Irish Land Commission

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The Irish Land Commission (or simply Land Commission) was created in 1881 as a rent fixing commission by the Land Law (Ireland) Act 1881, also known as the second Irish Land Act. For a century it was the body responsible for re-distributing farmland in Ireland.

UK Land Acts[edit]

Main article: Irish Land Acts

With the Ashbourne Act 1885 the commission developed into a tenant-purchasing commission and assisted in the agreed transfer of freehold farmland from landlord to tenant. This was a response to the turbulent Land War that had started in 1879. It was rapidly enacted by the government of Lord Salisbury, was funded initially with £5,000,000, and was designed to avert support for the Irish Parliamentary Party, given the larger number of voters allowed by the Reform Act 1884, before the IPP entered its alliance with William Ewart Gladstone in 1886.

Irish Land League poster, 1880s

The Commission eventually transferred 13.5 million acres (55,000 km²) by 1920. Following the Land Conference of December 1902 arranged by George Wyndham (a conservative minister and Chief Secretary for Ireland, but also descended from Lord Edward FitzGerald), the revolutionary Wyndham Land (Purchase) Act 1903 was orchestrated through parliament by William O'Brien MP, which provided government finance to buy out freeholds, with the former tenant farmers paying back the capital over 68 years. This was managed by the Land Commission, along with ancillary work such as compiling statistics. Valuations were reckoned on a "years purchase" (Y.P.) basis, the price being a multiple of (perhaps 16 times) the annual rent, instead of the discounted cash flow method used today. The Commission had to supervise the haggling process and find the fairest multiple for every transfer. The loans issued by government were resold in the capital markets as "Land Bonds".

By 1908 the emerging problem was whether the new owners would be economically viable on their small farms. Michael McDonnell commented that - "The breaking up of the grazing lands, which in many instances the landlords are keeping back from the market, has not met with much success under the Act, and it is difficult to see how compulsion is to be avoided if the country is to be saved from the economically disastrous position of having established in it a number of occupying owners on tenancies which are not large enough to secure to them a living wage."[1]

It was realised by now that existing rural poverty arose from small farm sizes, yet the Acts' procedures and limits also tended to keep farm sizes down. The aim had been to create "peasant proprietors" owning what were usually small farms. By definition the activists in the 1880s Land War period had been poorer and more desperate, and few came from larger prosperous farms. This remained a matter of policy debate for the rest of the Commission's existence; generally it continued to create new small units by breaking up larger units that had more commercial potential. Larger commercial farmers were characterised as "landlords" or "grazers" simply because they had more land than the average.

A further Land Act in 1909 fostered by the liberal Chief Secretary for Ireland Augustine Birrell allowed for tenanted land where the owner was unwilling to sell to be bought by the Commission by compulsory purchase. In 1915 Birrell confirmed in parliament that all Irish land transfers from 1885 to the end of 1914 had cost the British government £91,768,450, and the tenants had invested a further £1,584,516.[2][3]

After the Partition of Ireland the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act, 1922 abolished many all-island offices, including the Land Commissioners, effective from the creation of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922.

Dáil decree 1920[edit]

During the Irish War of Independence some farms were seized, and in June 1920 the Dáil issued a decree stating that all claims to land should not be considered until after the end of the war.[4]

Northern Ireland[edit]

The Land Acts were varied in Northern Ireland in 1925,[5] and the activities of the Land Commission were finally abolished in 1935.[6] Some remaining tenants who had chosen not to exercise their right to buy their farms formed the Unbought Tenants' Association.

Irish Land Acts[edit]

The Commission was reconstituted in the Irish Free State by section 2 of the Land Law (Commission) Act, 1923, backdated to the state's creation.[7] The Act also dissolved the Congested Districts Board. Provision was made for compulsory purchase of land owned by a non-Irish citizen. Untenanted land could now be compulsorily purchased and divided out to local families; this was applied unevenly across the country, with some large estates surviving if the owners could show that their land was being actively farmed.

From 1923 the amounts outstanding were paid to the British government as "land annuities", accruing in a Land Purchase Fund. This was fixed at £250,000 annually in 1925. In December 1925 William Cosgrave lamented that there were already: "250,000 occupiers of uneconomic holdings, the holdings of such a valuation as did not permit of a decent livelihood for the owners".[8] Despite this, his government continued to subdivide larger landholdings, primarily to gain electoral support.

The Land Act 1933, passed on a vote of 70-39, allowed the Minister for Finance to divert the annuities for local government projects.[9] This was a factor that caused the "Economic war" in 1933-38, and was mutually resolved by a one-off payment of £10m. to Britain in 1938. From 1932 the government argued strongly that Irish farmers should no longer be obliged for historic reasons to pay Britain for Irish land, but when Britain had passed out of the payment system it illogically still required farmers to continue to pay their annuities to it as before.

In 1983 the Commission ceased acquiring land; this signified the start of the end of the commission's reform of Irish land ownership, though freehold transfers of farmland still had to be signed off by the Commission into the 1990s. The commission was dissolved on 31 March 1999 by the Irish Land Commission (Dissolution) Act, 1992[10] and most of the remaining liabilities and assets were transferred to the Minister for Agriculture and Food. Many relevant historical records are held by the National Archives of Ireland.

The Commission, whilst often regarded as the champion of land ownership for those who used it, and social justice, was not without controversy. In particular its subdivision of land into uneconomic units has had a lasting effect, as well as the destruction of fine landlords' residences such as Monellan Castle and Shanbally Castle with Government approval. As farming became more mechanized from the 1930s foreign investment in commercial farms was discouraged, reducing overall farm output. Often the buyers found it hard to earn enough to live a good life, as found in the poems of Patrick Kavanagh. The Dáil reports from the 1920s to the 1960s frequently include questions about the division of former estates, and the acquisition of land with public finance on favourable terms for constituents via the Land Commission was understood as a way for politicians to gain electoral support.[11][12]

Policy debates and changes[edit]

From 1940 a minority in Fianna Fáil and Coalition cabinets consistently argued for larger farms to be encouraged, instead of sponsoring new small farmers that often had too little capital, skills or enthusiasm. This was successfully opposed for social and political reasons by Éamon de Valera, and in Coalition governments by Joseph Blowick, the leader of Clann na Talmhan.[13]

Under the 1923 Act busier farmers had to rent extra land under an 11-month or seasonal "conacre" system, as longer arrangements could cause an owner to lose his farm by compulsory purchase by the Land Commission. While there were now some 300,000 Irish landowners compared to several thousand in the 1800s, the basic term for the use of land had reverted to the norm of the 1860s, with no rights to renew a lease and no incentive to improve rented land. By 1980 some 860,000 acres (3,500 km2) were rented annually under conacre, suggesting a new imbalance between mere ownership and the more active farmers.[14] The cost of agricultural machinery requires larger farm sizes to generate economies of scale.

The Lands Act 1965 was passed to restrict new foreign investment in agriculture, some of which was speculatively based upon Ireland's imminent entry to the European Economic Community that eventually occurred in 1973. The EEC's "Four Freedoms" allowed for unlimited investment anywhere in the EEC by any citizen of an EEC member state. This naturally undermined the ethos of the Land Commission, which had processed a further 807,000 acres (3,270 km2) since 1923.[15] By the early 1970s half of open market land purchases were by non-farmers, and half of those were to buy small sites, typically for building bungalows.[16]

By the 1980s, just before its reform, the Land Commission came under the Department of Lands, which was in turn a part of the Department of Agriculture. The Department of Lands was seen as an overgrown entity, employing 750 people in 1983; its budget of IR£15m included IR£8m for administration costs and only IR£7m for actual land purchase or division.[17] Further purchases were suspended that year by Paul Connaughton.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]