Did Parnell take
The truth behind a huge donation from magnate Cecil Rhodes to political reformer Charles Stewart Parnell reveals how Irish MPs kept their seats in Westminster, writes Elaine Byrne
Scandals about political donations and Irish politicians are not new. Charles Stewart Parnell was born into an aristocratic Wicklow family with extraordinary connections spreading across two continents.
This grandson of one of America's most celebrated naval officers and a distant relative of the British royal family was elected an MP at just 28 years of age.
By the time he was 35, Parnell had founded and was leader of the most influential political movement in Irish politics -- the Irish Parliamentary Party.
But success depended on healthy party coffers.
Elections in the 1880s were even more expensive than they are now. Politicians had no salaries and there were no expenses for travelling from Ireland to sittings of parliament in London.
As the leading Irish politician TP O'Connor MP observed, "A majority of the Irish members were very poor men".
Parnell's power at Westminster was dependent on his Irish MPs showing up at the House of Commons. That was especially important after the 1885 general election, when the Irish Party held the balance of power between the Liberals and Tories.
This was the first and only time that an Irish political party determined the composition of a British government.
Parnell made that happen by pioneering what we know today as the party whip system, where every MP had to pledge to 'sit, vote and act as directed'.
He also had to finance some of his colleagues' election campaigns and pay them a salary. And for that, he needed money.
In June 1888, Parnell and the controller of the rich Kimberley diamond fields, Cecil Rhodes, exchanged three letters about the Home Rule bill -- and Rhodes enclosed a £10,000 donation.
We know this because Parnell published the correspondence in the then staunchly Parnellite 'Freeman's Journal' and 'The London Times'.
The analysis of this donation, worth nearly €1m in today's money, has been, until now, based solely on these newspaper articles.
The National Archives of Ireland holds copies of the three original handwritten letters. However, when I compared the newspaper articles and the letters, word for word, I found a number of fascinating anomalies that reveal an explanation for Rhodes's staggeringly large generosity.
Notable segments of Rhodes's first letter to Parnell were not published in the newspapers. Rhodes placed brackets around his text, suggesting that he intended these sections to remain confidential, which they did -- until now.
The National Archives file also shows that Rhodes wrote two drafts of his first letter to Parnell.
The first draft was written on the headed notepaper of the exclusive Union club in the heart of Soho in London. Another identical draft was written on House of Commons library notepaper.
So, it seems the two men discussed its contents in person beforehand, but Rhodes wrote it in a tone that suggested they had not met.
So why did this Englishman, who lived in South Africa, donate £10,000 to a cause to which he had no emotional attachment?
Rhodes's political ambitions were dependent on the Home Rule Bill and therefore, Parnell. The first Home Rule bill of 1886 failed because the Liberals split on the issue, partly because it did not provide for the retention of Irish MPs at Westminster.
Irish MPs would instead serve only in a Dublin-based Home Rule parliament. English public opinion interpreted this as a desire by Ireland for clear separation from England.
Rhodes began by making a persuasive argument for an amended Home Rule Bill that would incorporate the retention of a reduced Irish representation at Westminster.
This, he hoped, would establish the template for self-government or Home Rule for the colonies, including his own Cape Colony.
Rhodes, a leading Cape parliament MP since 1880, was on the verge of becoming prime minister and believed that Home Rule could potentially confer upon him substantial political influence.
Rhodes was also frustrated with the Westminster parliament, which he considered was 'over-crowded' and concerned only with 'the discussion of trivial and local affairs.'
He wanted a new model of imperial federation through an imperial parliament that would discuss colonial matters.
The Irish question was a "stalking horse" and the "stepping stone to that federation, which is the condition of the continued existence of our Empire", he wrote.
Non-retention of Irish MPs at Westminster could set a precedent for full separation and limit the ambitions of an imperial federation.
So, Rhodes's first letter, published in the newspapers, sought a 'declaration' that the Irish Party would support Irish representation at Westminster.
Such a "declaration would afford great satisfaction to myself [Rhodes] and others and, would enable us to give our full and active support to your [Parnell's] cause and your party".
Parnell was enthusiastic in his response: " ... There can be no doubt that the next measure of autonomy for Ireland will contain the provisions which you rightly deem of such moment ... I quite agree with you that the continued Irish representation at Westminster will immensely facilitate such a step [imperial federation]."'
Rhodes's response was immediate: "As a proof of my deep and sincere interest in the [Irish] question ... I am happy to offer a contribution of the extent of £10,000 to the fund of your party."
To the public mind, Rhodes's stunning contribution was made following the acceptance by Parnell of the argument made by Rhodes.
In fact, the original letters show a completely different chain of events.
Rhodes made the £10,000 commitment in his first letter, not the second. This section of the first letter was bracketed, indicating that it was not for public consumption and was therefore not published.
In the newspaper article, the public was led to believe that Rhodes made a persuasive argument on retention; Parnell accepted this position; Rhodes subsequently offered a donation.
But this was not an accurate representation of the sequence of events that led to the donation. In fact, Rhodes presented his views-accompanied with the promise of a substantial donation; Parnell accepted; Rhodes responded by reiterating his promise of £10,000.
This suggests that a quid pro quo existed between the offer of money by Rhodes and Parnell's new policy on retention --a pragmatic position on which he and Irish public opinion were largely indifferent.
Rhodes included a £5,000 cheque in his second letter to Parnell "as my first instalment". Of course, his acceptance of the money was entirely legitimate. There was no legislation governing party finances in those days.
Was it a bribe? Is this why Parnell never published the original letters, word for word?
It seems that a tacit understanding existed between both men regarding the degree of subservience in which Irish representation at Westminster would be exercised.
For example, in brackets, Rhodes described Home Rule as an 'Irish Council', though the newspaper version elevated it to an 'Irish Legislature'.
The value of the donation was complemented by its timing, coming as it did following a substantial drop in the Irish Party's accounts. Parnell had confided to his brother just a year previously about the gravity of his financial affairs.
"Well John, politics is the only thing I ever got money from, and I am looking for another subscription now."
The finances of the Irish Party and those of Parnell always attracted controversy.
The money raised in America in the early 1880s for the party, known as the Paris Funds and estimated at up to £57,000, proved to be one of the decisive points in Parnell's loss of leadership during the infamous Committee Room 15 negotiations.
In 1890, the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, who lends his name to Croke Park, Dr Thomas W Croke, demanded that "a public audit of all financial transactions [within the Irish Party] is absolutely necessary".
Rhodes's intervention in 1888 was successful. Parnell met the leader of the Liberal opposition, WE Gladstone, at his Hawarden home in 1889 to discuss a second Home Rule Bill.
Parnell briefed Rhodes immediately after this meeting. The historian GP Taylor believes that this, by all accounts, was "quite unprecedented since he [Parnell] made no attempt to inform any of his colleagues in the Irish Party, and Rhodes appears to have been the only person Parnell did communicate with on the question".
Gladstone introduced the second Home Rule Bill in 1893, two years after Parnell had died, which included the retention of Irish MPs at Westminster.
Ian Paisley was a direct beneficiary of Rhodes's amendment to the Home Rule bill. The North Antrim MP was not aware of this when he gave the party leader's speech to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) annual conference in 1998.
Paisley told delegates: "What about Parnell? Oh, our enemies will say, 'sure he was a Protestant'. Aye, a turncoat is always the worst."
Yet, if it was not for the intervention of Rhodes, and Parnell's financial acquiescence, Paisley might never have become a Westminster MP in the first place.
'Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010: A Crooked Harp?' will be published by Manchester University Press in April.See www.elaine.ie