The Irish Conservative Party

Michael O'Sullivan reviews The Irish Conservative Party 1852-1868: land, politics and religion by Andrew Shields, Irish Academic Press, ISBN 978-07165-2882-1, £20/€27.50 pbk

Irish Conservative Party

SO FAR as Irish electioneering activity is concerned, the two decades following the death of O'Connell in 1848 represented something of a political vacuum.

The failure of the repeal agitation coupled with the depredations of the famine meant either that popular agitation was impossible or was seen as no longer effective.

This may explain the otherwise strange rise of the Irish Conservative Party, or the Irish wing of the Conservative party to be more accurate. Because no matter how hard people like Andrew Shields work to convince us to the contrary, the reality is that Irish Conservatives were never more than a branch of the main British Tory party, a regional variant at best.

Still, they did enjoy a brief period of electoral success and for that reason probably deserve a chronicle of their own; and here it is. Not the first, as is claimed in the blurb, though a detailed and thorough analysis of a decade-and-a-half of blatantly sectarian politicking when it must have appeared to some Anglo-Irish gentry that, finally, they were going to have their very own political party.

In politics however attitudes cannot be made to take the place of policies, no matter how vehemently espoused. Forever fearful of Westminster's threatened land reforms, mild as those reforms were, the landlords, in a desperate attempt at preserving the status quo, threw their weight behind the Irish Tories, who reciprocated by becoming their parliamentary mouthpiece.

Unified under their patrons, and too small to suffer from internal division, they enjoyed moderate success, even winning 55 of the 105 Irish seats in the general election of 1859. Bereft of policies, however, and slavish in their support of the London leadership, which held them in contempt, their influence declined rapidly until the extension of the franchise in 1884 and subsequent Land Acts signalled their end.

By the time of Gladstone's Home Rule bill of 1886 their few remaining candidates, most of them in Ulster, had amalgamated with other like-minded elements there to form the Irish Unionist party.

Andrew Shields work is, in the main, a sequence of dates and events, and little altered, one suspects, from its origins as a university thesis, though well enough written for all that. In any case, it does sufficient justice to its thoroughly ignoble subject matter.

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