Russell, Sir Thomas Wallace (1841–1920), radical Ulster politician, was born 28 February 1841 in Cupar, Fife, Scotland, son of David Russell, stonemason, and Isabella Russell (née Wallace). Educated at the Madras Academy, Cupar, Russell settled in Ulster in 1860, aged 19, and was employed by James Brown of Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone, a soap and candle manufacturer.
Highly intelligent and possessed of enormous energy, Russell, a presbyterian, became involved in the temperance movement as agent, organiser, and lobbyist. It was in these capacities (1863–85) that he perfected both his skills as a public speaker and knowledge of the parliamentary system. A natural liberal, Russell first sought entry to parliament, unsuccessfully, at Preston in 1885, becoming a liberal unionist after Gladstone's conversion to home rule in 1886. His selection as the unionist candidate to contest the Tyrone South seat at the general election of that year, against the formidable nationalist leader William O'Brien (qv), was a reflection of his widely acknowledged abilities. Successful in Tyrone South, Russell, together with the less talented Thomas Lea in Londonderry South, represented the Ulster liberal unionist interest at Westminster.
For Russell it was a pivotal moment, with the path to career advancement clearly open to one with his political talents. Political ambition, however, was complicated by a combination of principle and personal idiosyncrasies. As to the latter, Timothy Healy (qv) described Russell thus: ‘Devoid of the geniality and humour of his [Scots] race, he sported a bilious face and splenetic manners’ (T. M. Healy, Letters and leaders of my day (2 vols, 1928), i, 261). Excitable, arrogant, and easily offended, and with an almost monomaniacal obsession with the land question, Russell, the grandson of an evicted crofter, was a loose cannon on the unionist deck, pursuing his own independent political course. Antagonising the landlord interest through constant agitation for agrarian reform, Russell was also an untypical Ulster unionist. Devoid of the crude anti-catholic bigotry that permeated large sections of that community, he often supported nationalists and catholics on specific issues when he thought their cause was just. At the same time, his highly effective campaigning for the unionist cause in Britain meant his services could not easily be dispensed with. In fact, Russell had made himself indispensable to Joseph Chamberlain as an authority on the Ulster problem, and exercised a significant influence on the agrarian legislation introduced for Ireland in the late nineteenth century.
Appointed under-secretary of the local government board (1895) by a unionist government anxious to silence him, Russell extracted agrarian commitments as the price of acceptance. However, he found the constraints of office unbearable, aggravated by suspicions that the landlord interest was exploiting his absence from the backbenches to cheat the tenant farmers of their rights. Accordingly, shortly after the 1900 general election Russell engineered his sacking from office and, in a context where the home rule issue seemed insignificant, embarked on a campaign in Ulster for the compulsory purchase of landed estates. Russell's initiative went together with increased cooperation with nationalist MPs on Irish issues in general. Most controversially, he was known to support the claim for a catholic university in Ireland, and had only secured his reelection for Tyrone South in 1900 by promising his constituents that he would not raise the subject, and, in the event of a bill to effect such a university being brought forward, he would submit himself again to the constituency before voting on it. With Russell increasingly close to nationalists, the success of ‘Russellite’ candidates in by-elections in Down East (1902) and Fermanagh North (1903) was a worryingly divisive development for unionist leaders, though many Ulster unionist MPs in fact supported the compulsory purchase demand.
Russell's success in mobilising a significant section of tenant farmer opinion against the existing Ulster unionist hierarchy, however, was a function of the political space created by the absence of the home rule threat. When home rule was once again given currency by the devolution crisis of 1904–5, that political space narrowed sharply. Of nine Russellite candidates at the 1906 general election, only one was successful, while the recent by-election gains were lost.
Compulsory purchase was not conceded, but Russellism, nevertheless, had an influence both on the Wyndham act (1903), which effectively settled the land question, and on the setting up of the Ulster Unionist Council (1905), motivated in part by the need to prevent the emergence of factions likely to disrupt unionist unity. This period, moreover, was one of political transition for Russell. With the land question on its way to ultimate resolution and constitutional nationalism now divested of its ‘revolutionary’ aspects, and reunited under the leadership of the pro-imperial John Redmond (qv), the reasons for Russell's opposition to home rule in the 1880s were gone. Accordingly, he accepted the post of vice-president of the Department of Agricultural and Technical Instruction for Ireland (1907–18) from the liberal administration of Henry Campbell-Bannerman (qv), and became an Irish privy councillor in 1908. Losing Tyrone South at the general election of January 1910, he succeeded as liberal candidate for Tyrone North (1911–18). Awarded a baronetcy in 1917, Russell lost his only son in the Great War and died on 2 May 1920, aware that the home rule solution to the Irish question he preferred was increasingly irrelevant. A prolific author on subjects of the day from the land issue to the Irish question in general, his most significant work was Ireland and the empire: a review 1800–1900 (1901), part review of Anglo–lrish relations and part personal political memoir.
Russell's political career points up clearly his significant contribution to the resolution of the Irish land question; and yet the impression is also left of great political talent given rather too narrow a focus. Certainly his character flaws were a serious impediment to political advancement, but perhaps the key to his career and the limits of his achievement lie in his political apprenticeship as a temperance lobbyist. Russell began and remained an interest-group enthusiast.
He married (1865) Harriet, daughter of Thomas Agnew of Dungannon, a union that lasted twenty–nine years until her death in 1894. Russell married secondly (1896) Martha, daughter of Lt.-col. Keown, 15th Hussars.