HC Deb 22 February 1825 vol 12 cc626-35

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

Mr. Hume

rose for the purpose of submitting a resolution by way of instruction to the committee. He had, from the first introduction of this measure, felt that it was unjust towards the Association against which it was directed, and cruel to the great body of the people of Ireland. One of the evils by which that unhappy country was afflicted was, the practice of introducing bills on every occasion. They had bills on all sides of the House to patch up some part of a bad system, instead of adopting a general measure which would go at once to the root of the mischief. The present was one of those patching bills. No one had attempted to say that it would remedy the present system in Ireland. It was introduced without any evidence of its necessity. The only evidence given were the verbal statements of one or two members on one side of the House, which were most flatly contradicted in every part by hon. members on the other. It was stated, amongst other things, that this Association had caused great alarm in Ireland. He denied the fact. If any alarm was felt, it must have been by the small faction who had so long held the ascendancy in that country, and the undisturbed monopoly of place and power. The representations made by the advocates of the bill, were of a very contrary description. One party said, that the proceedings of the Association had disturbed the tranquillity of Ireland, whilst the other asserted that Ireland was never in a state of less riot and disturbance. The House ought to have inquired which of these representations was correct before it allowed the bill to reach its present stage; but as it had not made such inquiry, he should feel it his duty, if the bill must pass into a law, to render it as equal in its operation as possible. He should, however, give the bill his most strenuous opposition in every stage. He knew that, in all probability, such opposition would be fruitless; but it would be a consolation to him to have done all in his power to resist so partial and tyrannical a measure. It was too common an adage, that when men were down, they were to be kept down. That was the disgraceful principle which the government were determined to act upon towards the ill-treated population of Ireland. The Protestants—a small body of men—were to be preserved in the enjoyment of the spoils of that country. Let no man tell him, that this unjust ascendancy was to be upheld on any religious impressions. Religion had nothing to do with the question. The true cause of the alarm was, that the monopoly of the few of the rights of the many was in danger. It was for the possession of the spoil of the Irish people, by a fraction of that community, that all these fears were propagated; and as that spoil was of large amount and had been for centuries continued, the effort to retain it was most vigorous. The Catholics of Ireland were degraded and debased by such a system, and when they endeavoured to obtain redress they were also to be vilified. He held in his hand a document which showed that it was for the public spoil that the Protestant ascendancy in that country were struggling. In the Customs, the number of Protestants holding places were 226 while the number of Catholics were 14. In the Excise the number of Protestants were 365, while the Catholics amounted to 6. Indeed, driven as the Catholics were to despair, it was natural that they should look for relief to any quarter where relief was presented to them. For his own part, he was ready to declare, that if he were an Irish Catholic, it would be a mere question of calculation with him, whether he should assert his rights as a man and a patriot, or run the risk of being hanged as a rebel and a traitor. Our ancestors had watched for an opportunity to strike the blow which gave them freedom; and he repeated, that if he were a Catholic, he should follow their example. By denying to the Catholics of Ireland their just claims, which were refused to them, not from any fear of their religious opinions, but from a fear lest they should obtain a portion of those offices of trust and emolument which were monopolized by the dominant faction in that country, the people of England were incurring the risk of losing that fine island altogether. They had been told by the Attorney-general for Ireland, that if further concessions were not made to the Catholics, he dreaded the effects of foreign aggression upon that country. Why, then, should they hesitate to make the Catholics their friends, and thereby place Ireland out of the reach of danger? Irishmen were treated as men in every country but Ireland; but there, he was sorry to say it, they were treated as brutes. Why should parliament continue such a system, when, by getting rid of it, it would not only attach a gallant nation to its side, but would rid England of an annual expense of four millions which was now incurred to keep it in subjection? The hon. member then proceeded to point out the difference between the Orange and the Catholic Associations, and to contend that if the government had wished to act fairly between them, it would have dismissed from its service all those who were members of Orange lodges. Those lodges were decidedly illegal; whereas, the Catholic Association was proved to be legal, by the necessity of having this bill to put it down. Considering the insulting manner in which the former petitions of the Catholics had been dismissed, he thought they had adopted a constitutional mode of obtaining a redress of grievances in forming such an Association. So far from objecting to it, he considered it a laudable Association, in perfect consistence with the principles and spirit of the constitution. Believing, therefore, that this Association had been most unjustly vilified, and seeing that the bill, which was intended to put it down, was shamefully partial in its operation, he would move, "That it be an instruction to the committee to receive a clause, providing that any person now holding or who might hereafter hold, any office under the Crown in Ireland, should take an oath that he does not now belong, and that he will not hereafter belong, to any Association declared to be illegal by this act."

Mr. Goulburn

resisted the motion. The principle of it was, to call upon every officer to take an oath, not merely that he was not guilty of a particular offence, but that he would not at any future time be guilty of it. If this were a fit principle to proceed upon, why did the hon. member call for such a declaration with regard to a minor offence, punishable only by fine and imprisonment, and neglect it with regard to greater offences, for which severer penalties were inflicted? Was it just to call upon an individual to take an oath, when, by refusing to take it, he gave indirect evidence that he was a member of a society denounced as illegal? He knew of no case in which such a test had ever been required from public officers; and he did not see any reason why it should be demanded from them in the present case. The object of the motion would not be answered, even by the success of such a clause as he had proposed. If any Orangeman was at present in the employment of the Irish government, it was because the constitution of those lodges had been so completely altered as not to transgress the existing laws. Should any servant of the government be discovered to be a member of an illegal Orange lodge, he would not only be dismissed from his situation, but handed over to the law, to suffer the punishment which it affixed to the offence. For these reasons, he should oppose the motion.

Mr. G. Lamb

observed, that no man was bound to take office against his will; and argued, that as every man had to take some oaths before he entered upon office, he saw no reason why the test recommended by his hon. friend should not be added to those already in existence. He defended the Association from the attacks which had been made upon it, and said that he could not find any thing in the language used by its members half so violent as that which had been used regarding it by several members of that House. If they wished to give a triumph to neither of the two parties into which Ireland was divided, and to hold the balance impartially between them, they would not send this obnoxious bill to that country without adding to it the clause recommended by his hon. friend.

Mr. Hutchinson

said, that in the hope of either shaming or terrifying ministers out of this bill, he should again express his execration of this abominable measure, which was founded in injustice, and was in direct opposition to the principles and practice of the constitution. It was calculated to rouse every honest man in Ireland to acts, if not of outrage, at least of active exertion to put down the men, who in a time of general peace and prosperity, had brought in a bill which was calculated to spread rebellion and war through that unfortunate country. Majorities of that House might indeed carry this odious bill, but they had all, unfortunately, heard of majorities packed and corrupted for the most mischievous of purposes. They had been, in this country, the means of imposing taxes upon the people to the amount of millions, and had thus enlarged the debt of the country to an extent irredeemable, during the largest period allotted to human existence. At one period of her history, they had brought England to the very brink of ruin. Similar majorities had goaded Ireland to rebellion; and to a similar catastrophe ministers seemed to be trying to drive her again. He had seen some short and transient periods of prosperity in Ireland; but he had witnessed there much longer and more troubled periods, for the most part, of affliction, misery, and oppression. He had had woful experience of the effects of those majorities, by which government was sometimes content shamelessly to carry through the most fatal and obnoxious bills. It was, therefore, as an Irish gentleman informed, by a long residence in that country, of what she had endured, and might yet endure, through a perseverance in the employment of similar means, that he stood there to warn the House, that the persisting in oppression and injustice, had before driven Ireland to madness and to revolt. If they were the last words he should utter, he would solemnly declare that the rebellion in Ireland of the year 1798 was justified by the circumstances under which it arose: he desired to protest, that every creature who on that occasion had suffered as a rebel was a martyr: and that every man at that time in power, who had lent his countenance to their destruction was a traitor to his country. While he said this, he begged it to be understood, that he had himself always resisted the armed rebels; but he did not less oppose and deprecate the persecuting spirit of the government of that day. He might refer to the authority of the gallant member for Southwark (sir R. Wilson) to corroborate him in saying, that they who were termed rebels were not the worst subjects of that day, nor the most to be denounced; but that rather they were such, whose oppressive measures had driven them to be rebels. He would tell the House who the person was who thus addressed them, that they might not suppose he had not been a supporter of government. When the French landed in Ireland, he had left Dublin and travelled night and day to meet them. He had the honour to deliver up to lord Cornwallis the French general second in command, who had been taken on the field of battle. The French general, in conversation afterwards had asked him how it was that the Irish opposed them, when he expected they would have received the French with open arms? He replied, that though the people desired a change, they would take no alteration which came recommended by French bayonets. He would tell the ministers they were risking the safety of the empire by the present bill. It was a measure likely to create rebellion in that country, where, according to the speech from the throne, prosperity was at last beginning to prevail. They were going to put down an Association which had done no harm, but a great deal of good: and this, too, to gratify, he would not say the Orange faction, but the rump of the Orange faction. This system might, possibly, be pursued a little longer; but the day of retribution must come at last. Hon gentlemen might think they could pass this bill safely; but he conjured them to pause in their course. From information which he was almost hourly receiving from Ireland, he knew that the agitation of this measure had excited the most intense sensation; for never had there existed in Ireland a body which so entirely possessed the confidence and affection of the Catholic millions, as the Catholic Association. And these sentiments were fully justified by the talents of his learned friend Mr. O'Connell, and other members of the deputation.

Mr. Plunkett

said, he as much approved as the hon. member for Aberdeen could do, of the broad principle that no person, being a member of any illegal society, should be admitted into office; but the hon. member must allow him to say, that the effect of his proposed instruction was quite irreconcileable to law or common sense. What was it that he proposed? First, that any person on entering upon an office, should swear, that he was, or was not, guilty; and secondly, that he would not thereafter belong to any society that should be an illegal one. Until the motion of the hon. member, he had never heard that it entered into the range of human legislation to compel a person to swear to a point of law. And yet this would be the effect of the oath proposed. The bill properly provided, that though the acts of only a portion of its members might render a society illegal, and therefore subject those members to its penal consequences, yet they who should be members, in ignorance of its illegal character, and not participating in its illegal acts, should be exempted from the penalties. But, by the hon. member's amendment, the party would be compelled to swear whether the society was legal or not, in order to determine his eligibility or ineligibility to office. He would thus be required to swear to a point of law, of which he could scarcely be supposed to be cognizant; that point of law going to a point of fact, of which, also, he could not be cognizant. He was disposed much rather to rely on the honour and justice of his majesty's government, that no one connected with it would venture to appoint any body to an office who was likely to be a member of a society declared to be illegal, than consent to the amendment.

Mr. Denman

was, in principle, opposed to the amendment, because it was adding another test, and he was opposed to all tests. But, if the present bill passed, he should then vote for the proposition of his hon. friend, as a means of showing the people that this measure was to be an impartial one. The bill ought to be framed so as to apply equally to Orangemen as well as others. The right hon. and learned gentleman argued, that its enactments would not affect a person acting in ignorance; and had asked how his hon. friend could propose to make a man swear to a point of law and a point of fact that could not be within his knowledge? Why, in the first place, the very objection that he (Mr. D.) most strongly felt to the bill was, that it did affect those who might be connected, even through ignorance, with an association that was illegal. [Here the learned gentleman read the clause of the bill relating to the "Punishment of persons becoming members of any unlawful society."] Here was a clause, by which a member of societies, hitherto quite lawful, was made liable to a punishment which was left in blank. [Here Mr. Denman was reminded, by some friend near him, of the proviso in the bill, "for members of Societies, not originally unlawful, becoming so under this Act."] This was, certainly, to some extent, a qualification. The reason for calling on a person before he took office, which was a voluntary act, to take the oath proposed by his hon. friend seemed to be this—to discover whether or no he belonged to any society of the kind alluded to—a knowledge which, without some such means of ascertaining the fact, there seemed to be no means of coming at. But, the object of the bill, should rather be directed to the secret associations than to the open ones. The societies which were leagued together by secret oaths, such as the Orange Society, were those that should be proceeded against. On this ground alone it might be possible to support the clauses he had just read; but on the same ground, he would vote for the instruction proposed.

Mr. Secretary Peel

thought, that the hon. and learned gentleman would do well in future to read bills before he discussed them. Surely it was not too much to ask of a learned judge, like the hon. and learned member, at least to hear the defence of a prisoner before he pronounced his condemnation. It seemed to be insinuated, that government were desirous of passing this bill without sufficiently discussing it. Now, after it had, during five nights, been largely discussed, and every hon. gentleman who had risen to oppose the bill, had been followed by some hon. member who was friendly to it, the course that had been pursued did not very much indicate a desire to evade discussion. The fertility of the proposition of the hon. member for Aberdeen had been already so well exposed that it was unnecessary for him to offer any further observations on the subject. If the bill in question should be passed into a law, the Jaws that would affect societies in Ireland would be these—that there should be permitted in Ireland no societies bound together by secret and illegal oaths; that those who might thereafter enter into those mysterious engagements should become liable to certain punishments. To the penalties of this bill? No; but to transportation. Now, the hon. gentleman's proposition went to make a man swear, on entering office, that he did not belong to any secret society. Why, if he could not swear this, he would have already exposed himself to the penalty of the other law, making connexion with a secret society so punishable. Suppose, then, he should swear that he was not so connected; could any great reliance be placed upon that person's oath, seeing what must ensue if he declined to swear? If, belonging to a secret society, he should conceal that fact, he would commit perjury, and be liable to all the penalties of that heinous offence; but, if he should refuse to swear, and admit his connexion with any illegal association, then he would have offended against the law in question, and might be transported. But then it was said—suppose he should prove to belong to an Orange Lodge? Why, upon that point, he could find no difficulty in saying, that it would be the duty of government to remove from office any body who should be in such a situation, [cheers]. The proposition of the hon. member he opposed upon principle; because he opposed tests, generally, on principle; but he thought that the hon. gentleman must see that his own motion would not effect the object he had in view; and, therefore, he did hope, that he would not press the matter to a division.

Lord Althorp

said, he thought that measures of this kind had always a tendency to produce bloodshed and confusion; but he did trust, that the good sense of the Catholics would prevent any fatal consequences. It afforded him great pleasure to hear from the right hon. Secretary, that no Orangemen would be permitted to hold office. This single declaration from the right hon. gentleman would do more to put down all illegal societies in Ireland than this bill or any other measure. On this account, he was glad that his hon. friend had submitted his proposition to the House.

Sir R. Wilson

, alluding to the absolute necessity of conceding to the Catholics their claims, begged to ask the right hon. gentleman opposite whether he was prepared to resist Catholic emancipation until it should be wrung from him by the Irish people? Was he prepared for all the miseries attendant on a separation of Ireland from the empire; for all the miseries of a civil war; and for the imposition of new taxes to support it? These were questions which the right hon. gentleman ought seriously to ask himself. Meanwhile, parliament should determine on measures of relief; not such as would be pleasing to the Orangemen in particular, nor yet in particular to the Catholics: but such as would be most beneficial to the people of Ireland at large.

The amendment was negatived without a division, and the House resolved itself into a committee, in which the blanks of the bill were filled up.