HC Deb 28 June 1820 vol 2 cc91-105
Mr. Daly

rose to bring forward his promised motion. He expressed his regret that he was under the necessity of calling the attention of the House to the disturbed state of Ireland. There never was a period when the state of that country required a more prompt and vigorous interposition on the part of government; when the disturbances were so extensive, and the outrages of so violent and dangerous a character. He should abstain from entering into any topics which were likely to provoke discussion, such as Catholic emancipation, or the commutation of tithes, whatever opinion he might entertain of the high importance of those questions. The state of disaffection and disturbance to which Ireland had been constantly subject for the last sixty years, might be in a great degree attributed to the melancholy condition of the lower orders of its population. In a country which was for the most part destitute of manufactures, the population was almost entirely employed in the cultivation of the soil, and much of the existing distress had arisen from the large sums offered to landowners by the tenantry, by which proprietors had unfortunately suffered themselves to be tempted, but which it was wholly beyond the means of the tenant to pay. The disturbances to which he had alluded commenced about the middle of November last, in the county of Roscommon and the parts adjacent. An application was made to government by the magistracy, who undertook to preserve the peace of their district if 60 men were sent down to assist them. This assistance was refused, and the consequence of the refusal was, that the disaffection spread so rapidly that it was necessary very shortly after to place four districts under the Peace Preservation act. Renewed disturbances took place, in which some lives were lost, and a gentleman of respectability was shot by the road-side in a public highway. In consequence of this atrocious murder a meeting of magistrates took place; resolutions were entered into for the purpose of detecting and bringing the offenders to justice, and upon an application being made for 150 soldiers, government, which had a fortnight before refused 60 men, now refused to grant 150, upon the ground that they were afraid to trust so small a number of soldiers within the district. Disaffection had now reached such a head, that the whole eastern part of the county, consisting of 13 baronies, was placed under the Peace Preservation act. The meeting of the magistracy was adjourned for a fortnight, it not being deemed prudent to adjourn for a longer period, and in that short interval, such was the increased audacity of the rebels, for he could designate them in no other manner, that upwards of 70 gentlemen's seats had been attacked and plundered, and there were actually not five seats in the whole district which had either not been entered, or defended and saved from the depredators after an obstinate engagement. Government, which had refused 60 men in November, in the middle of February were ready to grant a military force of 3,500 men. The rebels who had before confined their outrages to the night, now marched in parties of 1,200 and 1,500 men in open day. They attacked the police barracks, and thirteen of the police were dangerously wounded in a desperate engagement, which lasted from half past nine in the evening till three in the morning. For above five hours was this band of rebels engaged with his majesty's organised and veteran troops. He would ask whether this state of things did not demand the interposition of his majesty's government, and whether the country was to be left exposed to a renewal of those atrocities upon the return of winter? Memorials had been presented to government by the magistracy, but his majesty's government had not thought proper to take any notice of them. There was an armed and organised force from one end of the country to the other. Some measure, therefore, such as the Insurrection act, or some act modified as to the most objectionable parts of the Insurrection act, was imperiously demanded to insure the public peace. It might be said, that when the assizes came on several examples had been made; that some of these men had been hanged and others transported; but so little effect had these punishments had in subduing the spirit of disaffection, that he could state from his own knowledge, that on returning from the funeral of one of these criminals, a meeting was fixed by the leaders of the insurrection, and was actually held upon the spot where the execution took place. Several shots were fired upon the magistrates on this occasion, and one of the witnesses, who had given evidence against their comrade, was shot at his own door. In this situation of the country, it was not very satisfactory to reflect upon the probable renewal of these horrors in the ensuing winter. As soon as he understood that his motion was likely to be opposed by his majesty's government, he had communicated with the principal gentlemen, with the superintending magistrates, and with some of the first legal authorities in that country. He would state to the House the substance of some of the letters which he had received from the principal Protestant and Catholic gentlemen of the county. He had a letter from the archbishop of Tuam, stating his belief that the country was in a most melancholy situation, and demanded the most prompt and decisive interposition of government. That distinguished person had been compelled to lay aside his clerical character, and was in fact one of the most active magistrates in the county. Mr. D'Arcy, the chief magistrate of the county, who had been sent down by government as superintending magistrate under the authority of the Peace Preservation act, was of opinion that the prevailing spirit of disaffection could not be subdued without arming government with some extraordinary powers, and that there was no objection to a revival of the Insurrection act. Government had, indeed, in some respects, awakened to a sense of the necessity of preserving the peace of that district. The country was studded so thickly with military, that no man could stand at his door without seeing parties of soldiers. Government had been obliged to take another step which was unconstitutional, although he allowed it was necessary; namely to grant the qualification of the peace to field officers and captains commanding detachments. If such was the alarm felt at the present moment, what would be the case in the long nights, when a part of the army would probably be withdrawn, in a country in which the whole population was armed? What he had described related only to one county. He had heard that both Kilkenny and Cork were disturbed, and that horrible outrages had been perpetrated in Westmeath. Putting that out of the question, however, there was the fact that four counties had been proclaimed. He had felt it his duty to state the facts of which he had been an eye-witness. He had gone out on nights for a fortnight together, to search the houses of persons, and he had hardly ever found an able bodied man at home. He had met numbers on the road. If they were civil, they replied to his inquiries that they had been dancing at a wedding; if saucy, they asked what it was to him? He was obliged to let them go on, although he knew perfectly well their object. He concluded by moving, "That a Select Committee be appointed to take into consideration the progress and extent of the Disturbances at present existing in Ireland, to examine whether it be necessary for their effectual suppression to intrust to the Government of that country any and what additional powers, and to report their observations thereupon to the House."

Mr. D. Brown

said, it was impossible by ordinary means to put down the disturbances that existed, and hence it was, that his hon. friend called upon the House to accede to his proposition for a select committee on the subject. It was well known unlawful oaths were every where administered, especially in the disturbed districts, and that nothing but the presence of the military preserved the public tranquillity.

Mr. Charles Grant

perfectly agreed with the hon. mover in the extreme importance of the subject, not merely because it involved the character of the existing government of Ireland, but much more because it involved the consideration of the principle on which Ireland had been and ought to be governed. He (Mr. Grant) was certainly in a singular situation. He had felt it his duty already to state to parliament that there did not appear to the lord-lieutenant and the government of Ireland, to be any ground for proposing the renewal of the Insurrection act. And now an honourable gentleman rose, and with curious inconsistency complained that the Irish government was not alive to the state of Ireland, and at the same time proposed to enact a law which was, to give that government a discretion that they did not think it necessary to possess! He felt bound to oppose the motion; not merely because it was brought on so late in the session (although that, notwithstanding the explanation of the hon. gentleman, would have been sufficient); not merely because if the House were absolutely to go into a committee, the proposition of the honourable mover was not sufficiently extensive; as it did not include any inquiry into the local and general causes of the disturbances; not merely because he was hostile to the supposition of the hon. gentleman, that only what were called strong measures could be salutary; but because the bill which the hon. gentleman recommended was contrary to that principle on which, in his opinion, the government of Ireland ought to be conducted. Did the House recollect what were the provisions of the Insurrection act? Did they recollect that it forbad every person to be absent from his house from sun-set to sun-rise? Did they recollect that it established a perpetual sessions, to which persons apprehended for a violation of the law might be taken, and, without a grand jury or a petty jury, on the sole opinion of the magistrates at those sessions, acting under the influence of the passions and the feelings of the moment, condemn to transportation for seven years? Such was the Insurrection act; and the complaint was, that the government of Ireland were reluctant to re-enact it. Nay, the meeting in Galway had declared, that if the Irish government did not propose its re-enactment, they would forfeit the confidence of the country. Something, however, had been said of a mitigated Insurrection act, by which persons accused of violating it should be tried by a jury. Now it was his deliberate opinion, that under the peculiar circumstances of Ireland, it would be better to have the Insurrection act with all its enormities, than this modified act; because, if parliament were to adopt the severer measure, they would guard against its continuance; whereas, he had little doubt that the milder measure would be rendered permanent. O! gently on thy suppliant's head, Dread Goddess! lay thy chastening hand, Not in thy Gorgon terrors clad. In that "benign form" he had no doubt that an attempt would be made to render the Insurrection act permanent. The hon. mover, in laying the grounds for his motion, had spoken much of the disturbances in Ireland. He (Mr. Grant) was not informed to that effect. By the accounts which he had received it appeared that Ireland was in a state of great tranquillity. He was never disposed to disguise evils and dangers, but he felt that it was his duty not to exaggerate them. The people of Ireland were rather hardly dealt by. If there were any local outrages in that country then the Insurrection act was called for; if quiet seemed to prevail, it was said to be delusive, and to threaten a tremendous convulsion. If he were asked whether, Ireland was in such a state that all considerations for the future might be calmly resigned, his answer would be, that he would be a bold man who, in the present state of the world, would predicate that, of any part of his majesty's dominions. Unquestionably there were in the history of Ireland deeply seated causes for discontent and disturbance. For those causes they must look to the two centu- ries which preceded the middle of his late majesty's reign. Never had a great nation been ill-treated with impunity. If great principles were sacrificed to gain a temporary end, for the moment safety might be obtained, but the hour of retribution would surely arrive. The present causes of the agitation with which Ireland was occasionally afflicted were, among others the extent of illicit distillation, the fatal influence of religious animosity, the redundance of population, and the absence of employment. But what had those causes to do with an inquiry by a committee of that House. Some of them no legislature could reach. They must be left to time, and to the beneficial effect of a more general intercourse with England. Some of them it was in the power of the resident gentry to control. Undoubtedly there were causes of the evil to which the legislature ought to look; but they were not fit subjects for the investigation of a committee; they were abundantly notorious and ascertained. But above all, the renewal of the Insurrection act would be the worst mode of meeting the evil. Adverting to the recent disturbances, the right hon. gentleman observed, that it was unpleasant in him to make the remark; but as the hon. mover had put the government on its defence for its conduct on that occasion, he was obliged, however reluctantly, to say, that every person connected with the government of Ireland must, under such circumstances, expect to receive, day after day, applications for military force, accompanied by declarations of great alarm and infinite danger. No doubt, those by whom such declarations were made thought them well-founded; but it was the duty of government to use a sound discretion, and to consider how far it might be proper to afford the required aid. Under such circumstances the first duty of government was, to endeavour to rouse the local authorities themselves to attempt the suppression of the evil. If that failed, their second duty—a duty to be always reluctantly performed—was to supply such a moderate military force as would enable the local authorities to suppress the evil. If that should fail their next duty was to resort to the provisions of the Peace Preservation bill. He was not presumptuous enough to say, that no reproach whatever could attach to the present government of Ireland: but, attacked as that government had been, he might perhaps be al- lowed to maintain, that in the instance in question it had acted as it ought. The right hon. gentleman here entered into a minute detail of the applications which had been made by the magistrates of the county of Galway for military aid, and of the measures taken by the Irish government in consequence. During the last thirty or forty years, it had been the conviction of successive administrations in Ireland, that it was necessary, by some means or other, to descend from the system of extraordinary measures by which that country had been so long governed. That conviction was manifested by the government of lord Cornwallis. It was manifested to a great extent by the administration of his right hon. friend who had immediately preceded him (Mr. Peel). His right hon. friend had established the Peace Preservation bill, because it was not safe to descend too suddenly from the system which had been so long pursued. The Insurrection act was in force when his right hon. friend came into office, but he had wisely allowed it to expire. Under what circumstances was Ireland when that act was allowed to expire? The counties of Tipperary and Down had just recovered from an insurrection. In Louth there had been great agitation, and many atrocities had been committed. These evils had been suppressed by the application of a large military force—by the operation of the Peace Preservation act—and, as was believed by many, by the operation of the Insurrection act. What did his right hon. friend do, zealous and anxious as every one knew he was for the peace of Ireland? Did he declare the apparent tranquillity hollow, and ask for the continuance of the Insurrection act, that it might be ready for the next winter? No—not because he did not expect disturbances would recur, but because he believed the power with which the government was vested by the constitution to be sufficient for their suppression. What was the case at present? There had been some disturbances in Galway. Those disturbances had been suppressed. How? By a military force, and by the operation of the Peace Preservation act. The tranquillity of the county of Clare had been menaced. The threatened movement had been repressed by the exertion of the resident gentry, and by the operation of the Peace Preservation act. The tranquillity of the county of Mayo had also been threatened but had been maintained by the vigorous ef- forts of the local gentry, even without I the Peace Preservation act. Did he say, that there would never be any further disturbance in Ireland? Was he to be told by gentlemen whom it was his interest and his wish to conciliate, that he was abandoning the cause of Ireland, because he was unwilling to place in the hands of the lord lieutenant and the government of Ireland a power which, until the passing of the Insurrection act, had never existed since the days of the Norman conquest? As he was speaking on this subject, he was bound to say, that if the same exertion had been made in the county of Gal-way, as in the counties of Clare and Mayo by the resident gentry, the disorders would have been checked in the first instance. In support of that opinion, and of the necessity for such exertion, the right hon. gentleman quoted at considerable length the charge of judge Daly who went to try the ribbon-men in Galway; and who strongly reprobated the conduct of those who conceived that they should save their lives and property by his supineness and a leaning to the mob. Prom this censure it was but just, utterly to exempt the hon. mover of the proposition before the House as well as several other honourable gentlemen. To the charge, therefore, of being careless as to the future tranquillity of Ireland he could not plead guilty. He had an unfeigned respect for many of those who differed from him in opinion on the subject; but he roust put it to their good sense and feeling seriously to consider on what principle the government of Ireland ought to be conducted. Was it not important to ask when the system which had so long prevailed, was to end? Was it not important to determine what should be the limit to the system of extraordinary measures? If a modified insurrection act were adopted to-day, why might not a complete insurrection act be adopted a year hence? Why might it not be proposed to abolish the Habeas Corpus? He appealed to those who were conversant with the history of Ireland, whether they did not in their conscience believe that the greater part of the evils under which Ireland now laboured, were attributable to the system which had been pursued for two centuries? The case of Ireland had always been considered as an excepted case. This had been the unvaried tone—that such or such a particular measure might be very good for England, but that it would not be good for Ireland. The calamities by which Ireland had been most deeply afflicted, were to be mainly ascribed to their constant recourse to extraordinary measures. To them was to be traced the too general abandonment, by the magistrates of Ireland, of their proper functions, and the consequent destruction of the mutual relations of dependence and support between them and the people. If the laws of a country did not restrain alike the rich and the poor—if they were rendered applicable to one class and not to the other, how was it possible to suppose that magistrates could be found capable and willing as in England to discharge with correctness all the high duties entrusted to them But if such was the effect of the system to which he alluded on the magistracy, what effect had it on the great mass of the people of Ireland? With what aspect had the constitution been always shown to them? Angry and vindictive. It had been exhibited, not as the medium of doing justice, but as affording the means of gratifying resentment. It was the essence of all good government, that the excesses of the people should be resisted by steady and constitutional, and not by extraordinary measures. More especially was it expedient that the people of Ireland should find that their crimes and excesses were met not by extraordinary measures but by the established laws, and by the constitution, in the common and daily exercise of its powers. He would again appeal to those hon. gentlemen who were connected with Ireland—he would again call on them to consider whether it would not be very practicable, by local exertion, to do away with the necessity of a recourse to any such measure as the Insurrection act. He intreated those who came to- that House for stronger powers to protect them from the people, to consider if, in the districts in which they resided, the local causes of the evil might not be so softened as to supersede such a fatal necessity—fatal, not merely because it was in itself a violation of the constitution, but because it naturally led to greater violations of the constitution. He did not say that it was practicable immediately to abolish the system which he had so strongly reprobated. He might fail in the attempt; his successor might fail in the attempt; but ultimately he was persuaded that that important object would be accomplished. It was by a steady and inflexible adherence to constitutional principles that England had attained to her present prosperity; and by pursuing a similar course he hoped that Ireland would share the advantage. It was on these grounds that he must most respectfully but most firmly oppose such propositions as that under consideration. He was not so rash or so foolish as to say that there would be no more disturbances in Ireland, but he would say, that come when they might, they ought to be met on the principles of the constitution. A sudden emergency might require a temporary remedy; but whenever the great features of the law by which Ireland was governed, differed from those of the law by which England was governed, he could not but consider that difference as a departure from justice and wisdom. The right hon. gentleman sat down amidst loud and general cheers.

Mr. Dawson

regretted, in common with his hon. friend, the inattention which had been paid to the general state of Ireland by the government, of which the right hon. gentleman formed so prominent a member. A great part of the session had now elapsed, and no notice had been taken of the nightly meetings, the outrages, and the bloodthirsty assassinations which had invaded the quiet of a whole province, and produced the loss of many lives. Had his hon. friend proposed an insurrection act at once, he should not have supported such a motion, because he was, generally speaking, averse to measures of violence rashly or hastily adopted. The evils of the state of Ireland at present originated, in a great degree, from those unavoidable circumstances in which she had been placed for a series of years past. The soldiery, scattered at a great distance from head-quarters, too often plundered the peasantry. This begat reprisals, and the peasantry rose in arms, or secretly avenged their wrongs by assassination. The Insurrection act was passed in 1807, with a view to prevent the necessity of employing the military. The danger now was greater; and yet any measure of this nature was declared by government to be unnecessary. Gentlemen who, like himself, were in the habit of supporting government, expected they should be protected by the government in their turn; and it was of greater importance to them that their dwelling should be protected, their repose undisturbed, and their lives unmenaced, than that any particular set of men should hold the reins of government. He had, in common with most liberal Irish gentlemen, the highest respect for the candour, feeling, and worth of the right hon. secretary for Ireland; but whilst he made this admission, he could not help saying, that he felt it his imperious duty to support the motion of his hon. friend.

Mr. W. Parnell

said that from the statements he had that night heard, he should have imagined that Ireland was in a state of universal disturbance; but the fact was, there had been some disturbance in Gal-way, and they were now called upon for more rigorous measures, after the lenient proceedings of government had had their proper and full effect.

Mr. Wellesley Pole

said, he felt it necessary to point out to his hon. friend, the member for Gal way, why he considered the measure of an Insurrection act perfectly unnecessary. The British House of Commons would always hear with surprise an application from Irish members to coerce their own country, by enactments abhorrent to the constitutional feelings of that House. It was remarkable, that although the Insurrection act had been passed in 1807, as a means of intimidating and keeping the spirit of insubordination in check, it had never been acted on, except in the district alluded to, although frequently applied for by local magistrates in other quarters of that country. The object of government at that period, and he then formed a part of it, was, to conciliate the feelings of the people, whilst they endeavoured to possess themselves of sufficient power to govern that country with tranquillity. Was the House prepared to strengthen the hands of the Irish government beyond even what that government considered necessary for its authority, and the preservation of the public tranquillity? He had been surprised at hearing from his hon. friend, that a whole province of Ireland was now in a state of insurrection. He believed it was no such thing. In fact, they themselves had admitted that, owing to the application of the Peace Preservation bill, the country had been restored to tranquillity. Under these circumstances, he conceived that no case had been made out for such an enactment, and he should therefore vote against the motion.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

maintained the expediency of the proposed inquiry, although it appeared to be resisted by the combined parties in the House. His right hon. friend, who had made such an impression on the House by his eloquence, had said that it was proposed to renew the Insurrection act. That was not the proposition before the House. Many who voted for inquiry might oppose the Insurrection act, or only agree to it if stripped of the objectionable and severe enactments on which his right hon, friend had descanted. The province of Connaught had been not merely disturbed, but in a state of rebellion. Regular battles had been fought there between the insurgents and the king's troops. It was quiet at present; but it was a dreadful tranquillity, occasioned by pouring in a large military force. It was not his wish, or the wish of those who supported the motion, to enforce measures of coercion; but he thought they had a right to ask parliament to investigate the situation of a country in which rebellion had so lately raged. He denied that the Peace Preservation bill was a substitute for the Insurrection act, and reminded the House that Mr. Grattan, for whose talents and principles they had so great a respect, was among the number of those who approved of the Insurrection act when brought under the consideration of parliament. The object of his hon. friend's motion was not to revive that act in its full force, but merely to retain that part of it which gave the magistrates a right to institute domiciliary visits if the motion was to be followed up by any positive enactment.

Mr. R. Martin

denied, that in the county of Galway there was any thing like a rebellion. In the baronies where his property was situated, every thing was tranquil, and he claimed their exception from the imputation. He opposed the motion, and recommended his hon. colleague to withdraw it, as the measure was unnecessary in the present situation of the country.

Sir J. Newport

expressed his satisfaction at being able for once to support the conduct of the executive government with regard to Ireland. He begged leave to remind his right hon. friend, that though Mr. Grattan had supported the Insurrection act generally in the then state of the country, he had repeatedly divided the House on that very clause of domiciliary visits to which it was now proposed that the act should be limited.

Mr. Foster

contended for the necessity of increasing the powers of the magistrates, and alluded to the beneficial results of the Insurrection act when Ireland was in a state of disturbance, as a proof that some modification of it would be attended with advantage at present. He thought no plan could be better calculated to secure the tranquillity of Ireland than that which had been proposed. In the county he represented, nocturnal meetings were held, and recourse had even been had to assassination, where the unfortunate victim was suspected of having revealed the projects of the conspirators. He was firmly of opinion that the introduction of the bill would be very beneficial.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that no man had a greater respect for the opinion of the right hon. gentleman who had just sat down than he had, because from his great local knowledge and experience he might be considered competent to form a correct judgment. He must, however, deny that there was any thing in the present state of Ireland to justify the introduction of such a measure under any modification. If Ireland was really in such a state as had been described by his right hon. friend (Mr. V. Fitzgerald), he could not help thinking that he was rather tardy in not coming forward until now that tranquillity had been restored under the authority of the law of the land. The Insurrection act was not a measure to be adopted upon a precautionary principle; it required the existence of insurrection to justify its introduction. It was, in fact, like the income tax, a measure, which, if adopted at a proper time, and with proper regulations, might be attended with the best effects, but which ought never to be introduced without the existence of an adequate necessity. Ireland was now in a tranquil state; and he thought it would be at once impolitic and uncalled for to select a moment of public quiet to bring into action a measure, the spirit of which was agreed, upon all hands, to be repugnant to the constitution, and which could only be warranted by an adequate state of public disturbance.

General Hart

wished his hon. friend would withdraw his motion, as it would only tend, if carried, to make the Irish people believe they were not looked upon as a portion of the British empire. Conciliation would do every thing for Ire-land; it would promote the union of the two countries; and he was happy to hear that such a system was to be acted on in its future government. Gratitude was a term which it was said could not be found in the Irish language; but it was a sentiment, he was sure, that could be found in every Irish heart. The government had just extended to the people of Ireland a measure to relieve their commercial distress, and when they had done this with one hand, they ought not with the other to tell them they were to be subdued by a military force.

The motion was then negatived.