THE IRISH ACT OF UNION (1799-1800)

From A Concise History of Ireland by P. W. Joyce

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921. William Pitt the great English prime minister had long resolved upon a legislative union between England and Ireland: he believed the proper time had now come; and made very careful preparations for his purpose. At the opening of 1799 the marquis of Cornwallis was lord lieutenant and lord Castlereagh was chief secretary. The Union was indirectly referred to in the Irish parliament in the speech from the throne on the 22nd January 1799. The opposition at once took the matter up, and they were joined by many who had hitherto been supporters of the government, among others John Foster the speaker, Sir John Parnell the chancellor of the exchequer, prime sergeant Fitzgerald, and Sir Jonah Barrington: all fearing the loss of their parliament. They moved "that the undoubted birthright of the people of Ireland, a resident and independent legislature, should be maintained." After an excited debate of twenty-two hours, the votes were equally divided, 106 each side. Parnell and Fitzgerald were soon afterwards dismissed from their offices.

922. In February 1799 the scheme was brought forward in the English parliament by Pitt, and approved. In Ireland elaborate preparations were made to carry it in next session. All persons holding offices who showed themselves adverse were dismissed. The Irish government had been all along corrupt—but now, still under outside orders —it went far beyond anything ever experienced before.

Those who had the disposal of seats—a money making possession in times of election—were in great alarm; for if the union were carried the 300 members would have to be reduced to a third, so that about 200 constituencies would be disfranchised. The opposition of these proprietors was bought off by large sums: about £15,000 was paid for each seat. One proprietor got £52,000: two others £45,000 each: a third £23,000; and so on. The entire sum paid for the whole of the "rotten" or "pocket" boroughs as they were called, was £1,260,000, which Ireland itself had to pay, for it was added to the Irish national debt.

923. To purchase the votes of individual members, and the favour of certain influential outsiders, 28 new peers were created, and 22 of those already peers were promoted; and there were besides, great numbers of bribes in the shape of pensions, judgeships, baronetcies, preferments, various situations, and direct cash. All this was done with scarcely an attempt at concealment. Lord Cornwallis, a high-minded man, expressed the utmost abhorrence at being obliged to take a part in these transactions.

924. The session opened on the 15th of January 1800: the last meeting of the Irish parliament. Grattan, knowing what was coming, had himself elected member for Wicklow, and though very ill, he rose from his bed and took his seat dressed in the uniform of the volunteers. Dublin was in a state of fearful excitement. The streets were filled with dismayed and sorrow-stricken crowds who had to be kept within bounds by cavalry.

925. Lord Castlereagh brought forward the motion in the commons. The anti-unionists opposed the project most determinedly; Grattan, worn with sickness, pleaded with all his old fiery eloquence; and Sir John Parnell proposed that there should be a dissolution and that a new parliament should be called to determine this great question; but the unionists carried everything. There were many motions: on the first the government had 158 against 115: and in the others there were corresponding majorities.

In the lords the bill was introduced by lord Clare (John Fitzgibbon), who had 50 votes against 25. On the 1st of August the royal assent was given; and the act of union came into force on the 1st January 1801.

926. The following are the chief provisions of the act of union:—

I. The two kingdoms to be henceforward one:—"The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland": the succession to the throne to remain the same as before.

II. The Irish representation in the united parliament to be:—In the lords: 4 spiritual peers taken in rotation, from session to session, from the Irish Protestant hierarchy; and 28 temporal peers to be elected for life by the whole Irish peerage; in the commons: 100 members.

III. All subjects of the United Kingdom to be under the same regulations as to trade and commerce.

IV. The Irish Established Church to be continued for ever, and to be united with that of England.

V. All members of parliament to take an oath, framed to exclude Roman Catholics (for no Catholic could conscientiously take it).

VI. Ireland to contribute two-seventeenths to the expenditure of the United Kingdom for twenty years, when new arrangements would be made.

VII. Each of the two countries to retain its own national debt as then existing; but ail future debts contracted to be joint debts.

VIII. The courts of justice to remain as they were: final appeals to the house of lords.

927. Pitt had at first intended to include in the articles of union the emancipation of the Catholics; but to this the leading Irish Protestants gave such fierce opposition that he had to abandon it.

But in order to lessen the hostility of the Catholics to the union, a promise was conveyed to them that emancipation would immediately follow. The promise however was not carried out; and the measure was delayed for twenty-nine years, chiefly through the invincible obstinacy of the king, who had a fixed idea that to agree to such a measure would be a breach of his coronation oath.

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