In 1892 the Liberal Party came into power. During their three years’ tenure of office a Home Rule Bill was introduced and passed through the House of Commons, but little or nothing was attempted by the Government for the economic regeneration of the country.
The Unionist Party came back with a large majority in 1896, and the attention of the new Irish Government, in which the post of Lord Lieutenant was held by Lord Cadogan and that of Chief Secretary by the present writer, was from the first directed to the condition of the Irish farmer. The session of 1896 was largely devoted to the passing of a Bill for amending the Land Acts, and for further facilitating the conversion of occupying tenants into owners of their holdings. Time, however, was also found for a new Light Railways Act, under the provision of which railway communication has been opened up at the expense of the State in the poorest parts of North-West Ireland.
It was in the following year that the first attempt was made to establish an Irish Department of Agriculture. The Bill was not carried beyond a first reading, because it was ultimately decided that a Local Government Act should have precedence of it. But the project was only put aside for a time, and it was always looked upon by me as an integral part of our legislative programme. In framing the Bill of 1897, and also the later Bill of 1899, which passed into law, we received the greatest assistance from the labours of a body known as the Recess Committee, concerning which a few words must now be said.
To be the founder of agricultural co-operation in Ireland was Sir Horace Plunkett’s first great achievement; the bringing together of the Recess Committee was his second. He conceived the idea of inviting a number of the most prominent men in Ireland, irrespective of religious or political differences, to join in an inquiry into the means by which the Government could best promote the development of the agricultural and industrial resources of Ireland. This idea he propounded in an open letter published in August, 1895. The proposal was a bold one—how bold no one unacquainted with Ireland will easily realise. Amongst Nationalist politicians the majority fought shy of it. Mr. Justin McCarthy, the leader of the party, could only see in Sir Horace’s letter “the expression of a belief that if your policy could be successfully carried out, the Irish people would cease to desire Home Rule.” “I do not feel,” he added, “that I could possibly take part in any organisation which had for its object the seeking of a substitute for that which I believe to be Ireland’s greatest need—Home Rule.” Fortunately, then as now, the Irish party was divided into two camps, and Mr. Redmond, at the head of a small minority of “Independents,” was at liberty to take a different line. “I am unwilling,” he wrote, “to take the responsibility of declining to aid in any effort to promote useful legislation in Ireland.”