HC Deb 07 May 1819 vol 40 cc253-60
General Hart

presented a petition from Jeremiah Loughry, complaining of the hardships which he had suffered under the Illicit Distillation laws, and praying that his grievances might be taken into consideration.

Sir John Newport

said, that he should take the present opportunity of asking the right hon. gentleman opposite what had been done with regard to the distillery laws. On a former occasion, he had expressed his surprise at the very extraordinary conduct of ministers on this question; and now he had to express his surprise at a still more extraordinary determination (if men whose principles were so wavering could be said to have any determination) to which they had, as he was told, very recently come. They had abandoned the town-land fines, and had abandoned them after the obstinate defence of them which they had lately made, in such a manner as showed, that they had not done so from any conscientious alteration of their opinions, but from the influence of threats which had been held out to them of a loss of support in several of their adherents. If a ministry could be found that were cowardly enough to sacrifice one-fourth of the revenue of their country to the threats of individuals, was that an administration which deserved the support of the House, or the confidence of the people In what a situation would the House be placed, if another body of their supporters should go to them and say, that they would withdraw their support, unless the ministers retracted the resolution which they had previously formed? For his own part, he did not conceive that the determination of his majesty's ministers would be productive of any advantage whatever; on the contrary, he anticipated great mischief from it. From papers that had been printed since the last discussion, it appeared, that this measure, which had just been rescinded, had driven into a small compass illicit distillation. He had no doubt that immediately this decision was made known in Ireland it would again revive and flourish. However reluctant he was to differ from those of his countrymen with whom he was accustomed to act, and he was sorry to say that he did differ from them on this question, he knew that none of them would differ from him when he said that ministers ought not to consult what would be the result to themselves if certain threats were executed, but what would be best for the interests of the country? He believed the statements which he had heard that morning to be perfectly true. In order to give ministers an opportunity of contradicting them, if they were not true, he would repeat them. A body of Irish members had waited that morning on the chancellor of the exchequer, and the secretary of state for the foreign department, and had stated, that unless the town-land fines were abandoned, they would abandon the ministry.

Lord Castlereagh

, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. R. Martin, and several other members rose. The rest, however, gave way to

Lord Castlereagh

, who said, that he had never witnessed a greater exhibition of intemperate warmth than that which the right hon. baronet had just displayed. The exultation of the right hon. baronet was so great, in consequence of the idle story which he had heard, that he could not restrain the ebullition of his feelings till the order of the day for taking this question came on, but had vented it upon the presenting of this petition. He did not rise with any intention of repelling the aspersion which had been thrown upon the members who had risen along with him; they were able to defend themselves; but he rose with some warmth, and a good deal of indignation, to repel the charges which had been urged against his majesty's ministers in general, and himself in particular The right hon. baronet's connexion with a commercial town might account for his feeling with regard to the measure. That the measure § was successful in a great degree, he would admit; but if it was attended with hardships, it was the duty of ministers to consider what might be the effect of a change in the law. It was premature to discuss, at the present moment, what the chancellor of the exchequer might propose as a substitute, as it was unnecessary to answer the stories which the right hon. baronet had picked up that morning. He could, however, assure the House, that his majesty's ministers had not been intimidated by any threats, but were solely influenced by a wish to relieve Ireland from the oppression she suffered under the system. If the evils resulting from it could be avoided without injury to the revenue, he was sure the House would receive the alteration with satisfaction. He had himself attended the meeting alluded to that morning, and could assert, that nothing of the kind described had taken place. His right hon. friend had intimated, that by the encouragement of small stills the evils likely to result to the revenue from the abandonment of town-land fines might be avoided; and that was the whole case upon which the right hon. baronet had got up the tragedy or farce, or whatever description of dramatic entertainment it was, with which he had just amused the House.

Mr. Maurice Fitzgerald

agreed, that it might have been better if the right hon. baronet had omitted his observations, of which, however, an unfair advantage had been taken. If the chancellor of the exchequer had indeed changed his opinions, and abandoned the system, at least it would have been but decorous if he had stated to the House the grounds of his alteration. The question was, whether he had abandoned that system of cruelty, tyranny, and injustice: if he had, credit was undoubtedly due to him, though at a heavy expense of personal consistency. Was the rumour true or untrue? If true, had he communicated with the representatives of the great towns, and those who were most interested as to its effects only? The other night he had maintained, with much earnestness, that if the system of town-land fines were abandoned, great injury would arise to the legal distillers; their ruin would ensue: yet now it appeared that he had consigned them to ruin without the slightest compunction. He had said, that the system was essential to the morals and happiness of the people; yet now he had consented to leave them a prey to immorality and misery. If any new plan were in project, it was to be hoped that it would secure the collection of the revenue by the proper officers, without taxing the land, and without endangering the morals of the inhabitants. It was certainly most singular that the right hon. gentleman's opinions should have undergone so strange a revolution in, the course of a few days; but the more singular it was, the more bound was he to state his reasons, and to take especial care to obtain information and advice from every quarter capable of affording it.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

defended the system of still fines, upon the ground of necessity, and deprecated the epithets that were applied to it. He had supported the principle while in office as a choice of evils, and if he were still in office, he would do the same. He hoped that the measure intended by his right hon. friend would prove effectual; for no man could more rejoice in the abandonment of the principle, provided it could be done without injury to the revenue and the morals of the country.

Sir J. Stewart

said, that whatever his opinions might be on the law relating to still fines, he should not be influenced by the opinion of any chancellor of the exchequer, for he never knew two of them to agree. It was the constant misfortune of Ireland, that it never had a chancellor of the exchequer who seemed either willing or able to entertain sentiments of general policy calculated to serve the common interests of the realm, and yet not conflict with local concerns. There were no fixed principles, but the country was oppressed by an imperium in imperio, by which the general advantage was sacrificed to local and partial interests. He took shame to himself that this law originated in an Irish parliament, and the history of it was this: the chancellor of the exchequer induced the country gentlemen of Ireland to vote for this savage and barbarous enactment, by promising them, if they supported him, that all the spirits of the country should pay a certain duty. In the course of another session, however, this engagement was forgotten, and the system was maintained without the advantages that were promised.

Mr. Wildman

, though not an Irishman, could not hear such accusations brought against the Irish without feeling indignant. Accustomed as he was to follow in the train of ministers, he could not hear such gross attacks upon them without warmly resenting them. He had come into the House with a strong prejudice in favour of ministers, and a disposition to support their measures; but this was from a conviction that they were right. If ever he regretted one vote which he had given in the House, it was that which he gave a few evenings ago, against a motion from the other side of the House upon this subject. That vote pained him a great deal, because he thought the system which the motion opposed was one which went to punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty; but he was now glad to find that it was likely to be altered. He could not bear to hear the chancellor of the exchequer attacked in the way he had been. If he could think that the chancellor of the exchequer was capable of yielding to any threat, the House might depend upon it that he never would vote with him again upon any question.

Mr. Dawson

said, he felt the greatest indignation at the attack which was made by the right hon. baronet upon the gentlemen connected with Ireland. He was one of those who had waited that morning on the chancellor of the exchequer and the noble lord, upon the subject then under discussion. They had found every disposition to attend to their statements; but he utterly denied that any thing like a threat was made use of.

Mr. Peel

suggested that the House had better abandon the discussion into which it was surprised, and return to the petition, which was the only subject regularly before the House.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

denied that he had recanted the opinion which he formerly held. He still thought that the measure was useful in suppressing illicit distillation, though it was attended with hardships in particular cases. With this view, he had agreed to the proposal of going into committee on the subject. Subsequent reflection had suggested a measure which he hoped would operate as a substitute, and which he should propose in a few nights; till that time the House would do him the justice to suspend their judgment. With regard to the interview of that morning, he should only say that he had met the gentlemen with every disposition to conciliate, and that they had made no attempt to deter him from the adoption or rejection of any measure.

Sir G. Hill

maintained the necessity of the principle of still fines, and expressed much doubt as to the efficacy of any substitute that could be devised.

Mr. Martin

, of Galway, did not rise to offer any thing in defence of the noble lord or the right hon. gentleman: he did not think they needed it. But when the right hon. baronet had stated, that a number of Irish members had gone in a body to ministers, for the purpose of intimidating them, he had, though intending to wound the government, wounded the character, or attempted to do so, of those members. Could it be believed, that because their own object was not carried, they would inflict a wound on the government in the most tender point, by voting for those measures which originated on the opposite side of the House? It did not follow, that because he could not attain a great good, that he should support a great evil to the country, by giving his support to the measures of the right hon. baronet and his friends. He did not mean to defend the noble lord, and the right hon. gentleman. The noble lord and his friends did not require it; but it was absurd to say that they could be intimidated. If any hon. member thought that the noble lord could be intimidated, he would seriously recommend him to try the experiment. He gave credit to the motives of the right hon. baronet. He had no doubt they were sincere. The right hon. baronet was a very useful watch upon the measures of the administration. He was well skilled in accounts and other minor matters, and was of service on the opposite side of the House, where, as long as he had a vote, he would endeavour to keep him [A laugh].

Mr. Hutchinson

said, he did not rise to defend his right hon. friend,—he thought his conduct was not only out of the reach of censure, but above all praise. He did not know any public man who laboured so hard, who acted so zealously, or so much to his own honour, for the benefit of Ireland and the general good of the empire, as the right hon. baronet. The noble lord had, without meaning it, acted unkindly towards his right hon. friend—he had charged him with directing his attention to local and particular interests. He did not direct his attention to local interests, but where he was called upon to do so as a public man. As to the system of distillation, he would not enter into that subject for the present; he would merely state, that a great portion of the revenue of Ireland arose from the distilleries. He would also state, that the great distillers of Ireland had suffered most severely from the vacillating system which the government had adopted respecting their trade When he reflected on the course that was now to be adopted,—when he reflected on the sudden and unaccountable manner in which it had been adopted—when he saw ministers suddenly abandon a system which had succeeded, and to adopt one alike opposed to the increase of the revenue and the morals of the people—nothing was more just, nothing more reasonable, than to call for a declaration to satisfy the great distillers of Ireland, who had laid out their capital. He thought it was but fair to ask, whether they were to be turned round again, and whether their interests were to be sacrificed to the expediency of the day? For his part, he could not but hear, with surprise and indignation, of the determination that had been come to, without ministers ever consulting the distillers of Ireland.

Sir J. Newport

repeated his assertion, that he had received his information from authority on which he could depend, though the fact had been, in some degree, disavowed by those who were concerned! in it. He wished to know when it was the intention of the chancellor of the exchequer to bring forward his measure, and whether he proposed to communicate with those persons in Ireland who were interested in the question?

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

said, he would bring it forward in a few days, and communicate in the mean time with those who ought to be consulted.

Sir Francis Burdett

said, that feeling as he did for the morals and the prosperity of Ireland, he was rejoiced at the step the Prince Regent's ministers had taken to abolish so cruel, so unjust, so oppressive a system. If gentlemen would only inquire into the subject—if they would consider the cruel operation of the still fines—if they would reflect on the utter falsity of the charge made against the character of the gentlemen of the north of Ireland, they could not hesitate to put an end to a system which was unjust and oppressive, impolitic and absurd. The distilleries in the north of Ireland had been more particularly adverted to—and here again he would entreat the attention of gentlemen to a consideration of the system, to the expense of its machinery, to the employment of military power, to the wretchedness which it occasioned. The desolation which it caused was more than sufficient to counterbalance any pecuniary advantage to be expected from it; and the expense with which it was attended, rendered it one of the most miserable means that could be devised for recruiting the treasury.

The Petition was ordered to lie on the table.