HC Deb 28 March 1825 vol 12 cc1246-57
Mr. Spring Rice

rose, to present' a petition from a great number of highly respectable Protestants in Ireland, possessing among them landed property to the amount of at least 200,000l a-year. These petitioners were chiefly individuals who had hitherto been amongst the most steady opposers of the Catholic claims. The result, however, of their further experience and observation upon the subject was, that they now came forward, declared their satisfaction that parliament had taken the disqualifications of the Roman Catholics of Ireland into consideration, and expressed their hope, that those disqualifications, which they were now convinced were most prejudicial to the peace and prosperity of Ireland, would be removed. In addition to this general declaration on the part of the petitioners, a further duty had been imposed upon him by some of the subscribers to the petition, who, while they were prepared to express their hearty concurrence in the expedience of the bill which had been already introduced into the House, instructed him to say, that the success of that bill would afford them greater satisfaction, if it were accompanied by two other measures; namely, a measure affecting the qualifications of forty-shilling freeholders in Ireland, and a measure to secure a provision for the Catholic clergy in Ireland. In these points he most heartily concurred with them; and, should such measures be introduced into that House, they should have all the support which he could possibly give them. He could not help flattering himself with the belief, that the circumstances of the present time were much more favourable to the success of the great question of Catholic emancipation, than they had ever been at any former period. The Catholic Association having been put an end to by parliament, an act of grace, such as the concession of the claims, would be received with feelings of peculiar satisfaction by the Catholics themselves. Many of the Catholic leaders had also been in this country; and a number of those who had hitherto been staunch opponents of the Catholic question had had an opportunity of conversing with them, and of weighing and examining their opinions and principles; and he was persuaded that he spoke but the truth when he said, that this intercourse had made a favourable impression on those who had been most hostile to the Catholic claims. The examination of the Catholic gentlemen in the committees, had likewise had a considerable effect in removing prejudice and inspiring confidence. One word more. If he could believe that what was called raising the qualification of the present forty-shilling freeholders could have the effect of checking the popular feeling of the country, or of diminishing the strength of popular principles among the peasantry and the small land-owners of Ireland, it should not have his concurrence. But it was because he knew (he did not say he believed, but knew) that it would be a most wise, salutary, and popular reform of the constituent body in Ireland, that he was determined to support it. Its tendency would be, to increase the control over the representative body, and to render that body more amenable to public opinion. This very measure, which those who were deficient in local knowledge maintained would trench upon popular right, he was convinced would materially strengthen it, excite dormant energies, and effect a most just, wise, and salutary improvement in the character of the constituent body without the doors of that House, and of the representative body within them.

Mr. Littleton

expressed the satisfaction which he felt at the sentiments which had just fallen from the hon. gentleman, and took the present opportunity of giving notice that, as soon as the bill, which was already in the House, should have passed (for he had no doubt it would pass) the second reading, he would propose a measure for the regulation of the elective franchise in Ireland. Whether he should propose that measure in the shape of a separate bill, or of a clause in the bill now in progress through the House, was a question which he was not yet prepared to answer. But, in neither case would he make any proposition, the effect of which would be to trench on any existing privileges. It would be entirely prospective in its character, and would in no way touch the right of voting, where it was at present practically existing. He was not disposed at present to say to what amount of property he would recommend that the qualification for voting should be raised; but. he conceived that it ought to be some sum not less than 5l. and not more than 10l. It was not because he himself thought that the concessions to the Catholics ought to be accompanied by any securities, that he intended to make this proposition. He had always held that Catholic emancipation would carry with it its own security. But, although he yielded to no man in his wish that the benefits of the British constitution should be thrown open to all classes of his majesty's subjects without difficulty or hesitation, he felt bound to respect the conscientious scruples of those who required some securities, before they could satisfy their own minds as to the expediency of granting those benefits to his majesty's Catholic subjects; and he knew that there was a large proportion of the Protestant population of this country who considered some regulations' respecting the elective franchise in Ireland, as an indispensable accompaniment to Catholic concession. Those also who best knew what was the state of society and property in Ireland, were of opinion, that few measures could be more conducive to the welfare, prosperity, and happiness of that country. He could not sit down without stating, that, in deciding on this step, he was not influenced by any of the parties who co-operated in the bill which had been introduced into the House. He was quite ignorant of what their opinion would be on the subject. He had had no communication whatever with any of them. Perhaps he owed an apology to his hon. friend, the member for Westminster, for not having, in the first instance, submitted his intention to him. He trusted, however, that his hon. friend would believe that his not having done so was not attributable to any want of courtesy, and that he was influenced by no other view, than the supposition that it might be satisfactory to his hon. friend to be able to say, that he had had no communication with him on the subject.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, that as the hon. member for Staffordshire had not gone into any details, with respect to his proposed measure, it was not his intention to enter into any discussion on the subject. But, he begged leave to enter his protest, in the first instance, against the proposition, in order that he might not hereafter be charged with inconsistency respecting it. He asked pardon of the House for speaking for a moment of himself; but, having had the honour of a seat in parliament for nearly forty-three years, he had pledged himself to the maintenance of certain principles from which he should certainly not now depart. Many years ago, and at different times, he had expressed himself in favour of Catholic emancipation. For the bill in progress through the House he had voted; because the best friends of the peace and pros- perity of England and Ireland thought it indispensable. But, what was the state of things now? He had never, until that moment, been told that, in order to procure Catholic emancipation, we must have a reform of the representation of Ireland, and must pay the Catholic clergy of Ireland out of the funds of England. To the proposition of paying the Catholic clergy he should have no objection; if means could be devised for doing so out of the funds of Ireland, and if the gentlemen of Ireland chose so to apply those means. But, after the number of years in which he had been employed in that House, in endeavouring to keep down the taxation of those who had sent him there, and to diminish their burthens, he did not understand being called upon to pay 240,000l. for Catholic emancipation as a kind of boon; when he had been all along told that it was so desirable a measure. With what face could he, who had for so many years laboured to reduce taxation, acquiesce in such a proposition? Although he was a strict Protestant, and a Church of England Protestant, he had dissented from the vote for giving money to build new churches; not because he did not wish to see new churches built, but because he thought the expense ought to be defrayed by the congregations, and not by the public at large. After such a proceeding, with what face could he consent to tax his constituents for the maintenance of the Irish Roman Catholic clergy? He never would do so; and, were he the only individual in the House hostile to such a proposition, he would persevere in his opposition to it. With respect to the other proposal, for interfering with the representation of Ireland, the nature of it was directly adverse to the principles which he had all his life been advocating. Was he not one of the Friends of the People in 1793? He had always been for extending, not for limiting, the right of voting. If a forty-shilling qualification were considered as too small for an elector in Ireland, what was to prevent its being considered as too small for an elector in England? But, how would such a proposition be relished in this country? He thought himself as good a voter in the county of Durham as any man; and yet his qualification did not exceed 3l. Yet, such a proposition as that of the hon. member for Staffordshire would destroy all such qualifications. Look at many of our tenures. Look at the practice of Knaresborough, where the burgesses voted with a wet seal. Was it not, indeed, the practice of all burgage tenures to vote with a wet seal? All these might as well be disturbed as the elective franchise of the forty-shilling freeholders in Ireland. He was extremely sorry at the introduction of this proposition. Had the bill gone on as it was going on, it must have triumphed in that House; and, after two or three sessions, the other House would have found it impossible any longer to withstand the general opinion in its favour. But, he would now tell the hon. member for Staffordshire that, if he meant success to Catholic emancipation (and he did not doubt that he earnestly wished it), he had taken the very worst course that could possibly be adopted for obtaining that object.

Sir R. Shaw

was persuaded, that nothing was so likely to conciliate the minds of the Protestants of Ireland as the proposed alteration in the elective franchise, and provision for the Roman Catholic clergy. He had received a number of letters from Ireland, all concurring in the opinion that, if those two measures were agreed to, the opposition to the Catholic Emancipation bill would be nearly done away with.

Sir J. Newport

said, he was anxious, on all occasions, to state fully and frankly his opinions upon the various questions that were brought before that House; and he was, of course, especially solicitous to do so with reference to that vitally important measure, notice of a proposition respecting which had just been given by the hon. member for Staffordshire. He felt peculiar anxiety on this subject, because he was convinced, in his own mind, that the hon. gentleman's proposition would tend materially to facilitate the progress of the measure of which he (sir J. N.) had been, for twenty-three years in that House, and forty years out of it, the unceasing advocate. If he had failed to convince the House, that he was warmly attached to the real freedom of election, and exceedingly desirous to maintain the substantial rights of the people, down to the lowest ranks in society, he had for many years been labouring in vain. But, when the hon. member for Durham said, that he believed the Catholic question would triumph in two or three sessions, without these injurious appendages, as he termed them, he who knew something more of Ireland than the hon. gentleman, begged leave to tell him, that the consequences of deferring the emancipation were not to be calculated. When the hon. gentleman talked of not burthening his constituents with 240,000l. a year for the purpose of providing for the Catholic clergy, he begged to ask him, if he should think it a better plan to pay three millions a year for soldiers? It was utterly impossible to believe, that so great a portion of the community could remain in a state of serious discontent, aggravated by various considerations, without giving occasion for large and continued expense. It was highly momentous that the question should undergo a speedy and a favourable decision. The present was, perhaps, the most fortunate period for such a decision, that could possibly occur. Parliament had a mass of evidence before them, to show the evils of the present system. They had before them the opinions of the Protestants of Ireland, as well as of the leaders of the Catholics. Let them, then, seize the golden opportunity. There was at present a concurrence of fortunate events, the continuance of which could not possibly be anticipated; and unless advantage was taken of them, to adopt means of permanently tranquillising Ireland, incalculable evils must be expected. With respect to the contemplated change in the elective franchise, he was bold to say, that whenever that subject came regularly under discussion, he should be able to prove, to the satisfaction of the most incredulous, that the elective franchise in the hands of many of those who now hold it in Ireland, so far from being a boon, was pregnant with the most injurious consequences. They were not free agents. They might be called freeholders, or free electors; but the term "free" was misapplied. They were driven, or dragged, to the hustings to do, not what they wished themselves, but what their superiors wished.

Mr. Stuart Wortley

expressed his regret at what had fallen from the hon. member for Durham. He was in hopes that the proposition of his hon. friend the member for Staffordshire, would have met with unanimous support. He entreated his hon. friend, however, not to be deterred by any threatened opposition; for he believed in his conscience, that the House would pass the Emancipation bill, together with his hon. friend's pro- position; and he trusted that a great majority would be found on that side of the question.

Sir R. Wilson

observed, that when he voted for Catholic emancipation it was with a view of increasing, not of decreasing, the rights and privileges of the Catholics of Ireland. If any abuses existed in the representation of Ireland, let a committee be appointed to investigate them. To that extent he was quite ready to go. He was ready to correct all abuses— to make fallacious voters, if such there were, substantial. But further he could not go. He must continue to maintain the act of the 33rd of Geo. 3rd, by which the Catholics were permitted to enjoy the elective franchise. He would oppose all measures which contemplated any alteration, where the votes were bona-fide registered.

Lord John Russell

observed, that it was a point agreed on, that all fraudulent votes given for the election of county members in Ireland should be taken away. But was it not reasonable to inquire into the votes given in cities and corporations? If, however, the proposed measure would tend to carry the question of Catholic emancipation, his month was stopped; for, in order to preserve the peace and tranquillity of Ireland, he felt that it was necessary to pass that measure without delay. With respect to the other proposal, of tacking to this bill for emancipation, a clause for granting 240,000l. as a provision for the Catholic clergy, in the same way in which the government of France paid the Protestant clergy of that country, as he heard members for Ireland who knew the country, and who had well considered the measure, give their assent to it, he could not withhold his own. The sum was so small that he could not, well understand the construction of the mind of the man who would oppose so great a measure as Catholic emancipation on the grounds of such a trifle.

Sir Francis Burdett

said, that he felt it incumbent on him to trouble the House with one or two observations. He would not go further than was strictly necessary. He fully concurred in all that had been said by the noble lord behind him. If the necessity of the case required it, he would be ready to support this proposed measure respecting the elective franchise, in order to carry that question of paramount importance, Catholic emancipation. As to the proposed stipend to the Catho- lic clergy, in the view of economy, the money required for that object would be so utterly trifling, that it would not balance the weight of a straw, in the conclusion of any rational mind, one way or the other. But, at all events, he was not implicated in the fate of these propositions. Catholic emancipation was the sole measure for which he was pledged; nor would he consent to mingle less significant details with that great question. At the same time, he was willing to make great sacrifices to obtain the emancipation of the Catholics, and should like to know upon what terms the government were ready to give it their support. He would take the opportunity of doing justice to a gentleman who had been much talked of, and in some degree misrepresented, both in that House and elsewhere. A right hon. gentleman (Mr. Tierney) had taken upon himself to deny, that any member of the Catholic delegation had been consulted, upon drawing up the bill which was now before the House. The facts were these, Mr. O'Connell had been examined before the committee, together with other gentlemen of the delegation, as persons the best qualified to furnish the committee with exact information upon the state of the public mind in Ireland, and on the safest mode to be resorted to for quieting the uneasy state of that country. Mr. O'Connell had been requested to draw up a rough sketch of a bill which his professional habits enabled him to do in a correct manner. Nor would it ever have entered his head that a bill so drawn, if deliberately revised and approved of by the committee, would, on that account only, be objected to. It did, however, form a ground of objection; and the draught was thrown aside. A bill was then prepared in exact conformity with one of the same nature, which had already passed the House; and this was neither framed by Mr. O'Connell, nor was he at all consulted about it. That gentleman's statement to the people of Ireland was perfectly consistent with the facts. He trusted, that the support which was due to the principle of this bill would be given to it, notwithstanding the qualifications with which it was proposed to accompany it; and that those qualifications would not be mixed with it in its immediate progress. It would be time enough for those who were friendly to the bill, to oppose the qualifications, when the question should be brought before the House.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, it was not his wish to provoke any discussion upon the question, but he wished the course he intended to take to be perfectly clear and well understood. He had no hesitation in stating that he could not accept of the two measures as a compromise. The proposed plans of disfranchising the forty-shilling voters, and of making a state provision for the clergy, would not induce him to relax his opposition to the pretensions of the Catholics. But, it was possible that his opinions upon the Catholic claims might be over-ruled, and then the question would be, what course he should pursue in endeavouring to modify future proceedings. Upon this his mind was not made up. In the present state of the question, he should declare that he could not accept of the proposed measures as a compromise for withdrawing his opposition to the Catholic claims.

Mr. Tierney

said, that even if he were hostile to the two propositions, yet if it could be proved that they were likely to become the means of conciliation, and cause many persons to wave their opposition to the principle, that would strongly bias his mind towards their adoption. He reserved himself, however, for the proper opportunity of deciding upon them. He was determined to give the whole subject his most earnest consideration. He wished to add one word upon the case of a distinguished individual of the Catholic Association. He was happy to have the confirmation of the hon. baronet to an assertion which he had made on a previous night. The House had been advised by the right hon. Secretary opposite, to watch the bill narrowly in its progress through the committee, if it were to reach that stage; and the reason urged by the right hon. gentleman was, that the bill itself had been drawn by a gentleman who was one of the chief members of the Catholic Association. He had then stated to the House, that the fact must have been misrepresented to the right hon. gentleman, as his statement disagreed with the strict truth of the case. He could not see any great impropriety in the conduct of the committee in applying to the quarter from whence they were likely to procure the greatest abundance of information. For his own part, he had made it a rule to withhold from any communication with that body, because he wished to give an opinion which should be the result of his own unbiassed judg- ment upon the question. He by no means blamed those who took a different course, and who probably arrived by that means at much more valuable information than he himself could reach. He thought that the explanation which had just taken place was an act of bare justice to Mr. O'Connell.

Mr. Brownlow

did not pledge himself to any particular line of conduct; but, from an extensive correspondence with those who had lived in constant hostility to emancipation, he was enabled to say that, in the event of that question being carried, it would materially lessen the general alarm, if it were accompanied with a provision for the Catholic clergy and a qualification of the franchise. Whether the Catholic question were carried or not, it was nothing more than a becoming measure to provide for the Catholic clergy, who, in the performance of the most numerous and arduous duties, might be said, almost without a figure, to be left to beg their bread. As to the question of elective franchise, he said, as heretofore, that it was miscalled a franchise when applied to the 40s. freeholders—that they were not freeholders—had no free choice—could exercise no freedom of election. A Catholic bishop had declared, that he had seen men with the appearance of mendicants going to register their votes, though there was nothing like a qualification in their leases. They were compelled to go, or they must look for the severest consequences. A most respectable witness, Mr. Blake, had stated, that emancipation would be incomplete, if not accompanied with a provision for the Catholic clergy, and an increase of the qualification in the elective franchise, Freedom of choice these electors had none. Their bodies were threatened by their landlords—their minds were in spiritual danger, if they did not vote according as they were directed.

Mr. C. Grant

said, he apprehended, that few persons had ever considered the affairs of Ireland seriously, with whatever view, without wishing for a remedy to two evils — the want of provision for the Catholic clergy, and the abuse of the elective franchise by the 40s. freeholds, As to the priesthood, they merited, for their services in assuaging the disorders of the country, more than any sum which could be voted to them; and, if the qualification of the elective franchise would conciliate opposition to the measures of emancipation, he would cheerfully acquiesce in it, for the sake of uniting so large a portion of the population in a stricter bond of union.

Mr. Dawson

did not see how the Protestants were to be conciliated by taking away their elective franchise, with a view to granting Catholic emancipation with safety. The Catholics, doubtless, would obtain a boon; but, what would the Protestants get? There were many parts of Ireland in which the elective franchise was as purely exercised by 40s. freeholders, as in England. It did not appear to him, that their assent would be more easily secured by depriving them of their votes, as a concomitant measure.

Mr. W. Courtenay

said, he could not contemplate the two propositions of paying the priesthood, and qualifying the elective franchise, as conditions of compromise. Of themselves, he considered them particularly salutary, and highly necessary to the welfare of Ireland. He had the misfortune to differ with his constituents upon the subject of emancipation. They were impressed, as he was, with the present state of things. But they, unlike himself, were of opinion that there was less danger now, than there would be after granting the Catholic claims. For his own part, he would support the bill of the hon. baronet, whether it were accompanied with those qualifications or not.

Mr. Littleton

disclaimed the most remote intention of interfering with the rights of real 40s. freeholders in Ireland.