This article follows on from this on William Rann Kennedy's electoral campaign in Birkenhead in 1885.
In 1886 William Gladstone Liberal Prime Minister decided to openly support Irish Home Rule. This would mean Ireland having its own parliament in Dublin for the first time since 1800. Gladstone presented his Home Rule Bill to the Commons on 8th April.
This caused a significant number of his party's MPs to leave the Liberal whip and vote with the Conservatives led by the previously Radical Joseph Chamberlain. The Liberal Unionists felt that it would lead to the eventual breakup of the Empire. On 8th June the Commons rejected the Bill by 343 to 313, 93 Liberals voting with against it.
Gladstone had lost some heavyweights in the party over the issue and he was anxious to see William Rann Kennedy as an MP by his side, with his barrister's eye for detail and experience in government working as private secretary to Lord Goschen between 1868-1871 when the latter was President of The Poor Law Board, introducing critical important reforms to Local Government. Kennedy would again stand in Birkenhead.
The June 24th Liverpool Daily Post carried a report on a meeting of Liberal supporters held at the Music Hall in Tranmere. The proceedings were opened by a rendition of the National Anthem, it being the Queen's 50th Birthday. The chairman spoke highly of Kennedy in his introduction. He denounced the Act of Union as being brought about by fraud and bribery. He looked forward to an end to the conflict in Ireland.
William Kennedy then spoke of the discord in Britain arising from injustice in Ireland not having a say in her own affairs. He described it as a system founded on the bayonets of 30,000 soldiers permanently encamped in Ireland, similar to Russia's occupation of Poland, putting it rather bluntly. He drew attention to the general lack of crime in Ireland apart from acts of political violence. He agreed with John Stuart Parnell's proposed solution of a parliament in Ireland and Irish seats in Westminster "for Imperial purposes". He condemned Joseph Chamberlain's recent speeches putting the rights of the rest of the kingdom before those of the Irish and said preventing Home Rule would continue oppression and coercion in Ireland.
He did not believe that the Roman Catholic body of Ireland would oppress the Protestants in Ireland but that the parliament would respect minorities' rights. He invoked the memory of the battle to widen the franchise in Britain.
Mr J.H. Ziegler concluded matters by pointing to the support of Irish Nationalist voters in Birkenhead this time around, unlike the previous year when they voted for the Conservative due to Parnell's manoeuvering against the Liberal government. He accused the Conservatives of trading on fear while the Liberals offered hope and he said Home Rule was a civil not a religious matter.
In the June 25th Daily Post there was a report on a speech given by the Conservative candidate General Hamley at the Engineers Drill Shed in Birkenhead. Amongst the audience were several of the Laird family whose shipbuilding firm dominated the town. The chairman thanked volunteer canvassers and also Mr Kennedy for saying that the 1885 campaign had been conducted in a clean fashion. He hoped that the same could be the case in this election.
Hamley took the stage to loud cheers and began in knockabout fashion by saying that Gladstone was punishing the electorate for not giving him the majority he wanted in 1885, by joining with Parnell. He said that Gladstone was incapable of learning from his mistakes and believed he was infallible (laughter, no doubt because of the Pope's famed 'infallibility'). He said that the cost of the Land Purchase Bill would fall on the shoulders of the British taxpayers. He said the first priority of the Conservatives was to enforce law and order in Ireland and suppress the League of boycotters, cattle stabbers and assassins (applause). Mr W. Laird then moved for thanks to the General and added some more placatory words to the effect that Conservatives would promote the welfare of Ireland by every legitimate means.
Polling took place on the 2nd July in good weather. Seasoned campaigners in Birkenhead commented that the atmosphere was calm despite some of the febrile exchanges. Mr Kennedy was thought to have received 1200 Irish Nationalist votes. However some senior local Liberals had swung their support behind the General.
The problem with this campaign from Gladstone's standpoint was that the Liberals were seen as offering benefits to the Irish people, not to British people. This was to a degree unfair. In fact the Irish Party had, by virtue of their maneuvering, blocked a lot of urgent reforming Liberal Government legislation in Parliament and Gladstone hoped to end this by addressing the Parnellites' demands. The resulting reforms would have benefited ordinary British people enormously. Also the Conservatives wrapped themselves in the flag more than ever and emphasised the need to punish misdeeds of Irish nationalists. At the time this appealed to a lot of the newly enfranchised working class voters who generally tended to support the Empire. Randolph Churchill (father of Winston), the rising campaigning star of the Conservatives had done much to draw working class voters to their side - in fact he was one of the real founders of the Conservative Party as a mass movement.
Locally in Merseyside there was an especially militant Unionist feeling which periodically led to actual violence in the streets.
The election result was 5,255 votes for Hamley, 4086 for Kennedy, a Conservative majority of 1169. The swing was 0.6 to Hamley.
Nationally Gladstone lost the election. The result was :
Conservatives - 316 seats
Anti Home Rule Liberals - 78 seats
Gladstone Liberals - 191 seats
Irish Party - 85 seats
This was a major setback for Gladstone and for the cause of Irish Home Rule.