Every year the History of Parliament Trust holds a competition for the best undergraduate dissertation on British or Irish politics. 2014’s winner was Stuart Clark of Edinburgh University, with ‘“An Old Tory Dodge”, or “a Large and Liberal Project of Practical Benevolence”? The Congested Districts Board, Politics and the Press in Ireland, 1890-1914’. Our editors and editorial board judged the work to be interesting, well-written and tackling a complex topic with some sophisticated analysis. Before announcing this year’s winner, Stuart discusses his work…
My dissertation examined the place that the Congested Districts Board occupied within the discourse of Irish politics by examining the national and regional press in Ireland. The Congested Districts Board (CDB) was founded as part of the 1891 Land Act to provide material assistance to those areas of Ireland deemed ‘congested’. Congested areas were defined by a complex relationship between land rates, land area, and population: those areas with too many people living on too little land of poor quality were deemed congested. Gradually the role of the CDB developed from its original purpose of providing finance and resources for improving land to being responsible for government backed land purchase and redistribution over seven whole Irish counties and large parts of two more by the time of the 1909 Land Act.
Whilst there has been some attention given to the economic and social impact of the Board and its activities, the place of the board within the charged atmosphere of Irish politics has received little attention. Whilst there was initial suspicion in the nationalist press of the CDB as an attempt ‘to affect the Tory conquest of Ireland’, this soon gave way to recognition that the Board’s work was having a positive impact upon some of the poorest communities in Ireland, and soon Irish nationalism was praising the board as ‘the one board ever established by England in Ireland which commands the confidence of the people.’ The bitterly partisan politics of Ireland found consensus that the CDB was a good idea and a successful organisation, but that could not stop this consensus being used and exploited for partisan purposes. Ultimately political arguments over the CDB concerned themselves less with the Board’s activities but rather how those activities could be used to justify competing nationalist and unionist worldviews.
Debates over the Board’s membership, which had been by government appointment, frequently saw nationalists and unionists alike posing as defenders of the Board and its theoretical independence from party politics. Nationalists claimed that the CDB’s independence was threatened because a Unionist government would pack it with pro-union members, whilst unionists opposed proposals to give the Board a representative element on the grounds that it would become dominated by nationalist politicians. Both sides sought to talk-up the principle of the Board’s independence from politics, but in reality both merely sought to gain or deny control of the Board’s growing legal and financial muscle to their opponents.
Likewise the recurring political debate over each subsequent Irish Land Act and whether compulsory purchase powers were necessary to solve the problems of Irish land saw the agreed success of the Board used for diverging purposes. For nationalists the success of the Board in improving and redistributing land acquired by voluntary purchase showed the potential for what compulsory purchase powers could achieve. Unionists argued that the CDB’s operations pointed to the opposite conclusion, that compulsory purchase powers, and the concomitant erosion of property rights, was unnecessary.
The Board and its activities also demonstrated the localism, centred on county loyalties, which still permeated Irish politics. People in Kerry might complain that Donegal received more than its fair share of funding from the Board, Donegal would argue that too much money was spent in Mayo, Cork complained that it was ignored in favour of everyone else. The common formula for complaint was demonstrated by Cork-based paper the Southern Star:
Although locally we have not much evidence of the administration of the funds of the Congested Districts Board, it must be admitted that elsewhere they are doing good work…we may hope that sometime in the future we in the South may obtain a share of the attention and beneficence that is bestowed on other localities.
Again, specific criticism of the Board was voiced within the context of praising its work in general.
Finally, the fate of the Board within a future Home Rule Ireland was contested. Nationalists argued that only under Home Rule would the CDB be given enough power and resources to finally tackle the problem of congestion in Ireland, if you supported the work of the CDB then you should support Home Rule. Nationalist MP John Fitzgibbon even somewhat naively sought to use the Board as evidence of how a united Home Rule Ireland could emerge ‘composed of Nationalists, Unionists, Protestants, Catholics… The Board was doing great and good work, and they were a happy family, truly indicative of the future Irish Parliament.’ On the other side Irish unionists maintained that Home Rule Ireland would lack the resources to maintain current levels of funding and the good work of the Board would be cut short.
Debates rarely concerned the principles behind the Board’s work or how well the Board was conducting that work. Irish nationalism overcame its initial scepticism once it realised that the Board was popular among the people it helped, and it became the accepted political wisdom that the Board was doing a good job. The experience of the CDB in Ireland reminds us that an institution or idea does not cease to have political value once it has achieved a popular consensus of support. In one sense, the Board seemed apolitical: there was very little disagreement, after initial nationalist suspicion, that the Board was a beneficial institution. For both unionist and nationalist the Board’s political value, as a cause to be associated with, grew out of this popular consensus on its merits, but this should not obscure its continuing political role. The Board remained firmly within the discourse of Irish politics as because competing political groups felt they could exploit the Board’s popularity to support starkly contrasting political viewpoints.
Stuart has subsequently completed his MSc by Research at Edinburgh and has now begun working towards a PhD.
The winner of the 2015 dissertation competition was announced at our annual lecture on November 4th. This year Christopher Rowe, of Cambridge University, won with ‘The Liberal Party, Free Trade and the 1841 election.’ Our judges praised his work as ‘extraordinary’ with ‘striking conclusions’ about a complex topic. Hopefully we will hear from Christopher on this blog soon!