The Struggle for Legislative Independence (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Struggle for Legislative Independence | start of chapter

From the death of Swift in 1745 until the rise of the Volunteer movement in 1778, the question of Irish Parliamentary independence languished. Internally the country was deeply disturbed and the prevailing depression showed itself in outbreaks all over the land and in the formation of secret societies which terrorized the inhabitants.

Exorbitant rents, low wages, and the exactions of middlemen had reduced the peasantry to a condition of grinding misery. The absenteeism of the owners, who looked upon their Irish estates simply in the light of income collected for them on the spot by agents, and for which they had no responsibility, added to the helplessness of the tenants, who seldom or never came into personal contact with their landlords.

Even to give the wretched cottier a permanent interest in his mud-built habitation was held to be an infringement of the Penal Code and was believed to be fraught with danger to Church and State.[6] Any man who attempted to take the part of the unfortunate cottager was esteemed “little better than a Papist.”

“Misery is ever restless,” as Lord Charlemont, a Protestant landlord who was witness of these evils, said, “and the man who is destitute both of enjoyment and hope can never be a good and quiet subject.” “A rebellion of slaves is always more bloody than an insurrection of freemen.”[7]

But the formation of the Catholic Committee in 1760 by Dr. Curry, author of the Civil Wars in Ireland, with the help of Charles O’Conor of Belanagare and Thomas Wyse of Waterford, inspired some hope in the Catholics of future relief. It was, in fact, the nucleus from which later movements in favour of emancipation took their rise. It showed that, though not formally withdrawn, the Popery laws were in practice relaxing and better relations growing up between people of differing religious opinions, which was later to bear fruit in the efforts made by the Episcopalians in Parliament to pass measures of Catholic relief.

Other great questions, such as Parliamentary Reform, freedom of the Press, and the right of the people to formulate their opinions through their representatives, were also in the air, and were being fought out simultaneously on both sides of the Irish Channel.

In England Parliamentary Reform was not carried until 1832, though it had been agitated since 1760; the freedom of the Press was gained during the Wilkes agitation in 1769–71, and Catholic Emancipation passed the Commons in 1812, though it was rejected by the Lords. The Bill admitting Catholics to Parliament was finally passed under the Wellington administration in 1829.

In Ireland these questions were to become of absorbing interest, and their discussion brought into the Parliamentary arena a number of men of exceptional ability, many of them well fitted to deal with constitutional affairs of importance.

It might cause surprise that any stirring of dead bones could take place in the Irish Parliament as then constituted. The Irish House of Lords, since its deprivation of the right of appeal in the reign of George I, had sunk into a condition so deplorable that men of independent mind refused to sit; some, like Lord Charlemont, even preferring a place in the Lower House.

Lord Chesterfield had termed the Upper House in England “a hospital for incurables”; the records of the Upper House in Ireland at this period might well have gained for it the title of an asylum for imbeciles. Civil and obsequious whatever the occasion, its members seemed to have abandoned the right of private judgment.

It was of little avail for the country to look for aid from any assembly whose records on many a critical question were summed up in the words: “Prayers. Ordered, that the judges be covered. Adjourned.”[8]

Lord Charlemont remarks that the Irish leaders were justly styled “undertakers,” for, from education and habit, “they were well fitted to preside at the funeral of the commonweal.”[9]

Even the presence of patriotic and independent noblemen like the Duke of Leinster, Lord Moira and Lord Powerscourt could have little effect in an assembly that believed itself to exist merely to register the acts of ministers. But in the Lower House life was not yet extinct, and in the struggle for its own independence, on which it was now embarking, men arose who were yet to prove by their conduct that “it was not for slavery they contended at the Boyne.”

The first to brave the anger of his government for having asserted the independence of the Irish Parliament was Dr. Lucas, a skilled Dublin physician who, after a violent struggle with the Castle authorities, was returned as member for Dublin. But he was more effective in his efforts to check the mismanagement of the Dublin Corporation than as a debater in Parliament. He had the boldness of Swift without his genius, and he attacked not only abuses but individuals. But he took a leading part in the struggle for the shortening of the duration of the Irish Parliaments. These had become accustomed to sit without prorogation until the death of a king; by the Octennial Bill of 1768 their duration was limited to eight years.

Lucas’s Pamphlets and public letters also helped to push forward the freedom of the Press in Ireland before the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty” had been heard in England. He established the Citizen’s Journal to support his views.

Two questions of the day gave an opportunity to the House to assert its constitutional rights. These were a Money Bill and the Mutiny Bill. Submissive as it had become, the House of Commons still clung to its claim to be the sole originator of Money Bills, and the guardian of the public funds. But when, in 1753, there was a surplus in the Treasury of nearly £200,000, a precedent was set which was held to bind Ireland.

This occurred under the dictatorship of Primate George Stone, known as “the Wolsey of Ireland,” who was appointed in 1747, and whose determination to govern independently of the “undertakers” led him into violent conflict with Boyle, soon to be created Earl of Shannon, whom he tried to oust from the Speakership of the House. The question of the disposal of the surplus was to these individuals merely an incident in their struggle for personal power, but it involved a question of vital importance to the country.

Stone supported the claim of the Crown to have the disposal of the surplus, while Boyle headed a popular or Whig party which upheld the right of the Irish Commons to allocate the money to Irish uses as they thought fit.

In 1749, the English Parliament had held that the Irish Parliament had not even the right to entertain such a question. They asserted that it lay in the Crown to dispose of all surplus revenues, and that nothing could be done without the King’s consent; thus the Commons of Ireland saw the last remnant of their independence slipping from them into English hands.

For the moment the matter was settled by the money being handed over by the King to the reduction of the national debt, Boyle being bought over by a peerage, with a pension of £3,000 a year for thirty-one years; his supporter, Malone, was made Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Servants of the Crown who opposed the King’s claim were dismissed from their posts. But the main crux of the matter remained in doubt, and so great was the interest aroused in the Commons in this important constitutional question that a borough sold in 1754 for three times as much as was given for it in 1750.

Lord Hartington, son to the Duke of Devonshire, who had been sent over by Fox as Viceroy to negotiate this business, brought about a momentary harmony; but Lord Charlemont, who was employed as negotiator between the parties, remarks that this was only the first instance out of thousands that he lived to witness in which men like Boyle and Malone, popularly known as “the Patriots,” assumed “the mask of patriotism to disguise self-interest and ambition,” the path of opposition being used as the surest road to office.[10]

The purchase of these “Patriots” by the gift of high offices of State aroused public attention to the whole question, and efforts were made to reduce the pension list, then amounting to an annual expenditure of £28,103; though only partially successful, the agitation served the purpose of laying bare the rottenness of the Irish Government.

It also brought into the arena new advocates, of whom Flood was one of the ablest. He was active, ardent, and persevering, and, though at times formal and laboured in his manner of speaking, his speeches were replete with just argument, and he was unrivalled in driving home his point.

Flood and Lord Charlemont, both of them young men, now formed a junction to oppose the tyranny of administration. Lord Townshend, who had been sent over as Viceroy in 1767, had not dared to question the right of the Irish Parliament to originate its own Money Bills, and on this point alone bribery failed to secure him a following.

When, in October 1769, a Money Bill was sent over by the English Privy Council it was rejected “because it had not its origin in that House.” Great excitement prevailed. The Commons were summoned to the bar by the Viceroy, who blamed their proceedings in the strongest terms and hastily prorogued Parliament, which did not meet again until March, 1771, when Lord Townshend carried a majority, though with great difficulty, in the House of Commons.

But a series of protests, “breathing a language most earnest and constitutional,” were signed by some sixteen or eighteen peers, led by the Duke of Leinster; and while peerages and pensions were being poured forth to buy the people through their representatives, the people themselves were awakening to their responsibilities.

One Member, the Speaker of the House, John Ponsonby, refused to present an obsequious address to the King in 1771 to thank him for continuing Townshend in office. He preferred to resign. He was succeeded by Edmond Sexton Pery, afterwards Lord Pery, who, though he had hitherto acted with the Government, showed himself henceforth the friend of all good movements for Ireland, such as the Corn Laws, the Tenantry Bill, the Tithe Regulations, and Free Trade.

Pery was a man of exceptional stability and strength of purpose, and his advice was resorted to by both parties. In a corrupt circle he was incorruptible, and his gravity and foresight were of great service in the House. Some years before Grattan came into public view, he had the courage to announce boldly that “the Parliament of Great Britain had no right to make laws for Ireland.”[11]

Signs of independent judgment such as this were not welcomed in England. But they were not easily put down. An article in the Public Advertiser calling on the authorities to suppress “the spirit of seditious obstinacy” shown in Ireland was ordered to be publicly burned in Dublin, and Townshend was lampooned in a series of papers by Sir Hercules Langrish called Baratariana. He was recalled in 1772, and Lord Harcourt replaced him, but this brought no cleaner system into politics; his ministry was one of sinister influence, and that of his successor, Lord Buckinghamshire, of acknowledged incapacity. But in Lord Harcourt’s time the movement for freedom of trade was begun by a speech of the Speaker in 1773 at the bar of the House of Lords; on this speech all the subsequent proceedings in favour of the extended commerce of Ireland were founded.

In 1775 Grattan entered Parliament for the borough of Charlemont. Unfortunately, at a moment when it was urgent that all enlightened men should unite to bring to an end a vicious system of government, Flood allowed himself to be bought over by the devices of Lord Harcourt’s secretary, Sir John Blaquiere, who courted and flattered him and at length induced him to take office. He became Vice-Treasurer with a salary of £3,500 a year.

We may believe, with the friends of Flood, that he accepted office from a conviction that he could thus better influence those in power in favour of reforms; but if this were so he was speedily undeceived. In later life, when a Member of the English Parliament, he complained that every one to whom he had entrusted a Parliamentary motion or plan of conduct for the session had almost uniformly betrayed him.[12]

When Grattan first entered the House of Commons the great struggle of America with England, which was to end in the Declaration of American Independence less than one year later (July 4, 1776), was at its height. “A voice from America shouted to liberty,” said Flood in 1782.

The struggle was watched with intense interest in Ireland, especially in Ulster, a large number of whose exiled sons were fighting and dying on the side of America against England. The war had its effect both on the question of Irish independence and on that of Catholic freedom.

The strong opposition in Ireland to the action of England in America was increased by a vote under the Harcourt administration for four thousand Irishmen to be raised as an addition to the English army in America. Flood termed them “armed negotiators.” But it was the carrying through of this measure that gave birth to the Irish Volunteers, a body of armed citizens, self-paid and self-disciplined, which was destined to be a chief agent in the advance of liberty, prosperity and security at home.

Belfast had not forgotten that in 1760 a small detachment of French troops had succeeded in entering Carrickfergus Bay under the command of Thurot, and that it was only the dissensions between the leaders of the expedition which had prevented their march on Belfast.

The town now applied for protection to the Government, which was gradually denuding the country of troops at a time when French privateers swarmed in the Channel. The reply of Sir Richard Heron, the Irish Secretary, was that no troops could be spared. Belfast, which had previously raised a small body of men to resist the French invasion, now set about organising itself for the purpose of the defence of the country.

With extraordinary rapidity the movement spread, and in little more than a year the numbers amounted to forty-two thousand men. No landlord dare meet his tenants, no member of Parliament his constituents, who was not willing to serve with his armed countrymen.

The Duke of Leinster, the Earl of Clanricarde, and in the north Lord Charlemont, became their leaders and commanded in their own parts of the country. The Volunteer army was at first wholly Protestant, but their aims were applauded and supported by their Catholic fellow-countrymen, who liberally contributed to the expenses of a body which the laws forbade them to join.

The organisation gave force to the appeals for Free Trade, Catholic Emancipation, and the independence of Parliament. But it did more than this, for it made the nation as a whole feel their unity as they had never before felt it, and it was with a united people that Britain had now to deal.

No charges of insubordination were made against the Volunteers; their discipline was perfect and their obedience complete; they became the pride of their commanders and the hope of the poor.

The question of relief for the Catholics was making slow but sure progress. From the death of Primate Boulter in 1742 the Penal Code was somewhat relaxed. Boulter had himself put the finishing touches to that infamous code of disabilities by getting passed the Irish Acts depriving Catholics of the franchise and by excluding them from the legal profession.[13]

But the feeling of the majority of the Protestants in the country was slowly changing towards their Catholic fellow-subjects. Many of these were making for themselves positions of wealth in the only avenues of activity left open to them, as merchants and agriculturists, and the Protestants began to realise the injustice of keeping them out of all posts of communal and political activity.

The friendly interest taken by the Catholics in the welfare of the Volunteers, from whose ranks the laws prohibiting their possession of arms excluded them, also had weight, and from 1772 onward, by slow steps, relief began to be conceded. In that year a Bill was passed securing to them the repayment of money lent to Protestants on mortgage, though it was only carried by a majority of two; in 1774, they were permitted to take mortgages on land, and in the same session a Bill proposed by Mr. (afterwards Sir Hercules) Langrishe, a brilliant and witty debater and a broadminded man, was passed, permitting Catholics to take leases not exceeding fifty square perches in any city or market-town, and in the country of under fifty acres.

The Catholic owner, however, must still “gavel” or subdivide his property among his successors at his death, and any member of his family who conformed as a Protestant was to receive the largest share. This Bill, curiously styled “a Bill for the better encouragement of persons professing the Popish religion to become Protestants,” was held at the time to be a great act of liberality; it was not till 1778 that a real property Act was passed in the Popish Relief Bill, which allowed land to be taken by Catholics for a term of 999 years or five lives, and did not oblige them to “gavel” or divide it at death.

This was soon followed by an Act permitting them to possess and inherit land absolutely, the conforming clauses, in many ways the worst feature of these laws, being at the same time repealed. Between 1702 and 1773 the number of those who had conformed was shown to be 4,055 persons; some of these, no doubt, were tempted by the prospect of becoming possessed of their fathers’ lands, thus making the father a tenant only for life.

The chief speakers on behalf of these measures were Sir Hercules Langrishe, Flood and Walter Hussey Burgh, who later became Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and whose support of enlightened measures gained him the affection of friends and the hatred of the Irish Government. On one occasion, after speaking in the House on the Parliamentary rights of Ireland, he remarked to Grattan:

“I have now, nor do I repent it, sealed the door against my own preferment and made the fortune of the man opposite to me.”

A Relief Bill for Presbyterians followed, repealing the Test Act, which was carried by large majorities in both Houses.