HC Deb 23 May 1817 vol 36 cc835-42

On the motion for the second reading of this bill,

Sir S. Romilly

objected to the farther progress of this measure, under the present ciscumstances of the country. He could not think that the House did its duty to the people of Ireland, in passing a measure of such extraordinary rigour and severity without some inquiry into the actual condition of that country. He did not think it enough to say, that the law should be such that the executive or magistracy, in their discretion, might determine on its application, whilst it contradicted every principle of our free constitution. By this bill it would be in the power of the magistrates to declare any particular district to be disturbed, and arrest any individual who should be found out of his dwelling-house one hour before sun-rise, or one hour after sun-set. Every person so acting was pronounced by this bill to be a disorderly person, and subjected to the punishment of transportation without a trial by jury, and by the judgment merely of the magistrates in sessions. It moreover empowered the magistrate personally to enter any House in the middle of the night, and to discover by that means whether an individual ought to be considered as a disorderly or suspicious character, by being present or absent from his habitation. He did not assert that the unhappy state of that country did not require these harsh measures of legislation—measures which were unknown in this part of the kingdom, except as history communicated to us what was imposed under the iron yoke of William the conqueror, but he was convinced that the House would not discharge its duty faithfully in voting such measures without perfect information of the circumstances to which they were intended to apply. The moderation which had been shown in the enforcement of this bill, had been copiously described by the right hon. gentleman. He believed, however, that no fewer than 60 or 70 persons had been transported to the colonies under the last act. But he would ask, were they to be satisfied with the declaration of government itself, that it had not made a tyran- nical use of unmeasured and arbitrary authority? Was a British House of Commons to be told that despotic powers had been leniently applied? If this principle were once admitted, why did they not surrender at once to the discretion of the king's government every security established by the constitution? If severe and rigorous measures could alone preserve tranquillity in Ireland, it would have become the right hon. gentleman to submit some new proceeding, on clear and distinct grounds, instead of simply reviving the former act. He knew it to be the continuation of a measure first brought forward in the year 1807, and after the time at which he quitted the office that he had had the honour to hold. He had voted against it at that period, and would have done so had he continued to be a member of the government. He then protested in the committee against that odious and detestable clause which authorized the entrance of officers at midnight into the chambers even of women. He had moved that this power should at least be confined to the person of the magistrate. The right hon. gentleman who proposed this bill had not thought it necessary to enter into any explanation concerning it: but to his mind it appeared, that if we could not place our brethren of Ireland precisely in the same state of freedom and enjoyment with ourselves, we ought at least to put them forward in the course, and give them some intermediate gradation between oppression and liberty. He required some certain knowledge whether the necessity for these proceedings, originated in the ignorance, in the distress, or the unfortunate dissensions of that country. Nor was it possible for him to allude to this subject without expressing his surprise at the continuance of an administration which was divided in opinion upon this momentous subject; and at the extraordinary spectacle of the cabinet ministers being left in a minority upon a question which they themselves contended was one of vital importance to the peace of Ireland and the security of the empire. Was it to be doubted, that whilst such a system of things continued, the occasion, or the necessity as it was called, for these unconstitutional proceedings would also continue? The state of Ireland, he feared, would remain unaltered in these circumstances, and he apprehended that it would still be the work of political wisdom, after uniting the two countries, to unite Ireland within herself. He should not not now go into the discussion of the claims of the Catholics, but was convinced that the involved a principal, though a remote, cause of the unhappy circumstances which led to the present proposition. With these views, it was his intention to move that the bill be read a second time this day six months, unless the right hon. gentleman should consent to some previous inquiry.

Mr. Peel

said, that he had not gone into the details of the measure when he brought in the present bill, because it had been so recently discussed that he thought he should not have been justified in again trespassing on the time of the House. But had he been aware that such a description of it would have been given by the hon. and learned gentleman, he should certainly have been anxious to guard against misrepresentation, by entering into it himself. The hon. and learned gentlemau had stated its most rigorous provisions, but had concealed those which went to mitigate the more severe parts of the law. He had not stated, that the transportations which could take place under it to the colonies were limited to seven years. Though this might take place without a trial by jury, on a conviction before the magistrates, yet by the act the lord lieutenant was required to provide a king's serjeant or council to attend on such occasions, and if this person differed from the magistrates, the case of the accused was then brought under the consideration of the executive government, who decided on its merits; and thus it would be seen, that every precaution was taken to guard against abuse. The measure was only to be enforced in particular cases, at the discretion of the government, on an application made to them by the magistrates. He had moved for papers, to show under what circumstances it had been resorted to in the case of the county of Louth. It had only been applied to that county when the state of it was such, that trial by jury had lost its proper character, and instead of a I blessing, had become a curse. It was necessary to dispense with it, when those who came forward as witnesses or as prosecutors, could no longer be protected. What would the family of Lynch say, who had suffered so severely on this subject, when told that trial by jury was sufficient to meet every evil? In the instance referred to, the man who had fallen a martyr to the cause had been robbed of arms. He had prosecuted the robbers, and for this he, his son in law, and his whole family, had been doomed to death. What was said in praise of trial by jury might tell very well, but what would be its effect on that unfortunate family, when urged against the law now under consideration? The measure had not been put in force in the county of Louth, till 30 out of 31 magistrates had applied for it, and declared it to be necessary in the then state of the county. In the whole course of the year 1816, the government had resisted all the applications made to put the law in force. This showed they were not disposed to have recourse to it on every trifling occasion.

Sir J. Newport

said, it was with great reluctance that he felt himself bound to give his assent to the present measure. It was a painful necessity to which he must submit, but he ascribed it entirely to that lamentable system of policy of which, in his opinion, it was the necessary result, and which was, he feared, calculated to produce still worse effects. Whilst, however, he thought the procrastination of a full inquiry into the state of Ireland was a mighty evil, he must conscientiously declare, that the former act had been administered with singular moderation.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

was satisfied that he might appeal to all who were acquainted with the state of Ireland for a decision respecting the necessity of the measure. The mode and purposes of applying it constituted the material question; and the fact was, that it never had been put in force, except upon the unanimous representation of the magistrates. He hoped that credit was given to him for a sincere adherence to the principle of making farther concessions to the Catholics, but he could not allow that question to be identified with the outrages and enormities that had been recently committed; neither could he consent to a general inquiry at a moment when the preservation of the peace in Ireland was immediately at stake. Was there any other man in the House, except the hon. and learned gentleman, who would say that the object of this measure was, to govern Ireland by tenor, and a large military force? If the hon. and learned gentleman lived in the county of Louth, he would feel it his duty to support this bill, instead of urging objections against it.

Sir H. Parnell

denied that the measure would be any remedy for the evils under which Ireland laboured. He was unwil- ling to put into the hands of government, a power so formidable, as that now called for. Could they with any degree of propriety, assent to a measure of this nature, merely on the statement of the right hon. gentleman, without any previous inquiry? The right hon. gentleman stated, that outrages had recently taken place in the county of Louth; but could the existence of outrages, in a particular county, justify the renewal of a measure that affected an entire people? The law as it now existed, appeared to him to be perfectly sufficient to meet every emergency. The state of Ireland did not demand so strong a measure as this, and he hoped the right hon. gentleman would re-consider the question, before he pressed the continuation of so severe a statute.

Mr. Leslie Foster

declared, that no person could lament more than he did the necessity for the adoption of this measure. "Wherever the law met with the co-operation of the people, or was not opposed by the people, he would trust the protection of the peace of the country to its ordinary operation; but if in any part of the country the people evinced a determination to put down the law of the land, and to have no law but their own will, in such an instance to talk of the ordinary constitution as sufficient to preserve the public tranquillity was to utter an absolute fallacy. The fact was, that in the counties of Limerick, Tipperary, and Louth, until the insurrection act was put in force, there was no hope of any of the prosecutors or witnesses, in cases of trial for the outrages committed in those counties, escaping being murdered. Under those circumstances, it was impossible to think of resorting merely to the trial by jury. The hon. and learned gentleman wished to postpone the adoption of the measure for the sake of obtaining information. The fact was, that there was had alluded, the aggressors and the victims of outrage were all Catholics alike.

Lord Jocelyn

assured the House, that for the last three or four years there had been a system of intimidation in some parts of Ireland, which prevented the due execution of justice. He was perfectly convinced that government had made every exertion to put down the disturbances by the ordinary law of the land, before they applied for any extraordinary powers. The outrages in that part of the country in which he resided had been of the most alarming kind, but they were not at all occasioned by religious animosities, as the Roman Catholics had been equally the sufferers and the aggressors. This law was intended to protect both Catholics and Protestants, and he could not help entering his protest against the declarations of hon. members, who, whenever disturbances in Ireland were mentioned, ascribed them to the evil of not granting what was called emancipation. Every day's experience taught him, that the calamities of that country arose, principally, from the absence of those gentlemen who ought to reside on their estates, and who, while they diffused happiness around them, should set a good example to the interior orders of the community. This was the source of all the evils of that unhappy country; and unless the gentlemen of Ireland would return to their native land, and live among their tenants, neither the commutation of tithes nor any other measure would be of any avail. This, and this only, could afford security to the peace and welfare of Ireland.

General Mathew

acknowledged, that Ireland had suffered much from the absence of her great landholders and wealthy gentlemen; but what had occasioned their absence? It was brought about by the act of union: and how that act had been effected was so well known, that it was unnecessary for him to repeat it. He positively denied that the insurrection act had led to the discovery and arrest of the murderers of Mr. Baker. With respect to religious disputes, he believed that they had nothing to do with the disturbances in the county of Louth. But why were all the other counties to be subjected to the operation of this law? The county of Louth was the smallest county in Ireland: it was the Rutlandshire of England. Nothing could be done to secure the tranquillity of that country without a fair and equal distribution of justice. At present he knew well, that one person was believed at the Castle whilst the testimony of another was discredited. He implored the House to consider fully the actual situation of Ireland, and to afford every relief which that fine that generous people had a right to demand at their hands.

Mr. W. Quin

felt it to be his duty to vote for the measure, on the ground of its absolute necessity. To allow the bill to expire would be, in fact, to cast an indirect censure, on the government and magistracy of Ireland, by whom its continuance had been declared to be indispensable.

Sir F. Flood

as a representative of Ireland, could not refrain from declaring, that the bill appeared to him to be one of the many measures of benefit to Ireland originated and matured by the right hon. chief secretary for that country, to whom Ireland was most materially indebted for his exertions. The present was a protecting bill. It would protect from outrage the Catholic as well as the Protestant. He had received letters from Ireland announcing that they were perfectly satisfied in that country with the recent decision in parliament; that they relied on their wisdom for ultimate success, and that they were very grateful to the respectable English, Scotch, and Welch minority, who supported their cause. He was happy to say that the present bill was not founded on any immediate necessity whatever [a laugh]. He should support the bill.

Sir W. Burroughs

said, he had heard nothing to convince him that this measure was necessary. A force had been voted for Ireland, of 25,000 troops to preserve the peace in that country. The right hon. secretary for Ireland had said that this bill was not called for by any thing like treason or rebellion. But the very grounds on which it had been originally introduced was, to meet treason and rebellion. There was, therefore, nothing to justify the House in passing such an act now in a time of profound peace, when neither insurrection nor treason were alleged to exist. If any such measure was necessary, it ought to be more moderate. This bill might be withdrawn, and after being so modified as to make it more consonant to the constitution, but yet efficient enough for the evils which called for it, it might be again introduced during the present session. He entreated the right hon. gentleman to do this, that the House might gradually retrace its steps, from the extraor- dinary and unconstitutional measures which the state of Ireland had called for.

Mr. Dominick Browne

said, that he was ready to take his share of the odium that might attach to the re-enactment of this salutary law, which had, however, never been found necessary in the county which he represented.

Mr. Macnaghten

notwithstanding the generally objectionable points of the bill considered it justified by the present state of the country.

The bill was read a second time.