§ Mr. Grattan
observed, that he held in his hand a Petition from a numerous body of men, styling themselves Roman Catholics, and praying relief from that house, in the hope that they might be admitted to the franchises of the constitution. He should not for the present enter into the matter of the petitioners' case, but content himself with moving that the Petition be received, and lie upon the table. On the 16th of May, however, he should submit a proposition to the house upon the subject. He fixed upon that day as the most convenient to several gentlemen who took a warm interest in the Petition, and he trusted it would prove equally convenient, to the gentlemen opposite. He had only to add, that this Petition was signed by a great proportion of the most respectable members of the Catholic body, many of whom had actually subscribed the Petition, whilst others, whose names appeared to it, had their signatures affixed by authority given to the persons who subscribed for them. The Petition, however, he should present as that of the persons only who had actually subscribed their own signatures to it. He moved therefore, that the Petition be received.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
desired 33 to know what was the proportion the real signatures bore to those which were affixed by the authority alluded to by the right hon. gent.
§ Mr. Grattan
replied, that he was not prepared to state the proportion, but that the number of signatures affixed by order of the parties, amounted to several thousands.
§ The Speaker
suggested that it would be extremely desirable, if the right hon. gent. could point out any distinctive mark by which those which purported to be the signatures of the parties could be known and distinguished from the real signatures.
§ Mr. Grattan
replied, that all signatures by the authority of the parties, were written in the same hand, whereas the bona fide signatures were written in the various hands of the subscribing persons. He could prove the signatures of some of them himself, and these were men of the highest respectability, some of them, for instance lord Fingal, being at present in London. He had stated in candour the nature of some of the signatures, and with a view to guard against any imputation that he had presented a Petition purporting to express the sentiments of persons who had never subscribed it. Every person whose name appeared to the Petition, was ready to come forward and subscribe it, but he had thought it better to present the Petition in its present form than to send it back to Ireland and risk the consequences of the various meetings that must necessarily be called in order to obtain signatures.
§ Mr. H. Parnell
stated, that it was notorious that the Petition had been actually subscribed by several of the most eminent and respectable members of the Catholic body, and as such eight to be received.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
felt no objection to receiving the Petition, if that could be done without departing from the constant practice of parliament. From the bulk of the petition, it appeared that there was a great mass of names annexed to it, and amongst the number, there must be many who had actually signed it, and whose names might be retained. But, if the signatures which had not really been written by the parties could not be detached, he should be rather inclined to receive the Petition even as it was. If any doubt existed as to the practice of the house, he should certainly prefer receiving the Petition, at the same time protesting against this case being drawn into 34 a precedent, rather than send the Petition back to Ireland for signatures. But, if it should appear to be clearly contrary to the practice of parliament, to receive a petition under such circumstances, he did not think that the house should depart from its regular practice. Upon this point he appealed to the Chair, at the same time expressing a wish, that some mode might be devised of separating the actual from the virtual signatures, in order that the petition might be received consistently with the forms of the house.
§ The Speaker
having been appealed to, stated, that it was quite clear, that if a petition was offered to that house with signatures, avowed Hot to be in the handwriting of the parties whose names they purported to be, it was not receivable. The simple remedy for this was, if these signatures could be detached from the petition, to present it with such only as had been actually subscribed by the parties, in which case the Petition would be received. That house knew of no petitioners; it considered only the matters substantially contained in the petition. There were two ways, by either of which the present difficulty might be got over. The signatures which were not real might be erased, and the petition presented with the original signatures; but that was hazardous both to the parties and the hon. member who should undertake to cancel any names appearing to the petition. The other course was, to detach the signatures that were not original from the petition, and as far as that could be done, to present it with such of the original signatures as were annexed to the petition.
§ Mr. Tierney
acquiesced in the rule laid down by the Chair in ail ordinary cases, but asserted that the peculiar circumstances of the present case were such as to except it from the application of the ordinary rule. There was no man from Ireland who did not know that two or three millions of signatures could be obtained for the petition. The petition might be received as the petition of those only who had actually subscribed it. If the petition had come from persons partially interested, there might be some reason for inquiring into the signatures, but as this petition expressed the sentiments of so large a portion of the people of Ireland, no form ought to be allowed to keep it out of that house. He thought, therefore, that it ought to be received upon the assurance of his right hon. friend, that he 35 believed the signatures to be those of the parties, or annexed by the authority of the parties.
Mr. M. Fitzgerald
(knight of Kerry) felt much difficulty upon the present occasion, bowing, as he did, to the authority of the Chair. He was convinced that more inconvenience would result from sending the petition back to be regularly signed, than from receiving the petition in its present form. Having taken some pains to ascertain the real state of the case respecting the signatures to this petition, he could assure the house that they were 17,000 in number, and that several thousands of these were original signatures. Many of the other signatures had been added on the authority of petitions upon the same subject from different counties in Ireland, which were actually subscribed by the persons whose names appeared to them. When the petition was subscribed by several thousands of original signatures, it became a serious question, if the object of it was to be defeated by an error in point of form. If sent back, it would be easy to obtain millions of subscribers, but he begged the house to consider what might be the effect of referring this petition back to these millions. He put it to his majesty's ministers whether they would risk, by rendering such a course necessary, the disturbance of that harmony, which they were all so anxious to preserve. The signatures had been procured from all parts of Ireland, and included the most respectable amongst the Roman Catholics, because it had been objected against former petitions that they did not express the sentiments of the whole body. But if the house should send it back, he was sure that the signatures would be procured, in a temperate manner. There would be other petitions presented from different parts of the country, and, as he understood, one from a Northern county, with upwards of 30,000 signatures.
Sir Robert Peele
adverted shortly to the Manchester Petition for Peace, which was said to have contained 47,000 signatures, and stated, that he had since been informed that there had been no more than 1600 original signatures to that petition, and that many of the names annexed to it were those of men long dead. He was glad the law of parliament had been now laid down, because, though it was the first right of the subject to bring his complaint before that house, much inconvenience would arise if the practice of annexing the names 36 of dead persons to petitions were to be countenanced.
§ Sir J. Newport
deprecated every application of the case stated by the hon. bart. to the present case. Persons might differ on the question respecting war or peace, but no man could doubt that the whole Catholic, population of Ireland were desirous of being admitted to the franchises of the constitution. If ever the rule of the house was to be departed from, it was in the present instance.
§ Mr. Grattan
lamented the awkward situation in which the petitioners would be placed if this petition should be rejected. It would be an inhospitable reception that would be given to the claims of the petitioners. If the rule laid down was to be strictly observed, it would be peculiarly severe with respect to petitions from Ireland. No member who might present one from that country, particularly if of a popular nature, could possibly prove that all the signatures were real. Under these circumstances, the people of Ireland could have no communication with that house. He had presented petitions from several cities in Ireland, the signatures to which he could not have verified. He left it to the good sense of the house, whether they ought to be too critical in judging of petitions, when they conscientiously knew that the petitions contained the sentiments of those whose signatures were annexed. He protested against the application of the statement of the hon. baronet (sir R. Peele) to this case, because he was perfectly convinced, that the petition expressed the real sentiments of all whose names were subscribed to it. If they sent that back which other great bodies received, would not the Catholics of Ireland be discouraged from, any communication with the lower house of parliament? He remembered having presented a petition at one time to the Irish parliament, which had 40 or 50,000 signatures, of which only 7000 were original, yet that produced no difficulty. He knew it was discretionary in the house to receive the petition in its present shape, and he must put it therefore to their discretion. If the petition was to be sent back, and meetings should be called for obtaining signatures, it was not his fault. He would not undertake the responsibility of it. He could authenticate many of the signatures himself, as others could many more, and he therefore again put it to the good sense and discretion of the house, to receive the petition.
§ Mr. Wilberforce
observed, that there was not in any quarter a disposition to object to receiving the petition, but contended, that the usual practice of the house with respect to petitions, signed by many names, was of most substantial importance and real utility, and ought not to be departed from; for much inconvenience might arise from a precedent so establised, however strong the inducement might be.
§ Mr. Tierney
explained, and desired to know, whether if the question should come to a vote and he should vote for receiving the petition, it would be any disrespect to the chair, after the statement of the practice of the house which had been so distinctly given from the Chair?
§ The Speaker
re-stated what he had antecedently communicated to the house; and observed that it could be no disrespect to him, for any hon. member who thought otherwise, to vote according to his individual impression. He had when called upon, as it was his duty, stated the practice of the house to the best of his judgment; and it would be for the house to decide, whether it would adhere to its regular practice, or depart from it in this instance.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
did not wish to reject the Petition; on the contrary, he was desirous that it should be withdrawn, in order to its being presented in a more regular form. It. would be a painful duty, but if pressed in the present form, he must vote for its rejection. He was anxious that the Petition should be received, and as numbers could not add weight to the importance of the subject, the right hon. gent. by withdrawing the Petition, and presenting it to-morrow with any number of original signatures, would attain the end he desired. As Petitions were to be presented from the different counties of Ireland, the house would have the names authenticated annexed to these particular petitions. He had been informed of the circumstance respecting the Manchester Petition. One of the members for Cork had also presented a Petition, purporting to be from the merchants of that city, and in a few days after had informed him, that by letters received from that city, it appeared, that the great body of the merchants knew nothing of the matter till they saw it stated in the newspapers. He mentioned these cases, to show how loose the practice was becoming with respect to petitions, and how necessary it was to adhere to the regular practice.
§ Sir J. Newport
observed, that the case of the petition from the merchants of Cork did not at all bear upon the present petition.
§ Mr. Windham
did not by any means wish that the house should depart from any rule laid down to regulate its proceedings; but at the same time he thought, in perfect consistence with the rule on this occasion, the petition should be allowed to remain upon the table. He could not see why the fictitious signatures, if any such there were, were to invalidate the real ones. They might let them he dead, and count them for nothing; and, surely, if fifty or sixty well-ascertained signatures could be made out, it would have the same effect as fifty or sixty thousand, since the importance of the petition was not attempted to be denied. He admitted, that if the signatures confessed to be real could be detached, it would be well; but, unfortunately, they were so blended with those called fictitious, that an attempt at discrimination would be utterly impossible. He hoped the house would not push the rule to its extent on this occasion, as it might lead to a manifest inconvenience; viz. that in case any future petition were to be presented, names might be fraudulently and clandestinely fabricated in the same hand, for the purpose of procuring the rejection of the petition. He thought the petition should, at all events, be suffered to lie on the table, with the names separate, if possible; but still, if that could not be effected, he thought it did not signify, as the suspected names might be allowed to go for nothing.
felt great anxiety on the subject of this petition. The petition did not derive weight from the numbers subscribed, but from its matter. But, if the signatures were so intermixed as not to be separated, he thought that it should be received in its present state making a special entry upon the journals, that it should not be drawn into a precedent.
Mr. Secretary Canning
was desirous that some way might be found out for avoiding the present difficulty, but did not think that any thing with respect to these forms should be granted as a present indulgence, which might be a future embarrassment. He thought it impossible but that in such a mass of names the right hon. gentleman would find many which he could attest, and as numbers made no difference in the importance of this question, the petition might be presented with these signatures only.
Mr. Windham and Mr. Secretary Canning
severally explained; after which, Mr. Grattan proposed, with the leave of the house, to withdraw the Petition, with a view to procure original signatures, in which case he should not be able to present it before the recess. He should, however, present it by the 16th of May, on which day, he should move for the appointment of a Committee upon it.—After a few words from Messrs. Whitbread and William Smith, recommending the adoption of the line pointed out by Mr. Yorke, to receive the Petition and make a special entry, the Petition was withdrawn.