HC Deb 20 April 1812 vol 22 cc481-94
Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald

, knight of Kerry, rose and said:—Sir; I am charged with the Petition which is to be present ed to this House from the persons whose names are signed thereto, being Protestant land-owners in Ireland. Some circumstances that have occurred regarding it, render it necessary that I should trouble the House with a few words. I would first take the liberty of slating why it has devolved upon so insignificant an individual as myself, to present one of the most important Petitions that can be brought under the consideration of parliament. It may be known that the member for Dublin, at whose suggestion this Petition was first set on foot, was immediately afterwards obliged to leave Ireland, and it devolved upon me to undertake the task he reluctantly resigned, and to be instrumental in its progress, and I am consequently in possession of circumstances important to be known, previous to the approaching discussion of the Catholic Question. The Petition is from the Protestant proprietors of Ireland, and is perfectly unprecedented not only in amount of property, belonging to individuals, who have annexed their names at any former time to a Petition on this subject, but it is the first instance of any general application on the part of the Protestants of Ireland on behalf of their Catholic fellow-subjects. To establish the importance of the Petition, it is sufficient for me to state what, without an approach to exaggeration, I may confidently assert, that it expresses the sentiments of a decided majority of the Protestant proprietors of Ireland.—[Hear, hear!]—I am desirous of repeating the fact, because if it be thought that I overstate it, I am desirous to be contradicted, that I may resort to the proofs with which I am provided. I repeat, therefore, that the Petition expresses the sense of a decided majority of the Protestant proprietors of Ireland, both landed and commercial. I feel it right further to explain, that this Petition, although most respectably and numerously signed, by no means contains the names of all those Protestants who are favourable to Catholic Emancipation on principle; and I wish, with the utmost confidence in the fact, to mention the reason why the names of several who are favourable to it on principle, do not appear to this address. A great number of Protestants in Ireland did entertain a notion that it would be proper, in any Petition presented to parliament, to include conditions and securities. A large proportion, therefore, declined affixing their signatures, because it did not comprize the stipulations they required to be inserted. I wish further to state, that many of those whose names are affixed, do not desire Catholic Emancipation unconditionally; but it appears to all who have signed, that it was not a proper matter to be mentioned in a Petition, but that it ought to be left to the wisdom of parliament; there are numbers who would willingly have added their signatures, if those conditions had been inserted. Many who expressed themselves decidedly favourable to the object in view, have refused to sign it, on account of the violence of the recent differences between the Irish government and a part of the Catholic body.—I think I have now stated enough to entitle this Petition to the serious consideration of parliament. I have, however, to add, what I am sorry to be obliged to mention, that against the Petition (conducted in the most moderate manner, intentionally guarded against the slightest imputation of an attempt to agitate the public feelings) all the influence that could possibly be used by the Irish government has been directed. (Mr. W. Pole said "No, no;" very audibly across the House.) The right hon. gentleman says No; and having so asserted, I feel myself bound to go into proofs of the fact. I say again; notwithstanding this contradiction, that the influence of government has been most notoriously and indecently directed against the Petition I hold in my band, The office of sheriff, a place of most sacred trust, and of the utmost importance to the due distribution of justice, has been tampered with. Persons who had been promised to be made sheriffs for the ensuing year, have been set aside, because the individual recommending one of them had signed the Protestant Petition. I say, that another person who was actually understood to be appointed, did signify to the Irish government, that having also signed the Petition, he apprehended he should be deemed an improper person to fulfil the duties, as his predecessor was rendered incapable on a similar account. I know that individuals possessing public situations, I will not say directly, but indirectly, received menaces from the government, that they should forfeit their places if they favoured the Petition. I know, too, that the partizans of government have held out threats to people, if they suffered the Petition even to remain in their houses; the terrors of inflicted vengeance have been used in the most undisguised manner for the avowed purpose of defeating the Petition. Under all these circumstances it stands a proud proof of the rapidly extending liberality of the Protestants of Ireland in favour of Catholic Emancipation. It is to me an extreme gratification to state, that the most numerous signatures are obtained from the north of Ireland, the inhabitants of which are peculiarly Protestant. I am the more proud of it, because it shews a change of opinion in the only part of Ireland formerly most opposed to this measure: it is a change to be well considered by his Majesty's ministers, because it proves that the Protestants as well as Catholics are now united in the cause. I have said that it is signed very numerously; but the names are not nearly so numerous as they would have been, if the Petition had been circulated among the lower classes. In several districts the signatures only of persons of considerable property are affixed to it, a circumstance very much to be regretted; because, in a case like the present, it would have been desirable to have ascertained thus unequivocally the sense of the middle, as well as the higher order of Protestants. The persons who had the management of it were, however, desired to apply only for the signatures of persons of landed property; and although it is swelled by the names of several thousands, it is not, for this reason, of such magnitude as it would otherwise have appeared. I should remark also, that there are several parts of Ireland, to which, from accidental circumstances, the Petition was not sent; but where, had it been otherwise, it would have met with very extensive support. In some parts many signatures have been obtained which have not been affixed to this Petition; for, by letters I have received to day, I find that since I quilted Ireland, several copies of it have been signed most respectably in the county of Down, which is more peculiarly a Protestant district. Under these circumstances I feel myself authorized, not only to beg permission to bring this Petition up, that it may be laid upon the table, but to recommend to the House to receive it with serious attention, as containing the decided sentiments of the uninfluenced and independent part of the Protestant proprietors of Ireland.

Mr. Wellesley Pole

.—Sir; after what has fallen from the right hon. gentleman, I cannot avoid offering a few observations to the House. As the right hon. gentleman has Stated that the Petition was signed by a great majority of the Protestants of Ireland, I am not disposed to dispute the assertion; but I am much surprised, notwithstanding; and it is the first time I have ever heard, that the majority of resident Protestants in Ireland were supposed to be favourable to the claims of the Catholics. I know, indeed, that great pains has been taken to promote signatures; but I can assure the right hon. gentleman, that if the zeal of the Protestants had been equally excited for a different purpose. Petitions of a very different description would be sent in from a very numerous body of the Protestants of Ireland. The statement, however, which called me up was, that the government of Ireland had interfered to obstruct the success of the Petition, and particularly, that they would not appoint a sheriff who was known to have signed the Petition. I happened to be in Ireland at the period when the idea of the Petition was first suggested at a dinner given to the friends of religious liberty in Dublin, last December, but I never heard till now of the interference of government to oppose the progress of such a Petition. On the contrary, their object throughout has been to allow the Catholics to proceed by Petition as long as they thought proper to confine themselves to that constitutional course of proceeding and also not to interfere with the Protestants in any steps they might take in favour of the Catholics, With regard to the appointment of a sheriff, I would be glad if the right hon. gentleman would explain the allusion he has made. I was much surprised to hear such a charge made against the noble duke, who is at the head of the Irish government; and I verily believe that no man can think it possible that the duke of Richmond would lend himself to such a purpose. I do not know what the right hon. gentleman meant by the exertions of the partizans of government against the Petition; but I know that no suggestion has been given by the Irish government to that effect; and in the county which I have the honour to represent, and where it might be natural to suppose such influence would be exerted; I appeal to my hon. colleague (Mr. Parnell) to confirm my assertion, that no such interference has been attempted. Let the right hon. gentleman then come forward, and manfully make his charge, and call for documents to prove it, instead of dealing in vague assertions, which I believe, upon the honour and conscience of a gentleman, he is not borne out; and I am persuaded that the Irish government would spurn such attempts as are ascribed to them. If I was called on to give my opinion on the subject before you, I would say that I wish the Petition to be read, and that its merits should undergo a full and fair investigation; but I do not think it fair in the right hon. gentleman to make such charges without better foundation for them.

Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald

.—The right hon. gentleman having called on me, I name, without hesitation, the county to which I alluded, it is Carlow. I have no doubt of the fact, and I shall restate it. The nomination of sheriff had been promised to a gentleman of large fortune in that county: he had announced the promise to his friend, who took measures preparatory to his appointment, quite notorious in the county. But, on the former signing the Petition, the Castle immediately superseded the first engagement, and named the second on the list. That gentleman replied, that as he, also, had signed the Protestant Petition, government would probably consider him an unfit sheriff, and begged to decline. Government refused; but on learning that the sheriff would, if a requisition was made to him, call a county meeting on the subject, they acquiesced in his resignation; and a third person was appointed. I should be glad that an enquiry were made into these facts.

I have also ascertained, from authority which I cannot doubt, that individual" have been threatened, by the agents of the Irish government, with the loss of their situations, if they should sign the Petition. I shall not mention their names, because that would involve them in the very danger with which they were threatened, and would invite oppression towards them. I know an instance, and could prove it, of a person extremely friendly to the measure, who had agreed to keep the Petition in his house, in a county town, during the assizes, for signatures.

On the gentleman, to whom he gave the assurance, calling on him on the following day, he said—"Sir, since I saw you, I have been threatened with the loss of my office, if I shall suffer the Petition to remain in my house." Various other instances of the most unwarrantable interference, was quite notorious in many parts of Ireland.

Mr. W Pole

.—I protest I know nothing of the circumstance of the sheriff of Carlow.

Dr. Duigenan

.—I maintain that the Petition has been smuggled about for signatures in" a clandestine, underhand manner. Not one-third of those who had signed it, knew any thing of its contents. I have not read it; but from the cowardly way in which it was handed about, I do not believe it contains the names of one hundredth part of the Protestant property of Ireland. It is easy for members to make assertions of matters of which they are totally ignorant. I can speak positively as to the north of Ireland, and from thence the signatures, I know, were very insignificant, those from the misguided men of the county of Down excepted.

Mr. Parnell

.—The right hon. and learned doctor has stated to the House not only a correct opinion, "that it is exceedingly easy for members to make assertions of matters, of which they are wholly ignorant," but he has likewise afforded the strongest possible illustration of it in his his own speech; he having told the House in the first sentence, that he never had read or seen the Petition. The assertion, therefore, of the learned doctor, "that this Petition does not speak the sense of the majority of the Protestants of Ireland," cannot have any weight, when placed in opposition to that of the right hon. gentleman who has presented it, and who has had every opportunity of knowing the true purport of it, and on whose veracity the most implicit reliance may be placed.

But if there existed any doubt on this point, it may easily be cleared up by looking back to the divisions in the two last Catholic Petitions, in both of which a considerable majority of Irish members voted for the prayer of them. This is in itself a decisive proof that the Protestants of Ireland are favourable to the claims of the Catholics.

In respect to what has been said by the learned doctor, as to the manner in which signatures to this Petition have been obtained, he is equally unfortunate in his inference; for, if instead of the quiet, disinterested mode, pursued by those who were the advocates of it, similar acts of energy and influence had been resorted to, to those which distinguished the enemies of it, in the place of thousands, who now appear as parties to it, the signatures of ten times their number could readily have been acquired. As to the Petition of the corporation of Dublin against the Roman Catholics, no man the least acquainted with that corporation, and the influence of government over it, by means of the dependance of most of its leading members upon the pleasure of government for the lucrative places they hold, can allow that it deserves the smallest weight whatever. Let the House recoiled lord Wellington's act for establishing a police in Dublin, and they may judge from that how far this corporation can have any claim to an independant opinion. As to any endeavours of the chief secretary to obtain from that corporation this adverse Petition, it is unfortunate for him that some how or other, his conduct, as explained by himself, is so very different from that which vulgar minds, judging from common appearances, have conceived it to be; for there certainly did exist circumstances which looked very much like an attempt on his part to controul the proceedings of this body the first time the Petition was proposed to them. But though the right hon. gentleman may himself have acted with so much discretion, as not to be personally implicated in any plan for defeating the object of the friends of the Catholics, it by no means follows that any part of the charge of the right hon. gentleman, who has presented their Petition, is unfounded; for we all know, from the history of the Union by the subsequent explanations of a noble lord opposite, how effectually the government of Ireland may wield its influence at the same time that the first minister of it may conscientiously assert he never abused its patronage, nor committed its faith for great popular concessions.

That the agents of government did, by their command, use every exertion to defeat the liberal and patriotic efforts of the Protestants of Ireland in favour of their Catholic countrymen, is as true, as the assertion of the right hon. gentleman who has presented their Petition, that it speaks the sentiments of a decided majority of the Protestants of Ireland.

Sir George Hill

.—I deny that government interfered either one way or the other. It will be my duty to present tomorrow a Petition from the Catholics of the county and city of Londonderry, a great body of the inhabitants of which is against Catholic Emancipation.

Mr. Hutchinson

.—Sir; the insinuation that the Protestants" of Ireland are unfriendly to the Catholic claims, is as un-candid, as from the Petition now presented, it appears to be wholly unfounded; and one cannot but be anxious to learn the circumstances, from which gentlemen consider that they are justified in arguing to this effect. I should be glad to know whether, from any thing lately passed in Ireland, it is fair or just, by mere conjecture and assertion in debate, to try to do away the impression which this Petition in behalf of the Roman Catholic claims, is so well calculated to produce, not only in the House, but throughout the empire. I admit, with shame and regret, that there may exist a disposition, nay, perhaps, an ardent wish, in certain quarters, to excite such an hostility; but I know not any language sufficiently strong, with which to reprobate such an object; and be it remembered, that the attempt to deny the importance of this Petition is made on a question, involving the happiness and welfare of several millions of subjects. Acquainted as I am with the history and progress of these claims, nothing can surprise me. After every foul and false charge, every serious and every futile objection, had been over and over again made and repeated, Parliament were at length gravely assured, that even the Catholics did not desire emancipation; but when this impudent and foolish assertion was about to be denied by the united Catholic voice, the refutation was sought to be proved by most unconstitutional attempts to silence that voice. And now that the Protestants of Ireland, who, for a long season, had been cruelly hallooed against the Catholics, had discovered the artifice, and were voluntarily rushing forward to save their common country and the empire, by declaring their readiness to renounce a monstrous monopoly, and their anxious wish to secure and enhance all their blessings, by sharing them with their countrymen.

Now, when the Protestants themselves presented the olive branch, and were for healing those wounds which a wicked policy had studiously inflicted, there were not wanting those who would prevent the accomplishment of this great and good work; and in the face of the evidence afforded by the Petition, would anxiously conceal from the parliament and the throne, the actual state of the public mind in Ireland. I will not undertake to say the exact proportion of Protestant property, represented by the signatures to this Petition; much less shall I venture to declare how particular Protestant individuals, or some Protestant districts still feel on this great question; but this I may and do assert in the most unqualified manner, that a complete change of sentiment among the Protestants, favourable to the Roman Catholic claims, has happily taken place, particularly since the Union; nor is it too much to assert, that the Protestants of Ireland are now generally friendly to that measure; nay, even anxious for its speedy accomplishment. When the infatuated, determined, hostility of the present administration to this question is considered, there cannot be a doubt, that had ministers felt there existed generally in Ireland, or in any part of that country, a hostile anti-catholic feeling, they would have done any thing in their power to have drawn forth a declaration of such sentiment: not having made the attempt proves their conviction that any such would have been vain; that is, it proves that they are well assured, that the Protestant feeling is now friendly, not hostile, to the Catholic cause.

Gentlemen seem sorely vexed and displeased, that the member for Derry should have expressed pleasure and satisfaction, when presenting this Petition; that he should have exulted in the existence of such a document, and have ventured to congratulate his country, that at length every class and sect appeared disposed to make common cause for Irish interest-that all internal feuds were about to cease—that the internal fume of 'divide et im 'pera' could no longer be played with success, where for centuries a machiave lean short-sighted wicked policy had" spread desolation and wretchedness. I am compelled to admit that my right hon. friend has indeed rejoiced, nay, even exulted at this happy revolution of sentiment in the Irish Protestant mind—of that crime he has been guilty, and in that of" fence I wish to be included as having fully participated; but I positively deny-that he has said one word in condemnation of any part of Ireland, much less any thing calculated to influence one district against the other. True he has stated, that even in the north, in parts of which at one period, a disposition unfriendly to the Catholics, had with great industry been excited, and kept alive; that even there, no such feeling at present manifested itself: but he has said nothing reflecting upon the north, nothing disrespectful of the Protestants, nothing to irritate, but much to appease and to harmonize in the warm expression of his heartfelt joy at the part the Protestants had taken at such a crisis; and surely every honest man must be de-lighted at the intelligence—every true Irishman disposed to exult at the bright prospect which this happy revolution of sentiment opens to his country, while every real friend to the peace, power and stability of the empire must anticipate the happiest results from such a union. They who seem disposed, at any risk, to keep alive amongst their countrymen a difference of opinion on any subject, they prove their conduct was questionable at such a moment. It had been argued as if a defiance to collect counter Petitions had been thrown out, but no such defiance had been given. Though I flatter myself that any attempt to create disunion in Ireland would now be vain—that the counter Petitions which some gentlemen seem disposed to threaten, could not be obtained, still I am little disposed to-dare any mart to the trial, for I cannot easily forget how severely my unfortunate country has suffered, and for centuries, in consequence of the too successful machinations of disturbed and angry spirits; and I am far from denying that the power, (I had hoped not the will) to do mischief still remained, though I rejoice to think that any such noxious influence is very much lessened, and thank God, is likely very speedily to become altogether inefficient. The people of Ireland are beginning to think and-to act as one man, and I caution ministers to beware how they influence, or permit to be influenced, such a population. The claims of the Catholics cannot be withheld; they will do wisely to consider this, and before it be too late, to conciliate those, whom they cannot much longer insult and oppress with impunity.

The Petition now presented is offered to the House of Commons as expressive of the favourable opinion. of the Protestants of Ireland on the subjecl of the Catholic claims, as far forth as that sense has been collected or declared. It is the first general appeal to parliament from this body, in approval of those claims, and there is no counter Petition. These are facts incontrovertible, which cannot be too often repeated too strongly, too confidently re-lied upon.

Sir George Hill

.—I did not assert that a challenge had been thrown out to the Protestants with respect to the observations of the hon. gentleman, I can assure him that I shall always express my sentiments, whether he liked them or not; and further, that I will controvert any observation of the hon. gentleman, when I feel it necessary to do so.

The Petition was then brought up, and on the question being put that it should lie on the table,

Mr. Mauricc Fitzgerald

said, I am indifferent to which of the strange and contradictory accusations made by the learned doctor he adheres, because they are equally and totally unfounded. He has stated at one moment "that the Petition was carried about in an indecent canvas for signatures;" and in the next, "that it was concealed in a dark room where no one could either read its contents or see the names signed to it." The absurdity of these inconsistent charges is a sufficient refutation of them.

But, for the purpose of affording an express contradiction to what has been so confidently asserted by the learned doctor, I shall state the mode in which the Petition was conducted. The persons with whom the Petition originated, thought it right, confident as they were in the wisdom and justice of their cause, to appeal to the judgment of the Protestants in the most calm and deliberate manner. For that purpose, county and aggregate meetings were discouraged, to avoid any agitation of the public mind; and instead of a canvas for signatures, the Petition was placed in a room in the commercial buildings of Dublin, the central spot for mercantile business, and the most accessible situation in the city.

The substance of the Petition and the place where it lay were advertised in all the newspapers; and as fast as names were obtained, they were copied in large characters and hung up in the room for public inspection. Indeed when the conductors of the Petition reckoned much on the influence of the great names signed to it, and which, on the very first instance, comprehended many of the highest in rank, in property, and in character, it was too preposterous to suppose that they had, as the learned doctor charged, concealed such signatures.

But, to settle the point, I can inform the learned doctor that I have in my possession a printed list of the first two thousand signatures which had been circulated, and that the entire of the names will be speedily published; and on that publication, I challenge an investigation in proof of what I have already stated, that the Petition has been signed by a majority of the landed and commercial Protestant property of Ireland: but on what authority did the learned doctor and his adherents make their denials to the respectability of names which the learned doctor himself declared he never had seen. If not on his own knowledge, he was merely the echo of that ribaldry and vulgar abuse-with which the hired press of the Irish government had impotently sought to suppress or impede the noble expression of Protestant liberality.

The learned doctor has also, with equal accuracy, denied that the signatures from the North of Ireland are numerous and respectable: he states, "that with the exception of some misguided men in the county of Down, no person of any wealth had signed it." Is the majority of the commercial body of Belfast and Newry deserving of that description? That class of men whose capital and spirit gives life to all the industry of the great manufacturing district, the North of Ireland? Is the commercial body of Dublin, of Waterford, and of Limerick, nothing in the scale of Irish property? Will the learned doctor, in the hearing of those-who know Ireland, call such classes "an insignificant portion of the wealth of Ireland." I therefore again assert, without the possibility of being refuted, that the majority of the landed and commercial Protestant property of Ireland is subscribed to that Petition,

Dr. Duigenan

.—I maintain that the Petition was smuggled about in a clandestine manner. I know instances where persons who went to see it were asked first of all, if they meant to sign it? And if they declined saying whether they would or not, they were refused the perusal of it. When the names were printed, they would then know whether they did represent what they were asserted to do; but I am certain that there were many Protestants of the first eminence who reprobate Catholic Emancipation. With regard to the Protestant Petition, I know that various arts were used to obtain signatures: many shop-keepers in Dublin, whose subsistence depended upon their trade, were threatened with a general combination to ruin them, if they did not sign it. I know this could be proved.—I could mention several counties where the Petition was rejected with disdain by the grand juries; and therefore I have grounds for saying that it does not contain the majority of the commercial property of Ireland. I will mention an instance of a dissenting minister in the country, who signed the Petition, who was hunted out of his church by his congregation, and reproached with the opprobrious name of another Judas.

Mr. Craig

.—I do believe that three fourths of the Protestants of Belfast are favourable to Catholic claims. As I represent a Northern city, (Carrickfergus) I know that several signatures could have been obtained, if the necessary form of a petition had been prepared; and the member for Belfast is a subscriber to the Petition.

Mr. Robert La Touche

.—The right hon. doctor alluded to me and my family, as having been particularly concerned in promoting this Petition, and as if the Petition had succeded only by the agency of some of my connections. Certainly, Sir, the head of my family has signed his name first to the Petition, and although formerly in the separate state of Ireland, he was hostile to the Catholic claims, he has changed his opinion with the change of circumstances, and very much to his honour, has candidly avowed that change. He is totally unfounded in supposing that this Petition has been produced by any such agency or management. It has been most respectably signed, by persons of the utmost independence and above any influence.

Colonel Vercker

said, that a great proportion of the Protestants of Limerick was not favourable to Catholic Emancipation.

The Petition was then read; setting forth,

"That the petitioners do most humbly petition the House in favour of their brethren and fellow subjects, the persons professing the Roman Catholic religion, who apply to parliament to be admitted to the privileges and franchises of the constitution; and that the petitioners, their Protestant brethren, do consider such application to be just, and they do most heartily join the Catholics in this their loyal and reasonable request, and, convinced of its policy as well as its justice, they do most zealously implore the House to comply with the prayer of the said Petition, and to relieve the persons professing the Roman Catholic religion from all civil and political disabilities."

Ordered to lie upon the table.