reaching consequences upon the political thought of the country, and upon the positions of parties and leaders. It was thought only fair to the Nationalist members of the Committee that every precaution should be taken to prevent their being placed in a false position. 'To avoid any possible misconception,' the covering letter ran, 'as to the attitude of those members of the Committee who are not supporters of the present Government, it is right here to state that, while under existing political conditions they agreed in recommending a certain course to the Government, they wish it to be understood that their political principles remain unaltered, and that, were it immediately possible, they would prefer that the suggested reforms should be preceded by the constitutional changes of which they are the well-known advocates.'
It is interesting to note that the Committee claimed favourable consideration for their proposals on the ground that they sought to act as 'a channel of communication between the Irish Government and Irish public opinion.' Little interest, they pointed out, had been hitherto aroused in those economic problems for which the Report suggested some solution. They expressed the hope that their action would do something to remedy this defect, especially in view of the importance which foreign Governments had found it necessary to attach to public opinion in working out their various systems of State aid to agriculture and industries. At the same time the Committee emphasised, in the covering letter, their reliance on individual and combined effort rather than on State aid. They were able to point out that, in asking for the latter, they had throughout attached the utmost importance to its being granted in such a manner as to evoke and supplement, and in no way be a substitute for self-help. If they appeared to give undue prominence to the capabilities of State initiation, it was to be remembered that they were dealing with economic conditions which had been artificially produced, and which, therefore, might require exceptional treatment of a temporary nature to bring about a permanent remedy.
I fear those most intimately connected with the above occurrences will regard this chapter as a very inadequate description of events so unprecedented and so full of hope for the future. My purpose is, however, to limit myself, in dealing with the past, to such details as are necessary to enable the reader to understand the present facts of Irish life, and to build upon them his own conclusions as to the most hopeful line of future development. I shall, therefore, pass rapidly in review the events which led to the fruition of the labours of the Recess Committee.
Public opinion in favour of the new proposals grew rapidly. Before the end of the year (1896) a deputation, representing all the leading agricultural and industrial interests of the country, waited upon the Irish Government, in order to press upon them the urgent need for the new department. The Lord Lieutenant, after describing the gathering as 'one of the most notable deputations which had ever come to lay its case before the Irish Government,' and noting the 'remarkable growth of public opinion' in favour of the policy they were advocating, expressed his heartfelt sympathy with the case which had been presented, and his earnest desire--which was well known--to proceed with legislation for the agricultural and industrial development of the country at the earliest moment. The demand made upon the Government was, argumentatively, already irresistible. But economic agitation of this kind takes time to acquire dynamic force. Mr. Gerald Balfour introduced a Bill the following year, but it had to be withdrawn to leave the way clear for the other great Irish measure which revolutionised local government. The unconventional agitation went on upon the original lines, appealing to that latent public opinion which we were striving to develop. In 1899 another Bill was introduced, and, owing to its masterly handling by the Chief Secretary in the House of Commons, ably seconded by the strong support given by Lord Cadogan, who was in the Cabinet, it became law.
I cannot conclude this chapter without a word upon the extraordinary misunderstanding of Mr. Gerald Balfour's policy to which the obscuring atmosphere surrounding all Irish questions gave rise. In one respect that policy was a new departure of the utmost importance. He proved himself ready to take a measure from Ireland and carry it through, instead of insisting upon a purely English scheme which he could call his own. These pre-digested foods had already done much to destroy our political digestion, and it was time we were given something to grow, to cook, and to assimilate for ourselves. It will be seen, too, in the next chapter, that he had realised the potentiality for good of the new forces in Irish life to which he gave play in his two great linked Acts--one of them popularising local government, and the other creating a new Department which was to bring the government and the people together in an attempt to develop the resources of the country. Yet his eminently sane and far-seeing policy was regarded in many quarters as a sacrifice of Unionist interests in Ireland. Its real effect was to endow Unionism with a positive as well as a negative policy. But all reformers know that the further ahead they look, the longer they have to wait for their justification. Meanwhile, we may leave out of consideration the division of honour or of blame for what has been done. The only matter of historic interest is to arrive at a correct measure of the progress made.
The new movement had thus completed the first and second stages of its mission. The idea of self-help had become a growing reality, and upon this foundation an edifice of State aid had been erected. When a Nationalist member met a Tory member of the Recess Committee he laughed over the success with which they had wheedled a measure of industrial Home Rule out of a Unionist Government. None the less they cordially agreed that the people would rise to their economic responsibility. The promoters of the movement had faith that this new departure in English government would be more than justified by the English test, and that in the new sphere of administration the government would be accorded, without prejudice, of course, to the ultimate views either of Unionists or Home Rulers, not only the consent, but the whole-hearted co-operation of the governed.