Grattan’s Parliament

Eleanor Hull
Grattan’s Parliament

The grant of independence did not suffice to check the corruption of Parliament. It was still formed of a purely Protestant oligarchy, whose boroughs were regarded as private property, generally of considerable money value, and who sold their interest, when it suited their convenience, to the Government. There was no real or open election; seats were purchased from their owners for large sums of money.

In 1790, eight years after the grant of independence, Grattan, speaking in the Commons, had still to confess that

“above two-thirds of the returns to the House are private property; of those returns, many actually are sold to the minister; the number of placemen and pensioners sitting here equals near one-half of the whole efficient body, the increase of that number within the last twenty years is greater than all the counties in Ireland. The country is placed in a sort of interval between the cessation of a system of oppression and the formation of a system of corruption.”[1]

If English dominance over Parliament had ceased with the passing of Grattan’s Bill, ministerial influence was as active as ever in corrupting Members. During 1783 a number of meetings of delegates of the Volunteers held in Cork, Lurgan and Belfast, formulated plans for the prosecution of Parliamentary reform, the shortening of the duration of Parliaments, a tax on absenteeism, the exclusion of pensioners, and the limiting of the number of placemen.

All these were useful proposals but so varied that, as Lord Charlemont feared, the principal measure was likely to be lost sight of in the multitude of subjects to be attacked. At his suggestion the secondary measures were dropped, and at a meeting at Dungannon which was called to organise a Convention in Dublin, a resolution was taken to call Members from the provinces to digest and publish a plan for Parliamentary reform.

A proposal to demand the concession to Catholics of the elective franchise was brought forward and, though it was postponed, it was a plain indication of the unifying influences of the late measures that such a proposition should have been discussed at a representative meeting almost entirely composed of Ulster Presbyterians. But for Lord Charlemont’s opposition it might have gone further, but on this point he held the strong prejudices of his day.

A number of influential delegates were chosen as representative of different opinions, and on November 10, 1783, the Convention met in Dublin. The Royal Exchange proving to be too small for the number of delegates, they marched across to the Rotunda with Lord Charlemont, as their Chairman, leading the way, while the streets were lined by Volunteers. The city presented a splendid and stirring aspect, the detachments of county corps which accompanied their respective delegates having new accoutrements and ensigns of great variety, and the streets being full of well-mounted cavalry officers.

The most remarkable figure was that of Frederick, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, son of Lord Harvey, one of a family equally noted for talents and for eccentricity. He had applied at different times for the diverse posts of the Bishopric of Durham and the Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland; he was now chagrined that he had not been elected president of the Convention. It was said of him that “he preferred the Church Militant to any other form of church,” and his progress from his diocese was made at every stage with warlike honours. He rode up to the Rotunda in a coach and six, dressed in purple, and escorted by a troop of dragoons on magnificent horses.

Trumpets announced his coming, and the Bishop passed along the streets bowing like a potentate on every hand. He entered the Rotunda just as the members of the Convention were proceeding to business, saluted them with dignity, took his seat, and then retired in the same majestic style, leaving the house breathless at the apparition. But on the ensuing days he acted with the zealous and earnest attention of a man of business. Anxious to make his influence felt in opposition to Charlemont and Grattan, he put forward Flood, whose eloquence soon gained for him a paramount influence in the assembly.

The chairman was besieged by plans of reform from “every speculatist, great clerks or no clerks at all” throughout the country, but eventually Flood’s proposals were adopted and a number of delegates who were possessed of borough properties declared, from a variety of motives, that they were ready to relinquish them for the benefit of the nation. The Bishop of Derry wished the Catholics to be included, but was resisted by Flood and the friends of Lord Charlemont.

Before the Convention began, the Irish Parliament had assembled and was then actually sitting. Flood, impatient of delay, rose in the Convention to propose that he and the other members should at once present their plan of reform in the shape of a Bill, adding to this proposition the suggestion “that the Convention should not adjourn till the fate of his motion was ascertained.”

It was to be a demand made as from one equal authority to another, backed by a display of armed force. As such, the Chairman strongly resisted it; he felt that it would put the Volunteers in the wrong; nevertheless, Flood gained his point and on the night of November 29 he carried his motion down to the House.

A scene of tremendous agitation followed. Flood led the attack with fire and fearlessness, and was replied to by the Attorney-General, Barry Yelverton, later to become Viscount Avonmore, who had been a zealous Volunteer, and who now, at the close of a speech of great argumentative power, appealed to that body to rest on the honours they had gained and the good work they had done.

Sir Hercules Langrishe argued in the same strain, and even Grattan, though he prayed that leave might be given to Flood to bring in his Bill, did not speak with his wonted assurance.

The Convention, through Flood’s hasty action, had succeeded in placing itself in antagonism to its own Parliament, and this the Members were determined to resist. The motion “that the House will maintain its just rights and privileges against all encroachments whatsoever” was proof of this feeling, and the refusal to bring in the Bill was carried by a two-thirds majority, the numbers being 159 to 77. Lord Charlemont, torn by indecision and timidity, two days later determined to dissolve the Convention, after passing a hasty address of loyalty to the King.

That the questions which had proved so agitating within the walls of Parliament and of the Rotunda found little echo in the country was shown in the elections which had preceded the Convention by only three months, when members of the party which had so recently won independence had great difficulty in finding seats.

Even Flood could hardly secure election, and Grattan was returned as before for the private borough of Charlemont. The great moment of the Volunteers was passed, though it was long before they were dissolved. But the Parliament that they had helped to render more free passed a number of useful measures, of which the independence of the judges, the limiting of the Mutiny Act to two years, the repeal of Poynings’ Law, and the passing of the Habeas Corpus Act were among the most important.

In the following years, 1784–85, Parliament discussed the important commercial propositions in a spirit of liberty which had long been absent from the debates of the House, and they showed considerable mastery of the subject and dexterity in dealing with it. But on the point of greatest importance no advance was made.

It proved impossible to induce the Houses of Parliament, even under the new conditions, to reform themselves. Strong as was the desire for reform in every part of the country, the vested interests were too powerful to be overcome.

In vain Flood introduced his Reform Bill and the counties presented petitions pointing out that the existing Parliament in no way represented the people but was for the most part “illegally returned” by a few large borough-holders, who sold seats for prices “as well ascertained as those of the cattle in the fields.”

Neither the great body of the Catholics or of the Presbyterian yeomanry of the North, who formed the bulk of the Volunteers, were represented within the walls of the Parliament they had helped to liberate. Flood had to withdraw his motion. His Reform Bill of March, 1785, though supported by petitions from twenty-six counties and defended with moderation and good sense, was rejected almost with contempt by a majority of seventy-four. It began to be felt that reform could only be attained by means of revolution.

Even more than Parliamentary Reform the subject of the commercial relations between England and Ireland and trade protection agitated the country. Though Irish manufactures were reviving consequent on the liberty of colonial trade recently granted, there had still been severe distress in 1783–84, and a proclamation that oats, oatmeal, and barley were not to be exported led to riots and unemployment owing to the rise in food prices.

Resolutions in favour of protecting duties were now introduced, supported by Sir Edward Newenham and argued with great ability. There was no sign of hostility to England, the promoters stating that their interest arose from commiseration for the condition of the poor inhabitants and not from any party spirit or factious motive whatsoever.

“There was, in the eyes of the Irish merchants, a radical error in their commercial system, which it was necessary for their legislature to remove. If England and all Europe adopted protective duties it was essential for Ireland, if she were to hold her place in the world’s markets to adopt the same policy.”

Foster, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, opposed the motion, but he was the author in the same year of an Act which, by granting large bounties on the exportation of corn and imposing heavy duties on its importation, had a most beneficial effect on agriculture in Ireland, and turned it in large part from a pastoral into an arable country, thus increasing employment and stimulating trade.

Newenham describes Foster’s Corn Law of 1784 as incomparably the most beneficent Irish measure of the eighteenth century, especially to small farmers and labourers. To it was chiefly ascribed the increasing prosperity of the country districts and the cessation of acute distress.[2]

The whole question of the commercial relations between Great Britain and Ireland, however, awaited fuller consideration, especially in reference to the new relations subsisting between the two Parliaments. The increasing extravagance with which the expenditure of the country was conducted, particularly during the term of office of the Duke of Rutland as Viceroy, made the matter more than ever urgent. Pitt had come into office in 1783, when the coalition of Fox with North came to an end, and Rutland was sent to Ireland with Thomas Orde as Chief Secretary.

In spite of the changed position of the Irish Parliament ministers were, as before, appointed by the English Government to express their views and were entirely devoted to the interests of their superiors; Irish officials and Members of Parliament looked to them as much as ever for favour and preferment, and the long hand of English authority stretched over every department of the State. The change had, at best, been only the triumph of a party; it could in no way pretend to be a national gain.

The country at large was still unrepresented and the habit of “supporting the King’s Government” was common enough among the Members to ensure on all ordinary occasions a large Government majority. Sinecures and jobbing were increasing to a frightful extent.

Fitzgibbon, who believed that there was no other method of government for Ireland, openly confessed that on one occasion half a million had been expended to secure an address to Lord Townshend. The pension for life bestowed on “single-speech Hamilton” of £2,500 on the Irish funds, in return for his resignation of the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, which he had treated purely as a sinecure, was only one of the worst examples of scandals that were constantly occurring.

The pension list now amounted to £94,000 a year; considerably more than that of England. In spite of the increasing prosperity of the country the expenditure largely exceeded the revenue.

The magnificent establishment set up in Dublin by the new Viceroy, an amiable and convivial but incompetent man, increased the extravagance of the courtiers, and was reflected in the habits of the general body of the citizens; the splendour of the city and the profuse indulgence of the gentry in pleasure ill accorded with the pecuniary condition of the inhabitants.

With the change in the ministry the question of the commercial relations came prominently to the front. Thomas Orde, the new Chief Secretary, had brought over with him the basis of a commercial treaty, the result of a previous correspondence with Pitt, which was laid before the Irish Parliament on February 7, 1785, in the form of eleven articles.

It was Pitt’s view that a perpetual free trade between the two countries was the only certain way of avoiding constant wars of hostile tariffs. His proposals led in this direction; they included the abolition of prohibitions and the equalization of duties, with the discontinuance of bounties on goods intended for either country, except foodstuffs. In return for these benefits the final article of the treaty provided that, whenever during times of peace the revenue produced more than the sum of £656,000, the surplus should go toward the support of the Navy, in whose protection Ireland participated without any liability for its cost.

Grattan amended this article in accordance with his principle that this contribution should only be made when income exceeded expenditure. In this sense he added the clause:

“After the expense of the nation is paid, to contribute to the general expenses of the Empire.”

But the treaty was accepted with little opposition, the Irish having in commercial dealings with the neighbouring country shown themselves consistently fair and reasonable. Foster at the same time moved for a reduction in expenditure, and additional taxes were voted to enable Ireland to carry out its part in the transaction.

The country had suffered so much from restrictions that a considerable party welcomed the idea of free trade with England. But in England the proposals, which were introduced by Pitt on February 22, encountered the most formidable opposition from the party of Fox and North, who denounced them as the ruin of English commerce, and from the manufacturing cities and Chambers of Commerce all over the kingdom.

Petitions, led by Lord Liverpool, poured in, and amendments were made which increased the original propositions from eleven to twenty. These additions debarred Ireland from trading directly with any part of the world beyond the Cape of Good Hope and the Straits of Magellan, and from importing any goods from India except through Great Britain. All Navigation Laws, of the past or future, in force in England, were to be accepted in Ireland without modification.

Such proposals were clearly incompatible with the independence of the Irish Parliament and were very far from giving her equal trade rights, for the conditions in the two countries were so different that the operation of the laws would be most unequal.

Sheridan and Fox denounced Pitt’s proposals on the double ground of their danger to British commerce and to Irish liberty. “I will not,” exclaimed Fox, “barter English commerce for Irish slavery; that is not the price I would pay, nor is this the thing I would purchase.” The propositions were returned to Dublin in their amended form only to meet with a fiery resentment.

Grattan, Flood, and Curran, the latter a young barrister soon to be better known, denounced a measure which in Grattan’s words involved “a surrender of trade in the East and of freedom in the West.”

The Bill had to be withdrawn amid public illuminations which testified to the public anxiety. Ireland continued to make her own trading regulations; and Lord Westmoreland, who became Lord-Lieutenant in 1790, testified that since the failure of Pitt’s propositions “no restraint or duty has been laid upon British produce or manufacture to prejudice their sale in this country or to grasp at any advantage to articles of Irish manufacture. … The utmost harmony subsisted in the commerce of the two kingdoms.”[3]