‘The Story of Parliament’: Parnell and obstruction

Last year the History published ‘The Story of Parliament: Celebrating 750 years of parliament in Britain’ to mark the anniversary of Simon de Montfort’s parliament in 1265. The book is a brief introduction to the full 750 years of parliamentary history, aimed at the general reader, and available to purchase from the Houses of Parliament bookshop.

On this blog we are publishing some tasters of ‘The Story of Parliament’ from a number of the academics who contributed to the book. Our sixth post looks at one of the leading figures in the campaign for Irish Home rule: Charles Stewart Parnell, and the parliamentary tactics he applied.

This article was originally written by our Director, Dr Paul Seaward.

Although Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-91) came from the Protestant landholding class in Ireland, he became a surprising recruit to the cause of Irish home rule and land reform. An MP from 1875, from the 1877 session of parliament he brilliantly developed an old parliamentary weapon. This was the practice of obstruction – preventing progress on bills by continuing debate on them for as long as possible, thus wrecking the plans of government for legislation. The campaign reached its height in the opposition to the Irish Coercion Bill in early 1881. The bill was a response to the sometimes violent confrontations in Ireland between landlords and tenants, stimulated by the Fenian movement. It allowed for imprisonment without trial for those linked to the agitation. Parnell, newly elected to the leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster, orchestrated a campaign of obstruction that kept the House sitting for two days – 41 hours – before it was brought to an end by the Speaker, Sir Henry Brand, acting on his own authority. The incident helped to bring about a series of procedural innovations that would eventually limit the ability of individual MPs to oppose the will of the majority of the House.

Parnell tried to build alliances between the parliamentary party and, on the one hand, the radical and republican Fenian movement and on the Liberal party under Gladstone. While unionists tried to destroy him with forged evidence of his support for the murder of the chief British minister for Ireland in Dublin in 1882, the more radical end of the Irish nationalist movement increasingly saw him as much too conservative for their purposes. His leadership of the party was destroyed when a former Irish MP, the husband of his long-standing mistress, Kitty O’Shea, filed for divorce, to the outrage of most nationalists and many within the Liberal party.


You can read the other blogs in our ‘Story of Parliament’ series here. ‘The Story of Parliament’ is available at the Parliamentary bookshop for £14.99. You can purchase it here.

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