Disestablishment—a triumph of statecraft?

Published in Editorial, Issue 6 (November/December 2019), Volume 27

editorThe disestablishment of the Church of Ireland 150 years ago (‘in the nick of time’, according to Kenneth Milne, pp 24–7) was a triumph of British statecraft in Ireland. Prime Minister Gladstone had not only prepared the ground across a broad spectrum of UK public opinion by making it a major plank in his general election platform of 1868 but also won a substantial majority in doing so. The consequent Irish Church Act was ‘a superb example of Victorian bureaucracy’ (Milne), which established structures that have endured to this day and transformed the Anglican Church from a corrupt collection of sinecures into a bona fide religious organisation. In particular it abolished the iniquity of tithes, levied on Anglicans and non-Anglicans alike.

The contrast with the present Brexit imbroglio could not be starker, in particular the ‘failure of statecraft’, to quote Boris Johnson (and a view shared by the monarch herself, according to leaks from Buckingham Palace). While the UK electorate has the right to leave the European Union, it should also have the reasonable expectation to have the calibre of politician to ‘get Brexit done’ without beggaring its neighbours (or the UK itself) or violating international treaties like the Good Friday Agreement.

Brexiteers have belatedly rallied around the ‘precious Union’, but there is nothing immutable about that. The 1800 Act of Union combined not only the two kingdoms of England and Ireland but also the two established churches, ‘for ever’ (Milne). That was set aside by Gladstone’s 1869 act. The Union was further modified by the 1920 Government of Ireland Act (see p. 70) and again by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. And it might be modified in the near future by a referendum in Scotland or, indeed, by a border poll in Ireland.

Theobald Wolfe Tone stated it as his object ‘to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils’. Sadly, the latter would still seem to be the case; it would indeed be ironic if the former came to pass as a result of the ineptitude of English politicians.

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