Gladstone: The Irish Question

Pdf The Irish Question. I. History of an Idea II. Lessons of the Election by William Ewart Gladstone
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William Ewart Gladstone was born on December 29th 1809 in Liverpool. His father, Sir John Gladstone, was a wealthy merchant who had investments in slave plantations in the West Indies. He was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, after which he was elected to Parliament as a Tory aligned with Sir Robert Peel, though he would later become the leader of the Liberal Party. During his first address to Parliament, he spoke of his father, defending slave owners in the West Indies.

During the 1840s Gladstone’s politics evolved and he came more into line with the Liberal Party thinking. A trip to Naples in the early 1850s, where he witnessed extreme poverty, may have helped drive him away from Tory orthodoxy.

In the 1850s Gladstone served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, the chief financial officer of the British government, and was influential in passing financial reforms, including the abolition of many taxes and tariffs. Towards the end of the decade, he gravitated toward a reinvented Liberal party and became its leader.

Gladstone became prime minister after his party won an overwhelming majority in the 1868 election. Focusing on reforms, he endeavored to reduce the influence of the privileged and open up the military and civil service to those outside this class. In all, Gladstone was to serve four terms as prime minister: 1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886 and 1892-94.

Improving the lot of the Irish peasantry was a priority during his first term and he became increasingly interested in "Irish question." Britain’s administration of Ireland became the focus of his reformation ideas and he began to advocate “Home Rule” for Ireland, which was considered to be a radical position. During this term also, Gladstone helped to disestablish the Church of Ireland, which meant Roman Catholics no longer had to pay tithes to support the Anglican Church. His attitude towards Queen Victoria and his open opposition to Benjamin Disraeli meant that he was disliked by many in power.

He was a strong supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell, particularly through the 1880’s but the O’Shea Divorce case in 1890 saw an end to this. Gladstone’s religious and moral principles gave him no choice but to desert Parnell, stating 'I fear a thunder-cloud is about to burst over Parnell's head, and I suppose it will be the end of the career of a man in many respects invaluable.'

Gladstone was legendary for his intelligence and his public speaking, and remained a favourite with the public over decades. He found himself in failing health during his final term as prime minister and resigned at the age of 85. He died in 1898, at the age of 89.

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