HC Deb 02 December 1803 vol 1 cc79-84
Mr. Secretary Yorke

next moved, for leave to bring in a bill to continue, for a time to be limited, the bill of last session, for the Suppression of Rebellion in Ireland, by enabling government to establish martial law. On the motion being put from the chair,

Mr. Burrows

rose to express his reasons for opposing the motion. He begged it to be understood that he did not found his objections to it from any want of confidence in those who were to exercise the powers to be granted by the bill. On the contrary, he had the most entire confidence that these powers would in no instance be abused, either by the government of Ireland or the government of this country. His objection was founded on constitutional grounds. He was convinced that it must be a principle with every man who loved the constitution, never to give his assent to a bill conferring such extraordinary powers, without the most urgent and imperious necessity. Acting on this principle, he could not, on the ground of confidence in government, consent to violate the constitution, unless the necessity of such violation was clearly established. When this bill was formerly passed, a rebellion actually raged in Ireland, and ample documents to prove its necessity were laid on the table of the house. At present KO sort of evidence to prove its necessity was brought forward. Had any parliamentary evidence been adduced? Were any facts stated to shew that the re-enactment of the bill was essential to the maintenance of tranquillity in Ireland? Had the house obtained even the bare responsibility of a minister on the subject? Not one of these grounds of the necessity of the measure had been brought before the house. Independant of all information, Members were called on to give their assent to a measure which confessedly violated the free principles of the British constitution. When any description of subjects were to be deprived of a constitutional privilege, it was necessary to proceed with coolness and deliberation. Even while rebellion raged in Ireland he had not heard of resorting to martial law, and suspending all appeal to the civil tribunals, without a considerable portion of anxiety and alarm. But what he desired the house to consider, were the specific grounds on which the introduction of martial law was defended. It was on this principle, that jurors were over-awed in the discharge of their duty, and that witnesses could not come forward to give their testimony without great personal danger. It was because the ordinary tribunals of justice were necessarily shut up, from the causes which he had now stated, that it became necessary to have recourse to military decisions. If the same circumstances now existed, he should, however reluctant to violate the constitution, give his assent to the motion. No such circumstances did, however, exist at this period. Jurors could discharge their duty with the utmost safety. Witnesses could come forward to give their testimony without any apprehension of danger. Persons guilty of rebellion had been arraigned before the ordinary tribunals of justice, had been convicted on the clearest evidence, and had suffered the sentence of the law. If the grounds on which martial law was formerly resorted to did not exist, it was not surely asking too much to require some new grounds for re-enacting a bill vesting the executive government with extraordinary and unconstitutional powers. It certainly was not too much to ask, that if new grounds did exist they should be stated. To assent to a bill of this kind without any grounds was what he never could, under any circumstances, do, acting as a representative to parliament. If the hon. sec. of state was determined to persist in pressing the bill, it was at least fair that he should not precipitate its progress through the house. It would be fair to allow those gentlemen who were more particularly connected with Ireland an opportunity of offering their sentiments on the subject. The number of Irish members now in their place was very inconsiderable, and they had a right to be consulted before the constitutional privileges of their constituents were suspended or violated. He had thought it his duty to throw out these few observations to the house. Before he sat down, he begged leave to repeat, he did not oppose the re-enactment of the bill from any want of confidence in the mode in which it would be applied by ministers. He had no doubt that their application of the powers with which it vested them would be mild and merciful. His objections were, however, founded in respect for the constitution, and the character of the government, and should not induce him to vote for a bill, of the necessity for which not the slightest evidence had been adduced.

Mr. Corry

rose to make a few observations in reply. The hon. gent, had said, that in all former cases of the passing of the martial law bill, rebellion actually raged, or tranquillity was very seriously disturbed. He begged leave to set the hon. member right on that head. In the year 1801, this very bill had been not only once but twice renewed in the coarse of the same session, though at that time no rebellion or appearance of rebellion existed from one part of Ireland to another. The hon. gent. seemed to be unacquainted with the history of the rebellion. He did not appear to be aware that the machinations of the disaffected were at their origin carefully veiled in darkness; that their views were gradually disseminated over the country; that it was not till their party was fully organized that they broke out into acts of open rebellion. The wisdom of parliament had been exerted in a number of acts to discover and to disconcert their views. Every effort had been employed to trace out the different relations and bearings of the conspiracy. These efforts had, however, failed of success. Never till the act in question was passed were the designs of rebellion fully ascertained. Never till government was armed with these extraordinary powers was any thing like tranquillity or confidence restored. Though individuals continued to suffer; though acts or insurrection and violence were not altogether destroyed; yet the constitution was saved and the sinews of the rebellion were annihilated. This effect he ascribed, more than to any other cause, to the repeated re-enactments of this bill in the course of the year 1802 and 1803. The hon. gent, however, did not see the necessity of re-enacting the bill at the present period. He had said, that the grounds of its re-enactment formerly was the intimidation of jurors and witnesses in the performance of their duty, but at this moment jurors were unmolested; witnesses could give their testimony without any dread of the consequences; all the ordinary forms of law and of justice were observed. He would not pretend to deny that this description of the state of the country was correct, but he would maintain that the present tranquillity of the country was the effect of the very bill to which the hon. gent, so strongly objected. It was not unknown to the hon. member and the house, that till the bill was passed the system of intimidation was universally prevalent, and the courts of common law were as a matter of necessity shut, not against rebels alone, but against the loyal part of the community, who were making every sacrifice in support of the constitution and the existing government. It was not till the rebels found that they could not prosecute their schemes with any hopes of success, that the strong powers vested in the government rendered their detection and punishment a matter of almost absolute certainty, that continuance in rebellion was only another term for destruction, that they thought of abandoning their traitorous projects, that they sat down in laborious tranquillity, and began to return to the habits of dutiful allegiance. If the hon. member looked to the state of Ireland, merely as it was at this day, his view would be extremely partial and limited. To be able to reason fairly on the subject, it behoved him to look at the progress and various modifications of the rebellion. He ought to compare the means used to spread disaffection with the means employed to check its diffusion among the lower orders. Among these last means, he had the universal testimony of the best informed persons in Ireland, that this measure had been one of the greatest and efficient causes of the return of tranquillity and order, of the possibility of continuing the ordinary exercise of the form of the common law courts of the land. Independent of this measure, the hon. gent, would not this day have had it in his power to notice the present tranquillity of Ireland as an argument against the re-enactment of the bill. So far from viewing the re-enactment of the bill as any act of severity to the loyal and well-disposed part of the community, he viewed it in the opposite light. By all loyal arid well-disposed individuals, it would be considered as a measure not of oppression, but of protection: not of vigour, but of wise precaution, on the part of the government. It would dispel their apprehensions, and give them new energy in their opposition to the designs of the disaffected. It would enable them to check rebellion at its first opening, and leave to them the privilege of appending for the redress of injuries to the ordinary tribunals of their country. The proclamation of martial law, by the exercise of the prerogative was, what every friend to the constitution would be anxious to avoid. It was to avoid the necessity of such a measure, that the bill was originally introduced, and W3s now proposed to be continued. Without such a bill traitors might escape unpunished, and loyal citizens might be deprived of their constitutional privileges, and dragged before military tribunals. On these grounds the bill had his hearty support, and he hoped it would also obtain the support of the house. It was a bill which, from his knowledge of the present state of Ireland, he had no difficulty in pronouncing essential to the continuance of tranquillity.

Mr. John Claudius Beresford

begged the indulgence of the house, while he made a few observations. His hon. friend under the gallery, (Mr. Burrows) had urged two objections to the re-enactment of the bill, at least, without more mature consideration. The first objection was, that no facts were produced to justify the necessity of the measure. The second objection was drawn from the thinness of the members particularly connected with Ireland, and best fitted to give information to the house on the subject. With regard to the first objection, it was unnecessary for him to take up the time or attention of the house. His right hon. friend had fully removed this objection, and he heartily agreed with his right hon. friend, that if the measure were not renewed, the same system of terror, which had been alluded to, would immediately be renewed in ail its horrors. With regard to the thinness of the attendance of members connected with Ireland, he should make one or two remarks. Having been very recently in Ireland, and having had occasion to ascertain what were the sentiments of at least three-fourths of the Irish members resident in that country, as to the expediency and necessity of the measure, he requested the house, on his veracity, to be assured, that they were to a man convinced, that the re-enactment of the bill was indispensably necessary to the preservation of tranquillity, and to the protection of all loyal subjects. They were so thoroughly convinced of its necessity, that they expected the re-enactment of the bill would be one of the earliest acts of the session. If they had not indulged such an expectation, they would, at this moment, have been in their places to solicit its re-enactment. This sentiment, of the necessity of the measure, he might add, was not confined to members, but was entertained by every loyal man in every part of the country. He, himself, had been the only Irish member, who had expressed doubts respecting the loyalty of the lower orders, in opposition to the opinion of a number of other most respectable individuals. He rejoiced to find, that the opinion he entertained of the disloyalty of the lower orders was erroneous, and that the spirit of disaffection was much less general than he had dreaded. At this moment all good men of every party were animated with feelings of loyalty, and convinced of the necessity of defending the country against the common enemy. Every man who possessed only 201 a year, was now disposed to unite against all foreign and domestic foes. The late insurrection had not a twentieth part of the extent of the rebellion of 1798; and all classes of the people, with an exception of a few of the lower orders, were universally disposed to assist government against an invading enemy.—He was also authorized to state, that it was the wish of all sects in that kingdom, that no question should be brought forward, which might have the effect of agitating the public mind, at a period, when it was so essential, that all descriptions should unite in the defence of their common interests.—Leave was obtained to bring in the bill; which was read a first time, and ordered to be read a second time on Monday.