The origins of conciliation

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2007), Volume 15

During the summer of 1902, Lindsey Talbot Crosbie used the letters columns of the national press to call repeatedly for a round-table conference of landlord and tenant representatives, in order to find a solution to the land question. Such a conference duly met in December 1902, and within weeks came up with proposals that proved attractive to both parties and eventually formed the basis for the Wyndham Land Act of 1903.
Some historians give credit for the idea to Captain John Shawe-Taylor of Ardrahan, Co. Galway, but true credit for initiating and sustaining the momentum towards a conference should properly go to Talbot Crosbie. From 1902 to 1913 he was a tireless campaigner for the cause of conciliation. He believed firmly in the Union, but found an ally in the maverick nationalist William O’Brien. Moderation, conciliation, respect for opposing views, cooperation and conference were the themes of both men in public debate. For a time in 1902–3 it appeared that what Alvin Jackson refers to as ‘a centrist moment’ would emerge between the extremes of unionism and nationalism. Roy Foster refers to those involved as ‘the conciliationists’.
One of the earliest letters from Talbot Crosbie appeared in the Irish Daily Independent in April 1902 and opened with a question:

‘Has not the time arrived when an attempt should be made by moderate men of different parties to ascertain their points of agreement and endeavour to seek some course that will bring peace to our distracted country?’

He offered his services to ensure that a conference would take place:

‘As a beginning must be made somewhere, I shall be glad to receive communications from those who may be prepared to render assistance in bringing this about.’

As he elaborated his proposal, support came from newspaper editorials, landlords and many church and civic leaders. Letters to the Independent carried what the paper called ‘daily increasing evidence of the wisdom and propriety of the proposals of Lindsey Talbot Crosbie’. The reality, however, was that the vast majority of landlords and unionists, as well as leading nationalists such as Michael Davitt and John Dillon, were opposed to conciliation.
The next development came as a surprise to all. It was a solo initiative by John Shawe-Taylor, a nephew of Lady Gregory. He wrote to newspapers in September 1902 inviting named individuals on both sides to a conference in Dublin, to find a settlement of the issue. This bold initiative received an immediate endorsement from Chief Secretary Wyndham, and two months later the land conference finally met. The Irish Times gave full credit to Talbot Crosbie as ‘the father of the movement’, and acknowledged that it was his letters to the press that first made the conference seem possible. He had shown himself a true lover of his country, said the paper, but from this time on the initiative was usually referred to as ‘the Shawe-Taylor proposal’.
After the land act was secured, Talbot Crosbie campaigned for devolution, believing passionately that the strategy that had resolved the land question could bring success again on the issue of self-government. He described himself as an ‘emancipated landlord’ and used the evocative term ‘new departure’ for his proposals on devolution. In letters to the press, he constantly tried to cajole unionists to abandon their ‘non-possumus position’ and welcome the new order in the country:

‘Is Unionism to be a mere negation? We say that Unionism, to justify itself, must be progressive and be prepared to act in recognition of the new conditions which have evolved.’

Working in alliance with other progressive southern unionists, Talbot Crosbie was instrumental in setting up the Irish Reform Association under the chairmanship of Lord Dunraven. Moderation, goodwill, conciliation and round-table discussion were once more the watchwords of this movement, but in truth there were never more than about 30 landlords involved.
This new moderate stance of southern landlords alarmed unionists in the north-east, and their response was to set up the Ulster Unionist Council, a body that soon demonstrated the naivety and wishful thinking that lay behind Talbot Crosbie’s dictum that ‘old hard and fast Unionism is gone forever …old time Unionism has had its day’.
After the devolution crisis of March 1905, when the government was accused by northern unionists of collusion with the Irish Reform Association, Chief Secretary Wyndham was obliged to resign and disillusionment set in among the conciliationists. Soon afterwards, Talbot Crosbie became a committed Home Rule supporter. Among his last writings is a letter to John Redmond in February 1913 about ways of assuring unionists that their position would be safeguarded under Home Rule. He was preparing to issue a document that included this paragraph:

‘We do not presume to dictate to our fellow-countrymen in the North, as to the policy they should pursue, but we wish to make it plain that we accept the new situation, and are prepared to take our part in promoting the welfare and prosperity of the country. We have every confidence in adopting this course, as we have no apprehension of our civil or religious liberties being in any way curtailed through the action of an Irish parliament. At the same time we cannot but express the sincere regret with which we would see the Northern representation refusing to take part in the government of the country and our appreciation of the loss that would thereby ensue to ourselves and to the whole of Ireland.’

Lindsey Talbot Crosbie died unexpectedly in London after an operation in November 1913, aged 69. The nationalist Kerry Sentinel was generous in praise:

‘Not only through this county did his public actions make him influential and popular in a marked degree, but his vigorous letters to the London and Irish press contributed in no small measure to the success of the Irish demand for self-government.’

Hope and history may yet rhyme, and the reconciliation of unionist and nationalist, which eluded idealists such as Talbot Crosbie, may yet become a reality in Ireland over a century later. The language and sentiments of the early conciliationists are echoed in political discourse on all sides in recent years in Ireland. Alvin Jackson has gone so far as to make the tentative suggestion that ‘the Belfast talks of 1997–8 had a distant ancestor in the land conference of 1902’. There is symmetry (and some irony) in the fact that an Ardfert man was at the centre of both of these historic attempts at reconciliation in Ireland: Talbot Crosbie in 1902 and Sinn Féin negotiator Martin Ferris in 1998. Strange bedfellows indeed!

Bryan MacMahon is a historian of north Kerry.

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