Grattan’s Parliament, 1782: Its Rise and Fall - Sketches of Olden Days in Northern Ireland

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The story of the rise and fall of the Irish Parliament of 1782 has been told by Leland, Lecky, Froude, and Father O’Leary; and a few historical facts, on the authority of Lecky, from whom I quote freely, will not be without interest.

Shortly after the Act of Union had passed, Grattan, alluding to the rise of the Irish Parliament in 1782, and its fall 18 years after, said very sadly to a friend: “I sat by its cradle and followed its hearse.” It was in no small measure due to the influence of the Volunteer movement that the Irish Parliament of 1782 had its origin. The Volunteers were first enrolled in 1778, when war broke out with France. In that year official news came that an invasion of Belfast by the French was imminent, and the people flew to arms. The chief persons in Ireland nearly everywhere placed themselves at the head of the movement. The Duke of Leinster commanded the Dublin Corps, Lord Altamont that of Mayo, Lord Charlemont that of County Armagh. The Roman Catholics were not yet enrolled, but they contributed liberally towards expenses.

The Volunteer movement spread rapidly over all parts of the country. Nearly the whole resident gentry took part in it; a large proportion of the foremost names in Ireland may be found among its leaders. “Volunteer rank,” says Lecky, “became an object of ambition. Ladies gave it precedence in society. To be the head of a well-appointed corps was now the highest distinction of an Irish gentleman. A sincere loyalty to the Crown, and a firm resolution to defend the country from invasion, were blended with a resolute determination to maintain a distinctly Irish policy; and it was soon noticed that even among the poorer farmers there was a marked improvement in dress, cleanliness, and self-respect. Towards the close of 1781 the Volunteers were said to number not less than 80,000 men throughout Ireland. In the December of that year the officers and delegates of the first Ulster Regiment, commanded by Lord Charlemont, invited delegates from all the Volunteers of Ulster to meet at Dungannon to discuss the present alarming condition of public affairs, and in response to the invitation the delegates of 148 corps assembled in full uniform in the church of Dungannon. There were some of them men of high rank, and most of them men of large property and excellent character, and they conducted their debates with a gravity, decorum, and moderation which no assembly could have surpassed. Elected by a popular constituency of 25,000 armed men, free from the Borough influence and from corruption, a series of resolutions drawn up by Charlemont, Flood, Grattan, Stewart (the member for Tyrone), and Francis Dobbs, was submitted to the assembly. They resolved that the claims of any body of men, other than the King, Lords, and Commons of Ireland, to make laws to bind this Kingdom is unconstitutional, illegal, and a grievance; that the ports of this country are, by right, open to all foreign countries not at war with the King; … that the power exercised by the Privy Council of both Kingdoms under, or under colour or pretence of, the law of Poyning was unconstitutional and a grievance.”

The assembly at Dungannon had an immediate influence of the most decisive kind. Ulster was the heart of the Volunteer movement. In all parts of the country the Volunteer Corps hastened to give their adhesion to the resolutions of Dungannon. “It was impossible that England could refuse to the loyalty of Ireland the privileges she had offered to the arms of America,” said Grattan, in a great speech a few days after the Dungannon resolutions. Shortly afterwards Fox brought in a Bill to the English Parliament to repeal the 6th George I. Act, and carried it through; and when the Irish Parliament met on May 27th, 1782, the Duke of Portland, who was then the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, was instructed to announce to it that the King was prepared to give his unconditional assent to Acts to prevent the suppression of Bills in the Privy Council of this Kingdom, and the altering of them anywhere, and to limit the duration of the Mutiny Act to two years. Grattan rose to move an address of thanks, to express in the strongest terms his full satisfaction with what was done. “I understand,” he said, “that Great Britain gives up in toto every claim to authority over Ireland.” In gratitude to England, the Irish Parliament voted £100,000 towards furnishing 20,000 additional sailors to the British navy. In 1783 a Renunciation Bill was carried through the British Parliament, and this Act forms the coping-stone of the Constitution of 1782. It declares “that the right claim by the people of Ireland to be bound only by laws enacted by his Majesty and the Parliament of that Kingdom in all cases whatever, and to have all actions and suits at law or in equity decided by his Majesty’s courts therein, finally and without appeal from them, shall be, and it is hereby declared to be, established for ever, and shall at no time hereafter be questioned or questionable.” “And that no writ of error or appeal from Ireland shall under any circumstances be again decided in England.”

In these democratic days, when almost every man and woman has a vote, it is necessary to bear in mind that the form of government which had for a long time existed in Ireland bore but a faint and distant resemblance to a representative system. Between the years 1585 and 1692 there had been intervals, amounting altogether to nearly 85 years, during which no Irish Parliament sat. During nearly two-thirds of the 18th century the members of the House of Commons held their seats for the entire reign. The House of Lords scarcely possessed even a semblance of independence. It would be a mockery to describe the Irish House of Commons of 1782 as mainly a representative body. Of its 300 members, 64 only represented counties, while one hundred small boroughs, which contained only a small number of electors, and were in reality, in the majority of cases, at the absolute disposal of single patrons, returned no less than 200 members. Borough seats were commonly sold for £2,000 a Parliament, and the permanent patronage of a borough for from £8,000 to £10,000. The Lower House was, to a great extent, a creation of the Upper one. It was essentially an Assembly of the Protestant landed gentry. Grattan always wished for a reform, and to broaden the franchise; but yet he wished to leave the power in the hands of the propertied classes. Again, we must bear in mind that in Ireland there was, properly speaking, no Ministry responsible to the Irish Parliament. The position of Ministers was essentially different from the position of their colleagues in England. Ministerial power was mainly in the hands of the Lord Lieutenant and his Chief Secretary, and the Chief Secretary led the House of Commons, introduced for the most part Government business, and filled, in Ireland at least, as important a position as that of Prime Minister in England.

But the Lord Lieutenant and Chief Secretary were not politicians who had risen to prominence and leadership in the Irish Parliament. They were Englishmen, strangers to Ireland, appointed and instructed by English Ministers, and changed with each succeeding administration. An Irish administration which commanded the full confidence of the Irish Parliament might at any moment be overthrown by a vote of the English Parliament on some purely English question. This appears to Mr. Lecky to be a fatal fault in the Constitution of 1782. The Parliament of 1782 was looked upon by Wolfe Tone, O’Connor, Napper Tandy, and the great body of United Irishmen, as a Protestant garrison in possession of the land, magistracy, and power of the country; holding that property under the tenure of British power and supremacy, and ready at every instant to crush the rising of the conquered. Yet how little religious bigotry there had been in the great body of the Irish Protestants was shown by the Relief Acts of 1778 and 1782; by the resolutions in favour of the Roman Catholics passed by the Volunteers, who were chiefly Protestants, and by the attitude of the Presbyterians, especially those of Belfast.

With all its faults, and no doubt they were many, under Grattan’s Parliament the country prospered, at least till the sad havoc caused by the Rebellion. “The roads,” said a traveller of the time, “are almost invariably excellent. The inns are furnished with every accommodation that a traveller not too fastidious can require. Travelling is perfectly secure. Footpads, robbers, and highwaymen are seldom heard of except in the vicinity of Dublin.” The splendour of the capital was out of all proportion to the wealth of the country. A new custom-house of great architectural beauty was built. In 1782, under Lord Carlisle, a National bank, with a capital of one and a half millions, was established in Dublin. A General Post Office, the Irish Academy, a College of Physicians and a College of Surgeons speedily followed, and men of all parties and opinions recognised the rapid strides of national prosperity. “I am bold to say,” said Lord Clare, speaking of the preceding twenty years, in 1798, “there is not a nation in the habitable globe which has advanced in cultivation and commerce, in agriculture and in manufactures, with the same rapidity in the same period.” Cooke, who was the chief official writer in favour of the Union, uses very similar language.

The Irish Parliament of 1782 was loyal to the King, but it was utterly unlike any Parliament that could be set up by modern politicians. It was essentially an assembly of the leading members of the landed gentry of the country. The most experienced English statesmen, and a succession of English Viceroys, were convinced that the permanent concurrence of two Independent Parliaments under the Constitution of 1782 was impossible, and in time of war a collision might be fatal. The disastrous events of the last years of the century gradually produced a change. The danger of foreign invasion, the rapid rise of anarchy, emphasised the fact, and Lord Clare steadily and secretly favoured a Union. Perhaps the earliest notice of it is a letter of June 4th, 1798, in which Pitt writes to Auckland that he “had lately been discussing With Lord Grenville the expediency of taking steps for a Union.” The King and every one of his Ministers inclined to a Union, and soon the question was before both Parliaments. Brilliant speeches against it were made by Grattan, Goold, Plunket, Bushe, Lawrence, Ponsonby, and Toler; but the Government were determined to carry the measure, and in May, 1800, the brilliant Parliament of Grattan ceased to exist. Shortly afterwards, the King, in proroguing the British Parliament, declared that the Union was a measure on which his wishes had long been earnestly bent, and pronounced it to be the happiest event of his reign.

Yet in the heart of every Irishman, whatever his politics or religion, there is a tender spot for Grattan’s Parliament, and the genius, wit, and oratory of its members will long live and be cherished with pride by their countrymen.

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