Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870
Between the Acts of Union 1800 and 1870, Parliament had passed many Acts dealing with Irish land, but every one of them had been in the interest of the landlord against the tenant. The Incumbered Estates (Ireland) Act 1849 had led to a new class of speculators as landlords in Ireland. Their first priority was raising tenants' rents to increase their income, and they were generally considered worse than the old landlords. A report on landlord-tenant relations written by poor law inspectors in 1869 for the Chief Secretary for Ireland drew attention to the hardships inflicted on tenants under the new landlords.
The Liberal Party under the leadership of William Ewart Gladstone had been elected in 1868 promising to bring justice for Ireland, including land reform. The President of the Board of Trade, John Bright, believed that the solution to Irish land question was to transform the tenants into owners. He wrote to Gladstone on 21 May 1869:
When the Irish church question is out of the way, we shall find all Ireland, north and south alike, united in demanding something on the land question much broader than anything hitherto offered or proposed in compensation bills. If the question is to go on without any real remedy for the grievance, the condition of Ireland in this particular will become worse, and the measures far beyond anything I now contemplate will be necessary. I am most anxious to meet the evil before it is too great for control, and my plan will meet it without wrong to any man.
Gladstone replied, doubting to the wisdom of the government embarking on a very large involvement in Irish land, purchasing estates from landlords to resell them to the tenants. He believed that economic laws might afterwards return Irish land again into fewer hands. He added: "Your plan, if adopted in full, could only extend to a small proportion of the two or three hundred millions worth of land in Ireland; and I do not well see how the unprotected tenants of the land in general would take essential benefit from the purchase and owning of land by a few of their fortunate brethren".
From September 1869 Gladstone was busily engaged in investigating landlord-tenant relations in Ireland and also elsewhere in Europe to devise a scheme to regulate landlord-tenant relations. The Chief Secretary, Chichester Parkinson-Fortescue, suggested in November that the Ulster custom of security of tenure for tenants should be protected by law and that a tenant not enjoying the protection of this custom should be entitled to compensation from the landlord if they were evicted.
For the next three months Gladstone went to work on modifying Parkinson-Fortescue's plan. He wrote to the Duke of Argyll on 5 December: "For the last three months I have worked daily, I think, upon the question, and so I shall continue to do. The literature of it is large, larger than I can master; but I feel the benefit of continued reading upon it. We have before us a crisis, and a great crisis, for us all, to put it on no higher ground, and a great honour or a great disgrace. As I do not mean to fail through want of perseverance, so neither will I wilfully err through precipitancy, or through want of care and desire at least to meet all apprehensions which are warranted by even the show of reason". In a letter to Lord Granville on 15 January 1870, Gladstone claimed: "To this great country the state of Ireland after seven hundred years of our tutelage is in my opinion so long as it continues, an intolerable disgrace, and a danger so absolutely transcending all others, that I call it the only real danger of the noble empire of the Queen".
On 15 February 1870 he laid the Bill before the House of Commons. The second reading of the Bill was passed by 442 votes to 11, the opposition compromising 8 Irish MPs who did not think it went far enough and 3 English Conservatives. The Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli moved an amendment intended to limit compensation to unexhausted improvements by tenants and the government majority against it fell to 76. When the Liberal MP William Fowler moved an amendment the government majority against it was only 32. The debate in the Commons lasted over three and a half months and the third reading was passed without division; in the House of Lords it was read a second time without division. On 1 August the Bill received Royal Assent.
The Ulster custom or any similar custom prevailing elsewhere was given the force of law where it existed.
Tenants not enjoying that protection (the vast majority) gained increased security by compensation for improvements made to a farm if they surrendered their lease (they had previously been accredited to the landlord, hence no incentive to the tenant) and compensation for 'disturbance', damages, for tenants evicted for causes other than non-payment of rent.
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 if the landlord was willing to sell (no compulsory powers).
The historian J. C. Beckett claimed that the Act "failed, at almost every point, to achieve the purpose for which it was intended" but despite the practical failure the Act also "marked a decisive advance towards a solution of the agrarian problem". The Act left it to the courts to decide where the Ulster custom existed; it was up to the tenant to prove that the custom applied to his tenure and that the rights he was seeking to establish were included in the custom.
The clauses relating to custom affected only a minority of the 600,000 tenant farmers in Ireland. Therefore, it was the clauses relating to yearly tenants unprotected by custom which formed the most important clauses in the Act. Although the clauses on compensation for improvements were significantly better than previous legislation, their power was limited by the complicated procedure for claiming and assessing compensation. The overall effect, however, was to strengthen the position of the tenant by presuming that the improvements were his work.
According to Australian historian Philip Bull, the bill struck at the heart of the traditional concept of the union between Britain and Ireland, by creating a new law that would affect only the latter, and also at English conceptions of property rights.
- John Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone. Volume II (London: Macmillan, 1903), p. 286.
- Beckett, p. 353.
- Morley, p. 282.
- Morley, pp. 282–283.
- Beckett, p. 370.
- Morley, pp. 287–288.
- Morley, p. 293.
- Morley, p. 295.
- Morley, p. 296.
- Sir Wemyss Reid (ed.), The Life of William Ewart Gladstone (Cassell, 1899), p. 562.
- "Landlord and Tenant (Ireland) Act 1870". Irish Statue Book. Retrieved 19 December 2013.
- Beckett, p. 371, p. 373.
- Beckett, pp. 371–372.
- Beckett, p. 372.
- Bull 1996, p. 55.
- J. C. Beckett, The Making of Modern Ireland 1603–1923 (London: Faber and Faber, 1981).
- Bull, Philip (1996). Land, Politics and Nationalism: a Study of the Irish Land Question. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
- John Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone. Volume II (London: Macmillan, 1903).
- Sir Wemyss Reid (ed.), The Life of William Ewart Gladstone (Cassell, 1899).
- E. D. Steele, Irish Land and British Politics: Tenant-right and Nationality, 1865–1870 (Cambridge University Press, 1974).