The Hawarden Kite was a famous British scoop of 1885, an apparent instance of flying a kite, when Herbert Gladstone, son of the then Leader of the Opposition William Ewart Gladstone revealed to Edmund Rogers of the National Press Agency in London that his father now supported home rule for Ireland.
The expression refers to Hawarden Castle, which was Gladstone's home at the time.
Although there is some historical debate surrounding the issue, the consensus is that the Hawarden Kite incident was a political disaster for William Gladstone. Gladstone had converted to Home Rule sometime during his second prime ministry of 1880–1885; however, he knew that passing it through Parliament, particularly the House of Lords, would be very troublesome. Therefore, Gladstone had sought cross-party agreement on the issue of home rule, thinking that the Conservatives should pass to make it easier to get it through the House of Lords. Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Corn Laws repeal in 1846, and the Reform Act 1867 had been all cross-party acts passed by Conservative governments.
Gladstone also felt that the Electoral Act of 1884, which increased the franchise, would give him increased and perhaps permanent majorities in subsequent elections. Formerly a Conservative MP, he was now head of the Liberal Party, and considered that support from the Irish Home Rule MPs would further strengthen his position in the House of Commons. The Irish Party was then a third force in parliament.
Meanwhile, in London on 1 August 1885 the Conservative minister Lord Carnarvon, Viceroy of Ireland, had met Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish Home Rule leader, for a confidential discussion to see how far each could meet the other's policy. Parnell assumed that Carnarvon was representing the Cabinet and would agree to his proposals that Carnarvon described as "surprisingly moderate".
Conservative leader Lord Salisbury wanted the meeting kept secret, now that he knew Parnell's position, and hoped also that Parnell would mention the discussion to Gladstone. This might move Gladstone to up the ante and formally declare his support for Home Rule, offering slightly more than Parnell had indicated to Carnarvon; Salisbury believed that such a declaration would split the Liberals.
On 17 December 1885 Gladstone's son, Herbert, had a letter published in The Times. It included: "Nothing could induce me to countenance separation, but if five-sixths of the Irish people wish to have a Parliament in Dublin, for the management of their own local affairs, I say, in the name of justice, and wisdom, let them have it."
This promised a large amount of local control within Ireland, but Ireland would remain linked to Britain, with Queen Victoria as head of state, and it remain in the British Empire. Being a modest measure, Gladstone hoped that Salisbury might feel honour-bound to allow his MPs to vote for and against the policy, thereby splitting the Conservatives.
Once news of Gladstone's conversion came to light following the Hawarden Kite, Liberals and Irish Nationalist MPs voted together to end Lord Salisbury's caretaker administration. This led Salisbury to believe Gladstone was playing games with him and he remained opposed to Irish home rule.
Salisbury had commented on 9 November: "The integrity of the Empire is more precious to us than any possession we can have. We are bound by motives, not only of expediency, not only of legal principle, but by motives of honour, to protect the minority."
Gladstone won the 1885 United Kingdom general election, but when he proposed the Government of Ireland Bill later in 1886, 93 Liberal MPs voted against, causing the 1886 United Kingdom general election. The Liberals opposed to Home Rule contested as the Liberal Unionist Party, and Lord Salisbury became prime minister with their support.