HC Deb 25 April 1826 vol 15 cc566-77
Sir Francis Burdett

said, that in rising to present the petition of the Catholics of Ireland, praying relief from the political disabilities under which they so unjustly laboured, he felt he was not justified, under existing circumstances, in going at any length, or indeed at all, into the merits of the general question itself, the principle of which had so often received the sanction of that House. At the same time, he was anxious to avail himself of this opportunity to entreat the House to consider once more the deep interest which this subject was calculated to excite—to assure them of his own deep and unalterable sense of the justice of the claims of these petitioners—and not only of their justice, but of the sound policy, wisdom, and reason, of attending to them. As it was not his intention to bring on any formal discussion upon the prayer of this petition, it would not, perhaps, be altogether fair in him, were he, on the present occasion, to use the indulgence usually shown to the presenter of a petition, for the purpose of saying more upon the general view of the case, than that he seriously recommended the House to consider what reception they ought to give to claims so founded on reason and truth—claims, too, which never could be laid at rest until they were satisfied—claimswhich all who spoke with proper opportunities of knowing the real state of Ireland concurred in describing as interwoven with the best interests of six millions of people, whose national character stood so high for honesty, industry, and virtue, that its people to whom it was attached were described by the first minister of the Crown as being the most useful examples of laborious industry which were to be seen in this country, or indeed in any other, under the sun. And yet must not these same persons have felt themselves degraded to the last degree, when they were compelled at the same time, and from the same lips, to hear, that they were unfit to be admitted within the pale of the British constitution? It was time that this question should be settled, seeing that its policy and necessity were so strong, that they could not hope for the peace of Ireland until that consummation was attained, or indeed take the sense of the House upon other measures which were upon all hands admitted to be essential for the welfare of that country, and of the kingdom generally; for all who were conversant with the affairs of Ireland admitted that these measures could hardly be brought forward until this great preliminary stumbling-block to all improvement were removed out of the way. He hoped that, under all these urgent circumstances, the House would speedily feel convinced of the reason, justice, and propriety, of conceding to six millions of their fellow-subjects, an eligibility to civil rights, without which they must continue, as it were, aliens in their native land. He repeated that, until this question was finally settled, and in the only way in which it could be justly determined, namely, by conceding these claims, they could not hope for concord, or satisfaction in their government of Ireland. Indeed, it was quite clear that there never could, nor ought to be satisfaction among the Catholics of Ireland, or of England, until justice were done them.

Mr. Brougham,

in seconding the motion for bringing up the petition, declared his cordial concurrence with the hon. baronet in every thing which he had said upon the policy, expediency, justice, and necessity, of conceding these claims. He also agreed with his hon. friend in the inexpediency of taking, on the present occasion, a more enlarged view of this question; which was a most judicious course for the great interests intrusted to his charge.

The Petition was then brought up and read. It purported to be the petition of the Roman Catholics of Ireland, and set forth,

"That the petitioners once more implore the attention of the House to that portion of the statutes of this realm which render it necessary for six millions of loyal subjects of the British crown to appear at the bar of parliament, humbly praying that they may not be any longer excluded from the enjoyment of their political rights, on account of their conscientious worship of their God, by adherence to that religion which was the common universal faith of England in the most glorious epochs of her history, and is at the present hour professed by almost all those states in the old and the new worlds with whom their most gracious sovereign holds terms of friendly and confidential relation; the petitioners had fondly hoped, that the results of the comprehensive and solemn inquiries into the state of their country instituted by both Houses of parliament, and repeatedly approved by gracious communications from the throne, would have, ere now, relieved them from the humiliating obligation of again praying to be raised from their state of odious and unmerited degradation in their native land, of whose population they constitute so large a majority; but the petitioners have seen and felt with unaffected surprise and regret, that, although the magnitude of the subject eminently appeared by the prominent station which it unavoidably held in those inquiries, and although the injurious tendency and operation of the present system of exclusion was most unequivocally proved, nevertheless no means of amelioration were suggested to parliament, nor was any prospect of relief held out to the petitioners beyond the cold and cheerless declaration of the 'paramount importance' of their question; the petitioners, therefore, humbly trust, that, inasmuch as the said committees, in accordance with the conduct hitherto observed by the ministers of the Crown, have declined to originate any measure respecting this subject of such confessedly paramount importance to the state, the petitioners will stand fully excused from the charge of premature obtrusion in their humble endeavour to obtain for their claims the favourable consideration of the House; that the petitioners feel no inclination to disguise the anxious hope long entertained by the Catholics of Ireland, that the liberal relaxation of the penal code, commenced in the reign of his late most gracious majesty, would be completed in that of their present illustrious sovereign, and they felt much encouraged in this expectation by the enlightened and liberal principles of government extended by his majesty to the Roman Catholic subjects of his Hanoverian states; the petitioners at the 6ame time most gratefully admit that their confidence had been much increased by the benevolent acts and professions of his majesty since his accession to the throne of these realms; and they refer, with sentiments of gratitude and exultation, not only to his majesty's parental visit to his faithful Irish subjects, and the affectionate recommendation contained in his parting admonition and injunction, which it has been their study to cultivate and observe, but also to the many obligations which they owe to their sovereign for the repeated instances of regard for his Irish people, apparent in several communications from the Throne to parliament; the petitioners advert with much satisfaction to the gracious declaration of his majesty, upon the occasion of opening the session of parliament in the year 1822, when his majesty was pleased to say that, 'in his late visit to Ireland he derived the most sincere gratification from the loyalty and attachment manifested by all classes of his subjects;' and again, when closing that same session, his majesty assured his parliament that 'the object which he had ever had at heart was (to use his own parental terms), that of cementing the connection which subsists between every part of the empire, and of uniting in brotherly love and affection all classes and descriptions of his subjects;' that in the speech of his majesty's commissioners, upon opening the session of 1823, it was recommended to parliament to consider of 'such measures of internal regulation as may be calculated to promote and secure the tranquillity of Ireland, and to improve the habits and conditions of the people;' and upon closing that session it was declared by the commissioners, in his majesty's name, that 'his majesty entertained a confident expectation that the provisions of internal regulation which parliament had adopted with respect to Ireland, would, when carried into effect, tend to remove some of the evils which have so long afflicted that part of the united kingdom;' that, in the same spirit of affectionate regard, his majesty's commissioners, upon the opening of the session of the year 1824, were instructed to declare that 'Ireland had been for some time past the subject of his majesty's particular solicitude,' and that 'his majesty relied upon the continued endeavours of parliament to secure the welfare and happiness of that part of the united kingdom;' and, when closing that session, his majesty was pleased to express his gracious approbation of the inquiries instituted into the state of Ireland, and to add that 'he had no doubt but parliament would see the expediency of pursuing its inquiries in another session,' which recommendation was repeated by his majesty upon the opening of the session of 1825; and his majesty directed his commissioners, when closing that session, to 'return his warmest acknowledgments for the zeal and assiduity with which both Houses of parliament had prosecuted the inquiries into the state of Ireland;' the petitioners humbly, but most confidently, submit, that it must appear perfectly plain to the House that the parental solicitude thus affectionately and repeatedly expressed by his majesty never can be gratified, nor his gracious desire for the promotion of brotherly union among all classes and descriptions of his Irish subjects be accomplished, nor the evils which have so long afflicted Ireland be remedied, nor the good results expected to follow the late parliamentary inquiries be effected, so long as the great body of the Irish population is held by the law in an ignominious inferiority, and excluded from the full enjoyment of that constitution which they mainly contribute to sustain; it will not therefore appear strange or unjustifiable to the House, that a measure, whose attainment is thus manifestly necessary, as well for the accomplishment of the benevolent views of the sovereign, as for the promotion of the general public weal, should be urged with peculiar but respectful zeal and earnestness upon every convenient occasion by the petitioners, who are the direct immediate victims of that cruel code against which they complain, as not only restrictive of their just rights as faithful subjects of the Crown, and opposed to the pursuits of legitimate and laudable ambition; but also thwarting their progress in every rank and walk of life, and almost neutralizing the advantages of that limited toleration which was extended to the Roman Catholics of Ireland towards the close of the last century, now more than thirty years ago; the petitioners further most humbly represent to the House, that it may not be unworthy of its consideration that the prayer of the Catholic subjects of this united kingdom for relief, has been also sustained by the great body of the resident Irish Protestant nobility and gen- try, by the most opulent and most exalted Irish proprietors of all religious communities and political parties in the state, by the enlightened members of the learned professions in both islands, by the most eminent bankers, merchants, traders, and capitalists of the British metropolis, by many members of the English universities, by dignitaries, and ministers of the Established Church, by the most esteemed members of the dissenting communities, and, finally, by the repeated determinations of the representatives of the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in parliament assembled; that although the petitioners may and do advert with sincere delight and gratitude to such unequivocal attestations to the justice of their prayer, they nevertheless rest their claims chiefly upon the abstract right and intrinsic merits thereof, and upon that solemn compact which remains unbroken on their part, and by which the honour of the British Crown and people was pledged for the support and protection of the rights and liberties of the Catholics of Ireland, for the petitioners most humbly insist that the continuance of those penal enactments, against which they now complain, is a direct palpable continued infraction of those articles agreed upon at the capitulation of Limerick, which secured to the British king and nation many important advantages in return for that charter of Irish freedom, to the maintenance of which the good faith of England was thereupon solemnly plighted; nor can the petitioners wholly overlook the fact, that the conduct of Ireland towards Britain, since the commencement of their intercourse in remote ages, should ensure to her a return far different from that which she has almost invariably received, a position which is distinctly established, whether reference be had to the testimony of the most esteemed English writers, or to the labours of Irishmen in the diffusion of Christianity, and civilization in every quarter of Britain, the establishment of religious and literary institutions for that benevolent purpose, and the hospitable reception and gratuitous support and instruction of British princes, clergy, and people, in Irish seminaries, or by reference in more modern times to the loyal zeal and attachment manifested by the Irish Catholic subjects of the British Crown, in those inferior stations in the Army and Navy, to which alone they were admitted by the provisions of the law or the practice of the government; the petitioners do not refer to these topics in a spirit of acrimony, or with any other view than to remind the House of the just claims of Ireland to British sympathy and favour; for, although they are not ignorant that while all other European states gratefully recognized the validity of similar claims on the part of Ireland, England alone proved her dispositions, by the confiscation of property, the demolition of religious and literary establishments, and the proscription and persecution of the people; nevertheless, it is the most earnest desire of the petitioners that parliament should enact such a final and satisfactory measure of justice and conciliation as will obliterate for ever from the memory of both nations all traces of such heartrending reflections; it cannot be dissembled, by the petitioners that they have been led to this painful reference principally by the recent opposition to their claims founded upon the imputation that his majesty's Roman Catholic subjects practise or profess a divided allegiance; this imputation, utterly unjustified by their conduct, appears to the petitioners not more untenable in fact, than ungenerous, illiberal, and ungrateful, in principle; and they earnestly pray, that the House may feel assured, that the petitioners are restrained solely by sentiments of respect and decorum, from a more direct and unmeasured expression of the indignation which that charge has excited amongst all ranks of his majesty's faithful, though much injured and long suffering, Irish Catholic subjects; the petitioners unhesitatingly admit and avow, that their religious faith remains unaltered, and for this simple reason, that it appears to them the most conducive to the eternal salvation of man; it is the same faith as was professed by Catholic Ireland upon every one of those occasions in ancient and modern times to which the petitioners have referred; it is the same faith as was professed by the most esteemed princes, peers, and warriors of England, and by all her people, when the offices of government and the obligations of subjects were as well understood and as well performed as they have been in any subsequent periods; it is the same faith as was and still is professed by the great majority of Christians scattered over all the nations of the earth, without destroying or en- dangering their allegiance to their respective governments; and the petitioners will not be required by the House to accede to the notion which the imputation implies, that there must be something so incongruous, revolting, and obnoxious in the system of British rule, that the allegiance which is sufficient and secure in all other states should be considered unavailing and insecure within this united kingdom; nor is this the single inconsistency or peculiarity attending that offensive allegation, for it is made not only at a time when his majesty's Roman Catholic subjects are admissible, without complaint, to all the subordinate stations of practical power in the naval, military, and civil departments of the State, but at the very moment when, as the petitioners believe, full one half of the number of recruits enlisted for his majesty's army are raised from the Catholic population of Ireland, a circumstance which, the petitioners humbly submit, could not, and should not, be admitted, to. occur, if this charge of "divided allegiance" were seriously entertained by any member of his majesty's government; had it been alleged that his majesty's Roman Catholic subjects abused the concessions extended to them by parliament, or manifested a defective allegiance in the administration of any offices to which they were appointed, or had their opponents pointed to any specific proof of a superior practical allegiance on the part of any other class or description of his majesty's people, the petitioners could not, if such allegations were well founded, complain of such a marked and peculiar distrust as is thus avowed; but whereas, on the contrary, they can confidently challenge their adversary to a contrast between the deportment of their body, under the most trying circumstances, and that of the most favoured class in the state, they trust, that the House will not suffer its judgment to be affected injuriously towards them by such misrepresentations; the spiritual jurisdiction recognized by petitioners does not vary in character from that existing in any other Christian community in which an ecclesiastical hierarchy is sustained, and is totally unconcerned in the exercise of any political power or influence whatsoever; the authors of this imputation might therefore, with equal justice and consistency, insist that it is essential to the observance of that entire undivided allegiance which they hold to be due by a British subject to his king that he should refuse honour to his parents or worship to his God: the petitioners beg leave very briefly to controvert another objection recently made to their claims, founded upon an allegation of the total absence of education in the great body of the Catholics of Ireland, as contrasted with their British fellow-subjects, and their consequent unfitness for the full enjoyment of the British constitution; they do not desire to animadvert with severity upon the ungenerous character of this imputation, which, if it were founded in truth, should nevertheless be declared by the advocates of a system that sought, by all the stratagems of unfeeling persecution, to establish that intellectual inferiority which is now alleged as a disqualification for the possession of freedom; but the petitioners most explicitly deny the truth of the allegation; they insist, that, notwithstanding the demolition of their seminaries, the persecution of the people, and the proscription of their religious and literary instructors, the mis-directed hostility of governments, and the factious zeal of individuals, the Catholic peasantry of Ireland enjoy as large a portion of education as is enjoyed by the same order of society in the favoured and cherished land of England; it is not required that the House will accept of their unsupported assertion as proof of their position, they beg leave to refer to the report of the commissioners for inquiry into the state of education in Ireland, by which it appears that the number of Roman Catholic pupils now receiving education in that country, and principally under the direction and superintendence of the clergy of that communion, amounts to about 400,000; and, as a further proof of the accuracy of their views upon this important subject, they would respectfully direct the attention of the House to the following extract from an official letter contained in the Appendix to that report, and addressed to the chairman of that commission, by his grace the present archbishop of Cashel, whose long residence in England must have qualified him to form a just opinion upon the matter to which he refers; his grace distinctly says, 'Were I to be asked the question, whether I thought that the disturbances in Ireland were imputable to any defect of education in that country? I should answer, certainly not; for, as far as my own observation has gone, I am fully persuaded that the peasantry of Ireland are not only quicker of apprehension, and in possession of a greater love of learning, but are also, in point of fact, better educated than the peasantry of England;' that the petitioners consider it due, not more to themselves than to their fellow-subjects in great Britain, to declare their conscientious impression that many, if not all, of the prejudices still retained against their claims result from an ignorance of their actual condition, their principles, and their objects; the petitioners seek not the destruction, but the enjoyment of the constitution, and in the pursuit of that desire they do not by any means solicit or expect, or wish, that a single individual of their Protestant fellow-subjects should be deprived of any right, liberty, privilege, or immunity, of which he is at present possessed; the petitioners, in praying for the restoration of their rights, seek not, nor do they wish, to burthen the state with any provision or pension for the ministers of their religion, nor do they seek, nor have they sought, to deprive any class of his majesty's subjects of any right, privilege, or franchise whatsoever, and they beg leave emphatically to deprecate the introduction of any measure into the House purporting or tending to restrict the elective franchise, or interfering with the discipline or independence of the Catholic church in Ireland; the petitioners, in conclusion, humbly, but most urgently, pray, that the House may, so far as in it lies, put an end to that bad state of society which afflicts their native land, which engenders the most odious and irritating distinctions and distrusts among subjects of the same sovereign, and which, under the false and impious pretence of upholding a Christian principle, enables each furious bigot to point to the Statute-law of England as the guide, the aid and ally of his uncharitable pursuits; they pray, that those laws may be repealed which make the disregard of conscience an indispensable preliminary to their participation of the constitution; they pray, that a system of government may no longer exist which is not more injurious to Irish right than to British fame and interest; they pray, most earnestly do they pray, that such repeal may not be qualified by any arrangements which must tend to neutralize the advantages of any measure of national conciliation, but that such a gift of emancipation may be extended to them as it would be worthy of a generous and enlightened parliament to offer, and of a confiding and high-minded people to accept."

Mr. W. J. Bankes

said, that he would follow, on the present occasion, the example set to him by the hon. members opposite, in forbearing to enter into the general merits of this question. When the hon. baronet, however, had declared that his opinion remained unaltered, he (Mr. Bankes) felt it equally due to the consistency or those who thought with him upon this subject, to declare also that their opinions were unalterable upon it. And he regretted exceedingly that no convenient means had been afforded in the present session, of fully discussing the petitioners' claims; for he was satisfied, t\hat the public feeling, or rather the public opinion, would have then been unequivocally expressed against the proposed concession. Had this course been taken on the eve of the general election, the public would have known how to choose their representatives for the new parliament; and he confidently anticipated the result. It had been sometimes said, that the Catholics of this day were not of the same religion as those of the past. There was, however, one expression in this petition which set that matter entirely at rest; for the petitioners avowed the unaltered state of the Catholic religion. He believed that avowal, and gave firm credence to those who uttered it; and upon that fact he had always founded one of his great objections to the granting of these claims. It was an unaltered and an unalterable church; and was now exactly the same as it had been centuries ago. The hon. baronet had contended for the reason, policy, and justice of this question. For his part, he could not see either the reason, or the policy, still less the justice, of committing the care of a Protestant established church to Catholic members of parliament. Indeed, human nature must make Catholics who were sincere believers of the principles of their religion decidedly hostile to a church which they must feel was an innovation upon their own system, which they deemed to be infallible. As to the church of Ireland, he was quite satisfied it would not stand for two sessions in an unchanged state, if Catholics were admitted to seats-in parliament. Some hon. members might, perhaps, think such a change would be beneficial. He was of a contrary opinion, and thought it would inflict a fetal injury. He Should only farther say, that the experience of the two last years—that all the acts, speeches, and publications of the Catholic body—convinced him more strongly than ever of the unaltered and unalterable principles of the Roman Catholic church, and of the danger of granting these claims.

Mr. W. Smith

did not rise to prolong this discussion; but, when the hon. member declared his belief, that the Irish church could not stand for two sessions after the admission of a few Catholic members to seats in that House, he could not refrain from saying, that such a concession was what he did not expect to have heard from the hon. member; and he only lamented that a convenient opportunity could not now be afforded, to permit the hon. member to show how such an effect would follow from the introduction of a few Catholic members.

Ordered to lie on the table.