Grattan’s Parliament (3)

Eleanor Hull
Grattan’s Parliament | start of chapter

Where Grattan led, the people were ready to follow, North and South alike. Catholics and Protestants were interested in the extension of freedom to Catholics.

The appointment in August, 1790, of Edmund Burke’s son as secretary of the Catholic Committee greatly strengthened their hands, not on account of any energy or talent he showed in carrying through its plans but for the influence which his father’s high moral position in England brought to bear on its interests.

In that country Burke’s strong Protestant sympathies and his conservatism of mind, combined with his frequently expressed horror of the lines of development now being taken by the French Revolution, made his espousal of the cause of the Catholics all the more effective, for it accentuated the expressions of devotion to the English Constitution so frequently put forth by the Catholic party.

The debate in the House in 1792, though it did not result in a favourable vote, had led a large number of the Protestant gentry to examine the subject more gravely than they had ever done before, and many who had previously opposed now supported the Catholic cause.

The Catholic Committee, taking advantage of this modification of public opinion, now sent in a number of documents stating their views. They had produced a report in February, 1791, couched in moderate terms and praying “in all humility, that the justice, liberality, and wisdom of Parliament, and the benignity of our most gracious sovereign would relieve them from their degraded position and no longer suffer them to continue like strangers in their native land.”[11]

They published also a general exposition of their tenets, repudiating the notion, so commonly believed at the time, that they held that “no faith was to be kept with heretics” or that princes excommunicated by the Pope or by any ecclesiastical authority whatsoever might be deposed by their subjects.

They also declared that they upheld the Acts of Settlement and made no claim to lands now possessed by Protestants, and that before any Catholic was admitted to the franchise he should be obliged to take an oath to uphold and defend the property of the country as now established.[12]

Their dignified and constitutional action was not without effect. Lord Kenmare, Lord Fingall, Lord Gormanston and Lord ffrench, who had withdrawn from the Association, fearing that it was likely to adopt a disloyal attitude, rejoined the Committee, which was reorganized in 1793. Unfortunately, they seldom appeared at its meetings. It fell into the hands of the steadily growing wealthy middle-class of merchants, with John Keogh as their leader. It was estimated that the Association represented a million of money; one member alone paid £100,000 a year to the revenue.

The Presbyterians of Ulster steadily supported their proposals, and, despairing of any response from the Government in Dublin, it was decided to appeal direct to the King and his English advisers. When the deputation passed through Belfast on their way to London the Protestant populace drew their carriages through the streets, and the chief inhabitants offered them hospitality. It was an inspiring moment and the country at large felt it to be so.

Their reception in London, where Grattan and Lord Moira were working in their behalf, was gracious, and when the Irish Parliament met in January 1793 the members were electrified to hear the Viceroy read out a command from the King recommending them to give serious attention to the condition of his Catholic subjects.[13]

The debate was opened by an address of loyalty to the King, after which Grattan made a strong speech attacking the corruption of the Government. While thanking his Majesty for having come forward at a critical moment “to heal the political dissensions of his people on account of religion,” he held that reform in Parliament must accompany the concession of the Catholic claims.

The Chief Secretary reported after the debate that “concessions to the Catholics will certainly be acceded to by all parties to an extent which last year nothing could have effected,” and he ascribed this startling change in opinion to the passing of similar laws of relief in England, to the fears inspired by the advance of revolutionary ideas in France, and to the success of French arms and the probability of war. In Ireland the time was propitious.

The country at large now supported emancipation and felt that the perils which they had always associated with the idea of Popery were to all intents and purposes extinct; that, on the contrary, the Catholics as a whole were shewing themselves to be a conservative body, strongly averse to the new and, as they believed, dangerous teachings that were heralding the birth of the French Revolution across the Channel. Such sentiments as those expressed by Colonel Hutchinson: “The Catholics will forget to be bigots as soon as the Protestants cease to be persecutors,” found an echo among large sections of the population.

On February 4 Chief Secretary Hobart brought in a Bill proposing to give an equal franchise to the Catholics as to the Protestants both in town and country; to admit them to grand and petty juries; to give them the right to sit as civic magistrates and of voting at their election; to give them authority to endow schools and colleges and to take degrees at Dublin University; to allow them to carry arms and to hold all posts and offices, military and civil, with a few specified exceptions.

For more than five weeks this important measure was debated in the House. Its most violent opponent was Dr. Duigenan, who belonged to a Catholic family, but now held the post of Professor of law in Dublin University, a coarse but able man who all his life through viciously attacked the religion of his birth.

George Ogle and David La Touche also opposed; and Speaker Foster took the same side, though rather as a question of expediency than from any ill-feeling toward his fellow-countrymen. He thought the time not ripe, and declared that “the race for the Catholics” between the English and Irish Parliaments was merely a political move, in which the Irish Parliament had been outrun.

Sir George Ponsonby’s contention that the Catholics would not rest content with half measures, but if relieved at all must receive full equality, even if it were resisted by the Catholic aristocracy themselves, carried weight in the House. His appeal that the Government measure should be put aside and a full measure of equality be introduced ended with the words:

“They are Irish and I am Irish, and with the prosperity or adversity of our common country will I rise or fall.”

This determined attitude from a man of great influence in the House aroused the indignation of the Ministerial party, whose hands had been forced by the declaration in the King’s speech, but who had nevertheless been busily occupied before Parliament met in sowing seeds of suspicion toward the Catholics in the counties and corporations in order to induce resistance to the efforts for their relief. But the question had passed out of the hands of the oligarchy who had controlled it for so long. “Give the Catholics the pride of privilege,” cried Sir Hercules Langrishe, “and you will give them the principle of attachment; admit them within the walls of the constitution, and they will defend them.”[14]

Among those who in the Upper House were in favour of the bestowal of full rights were Lord Abercorn and the Duke of Leinster. The question became inseparably mingled with the struggle for reform, no reform of the House of Commons being complete, as was felt by an increasing section of the party, without the admission of representatives of the bulk of the population. Though this final step was to be reserved for a future day the Catholic gentry received at this time, along with the franchise, very substantial relief which affected all parts of their lives and opened to them avenues of education, influence, and position to which they had long been strangers.

But the measures were conceded only with what Langrishe called an “acrimonious unanimity”; and moderate men lamented that so great an Act of liberty should have been accompanied by every expression of distrust toward the people whom it was designed to relieve.[15] It was impossible that such an attitude should not rankle in the minds of the emancipated Catholics.

The effect of giving the vote to every forty-shilling freeholder, without bestowing at the same time the power of Parliamentary representation on the Catholic gentry was in the first instance to increase enormously the elective influence of the Protestant landlords, whose whole tenantry became voters without the possibility of returning one of their own faith to Parliament.

The dangers of so low a franchise had been pointed out in the course of the debates. It practically gave the vote to every cottier and most of these were Catholics. In three provinces out of four they numbered nearly six times the Protestant inhabitants, thus giving them an overwhelming majority and the power of turning the scale in elections in a large number of the constituencies. The Act was said with some justice “to court the Catholic rabble and insult the Catholic gentry.”[16]

The measure, however, was hailed with joy by the Catholic population, by their bishops, and by the Catholic Committee. The latter voted £2,000 for a statue of the King and £1,500 to Wolfe Tone, who had acted as their Secretary; after which the Committee dissolved itself. The members, however, recommended their followers to “co-operate by all loyal and constitutional means to obtain Parliamentary reform.”

Had it been possible to add the much-needed purification of the Houses of Parliament to the Acts already obtained, and to incorporate with it the right of representation to Catholics in both Houses, they might have become, under their new status, and with their then prevailing sentiments, a source of strength to the Empire; but the influence of vested rights and traditional fears sedulously nourished by the party in office brought the era of reconciliation to an end.

A short-lived harmony was brought about by the tidings that the all-powerful junto at the Castle was to be displaced, and that Lord Fitzwilliam, then President of the Council in London, was to be sent over as Lord-Lieutenant.

The recent passing of the Place Bill and the Pensions Bill led to the hope that a new régime might be established and that the Augean Stable of Government might be cleaned out. It was universally believed, and with good grounds, that there was to be an entire change of system. This belief was strengthened by Pitt’s inclusion of the Duke of Portland, Lord Spencer, and Wyndham in his remodelled ministry.

Portland was appointed to the Home Department which comprised the Irish Secretaryship, but the Viceroyalty was refused by the Duke of Devonshire and Lord Spencer, and was only accepted with reluctance by Fitzwilliam on the understanding that there was to be a change in the method of Government.

Both Portland and Fitzwilliam were advocates of larger measures for the Catholics, and the policy of admitting them to political power was the professed aim of Pitt. It had been thwarted, not in England, but by the Dublin politicians. “I have the best grounds for believing,” wrote Fitzwilliam, “that on the day of the Duke of Portland’s kissing hands it was determined to bring (the measure) forward this session.”

The new Viceroy was a well-meaning man, personally much liked in Ireland, where he had property, but hasty and wanting in judgment. Even before his appointment was confirmed he began offering posts and making promises in Ireland. He certainly outran his instructions. But he did well in endeavouring to secure the promise of support from Grattan, who, with the two Ponsonbys and Sir John Parnell, the Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer, had conferences with Pitt and Portland in London, though Grattan adhered to his original resolution to accept no office under Government, but to keep his hands free.

“The New System,” so much talked of, seemed to mean quite different things to several of the most influential of Pitt’s ministers; and Pitt himself refused to remove Chancellor Fitzgibbon on any terms, though the latter had shown himself the most violent and unsparing opponent of every measure of advance and the determined enemy of the Catholic claims. He supported quite openly Government by corruption and the retention of all power in English and Protestant hands, and his growing arrogance was seen in the withering and cynical contempt that he poured on all who differed from him. To retain him in his high post was to secure beforehand the destruction of all measures of reform. Yet he retained his office and, to the great anger of the friends of Grattan and the Irish Whigs, Pitt gave away other Irish posts of emolument as though he were dealing with a party change in England. People began to ask which of the two, Fitzwilliam or Fitzgibbon, was to govern Ireland.

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke
National Gallery, London.

To Burke, who, in his old age, watched the Irish situation with the same steady interest that he had shown when he was young, it seemed that there were in the country “a set of men who … by their innumerable corruptions, frauds, oppressions, and follies were opening a backdoor for Jacobinism to rush in.”

This was exactly what was happening, and Pitt’s unfortunate indecision added the last spark that was wanting to set the country aflame. It is not difficult to suggest causes for his indecision. The flood of warnings and threats of danger which flowed over to him from Ireland might in itself have been sufficient to make him hesitate in committing himself to the course he had marked out; but he undoubtedly felt that in the middle of a war with France, in which the English had just been driven out of Toulon and were being thrown back in Holland by the triumphant troops of the new Republic, it was not a time for experiments at home.

All measures of reform in England were brought to a stand from the same causes; and in the rising terror of the methods of revolution that England saw proceeding in France the most harmless efforts for social or political reform were put down with a heavy hand. Moreover, there was always at the back of Pitt’s mind the still obscure vision of a Union which should draw the fangs of Irish discontent and make her part of and subservient to English policy. For this, Fitzgibbon was indispensable, and to let Fitzgibbon go was to kill the plan untried. If the party of the Chancellor and that of the Viceroy could not agree it must be Fitzwilliam, and not Fitzgibbon, who must give way.

In the meantime Fitzwilliam had arrived in Dublin on January 4, 1795. He had been welcomed as a harbinger of good and had met Parliament on January 22. From the moment of his arrival the Catholic question had forced itself on his attention with the greatest urgency. The whole country was expectant.

For the first time the Catholic gentry took a leading part in the negotiations, while from all parts of the country petitions poured in. No corporate and few private objections were made by the Protestants; such expressions of opinion as came from them were in favour of a full repeal of all disqualifying laws, a sentiment which was in agreement with the Viceroy’s own strongly expressed wishes. Local controversies and quarrels had little echo in the House, and only the old stalwarts put up any opposition.

Meanwhile, the Commons heard the King’s serious speech on the dangers of the war with their accustomed loyalty and a vote of £200,000 for the British navy, moved by Grattan, was carried, the army and militia being at the same time raised to over forty thousand men. They desired no harassing stipulations, “all subjects of bargain between the countries being kept out of sight.”

The progress in industry, which had been marked, and the flourishing state of the revenue were commented upon. Some useful bills were passed, especially one abolishing the oppressive hearth-tax, and the Police Act was remodelled.

But as time passed the Viceroy became more and more uneasy at receiving no instructions from London on the pressing subject of the Catholic claims. The letters arriving from Portland ignored the Viceroy’s urgent requests for instructions; and Pitt, immersed in the conduct of the war, only turned “from the many important considerations of a different nature to which all our minds ought to be directed” to upbraid Fitzwilliam for his dismissal of Beresford, whose family had monopolized posts and pensions to such a degree that it seemed to Fitzwilliam to make them a danger to the State. He had found Beresford “filling a situation greater than that of the Lord-Lieutenant” and he refused to be associated with a person under “universal heavy suspicions” of maladministration.

This dismissal of a powerful servant seems to have occupied Pitt’s mind almost to the exclusion of any other Irish question, and the Viceroy attributed his own recall not to the Catholic Bill but to the pensioning off of Beresford, whom Pitt wished to retain.[17]

It was, in fact, a struggle to the death between the upholders of the old system of corruption against the introduction of a better order; and, for the moment, the old corrupt order prevailed. Behind this lesser question lay the yet more urgent one of the satisfaction of the Catholic hopes.

Pitt’s mind was slowly working towards the project of a possible Union between the two countries as a solution of all difficulties; and his growing inclination for Union undoubtedly was accompanied by the feeling that it was only after that step was accomplished that the admission of Catholics to Parliament could be safely given. But he was either ignorant of the urgency of the feeling in Ireland or he refused to be influenced by it.

Fitzwilliam in vain warned the English Ministers that they must face the practical certainty of driving that country into rebellion. Portland, now ready to sacrifice the policy which some time ago he had concurred in without any sign of dissent, wrote urging the postponement of the Catholic question “as a means of doing a greater service to the British Empire than it has been capable of receiving since the Revolution, or at least since the Union (with Scotland),”[18] to which Lord Fitzwilliam had replied, with a quick perception of the drift of Portland’s remark, as intended to encourage confusion with the aim of a Union with Ireland:

“It will be union, not with Great Britain, but with France.”

The recall of the Viceroy, in little more than two months after his landing, confirmed the belief of the expectant people that their hopes were useless and that the country had been deceived. Fox remarked that “Common sense seemed to be totally lost out of the councils of this devoted country,” and Dr. Hussey, one of the Catholic bishops, wrote that with the disastrous news of Fitzwilliam’s recall Ireland stood on the brink of civil war.