HL Deb 31 January 1812 vol 21 cc408-77
Earl Fitzwilliam said, he rose, in pursuance of his notice, to call the attention of their lordships to the situation of a very important part of the British Empire, and which their lordships were all aware was that part of the empire on the other side of St. George’s Channel. Little did he think, however, when he gave notice of his motion, founding his intention, as he then did, upon circumstances which had then already taken place, and which had excited the most alarming discontents in Ireland—little did he think, that at the time his motion would be discussed, he should have had to lament the existence of still further and aggravated circumstances, which could not fail to add most alarmingly to the discontents already existing, which could not fail to be pregnant with danger to the best interests and hopes of the country. Little did he think that he should have had to notice a line of conduct on the part of the government of Ireland, as developed by the mail that arrived yesterday, which he believed had no example during the whole of the last century, and to parallel which, he believed he must go back to the arbitrary reign of James the second. Where could the people look for protection or safety, if the great bulwark of personal safety and personal liberty, the trial by jury, was vitiated and corrupted? Yet he found, by the account which had reached London, of the proceedings in the Irish court of King’s bench, that the jury pannel summoned to try one of the Catholic Delegates had been tampered with, and that the crown solicitor had been numbering, and marking, and altering the list in a manner that proved the exercise of the undue influence of government; nay, that sir Charles Saxton, whom in the absence from Ireland of Mr. Secretary Pole, he must consider as the chief civil officer of the government, had been modelling the list in a manner that must excite the strongest feelings of alarm for the purity of the administration of justice in Ireland. It was true that the whole of the proceedings had not yet arrived; it was true that they did not know precisely the result but enough had been developed to excite the greatest alarm; enough had been discovered to add strongly to the discontents already so unhappily existing. Take away, by undue means, the security the subject enjoyed from a fair trial by jury, and what remained to him of protection or safety? He hoped that the persons whose names had been, implicated in this transaction, would be able to clear themselves from the charge which thus, according to report, appeared against them; but he lamented to say, that from what was already known, enough had been discovered to render the people of Ireland justly dissatisfied. Enough also had been discovered to shew, in the strongest point of view, the necessity of the motion with which he intended to conclude, for a Committee to take into its consideration the situation of affairs in Ireland. If however their lordships should consider these circumstances in the perhaps imperfect state in which they were known to be, as not being a sufficient ground at the present moment for such a motion, still there were amply sufficient grounds previously existing for agreeing to such a proposition. That the discontents in Ireland chiefly arose from the denial to the Catholic body of the same rights which were enjoyed by their fellow-citizens, there could be no doubt. This topic had been often pressed upon their lordships’ consideration, and must be again and again, until the evil was redressed; for it was an evil which sorely pressed upon a large portion of his Majesty’s subjects, and tranquillity could not be expected until those disabilities were removed. Why such disabilities should continue to exist he was utterly at a loss to discover. No ground or reason remained to support them. It was idle to suppose that there was a single particle of religion in the opposition made to the Catholic claims. Whether a man did or did not worship the Virgin Mary whether he conceived he took the real body and blood of Christ, in the Eucharist, or whether he merely received the Sacrament in commemoration of the sufferings of our Saviour, was a matter so wholly indifferent to all considerations of state, that it were ridiculous to suppose that such differences of opinion in matters of religion, could influence the minds of men in mere considerations of policy; some other reasons must therefore be sought for continuing the exclusion of the Catholics, but none now remained. Whatever might have been the justice of the policy which formerly excluded them from the pale of the constitution, the considerations which dictated that exclusion, had long ceased to operate. The policy which dictated the enactment of disabilities upon the Catholics must be sought for in the latter end of the reign of Charles the second; at that period a sense of danger had justly been raised in the public mind in consequence of the well known disposition of James duke of York, the presumptive heir to the crown; his well known propensity to arbitrary power, and the support which he received from the Catholic body, raised a just alarm: and the restrictions upon that body, which were then agreed to by parliament, were founded upon well ascertained considerations of their necessity to the public safety. The subsequent conduct of James duke of York, when he succeeded to the throne, fully justified all the precautionary measures which the parliament had previously adopted, and at the same time displayed the futility of his attempts to obtain that arbitrary power which he sought. During the life of that Prince also, after his, abdication, the support which he received from the Catholic body might justify the continuance of those restrictions. The same might perhaps be said with respect to the Pretender, his son, or supposed son. But for a long long time this family had become utterly extinct, and no possible reason could be drawn from the consideration that operated with reference to that family, for now continuing the disabilities of the Catholics. With what justice, then, or with what view of policy could it be contended that so large a proportion of his Majesty’s subjects should be excluded from the rights and privileges enjoyed by their fellow citizens? Shut out from the offices of state, excluded from parliament, denied professional advancement, and refused promotion to the higher ranks in the army and the navy, what must be the consequence, but the engendering a mass of discontent, which must necessarily divide and distract the empire.
The parliament of Ireland had seen the policy and the necessity of conciliating this large proportion of his Majesty’s subjects, and had wisely passed acts, restoring the great mass of the Catholic population to the pale of the constitution, and allowing them the rights exercised by their fellow-citizens. These concessions, so far from producing any evil, had produced the most beneficial effects. The lower order of the Catholics, thus restored to their rights, had, in the exercise of their elective franchise, gone hand in hand with their Protestant brethren, and the utmost harmony amongst both was the result, without the slightest tinge of discord arising from any difference of religion. Still, however, notwithstanding this, the higher orders of the Catholics were excluded from parliament, and from those offices and that advancement to which they had an equal claim with their Protestant brethren. Could any reason now exist for this exclusion? Was it to be believed, after the good conduct displayed by the lower orders of the Catholics, that the higher orders of that body, after being restored to their rights and privileges, would not be equally disposed to act with the same harmony and good fellowship as their brethren of a different religion? The supposition would be monstrous and absurd, and could not for a moment be upheld. He could not, therefore, discover any, even the slightest reason for the continuance of those disabilities under which the Catholics so heavily laboured, and which naturally and necessarily tended to produce irritation and discontent. The situation of the Catholics, then, formed a cogent reason for taking into consideration the state of affairs in Ireland, but there were also other reasons which pressed in the most forcible manner. The government of Ireland and the people of Ireland were at this moment actually at variance. By the people, he did not mean the populace, but persons of rank, consideration, and property. With these persons, with the great mass of property in Ireland, the government of that part of the empire was actually at variance. The right of petitioning, the sacred right of the people, the government had attempted to impede and interrupt, and in their efforts for that purpose the government had failed. They had brought a case before a jury, and notwithstanding the manner, not very decent, in which the counsel for the crown had challenged the Jurors, a Jury of twelve men had acquitted the defendant. Was not this direct variance between the government and the people of Ireland one of the strongest possible reasons for inquiring into the situation of affairs in that part of the empire? Was it not of the greatest importance in the war in which we were engaged, that the whole united strength of the empire should be put forth, and that all ranks and classes of his Majesty’s subjects should be united in one common bond of union? But how could this be effected, if discontents were suffered to exist, and their causes remain unremoved? From every consideration, therefore, of policy and of safety, he thought their lordships were called upon to set about enquiring into the causes of those discontents, which undoubtedly existed to an alarming extent in Ireland, with the view of allaying and removing them by timely conciliation and concession. The noble earl concluded by moving, “That the House do resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House, to take into consideration the present situation of affairs in Ireland.”
The Duke of Devonshire said, he rose to second the motion with considerable diffidence, in now addressing their lordships for the first time. He could not however justify to himself the neglect of an opportunity upon so important an occasion of expressing his sentiments. He concurred in all that had been urged by his noble friend, and he trusted that all their lordships must see the necessity of agreeing to the proposed inquiry—must see the wisdom and the policy of conciliating the great mass of the population of Ireland. To such a line of policy he was a warm friend, thinking it the only means of rendering the empire safe and secure, by the firm and sincere union of all classes of the poeple.
The Earl of Rosse observed, that the noble mover had spoken of discontents of Ireland, and he was not surprized that the noble earl should take a deep interest in the affairs of that part of the empire, not only from the magnificent property he possessed there, but from his serious desire for the welfare of the country. He lamented that there were discontents, but he could not agree with the noble earl in the mode he proposed of allaying them. He regretted that the noble earl should have brought forward the charge of tampering with a jury, and should have mentioned the name of a highly respectable individual. Upon what did the noble earl found that charge? merely upon report. If any charge was proved against persons of tampering with a jury; he would most heartily join in the censure which such persons deserved; but surely it was time enough when such charge was brought forward, founded upon regular documents, to take it into consideration. At the present moment a report in a news-paper formed the only basis of that part of the noble earl’s speech which related to this topic, and not a single document was before the House, from which they could form any judgment of the nature of the circumstances alledged?—Was any noble lord assured of the fact? Did any document appear on their lordships’ table? If not, how feeble was the foundation, how weak the basis, on which the present motion for inquiry rested; for, he would ask, did it become the dignity of that House to make the newspapers of the day a ground for a solemn proceeding? If facts had really happened as was stated, there were laws in Ireland to vindicate the wrong; but, noble lords should not suffer their minds to be prepossessed on such a subject.—The second ground relied upon, was, the alarming situation of that country. The exigencies, it appeared, were so pressing, the danger so immediate, that no time was to be lost. His own view of the circumstances, he must say, differed very widely from those of the noble earl. He thought no danger was to be apprehended while the Irish government was firm, and while we were disposed to support its acts. To him it appeared, that the alleged discontents were the strongest argument against the present measure: for even if the House were disposed to do all that was required of it, the measure ought to spring spontaneously from its own bounty and liberality, and not, as might now be imputed, from fear. The Catholics, indeed, had assumed such a tone of determined hostility; they had treated the promulgations of government with such contumely, that any concession must at present appear, in the extremest degree, mean and pusillanimous. The Catholics would then be the victors, the government the vanquished; and, like all other victors, the Catholics would press on to make new demands, and enforce new claims. He agreed with the noble earl, that the cause of the present discontent was the being prevented from petitioning in the manner desired. If the government had attempted to stifle petitioning, then their lord ships might have been properly called upon to interfere: for the Catholics had the same right as all the rest of his Majesty’s subjects to petition: but the Irish government had not attempted to impede the Catholics in any measure where they would not also have impeded the Protestants. The claims of the Catholics could be but equal, not superior, privileges to the Protestants, who, if they had endeavoured to petition by convention, must have been proceeded against in a precisely similar manner. He would for a moment put the Convention act out of the question, and ask, whether the people of England would have a right to petition by convention as attempted in Ireland? The House of Commons were the only constitutional representatives of the people: but for a moment he would suppose the case to be otherwise; that the people should elect another representative body,—that delegates from different counties should meet in the metropolis, and for the most legitimate object,—the redress of grievances. When so met, what could hinder them from agitating every subject connected remotely or directly with their main object? Might they not discuss the whole system of peace and war, the raising of taxes, the ability to pay them, the resources for recruiting armies, the state of our foreign relations—in short, the whole internal and external policy of the kingdom All the topics, in fact, which occupied the attention of parliament in the course of a whole session, might be deliberated in such a conventional assembly. What, however, would be the consequence of two such representative bodies? Surely this, that it would frequently occur that one representative convention would issue opinions directly opposite to those of the other. He would ask, also, if such a convention had a right to sit for a day or a week, why not for a month or a year—or as long as parliament should sit, or as long as it pleased? If however, no noble lord could shut his mind to the dangers of such a convention—if all must agree that such a representative assembly should be crushed in its very commencement, then the Irish government should not be reprehended for doing what the English government, in a case exactly analogous, would, be reprehended for not doing. If he were asked what precedent, what law, he, could adduce in support of his opinions, he would answer, the immemorial usage of our ancestors; the non-existence, during any period of our history, of such a scheme of representation, (for the convention of the Revolution was not a corresponding case); and, lastly, its incompatibility with the nature of our constitution. The law, then, had dictated to the Irish government the course which it was their duty to pursue. An act of parliament had dictated the same course—and they had pursued it. He wished the noble lords to recollect, that when the provisions of that statute were first debated in that House, no noble lord had objected to the construction of that act, but to the method of promulgating it. The noble lords on the opposite side had recommended the method by proclamation; the Irish government had adopted that method on the present occasion; and if the Irish Catholics had entertained any respect for the two Houses of Parliament, or for the ordinances of their own government, they would have desisted from a farther prosecution of their plan. On the contrary, what steps had they taken? The Irish government, in exact compliance with the proposition of noble lords on the other side of the House, had, on one day, issued a proclamation; they had at the same time addressed a communication to the head of the Catholic body: but the very next day a counter-proclamation appeared from the Catholics. Thus they set themselves in direct opposition, in evident and open hostility, to the government; and was this a time to submit to their pretensions and adopt conciliatory measures? The government were accused of exciting discontent among the Catholics; but how had they done so? By enforcing the laws. Surely, not to those who enforced, but to those who broke the laws, should be imputed the blame of exciting discontent. The conduct of the duke of Richmond, so far from being reproachable, appeared to him to deserve great praise for its conciliatory spirit and forbearance, as long as such forbearance was legally possible. For to what excess might not the principle and plan of the convention have been carried? How had America proceeded when it wished to separate itself from this kingdom? Was it not by means of a representative assembly? The government, it appeared, had exerted itself with vigour to crush a dangerous convention. Would the noble lords desert them in this laudable attempt? Would they not rather second them, and confirm their acts? All that was loyal in Ireland would look to parliament for that firm assistance which it was wont to receive from it. Should this be granted, then all the dangers with which we were menaced would soon pass away. The noble lord then stated, in conclusion, that had the conduct of the Irish government been weak and pusillanimous, there would have been cause of fear; but since, on the contrary, it had been bold and determinate, since it had with persevering firmness upheld the laws against all persons who had infringed them, however high their rank,—in this state of things, said his lordship, “the number of the discontented may be great, the ranks of the disloyal may be numerous, but Ireland is safe.”
The Duke of Bedford entertained all due deference to the opinions just delivered, but the chief impression they had left upon his mind was, that the noble earl had not condescended to pay attention to the able and comprehensive speech of the noble mover; and scarcely a sentence uttered had been in answer to it. The noble earl had stated a most extraordinary hypothesis with regard to the recent conduct of the Catholics, which could scarcely be seconded by any person who had remarked the late proceedings of that body. He had also passed a warm eulogium on the character of a noble duke with whom he was connected in bonds of relationship and friendship, at the head of the Irish government, and for whom he entertained unfeigned esteem; but in contemplating a question of the importance now under discussion, he felt it necessary to separate his private from his public conduct: and although the noble duke might have been misled, he was convinced that he had never acted with wilful injustice. In the sister kingdom was exemplified this strange anomaly, that while the majority of the people over whom authority was exercised was of the Roman Catholic persuasion, the government itself was Protestant, and while four-fifths of the population were excluded from their most important privileges, one fifth only engrossed every, office of honour and emolument in church and state. The applications to parliament on this subject had been numerous, and the disappointments as frequent, arising from various causes, but chiefly from the intolerant spirit exhibited by the British government, which if now overcome would contribute more than any other measure that could possibly be devised to the tranquillity and prosperity of Ireland. What had been the conduct of ministers? They had heaped upon the suffering people the grossest insults, which were returned only by forbearance and loyalty. It had been said during the debate that the Catholic inhabitants were not only disposed to, but had been guilty of the most disorderly conduct. Was this a correct statement, or, rather, was not the direct converse of the proposition true? Or, supposing that the assertion were well founded, was it a matter of small importance to conciliate the affections and procure the support of four millions of people by a performance of what was in reality an act of strict justice? It might be urged, if the House condescended to notice so humble an individual as himself, that during that time he had the honour of holding the reins of government these claims had not been allowed. It was true, and many cogent reasons might be stated, and it would be acknowledged on all sides, that the late administration laboured under many difficulties in this respect which it was not now necessary to detail. While, however, he resided at Dublin castle, he had proposed a plan of conciliation, which he was happy to find had been followed by his successor, with the most beneficial results. The Protestants of Ireland had considerably impeded the progress of emancipation: he did not mean to implicate in this heavy charge the whole of the establishment, but only, that part which arrogated to itself exclusively the title of friends to their king, their country, and the constitution, who called themselves the heads and leaders of the Protestant party in that island. They, indeed, claimed these distinctions; but from experience he could affirm, that in morality, in loyalty, in patriotism, and in fidelity, the Catholics could not be exceeded. The only distinction was, that the one was basking in the golden sunshine of favour and emolument, while the other was suffering under every civil and political deprivation—the jargon of party might raise the one, but the acknowledgment of truth would exalt the other, and silence those who would countenance such gross and illiberal absurdity. He aid not mean to trespass on the patience of the House, by considering further the relative situation of the government and the people, as the subject would be much more properly discussed in the Committee proposed by his noble friend; but he begged leave to ask one question of the noble lords opposite, namely, Whether the sentiments expressed by the Catholics now were either trifling or momentary? Did the experience of many successive years, during which this feeling had been maintained, prove that it was so? If it were not, why did not government hold out to them the hand of friendship and peace, when all hearts would be engaged in defence of every thing which the subjects of the crown of England held dear, at a time when the exertions of a daring and insidious for rendered it more than ever necessary that we should all be united in one common cause for one common interest. He would not thus strongly have impressed upon the House the necessity of adopting the motion, were he not convinced that the future happiness, almost the very existence of Ireland as an integral part of the British empire, depended upon the decision of this momentous question.
The Earl of Aberdeen took a survey of the general state of Ireland, in order to examine what it was which could so urgently call for an enquiry into the condition of that country at the present moment. What most forcibly struck him in considering the state of Ireland, was the tone and attitude which the body of the Roman Catholics had assumed in the preparation and furtherance, as they called it, of their petition to parliament. Was the present the proper moment for pressing forward their claims? Was their Petition ready to be laid now before the House? Was it in the manner in which that petition was prepared, or the circumstances that attended and marked their meetings, that parliament was to discover and hail, that moderation, that forbearance, that respect for the laws, that veneration for the constitution, which had so much and so frequently been the theme of panegyric and applause with their advocates? What was the real object of the motion which the noble earl had that night submitted to their lordships’ consideration? Were not the noble mover and those who supported him anxious rather to extend the inquiry into the whole conduct of his Majesty’s government—to canvass and criticise their proceedings under all the aspects of that conduct? This he believed was the true motive and object of the present motion. But he had attentively watched the proceedings of the government in Ireland; indeed, the general measures of his Majesty’s government both there and at home; and his humble opinion was, that that conduct not only was not deserving of blame, but was highly entitled to commendation. It would be impertinent in him to detain their lordships with a detail of all that had recently passed in Ireland. All he would now take upon himself to say was, that in all their late proceedings, the conduct of the Irish Catholics, notwithstanding their own, and the claims of their advocates to the praise of moderation and forbearance, had every thing in it that bespoke the very reverse, and appeared to him, upon the whole, to be highly reprehensible. They seemed wholly to forget the many successful endeavours that had been made to improve and meliorate their conditions; endeavours which the liberality of their own parliament, and of their Protestant fellow subjects, had carried as far as respect for the constitution, and a due regard to its security, would admit. Much had been said about the rights of mankind—about the rights of the Irish Catholics to the privileges and immunities which they claimed. Would the noble lords who started this question of right, contend that the Irish Catholics could claim those privileges and exemptions as matter of right? Would they assert that the question of right properly belonged to the situation of the Irish Catholics: If they did, then must they be also prepared to assert that it did not belong to their lordships’ House; that neither this nor the other House of parliament, nor both together, had the right to impose restrictions on any class of men, even were those restrictions deemed necessary for the security of persons and property, and for the general good and welfare of the community at large.—He should not enter into any minute discussion of the tendency and nature of religious opinions merely in their speculative form. He wished to consider them only as they might shew themselves practically, and how far that practice was or was not inimical to government. Under this point of view, he would consider the claims of the Catholics; and ask what had been refused to them or, rather, what had not been granted to them within the space of a very few, years? And, after all these concessions, of what did they now complain, and what did they further require? Their complaint, it seemed, was now reduced to this, that they were still precluded from holding certain offices in the state.
On this point they were at issue with parliament, and would their advocates contend that as a matter of right they could claim an admissibility to those high offices; This was the real state of the question. If that doctrine was set up, he for one would not hesitate to declare that it was not tenable. He was as solicitous as any noble lord could be for the better improvement of the condition of Ireland. But would the granting of the present claims of the Catholics contribute in the least to that improvement? He thought not: neither could he see the danger of withholding such a grant. At a distance, some appearances would indicate dangers. Those dangers, however, diminished as we approached them, and vanished altogether upon a nearer view.—The noble lord then proceeded to vindicate the late conduct of the Irish government, and to shew that the spirit which animated that conduct was in no respect hostile to the right of petitioning, or to any other right to which the Catholics had a fair claim? Where, then, were the grounds of the invectives which the noble duke had heaped upon the conduct of that government towards the Roman Catholics? What prejudice or severity had been manifested with respect to them? Were not the persons of the Roman Catholics held as sacred, and was not their property kept as secure as those of their Protestant fellow subjects? Let the noble duke adduce one instance of flagrant partiality towards the Protestants, and of prejudice and severity against the Catholics, and he would then acknowledge there were some grounds for enquiry. Let it even be shown that the operation of the Convention Act would be less injurious to the Protestants than to the Catholics, if the former should act in violation of that law. If the Protestants, under the pretence of petitioning the King or parliament, or any other pretence whatsoever, should delegate and assemble 500 persons of the first respectability and weight among them; if that assembly were to meet and deliberate, and thus form a representative body, independent of the legislature, would the government be justified in allowing such proceedings to go on without interruption? Was not such, however, the recent conduct of the Irish Catholics; and was their conduct, contrary as it was to law, and pregnant as it might have proved with the most dangerous consequences to the state, to be allowed to pass unnoticed and unchecked? That indeed would be an instance of blind and extraordinary partiality and favour towards the Roman Catholics.—The noble earl next entered into a vindication of the late judicial proceedings in Ireland, and contended that it was the indispensable duty of the courts to proceed as they had done. It was not surely to be allowed, that pictures of sedition were every day to be exhibited with impunity, without any interference on the part of any of the constituted authorities of the country; that would unquestionably not be the surest means of improving the condition of Ireland. No! the prosperity and happiness of the united kingdom would only be promoted by mutual sacrifices, by reciprocal forbearance, and by the harmony of the exertions and energies of both, as cordially co-operating against the machinations and the violence of the common enemy. The question was a question of expediency, and such being the impression of his mind he must vote against the motion.
The Marquis of Downshire called the attention of the House to the meaning and operation of the Act of Union, as far as it had hitherto influenced the prosperity of Ireland, because he thought it connected very closely and materially with the question in debate. If indeed, it should be found that his native country had been considerably benefited by this measure, and had reaped any of those advantages which had been held out to her eleven years ago, she might certainly bear, with the greatest patience and fortitude, any deprivations which she had experienced, and which he had severely felt and deeply regretted. That any advantages had resulted to her, from the compact, was certainly not the case of Ireland, and much less of the Catholics: what she had lost by the Union was registered in the mind of every Irishman; what she had gained was a matter of much more difficult calculation, if not of mere conjecture. She had been deprived of her legislature, of her metropolis, and even of her name as a nation: the commonwealth had been reduced to a dispirited population; above all, she had been most deeply wounded by being deprived of the domestic residence of the greater part of her nobility and gentry, which had tended, mote than any other, to keep the remaining population, ignorant and debased. The happy fruits that had been reaped, he must leave to the determination of noble lords on the other side of the House, who were better able to judge, having most tasted them; but Ireland was now left barren and unprofitable. It was asserted by some, and denied by others, that at the time of the Union, an assurance (equal in all honourable minds to a solemn treaty) was given to the Irish Catholics that they should be relieved from the hardships and difficulties under which they laboured. Such was the statement. Whether the Catholics ought to have paid so high a price for this expect action, might be reasonably disputed; but of this his lordship was sure, that without this expectation the Union would never have been effected. The very essence of union was reciprocation of interest and participation in civil rights, and where these objects were not accomplished, but the prosperity of the one depended on the poverty of the other, nothing but alienation of feeling and discord of sentiment could ensue. It was for parliament to determine whether it was more advantageous that both should prosper, or one only be successful and happy. The conclusion that the contemplation of this injurious compact led to, could not be denied, namely, that there may still be a nominal union, but that the separation of heart and mind would be real and permanent.
The Earl of Hardwicke stated himself to be satisfied as to the necessity of an inquiry into the policy of the measures which had been adopted with respect to the Catholics. He said, that similar proceedings to those which had recently aroused the suspicions of government, had taken place in Ireland during his administration in 1805, and that so far was, he or any of the persons connected with him in the government, from being apprehensive of any ill consequences from them, that they had received every countenance and support. Whatever might be now thought on the subject, it was then his opinion, and he had thereby governed his conduct, that the application of the Catholics to the legislature would, in all probability, receive more attention and respect, when it was known that it had been forwarded by a numerous and respectable assembly of country gentlemen, and other individuals, whose rank or wealth entitled them to consideration; and he recollected that it was in contemplation at the time to send a deputation to London, with the petition, composed of such persons, as a further means of imparting to it that dignity which it seemed to be now thought it could not receive from any thing of the kind. With respect to the general question, out of which that before their lordships had grown; he meant that of Catholic Emancipation; he would not now trouble their lordships by entering on it at large, but he wished to draw their attention to a single point. He wished them to cast a retrospective glance on the penal laws. He would not require them to trace, their history from any very distant period; their relaxation was that on which he was now about to observe. This commenced in the year 1778. In the year 1792, the concessions then made were followed up by others of a very important nature, and in 1793 the Catholics obtained, with several other privileges, the elective franchise. He would now state, that at no period, to which he had adverted, was there any hesitation or reluctance, manifested by the government. On the contrary, they had manifested a desire to go greater lengths than they did actually go, and were only prevented by the apprehension, that they might outstrip the feelings of the Irish legislature; and thus, in an endeavour to obtain for the Catholics a greater benefit, frustrate their hopes even of the lesser. As to his own opinion, with respect to the remaining disabilities affecting the Catholics, he could not conceive that any penal laws should be continued in force, when the cause of their enactment no longer subsisted. The cause which had produced the enactment of those in question, did no longer subsist; and that being the case, the sooner they were got rid of the better.
Viscount Sidmouth declared that he felt himself little able to do justice to the subject now before the House, which he agreed with the noble earl with whom the motion had originated, in thinking, was one of considerable importance. He could not agree with the noble earl, however, in the view he had taken of the matter, but rather concurred in the very different view of it so ably stated by the noble earl on the other side, both as to the stale of Ireland, and the causes to which that state was to be attributed. The noble earl who had made the motion, argued the case as a matter of right, and at the same time seemed to contend for it as being a right which pertained not to the great body of the people, but as one which belonged only to the men of rank, wealth, consideration, and consequence, who, as such, were entitled to all the privileges existing, or which ought to exist, in a free country. The arguments of the noble lord in the green ribbon, however, had succeeded, he had no doubt, with the House, as they unquestionably had done with him, in shewing that the reasoning of the noble earl who had brought forward the motion, was untenable. The question had been treated by the noble lord in the green ribbon, and by other noble lords, as one of expediency. The noble earl who originated the motion, and those who agreed with him, treated the subject as involving a question of right which had been withheld from the higher orders, while every thing that was necessary for them had been granted to the lower ranks of the people. In this he could not agree. He contended that where there was any thing which existed as a matter of right, it must be common to all. It was a narrow view of a subject to suppose that where a thing was demanded as a right, the higher orders only were to be benefited by it. It was of the essence of a free constitution, that a man, however low, may rise to the highest situation in the state: and this brought his lordship to consider from whence arose the unhappy state of Ireland, which all must agree in deploring. He might be told that it arose from a vicious system which prevailed throughout. For his own part, he was convinced it arose from the repeal of the penal laws, and from giving to the Roman Catholics, privileges which till of late years, they had not enjoyed, while at the same time, some farther privileges which they wished, but which were with held, lest the granting them might be attended with danger to the country in general, were denied them. Though he deplored extremely that penal laws should ever have been esteemed necesary to have been imposed; and also lamented the height to which at one time they had been carried, still he was satisfied that there was a policy or rather a necesity for those penal statutes at the time they were imposed. At the time the penal code was imposed, the Protestants were smarting under a severe rod, from the abuse of power by a Roman Catholic parliament. The Roman Catholics had then attainted 3,000 Protestants, seizing and confiscating their property—and had repealed the act of Henry 8, by which Ireland was annexed to Great Britain. The Protestants did from that time exercise a vigour which did not belong to them from their numbers, but which it was necessary for them to resort to for their own safety. When noble lords looked into the statute book, and saw the alterations and ameliorations in the condition of the Roman Catholics which had taken place in the course of the present reign, he was satisfied they would agree, that never was there a time in which so many changes of a favourable nature, had, within the same period, been made in the situation of any class of men, in any country, as had during the present reign, been made in behalf of the Catholics of Ireland. If he were to refer to the statute book, and to state what the law had been, and what it now was, noble lords, he was convinced, would agree with him in bearing testimony to the peculiar benignity with which this particular class of his Majesty’s subjects had been treated. The increased wealth and population of Ireland were the best comments on the effects resulting from this benignity. It was said that the evil man did lived after him.’ This, his lordship was of opinion, was here illustrated, and that the effects of those penal laws still remained, and were felt in Ireland in no inconsiderable degree, notwithstanding they were now repealed. His lordship denied, however, that it was by conferring privileges on the higher orders that the situation of the great mass of the people could be ameliorated. The higher ranks of the Roman Catholics of Ireland had no claims, either as a matter of right, or as a matter of sound policy, to privileges which did not equally belong to the great mass of the people, who were not at all interested, nor seemed to be in the contemplation of the noble earl, while he set up the right of the higher ranks to the privileges which it was the object of his present motion to obtain for them. His lordship had not of late attended with any great minuteness to what was going on in Ireland; but from all that he could learn, there did not seem to be any ground for imputing blame to the government of that country. The noble duke who was at the head of affairs in that country, he knew well, and this he could say, that a more manly, honourable, or generous person, did not exist, nor was it in his nature to act with unnecessary severity towards any individual, far less towards the great bulk of the population of a country over which he was placed as the head. Why then, he asked, should the House go into a Committee? He recollected that previous to the Union, there were motions made for going into an enquiry into the state of Ireland, in a Committee of the whole House. Noble lords were then told, that those measures would be improper, as the effect would be to raise expectations which would not be realised. In this way had things gone on for eleven years, year after year, and in the year 1806, when noble lords, who had always been friendly to such inquiry, were in office, they did not absolutely refuse still to support the measure, but they recommended to the persons then petitioning for a redress of grievances, not to press the matter at that moment, but by their forbearance to evince their wisdom and patriotism. If this was so in 1806, 7, 8, 9, and 10, what was there that altered the case in 1811, or 1812? If noble lords chose, be should go back to 1801, and 1802, when it had been necessary for him (lord Sidmouth) to enforce martial law. No motion for inquiry was then thought necessary. Such effects had been produced by the conciliatory measures adopted from time to time for amending the situation of the Irish Catholics, that if an inquiry into the state of the country was not then thought necessary, he could not conceive that there was ground for supposing it necessary now. There seemed at the present moment to be a sensation in that Country, though not to the same degree, yet not altogether unlike that which unhappily prevailed at the time to which he had alluded. He hoped, therefore, that the noble lords opposite would not how by their example, tell the people of Ireland that they ought to lose sight, at the present moment, of that forbearance, wisdom, and patriotism, which in 1806 they had so much praised. He denied that there was, either at the time when Mr. Pitt thought it unseasonable to press the inquiry, or at the period to which he had already alluded, any obstacle which did not exist in full force at the present moment. What was that obstacle, but the feelings of the people of Great Britain? Would noble lords pretend to say that this obstacle was now removed—that it had ceased to exist? If they thought so, they miserably deceived themselves. The right hon. gentleman to whom he before alluded (Mr. Pitt), who felt as strongly in support of the Catholic Claims as any man could do, had declared the Veto to be one of the securities which, in the event of these claims being conceded to them, it was his intention to take in return. The House, however, was now called on to go into a Committee on this measure, one of the most important the House ever had under its consideration, without being told whether this obstacle did or did not exist at the present moment. It was stated on a former occasion, that if this Veto was not conceded by the Roman Catholic Clergy, the motion for an inquiry could not be entertained. They were now called on, however, to go into a Committee, without being informed whether that condition was or was not now to be insisted on; or if the Catholics were more prepared to give way in this point, and to make the concession required. He was not one of those who were of opinion that this Veto would have the effect of separating the Hierarch of the Catholic Religion from the Roman Catholic Clergy of Ireland. It only went to give to his Majesty a sort of co-ordinate authority in the appointment of the Irish Catholic clergy, along with the, person who was the head of the Roman Catholic religion, with the view of so far protecting the Protestants. This Veto, even if conceded, did not appear to his lordship to do more than simply to meet part of the objection, by no means to remove what he esteemed the insuperable objection; There was not, he contended, a single, particular, in respect to personal property, or otherwise, in which a Roman Catholic was not equally protected with a Protestant. In expressing his opinion as to the Roman Catholics, his lordship was far from being actuated by any desire to derogate from their loyalty to the king, or regard to the constitution. If he believed they were deficient in either of these respects he would boldly state his opinion. He was satisfied, however, that there were tenets in their religion vitally inconsistent with the constitution of these kingdoms.—The question which the House was now called on to decide, was simply this: after the inquiry now demanded had been five several times refused, ought the House, at the present moment, without any petition from the Catholics, voluntarily to take that step which they had refused at the time, when the Roman Catholics of Ireland came before them in the language of petition? He agreed with those persons, who said, that if parliament did grant the Catholic claims, they ought to do so because they were convinced that it was a measure of policy and of justice, not one which they conceded from fear. He opposed the present motion, because he did not think it wise or politic in the House, to endanger the civil and ecclesiastical rights of the Protestant inhabitants of this country, by conceding to the Roman Catholics of Ireland privileges which were inconsistent with the rights of which the Protestants were now in possession, and to which the Roman Catholics had no just claim. He asked, was not this a religious question? Was not the House called on to protect the true religion, established by law in this country? And must they not greatly detract from that estimation in which it was essential that it should be held, by allowing it to be supposed that they so far countenanced mass, as to put it on a level with the established religion of the country—allowing it to be regarded as a matter of indifference whether persons went to the church, to mass, or to the synagogue. He hoped the House would stop short of this. If they did not, they might have an established church, but they would have an indifferent and divided people; and if so, they would not long have an established church. Union, he contended, was of the essence of our religion. On the protection of our church he was satisfied, in a great measure, depended the welfare of the state. The more the one was encroached on, the less dependence could be placed on the solidity of the other. He must therefore oppose the motion of the noble earl, for the House going into a Committee.
Lord Somers said, the present question ought to be considered on the broad ground of justice and policy. The Catholics had reason to expect, that after the Union they would obtain the privileges which were so long disputed; if it was not for that conviction, he understood that they would not have given their support to the measure; and if this was the case, had they not a strong claim of justice upon their part? If no mischief was likely to arise from granting their request, what objection could be stated against it? Where were the dreadful consequences which some persons seemed to anticipate, from allowing them the right to sit and vote in parliament? If he stated the number of peers at ten or twelve, he supposed it would be the outside; and supposing in the House of Commons, that one half of the Irish members were to be returned by that body, what mischief could arise from the admission of 50 Catholic members among a body consisting of nearly 700? He had always remarked, that on every question that related to the Roman Catholics, the great majority of the members at present returned by that country voted as they would have done if they were Catholics; so that the evil to be apprehended from a number of Catholic members voting in the same way with a similar number of Protestant members, was of a nature altogether incomprehensible to him. He did not see in what manner they could be supposed to destroy the constitution. God forbid that the constituation should stand on such a ground as to be so easily and so unaccountably shaken. But supposing them to arrive at the high offices of state, still he could see no danger. Was it natural to suppose, that the illustrious person now entrusted with the government of the country, would appoint such Catholics to those offices as were likely to overturn the government, any more than he would appoint Protestants of a similar description? Again: to look to the case of the magistrates and sheriffs: the sheriff was appointed by the crown, and of course was affected by a similar security. The magistrate was recommended by persons high in influence and respectability, and in this case as in the others, there was no chance of a preference in favour of disaffected principles. If, therefore, no harm was likely to happen from granting this boon to the Roman Catholics of Ireland, why should they refuse it? They had heard a great deal that night of the benefits which were already conferred upon the lower orders, and they had heard that the present claims would affect the higher exclusively, but this appeared to him a most superficial argument. The lower classes were only guided by persons of better education, and if this measure was granted, they would be led by men of great property and distinction; men who were already disposed to venerate the constitution of the country, and to guard the stake which they possessed in the advantages of her free and happy government. By granting this measure, they would give those men a greater weight with the lower orders; but, by pursuing a contrary course, they would disoblige the great, without benefiting the inferior, and throw the guidance of those minds into the hands of villains, who wished for confusion: by granting this measure, they would act in the most politic manner with regard to the whole mass of the Irish Catholics; for surely it was impossible that a great body of people should not be more pleased with the government which placed them upon equal footing with their fellow subjects, than with one which had thought proper to draw distinctions to their disadvantage and to its own disgrace. It was impossible that it should be otherwise while men were men. The individuals who at present governed the minds and passions of the lower orders of the Catholic community, were perpetually dinging in their ears that they were oppressed. The doing away of all disqualifications was the way to surmount this difficulty, and to remove this pretence. The Roman Catholics, he agreed, ought to feel, that they had obtained more relief from their present monarch than Since the Reformation; but if there was something more which it was the interest of the public to give them, he did not see why that should be refused; The laws of the country encouraged them to enter into its service in the army and navy; but if in that situation they were to be sent to England, they were subject to penalties for their religion. Was this no hardship to them? Was this no disgrace to us? Would it not have disgraced the worst of times, and the basest and roost disturbed of revolutionary governments? The fact was, that as the law now stood, they were liable to informations on this account, and the reason that informations were not given, was because we were ashamed of our own act, because it was so contrary to reason, to justice, and to the feelings of Englishmen, that out of the very dregs of the people—(for dregs there must be in all countries)—there could not be found one so vile as to avail himself of the power. He would have them to give the Catholic laity all they asked. It was right they should have it. They had already done too much to retract, and if they did not mean to do more, they were unwise in having done half so much. He agreed with the noble viscount who spoke last in disapproving of the late conduct of the Catholics, but if the Catholics had acted inconsistently, was that any reason why we should punish ourselves? He agreed with the noble viscount that it was necessary to have an established religion, but he could not allow that the refusal of those claims formed a proper foundation for the existence of that establishment. A strong idea had gone forth, that the illustrious person now at the head of the government, was favourable to this measure; and if ministers had taken any steps to advise the contrary, they were wrong. He hoped that they would see the expediency of satisfying the mind of that country, and asserting the character of this, by removing the disabilities under which so great a portion of the community at present laboured.
Marquis Wellesley said, that the subject, which, had been presented to the attention of their lordships, was worthy to engage it. The state of the affairs of Ireland was so intimately connected with the general prosperity and strength of the empire, that the hereditary counsellors of the crown could never be employed more usefully to their sovereign, or to their country, than in examining the situation of Ireland, her resources, her internal administration, her happiness and welfare, and above all, the condition of the great body of her population. But although these topics must ever be present to their minds, the ancient usage and established practice of parliament required, that their lordships should consider deliberately the manner, and the season, in which this inquiry was pressed upon them. The magnitude and importance of the questions proposed, their general claim to attention, would not induce that House to enter hastily into the Committee, without previously adverting to the professed motives and objects of the intended enquiry, to the probable consequences of its progress, and to its ultimate result. Nor would their lordships advance one step in the course recommended by the noble mover, until they should have carefully examined what might be the operation of their vote upon the strength and honour of the executive government in Ireland, upon the due administration of the law in that country; upon the law itself; how the temper of the people and of contending parties might be moved by this proceeding; and what might be the influence of the noble earl’s proposition, even upon the very point of his solicitude; the interesting cause of the Roman Catholics of Ireland.
The first ground, on which the noble earl had rested, was the supposed misconduct of the executive administration in Ireland, and the necessity of censuring its acts, and of arresting its career, in an alleged course of violence and injustice.
What had he placed in the front of this great argument? A vague report from a newspaper of that morning, imputing to an officer of the Irish government some interference in the return of the pannel of a jury. Until he (Lord W.) entered the House, this report had not reached him, and even if it had fallen under his observation, in a form so unauthentic, he would not have deemed it of sufficient importance to constitute the ground of any proceeding in that assembly. But from further enquiry, he found that the court of King’s bench in Ireland, after solemn deliberation, had actually dismissed the complaint on which the noble earl rested this important branch of his proposition: nor was there any reason to apprehend, that any other circumstance in the trial now depending before that court had afforded a just motive of alarm for the safety of any principle of justice, of law, or of the constitution. Neither the dignity of the noble earl’s character could admit of any further attention on his part to that ground of his motion; nor could their lordships deem such a transaction to be a sufficient cause for entering into the proposed inquiry, without any authentic fact, without even any public rumour of criminality, and with the knowledge, that the court of King’s-bench in Ireland had dismissed from its bar, as trivial and groundless, the charge on which the noble earl required their lordships to proceed to a Committee of inquiry.
From this particular charge, the noble earl had advanced to a more general and enlarged accusation, and had imputed to the Irish government a perversion of the law of Ireland, for the criminal purpose of obstructing the Roman Catholics of Ireland in the exercise of the sacred right of petition; and this accusation was to form a principal object of inquiry in the Committee proposed to their lordships. If any reasonable ground of suspicion had existed to justify an apprehension that the government of Ireland had presumed to interfere between the subject and the crown, or between the people and the parliament; or had dared to prevent or to embarrass the legitimate right of petition; to prejudge the merits of any petition; or to affix the authority of the lord lieutenant to any opinion upon the claims of the Roman Catholics; then indeed inquiry would have been indispensible; and if the charge could have been substantiated, their lordships must have addressed the throne, for the removal of a government, so unfit for its high trust. But no impediment had been opposed in Ireland to the right of petitioning the crown or parliament; no vestige could be traced of a project so arbitrary and desperate, in any act of the government, in any argument of the law officers of the crown, in any opinion or decision of the courts of law. The question had not involved the right of petitioning, or the merits of the claim of the Catholics; it had arisen merely upon the form and constitution of a particular description of assembly of the people; and upon the application of the provisions of the statute law of Ireland to that form and constitution. The right of petitioning could not have been denied, for it had not even been argued; that great constitutional privilege was not now even a matter of argument; it was placed beyond the reach of all question; but even that exalted privilege was to be exercised according to law; in Ireland, according to the law of Ireland: and the question at issue in Ireland had been, not whether the Roman Catholics should freely petition the crown or parliament, not whether their claims were just, but whether the description of assembly, which they had elected, and in which they met, was conformable to the law of the land: upon this question, solemnly argued, the decision of the court of King’s-bench in Ireland was directly in favour of that construction of the statute law of Ireland, which the lord lieutenant and council had enforced by proclamation, with the advice of all the law officers of the crown, and for which the law officers of the crown had contended at the bar of justice.
In the name of his Majesty’s servants, on the part of the Irish government, and of its respectable and honourable advisers, lord Wellesley denied every part of the noble earl’s charge. The Irish government was not authorised to question or to obstruct the right of petition, or to touch the claims of the Catholics. The Irish government had not attempted any such violence: such an attempt would have been repugnant to every sentiment of the honest heart of the noble duke, who represented his Majesty in Ireland, and who would have repudiated, with indignation, any instruction or advice tending to interpose his noble name and high authority between the people of Ireland, and their gracious sovereign, or the legislature of the united kingdom. The person (Mr. Wellesley Pole) who held the highest confidential charge under the noble duke in Ireland (and in that person’s honour and fame lord Wellesley naturally felt a cordial and affectionate interest,) was too well grounded in the principles of the constitution, and in habits of reverence for the law; too deeply interested in the prosperity of Ireland and affectionately attached to her welfare, to advise any violation of the rights or liberties of the people of Ireland.—That person was also of a firmness of mind, and a fortitude of spirit, that would never decline a resolute assertion of the laws of his country. In fact, the government of Ireland had committed no crime and no error, unless the firm and temperate assertion of the law of the land was criminal or erroneous.
The Act, denominated the Convention Act in Ireland, was a law of prevention, founded on long and perilous experience. The object of the law was to prevent the formation of a peculiar description of assembly, which experience had proved to be dangerous; unnecessary for the representation to the Crown or to Parliament of any just or legitimate popular grievance; calculated exclusively for mischief; a proper organ of disorder; a ready instrument of confusion; but useless and unmanageable for any good, honest, or lawful purpose. This law does not inquire, what may be the object of the Convention, to be ascertained by its previously declared purpose, or by its acts when convened; the act of election, the act of meeting in such an assembly, for whatever purpose, are the crimes prohibited by this statute. The criminal intention, the “malus animus,” is by this law plainly declared to be, the intention of forming such an assembly as the statute describes. The government of Ireland therefore was not only authorised, but required by law, to prevent the election of such an assembly, or if elected, to disperse its meeting, and to prosecute all persons, who had violated the statute, either at such election, or in such assembly.
The policy both of the statute, and of the proceeding of the government of Ireland, has been arraigned. These points could not form the question upon the noble earl’s argument. But lord Wellesley approved the policy of the statute, and thought that the lord lieutenant was well advised, when his grace enforced it. The enforcement of the statute was salutary, not only for the tranquillity of Ireland, but for the peculiar interests of the Roman Catholic cause. He remembered some of the early Conventions in Ireland, of which the experience had led to the enactment of this law. At the distant period of 1783, in the administration of the earl of Northington, (although opposed in parliament to the government of that day,) he had in Ireland resisted the establishment of a Convention, and his conduct had been sanctioned by the applause of Mr. Fox, then Secretary of State. Lord Wellesley had always continued to disapprove this description of assembly, and had concurred most cordially in the wise policy of the Irish statute of 1793, which was intended to prohibit the formation of all such assemblies, and to protect the tranquillity of the Country from the precarious chance of the proceedings of a body, which could not even be constituted without a violation of the established order of the state, and which could not act without danger to regular authority. The very existence of such a body was perilous; its acts, if otherwise innocent, must be injurious to public order, because they must tend to disturb the respect which is due alone to the lawful sovereign and legislature of the realm.
The law therefore, which was of general application, equally affecting Protestants and Catholics, was a wise and salutary statute, of preventive policy. It was prudent in the government of Ireland to enforce it, more especially against a plan of Catholic Convention, which could not be carried into effect without aggravated danger to the country, nor advance one step without aggravated mischief to the Roman Catholics themselves.
How was this salutary law carried into execution?—Was no warning voice heard from the executive power in Ireland? Was no friendly admonition uttered, before the strong hand of the law was extended to vindicate the King and the country against the assailants of public order? Their lordships should know that the lord-lieutenant had abstained, with a degree of forbearance, verging upon indiscretion, from the exercise of his legal powers, until the intention of electing and of convening the assembly, prohibited by the statute, was plainly avowed. Even then, the first step taken was a private and most amicable admonition to the leaders of the Catholic body, apprising them of the illegality of the course which they were pursuing, and, at the same time, intimating the determination of the government to enforce the law. This admonition having proved ineffectual, a proclamation was issued by the government, declaring the law, and announcing an intention to execute its provisions.—The elections to the proposed assembly proceeded; the violation of the law continued; and the government of Ireland found no alternative, but to suffer the law to be violated with impunity, or to disperse, the Convention, under the provisions of the Act of 1793, and to prosecute, at the bar of the King’s bench, the persons concerned in violating that act. Then followed the proceedings at that bar; their lordships would be instructed by studying those proceedings: they would admire the powerful eloquence of the Irish bar, and the learning, temper, firmness, and dignity, of that most respectable, pure, and upright court, which had sanctioned, by a solemn and unanimous judgment, the legality of the acts of the executive government in Ireland, and had established the law, which the lord lieutenant had vindicated, by proclamation, by the interference of the magistracy, and by public prosecution.
Where, in the whole course of this transaction, could the noble earl find a resting place for his accusation? Neither in the original object of the law of 1793, nor in its letter, nor in its spirit, nor in the candour and clearness with, which its provisions were explained and declared, nor in the moderation and lenity with which they were ultimately and reluctantly enforced, nor in the unanimous judgment of the court of King’s bench, confirming the just interpretation of the law, after long and assiduous argument, and patient and solemn trial.
Where was the semblance of a suspicion, that the right of petition had been invaded? Were not all the legitimate, accustomed channels of petitioning open, free, easy of access, and ready, even with the aid of his Majesty’s representative in Ireland, to speed the prayers and wishes of his people to the foot of his throne and to the bar of his parliament? Was every channel of petitioning dishonourable, excepting that which was unlawful? Was it undignified to address parliament, excepting through a mock parliament, formed in contempt of the law, and whose very constitution would insult the legislature, which it affected to petition? Their lordships could not admit, that on these points the noble earl had established any justification of his proposed inquiry.
Had the noble earl proved, that the government of Ireland had endeavoured to frustrate the claims of the Catholics, or to prejudice the cause of that respectable body, by checking the precipitate career of those who managed, or rather mismanaged that great cause in Ireland? No greater injury could be offered to that cause, than by presenting it to the sovereign, or to the legislature, in the odious form of a wanton violation of the law, an outrage upon the legal authority of the crown and the state, and an insult upon the established government of the realm. The greatest enemy to the Roman Catholics of Ireland could not clothe their petition in a garb more repulsive. An illegal Convention was not the natural parent of a respectful petition. The lord lieutenant, therefore, had acted most amicably towards the Catholics, as well as most prudently towards the state, when his grace had advised their leaders to relinquish the insane project of petitioning by Convention, and to resort to the ancient ways of the law and constitution, consecrated by the usage of ages, and leading to the venerable fabric of liberty and order. The government of Ireland also deserved well of the Catholics for having enforced the law against their leaders, and’ for having by law abolished an assembly, which could not have continued, without exciting just alarm in every loyal and patriotic breast, and without involving the general cause of the Catholics in the character of that representative body, to which they had entrusted their affairs.
But if their lordships should agree to the Committee on the argument of the noble lord, they must be prepared to declare that this plan of a Convention was not only legal, but laudable and meritorious.
Some persons were of opinion, that the Roman Catholics ought to be admitted to sit and vote in parliament, and to every other advantage enjoyed by Protestants; but, in the interval, were their lordships inclined to sanction, in place of the Protestant parliament of Ireland, an assembly of the Roman Catholic nobility, prelacy, gentry, and Commons, to sit publicly in Dublin, and to debate and resolve upon all subjects of law, government, politics, and religion? Would their lordships declare, that this was an excellent institution, calculated to preserve the peace of Ireland, and to maintain the laws and establishments in that country in Church and State inviolate, while we should be employed on this side of the Channel in deliberating upon the respectful petitions, which that high council might be pleased to certify, and transmit for our approbation?
Their lordships could not agree to the Committee, when the sanction of these illegal conventions was presented as a principal object of the noble earl’s proposal. Justice to the government of Ireland, justice to the interests of Ireland, and above all, justice to the Roman Catholics of Ireland, precluded the possibility of yielding to the noble earl in this part of the question.
From his animadversions on the conduct of the government of Ireland, the noble earl had passed to the more important objects of the proposed Committee,—to consider the condition of the Roman Catholics of Ireland; their claim on the justice of parliament; and the necessity of proceeding to the immediate removal of the civil disabilities of which they complained.
Lord Wellesley declared, that he approached the interesting cause of the Roman Catholics, with a solicitude for its success which could not be surpassed, even by the ardour of the noble earl. From the first dawn of his reason to the present hour, his anxiety for the effectual relief of the Roman Catholics of Ireland had been the warm sentiment of his heart, confirmed and animated by successive experience and reflection, and by the deliberate exercise of his judgment, not unaccustomed to the practical consideration of great affairs of state: he was born, bred, and educated in these principles of rational liberality, equally remote from intolerant bigotry, and from licentious disregard of established order. He had alleys supported every former proposal for the relief of the Roman Catholics: if for a moment, in a period of peculiar and extraordinary embarrassment, he had suspended the active exertion of his opinions on this subject, the suspense had been to him most painful and irksome; it had been occasioned merely by a conviction, that more danger was to be apprehended to the Roman Catholics, and to the state, from a premature attempt to urge their just claim, than from a prudent delay of that claim, in submission to the character and circumstances of the times.
It was necessary, however, to explain distinctly the foundations and limits of his opinions on the claim of the Roman Catholics, because he apprehended, that he did not agree with any of the declared champions in this conflict.
The heat of the contention had exaggerated and distorted the true and natural character of this question on both sides of the argument.
On the part of the Roman Catholics, the claim had been armed with all the violence and terror of indisputable right, spurning all accompanying condition, all previous consideration, all provident, amicable delay.
The demand issued forth in the array of war, and no alternative appeared, but submission or battle.
On the other side, every delay of a peremptory sentence of eternal exclusion was represented, as perilous to our civil, and nearly sacrilegious towards our religious establishments; all conditions were ridiculed, as nugatory or impossible; all previous consideration was deprecated, as an artful plot formed to inflame the expectations and demands of the Catholics, and to damp the zeal of the defenders of our establishments in church and state.
The restraint imposed by statute on the Roman Catholics was asserted to be in itself a positive good; a venerable and sacred institution; it was consecrated as an essential article of our faith; not a safeguard to be respected and preserved, merely for the temporary security of the altar, but the very altar and ark of our religion.
These excesses were violent and irrational. The argument must be disarrayed, and brought down from the pomp and ostentation of right on one side, and from the intemperate fury of bigotted passion on the other; and the path of discretion must be sought between the extremes of zeal.
His noble friend (the earl of Aberdeen) for whom, from grateful remembrance of revered friendship and of indelible affection, he entertained a sincere regard; and whose excellent speech would have delighted the kind heart of the illustrious statesman, (Mr. Pitt, under whose tutelary care he had been educated) had most justly said, that the question upon the claim of the Roman Catholics, was a mere question of state expediency.
This was a correct view of that great and important question, and lord Wellesley expressed his entire concurrence in that part of his noble friend’s sentiments.
Toleration is the intermediate point between persecution and encouragement. The precise limits of the principles of persecution, of toleration, and of encouragement, cannot, however, be accurately drawn by any abstract definition.
These boundaries cannot otherwise be ascertained, than by reference to the relative situations of the parties, and to the circumstances of the times, and to the condition of the state.
One maxim is clear and undeniable; that every state possesses a right to restrain whatever is dangerous to its security: no sect, no individual, can assert as a claim of right against the state, the relaxation of any restraint, of which the continuance is required for the safety of the community.
On the other hand, every restraint, excluding any description of the subjects of any state from the enjoyment of advantages generally possessed by the community, is in itself a positive evils; an evil which can wisely or justly be endured, so long only as the probable danger to be apprehended from its removal, shall evidently exceed the certain mischief of its continuance.
The restraint now existing upon the Roman Catholics is, therefore, in itself a positive evil; an imperfection in the frame of the empire: the question is, whether this special and particular in perfection, which separates one great branch of the people from the common benefits of the general constitution, is a necessary evil, which must be sustained for the universal safety of the whole empire.
No community can be warranted by justice or policy, in extending such restraints beyond the strict limits of necessity; if real danger requires this sacrifice of the impartial and parental spirit of any state towards all its subjects, that state, however reluctantly, must hold to such restraints, as the necessary means of public security.
How does this reasoning apply to the claim of the Roman Catholics of Ireland? What justification remains for continuing the restraint of which they complain? Is no mischief felt from its continuance? What danger is dreaded from its removal? What is the probable balance of peril between its continuance and its removal?
The noble marquis declared, that in his judgment, the mischief of continuing this system of restraint greatly overbalanced any danger which could be apprehended from reverting to the more liberal, more mild, more benignant, and auspicious policy, which had adorned the earlier periods of his Majesty’s reign.
The original severity of the penal laws was directed against the Roman Catholics rather as the known instruments and abettors of the system of arbitrary power at that era, than as the sectaries of a peculiar religious faith. The papist succession to the British throne was dreaded, as the certain destruction of our liberties and laws, as well as of the independence and freedom of Europe; our ecclesiastical establishment was inseparably blended with the foundations of our limited monarchy, and of our civil rights; and a bulwark was formed by the admirable connection of the whole fabric of our constitution, which has proved impregnable to every assault of domestic or foreign foes. The long lapse of time, the gradual and progressive change of circumstances, have removed the alarm of a papist successor to the crown, or of a papist combination for the introduction of arbitrary power.
The Roman Catholics of Ireland have not been viewed by the legislature, as the ready instruments of ruin to our established constitution. Why have they been admitted to the benefits which they now enjoy? Why were they relieved from the ignominy of disherison? Admitted to the rights of property, to the elective franchise, to the bar, to the army, to various other advantages? Has the benevolence of the state rashly opened to them the portals of a constitution, of which they are believed to be the sworn foes? Have they been permitted to approach so closely to the throne and altar, under conviction of a traitorous conspiracy to destroy both?
Their lordships must remember what has been already granted to the Roman Catholics, before a just estimate can be formed of the effect, either of withholding or of conceding what remains under restraint.
Do the Roman Catholics of Ireland now possess no political powers? No person acquainted with that country would deny that they possess a large, almost a predominant share of political power in Ireland.
This fact afforded matter of deep reflection: it must be the policy of every wise state, to connect all descriptions of persons, possessing political power, with the general frame of the community, to mix and blend their individual pursuits with the common interests of the state, and to attach them by the powerful ties of honourable ambition and honest gain to the established order of the government.
A body, possessing great political power, but separated from the state by special exclusions and restraints; individual ambition extinguished; individual interest abridged; uninfluenced by the government; exercising an influence, which the government can neither extend, nor diminish; dissociated from all the establishments, civil, military, and religious, but yet holding an intrinsic weight, which occasionally presses upon every establishment—what must be the operation of such a body upon the frame of any state? It must be prejudicial to public order and tranquillity, because its action is not coincident with the ordinary movement of the state, not regulated by the same principles, nor touched and moved by the same means, nor directed to the same ends.
It would appear to be wisdom in any state to endeavour to associate such a body with the ordinary operations of the established government, by infusing the same principles of connection, which unite and harmonise all the parts of the community, and which form the peculiar strength and beauty of the British constitution. It was not so much a question whether additional political power should be given to the Roman Catholics of Ireland, as whether they should now be refused those appendages to their present political power, which would identify its exercise with the interests of the state, and would constitute the bonds and pledges of attachment to the government, and the ties of union with the Commonwealth. The action and force of our happy constitution depends upon a similar principle, which combines individual interests in the general preservation of order, and mixes and blends each part in the harmony of the whole. It is a wild theory to suppose, that the balance of the British Constitution is maintained merely by the mutual check and collision of the great branches of political power, of which it is composed. The result of such a scheme must be either perpetual discord and disorder, or the total stagnation of the vital powers of the government, and the inaction and final decay of the whole system. But this conflict is prevented by the intervention of individual interests; without injuring the principles of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, which constitute the foundations of the government, the mildness of our laws, and the character of our nation, have tempered these apparently discordant materials into a system of the most regular and uniform action.
The House of Lords is connected with the House of Commons, with the people, and with the crown, by many ties of common interest, mitigating the theoretical notion of aristocracy, which has been described as the sole constituent principle of this assembly. In the constitution of the House of Commons, the same temperature may be observed; and even the imperial crown of these realms is intimately blended with the interests of the nobility, of the gentry, and of the people. The great principles of the constitution are, in fact, to be traced in the frame of each branch of the legislature, as well as in the combination of the whole; and the happy intermixture of individual interests, the common right of the whole people to a participation in all the honours and advantages of the state, are the vital energies, the soul and spirit of the British constitution. The present condition of the Roman Catholics of Ireland is anomalous in this constitution, and repugnant to the policy of any wise state. The restraint, which still exists, cements and embodies discontent, without impairing the force or activity of political power. Perhaps the restraint itself tends to increase the power of the body on which it acts, by concentrating its entire energy in a narrow space, and by precluding the interposition of any collateral interest, or influence. The Roman Catholics of Ireland are now bound together by these impolitic restraints, in a distinct community, naturally adverse to the establishment which excludes them. Remove this restraint, and you dissolve the ties of discontent; you disperse the sentiments of disaffection; and you introduce the powerful motives of individual interest, to counteract any combination against an establishment, which offers so many immediate advantages of emolument and honour. The danger to the Protestant establishment in Ireland is now considerable, and must increase with the natural augmentation of the power and wealth of the Roman Catholics, and with the necessary augmentation of their discontent, under the protracted continuance of this invidious system of exclusion.
Their increasing property in land and commercial wealth, their increasing numbers in the army and at the bar, their increasing influence of every description, while they shall remain an alienated and distinct community, must be formidable to the establishment, which perseveres in rejecting their solicitations for admission into its bosom.
Their compacted strength must be directed against the Protestant establishment, until a better policy shall incorporate the Roman Catholic interests with the Protestant power, by removing the odious obstacles which now preclude the Roman Catholics from pursuing those objects of ambition and interest, which are open to other subjects of the crown.
The noble marquis insisted that the removal of the restraints of which the Roman Catholics of Ireland complained, could not be dangerous to the Protestant establishment in Ireland. He asserted, that this liberal and salutary measure was indispensably necessary for the security of the Protestant establishment in Ireland, which could never be safe while such a force of discontent was arrayed against it; that force would be disarmed most effectually, by abolishing the causes of dissatisfaction, and the barriers of exclusion.
It had been suggested, that no hope could be entertained of appeasing the Roman Catholics of Ireland; that their demands had increased with the concessions already made to them; and that their ambition, lust of power, of emolument, and dominion, were inordinate, boundless, and insatiable. What was the proof? They had been admitted to the right of property, and to the elective franchise, and they were so insatiate as to aspire to the capacity of representing in parliament the property which they possessed. They had been admitted to the bar, and they wished to serve the crown; to be of the King’s counsel; to become judges and chancellors;—and these extravagant desires were deemed certain proofs of hostility against the state. Because they wished to serve the crown, they must intend to destroy it: they could not desire to reach the seals, for any other purpose than to overthrow the throne. They were permitted to hold commissions in the army; they had served with valour, and glory; shed their blood in the cause of their king and country; beheld the inspiring example of their own native countrymen, leading British armies against the common enemy, and arresting the progress of France in the full career of her fury; and they were infected with the criminal ambition of desiring to emulate the illustrious sons of Ireland, under whom they had fought, and bled, and conquered; of hoping, ultimately, to direct the armies in which they had so gloriously served; and to devote to their country, in the command of her troops, those attainments, which they had laboriously acquired in the subaltern branches of her service.
Were these unreasonable or inordinate desires? Was this criminal ambition?
These wishes were the most substantial proofs that the Roman Catholics entertained a true estimate of the value of the concessions which had already been made to them, and a just sense of the constitutional use of those advantages. Was it to be argued, that because the Roman Catholics were sensible to the same emotions of honourable ambition, and public glory, which similar causes, and similar situations, had raised in all other breasts, they must have conspired the usurpation of the government of their country. The legislature itself had excited these sentiments; they were the natural fruits of former concessions.—Because the legislature had halted in its course, and had not pursued with steadiness the progressive policy of generosity to the Catholics, in which it had advanced so far, was it just to reprove them for the necessary effect of a powerful cause, which they had not originated, and which they could, not control?
Lord Wellesley, therefore, could not censure the solicitude of the Roman Catholics to obtain those additional advantages, which naturally grew out of past concessions, and which were almost the necessary result of former gifts. From this disposition, he inferred no defect of gratitude or excess of expectation. The sentiment thus displayed by the Roman Catholics was implanted in the human heart, and congenial to the spirit of every free constitution.
The noble earl would thus perceive, that lord Wellesley’s opinions on the condition and claims of the Catholics were substantially the same as his lordships’. He trusted that he should not be accused of a spirit of procrastination or delusion, if he now objected to enter into the committee for the purpose of instantaneously abolishing the restraints under which the Roman Catholics of Ireland laboured.
The claim of that body now appears under circumstances of peculiar disfavour; clad in the terrific armour of right, accompanied by a defiance of the legal authority of the state, by a premeditated outrage upon the law of the land, and by the most insulting and contumelious spirit of intemperate menace.
To a claim of such an aspect, parliament cannot yield, even with justice to the claimants: it would prove a perilous gift to them, to concede any portion of the dignity and honour of parliament, which, must be sacrificed, if, in the present moment, their lordships should submit to the temper and tone, in which these demands had been urged in Ireland, and to the violence, with which they had been supported in open resistance to legitimate government.
The trials of the offenders against the law were still in progress in Ireland; and the course of justice seemed to have suspended for a season, in that country, the active solicitations of those, who had hitherto conducted the affairs of the Roman Catholics. Even they seemed to have determined, that the present moment was not suited to the discussion of this great question; and that time must be given for the return of tranquillity, before the voice of petition could again be heard in a tone, duly adapted to the solemnity of the occasion.
Why, then, did the noble earl now press their lordships to a decision? After all the rage and tumult of the contest in Ireland, the storm has paused, and an interval of repose and quiet bas succeeded by common consent, as the necessary preparation of temper for the important deliberation, which now approaches. Let not the noble earl prematurely interrupt this calm; on the other hand, let not their lordships suffer this vital question to remain dormant, until reviving impatience shall again awaken the tempest of passion. The claims of the Roman Catholics of Ireland demand early consideration; in every view, for every interest, for every opinion, for every party, the early consideration of the question is indispensibly necessary.
That consideration lord Wellesley would meet with every favourable inclination to the Roman Catholic cause, but with a determination to tread the ground of concession with circumspection and caution; to examine the most favourable mode and time of removing the existing restraints; to provide the securities which might be requisite for the protection of our sacred establishments in church and state; and to consider every other beneficial arrangement, which could tend to give additional happiness to Ireland, or additional strength to the empire in a settlement of such interest and importance.
He would not advise his king, or his prince, to bow the Protestant sceptre of the realm, to any fictitious pretension of right, however arrayed with violence, or enforced by clamour: nor would he lend his hand to close the gates of the constitution against any class of his Majesty’s faithful subjects; nor would he presume to proclaim a sentence of irrevocable and eternal exclusion against a large portion of the population of the empire, under colour of pure zeal for the Protestant establishment. In real affection and veneration for that establishment he yielded to none of those, whose zeal has been so conspicuous. The Protestant establishment in Church and State, was, indeed, the great security of all our public happiness and welfare. Whatever protection of person or property, was enjoyed by any class of subjects, by any sect of religion, whatever civil or religious liberty existed among us, originated from the Protestant establishment, was guarded and preserved by it, would flourish with its prosperity, and decline with its decay. All sects, all parties, civil and religious, are concerned in the preservation of this great bulwark of the community. It is the safeguard of the subject, as well as of the crown; connecting the purity and moderation of our reformed church with the regulated freedom of the people, and with the temperate spirit of our limited monarchy. To this refuge all have resorted, in the dreadful visitations of confusion, by which the order and liberty of this country have been so often disturbed; and under this hallowed altar all sects have found shelter from despotism or licentiousness: “Huc tandem concede—Hæc Ara tuebitur Omnes,” “Aut moriere simul.”—” If it could be credited, that the Roman Catholics of Ireland had conceived the frantic imagination of subverting the fair fabric of the Protestant constitution of the realm, and of erecting a papist state, (of whatever form) on the ruins of our laws, liberties, and religion, this argument would assume a very different aspect; the point at issue would then be, not what their lordships should concede, but to what extremity the indignant power of the government should be urged against a conspiracy of such unexampled atrocity. But even the imprudent management of the Roman Catholic cause in Ireland, (however reprehensible) discloses a spirit utterly incompatible with such a suspicion. It is evident, that the ambition, the desire of gain, the restless solicitations of the Roman Catholics, are all directed to advancement under the Protestant constitution. They are jealous, not of our establishment, but of their exclusion from its benefits; they desire not to destroy it, but to enjoy its advantages; they are aware, that its destruction would expose them to evils, of far greater magnitude than those which they now endure. But they behold many benefits abundantly showered upon others, and forbidden to them; and they complain not of the existence, but of the partiality, of our happy constitution. If this view of the temper of the Roman Catholics was erroneous, lord Wellesley admitted that much of his reasoning was incorrect.
But if he had truly described the sentiments of the great body of the Roman Catholics of Ireland, fairly stated their interests, and justly urged their claims, let them come forth, and vindicate themselves against their own leaders, who had tainted the purity of this great cause with faction, turbulence, and disorder.
An interval might now be expected of comparative tranquillity; let the Roman Catholics of Ireland employ that interval, not in devising new means of violating or evading the laws, or of insulting and vexing the legal government; not in fortifying their claims with new armaments of right, or menaces of force; but in composing and allaying the ferment so unpropitious to the favourable settlement of this question.
Instead of accumulating causes of irritation, let them endeavour to mitigate prejudices and jealousies, which have been exasperated by the recent indiscretion of their own management. Let them manifest a sincere desire to furnish to their Protestant brethren every reasonable pledge of attachment to the established constitution, and every practicable security for its stability and prosperity. In soliciting the favour of the law, let them display a spirit of obedience to the law, and a disposition to submit with reverence to legal authority.
May these admonitions be received in the conciliatory spirit, in which they are uttered; and may the returning sense of duty and affection avert the perils of civil discord; restore the disturbed temper of the nation; and enable parliament to consider without passion, and to decide with dignity, a question, vital to the safety and peace, to the power and glory of the empire!
The Marquis of Lansdowne began by observing, that he sincerely hoped the impression made by the noble marquis’s speech on his antagonists, would not operate less powerfully on his friends. He could not avoid thinking, that had the sentiments which he had that evening expressed been communicated in the cabinet to his colleagues, it was not probable that they would have incurred that criminality which might now justly be charged upon them. He was, on his own part, ready to profess his entire acquiescence in the principle laid down by the noble marquis, that the right of the Catholics to the object of their claims, was founded on the opinion entertained by the legislature as to the compatibility of those objects with the interests and security of the empire. So long as obvious considerations of this nature should dictate political restrictions, such restrictions were justifiable. But when the necessity that imposed them ceased, that moment the right revived; and it became the imperious duty of the legislature, and of every individual composing it, to take immediate steps for accomplishing its restoration. He also agreed, with yet more cordiality, in another position of the noble marquis, namely that it did concern the best interests of every nation to demolish all exclusive systems, and to remove, as destructive and fatal distinctions, those institutions that deprived any particular class or description of persons, of an equal enjoyment of the benefits and advantages of the society at large. He wished, therefore, to inquire how, when urging these arguments, and supporting these principles, the noble marquis could come to the conclusion which he had thought proper to adopt. What was there in his great and varied experience in different countries and different situations: what was there in the history of his correspondence with America, or in his negociations in Spain, to lead him to the belief, that if three million of inhabitants might be safely admitted to a full participation of the rights and privileges of their fellow countrymen, there was no danger, no injustice, in continuing to exclude them? With respect to the question of time, it appeared to him, that no period could be more appropriate for an ample discussion of this subject than the present, when parliament was on the point of establishing a new government. With a knowledge of the transactions and events of the last twelve years, and of the evils that had so plentifully resulted from that weak or tyrannical system which had been unfortunately so long pursued with respect to Ireland, was it not incumbent on them to consider at such a crisis, how that system might be amended, or its natural consequences be averted? He was happy to have an opportunity of expressing the satisfaction he felt at not hearing any mention of one argument which on former occasions had been brought forward in that House. The argument was this, that the descriptions given of the condition of Ireland, and of the claims, the desires, and the feelings of the Irish people were inaccurate and exaggerated representations. For whatever might be his opinion of the occasional improprieties in the conduct of the Catholics:—however he might lament, but not be surprized at the partial excesses into which they had been betrayed—he thought it not a little hard to urge such accusation against them at the same time that their petitions were disregarded, because it was all edged that they exhibited no earnestness, no anxiety for their success. His own conviction was, that a sense of those evils and dangers, growing and increasing as they were; which had sprang out of the adoption of those impolitic principles of government that had prevailed during the last twelve years, did furnish a sufficient and satisfactory ground to parliament, to induce it to take the present occasion for carrying into effect a large and general investigation of the state of the sister country.—He now came to that part of the speech of the noble marquis, in which he had endeavoured to vindicate the conduct of the Irish government. He conceived there was in that conduct evident and additional ground to lead the House to institute the proposed inquiry. Was it meant to be, said, that if the Catholics had infringed the law, or violated the constitution, by erecting themselves into a representative body, their assembling without the assumption of such a character was equally; formidable and illegal? If the spirit of the Convention act did not apply to a sanction of the suppression of such meetings as had been before held, unsuspected and unmolested, upon what ground did the justification of government, in thus enforcing the provisions of that act, rest? It was his opinion, that in pursuing this course, even had they not been baffled in a court of justice, by the verdict of a jury, they would soon have witnessed the futility of their attempt, and the disappointment of their expectations. He begged leave to call the attention of the House to the origin of the Convention act, and the circumstances attending it. The year when that act was first introduced into the Irish parliament, was immediately subsequent to one in which there had existed a delegation of the Catholic body; which delegation had regularly communicated and negociated with the government on the subject of those claims which they had been constituted to support. Was he to believe then, that this same government, which had thus openly recognised the functions of this delegated body, did intend that an act passed in the following year should proscribe it as dangerous and unconstitutional? It was broadly and distinctly stated, at the time of passing that act, by all its supporters, that it bore no reference whatever to the Catholic meeting. Among those who gave this explanation was one highly respectable person, Mr. Wolfe, then Attorney-general, and afterwards lord Kilwarden, who added, “God forbid, that this or any other act should prevent any delegation from meeting to execute a legal and pre-conceived purpose.” In delegation in a general sense there was certainly nothing objectionable, and the appointment of committees on similar occasions was not less productive of convenience to government itself, than it was reconcileable to the principles of the constitution, and essential to the rights of the subject. It was, therefore, a grave and weighty charge against the present government, that they had condemned and resisted this right. But what were their lordships to think of the manner in which their own principles had been adhered to, and their own plans carried into execution? What were they to think of the delay, the vacillation, the inconsistencies that had marked and characterised their measures? The Catholic Committee was formed in May 1809, and it continued to meet uninterruptedly till February 1811. Then it was the Circular Letter of the Secretary to the Irish government was issued, and it was remarkable that it was at the precise period when the Committee were engaged in endeavouring to add to their number, the most respectable characters in the country, in order to give as large a degree as was possible, of dignity and consideration to their proceedings. Notwithstanding, however, this promulgation of the Irish government, the Committee afterwards held meetings in February, in March, and in June, before any further steps were taken for their dispersion. They met openly, their resolutions were regularly published, and they professed, that not conceiving themselves to fall under the scope or definition of the proclamation, they were satisfied that they were not acting in violation of the law. Was it possible for them to adopt a more regular, constitutional or manly course?—He had now arrived at a point on which he felt confident, that whatever diversity of sentiment might prevail with respect to other branches of the question, there could be but one common feeling and opinion. The principle he now had in his view was, that whenever a government determined to enforce any act against any particular description of persons, it was its clear and necessary duty to enforce it with a strict conformity, and a scrupulous observance of every usage and ordinary form that had been esteemed to distinguish a free constitution, and an impartial administration of the laws. But what did the Irish government? A warrant was issued under the hand of the Chief Justice, one of 3,000 magistrates, and that person who was afterwards to try the question at issue. He did not mean to insinuate that this circumstance would have necessarily operated to have given a bias to his judgment, but while he disclaimed all intention of casting such an imputation, he would for a moment advert to a speech delivered in another place, by Mr. Secretary Pole. He was aware that it was not regular to refer to sentiments supposed to have been uttered elsewhere, but as this speech had since appeared in the shape of a pamphlet, and had been generally circulated, he would read to their lordships a short extract from it.—(Here the noble Marquis read the extract, the substance of which was that Mr. Wellesley Pole had, previous to the publication of his Circular Letter, consulted lord Manners and the Attorney-General, but that he had not taken the opinion of the Chief Justice, because that must have disqualified him from presiding at any future trials arising out of these proceedings.) Thus, continued the noble marquis, the same individual who, in February 1811, felt all this delicate anxiety for the purity of the courts of justice, did, in the month of July following, lay his informations before the chief justice, and select him out of 3,000 magistrates, to be the immediate agent of his intention. In what terms, too, was the warrant of the chief justice issued? The terms chosen were such as went to prejudge the whole question, to decide upon the principle at issue, and to vindicate the conduct of the government in applying the Convention act in a new and unprecedented manner. The words introduced into the warrant, ‘on pretence or for the purpose of,’ were not to be found in the Convention act itself, and were, therefore, manifestly used by Lord Chief Justice Downes, the person whom, but five months before, Mr. Secretary Pole would not consult, lest he should seem to sully the sanctity of a court of justice, for the purpose of defending the government, and of condemning, before the forms of trial, the Catholic Committee. This, however, was not all; when at length the trial took place, the course adopted on the part of the crown was altogether extraordinary and unusual. In prosecutions of this nature, where the crown had the uncontrouled right of peremptory challenge, it was only consistent with obvious justice, to indulge some latitude of this kind to the accused. How had the crown exercised its privilege on this occasion? Twenty-three persons were challenged without any cause assigned, and, as it were, in forgetfulness of the right of the Catholics to be tried by a jury composed in the one-half of their own body. Was this acting in a manner that betokened the liberality, the candour, the justice, which ought always to mark the conduct of a British government? He had understood that there was a want of respect shown in the mode in which the intention of the Irish administration had first been notified to the heads of the Catholic Committee. Lord Fingall did not receive his notice till the day on which the proclamation was issued.—He thought there was then in the existing situation of Ireland, and in the measures adopted by the government of that country, strong and satisfactory grounds for going into the proposed Committee. He believed that the Catholics had been acquitted by a Protestant jury, and that the Catholic body did stand acquitted in the sight of their Protestant brethren. He believed that a general and growing desire did pervade the Protestants of Ireland, to see their Catholic countrymen admitted to a full participation of the constitution. It was his earnest hope that this example of retracted error and conquered prejudice would have a salutary operation upon the minds and the prejudices of the Protestants of this country. He trusted that England would not persist in blinding herself to the dictates of an enlarged and liberal policy, or be obstinately bent on the maintenance of injurious maxims and mischievous animosities, but that on the contrary the time would soon arrive when they should only be remembered to have been. There had unquestionably been abundant opportunity to operate on the feelings of the Catholics, to inflame their minds and to provoke their discontents; yet where were they to look for the manifestation of any such effect. It was not at home in their domestic character as citizens, or in their conduct in the armies in Spain and, Portugal. This consideration surely should have weight with their lordships, and it was peculiarly deserving at the same time of their remembrance, that the laws as they now stood were not calculated to exclude the atheist, whom no laws were likely to bind, or the bigot, who unlike the Catholic refused to renounce his errors, or to listen to conviction; but that they did serve to exclude and stigmatize those honourable and conscientious men, who refused to barter the religion of their forefathers for objects of temporal ambition, and against the justice of whose claim no sins either moral or political could be adduced.
The Earl of Carysfort argued in favour of the motion, contending, that it was of vital importance to the empire; and that at such a momentous crisis as the present, the country ought not to be deprived of the active and hearty co-operation of so large a portion of its population. The security of every free government, and its characteristic superiority over every other, consisted in the feeling as well as acknowledgment on the part of the subjects of such a country, that they had an interest in its state and its maintenance. Let noble lords look at Ireland, and the manner in which it had been ruled from time immemorial, and he need not then ask them, if it were possible that the Irish people could entertain such a sentiment as that which he had described towards the government of England? Why had this country been so long able to contend with the usurper of France, but because we had derived from cur ancestors a system of government founded on common consent, and which every individual felt that it was his interest to maintain? To this band of united freemen let four millions of Irish be added, and the empire might bid defiance to the hostility of the world. After what had been given to the Roman Catholics of Ireland, it would be impossible long to withhold that which had not been given. They had been admitted to some rights. They had been admitted to vote for members of parliament, and to buy estates. The former would give them political importance, and, with respect to the latter, as Protestants must be the sellers, and Catholics would almost always be the buyers, in time they would acquire as great a preponderance in point of landed property, as they did now in point of population. Adverting to the recent events in the courts of justice in Ireland, the noble earl drew a parallel between those events and the occurrences in the reign of Charles, relative to Ship-money, which latter the great lord Clarendon had characterised as fraught with dangers to the country, of the most serious and alarming description.
The Earl of Westmoreland said, that he had too much personal respect for the noble earl in whom the motion originated, and for the noble lords by whom it had been supported, to suppose them actuated by any but a laudable motive. He had no doubt that it was their intention to conciliate the feelings of the Catholics; but by some strange error, they had selected every possible topic of exasperation. The themes on which they had dilated were the misconduct of the Irish government, the discontents in Ireland, the causes of those discontents, and, in their opinion, the cure for them. With respect to the conduct of government in Ireland, all that related to the temper and conciliation which had been shewn was the merit of the Irish government exclusively; but in the general conduct his Majesty’s government at home must claim their full share. It was the object of the framers of the Convention act, not to interfere with the right of the subject to petition, but to prevent any individual from speaking for others, or being the organ of any class of people. It was possible that the Catholic Committee had for some time, before it was applied to them, come within the meaning of the Convention act. But surely it was not to be imputed as a crime to the Irish government to look too closely at the proceedings of this Committee until they assumed a more dangerous character. About the end of 1810, it was discovered that the Catholic Committee meant to increase their numbers, and to assume a representative shape. As soon as this was known to the lord lieutenant and government of Ireland, they remonstrated with the Committee, and stated to the well disposed the evils that would arise if they persevered in their determination. The Committee resolved to proceed. Nothing considerable, however, was done, until after the discussion of the Petition of last year. On the 9th of July, the Committee thought fit to call an assemblage of a larger extent, and formed in the nature of a representation of the Catholic body; and this under the pretence of framing a petition. He appealed to all who now heard him, whether it was not the duty of the Irish government to consult the law servants of the crown on the subject? The opinion of the law servants of the crown was, that such an assembly came within the provisions of the Convention act, and that opinion had since been confirmed by the court of King’s Bench. That the assembly was illegal appeared to him to be evident. It was self elected; it met when it pleased; it continued assembled at pleasure; it raised money; it voted thanks. With respect to the cause of the disturbed state of Ireland, at that late hour of the night he would not go into a minute investigation of it. In his opinion, it was owing to ancient feuds and ancient jealousies; to the mingling of two different nations speaking different languages, and having different habits; to a double clergy; perhaps to an oppressive state of the tythes; but most of all (a cause which he was surprised the noble marquis had forgotten) to, the great proportion of absentee landlords. He was fully persuaded that the residence of great men on their estates in Ireland would do more towards rendering the population of that country tranquil and obedient to the laws, than all the motions and speeches that could be brought forward and uttered, even were they as comprehensive and as eloquent as those which had been heard and spoken that evening. That the concession of the Catholic claims would not at all affect the great mass of Catholic population in Ireland, he was persuaded; such was the opinion of all the respectable person who had served his Majesty in Ireland for many years such was also the opinion of Mr. Tone, Mr. O’Connor, and every rebel and traitor that had been apprehended in Ireland for many years. A very great change of opinion also must have taken place in the minds of the noble lords opposite, on this subject. When a right hon. gentleman, now unfortunately no more (Mr. Fox), was in office, they thought that the state and temper of the times were not fit for a discussion of the Catholic claims. After the death of that right hon. gentleman, the session passed away, and no mention was made of the claims. The noble lords opposite were subsequently willing to decline bringing them forward, in order to effect the great purpose of their staying in his Majesty’s councils. If he were asked what was the cause of the general joy on the noble lords’ quitting office, he might perhaps say that it was the general sense of their inefficiency. But if the noble lords themselves were examined on the rack, they must declare, that it was the satisfaction felt at the establishment of an administration determined not to agitate a subject which the people of England thought mischievous in the extreme. In 1810, the noble lord (Grenville) publicly and distinctly stated, that in his opinion the temper of the country was not fit for the agitation of the Catholic question, and the noble lord declined bringing forward that question. But it seemed that since that time, the case was completely changed. At the former period, when the Catholics were anxious on the subject, the noble lords dissuaded them from bringing it forward: but now the noble lords wished to bring it on whether the Catholics liked it or not. What alteration had taken place, to justify this change of opinion? Had not the Catholics attempted to beard government? Had they not attempted to beard parliament? Had they not, in their various publications, touched on every topic of a serious and alarming nature? There did not, however, seem to be much cordiality between the Catholics and the noble lords; their names were never mentioned in the Dublin papers in the advertisements of the Catholic Committee. He had enquired the reason, and he had been told that the Catholics did not, wish those noble lords to make their cause the stepping-stone to power, and that they did not much like the cheeks, which even those noble lords themselves thought should remain, upon them. Much had been said of the urgency of the subject. He did not wish to undervalue that urgency; but he must, for his own part, say, that he thought the times past were much more dangerous than the present. After dwelling on the inexpediency of conceding their claims to the Catholics, the noble earl concluded, by expressing his hearty dissent to the motion.
The Earl of Moira said he would not follow the noble earl, who had just sat down, in the line of argument he had adopted; nor would be advert to the many transactions on which he had expatiated at great length, as they were likely to come before their lordships in another capacity. But the noble earl had said, that he saw no grounds laid to agree to the motion proposed. Was this argument admissible, when the motion went no farther than to appoint a Committee to inquire into the grounds which had occasioned the present state of irritation in Ireland? Had not the noble mover given sufficient reasons for appointing a Committee, when he had affirmed, that in his mind he never knew the state of Ireland to be so truly alarming. But in the eyes of the noble earl who spoke last every thing was perfectly safe, every thing perfectly quiet in that country. It might appear so to him; but he would tell the noble earl that it was the stillness which preceded the storm; it was the fire concentrated bursting afterward” with irresistible fury, and threatening the surrounding country with general destruction. The subject was so portentous, as a noble friend of his (lord Grenville) had expressed himself on a former night, that it must force itself into notice, it must imperiously call forth the attention of their lordships. It were folly and blindness to suppose that it could be delayed any longer—it had been delayed too long. The noble earl had established many nice distinctions about rights—he knew but one, that which separated natural from political rights. The former constituted the birth-right of every British subject—they consisted in an equal participation of the blessings of the constitution with his fellow-citizens, and they could not be forfeited but by a legal judgment pronounced against an individual for some crime, and not by sweeping statutes against unborn generations. Political rights were of a different nature: they resulted from political arrangements, and the Roman Catholics of Ireland had never denied the necessity of those political distinctions. They admitted that a difference in rank was necessary in a well-regulated society; they only asked for their birth-right. They say, “we feel that we are Britons by our attachment to our rights, and we ask for a participation in those which we ought to share with you, but which are unjustly withheld from us.” This was what they felt, and what every man ought to feel. They never did act, nor were they then acting with contumely, as they knew it would be defeating the object they had most at heart. They had repeatedly addressed their lordships with due humility, and they would continue to do so to the last; they were willing to receive as a boon from their generosity what they might otherwise expect from their justice. The noble earl had, indeed, represented the petitions of the Roman Catholics of Ireland as the work of a party; but what would he say to those petitions, for the same object, presented by their Protestant countrymen? This was wilfully shutting their eyes against the evidence of truth. If Ireland was of such importance to the vital interests of the empire, and what man could possibly deny it, how was he to qualify the conduct of the noble lords who by harsh measures sought to create discontent in that country, and thus to force a brave race of men into the arms of our inveterate foe? Noble peers on the other side knew, or they ought to know, the activity of Buonaparte, his ability in laying down his plans, his perseverance in carrying them into execution, and yet they did not seem to consider the danger which would threaten this country, if such men as the Irish were once goaded by injustice, to place themselves under his guidance. Was England to throw away her main strength, when the most arduous part of the contest was yet to come? Was she to throw her breastplate away before she had rightly entered the lists? But it seemed that if concessions were granted to the Roman Catholics, dangers were apprehended to the Church of England. These dangers he considered as imaginary, and to be realized only by the refusal of those very concessions. On the other hand, it had been stated, that the public opinion in this country was not so much in favour of the Roman Catholic claims as it had been formerly. The noble lord knew how those artificial feelings had been excited; and he cautioned the men, who, for their own purposes, were so busy in creating religious animosities, to beware how they proceeded in that work of darkness; they might raise a spirit which they could not conjure down again; they might create a current of opinion, which they afterwards could not control, and which would sweep them away, along with the establishments they wished to protect. If the established church was to set itself in open hostility against all Dissenters; if it was to call to its assistance penal statutes, and to pervert public opinion, was it not natural in the oppressed to wish for the overthrow of the oppressor? If the Roman Catholics once could say to the established church, “You are not satisfied with the advantages you enjoy over us, but you use all your efforts to direct the stream of public opinion against us, so as to deprive us of our undoubted political rights;” it would be a slander on human nature to say that they had no right to attempt the subversion of the oppressing power. It was on these principles that England asserted her independence, the cause of her present greatness. Civil and religious liberty always went hand in hand, and gave mutual support to each other, and his lordship’s most earnest wishes were, to see that admirable combination extended to every part of the empire.—The noble earl reminded, besides, those over-strenuous supporters of the Church of England, which was by no means threatened, that all churches trusting for support to temporal power, were weak in themselves, and liable to fall when the prop was taken away. As an illustration, he would mention the present state of the church of Rome. The Roman pontiff saw under his spiritual sway a great part of continental Europe; but his authority was founded on temporal power; the unsteady basis was swept away by superior force, and the Pope was a prisoner in the hands of the French. The noble earl had heard a great deal about procrastination, a word invented by lawyers, and dwelt upon with much pomp. If, by that word, was meant only the delay necessary to inquire minutely into the question, his lordship would not certainly press for unusual speed, but he deemed it the duty of the noble lords to agree with the motion of his noble friend to go into a committee, which would afford full time for sober inquiry, and, at the same time, prove to the Catholics of Ireland, that the House was alive to their interests. He would not follow the noble earl in the strain of captious arguments and general recriminations he had adopted. This could only tend to perplex the House, to increase animosities, and to widen the breach, till at last, it would become irreparable, and then this country would have to mourn over the ruin of the British empire.
Lord Mulgrave believed that if the House went into a committee they would go there not to deliberate, but to surrender at discretion: to surrender the church of England to the catholic dominion. It became them then to consider whether it was worth while to do any thing for the church of England, or whether we should supinely render up those privileges and rights she received from our ancestors. He had always been disposed to grant every indulgence to the Roman Catholics of Ireland: he had always been disposed to grant them every right: but he was not prepared to go the length which some noble lords seemed to be: his was not that violent “love which out-ran the pauses of reason.” There was a something in the Roman Catholic church which made it dangerous to concede to any of its claims. This had been its character in all ages, and this was its character now. It was still under the spiritual direction of an authority, which authority itself was subjected to the controul of Buonaparte: and what might not such a union produce, injurious to this country? But, he would ask, if every thing were granted to the Roman Catholics which they now demand, was it in human nature that they should stop short there? Would the feelings of the clergy, or of the laity, permit this? Would they not afterwards seek the same participation of honours in the church which they now require in civil and military offices We should not shut our eyes to this danger, while we were so sensibly alive to the probable alienation of four millions of people. These were his sentiments, and he should think he betrayed his duty to that House, his duty to his sovereign, and his duty to himself, did he not freely deliver them. He should be at all times, and under all circumstances, averse from going into a committee, without any outline of what plan was to be pursued, as it could only tend to excite the expectations of the people of Ireland, without, perhaps, offering any certainty of doing that which they would anticipate. He thought it necessary that a stand should be made where we now were; nor could he consent to go any further, till he was convinced that it was a boon which, they asked, and that they would be satisfied with what was to be granted.
Lord Erskine expressed his surprise that the motion of his noble friend should be objected to, because there was no renewed petition of the Catholics before the House. That very circumstance, in his mind, made the present moment the most auspicious for considering them. It was notorious that the Petitions were now preparing in every part of Ireland, and might be expected to be soon pressed upon parliament with all the bitterness of unmerited and disappointed suffering; and surely nothing could be more absurd in the mouths of those who refused to listen to the Catholics when they besieged us with their complaints, that there were now no complaints before us.—We were asked on the contrary, by his noble friend, for that very reason spontaneously to consider the entire condition of Ireland, in order that our policy towards her might have all the becoming grace of pure and voluntary justice.—Most of the difficulties which were now pressed against the Catholics, and which involved the whole empire in so much danger at this critical period, had arisen from the long continued obstinacy of refusing even to consider their case.—In the beginning, we heard nothing of the Veto, nor of any other terms; the Catholics looked up to us with confidence and hope at no very distant period, and all that could be now complained of against them was the supposed breach of a law, which, if broken, it was plain they did not intend to disobey. There was nothing in the Commissioners’ Speech on the first day of the Session, representing Ireland to be in any state of disorder requiring even the notice of parliament, which was a demonstration that government did not impute any treasonable, designs to the Catholic body, but only the misconstruction of a law, which the courts in Ireland were settling in the ordinary course of legal proceedings.
He went along with the noble marquis opposite (Wellesley), in the view he had taken of the subject with so much feeling and eloquence. He (lord Erskine) acceded to all his principles, and only differed from him on the fact which the noble marquis had opposed as the only obstacle to the immediate consideration of the Catholic claims. The noble marquis had objected to considering the petitions of subjects who were seeking to obtain redress by a dangerous and systematic disobedience to the law. As the noble marquis put the case, there were no petitions in progress, but a conspiracy to overawe the government. If this state of things could be made out, he would join the noble marquis in all the opposition he had given to the motion; but he positively denied the charge against the Catholic committees, and maintained that the Irish government had unjustly prosecuted them.
What had been intended by the Irish parliament when they made the law he should not meddle with; it was not a matter within his own knowledge, but the act lay before him, and he apprehended that he was as well qualified to deal with its legal construction as a penal statute, as those who had construed it against the Catholics. There was one rule in the construction of statutes which had been but too often departed from by the greatest judges from an anxiety to do complete justice, but which could never be departed from without the utter destruction of all that constituted the superior value of the written law. The common law, which was the custom of the realm, could only be known by the decision of the judges, but a statute was always present to speak for itself: if its language would bear two constructions, judicial decisions would, and undoubtedly ought to consecrate the worst construction until the legislature interfered by a declaratory law on the subject; but if it could bear but one possible construction without the violation of all its language; no judgment or judgments of courts ought to be permitted to oppose that construction; still more, if, as in the present instance, only one judgment, and still open to appeal, had been given upon a statute of our own times. But, whatever differences of construction might have divided learned men upon statutes regulating property, which were necessarily technical in their language by reference to tenures and other civil distinctions, which often occasioned ambiguity, the same difficulties could never present themselves in the Construction of penal, statute; above all of a penal statute which was to regulate the conduct of the unlettered multitude, and to punish them for a breach of it. There not only sound policy, but common honesty and common sense demanded that you should speak to the multitude in popular language. It was a noted badge of tyranny that laws were purposely hung up so high as not to be legible; but in such cases men must read at their peril, and the reading was at least practicable; but when laws were distorted by arbitrary constructions against their plain letter, there could be no possible safety for a people.
The Convention act was made to prevent and to punish seditious assemblies of persons delegated by large bodies of the people, who thereby under colour and pretence of petitioning for redress of grievances, were in fact conspirators against the government, by overawing its deliberations. This was the offence attributed to lord George Gordon, and his multitude, in 1730, when he (lord E.) was counsel for that noble lord, who was indicted for high treason. This also was the accusation against the prisoners, for whom he had been also counsel on the State Trials at the Old Bailey, still well remembered. They were all delegates of large bodies of people petitioning for reform of parliament. But was the delegation the crime or was it even thought of as any offence whatsoever? No; if the delegation had been an offence, his noble and learned friend on the woolsack need not have spoken as he did for hours together, to establish the case of the crown; but the details he entered upon were all absolutely incumbent upon him, to make out the colour and pretence imputed to these prisoners; because it was the purpose and design for which they were delegated, and not the delegation, which was the enquiry before the court. The delegation was a notorious fact, which neither could be nor ever was questioned by any body as illegal.
He admitted, however, that although such delegations by multitudes under colour and pretence of petitioning, might be the only occasion of the law, and be so recited in the preamble, yet if the delegation had afterwards in the enacting part been in terms afterwards prohibited, in order to avoid any possible pretences; in that case, the law would undoubtedly attach upon the late meetings in Ireland; and before he saw the act it had been so represented to him; but he found upon afterwards looking at it, that on the contrary, after reciting in its preamble that delegations had taken place not for bona fide petitioning, but under pretence of it, and after having thus given a distinct interpretation, to the word ‘pretence’ as it was intended to be used by the legislature, it went on not to prohibit all delegations, but in the very same language to which it had itself given a distinct meaning, it only prohibited delegations under pretence of petitioning. How then, was it possible to assert in a court of justice that this law had been broken by the Catholics, without first ascertaining that the Catholic delegations took place, not for the real object of petitioning, but under the colour and pretence, of it. The same evil purposes had been imputed, no matter for the present argument whether justly or unjustly, to the people of this country, when the bill to prevent seditious assemblies was passed. But there the statute fairly spoke the intention of its authors, and prohibited meetings of persons not merely assembled under the pretence of petitioning for reform of parliament, but “for the purpose or under the pretence.”
Whatever differences of opinion might therefore have arisen on the policy of that act, it laid no snare for the people; and the drawing up the act in those terms by the law servants of the crown at that time confirmed him strongly in the construction which he had put upon the act on which he had been now commenting.
Lord Erskine concluded by saying that he should be ready to give up these opinions when the House might be afterwards assembled in its judicial character. He should then listen to the arguments at the bar for a contrary construction, with impartial attention, and should feel no kind of embarrassment in declaring himself convinced by them; but as the breach of this law had been set up as of itself a complete bar to entering now upon the consideration proposed by the motion, he had felt himself bound to give his opinion now.
The Earl of Darnley expressed his hearty concurrence in the motion of his noble friend, which had for its object the inquiry into a subject, at the present moment of paramount importance, and he advised ministers not to neglect that opportunity, which might perhaps be the last that was offered them of considering seriously the reasonable claims of the Catholics of Ireland. Their proceedings had been stigmatized by many noble lords as violent and menacing. What threats had they held out? None that he could discover; and they originated only in the disturbed and alarmed imaginations of the advisers of the crown. The Catholics did not threaten; they remonstrated against an act of gross injustice, in the mildest language that could be expected to be used by men so grievously injured. Sooner or later the decision must be come to; Catholics as well as Protestants would be free, and the course of justice could not be long impeded. He called the attention of the House to the true situation of Ireland: he desired them to look at what she was, and what she might be: what she was, resulted from the blindness of the British, government: what she might be, would depend on its restoration to sight. If, indeed it was a country not worth preserving; if her extensive population was not worth satisfying, if Ireland was a burden to England, let her devolve under the yoke of France, who would willingly accept what Great Britain rejected? His lordship then entered into the proceedings of the grand jury and of the Irish parliament in 1792, attributing considerable blame to them for their conduct at that period. He concluded with giving his cordial assent to the motion.
The Earl of Buckinghamshire said, that the changes of opinion which were asserted to have taken place in the minds of many Protestant gentlemen, instead of being grounds for acceding to the claims of the Catholics, were proofs that the Catholic interest was paramount in Ireland; and their lordships should take care how they went into a committee the consequences of which might be highly dangerous. It was not his intention to go into all the legal arguments advanced by the noble baron (Erskine); but it was sufficient for him to say, that the construction put upon the Contention act by the judges, was strictly conformable to what he knew to be the intention of its framers. He entirely agreed in the principles laid down by the noble marquis (Wellesley) that if the restrictions which existed were necessary, they ought to be continued, if they were not, they ought to be removed. That the former was the case, he had no doubt, and nothing could give him more satisfaction than to be able to entertain a different opinion. Many well-meaning persons imagined that the peace, prosperity, and security of Ireland depended on the concession of the Catholic claims; but he believed that it would be the fruitful source of discord, and severe struggles for power. The noble earl then argued against the bringing forward the present motion at this juncture, and contended that the Coronation Oath was a bar against it, which, according to lord Godolphin, was intended as the security of the people. A noble lord had been reproached with mentioning the opinions of the English people, but was he to be denied this privilege when the feelings of the Catholics were constantly spoken of? For his part, he never would be deterred from declaring his opinion of a measure which he considered so dangerous as the present. He put it to the House whether they would take advantage of the continued indisposition of the king to do an act, which they knew, from the commencement, had met with his Majesty’s positive and uniform refusal.
Earl Grey most ably supported the motion forgoing into a committee. He said that he had seldom before addressed their lordships under feelings of greater embarrassment—not that there was any thing in the subject before them peculiarly difficult, clouded or mysterious—not that he felt that there were any considerations of peculiar delicacy or caution, that ought to deter him from a full and frank discussion of its merits. And sure he was that his embarrassment did not arise from the consciousness of having to contend with any formidable reasoning against the motion; for he had hitherto listened to catch one single argument against it, and he had listened in vain. His difficulty therefore laid in attempting to answer what did not admit of a reply, and to refute by argument what defied all argument. Their lordships would believe, therefore, that he did not, at that late hour, rise for the purpose of restating what had been already so forcibly put, and what there had not been yet even an attempt to answer; but he could not sleep quietly upon his bed that night, if he were to leave the House after hearing what he had heard within its walls, without making his solemn protest in the name of the united kingdom, against the folly and the madness of that blind, selfish, and illiberal intolerance which had brought these countries into danger, and threatened them with no distant ruin. They had heard that night sentiments from two noble earls, that filled him with surprise and concern; concern that such sentiments should be heard at that time of day and in that place; surprize that either of those noble earls could have given utterance to them. The noble earl who spoke last, had revived an argument, if argument it could be called, which it might have been expected would by this time have sunk from obloquy into oblivion. The Coronation Oath was again brought before them. Did the noble lord mean to say that that oath was taken by the king in a legislative capacity? And if he did not, would he be bold enough to contend that the oath taken by the monarch, in his executive capacity, limited, qualified, or debased the supreme and paramount powers of the legislature? If it did, he asked when did this new light first burst upon the noble earl? Was the noble earl illuminated with this great constitutional discovery, at the time when he himself, as lord-lieutenant of Ireland, recommended to the Irish parliament the repeal of certain disqualifying statutes. The repeal of these were as much and as directly in violation of the principle here set up, as the full grant of emancipation could be supposed to be. If the Coronation oath bound the king to a strict adherence legislatively to the system as it stood at the time of taking the oath, then was the repeal of every penal statute a violation of that oath. But it would be a waste of time to pursue it further: the oath had never been so understood; it was originally designed not to shackle the legislative powers of the three estates, but to secure them against any abuse of power on the part of the executive: it was to defend the subject against the king, and not to furnish the king with a negative instrument against the happiness of his people.—He should dwell no longer upon these absurdities, which he hoped had been forgotten, and should next pass to the Convention act. A noble earl had said, that the construction put upon this act by ministers and the King’s-bench in Ireland was, he was satisfied, the same that it was meant by the framers it should bear. Was the noble earl sure of this? Did not the present construction go to take from the delegates all right to meet for the purpose of petitioning; and was it not notorious at the time this bill was in its progress, that all its supporters agreed in protesting in the strongest manner against any interference with the rights of the Catholic delegates to petition? His noble and learned friend (Erskine) had been conclusive upon this point, although there was one passage in his very able speech in which he could not concur with him, and that was where he seemed to think that the possibility of this question coming before them by writ of error should make them more delicate in expressing their sentiments upon it then. He thought otherwise. For were they to consult their judicial functions only? Had they not also great political functions to exercise, and weighty state duties to discharge? And if he saw a set of men endeavouring to strain, pervert and torture a law to their own mischievous purposes, was he to wait the slow progress of the subject’s complaint to the bar of that House? Was he to delay to complain of it as a peer of parliament, until he had decided upon it as a judge? If ministers were to quarter the guards upon the city of London, or resort to any other measure of vigour, that might be shamelessly extravagant, without being inconsistent, would it be admitted as a defence that they crept within the limits of law, though they had broken through, and strayed far beyond, all the limits of sound policy or ordinary discretion? And here he was not arguing the construction of the Convention act: they might construe it as they pleased; but surely they ought to prove that they were right in enforcing it? Suppose the Convention act was all that they pretend it was, did this necessarily justify their acting upon it in the manner they had done? But how was it that they justified it? The conduct of the Catholics was illegal, and therefore they enforced the Convention act. But had they shewn that the conduct of which they complained was illegal, that it was a violation of the Convention act? The election of Delegates? What! Was that the first instance? Did they forget the year 1793, when the Delegates were over here, and introduced to his Majesty? The Committee was then, he contended, the same as the Committee now existing. This, which now was loaded with every opprobrium, and charged as being the nurse of discontent and tumult, and sedition, was at that time suffered to remain unmolested. What, he asked, was the character of the Catholic body at that day, when they had their Delegates and their Committees in every part of Ireland? The preamble of the Bill passed at that time in favour of Catholic concessions, recited the cause of them, by describing the “peaceable and legal demeanor of the Catholics,” and yet at that very time they had their Delegates and their Committees—at that very time when the legislature recorded its testimony to their peaceable and legal demeanour. But it did not stop there. This did not merely prove that the existence of those assemblies was not inconsistent with the peace, loyalty, and good conduct of the Catholics, but it proved also what was the intent of the legislature at the time of its passing this law. In fact, the object of the law was, not to interfere at all with those sorts of meetings, but to prevent such assemblies as the one that met at Dungannon, and that which was to have taken place of all the Irish delegates at Athlone. The object was to suppress general meetings and general delegates throughout the country.—So much as to the intention of the legislature at the time of making the act, and now one word as to the act itself: and, first, he did not hesitate to say, that the act was a declaratory one: it was so described by lord Clare and Mr. Wolfe; the noble and learned lord upon the woolsack had said so lately as last year, that it was merely a declaration of that to be law which was law before. Look at its title. Here it was said to be an act providing that unlawful assemblies should not meet for the pretence of petitioning—here there was nothing made unlawful which had been lawful—it was not the pretence that made the assembly unlawful—but not even the pretence of petitioning (sacred a right as that of petitioning was) not even the pretence of it could legalize unlawful assemblies. And here he must advert to one or two curious statements: a noble earl had affirmed, that this law was equally, applicable to Protestant and Catholic, and that no such thing as delegation was known in this country. Delegation not known in England! Why, there was scarcely a canal projected without a delegation. Was there no meeting of delegates in 1780? no doubt, a period of great tumult, but still amidst all the complaints then made of the outrages and excesses that prevailed, was there a single murmur against the meeting of delegates? The chamber of commerce was another instance: but they had been resorted constantly in Ireland since the year 1757, when, in the administration of the duke of Bedford of that day, the first dawn of a more liberal policy opened upon Ireland: there had not been a time since that era of which there had not been a Catholic Committee. Here the noble earl entered into an examination of the wording of this statute, to shew that it was the doing other than the purpose of the meeting that made the meeting an unlawful one, and then, applying this to the Convention act and the Catholic meetings, he argued that they could not be presumed to be illegal on their own avowal of the purpose of their meeting, until there was evidence that they met to do something else. They met for the express purpose of petitioning—that express purpose did not make them an unlawful meeting, because it was not unlawful to meet in order to petition. And here he could not pass over the strange reasoning of the Chief Justice upon this part of the case. What! said the Chief Justice, would you have the magistrate, or his constable, wait till they saw the illegal act done, and not prevent it? was he to wait till the assembly had done some act, when they might immediately after disperse themselves? This was a kind of reasoning which the noble earl thought to be most dangerous, and likely to lead to error and abuse of the most extensive latitude. He could not think with that learned judge, that the principle in this case was merely to prohibit, or that prohibition was, so applied, a good in itself. He rather thought with a noble marquis (Wellesley,) who had said so eloquently that all restrictions were in themselves evils—it was certainly wise to prevent—the object of all good laws was prevention, not remedy punishment not vengeance. But in this case, if a magistrate was to take his own anticipations of offence for guilt, what was that evil which a principle of this kind might not engender? It was arguing against all institutions, from the abuses to which they were severally liable: the corruption to which the press was liable would then become an argument for the destruction of its liberty: the principle might, without any violent stretch of fancy, be extended still farther, and sweep away both Houses of parliament in its progress. But he spoke with a consoling confidence, when he said, that such was not English law; that such were not the principles upon which English law was built, nor its impartial dispensation regulated. But quitting altogether the ground he had taken upon the fair, obvious, and direct construction of this act, he hesitated not to say, that no construction that could be put upon it, even by ministers themselves, could rescue them from the charge of wanton and gross misconduct throughout the whole of these proceedings. Whether the Catholics had been capriciously testy, or but justly indignant: whether they had been obstinate or firm—whether they had been wrong or right, were questions that did not at all affect the unquestionable fatuity of the Irish government. It was a system of misconduct uniform and consistent in all the great principles of error, and chequered with an alternate succession of folly and rashness—shifting from a timidity that made it contemptible to a desperation that made it dangerous. Of the far famed proclamation he should then say nothing. He should leave it to the noble and learned lord on the woolsack. He passed over its slovenly informality, but what should he say of the attempt to act upon it, and the dignified success of that attempt. How could he attempt to describe the irritable weakness with which it had been taken up, or the impotent meanness with which it had been abandoned. He would take their own construction, and make use of it to condemn their own proclamation. No person can be taken and committed to prison on charges for any other offences than either treason, felony, breach of the peace, or those cases provided for by the statute—now, the offence set forth in this proclamation came not under any of these classes; persons so offending shall, when convicted—what? be taken into custody and lodged in prison?—No—shall be guilty of a high misdemeanour—and yet the proclamation orders all mayors, constables, &c. &c. to apprehend and hold to bail those persons so offending.—He challenged the noble and learned lord on the woolsack to controvert him, when he said that the apprehension of such persons under this act was illegal—the Lord Chancellor and Attorney General of Ireland did thus appear to have advised an illegal proceeding—and what did the chief justice Downes? He actually committed persons apprehended by this proclamation. He was aware that as that person was likely to become the subject of some civil actions for those arrests, it would, be as well to speak of the matter tenderly, but he could not help thinking that the chief justice had been guilty of a breach of judicial decorum, of extra-judicial interference, that did not become one who ought to have been more sensible of the necessity of keeping personally aloof from all suspicion, in a question of such delicacy, and which he himself was soon to be called upon to decide. Conduct of that kind was pregnant with the worst consequences, as it had a tendency to shake the confidence of the public, in the impartiality, integrity, and purity of the administration of public justice.—But was the conduct of the Irish government exempt from every other charge? There was one from which nothing could rescue it—it was most impolitic. What was the object of the Catholic Committee? The most laudable—the gratification of an honourable ambition. Could the Roman Catholic be tame, cold, or indifferent in such a pursuit? He would be unworthy the privileges he looked for—he would not be worthy the few privileges that were left him—without the ambition of a freeman, he could be fit only to be a slave. Was there, then, any thing in the object of the Catholic committee that made this interference on the part of the Irish government, a measure of policy? No man would be bold enough to say that there was. If there was nothing in the object, was there nothing in the means by which they endeavoured to effect that object? This might be as easily answered, seeing they were told that Ireland was unusually tranquil; then why impose restraints unless they, felt in that tranquillity the stillness of despair? But there were other dangers as great, as aweful, and as pressing as any that weakness and intemperance have accumulated in Ireland. We were contending for our existence as a people with the most formidable power—a power that was growing in the double ratio of her advance and our decline. If at this hour of peril we could be suddenly scared from our follies and alarmed into wisdom—if bigotry should drop its hold of the national good sense, and an enlightened tolerance bring back her train of virtues, beneficence, conciliation, and justice—”Good God!” exclaimed the noble earl, “what might we not then hope for! What could we have to fear though France was Europe—though Europe were another France? But if while we are lavishing our resources with a desperate profusion—while we are drying up the source within us, an excessive taxation operating on diminished wealth—while we are on the eve of a war with America, we are to have any thing but peace or union in Ireland, I know not what we can hope, or what we may not fear.” The noble earl proceeded to allude to some of the observations of a noble lord opposite (Ross), which, he confessed, surprised him, recollecting, as he did, to have read some eloquent speeches of that noble lord’s, when sir L. Parsons, in favour of the Catholic cause. Now, for the first time, had a measure of unusual coercion and severity against the Catholics been resorted to, which, with all the feelings against the Catholic claims which were supposed to animate his Majesty, had never been thought of when he was in a situation to judge of the interests of his kingdoms. This measure had been reserved to darken the prospects of the government of a Prince to whom the Irish Catholics had been accustomed to look up as their brightest hope.—The noble earl warned the House to think of America, which had been disjoined from this country by the same contemptuous treatment which was now practised towards Ireland. With regard to the Veto, he denied that ever he or his noble friend (lord Grenville) had considered it as of indispensable obligation. He concluded by saying that he hoped in God, that by the exertions of parliament and the country, the crisis likely to be produced in Ireland by the persevering firmness (as they were pleased to call it) of ministers, might yet be prevented, and that conciliation would at length be resorted to.
The Earl of Liverpool said, he would appeal to the noble earl who spoke last, the House, and the country, to say whether any thing could be more hostile to the Catholic cause than the conduct of the noble lords who had pressed it forward on the present occasion. The question was twofold. Whether the conduct of the government with regard to the Convention act, was reprehensible? and whether the question of the measure itself was one that ought to be entertained? The noble earl undertook not only to arraign ministers, but the court of King’s-bench, and the chief judge, who, in learning, in talent, and in all the great qualities which rendered a man estimable and beloved in society, was inferior to none. But there was no argument in the observations of the noble earl on this head, nor could any thing be more void of foundation, than his attempt to shew that the Convention act did not apply to the case of the Catholic Committee? The meaning of the word ‘pretence’ was clear from our own act of Charles, and bore that interpretation in law which the law officers of the crown had given it on the present occasion. In expatiating on the treatment which the Catholics had received from government, he would say, that though there were many instances on record where petitions were ordered to be rejected, yet never once was such a step adopted towards them. Besides, there were a thousand circumstances in the situation of this country which should have prevented them from pressing their rights at the present juncture. If he were one of the greatest friends of the measure, improperly termed Catholic Emancipation, he would still object to their violation of the law. He would oppose the Committee on the grounds upon which it was moved by the noble lord, without arraigning or even seeing the means by which they were to carry the measure into effect. Some persons were for an unconditional repeal of all the disabilities; others again, were for a conditional one; and of this latter class he thought the noble lords appeared to be. A late right hon. and much lamented friend of his (Mr. Pitt), with all his anxiety for the measure, and anxious he knew him to be, had determined that he never would propose it, until, at the same time, he could propose the securities which would be necessary. If they intended to proceed surely, they would not go into a Committee; the object was to conciliate the Catholics by the adoption of other securities than those which existed at present, but how could he tell that such an exchange of securities would meet the wishes of the Catholics? He would therefore call upon their lordships to resist the motion. Upon the question itself his sentiments were well known, and he should be ready to repeat them when it was brought properly before them. Until the securities could be proposed, he did not approve of exciting the expectations and passions of the people of Ireland.
Lord Grenville did not rise to speak until after 5 o’clock in the morning; at which hour it was not his intention to trouble their lordships with many words. He began by stating that the moderation and humility of the speech of the noble earl who spoke last, formed a decided contrast with that strong spirit of bigotry and intolerance which distinguished his entrance into office, when the worst passions of the people were excited, and the nation disgraced by the scandalous “No Popery” cry excited by himself and his colleagues; his moderation would then have done him credit, but the Catholics, he believed, entertained a very just sense of the noble earl’s kindness. During the entire of his administration, he did not think they had received one act of kindness. His lordship accused ministers of the deepest malignity and rancour towards that body. He entered into an explanation of the terms of the Convention act, and contended that the word “pretence” could not be synonymous with “purpose,” and appeal ed to the noble lord on the woolsack, who in a Bill of his had introduced both words. The Bill was of the same import, and was introduced by his lordship in 1796. He concurred with his noble friend (earl Grey) in stating, that he had never regarded the Veto as a sine qua non. He had expressly said in his Letter, that it was an arrangement to which he attached no great importance; and from the moment he learned that that measure, instead of conciliating, had produced irritation, he abandoned it. He denied that by removing the disabilities which affected the Catholics, any security would be taken from the established church. On the contrary, he should regard the very measure proposed, the full concession of the Catholic claims, to be the highest security that could be given to the church establishment of the United Kingdom. The question was every day becoming more pressing, and could not be delayed. Their lordships would soon have to direct to it all their attention and all their wisdom. He hoped, therefore, when the crisis came, that they would then have wisdom enough left to drop generalities; and if they continued to refuse what was asked, to say in what way it was that granting the Catholic demands would prove injurious to the church of England. It would be necessary then to shew, that what was required for the safety of the whole empire was unsafe for the established church. There were two descriptions of opponents to the Catholic claims. The one would make no concession; the other thought the present an improper time. He wished to know from the latter what reason they had for farther delay. He observed, that the best way to remove the irritation and suspicion which was complained of, was to treat the Catholics kindly. Shew that you have confidence in them, and they will place confidence in you. He compared the conduct of the present government of Ireland to that which was pursued towards America. A similar infatuation now prevailed, which proved that we were untaught by experience and uninstructed by adversity. After exercising cruelty and injustice, the next step was to punish those who dared to complain. This was the natural progress of oppression, the true logic of tyranny. Instead of a course so fatal, he earnestly beseeched their lordships to be no longer misled by delusions, which prevented them from adopting that measure which could alone knit together the hearts of the whole population of the empire: a measure that would give to the Protestant a security, which he never could obtain by oppression, while it would ensure the attachment of the Catholic, by presenting to him the charter of his emancipation.
The question being loudly called for, a division took place on earl Fitzwilliam’s motion,
Contents, 42; Proxies, 37; total 79; Non Contents, 86; Proxies, 76; total 162. Majority against the motion—83.
Adjourned at half past six in the morning.
|List of the Minority.|
|Norfolk||Say and Sele|
|Mendip||The duke of Bedford|
|Braybroke||Earl of Carysfort.|
Source: UK Parliament