I have been doing some reading about the Irish party in the House of Commons at Westminster in the 1880s. What that has to do with our current politics and the election, I am not sure—probably not much, but it would be more comfortable to be able to say with assurance: “Nothing.” However, if Lucien Bouchard and the Bloc Québécois come even close to the result some late polling has indicated for Oct. 25, and if they are of a mind to take lessons from Charles Stewart Parnell and his followers, and can muster similar parliamentary skills and the determination to apply them in our next Parliament, heaven help us.
In the English-language television debate, Audrey McLaughlin accused Bouchard of being out to wreck Canada. He replied with asperity, which there is no reason to believe was feigned, that he had no such thing in mind—which did nothing except to demonstrate, again, that precisely the same circumstances can sustain precisely opposite, and equally genuinely held, interpretations in different persons. The explanation here is simple. To Lucien Bouchard, Quebec and Canada are two distinct entities. Therefore, what he and his supporters will do, having been elected entirely in Quebec, is to concentrate wholly on Quebec interests. That is what he has said. To Audrey McLaughlin, Quebec is a part of one entity called Canada, and, whether so intended or not, the Bloc’s commitment to the interests of Quebec must necessarily make it oblivious to the interests of her larger Canada.
I do not suggest that the Irish Question, as it was known in Britain, and the Quebec Question, or “the Constitution,” as the issue has become known generically in Canada, make exact parallels. But there are enough similarities to make it difficult to say no ground for comparison exists. Marie and Conor Cruise O’Brien, in their Concise History of Ireland, said of Parnell’s movement that by 1890, the year before Parnell’s death,
If Lucien Bouchard and the Bloc Québécois are of a mind to take a lesson from the Irish party in Britain in the 1880s, heaven help us
it had won a radical measure of land reform, extremely important there but with no parallel here. But “it had also broken the solidity, in England, of the prevalent assumption that no special political status could be accorded to Ireland.”
That strikes a familiar note. It was because he did not believe, given the failure of the Meech Lake accord, that the solidity in English Canada against any special status for Quebec had been broken, or ever would be, that Bouchard abandoned such faith as he still had in negotiation as a means to a new alignment between Quebec and the rest of Canada, and jumped directly to embracing the ultimate solution—sovereignty.
Also the proposition that a much enlarged Bloc Québécois will be in Parliament wholly to represent Quebec interests has a certain resonance with the situation the Irish nationalists saw themselves in, and some Irish historians of today say they simply responded to. In that light, they also could be said not to have been wreckers of anything. However, the incidental effect was to bring parliamentary business virtually to a halt for three years and to make Ireland the dominant issue for the rest of the decade—with fewer members
than the Bloc will have. Even two or three years of obstruction, and the distraction to government it would produce, are not a prospect to be looked upon with equanimity in Canada’s difficult economic circumstances.
Alan O’Day wrote in The English Face of Irish Nationalism, “There is no doubt [the Irish party] harassed the government. Yet this was, after all, why the MPs had been sent
to Westminster____From the Parnellite point
of view, the imperial Parliament was considering measures distasteful to the majority of their constituents and they as MPs had every right... to resist their passage.” Most of the obstruction, in his analysis, was related to matters bearing on an Irish interest. However, what is more apparent is that there were few matters which could not be seen as affecting some direct Irish interest. That would be no less true in Ottawa, since most of what Parliament does is national in effect.
When the Liberal government of William Ewart Gladstone replied to obstruction by moving to tighten the rules of the House of Commons, that became very much an Irish interest. Because not all the obstruction occurred outside the rules, maintaining them became an end in itself. The result was that, by O’Day’s account, after an 1881 session that was referred to facetiously as “the one or single bill session,” came an 1882 session, the first part of which “saw a continuation of the Irish struggle, while the second was wholly devoted to passing new rules of procedure.”
Could a nationalist party in Canada, regionally identified, coherent as to religion, language, history, not produce a similar effect? It is difficult to see why not, given the cause and sufficient ingenuity. The rules of parliamentary procedure in Ottawa in the 1990s are not the same as at Westminster in the 1880s—one single sitting there at the height of the obstruction went on for 41 hours; we don’t do that—but, as the right to speak is inherent in any parliament, a determined 50 or 60 MPs would not be easily shut off. And the media would love it; with cameras and all, the Pamellites would have been in heaven. And the cause? An election will occur in Quebec within a year. The Liberals in Quebec will be weakened by the loss of Robert Bourassa. In the event of the election of a Parti Québécois government bent on separation, why would not a Bloc Québécois in Ottawa choose to emulate the Parnelli? Their tactics in Parliament were reviled in England, which bothered the Irish party not at all; their tactics went down very well at home.
In our current national election campaign, both the media and the politicians, either by their silence or by saying, as in the case particularly of Jean Chrétien and Audrey McLaughlin, that Canadians are not interested at this time in “the Constitution,” have been encouraging the dangerously complacent assumption that there is nothing at this juncture that we need bother our little heads about. Taking into account what the polls have been indicating, and the historical evidence of a similar political phenomenon in another time and place, wanna bet?
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