Parliamentary and Commercial Reform (1783-1785)

Patrick Weston Joyce

834. The Irish parliament, which was now free, was unhappily, as it stood—unreformed—as bad a type of parliament as could well be conceived: and the government resisted all reform. The house of commons consisted of 300 members, of whom only 72 were really returned by the people: all the rest were nominated, or their election was in some way influenced, by lords or other powerful people.

One noble lord commanded sixteen seats, a money making possession, for he sold them all in election times; another had fourteen, another nine, and so on. Twenty-five individuals owned about 116 seats. At one election the proprietor of Belturbet received £11,000 for the seat. The spurious boroughs fabricated in the time of the Stuarts (528) still existed , and all sent to parliament nominees of the government. The numbers of electors in many of these were not more than a dozen, who could in most cases be easily bought off. In some places, as at Swords near Dublin, every adult Protestant had a vote: an arrangement imitated from some constituencies in England. Under these circumstances it was always easy for the government to secure a majority by merely spending money. The house was thoroughly corrupt, with of course many noble individual exceptions.

835. Lastly the Roman Catholics, who formed four fifths of the population, were totally shut out: a Catholic could neither be a member nor vote for a member. It did not represent the nation: and it did not represent even the Protestant people. It contained within itself the elements of decay and dissolution There was never a parliament more in need of reform; and reform would have saved it.

836. Two great questions now lay before the country:—Parliamentary reform and the removal of restrictions on Irish commerce. A third question was Catholic emancipation, which however was, for the present, kept much in the background. Flood was for immediate action on reform; Grattan also was for reform, but thought the time had not come for pressing it, and left the matter in Flood's hands. Grattan was for emancipation; Flood was against it.

837. Flood felt keenly the loss of his influence; and Grattan's brilliant career and unbounded popularity had thrown him into the shade Between these two great men there was gradually growing up a feeling of rivalry and estrangement.

838. The volunteers took up the question of reform. A meeting of delegates was held in Dungannon in September, and there were other meetings in other parts of Ireland. In all these the subject was discussed, and a general convention in Dublin of delegates from all the volunteer corps of Ireland was arranged for the 10th of November 1783. These proceedings were very alarming to the government, who wanted no reform.

839. The earl of Northington was appointed lord lieutenant in June 1783, in place of lord Temple. The new parliament met in October, and the government, though fearing the volunteers, had a vote of thanks passed to them, probably to conciliate the country.

Flood brought in a motion in favour of retrenchment as a beginning of reform, in which the opposition were voted down by the government. In the debates that followed occurred a bitter and very lamentable altercation between Grattan and Flood, which terminated their friendship for ever. Yet subsequently, each bore generous testimony to the greatness of the other.

840. The 10th of November came, and 160 volunteer delegates assembled, first in the royal exchange in Dublin, and this being not large enough, afterwards in the Rotunda. Their commander was James Caulfield, earl of Charlemont, a man universally respected, of refined tastes and scholarly attainments, and moderate in his views. He was elected chairman.

841. Within the volunteers were men of more extreme views, who were for Catholic emancipation, and some even for total separation from England: these found a leader in an eccentric character, Frederick Augustus Hervey, earl of Bristol and Protestant bishop of Derry. He assumed great state: dressed out in gorgeous robes, he drove through the streets of Dublin, escorted by a company of dragoons, and followed by great mobs who idolised him.

842. The delegates held their sittings during the sitting of parliament. They discussed plans of reform, and after much labour certain propositions were agreed to, which however did not include any proposals for the relief of Catholics. This omission was the result of a discreditable manoeuvre on the part of the government, by which the convention was divided, and the ultra Protestants had the consideration of Catholic relief put aside.

843. In parliament Flood introduced a bill embodying the demands of the convention, which brought on a stormy debate. Barry Yelverton, now attorney general, afterwards lord Avonmore, led the opposition to the bill, at the same time denouncing vehemently the attempt to coerce the parliament by an armed body of men; and John Fitzgibbon and others followed in the same strain.

Flood, in a powerful speech, advocated the bill and defended the action of the volunteers. The scene in parliament is described as "almost terrific." Grattan supported the bill, but not very earnestly; and John Philpot Curran who had been elected for Kilbeggan this same year—1783—made his first parliamentary speech in favour of it. But the government party were too strong, and it was rejected by 159 against 77.

844. There were now serious fears of a collision between the volunteers and the government: but the counsels of lord Charlemont prevailed; and on the 2nd of December the convention was adjourned without any day being fixed for next meeting. This was the death blow to the influence of the volunteers, and they never afterwards played any important part in the political affairs of the country. Thus the efforts of the popular party to reform a corrupt parliament ended for the present in failure, through government opposition.

845. After this defeat of his party Flood resolved to play a part elsewhere, and entered the English parliament in December 1783, still retaining his Irish seat. He was now a member of both parliaments and spoke and voted in each.

846. In the following year he made another effort in Ireland at reform, but the Irish government successfully resisted all attempts to improve the representation. Napper Tandy a prominent member of the volunteers, Flood, and some others, made an attempt to have a series of meetings convened through the country; but the movement was put down by the government.

847. The duke of Rutland succeeded lord Northington as lord lieutenant in February 1784. The volunteers, deserted by their leaders, formed democratic associations and held secret meetings. In Dublin, Belfast, and elsewhere, they began to drill men in the use of arms, Catholics as well as Protestants; whereupon the government increased the army to 15,000 men, and took measures to revive the militia, a force in the service of the crown.

But the people hated the militia, and the country became greatly disturbed. Scenes of violence occurred everywhere. Even in Dublin the mobs paraded the streets, attacked and maimed soldiers, broke into shops and ill used the shopkeepers for selling English goods It was a time of trouble and alarm.

848. The next movement was an attempt to regulate the commercial relations with England, which were all against Ireland: and here the Irish government were on the side of reform, though their ideas fell short of those of the opposition. There were enormous prohibitory duties on Irish goods exported to England, but little or none on English goods brought to Ireland: this repressed Irish commerce and manufactures, and helped to keep the country in a state of distress and poverty.

849. To remedy this state ol things—to equalise English and Irish duties—Mr. Thomas Orde chief secretary brought down from the castle, on the part of the government, eleven propositions. One of the provisions was that all Irish revenue beyond £650,000 should be applied to the support of the British navy, which drew forth considerable opposition. The whole of the propositions were however passed through parliament in the shape of resolutions, 12th February 1785.

850. The eleven propositions were transmitted to England for adoption there; for as the restrictions had been the work of the English parliament, it was only in England they could be removed. But when they were proposed in England by William Pitt, then chancellor of the exchequer, there arose violent opposition; petitions against them poured in from companies, manufacturers, and merchants, in all parts of England, who insisted on maintaining the monopoly that enriched themselves and impoverished Ireland. Whereupon Pitt, fearing to face the storm, brought down to the English parliament twenty propositions of his own. much less favourable to Ireland—containing several injurious restrictions—and had them passed.

851. These on being transmitted to the Irish government and introduced by them to the Irish house in August 1785, were received by the opposition with an outburst of indignation. Flood led the opposition with all his old fire and energy. Grattan denounced the propositions in one of his finest speeches; and after an all-night stormy debate, the government had so small a majority—only 19—that they thought it more prudent to withdraw the bill. Thus the whole scheme of commercial reform fell through, and matters remained much as they were till the time of the Union.