HC Deb 11 March 1811 vol 19 cc350-6

On the question for bringing up the Report of the Mutiny Bill,

Mr. Parnell

rose, pursuant to notice, to move a clause relative to Catholic soldiers. He did not do so with a view of imputing-any blame to ministers; on the contrary, he was ready to give great praise to the Irish government, for the orders lately issued by the commander of the forces, to prevent commanding officers from compelling Roman Catholics to attend the Protestant divine service. He wished to render their good intentions effectual, by giving them a legislative sanction, at the same time to secure the soldiers from the recurrence of abuses, in consequence of the temporary authority of all regulations in the shape of general orders. He was sure the House could not seriously intend to constitute the refusal of the Catholic soldier, to frequent the service of the Protestant church, a crime—yet, in point of fact, it was in the habit of doing so annually on passing the Mutiny Bill; and also, of providing penalties against those who Were guilty of it. By the Mutiny Bill, the King is empowered to make articles of war for the government of the army. By the first of these articles, all officers and soldiers, not having just impediment, shall diligently frequent divine service, and sermon, in the places appointed for the assembling of the regiment, troop or company, to which they belong such as wilfully absent themselves shall, for the first offence, forfeit one shilling; and for the second offence one shilling, and be laid in irons for twelve hours.—By the same articles, section 2, article 5, if a soldier shall disobey any lawful command of his superior officer, he shall suffer death, or such other punishment as by a general court-martial shall be awarded; and as the refusal to frequent divine service is such a disobedience, it is possible that the punishment of death might be inflicted on the offender.—As, said Mr. Parnell, the House could never mean to create this a crime, in the case of a Catholic soldier, it could never desire to continue by law punishments like these. It was therefore the object of the clause which he should subunit to its consideration, to provide that no person professing the Roman Catholic religion serving in his Majesty's regular forces, or in the militia of the united kingdom, should be subjected by the articles of war to any punishment for not frequenting divine service as performed according to the rites and ceremonies of the established church. He would now state to the House such cases as would shew to it that the interposition of the legislature had become necessary. In the course of last summer, a soldier of the name of Spence, belonging to the county of Dublin militia, having refused to attend the Protestant worship, was put into confinement; having in consequence sent a memorial complaining of this treatment to his commanding officer, he was brought to a court-martial on the alleged offence of presenting an improper memorial. He was sentenced to receive 500 lashes, which punishment was commuted for service in the West Indies—and he had actually been taken as far as the Isle of Wight, when upon an application of Dr. Troy and some other respectable Catholics, an order was given for his being brought back. Another instance happened at Enniskillen—several privates of the artillery corps having refused to go to the Protestant church, their commanding officer made them parade with their coats turned, and continued this punishment till an application was made to the commander of the forces, and an order obtained to desire him to desist—In consequence of these occurrences, the commander of the forces issued general orders in January last, stating, "That reports having been circulated, that Catholic soldiers have been prevented from attending divine worship according to the tenets of their religion, and obliged, in certain instances, to be present at that of the established church, the commanding officers of the several regiments are to be attentive to the prevention of such practices, if they have in any instance existed in the troops under their command, as they are in violation of the orders contained in the circular letter of the 14th May, 1806, and since repented to the army; and the Catholic soldiers, as well as those of other sects, are to be allowed, in all such cases, to attend the divine worship of the Almighty, according to their several persuasions, when duty does not interfere, in the same manner, and under the same regulations, as those of the established church." These orders, said the hon. member, necessarily suggest several very important considerations; in the first place, they dispense with the law of the land; for the first article of war makes it lawful to punish a Catholic soldier, if he refuses to frequent divine service at the place he shall appoint. They prove that the practice of preventing Catholic soldiers from attending divine service, according to the tenets of their religion, is common, for otherwise so authoritative a mode of interfering would not be requisite, nor would it have been necessary to repeat these orders, as it appears they have been repeated since 1806. They likewise prove, from the circumstances respecting them, that they do not afford an effectual remedy. It is obvious that they cannot, they must soon be forgotten, and in point of fact they become wholly useless in a few months after they are issued. For this reason it is that the clause which is now proposed is absolutely necessary, in order to carry into effect the intentions of the Irish government. It will do that for ever which they have failed in being able to accomplish by their repeated orders, and, therefore, they ought, beyond all others, to be willing to support it. The instances that have been mentioned refer only to Ireland; the hon. member said, that similar cases frequently occur in this country. Sir John Cox; Hippesley states, in the speech he has published on the Catholic question, that the Catholic prelates have frequently addressed government upon the subject, that he presented an address to the duke of Portland in 1800, in which they say, "no sooner was a regiment, though chiefly composed of Catholics, arrived in England, or in any other part of the empire, than they were forced to conform to the established church A case that had lately happened at Woolwich had been put into his hands, which he would read to the House.—He had made very careful inquiry as to the accuracy of it, and had been assured of its truth by such good authority that he could undertake to say, that if it shall be further investigated the facts of it will be completely borne out. "A private of the royal artillery, who was born and bred a Roman Catholic, on the 6th of January last, was ordered to attend the divine service of the established church. This he refused in very civil and decent terms. Upon which, he was confined in a dark room for twelve days." Though this is the only case he was at present able to state to the House, when it is considered that Catholic soldiers imagine, when they come to England, that they must conform for the time, and go to church, and how difficult it is to acquire information, in consequence of the punishment a soldier exposes himself to by complaining against his commanding officer—the fair conclusion to be drawn is, that this practice very commonly prevails—as a matter of general notoriety, it certainly does—and therefore a remedy was wanting for the evil as well in England as in Ireland. With respect to the recruiting of the army, Mr. Parnell said, there was no measure which would promote it so much as the adopting of the proposed clause. He had made it his business to inquire from those who were best, able to give him information on the subject, and he found that the common people of Ireland had an objection almost insurmountable to enlisting into the army, arising from a knowledge that they might be compelled to attend Protestant worship, and be deprived of the service of their own religion. It was not possible to account for this aversion to the army on any other grounds—for comparing the situation of a poor Irish labourer with that of a soldier receiving a very large bounty, good pay, cloathing, and great protection on the part of his officers, the situation of the latter was infinitely preferable to that of the former. It was therefore a matter of policy as well as of common justice to make the alteration in the law which he proposed. It would effectually carry into execution the intentions of government, and relieve them from the recurrence of similar complaints.

Mr. W. Pole

thought this clause unnecessary, as the Irish government had never wished to force the Catholics to attend Protestant service, and did give immediate relief to the few Catholics who had been aggrieved in this manner. The hon. gent. had been misinformed as to the facts of the case with respect to Spence, one of the soldiers alluded to. Spence had been ordered to attend church parade. The custom was, to move off the Catholics to mass, and the Protestants to church. This man was about to leave parade, but was told by a Serjeant that he would be guilty of disobedience of orders. Notwithstanding this he did quit the parade, and was afterwards tried by a court-martial, for writing a mutinous letter. The sentence against him was severe. Dr. Troy afterwards made representation to the government, and the man was allowed to commute his punishment by enlisting into a foreign regiment. Upon the representations made, the man was pardoned and discharged the service. The other case was that of a young officer, just returned from the West Indies, who had turned the coats of two of the men for not attending service; the officer was afterwards removed. The right hon. gent, observed, that the object of government in making the order was, that the men should attend divine service, but only in accordance each with his particular form of worship;

Sir J. Newport

allowed, that the Irish government had interfered in a very handsome manner on the particular Cases brought to heir notice. He thought parliament should now interfere for the general protection of the Catholic soldiers.

Mr. W. Smith

said, that if Spence had not happened to have a friend to state his case to the government, he would probably have suffered the whole of the punishment. He thought the Catholic soldier should be protected by law.

Lord Palmerston

said, that instances which could be produced of the interference complained of were so very few, that there was no occasion for any law upon the subject, and that it would be much better to leave it as a matter of regulation, as there could be no doubt of the wishes of the government or the commander in chief upon the subject. In the hospitals, wherever there were Catholic soldiers, Catholic clergymen were admitted.

Mr. Hutchinson

dwelt on the great importance of the Catholic body to the recruiting our armies. He therefore conceived, that it would tend greatly to increase our armies if the Catholics had that protection by law which the gentlemen on the other side wished them to have by the regulations.

Mr. Manners Sutton

said, that at present the only question was, as to the mode; and it appeared to him, that no case had been made out to call for an alteration of the law, but that the regulations would be fully adequate to prevent the evil complained of.

Mr. Elliot, and Mr. Herbert, supported the clauses.

Mr. Ponsonby

observed, that neither the practice of the Irish government, nor their regulations, protected Irish Catholic soldiers in this country. For their protection he thought a change in the law necessary.

Lord Palmerston

said, he was not aware of a single case of this nature happening in England.

Mr. Parnell

re-stated one of his cases, which was that of a private in the royal artillery having been lately imprisoned 12 days, at Woolwich, for refusing to attend the service of the established church.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought the Catholic soldiers had sufficient protection in the known sentiments of the Irish government, and the general orders they issued. In this country it would be much better that the effects should be produced by a regulation than by a law. If the Catholic soldier was to be especially exempted, every class of dissenters in the army would conceive themselves equally entitled to exemption.

Mr. Whitbread

suggested as a better course to address the Prince Regent to alter the articles of war in this respect. Perhaps general orders from the commander in chief in this country similar to the order of the Irish government, might produce the same effect.

Mr. M. Sutton

said he should propose, on the third reading, an Amendment in the 21st clause, which provides, That the court martial be empowered to inflict such punishment as may appear to them commensurate with the offence, extending to loss of life, or limb, flogging, &c. The Amendment which he wished to propose was to give an option to the Court to order, in lieu of corporeal punishment, that of imprisonment.

The House then divided,

For the Clause 13.
Against it 46.
Majority —33.

List of the Minority.
Adams, C. Newport, Sir J.
Elliot, W. Parnell, H.
Folkestone, viscount, Ponsonby, G.
Herbert, capt. Smith, W.
Hutchinson, C. H. Taylor, M. A.
Lambe, W. Whitbread, S.
Milton, lord, Wrottesley.
Moore, P.