HC Deb 12 May 1825 vol 13 cc566-71
Mr. Grattan

rose to present a petition from the freeholders of the county of Monaghan, against the bill brought in by the hon. member for Staffordshire, which would have the effect of disfranchising the 40s. freeholders of Ireland. The petitioners considered this bill to be contrary to justice, and to involve a direct violation of the constitution. In their sentiments he entirely concurred.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, that the opinion of the petitioners was founded on an entire misapprehension of the question. If what the petitioners stated were fact, he would at once agree with them: he would say, that the 40s. freeholder ought not to be interfered with. But, this bill did not affect the 40s. freeholder. What he, and those who approved of the measure, objected to was—the number of electors who were brought into the constituency, not as freeholders, but as leaseholders. So far from diminishing any right which existed at present in England, or which was valuable to the constituency of England, those who approved of this bill took a course which rather blended the rights of the real constituency of the two countries, by striking at a practice known unfortunately in Ireland, but not at all known on this side of the water. No desire existed to limit the exercise of the elective franchise. The great object was to introduce a better and more independent description of voters than was known in Ireland at present.

Mr. Grattan

contended, that the petition spoke facts, and nothing but facts. When they raised the qualification of voters above 40s., it was clearly a limitation of that right; and, he would say, one of the most enormous that was ever proposed. It was said, that the friends of this measure were anxious to assimilate the law of Ireland to the law of England on this subject: but, he would maintain that, at present, the practice in England and in Wales was the same as the practice in Ireland.

Mr. Hume

wished his hon. friend, the member for Limerick, to show how it was possible to pass this bill, without depriving individuals, at a future period, of rights which they now expected to enjoy ultimately. By the practice of Ireland, every holder of a lease of 40s. was entitled to a vote; and in all time to come, unless the law was altered, those who succeeded him in his property would be entitled to the same privilege. Now, it was intended by the bill of the hon. member for Stafford to take away from all future holders of leases the power to vote for members of parliament. This was the admitted object; and, if this was not taking away from the popular part of the community a right which they had long enjoyed, he knew not what to call it. If the practice was mischievous, let them put an end to it in some other way: let them introduce a measure by which the evil would be corrected. But, let them not, by one sweeping measure, deprive four millions of people of an established right. It had been reported, that because he was hostile to this bill, he had declined to vote on the Roman Catholic Relief bill; but it was perfectly well known to gentlemen around him, that he had formed one of the majority on that occasion; and sorry he was, that that majority was not ten times greater [hear].

Lord Althorp

said, that the opponents of this bill objected to it because, in their opinion, the extent of popular election in Ireland would, if it were carried, be more limited than it was at present. Now, he would vote for it, because he thought it would give the popular interest greater force and power than it could now command. At the present moment, gentlemen of large property, by subdividing their estates, were enabled to overpower the middling and better-informed classes. But, by the operation of the bill now before the House, the weight of the independent freeholders would be greatly increased; and instead of lowering the right of popular election, it would place the counties of Ireland, which were now nothing but close boroughs, in the same free situation which they held in England.

Mr. Littleton

said, that by the bill which he had introduced, there was not one individual in Ireland, who at present had a right to vote, to whom that right would not be preserved. He really thought that the hon. member for Aberdeen, and the reformers in general, ought to be first and foremost, in supporting this measure. For the very same reason which induced the hon. member for Aberdeen to call for an increase of the elective franchise in Scotland, his object being to destroy corrupt influence—for that very reason the hon. member was bound to vote for a decrease of the elective franchise in Ireland; because, in that country, the fictitious voters overwhelmed the real freeholders. He could not conceive on what principle those who supported parliamentary reform could oppose this measure. He was astonished, how gentlemen who came into that House by the voluntary vote of independent English electors, could support a system under which, by dividing four or five estates into shreds and patches, the power of the real freeholder was completely overwhelmed! They ought to support a measure which would put an end to a system so vicious. Sooner or later, when the principle of the bill was understood by the public at large—when the opinions, so strongly and generally expressed in that House, were properly weighed—the measure would be successful. The misunderstanding which prevailed; the misrepresentation which had most unfairly been made in that House; and the inconsistency which he had observed in the conduct of various parties, with respect to this measure, would ultimately be corrected; and he had no doubt but that it would be eventually carried.

Sir J. Newport

said, that as the practice now stood, men of real substance, of bona fide property, refused to attend at elections. In many instances, individuals of respectability would not qualify themselves to act as electors. They knew that they would be completely overpowered by those fictitious freeholders; ant therefore they viewed the elective franchise as a privilege not worth having. It was to him most extraordinary, that any man who had looked into the evidence given before the committee, or who was personally acquainted with the practice could oppose a measure which would put down an evil of such magnitude.

Mr. S. Bourne

said, that besides the strong ground—that of purifying the elective franchise—there was another very powerful argument in support of the bill. It was admitted, that amongst the evils which oppressed Ireland, the subdivision of land was one of the greatest. It was impossible directly to interfere with property; and, while a motive existed for the subdivision of property, that subdivision would take place. Now, when the motive which led to that system was known, it was the duty of parliament to remove it and its accompanying evil together. Surely the increase of leaseholders—at rack-rent, in most instances, be it remembered—ought not to be continued, when it was clearly the means of perpetuating a generally admitted evil.

Mr. W. Becher

spoke in favour of the bill, because he thought its tendency was to remedy existing evils in Ireland.

Mr. Monck

said, he considered the 40s. freeholds a great evil; but he did not like the remedy. The argument for the present bill was, that in consequence of the numbers of electors, the real sense of the county could not be taken, and that the independent voters were thereby nullified. Was it forgotten that in this country there were hundreds of boroughs? Could gentlemen discharge from their minds the pot-walloping boroughs? Could they forget the places where the mechanics, being freemen, destroyed by their numbers, all the independent voters? In England, boroughs and votes were sold openly and notoriously to the highest bidder; and yet the Irishman was to be deprived of his vote, on account of evils which were not of his own creating. At Southampton, the right of voting was in the inhabitants paying scot and lot, and individuals who purchased the right of the corporation. When George Rose stood for Southampton, and was hard run, and likely to lose his election, he was favoured by the corporation, and at one stroke, no less than sixty of these voters, all strangers to the town, were created; and he thereby succeeded in getting his election. If the evil was to be put down, let it be a general measure. The hon. member for Galway had given instances in which the 40s. freeholders had acted with the greatest independence. He believed the present bill to be a contrivance, on the part of the Irish members, to secure their return to parliament. These members had created votes, which they expected to find dependent, but which they now discovered were too often indepen- dent. They found the voters in a state of mutiny. They would not go with the landlord, as it was intended and expected they should; and they often went wth the priest, in direct opposition to the landlord. This was their real fault. It was not their general dependence, but occasional independence, which was struck at by this bill. For these reasons, though as yet he had voted for it, he should vote against its further progress.

Sir George Rose

said, that the occurrence alluded to by the hon. member, could not have taken place at Southampton, as the voters must at least be made a year before the election.

Mr. Monck

said, he would not vouch for the statement. He had read it in a newspaper: it might have been inserted for election purposes.

Lord Milton

admitted that the bill deprived certain persons of a right to vote, but he was so fully convinced that that right gave rise to great evils, that he should vote in favour of the bill. He took that opportunity of asking the hon. member for Staffordshire whether it was his intention to proceed with this bill, or to postpone it until the final determination of another measure, on the success of which its operations must ultimately depend.

Mr. Littleton

said, he was quite ready to comply with whatever might be the wish of the House on the subject. He would either wait the decision which might be come to in the House of Lords, or he would proceed that evening; but he was particularly desirous to avoid doing any thing which might be construed into a breach of faith. He was willing that the wishes of the members for Down and Armagh, both of whom he saw in the House, should be complied with relative to the postponement.

Colonel Forde

said, he was indifferent whether the elective franchise bill should be disposed of now, or postponed to a future day, provided it was distinctly understood, that if the great measure of Catholic emancipation should be carried in another place, this bill should be persevered in aid pressed forward as rapidly as was consistent with the forms of House.

Mr. Brownlow

rose to address the House, but was for some time wholly inaudible, owing to the subdued tone in which he spoke. He alluded to the opinion he had recently given on the subject of Catholic claims, which opinion he saw no reason to retract. He particularly recommended the passing a measure of general conciliation; and he looked upon the bill which had been alluded to as a component part of that measure. The concession of the Roman Catholic claims, the increase of the qualification of electors, and the provision for the Roman Catholic clergy were called for by the present situation of Ireland. If any of these measures were not to be carried, still he should not regret the vote he had given. He was deeply anxious that the bill should be carried; but to its present postponement he could have no objection.

Mr. Littleton

said, that it was his intention, if the Catholic Relief bill should be carried in another place, to proceed with all possible alacrity to press on the elective franchise bill. On the contrary, if the former bill should be lost, he would certainly abandon the latter.

Sir F. Burdett

said, that he rose principally to express his admiration of the manly and candid course taken by the hon. member for Armagh. What that hon. gentleman had stated had had a considerable influence on his mind. In looking at the question of Catholic emancipation with a view to conciliate the minds of the people of Ireland, he could not put out of view, that a portion of that people was Protestant; and on their behalf he also felt a strong interest. It was fit, therefore, in conceding the claims, to grant them in such a way as would be acceptable to the Protestant mind; or the House would, in fact, be doing little more than changing the sides of the difficulty. The great object was, to consolidate the whole power of the empire; and that could not be attained without conciliation. With reference to the elective franchise bill, he should be prepared to defend it upon every principle—upon a principle of reform. He should be able to show that the same principle applied to particular parts of the elective franchise in this country would be beneficial, and tend much to the independence of parliament and the liberty of the subject. Having, however, accepted the support of several members on the great question, which support had been most honourably given, he should feel bound to support the minor bill, which had for its object to increase the qualification of voters in Ireland, even if he could not find reasons for it in all respects satisfactory to his own mind. He looked at the bill for the provision of the Catholic clergy in the same light. He was bound to support it; for on that condition the support to the great question, which was not less than that of religious liberty in the country generally, had been given. He should, therefore, feel warranted in making even greater sacrifices on that subject, than he was in fact called upon to make. Standing as the measure did, he felt obliged to several hon. members for their assistance and votes in favour of a bill which seemed to him of paramount importance to the welfare of the empire.

Colonel Trench

was desirous of expressing his regret, that by the loss of the present bill, Ireland would be deprived of the benefit of a measure of great importance [cries of "no, no"].

Mr. R. Martin

thought that this bill would be one of the greatest visitations ever inflicted on Ireland, if it should pass into a law, without being accompanied by Catholic emancipation. He had no doubt that it would produce a commotion, perhaps a rebellion, in Ireland; and this he was ready to prove on a proper occasion.

Ordered to lie on the table.—The further consideration of the Elective Franchise bill was deferred till the 27th.