HC Deb 13 June 1817 vol 36 cc960-72

On the order of the day for going into a committee on this bill,

Sir H. Parnell

rose to move, that the bill should be referred to a committee this day se'nnight, in place of this evening, for the purpose of having an opportunity of moving for the appointment of a select committee to inquire if there existed any necessity for this measure. The chief secretary for Ireland, had laid before the House, in the last session, a copy of a dispatch from lord Whitworth to lord Sidmouth, upon the state of the disturbances then prevailing in Ireland; and, a short time ago, he presented to the House papers, referring to certain outrages which had occurred in the county of Louth.—These documents he should propose to refer to a select committee, for the purpose of ascertaining, whether they afforded sufficient grounds to justify the continuation of the Insurrection act. It was upon the last of these documents that the right hon. gentleman called upon the House to continue these most severe and unconstitutional measures. But it was incumbent upon the House, before it acceded to his wishes, to exercise its inquisitorial powers, and minutely examine, whether the disturbed state of only four baronies in one county of Ireland, was a sufficiently strong case to show the necessity of this measure. The right hon. gentleman had also endeavoured to induce the House to sanction his proposal, by saying, the Irish government were entitled to have full confidence placed in them. But when it was a question, whether or not the most essential parts of the constitution were to be suspended, nothing could justify the House in acceding to it, but such a case being made out as should satisfy the mind of every member, that the circumstances of the country required it. He did not mean to blame the Irish government for the manner in which they had administered this law; but he meant to say, that no feeling of confidence in it ought to be permitted to have any influence upon the House in forming its judgment upon the question of continuing it. This law was one of such uncommon severity, that its provisions could not be too often brought before the House; it went to create six new transportable offences—to enable the magistrates at sessions to proceed to trial, without either grand or petit juries—and to sentence persons guilty of no greater crime than being absent from their homes after sunset, to be transported for seven years. But the right hon. gentleman, in palliation of his case, says, "the law is not general—the House may depend upon the moderation of the magistrates in requiring it to be enforced, and the forbearance of government. As to the magistrates, it was evident that the temptation which would exist to induce them to apply for its assistance on every symptom of disturbance, would be too strong to suffer it to be supposed they would prefer depending upon their own exertions and the ordinary laws to suppress them. What had happened in the county of Louth fully proved this—because it was clear from the papers, that what led the magistrates to apply to government for the application of this law, was the occurrence of one single outrage, which though of great enormity, was not sufficient in itself, as it seems the government so thought, to warrant the compliance with their wishes. The right hon. gentleman sets forth also the past conduct in forbearing to listen to the magistrates on several occasions; but this argument can have no weight, because there is about to be a change both in the office of lord lieutenant and chief secretary. As to the merits of the case of the right hon. gentleman, it was only necessary to refer to his own statements, to show it was a very bad one. When the right hon. gentleman brought forward this measure in 1814, he gave a history of the circumstances on which it was founded. He mentioned, that when first passed into a law, it was framed for the purpose of putting down open rebellion. That it was re-enacted in 1807, because there was reason to think a French party existed in Ireland; and he particularly stated in 1811, that he was induced to recur to it, in consequence of political associations, established by secret oaths, by which those who took them, engaged to subvert the government, and to transfer their allegiance to a foreign power. Thus it was that the right hon. gentleman has shown, that on all former occasions, the grounds on which this measure was sanctioned by parliament, was the existence of treasonable conspiracies against the state; but now, he advances no sort of allusion to the existence of any such conspiracies: but, on the contrary, we have the declared opinion of the noble lord, that none whatever do exist in Ireland. This was the avowed reason for not extending the suspension of the Habeas Corpus act to Ire land; so that the right hon. gentleman now proposes to continue the Insurrection act, on grounds wholly different from those upon which he originally proposed it; that is, upon the existence of some partial disturbances in four baronies in one county of Ireland. He thought this measure particularly objectionable, because it seemed to be one intended to complete a new system, which the right hon. gentleman had in contemplation, for the future government of Ireland, not to be founded upon the principles of the constitution. Though we were now in a state of perfect peace with all the world, the right hon. gentleman had, in the course of this session, proceeded just as if we were in the midst of war. He had first obtained an arms bill, a measure most inconsistent with the constitution; he had then made his own particular law, the peace act, still stronger than it was. He had attained a vote of an army of 25,000 men, besides 30,000 yeomanry, and 3,000 militia and staff; and to conclude the whole, he now sought the continuance of the Insurrection act.—But then it was said, "evidence cannot be got to convict; offenders, or juries to give verdicts according to the ttvidence—such is the system of intimidation which is practised in the disturbed districts." But this is a statement wholly devoid of truth, as appears from lord Whit-worth's dispatch, which shows that the ordinary laws are fully sufficient for the punishment of all offenders against the laws. By the appendix to this dispatch, it appears, that in the years 1813, 14, 15, and, at Lent assizes, 1816, no less than 268 persons were convicted at the assizes in ten counties for felonies connected with the disturbances which prevailed in these counties. If these facts did not go far enough to show that the continuance of the Insurrection law was not necessary, they certainly did prove the propriety of making some inquiry before this measure was adopted. This was all he wished the House at present to grant; for he did not mean to say abruptly, that no new law was wanting to secure the farther tranquillity in Ireland. But, on the contrary, if a committee was appointed, he should himself be prepared to point out some measure for strengthening the civil power. The great defect of the Insurrection act was, that it was so violent and unconstitutional a measure, that it was impossible to give it a general application, whenever a general measure was wanting in Ireland. The means which the magistrates posses- sed to suppress disturbances in the first instance, were not adequate to give full and proper effect to the laws. The consequence was, that illegal associations went on gaining ground with impunity, until it became necessary to apply to government for the aid of the army, or to such strong measures as this Insurrection act. A very great improvement, therefore, might be made, by rendering the constable more efficient, and more like what it was in England, where it served the purpose of suppressing, without military aid, the most formidable tumults. There might also exist cases in some counties of Ireland, where it might be advisable to allow the government to appoint police magistrates to assist the local magistrates, but not with an army of armed policemen. These measures would be fully equal, together with the existing ordinary laws, to enable the government effectually to suppress popular disturbances, but he did not conceive that these, or any such arrangements, could remedy all the evils that prevail in Ireland—at best, they were mere palliatives and expedients. His opinion was, that no radical cure could be effected until the House should commence a more general system of measures, by settling the Catholic question. The present state of this question must keep Ireland in agitation, and expose her inhabitants to be involved in outrages and disturbances, and contribute to render it difficult to administer the laws. It was only by carrying this measure, that a beginning could be made for effecting a complete cure of all the disorders that prevail in Ireland. The hon. member concluded by moving, "that the bill be committed this day se'nnight."

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

said, that government had been driven to the measure by the necessity of the case. He could see no good ground for even one day's delay. The act had been passed by several successive parliaments, and no gentleman could be supposed ignorant of its contents. As the act was near its expiration, and thereby the government of Ireland would be divested of its present powers, it was thought necessary to revive it. Papers had been produced respecting the disturbances in Louth. The effect of these papers was attempted to be distorted, so as to show that there was no reason for renewing the act, except the disturbances in Louth. The government proclamation applied only to Louth; but not on the desire of the magistrates, because of a particular out- rage; for their application was refused.—It was refused subsequently to that particular outrage: but that outrage was to be considered as coupled with the general state of the country. Every day had produced fresh outrages: and at length there was an unanimous request from the magistrates, and from a county meeting. After this the proclamation was issued. The outrages justified sufficiently the application of the law. It was not fair to mention the transportable offences occasioned by the act, without stating the particulars.—Whatever opinions might be entertained on particular measures, he had met with no one who did not speak in praise of the conduct of the Irish government. Still he would not confer extraordinary powers merely on personal grounds. The change alluded to, on the resignation of certain offices, afforded no reason for withholding necessary powers from the successors—The Irish government acted under the eye of parliament, and before the still more awful tribunal of public opinion. The hon. baronet had read a despatch of lord Whitworth's, and then concluded that the ordinary laws were fully competent to the evil. He would admit they were so in the greater part of Ireland. He concurred with the hon. baronet's opinions respecting the Catholic question; but he must maintain, that the non-concession of the Catholic claims had nothing to do with those outrages which had occasioned the insurrection act. To say so was to libel the Catholics. The hon. baronet himself urged their claims on the ground of their peaceable, and loyal, and patriotic conduct. He could never silently suffer the reechoing of what was to be read in the Irish prints, that the refusal of the Catholic claims was the cause of the disturbances.

Sir S. Romilly

said, that all his hon. friend proposed was, to defer the bill for a week, to give more opportunity of inquiring into the reasons of it; yet that was to be refused. The right hon. gentleman asserted, that the refusal of the Catholic petitions had nothing to do with the disturbances, but how was an English member to form his judgment on the modest assertions of the right hon. gentleman? The House should pause awhile before they renewed an act of such severity. As far as he understood the bill, it gave a power by which even an innocent man might be transported for seven years, because he was absent from home. It was rather curiously observed, that the punish- ment was only for seven years; and it wag added, that lawful cause of absence might be shown. The man must prove that; but he might not be able to do so satisfactorily. The law might possibly be necessary in the state of Ireland, but here was the power of punishing a man without a trial by jury, unless the court allowed him a trial. Individuals were to be tried by the magistrates, with the assistance of a sergeant, or king's counsel, if one could be had. The situation of the country might, unfortunately, be such as to require rigorous measures; but how could the House discharge its duty, when they saw passions intermixed in the discussion, without farther information, and some reasonable delay? No alarm at the outrages mentioned would be a sufficient justification for passing the bill without some inquiry. From the best information he had received, he verily believed, that in Ireland the general relaxation of morals, and the mal-administration of the law, arose not from the state of the Catholic question, but chiefly from, that animosity which generally existed among the people against each other. The other day, the right hon. gentleman spoke of the manner in which the power had been hitherto exercised. He said now, that the outrages in Louth were not the cause of renewal. He (sir S. R.) had understood they were; therefore, he required farther information. It seemed impossible to divest the question of the consideration of personal confidence. Five or six gentlemen had supported the bill before, on the ground of the conduct of the Irish government; but now this government, it appeared, was to be changed. There was to be a new lord lieutenant and a new secretary, and who they were to be was not yet known. The power was therefore to be intrusted to new, and as yet unknown hands. There could be no reason for this sort of absolute necessity. Was there an English member present who could, with a safe conscience, vote this great power, without some previous information or inquiry? It was a reproach to the House not to have inquired more early into the state of Ireland. No one could see the comparative number of persons committed and convicted in Ireland and this country, without acknowledging that mis-government must exist in the former, that the magistrates did not well execute their duties, and that it was necessary to correct that system of mal-administration by which Ireland was treated as a con- quered country, and not as a member of the empire.

Mr. Peel

said, that the hon. and learned gentleman had argued as if he (Mr. P.) claimed the powers of the insurrection act on the sole ground that those powers, when formerly granted, had not been abused. Now, be had relied on this reasoning. He had merely said, that if the authority conferred on the government of Ireland had been abused, it would have been a strong reason for refusing a continuance of it; but he had never asked the grant of large discretionary powers on the sole ground, that when formerly given they had been exercised with prudence, lenity, and moderation. He particularly disclaimed at the time any such plea, and rested the measure entirely on the necessity of the case. The hon. and learned gentleman was likewise mistaken when he said, that he had referred to the state of the county of Louth alone as the only justification of the measure he recommended. He had not used any such argument, as would be evident when it was recollected that he had mentioned the existence of the insurrection act in two other countries,—Tipperary, and Limerick. He had then said, that if the act were allowed to expire at the end of this session, these two counties would be deprived of the benefit of its protection, as well as the county to which it had lately been extended. He was led to attend to the county of Louth more particularly, and to describe its situation, because the disturbances which called for its exercise there were more recently laid before the House; and the atrocities with which they were accompanied, had made the deepest impression on the country, and were more fresh, in the recollection of gentlemen. His argument was, that though the country was generally tranquil, yet if there was one part of it so disturbed that the laws could not be executed in their usual course, it was necessary to arm the government with this act, to be exercised on its responsibility, when the emergency arose. The motion of the hon. baronet appeared to him to be very extraordinary. He did not oppose the passing of the act, but he proposed that the bill should be suspended till farther inquiry was made, and with this object he would move for a committee. He (Mr. P.) denied that there was any reason for the appointment of such a committee. If there was a measure brought before parliament, on which parliament was competent to decide, without the delay of a committee of inquiry, it was the present. He could conceive cases in which a special inquiry by a committee should take place before parliament proceeded to legislate, such as when evidence was to be examined and facts collected; but here there was no necessity for farther information, if the statements laid before the House were at all to be credited. He had himself produced facts notorious to every Irish member, and known to the whole empire. He had thus laid sufficient grounds for the measure he had introduced. He had no motive for withholding information, and accordingly had given all that he knew. He called for powers which he thought necessary, and he produced evidence of that necessity. Did the hon. baronet doubt the truth of those facts, or was his committee to be appointed to inquire into the authenticity of the documents in which they were contained? There never came before parliament a case in which government had more clearly offered the grounds on which it called for permission to act on its responsibility, and on which the House had received better means of judging whether that permission ought to be granted. The e hon. and learned gentleman had claimed the privilege of judging on the question, and he was much obliged to him for the interest he took in the measure; but he was sure that he would allow the honesty of opinions of the members who had better means of judging than himself. He (Mr. P.) could not but refer here to the discussion which took place on a former night, in which many members stated their opinions on this measure, and pleaded, though reluctantly, its justification. A right hon. baronet (sir J. Newport) allowed its necessity, though he recommended previous and more extensive examination. The declarations of other honorable gentlemen were to the same effect, with the same qualification. Against this general concurrence of opinion, there were only three members from Ireland that opposed it—the member for Queen's county (sir H. Parnell), the member for Tipperary (general Mathew), and the member for Colchester (sir W. Burroughs). The two last could not be supposed to be so well acquainted with the country, as, from professional avocations in the case of the hon. and learned baronet, and from other causes of absence in the gallant general, they had not resided in Ireland much of late. The hon. baronet had said, that the insurrection act was an evil, and he (Mr. P.) was disposed to allow it in its fullest extent; but, unhappily, now there was only, a choice of evils; and he asked, whether it was better to extend to government the means of preserving tranquillity, even by a severe measure, or to allow the country to be converted into a scene of confusion by withholding the present act? He denied that the measure had been inefficient; and produced facts to substantiate his statement. In one county, in the course of three months, ten innocent persons were devoted to assassination and 13 houses were plundered. In the three months after this act was passed, only one transportation took place, although there were eight convictions. In the county of Westmeath, an atrocious murder was committed on a witness merely for giving evidence. The magistrates applied for the Insurrection act, which was granted in November, 1815, and withdrawn in April, 1816; the county was tranquillized, and only four transportations took place. In the king's county, where the same act was applied for on the same necessity, only one person was transported, in the course of four months. In the liberties of Limerick the act was enforced in October 1815, and withdrawn in April, 1816, and only one person was transported. He defended the conduct of the magistrates in applying for it, and contended that the promptitude with which they called for its being withdrawn showed that they were convinced of its necessity.

Sir W. Burroughs

entered into an elaborate examination of the various clauses of the act; commented in strong terms on its severity; and showed, that while it was inefficient for the purpose for which it was enacted, it produced the greatest inconvenience and oppression wherever it was enforced. He particularly dwelt on die immense disproportion between the numbers apprehended and the numbers convicted in the several counties; and argued, that as it was to be presumed that the petty sessions, so much praised by the right hon. gentleman had done their duty, therefore all those acquitted had been justly acquitted, and had consequently been falsely and wrongfully arrested. In support of this argument he stated, that in Tipperary 178 persons were apprehended, and 132 of these were acquitted: in another county 67 were apprehended and 12 only convicted: in another 11 were apprehended, and 1 only was convicted: in Westmeath, 63 were apprehended, 7 only convicted. In all 328 were apprehended, 68 only convicted, and 268 acquitted; and therefore these 268 were to be presumed innocent persons, who had suffered on account of this act. This oppressive enactment was to be extended all over Ireland, for no other reason than because it had been before so extended. And by whom?—he was sorry to say by those who called the most horrible scourgings and atrocious violence by the name, of vigour. If such a system of miscalled vigour was to be continued in Ireland, he should despair of seeing that country ever return to the enjoyment of the blessings of the British constitution. He should, indeed, despair if laws which no one dare propose for the government of England should be passed, and almost as a matter of course, to press down the people of his own unfortunate country. Ireland was in a most deplorable condition, filled as it was on one hand with a depressed and degraded population, and on the other with an oligarchy, who were more ready to demand severe laws against the people than the government itself was to grant them. He should propose that the magistrates should no longer have the power of trying without a jury; and he entreated the House to consider that mere coercion, mere vigour, as it was called, would only add to the dissatisfaction which it professed to remove.

General Mathew

contended, that, by the present bill, the Irishman would be subjected to greater oppression than the Englishman; for the latter had counsel allotted to him, while the former was liable to be carried off without a moment's warning by a set of fellows well known in Ireland (he meant no disrespect to the right hon. gentleman) by the name of "Peelers," and then to be hurried before a set of intolerant bigotted Orange magistrates; thence to be thrust into prison, where he would be half starved, and would linger till the government should please to transport him to Botany Bay; and all this for no other offence, probably, than for walking a hundred yards from his own House; perhaps in his own garden, and for stopping an hour or two longer than usual to sup with a neighbouring friend. As to some of the counties alleged to be disturbed, he could say of his own knowledge that Tipperary was perfectly quiet, and one of the members for Limerick had told him that the same was the case there, though to be sure no rents were to be got. As to Louth, he believed that three or four of its districts were disturbed: but was that a reason for giving into the hands of government a powerful engine to control and tyrannize over the whole kingdom? He did not know what were the ultimate objects of ministers with respect to Ireland; but this he knew, that starvation, misery, and deep despair were taking fast hold of that wretched people; that ail public spirit was lost, that its commerce was destroyed; its fields lay waste and barren; its towns and villages were depopulated and desolate. Did the ministers wish to add still farther to the miseries of this afflicted and degraded country? Was it their object to make it merely an impoverished province of England? What did they mean by their cry of Protestant ascendancy? Was it their intention again to try their strength at the point of the bayonet, and force the people into insurrection for the sake of crushing them? He knew well that the late lord Clare, when speaking of the seizure of lord Edward Fitzgerald, had said, "D—n the fellow, why did he not escape: we have long known what he was about, but we expected that he would get away?" This was one instance of the excellence of that notorious system of informing, then so rife in Ireland, and which seemed to be spreading in this country? Did the House know (he could assure them it was a fact) that Reynolds, one of the most notorious informers in Ireland, was now in England, and had been one of the grand jury which the other day found a bill against the prisoners now on trial? He was now a flourishing man; and equally flourishing, perhaps hereafter might be another informer—he meant that horrible wretch, that infamous villain, Castle! [Cries of Hear! from the opposition, and of Order from the ministerial benches].

Here Mr. Goulburn rose to order, contending that the gallant officer was wandering from the question. The general resumed, and argued forcibly against the bill, which, he contended, was equally unconstitutional and unnecessary.

Mr. Blake

said, that the question was treated by the hon. general and the hon. baronet who preceded him, as if there was no case in which the government ought to be trusted with extraordinary powers. It was treated as if the re-enact- ment of the Insurrection act was to be taken as if it were a suspension of the Habeas Corpus act, and therefore a suspension of the constitution in Ireland, The cases were totally different. The Insurrection act is but partial in its immediate operation, while it has the singular advantage of being general in its good effects; it deters the evil-minded, and stimulates the well disposed, even where it is not in force, which effect would be lost if the bill was not continued. It is intended to curb disorders which are partial, and not flowing from any political cause. The Habeas Corpus suspension bill is, on the contrary, to put down designs which are widely extended to subvert the constitution. To re-enact the Insurrection act is, therefore, no infraction of the constitution.

Sir F. Flood

said, that this measure was not a new creation, but one which had been found beneficial, and which it was therefore prudent to continue. As to the inflammatory speeches, which had been made, they did not tend to tranquillize Ireland, or to promote its prosperity.

Mr. Knox

defended the measure; for though Ireland was tranquil at present, it was to be apprehended that the disorders which prevailed in England might soon extend to that country.

Sir J. Newport

lamented that the present measure should be necessary, but considering it so, he should vote for it. He wished, however, that it should not extend beyond six weeks after the next meeting of parliament, as it would then ensure the consideration of the situation of Ireland.

The amendment was negatived; and the House having resolved itself into the committee, sir W. Burroughs proposed to limit the duration of the bill to six weeks after the meeting of the next session of parliament; but this proposition was negatived, and the duration was fixed at one year. The House then resumed.