The Parnell Commission was a judicial inquiry in the late 1880s into allegations of crimes by parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell which resulted in his vindication.
On 6 May 1882 two leading members of the British Government in Ireland, Chief Secretary for Ireland Lord Frederick Cavendish and the Permanent Under-Secretary for Ireland T.H. Burke were stabbed to death in Phoenix Park, Dublin by the Irish National Invincibles.
In March 1887, The Times published a series of articles, ‘Parnellism and Crime’, in which Home Rule League leaders were accused of being involved in murder and outrage during the land war. The Times produced a number of facsimile letters, allegedly bearing Parnell’s signature and in one of the letters Parnell had excused and condoned the murder of T.H. Burke in the Phoenix Park.
In particular the newspaper had paid £1,780 for a letter supposedly written by Parnell to Patrick Egan, a Fenian activist, that included: ‘Though I regret the accident of Lord F Cavendish’s death I cannot refuse to admit that Burke got no more than his deserts’ and was signed ‘Yours very truly, Charles S. Parnell’. On the day it was published (18 April 1887), Parnell described the letter in the House of Commons as ‘a villainous and barefaced forgery.’
Also on 18 April the Perpetual Crimes Act had its second reading and debate in the Commons. It appeared to nationalists that it was more than coincidental that the Times article on the letter was published on the same day, and was obviously intended to sway the debate.
After considerable argument, the government eventually set up a Special Commission to investigate the charges made against Parnell and the Home Rule party. The commission sat for 128 days between September 1888 and November 1889. In February 1889, one of the witnesses, Richard Piggott, admitted to having forged the letters; he then fled to Madrid, where he shot himself. Parnell’s name was fully cleared and The Times paid a large sum of money by way of compensation after Parnell brought a libel action. His principal lawyer was Charles Russell, who later became Lord Chief Justice. Russell also wrote an influential book about the case.
In an out-of-court settlement Parnell accepted £5,000 in damages. While this was less than the £100,000 he sought, the legal costs for The Times brought its overall costs to £200,000. When Parnell re-entered parliament after he was vindicated, he received a standing ovation from his fellow MPs.
The Commission did not limit itself to the forgeries, but also examined at length the surrounding circumstances, and in particular the violent aspects of the Land War and the Plan of Campaign. Testimony included an extensive submission by Land League founder Michael Davitt for which he was paid by The Irish Party. In July 1889, the Irish Nationalist MPs and their lawyers withdrew, satisfied with the main result. When it eventually published its 35 volumes of evidence it satisfied for the most part the pro- and anti-nationalist camps in Ireland:
Nationalists were pleased that Parnell had been heroically vindicated, in particular against The Times which had become a supporter of the high Tory prime minister Lord Salisbury.
Unionists conceded that Parnell was innocent, but pointed to a surrounding mass of sworn evidence that suggested that some of his MPs had condoned or advocated violence, in such a way that murders were inevitable. They also made much of the fact that Piggott had formerly been a Nationalist supporter and was clearly deranged.