First Irish Land Act: 1870
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland William Ewart Gladstone had taken up the "Irish question" in an effort to win the general election of 1868 by uniting the Liberal Party behind this single issue. The shock of Fenian violence, especially in England, as well as the growing awareness of the potency of strong nationalist feelings in pan-European politics was a second reason to tackle the Irish Question. Gladstone desired to bring peace with fairness to Ireland, and by extension, the rest of the UK, which was then at the zenith of worldwide Imperial power. The Landlord & Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870 was partly the work of Chichester Fortescue, John Bright and Gladstone. The Irish situation was favourable, with agriculture improving and pressure on the land decreasing since the Great Irish Famine. The Encumbered Estates' Court (1849) and agitation by the Tenant Right League had led to the sale of estates by debt-ridden mainly absentee landlords. Gladstone's Liberal government had no explicit mandate for the Act, unlike the 1869 Disestablishment Act and so could expect some opposition from the English landlord class in the House of Lords, fearful for the implications of property rights in England, many of whom were Whigs that Gladstone relied on for support in Parliament. Partly for this reason, Gladstone's approach was cautious, even conservative, since he was dedicated to maintaining the landlord class whose "social and moral influence", he said in 1863, was "absolutely essential to the welfare of the country." Furthermore, Gladstone met resistance from Whigs in his Cabinet itself, especially Robert Lowe, and the resulting compromise measure was so weak that it had little difficulty in passing both Houses of Parliament, with one significant amendment. As well as the Land Act, the Liberal government also passed the Irish Church Act 1869 and put forward the Irish University Bill that failed to pass both Houses of Parliament.
Policymakers made much use of the statistical data recently collated in Griffith's Valuation (1853–68).
- 1. The Custom of Ulster or any similar custom prevailing elsewhere, was given the force of law where it existed.
- 2. Tenants not enjoying this protection (the vast majority) gained increased security by:
- a) compensation for improvements made to a farm if they surrendered their lease (these had previously been accredited to the landlord, hence no incentive to the tenant);
- b) compensation for 'disturbance', i.e. damages, for tenants evicted for causes other than non-payment of rent.
- 3. The 'John Bright Clauses', which Gladstone accepted reluctantly, allowed tenants to borrow from the government two-thirds of the cost of buying their holding, at 5% interest repayable over 35 years, provided the landlord was willing to sell (no compulsory powers).
To prevent eviction by rack-renting, and so avoiding paying compensation to tenants, the Bill said that rents must not be "excessive", leaving this for the courts to define. But the House of Lords in a wrecking amendment substituted "exorbitant" in its place. This enabled landlords to raise rents above what tenants could pay, and then to evict them for non-payment without giving any compensation.
However well-intentioned, the Act was at best irrelevant, at worst counter-productive. Fewer than 1,000 tenants took up the 'Bright Clauses', since the terms were beyond most peasants and many landlords did not wish to sell. Many substantial leasehold farmers, who had led the campaign for land reform, were excluded from the Act because their leases were longer than 31 years. Legal disputes over customary rights and "exorbitant" rents actually worsened landlord-tenant relations. Figures do not indicate any impact of the Act on the rate of eviction, which was at a low level anyway. In the late 1870s when depression struck, evictions for non-payment of rent mounted, tenants had no protection, and in reply 'outrages' and the campaign by the Land League, led by Michael Davitt, became known as the "Land War". The government had to pass a Coercion Act as early as 1881 because of the increase in violence in Ireland; it lost support to the Home Rule Movement, which won 9 out of 14 Irish by-elections (1870–4), mainly formerly Liberal held seats.
Though relatively conservative, the legislation "had a symbolic significance far beyond its immediate effects." The Land Act turned the tide of laissez-faire legislation favouring capitalist landlordism, and in principle, if not in practice, was a defeat for the concept of the absolute right of property. For the first time in Ireland tenants now had a legal interest in their holdings.