HC Deb 07 August 1807 vol 9 cc1086-98

On the order of the day that the Irish Arms bill be now read a third time,

Lord Milton

said he could not agree without any inquiry into the state of Ireland, to give his assent to the passing of such an arbitrary act as this. At the time of the union, the Irish were promised a full and fair participation of the rights of Englishmen; at that moment, after a lapse of 7 years, they were called upon to pass an act than which nothing could be more arbitrary and oppressive, and which would not be borne with in England, but in cases of the most imperious necessity, and after the fullest inquiry. This could not fail to induce jealousies and suspicions among the Irish, and would, he feared, be productive of the most injurious consequences. It had been attempted to justify this act on the principle which had prevailed, in that of disarming the Highlanders, but there was a very great difference between them. The act for disarming the Highlanders was passed at a period, when no one could for a moment doubt the absolute necessity for it. It was immediately after a rebellion, in which those men had taken up arms in the cause of a prince, who was a declared enemy to the protestant religion, and whose ancestor had been expelled from this country, for his attempt to overturn the constitution. The hon. gent. who brought forward this bill called on the house to pass it into a law, without any document to prove the necessity of it, and without any means of conciliation having been adopted towards Ireland. He hoped, in a future session, to see some measure adopted in favour of the Irish; to see a modification of tithes seriously set about, and maturely and fully considered; and, above all, to see the catholic subjects of Ireland restored to their rights; "but," said the right hon. the chancellor of the exchequer, "the church is in danger." In what way this could be made out he was at a loss to see. Would catholic emancipation give the catholic clergy any greater force of arguments, as to the superiority of their religion? For his part, he saw no danger, unless it was caused by the protestants deserting the church. He protested against those restraining laws; they had for a great length of time been tried against Wales, and had always been found fruitless and nugatory. He had hoped the attempt to disarm New England, as we had done, would not so soon have been forgotten, but would have operated to restrain ministers from thus attempting to disarm Ireland. He had hoped, instead of this, that the Irish would be restored to their rights, and henceforward be allowed the rights of Englishmen. He objected warmly to the feelings of the Irish people being, at this moment, insulted, by the appointment of magistrates, who had shewn themselves to be party-men, and who were henceforward to be invested with the most arbitrary and oppressive powers. For these reasons, he should certainly vote against the bill being read a third time.

Mr. Lushington

expressed his disapprobation of the measure, although he was sorry to learn, from what information he had received, that a necessity for it existed, and he particularly relied in this respect on the eloquent speech of a right hon. gent. (Mr. Grattan), who was so well acquainted with Ireland, and concerned for its interests. But he wished the bill had received sundry amendments, particularly for preventing magistrates, from breaking into dwelling-houses Of suspected persons by night; he also wished the duration of the bill to have been limited to one year. Upon the whole, it was a bill to which he felt compelled to give an unwilling assent.

Mr. P. Moore

thought, that in a free country like England, such an act as this should never be passed but from extreme necessity. It had been said, that this act was justified by necessity; but there was no evidence in proof of it, except the opinion of a right hon. gent. (Mr. Grattan), which, however respectable that gentleman might be, he could not suffer to sway him, nor was he able to bring his conscience to adopt so arbitrary a measure on such authority. Such a corroding act as this must prove highly injurious in its consequences, by irritating and lacerating the feelings of the Irish people; and if there was a necessity for it, the fact was, it did not go far enough. For these reasons, he would move as an amendment, "that it be read a third time that day 3 months."

Mr. Whitbread

apologized to the house for his again stating to them what were his opinions upon this measure. The importance of the subject, however, made it his duty to state in this, as well as in former stages, what was the result of his inquiry and deliberation upon a question of such magnitude. In the first place then, deferring as he did to the opinion of a right hon. gent. (Mr. Grattan), whose sentiments he always held in the highest estimation, he must confess that there was very high authority indeed in favour of the proposition, that some such measure ought to be adopted. But even then there was something which operated in his favour. That right hon. gent. whose opinion, it was admitted on all sides, carried such great weight and influence with it, did not say that he agreed to the bill with all its deformities; he objected to many parts of it; he only said, that rather than lose the measure altogether, he would agree to take it with these objectionable parts. However, when he looked at the consequences that were likely to result from the adoption of such a measure, he felt that it was his duty as a member of parliament in such a case, and without any specific evidence before him in support of the measure, to think for himself, and oppose the measure. This bill differed materially from the other; the other was to operate in a particular part only, and that under peculiar circumstances; but this was to act universally throughout the whole country, and under any circumstances. What was that in elect but stating that, generally speaking, you cannot trust the whole of the population of Ireland, and proclaiming to the enemy, that in that place there is to be found a large portion of his majesty's subjects who are ready to accept of their arms if they will send them there? But above all, he objected to the Measure because it was seen that even that most objectionable, most useless clause was not allowed to be altered, that which empowered constables or men of any description, with a warrant founded on suspicion only, to break into men's houses, and alarm and terrify their families in the dead hour of the night. If the search was only to be made in the presence of a justice, there might have been Some responsibility; but, when even that amendment was refused, when it was known, that whatever disaffection did exist, the arms were used by night, and that it was in the day time that they were mostly secreted, he could not he so prodigal of this insulting power, he could not bring himself to wanton thus unnecessarily with the feelings of the people. If he was not of opinion that the people of Ireland were better secured without than with this bill, he most certainly should vote in favour of it; but thinking as he did that the measure was both unjust and unnecessary, he was impelled by a sense of duty to support the amendment.

Sir Arthur Piggott

said he would beg leave, as shortly as possible, to give his reasons for dissenting from this bill. It was an act of the most arbitrary end oppressive nature, brought forward without any inquiry into the state of Ireland, without any evidence laid before the house as to the necessity of it; and it was altogether so unconstitutional an act, that nothing but extreme and most imperious necessity could possibly justify it. It did not depend on the responsibility of the lord lieutenant and council, nor on the authority of the established courts of law; but two magistrates could execute al the arbitrary provisions of this terrible bill He did not conceive himself authorised to give his assent to such a bill as this, on the authority of any hon. gentleman, however respectable he might be, both for character and talents; and notwithstanding all that had been said on the subject, he could not see any necessity whatever for it. Lord Hardwicke had resided upwards of 4 years in Ireland, a most able, dignified, and popular representative of his sovereign, during which time he had never found it necessary to resort to those extraordinary provisions. If so, what was there in the present state of Ireland to give occasion to this bill? Since my lord Hardwicke, the duke of Bedford had been some time lord lieutenant; and there were some partial disturbances in different parts of the country. Applications had been made to his grace to put in force the provisions of this act; but he refused. He proceeded against the culprits in a legal way; and the law was found sufficient to subdue the insurrection, and to punish the offenders. Here the house had the evidence of two lords lieutenants, that in the course of 6 or 7 years, there was no necessity for such provisions. It must be a necessity made apparent to parliament, and not allowed to go on in respect to any assertion of any individual, to put the whole people of Ireland out of the law, and authorize these nocturnal domiciliary visits. He was averse to the bill in toto. He never could reconcile himself to a bill which was to place the people, in every part of Ireland, in the power of any two rash, prejudiced, or intemperate magistrates, to break open their houses at any hour of the night, and, under the pretence of searching for arms, to alarm and insult their families, and without the slightest evidence of any necessity: and at least, if the house should agree to pass the bill, it ought to name the shortest possible duration, not longer, at farthest, than the commencement of the next session; when the subject might again be considered, and the law suffered to expire, unless the executive government of the country should think it necessary to he revived. It was said by the supporters of this bill, that it was to be continued for 3 years, in the first instance, because the revival of the subject in parliament, year after year, would excite irritation. So, that to avoid this suppositions consequence, the whole people of Ireland were to be 3 years exposed to the arbitrary oppression of magistrates and their under- lings, and to be deprived of their arms for the defence of their habitations. There were times heretofore, when a British parliament would not tolerate such language; and he thought it required some boldness for any minister to state such a proposition. Yet, how could the bill be continued 3 years, unless it was the united sense of parliament to resist any motion for its repeal, which it was competent for any member to propose in the next session? Would any member suppose it possible, that the affairs of Ireland must not come under the consideration of parliament every year? If bills like this were the boons to be granted to Ireland by this country, these were what they could find elsewhere; and if parliament did not see the wisdom of governing that country by lenient and conciliatory measures, and fulfilling to the hopes of the people the effects they were taught to expect from a legislative union with this country; namely, the knitting together their rights and interests with those of their British fellow-subjects; if parliament did not feel the necessity of strengthening, at this awful crisis, the armies of the empire, by the valour of a noble, brave, intrepid, and loyal people, instead of keeping up a system of coercive end irritative measures; he must only lament their blindness. This observation reminded him of a declaration once made by one of the ablest statesmen that ever presided over the destinies of this country, the great earl of Chatham; who said it was his maxim to adopt merit wherever he found it, free from all partiality or prejudice to countries. He had sought and found a brave people in the North, who had long been estranged from all attachment to British government by acts of impolicy and oppression, which transferred their affections to a foreign foe, who had flattered them with hopes of redress. He removed their oppressions. He noticed their loyalty to this country. They flocked to the British standard, and conquered for England in every quarter of the world. It was a similar policy that would give the best effects to the Union, by uniting with this country the affections of the Irish people: but a contrary conduct would tend ultimately, perhaps, to lop off the right arm from the British empire, at a moment when we wanted twice as many arms as we had to effect our security in this awful crisis. He concluded by beseeching the house, and his majesty's government, to depart from this fatal system which risked less than the ultimate lets of Ireland.

Mr. Dillon

stated, that it fell within his own knowledge, that during the administration of the duke of Bedford, some hot headed magistrates had proclaimed a district contrary to law. They afterwards applied to the lord lieutenant to sanction their proceeding; he refused to do so, and the usual operation of the law was found to be sufficient for the preservation of public tranquillity. To such men it was not his inclination to confide such powers as were not found necessary in the administration of lord Hardwicke, and such as the duke of Bedford refused to sanction. It was the wish of lord Kilwarden, even in his dying moments, that the law should not be violated on his account. Ministers were well aware that by the Bill of Rights every British subject had a right to bear arms, and if unnecessary infractions of the best articles of the constitution were made as a matter of course almost, ministers might expect that some portion of the people of that country would declare their sentiments in the most open manner against such proceedings; they might expect, not that a revolution founded on Agrarian principles would be attempted, but that the higher class of the people would be roused, and that they would petition against the union. On the intended motion of Mr. Sheridan he should deliver his sentiments more fully; in the mean while however, he thought it his duty to oppose the bill now before the house.

Mr. Craig

defended Ireland from the unjust imputations against its loyalty and allegiance. He was convinced that the true policy in governing Ireland was to extend to its people the full participation of constitutional rights. He declared his conviction of the injustice and impolicy of the present bill, and strongly supported the amendment.

Mr. Ponsonby

was a decided enemy to the bill. He hoped some amendment would have been admitted to render it less unpalatable, but he was severely disappointed. He thanked his right hon. and learned friend (sir A. Piggott) for his eloquent speech against the bill, in every word of which he agreed; and could only express his astonishment to find his majesty's ministers supporting such a measure upon hear say, and without a tittle of evidence, while at this moment the assizes of the different counties in Ireland were proceeding, and when the judges were every where unanimous in stating the tranquil state of that country, especially Wexford and Tipperary, the two most suspected counties, and where there was not a single indictment for insurrection, or even for seditious words; and when the judge emphatically thanked the grand juries for the tranquil state in which he found that part of the country. He never could give his support to so abominable, so unconstitutional, and so tyrannical a bill.—A general cry of question! question!

Mr. Sheridan

expressed his astonishment at hearing so very general a call of question! question! as if gentlemen were in a hurry to pass a bill so alarming to the liberties of Ireland. He should not enter upon the affairs of that country at present, as he should have a more favourable opportunity, on the motion he should have the honour of proposing to the house on Monday. He did not expect, however, that on a measure like this for driving from the pale of the constitution the whole people of Ireland, his majesty's ministers would sit mute, without condescending to notice any of the arguments so eloquently and forcibly put against this bill. If ever he saw the case of Ireland treated with outrage and insult, it was upon the present occasion, when the king's ministers were forcing upon that country, a law subversive of all civil liberty, and exposing the habitation of every man in Ireland to the nocturnal intrusion of any two magistrates, or their underlings, on pretence of searching for arms, without any controul from the executive government. The eloquent speech of his right hon and learned friend (sir A. Piggott) was unanswerable. He gloried in the whole tenour of his arguments, and he was proud to see on that side of the house an attorney-general and solicitor-general of the last administration, stand forth as advocates for the cause of Ireland, who preferred government by Law to a government by arbitrary power and military execution, and who refused to vote away the liberties of a brave and honourable people, without any other semblance of necessity than the mere ipse dixit of the right hon. the chancellor of the exchequer, and his legal friends the attorney and solicitor-generals. And what was the testimony of those right hon. gentlemen? Why, that none of them knew any thing about Ireland, but that they understood from good authority that there was a disposition to insurrection there. Who told them so? Did they learn it by any official document from the duke of Richmond? or was it only from the whispers of those hon. gentlemen from that side the water, who wished to feed their credulity? For gentlemen in their stations, to say they were unacquainted with the affairs of Ireland, might be well enough before the union; but after that event, such a declaration was as ridiculous as to say they knew nothing about Middlesex or Yorkshire. The former act, of which this was meant to be the companion, was abominable enough, but this was a thousand times worse. By a clause in this bill, nothing in the shape of a blacksmith must exist in Ireland but at the discretion of the magistrates, unless he would swear and give security that he would never make any thing in the shape of a pike. Thus every gentleman in Ireland was liable to be plundered out of his arms; and every blacksmith in that devoted country prevented from following his trade, or earning his livelihood, at the discretion of any two petty justices of the peace. Would any man, in his cool senses, suppose that such a measure was not calculated to excite universal discontent in Ireland; to convert the friends of the government, and the most loyal and peaceable people of the country into enemies, and to produce all those very mischiefs which it was avowedly directed to prevent? He should, however, beg leave to add to the bill a clause, by way of rider. It would be, to make it high treason to communicate to Napoleon emperor of the French, either of those bills; for he was convinced that such a communication would be the most direct, effectual, and traitorous communication to the enemy for the invasion of Ireland. The hon. and right hon. and learned gentlemen opposite to him took no notice of the speeches of his hon. friends; but if they were ignorant of the affairs of that country, knowledge should be forced upon them, or they ought to suffer for their ignorance. Notwithstanding the declaration of a right hon. friend of his (Mr. Grattan), and whose authority had been so generally quoted by the supporters of this and the former bill, he would not lend his conscience to any man against his conviction. The Irish security was gone upon the expedition to the Baltic; regiment after regiment was drawn from Ireland for foreign service; and now the country was to be garrisoned by two arbitrary acts of parliament. But surely if ministers were serious in believing the danger, this was the way to encourage and promote it.—The house then divided, for the amendment 28, against it 80, majority 52.

Lord H. Petty

then rose to move an amendment in the bill, by shortening the duration of it. He thought the house ought to be a jealous of such a bill as of the [...] act, and that it ought only to be past for one year. We ought to pay the same acknowledgement to the liberty of the subject in Ireland as in this country. We ought to anticipate that amelioration in the state of Ireland which might render the bill no longer necessary; and perhaps it ought also to be dreaded, that the Irish government would abuse the power vested in it, in such a manner as to make it doubtful whether more evil or good resulted from suffering such a bill to be continued. Thinking, therefore, that such powers ought to be only granted for one year, he concluded by moving as an amendment, that the words "one year" should be inserted instead of "three," as the duration of the bill.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought that it was necessary to say but little, when it was considered how fully both those bills had been already discussed. It would certainly be in the power of parliament to repeal this bill next year, if they thought it necessary; but he thought unnecessary discussion on this subject might be of an irritating nature, and could not possibly do any good.

Mr. Sheridan

was rejoiced, that he had at length heard a few words from one of the hon. gentlemen on the other side. When they had before refused to argue the subject, on the ground of their ignorance, he gave them some credit for either modesty or candour. His noble friend had, however, obliged the rt. hon. gent. to say something. These discussions on the state of Ireland might appear to the gentlemen on the other side of the house, as irritating questions; they however appeared to him questions that ought not to be blinked, but that it was necessary to discuss fairly. He would tell the right hon. gent., that Ireland ought to be the constant subject of his thoughts, and of discussion in that house. The present bill Was a bill for suspending the liberties and the constitution of Ireland; and to prevent irritating discussions, as they were called, it was proposed, in the first instance, that the bill should be continued for 3 years. He could not see any argument that could be adduced in favour of continuing the bill for that time, that would not apply as well to the making it eternal. The right hon. gent. had said, that the house could repeal it next year, if they thought proper. This was most undoubtedly true, and so they could have done if the act had been at once made perpetual; but there was very little reason expect that it would be repealed before the time fixed for its expiration. If the bill were only annual, then the right hon. gent. must make out some kind of a case next year, before he could again propose it; but it it passed for 3 years, he would consider himself privileged to continue all that time as ignorant as he now professed himself of the state of Ireland. It was time for the house to take the situation of Ireland seriously into their consideration, as every body knew that the destruction of Ireland, or its occupation by the enemy, would be the downfal of the empire. He concluded by declaring, that he should support the amendment.

Mr. W Elliot (late Secretary for Ireland)

admitted the necessity of this measure, but thought the period of duration quite another, question, and that parliament ought to show an anxiety to keep as much as possible within the limits of that necessity. He would, therefore, support the amendment, and would strongly advise gentlemen on the other side to accede to it. The right hon. gent. earnestly recommended the adoption of conciliatory measures with regard to Ireland. He deprecated the language which he had heard from a high authority in that house, and in another assembly also, with respect to the Catholics; for he considered such language extremely rash and imprudent, to say the least of it; as it would go to close the expectations, to put an end to the hopes of the Catholic body. When gentlemen talked of settling the question, what did they mean? Did they mean to say to a population growing in numbers, wealth, and consequence—"we will never attend to your wishes, we will never comply with your desires?" But some gentlemen undertook to say, that the Catholic Question was of no consequence to this population. The contrary, however, was as true as nature was true to herself. What! that the landed and commercial interests, which had such extensive and just influence among the Catholic body, that the gentlemen of the bar, did not aspire to those privileges and distinctions, from which they were at present excluded! The idea Was quite preposterous. He could assure the house that gentlemen were mistaken who supposed that all those feelings did not prevail among the Catholics, which strongly bind men to the state. For the desire of participating, in those privileges which the state granted, was a strong bond of connection. He, of course, disliked, and would wish to discountenance the doctrine, that the prospect should be removed, which served to keep alive that desire. At least to allow the Catholics to hope, to let them cherish expectation, was one of the best means of preserving the tranquillity of Ireland. With a view effectually to restore and to maintain that tranquillity, the right hon. gent. mentioned the different measures which the late ministry had in contemplation; first, the grant of privileges to the Catholics; second, the modification of tythes; third, a strict attention to the appropriation of the funds destined for education; and fourth, the enforcement of the residence of the established clergy. These were among the benefits which the late administration meant to confer upon Ireland, and which he heartily wished to see adopted.

Mr. Wilberforce

felt much satisfaction in hearing the objects which the right hon. gent. had just stated, and particularly with regard to tythes, in which it a change could be effected without injury to the interests of the established clergy, it was on all hands admitted to be extremely desirable. The hon. member expressed his wish that the gentlemen of Ireland would themselves devote their attention to a consideration of the means by which the state of the Irish people might be amended. For he could not help thinking that among that people, he meant the peasantry particularly, there was a difference not only in the civil condition, if he might so express himself, but in the political character, from that which appeared among the same classes in this country, and the gentlemen of Ireland might be most competent to judge of the fact, and to prepare the means of improving their countrymen.

Mr. Windham

was glad to hear his right hon. friend state the objects which the late administration had in view, for the benefit of Ireland; and to those objects he wished particularly to point the attention of the house. So far from considering this bill and the Insurrection bill as twins, he thought them materially different. With respect to the consequence to be apprehended from the frequent discussion of measures of this nature, and which the right hon. gent. on the opposite side deprecated, he for himself thought, that as much irritation might be produced by silence as by discussion—nay, more; and so he apprehended from the silence of ministers upon this occasion. The feelings of the people of Ireland must be grated to find it resolved to continue the duration of such a bill as this beyond a reasonable time, without any statement, and perhaps without the existence of necessity. For, whatever the necessity might be now, that necessity might be at an end within a 12 month. At all events, the ease was doubtful, and the Irish people should have the benefit of that doubt. Enacting the bill for one year did not preclude its revival, should it appear necessary, any more than the revival of the Mutiny bill, which, from the same considerations which actuated his mind upon this occasion, parliament had taken care to pass annually, although its necessity was undisputed and its principle unquestionable.—The house then divided upon lord H Petty's amendment, and the numbers were Ayes 34; Noes 79.

List of the Minority.
Barham, J. F.Milton, lord
Bouveric, E.Petty, lord H.
Bernard. T.Pigott, sir A.
Brand, T.Parry, L. P. J.
Calcraft, J.Ponsonby, J.
Craig, J.Romilly, Sir S.
Cavendish, W.Russell, lord W.
Cuthbert, J. R.Sheridan, R. B.
Dillon, H. A.Somerville, sir M.
Dundas, W.Smith, W.
Elliot, W.Sharpe, R.
Hibbert, G.Talbot, R.
Jervoise, J. C.Windham, W.
Lamb, W.Ward. J. W.
Lubbock, sir J.Whitbread, S.
Millar, sir T.Tellers.
Moore, P.Creevey, T.
Martin, H.Dawson, R.
Maxwell, W.