The Union (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Union | start of chapter

Meanwhile, the passage of the Bill was not going smoothly in Ireland. In spite of the persistent efforts of Castlereagh and the lavish promises of high rewards, in spite of the dismissal of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Parnell, and of the Prime Serjeant, James FitzGerald, and the resignations of George Knox, Colonel Foster, son of the Speaker, and J. C. Beresford, Castlereagh was very uncertain of the issue of the debate.[20]

The Speaker, Foster, was organizing the opposition and his dismissal was also under consideration. Lord Pery, Sir Lawrence Parsons, Sir John Parnell, the Ponsonbys and Plunket, made a formidable and able body of opponents, whose position and staunch honesty of purpose carried great weight; still, from 160 to 170 votes were calculated upon if all attended.

The debate took place on January 22, 1799, when the Lord-Lieutenant delivered a speech from the throne in the Upper House, and was followed by Lord Glandore, recommending the subject of a legislative union with Great Britain to the consideration of the House.

Lord Powerscourt vigorously opposed the measure, declaring that the House was incompetent to entertain the principle of a legislative union, and that therefore the subject ought not to be discussed at all. He moved an amendment that, while they desired to strengthen the connexion between the two countries by every possible means, this measure was not within the limits of their power. He conceived that it would be highly impolitic to adopt such a measure, even supposing they had power to do so, and would tend, more than any other cause, to an ultimate separation from Great Britain.[21]

Lord Enniskillen seconded him, and Lord Bellamont introduced a second amendment to insert the words “so far as may be consistent with the permanent enjoyment, exercise, and tutelary vigilance of our resident and independent Parliament, as established, acknowledged and recognized.”

The aged Lord Charlemont returned to register his vote against the extinction of the liberties he had done so much to win; but the wavering Lord Ely, who was ultimately to be bought with a marquessate and a British peerage, went behind the throne and declined to vote. So little was he to be depended upon that Cornwallis thought it would be highly imprudent to give him his reward till the Union was passed; but in March he declared for the Act he had abhorred, and brought with him two members, though his adhesion was “clogged with some awkwardness.”[22]

At twelve o’clock the house divided; fifty-two were in favour of Union, the Bishops of Down and Limerick and seventeen lay peers against. “Never,” exclaims Sir Jonah Barrington, “did a body of hereditary nobles, many of ancient family and several of splendid fortune, so disgrace their ancestry. After an ineffectual resistance … the Irish Lords recorded their own humiliation. They perpetrated the most extraordinary act of legislative suicide which ever stained the records of a nation.” “In the hands of the Chancellor, Lord Clare,” he adds, “the House was powerless, his mere automaton or puppet which he coerced or humoured according to his ambition or caprice. … The Irish Lords lay prostrate before the Government.”[23]

Clare’s speech on this occasion was undoubtedly a great forensic triumph, and presented the case for the Union with a masterly lucidity. But such a speech came strangely from one who, a few years before, had declared that he would fling his office in the face of anyone who spoke to him of Union.

In the Commons the debate was long and brilliant. The son of the Marquess of Waterford moved the address on Lord Cornwallis’s speech and for a day and a night the motion was opposed by the few incorruptibles who dared to challenge the Government, in spite of certain loss of place and favour.

Lord Castlereagh replied, stating the case for the Union with the cynical arguments and in the cold, hard style which enforced unpleasant truths with what Lord Plunket’s grandson called “abrupt, inevitable force.” “Incorporate with Great Britain,” he said, “and you will have a common interest and common means. If Great Britain calls for your subjection, resist it; but if she wishes to unite with you on terms of equality ’tis madness not to accept the offer.”

To this specious address Lord Plunket rose to reply in the uncertain light of a wintry daybreak. His broad and massive face was marked by the intensity of his feeling, and his strong, metallic voice rang over a House hushed into silence. “This is a subject,” he began, “which must arouse the slumbering, and might almost reanimate the dead. It is a question whether Ireland shall cease to be free. It is a question involving our dearest interests and for ever.”

In scathing words he lashed the “black corruption” that had been carried on within the walls of the Castle by men “who could not endure any reflection on their untainted and virgin integrity.”

He denied the competency of Parliament to do this act. “You have not been elected for this purpose,” he cried.

“You are appointed to make laws and not legislatures. You are appointed to act under the Constitution, not to alter it. You are appointed to exercise the functions of legislators, not to transfer them. If you do so, your act is a dissolution of Government … no man in the land is bound to obey you.”[24]

It seemed as though another Grattan had been born into the assembly. This great speech was not without effect. The numbers announced at the division showed that the Government had a majority of only one, two Members having been bought over openly in the House when the result seemed doubtful, during the progress of the debate.[25] Thus a slight majority was secured for the Government.

Two days later, on January 24, the debate was renewed, when a still more excited discussion took place, George Ponsonby avowing that the measure was revolutionary; that it would endanger the compact between the Crown and the subject and the connexion between the two countries. Such a speech from a discreet and loyal man and constitutional lawyer of high position in the country produced an immense effect in the House. He assailed Lord Castlereagh with cool and deliberate irony, which affected even the youthful Minister, who endeavoured to reply to this new attack and to Plunket’s philippic of the previous occasion at one and the same time.

The galleries were filled, and the excitement was immense when a majority of five against the Government was announced. The city was illuminated; joy-bells were rung in Dublin and Cork; and the populace drew home the Speaker’s coach in triumph. Unionists and anti-Unionists established duelling clubs, where the political animosities of the day could be fought out in a practical manner.[26]

Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh

But the question of the Union was only postponed. Castlereagh wrote to the Duke of Portland the day after the debate that “considering the temper of Parliament and the country he did not see the possibility of re-agitating the question this session with any advantage.” But the time was advantageously spent in “composing more fortunately” the leading interests toward the measure, and convincing the misguided of their errors, as Portland had recommended in his reply.

The last discussion of the session bearing on the Union took place on May 15, and the question was not again brought forward till January 15 of the following year (1800) when, after one of the most stirring debates ever heard in the Irish Parliament, the Members signed their own death-warrant in the division that followed.

Meanwhile Ministers had not been idle. Castlereagh was coolly calculating the money price to be paid for the success of the measure. He put the total at a million and a half, to be levied on Ireland itself for the purchase of its own political extinction.

Every nobleman who returned Members to Parliament was to receive £15,000 in compensation for each of such Members; as few returned less than two Members the price paid was a large one.

Every Member who had paid for a seat in Parliament was to have his money returned to him, and all Members who were losers by the Union were to be compensated for their losses.

The borough interest, the Dublin interest, the barristers, all had their price; and places and honours were lavishly scattered to accommodate the waverers. Those officials who dissented were dismissed.[27]

All these arrangements were, with a cynical contempt for human cupidity, openly stated in the House. The public lack of any sense of morality may be judged by Portland’s remark on these arrangements that “the whole of Lord Castlereagh’s conduct throughout the course of the proceeding has been so judicious and correct that it is the decided opinion of the King’s Servants that the line he has hitherto observed cannot be too strictly adhered to.”[28]

The proceedings had their effect. During the recess Lord Cornwallis made a tour through the country to obtain signatures to petitions for a Union. During this tour the warmest supporters of the Government project proved to be the Catholic bishops and clergy, who were now almost unanimous in its favour. They were followed by a large number of the laity of their own faith, both nobles and commoners. It is, indeed, safe to say that but for the strong support of the Catholics all over the country the Union could not have been passed except by pure force and bribery.

Plowden, the Catholic historian, tells us that “it may be said that a very great preponderancy in favour of the Union existed in the Catholic body, particularly in their nobility, gentry, and clergy.”[29]

The truth of this statement was proved by the petitions in its favour which were sent up, alike from the Catholics of the towns and country districts, with their bishops at the head. Cornwallis might well report on his return that “he found a general good disposition towards the Government and cordial approbation of the measure.”

The Catholics believed that all their chances of freedom lay in union with England. The Protestant gentry, for that very reason, resisted a union which they felt would mean, in large measure, the eclipse of their prestige and power.

It is to be remembered, as some explanation of the Government payments, that the sums paid in ordinary times for seats were very large. The election of Caulfeild, Lord Charlemont’s brother, had recently cost £7,000; that of Viscount Castlereagh had cost in election expenses £60,000 for the Hillsborough interest, money that had been saved by his father for the completion of the Mount Stewart estates.

It was intended to send one hundred Members to Westminster, the gross pecuniary compensation for the remaining boroughs being calculated at £563,000. But no excuse can be made for the lavish scale on which money payments were distributed and places given away with a view to corrupt the Houses.

The demands continued to rise as fast as they were acceded to. “There were times,” says Sir Jonah Barrington, “when Mr. Pitt would have lost his head for a tithe of his government of Ireland.”

And while all this was going on in the official circle, a reign of terror which made it dangerous to petition, especially for Catholics, was in force in the country. Executions for the late rebellion were proceeding in various parts, “the same wretched business of courts-martial, hanging, transporting, etc. … going on as usual,” as Cornwallis, the person most responsible, reports on September 26 to Castlereagh.[30]

On January 15, 1800, the last session of the Irish Parliament met, being surrounded with military and under the threat of Lord Castlereagh that the sitting would be removed to Cork if its proceedings were interrupted.

Many able speeches were made on the motion of Sir Lawrence Parsons by members of the Opposition, those of Bushe and Plunket making the deepest impression.

In the early morning Patrick Egan had risen to speak, when a whisper ran through the House that Grattan, by the almost superhuman efforts of his friends, had been elected in time for the close of the debate for Henry Tighe’s close borough of Wicklow, and that he was on the road to Dublin to take his seat.

At this moment the doors of the House were thrown open and Grattan, supported by George Ponsonby and Arthur Moore, entered the House.

“The effect was electrical. Mr. Grattan’s illness and deep chagrin had reduced a form, never symmetrical, and a visage at all times thin, nearly to the appearance of a spectre. As he feebly tottered into the House, every Member simultaneously rose from his seat.”[31]

Even Castlereagh stood uncovered at the head of the Treasury Bench while the venerable patriot took the oath. “Never was there a scene more solemn,” writes a reporter of the day; “an indescribable emotion seized the House and Gallery, and every heart heaved in pulsation to the name, the virtues, and the return to Parliament of the founder of the Constitution of 1782, the existence of which was now the subject of debate.”[32]

For two hours Grattan reviewed the situation since the establishment of the Parliament, but the result was determined before he came and the Government majority numbered forty-two. Though the debates went on, the fate of Ireland was then decided. Some months later, when the Bill was again before the House, Grattan uttered the famous words:

“Identification is a solid and imperial maxim, necessary for the preservation of freedom, necessary for that of empire; but without a union of hearts … identification is extinction, is dishonour, is conquest, not identification. … Yet I do not give up the country; I see her swoon, but she is not dead; though in her tomb she lies helpless and motionless, still there is on her lips a spirit of life, and on her cheek a glow of beauty … I remain here anchored to the fortunes of my country, faithful to her freedom, faithful to her fall.”[33]

On June 7, the third reading of the Articles was taken; and on July 2 the English Bill received the Royal Assent. The Union was accomplished.