Rentoul, James Alexander (1845–1919), presbyterian minister, lawyer and politician, was born at Errity House, Manorcunningham, Co. Donegal, on 7 August 1845, eldest son (of three sons and five daughters) of Alexander Rentoul, presbyterian minister, and his wife Erminda (née Chittick). The extended Rentoul family produced many presbyterian ministers. Alexander Rentoul combined being minister of the Second Ray presbyterian congregation with tenants' rights agitation and acting as the Orange county grand master for Donegal. Erminda was descended from a Church of Ireland landed family, the Squires. Erminda Rentoul Esler (qv) was Rentoul's sister and J. L. Rentoul (qv) was his first cousin.
Rentoul was educated at local national schools and Cookstown Academy before spending a year at Queen's College Cork (QCC, 1863–64). His father died in January 1864, when Rentoul was seventeen; the congregation decided to employ substitute ministers until Rentoul qualified for ordination. He transferred to Queen's College Belfast (QCB), graduating BA in 1866. He visited Brussels and Berlin to learn French and German and gained the QCB senior scholarship in modern languages. Rentoul then studied law at Queen's College Galway (QCG), winning three scholarships and numerous prizes. After graduating LLB (1869), with honours, first university prize and the senior scholarship in law, and LLD (1870; first in examination) he decided on ordination, largely from pragmatic motives. After studying divinity at Magee College, Derry and Assembly's College, Belfast, he was licenced by Coleraine Presbytery in 1870 and ordained for Second Ray on 25 October 1871. Over the following ten years he oversaw the upbringing and education of his younger siblings, several to university level.
Rentoul combined his pastoral responsibilities with cultivating a farm of just under forty-five acres at Errity, near Manorcunningham. At the 1874 general election he campaigned for the Conservative candidates for Co. Donegal. He gave charitable lectures to presbyterian bodies on the glory and prospects of Ireland.
On 8 November 1881 he resigned from Second Ray, later taking up a call to St Andrew's, Woolwich, in south-eastern London. His three unmarried sisters opened a girls' school at the Lodge, Cliftonville, on Fortwilliam Terrace in North Belfast. After her sisters married, Elizabeth, Rentoul's closest friend amongst his siblings, became sole proprietor and headmistress until the school closed in 1918. She was active in presbyterian church social work and prominent in the Irish Temperance League; in 1914 she founded the prohibitionist Shamrock Temperance League. Rentoul was deeply influenced by Elizabeth on alcohol.
On 27 April 1882 he married Florence Isabella Young (d.1914). They had two sons; the elder, Gervais Squire Chittick Rentoul (1884–1946) was Conservative MP for Lowestoft 1922–34, then a stipendiary magistrate for West London.
Rentoul resigned his charge on being called to the English bar in November 1884, having won first place and an equity scholarship of 100 guineas in the bar examinations. He was a member of the Inner Temple and the south-eastern (English) circuit; he became a QC in July 1895. He combined legal practice and a building society directorship with unpaid lecturing and campaigning for the Conservative Primrose League and with the chairmanship of the Borough of Woolwich Conservative Association (from 1885). He belonged to the Oddfellows Friendly Society and Belfast Chamber of Commerce.
Rentoul's conservatism included defence of the established status of the Church of England; he believed disestablishing the Church of Ireland did more harm than good, and opposed Welsh disestablishment, citing the traditional presbyterian view that the state should recognise Christianity.
At the first election to the London County Council (1889) Rentoul became a Moderate (i.e. Conservative) councillor for Woolwich. On 16 September 1889 he lectured on 'The united British empire: its greatness, glory and freedom' in the Ulster Hall, Belfast, emphasising the empire's economic benefits. Rentoul argued the remarkable achievements of the empire were only possible through political union of the home islands, and that the 'Trojan horse' of Home Rule aimed at shattering it from within; the Scottish experience showed Ireland could be reconciled.
Lord Arthur Hill then offered Rentoul the East Down parliamentary seat. Rentoul's recruitment reflected the need to strengthen Ulster unionist debating power at Westminster. His debating style resembled that of Edward Saunderson (qv); he was physically imposing and unwilling to back down in debate. Rentoul also resembled Saunderson as a self-conscious Irish humorist; he retained his Irish accent and had the after-dinner speaker's love of humorous anecdotes. His parliamentary contributions were mainly on the 1893 Home Rule Bill, on local government and educational issues, and in defence of coercion legislation and of land purchase.
Rentoul's unopposed return on April 1890 was preceded by a speaking tour of the constituency in which he recalled his father's Orangeism; he stated he held Orange principles and offered to join the Order (after leaving parliament Rentoul criticised Orange demonstrations as provocative).
Although Rentoul was unopposed at every election, this underestimates the challenges he faced. In 1891 he clashed with the Irish Landowners' Convention over the Local Government Bill, and in a March 1892 Commons debate on Irish national education William Johnston (qv) threatened Rentoul with deselection for unsoundness over catholic education. Rentoul had to produce written evidence at constituency meetings that he was not a catholic. At the 1892 general election Hill tried to make him stand down for an aristocratic candidate. Rentoul defeated this by appealing to the constituency. At the 1895 general election tenant farmers threatened to run a candidate against him; party leaders remained neutral because they thought him unbiddable. (Rentoul supported the Liberal government's abortive Land Bill, clashing with Edward Carson (qv).
Rentoul advocated 'constructive unionism', arguing that the unionist government returned in 1895 must defeat Home Rule by addressing the material roots of Irish discontent. He supported the unionist government's 1896 Land Act and regularly advocated compulsory land purchase. He showed sympathy for proposals by Arthur Balfour (qv) to establish a catholic university, though he stopped short of denominationalism. He argued that he benefitted by attending the interdenominational QCC and QCG, but that TCD and QCB were anglican and presbyterian in all but name; if a catholic university was established QCB should become formally presbyterian. These views, though shared by some presbyterians associated with QCB, were unpopular among Ulster protestants.
Rentoul supported Alice Hart's (qv) promotion of Donegal cottage industries. In 1891 and 1898 he opposed attempted provisions for minority representation in Irish local government legislation, arguing on the basis of LCC experience that the minority's best hope was to cultivate the respect and common concerns of catholic/nationalist neighbours. Rentoul advised Ulster unionists to elect suitable catholics and avoid discrimination in local government appointments, this provoked indignation. He was one of the Ulster unionist MPs who joined nationalists in an 1896 campaign against the over-taxation of Ireland.
During 1896, 1900 and 1901 parliamentary debates on Irish education, Rentoul denounced teaching the Irish language in national schools, even to Irish speakers; he endorsed educational neglect of Flemish in Belgium, and advocated teaching French and German. His argument that anglophone schools for Irish speakers assisted language learning by immersion was rejected even by chief secretary Gerald Balfour (qv). Rentoul was quoted in twenty-first century debates in Northern Ireland as exemplifying Ulster unionist political hostility to the Irish language; but given Rentoul's acquaintance with impoverished Irish-speaking districts, his utilitarian outlook and love of modern languages, he probably believed the demise of Irish would be beneficial.
Rentoul was unopposed at the 1900 general election, but then quarrelled with T. W. Russell (qv), who lost his junior ministry after the government refused to accept his detailed scheme for compulsory land purchase. He believed Russell was engaged in cynical demagoguery, and publicly denied he was sacked on the land issue. When Russell published a letter from the prime minister confirming his statement, Rentoul claimed Russell's departure was due to his reckless political tactics. In July 1901 parliamentary exchanges between Rentoul and Russell grew so heated that the Speaker intervened.
In November 1901 Rentoul was appointed a judge of the City of London court and the central criminal court. While accepting office of profit under the Crown normally resulted in one vacating a parliamentary seat, Rentoul maintained his office was not a Crown one. The Speaker decided that the judgeship was compatible with a seat in parliament, but MPs appointed to it must seek re-election. Rentoul decided not to stand again. At the by-election the official unionist R. H. Wallace (qv) was narrowly defeated by a Russellite. In 1903 Rentoul declared his intention of contesting the seat again, partly in reaction to the emergence of James Craig (qv) as unionist candidate because Craig's family wealth derived from a distillery. Rentoul withdrew, lacking local support.
During his early career Rentoul explicitly threatened violent resistance to Home Rule; he later denied he, or any acquaintances, had meant to resort to violence. Soon after the 1906 general election, he lectured a Manorcunningham protestant audience on the prospect of limited devolution, and advised acquiescence since Ireland would still be part of the empire. In 1911 he allowed the Home Rule MP Jeremiah MacVeagh (qv) to publish his view that neither he nor his Irish-based unionist relatives feared religious persecution under Home Rule. As a member of the London-based Ulster Association he opposed a 1913 motion to add commitment to the union to its constitution, although he remained a unionist.
Rentoul's judicial career was undistinguished. On 7 March 1907 he was on the bench for the last case tried in the historic Old Bailey building before its demolition. Rentoul was often outspoken when trying professional criminals or cases involving fraud. In his memoirs he defends flogging of habitual offenders, but notes that he was lenient in cases of bigamy attributable to difficulties faced by the poor in obtaining divorces.
In 1907 and 1917 he publicly quarrelled with the lord mayor of London over the serving of alcohol at official banquets, and in 1910 he was criticised by the Law Journal for a humorous speech at a Conservative meeting offering to 'do his best' for any attendees prosecuted in his court.
Rentoul's health declined in his last years, overshadowed by the death of his wife in 1914. In September 1911 he suffered a seizure in court and in 1914 a serious respiratory illness. In 1915 he was censured by the court of appeal after accusing a barrister of mishandling the defence of his client. In 1919 the court of appeal reversed a conviction because Rentoul, summing up in a case involving two defendants, forgot to discuss one of them. In February 1919 he was diagnosed with heart disease. He retired on 2 July 1919 and died shortly before midnight on 12 August 1919 at his home in West Kensington, London.
In his last months Rentoul wrote and dictated recollections of his life and opinions; these were edited by his sister Elizabeth (sole beneficiary of his will, proved at £6,082) and published in 1921 with an introduction by his son Gervais. Although anecdotal and focussed more on law than on parliamentary politics, they are one of the few memoirs by an Ulster unionist MP of that generation and reveal Rentoul's final suspicion that his opposition to Home Rule was mistaken. Rentoul now believed Ireland could not be held by transforming it into 'an armed camp' as in 1919. He praises John Redmond (qv) as a statesman loyal to the empire, and brackets him and George Wyndham (qv) as far-sighted leaders brought down by disloyal followers. Carson and his associates are denounced for treasonable language and behaviour which helped to destabilise both Ireland and Europe, and Rentoul complains of Ulster Unionists' abandonment of their southern brethren.
Rentoul's memoir played down hard-line or opportunistic aspects of his political career, but he was consistently utilitarian, believing Irish nationalism could be defused by material reform and facilitating access by Irish catholics to educational and professional opportunities which empire opened to talented outsiders such as himself.