HC Deb 28 April 1826 vol 15 cc723-33
Mr. Spring Rice

rose to present two most important petitions, signed by upwards of 40,000 Roman Catholics. The first petition complainted of the law of Corporations in Ireland as it affected Roman Catholics; and the second complained that the conditions of the Treaty of Limerick had not been complied with. All parties, whether for or against the question of Catholic emancipation, seemed, he said, to concur in thinking that the present time was not the most favourable for the agitation of that question. In compliance with that feeling, he would not at present enter into any discussion on those petitions, as they necessarily involved the general question of Catholic emancipation. He could, however, if necessary, prove the injustice and impolicy of continuing those religious disabilities to which the Catholic population of Ireland were subjected; and if it were necessary, he could also show that the complaints embodied in these petitions were founded on truth and justice.

Mr. Dawson

trusted the House would excuse his saying a few words, for not only did these petitions concern the parties by whom they were signed, but materially affected the character of the government and people of Ireland. These petitions were the production of the new Catholic Association, which, not, withstand- ing its professions of submission, had opposed itself in a manner so barefaced to enactments of the legislature. Nothing could be more unfounded than were the statements of these petitioners: and he thought it not a little strange, that no one could have been found in that body to express a dissent from assertions so inconsistent with the fact. The complaint of the petitioners was, that the restrictive laws by which they were affected were a gross violation of the Treaty of Limerick, and that the Protestants of the present day were equally culpable with those by whom the laws in question had been originally enacted. He would just call the attention of the House to the first article of the Treaty, lest, if these petitions be received sub silentio, it be inferred that they rested upon something like strong grounds. This article stated, that the Catholics were to enjoy all the privileges of which they had been in possession in the reign of Charles 2nd, undertaking that a parliament should speedily be called in Ireland, with whom influence should be exerted to obtain for the Catholics the free exercise of their religion. Now, if he could show that Catholics did not sit in either House of Parliament, the inference that there had been no violation of the Treaty would be unavoidable. A resolution agreed to in the House of Commons in the year 1642, after adverting to the lamentable condition of the country, owing to the conduct of persons of the Popish persuasion, declared that in future no member should sit in that House without taking the oath of supremacy, and that all who might refuse to do so should be considered as having vitiated their elections. To show that this was not intended to be a mere resolution, it was followed up by an order of the House, on the 10th of August, 1642, that a new writ be issued for the return of a member for Drogheda, in the room of Mr. Brick, who had refused to take the oath of supremacy; and it further appeared from the Journals of the Irish House of Commons, that those persons who did not subscribe to that oath were not allowed to take their seats. Now, admitting the right of the petitioners to have restored to them those privileges which were enjoyed by the Roman Catholics in the reign of Charles 2nd., it became necessary to see what their condition at that time was. It would be found that, in 1661, in the first parliament after the restoration of Charles 2nd., a resolution was agreed to, nemine contradicente, that a committee be appointed, to guard against the admission to the House of persons who had not taken the regular oaths; and, accordingly, an order next day issued, nominating certain commissioners, who were to see that every member should, before he took his seat subscribe to the oaths of allegiance and supremacy. These facts he contended, furnished the most incontrovertible evidence, that neither in the Houses of Lords nor Commons, were Roman Catholics entitled to sit in the time of Charles 2nd., and, therefore, that, as far as the Treaty of Limerick was concerned, they had no claims to that distinction. But then it might be said by the hon. gentleman opposite, that the resolution alluded to was nothing more than an ordinance of the House of Commons, and could not have the effect of depriving his majesty's subjects of those privileges to which they were by law entitled. To an objection of that nature he would reply, that it was a resolution of the Irish House of Commons which deprived the clergy of the tithe of agistment. A reference to the proceedings of the English parliament at that period would prove that there existed in this country the same apprehensions of the Catholics as were entertained in Ireland; for it would appear, that the Test and Corporation acts were passed here at the very same time that the Catholics were excluded from the Irish House; so that in both countries, the same exclusion was carried into effect. The Treaty of Limerick was signed on the 3rd of October, 1691, but was not to be binding until acquiesced in by the king. One of the articles of the Treaty provided that, as soon after the ratification of the Treaty as his majesty could summon a parliament, he would recommend the adoption of such further measures as would preserve to the Catholics the free exercise of their religion. The Treaty did not receive the king's signature until the 5th of April, 1692; but, in the intervening period, an act, purporting to be for the security of the nation, and the exclusion of improper persons, passed the British parliament, positively excluding all Catholics from seats in either House. This act received the royal assent on the 24th December, 1691. If, therefore, the Catholics did not remonstrate with the king during the progress of that bill, was it not fair and reasonable to infer from their silence, that they did not consider it as a violation of the Treaty of Limerick? The act in question affected their political privileges, and still there was no complaint heard on their part. Independently of this evidence, in itself sufficiently strong, he could derive additional support from the opinions of those who would be most anxious to fasten on whatever furnished a plausible ground of complaint. Mr. Molyneux, for instance, a great advocate of the interests of Ireland, and a warm friend to the Catholics, in his list of the grievances endured by his country, mentions the act alluded to, as a proof of the injustice and injury to Ireland of English interference, but not as an injustice to the Catholics, and certainly not as a violation of the Treaty of Limerick. In fact, he merely enumerated it as one of the many attacks made by the English parliament on the independence of Ireland. Now, if it could be regarded in any other light, was it for a moment to be supposed that this gentleman, possessing, as he did, the most exalted ideas, the most enlarged understanding, would not, in his advocacy of the Catholic claims, have had recourse to it to strengthen his argument? The hon. gentleman was induced to throw out these remarks for the purpose of disabusing the English nation of the impressions likely to be created by statements purporting to come from 40,000 petitioners; but any person knowing how matters were conducted in meetings, such as this petition emanated from, would attach little importance to the number of its signatures. It was well known, that in these assemblies one or two gentlemen assumed to express the opinions of all the Catholics of Ireland, and that in the absence of any person to control or to contradict them, they distorted history, misstated facts, and turned every thing to their own purposes. They might be allowed to act thus at their Catholic associations; but when they sent their petitions to that House, containing unfounded assertions, they must expect to be met with a proper and prompt refutation: and, further, he wished to impress on them, that there was no use in clamour or violence, unless supported by truth and justice.

Mr. Spring Rice

said, he regretted much the course which the debate had taken; but the responsibility must rest with the hon. gentleman who had just sat down, and not with him, who had been in fact taunted for the simple manner in which he had introduced the petition. His hon. friend had, by his speech, imposed upon him the necessity of doing what he had carefully abstained from at the beginning; namely, arguing this question upon the grounds taken by the petitioners. Now, however, that the duty of using such a line of argument was forced upon him, his hon. friend had only to thank himself for receiving the triumphant and conclusive answer of which his speech was susceptible. He regretted to hear the speech of the hon. gentleman, and wished that he had not had recourse to that species of attack and vituperation with which it abounded. True it was that the petitioners talked of "the barefaced violation of a solemn treaty;" but, if they were violent in their expressions, were not others equally so? What! was there not some excuse for men smarting under the infliction of wrongs, whilst the opposite party were enjoying the blessings of fortune and the possession of officer Violence there was on both sides, but of a different character; one party had no cause to produce or justify it; they had no injuries to complain of. He wished that the Treaty of Limerick could be referred to a fair and impartial tribunal, to determine whether its letter and its spirit had not been violated in the exclusion of Catholics from political privileges; and he wished to be considered as fully agreeing with the petitioners, that they were entitled to their claims, upon the foundation of the Treaty of Limerick, and of the law of the land. The argument of his hon. friend, as well as of others who on former occasions had preceded him, had rested solely upon the first article of the capitulation. He would proceed to show that, upon that subject, the conclusions to which his hon. friend had arrived, were wholly irreconcileable with law, with facts, and with historic commentary; and he would proceed to demonstrate, that, waiving all arguments derived from the first article, the petitioners were well founded in their statements on other and independent grounds. The first article preserved to the Catholics all the rights they exercised in the reign of Charles the 2nd. What were those rights? Did they or did they not possess and exercise the right of sitting and voting in parliament at that period? His hon. friend asserted, that they did not, and how did he maintain his position? He traced their exclu- sion to a mere resolution of the House of Commons. Was that a legal exclusion? Had the House of Commons, by resolution, a power of depriving the electors of the nation of their right of choosing a representative? This was force and tyranny rather than law. When the hon. gentleman referred to the resolution of the Irish House of Commons, where, he would ask him, had he read history? whence had he derived his constitutional principles, when he defined a mere resolution of that House as an act of the legislature? and when with a still greater infelicity his hon. friend referred to the act of the 4th of William and Mary, he would ask, where did the hon. gentleman acquire his notions of Ireland's independence, when he ventured to contend that the British parliament had, at the period in question, the power of enacting laws for the government of Ireland? As well might he have maintained that an act of that House was now binding on France or any other foreign country. He regretted the use that had been made of Mr. Molyneux's name. He had expected that the memory of that distinguished individual would have suggested better feeling. Still, on examination, it would be found that the evidence of Mr. Molyneux was on his (Mr. Rice's) side. Mr. Molyneux, it should be remembered, was not called upon to argue the Catholic question. Mr. Molyneux's admirable work had no reference to the Treaty of Limerick. From his silence on this point no inference could be drawn; but his substantial argument was conclusive against the statement of the hon. member for Derry. His hon. friend asserted, that Catholics were deprived of their rights by the 4th William and Mary, a British statute. Mr. Molyneux had asserted, that the British Parliament had no authority to bind Ireland. Which way, therefore, he would ask, did the authority of Mr. Molyneux incline? But his hon. friend was as directly contradicted by the statute itself as by Mr. Molyneux. He was equally unlucky both in his illustrations and authorities. That statute, so far from reciting that Catholics had theretofore been excluded from parliament, asserted the very reverse. On this legislative declaration he could rest the construction of the first article of the Treaty of Limerick. That act recited the liberty which Popish Recusants have had and taken to sit and vote in Parliament. Was not this a conclusive reply to the state- ment of their prior exclusion? But his hon. friend had proceeded to say, that the Catholics were excluded by the oath of supremacy. He denied that fact. If the statement were true, they must have been excluded from the days of Elizabeth, whilst, on the contrary, they had sat and voted long subsequent to that time. In the first parliament of James the 1st, there were 93 Catholics in a House consisting of 220. How, then, did this fact agree with the assertion, that they were excluded from parliament? The truth was, that the oath of supremacy was never in either country an absolute exclusion. In England their exclusion was effected by the 30th Charles the 2nd, passed for that very purpose, and no contemporaneous statute of a similar kind had passed in Ireland. He therefore concluded, that Catholics possessed parliamentary rights in the reign of Charles the 2nd—that those rights had been secured by the solemn Treaty of Limerick, ratified and confirmed by act of parliament—that those rights had been subsequently taken away, and that consequently the articles of Limerick had been violated. He refused to admit the authority of the British parliament, and he denied that a mere resolution of the House could exclude any man chosen by the people for their representative. As well might the House now seek, by a resolution, to exclude Irish and Scotch members from being returned to sit in it. It was unfair to argue that the Catholics, by their silence, acquiesced in the act passed between the signing and the ratification of the Treaty of Limerick; it was not because they admitted the justice of that act, but because they were beaten down and oppressed. They had it not in their power then to remonstrate. Neither the acquiescence of the weak nor the usurpation of the powerful could determine a right.—But supposing that, hitherto, his argument had been as open to objection as he contended it was conclusive; the strongest part of the petitioners' case remained still to be stated. Waiving all consideration of the first article, and admitting for argument sake that the oath of supremacy did exclude, he would nevertheless contend, that the petitioners were warranted in their statement, and justified in their prayer. The hon. gentleman had only referred, or alluded to, the first article of the Treaty; but, if he looked to the 9th article he would find that the Catholics of Limerick stipulated, as well for themselves as for their fellow Catholics, that they should be required to take no other oath but that of allegiance. If then the oath of supremacy had formerly proved as a bar to their political rights, was it not to be presumed that they would have been relieved from it by this ninth article, and were they not distinctly protected from the subsequent disqualifying oaths by which their present exclusion was effected? Were not those oaths a violation of treaty? William had promised, and parliament had ratified, the engagement, that no new oaths should be required, and indeed no oath but the oath of allegiance. Other and new oaths were now imposed by the legislature. Will any gentleman undertake the task of reconciling these promises with this performance? For his own part he thought that that man who read the Treaty of Limerick, and did not feel that it had been violated, had neither a heart in his bosom nor brains in his skull. That such was the impression, at the time, and that the Catholics were considered to have received the advantages of political eligibility, appeared from many eminent authorities. He would not appeal to such authors as his hon. friend's often-refuted archbishop King. He would not appeal to men who were removed by time or station from the events they described. His authority was not a Catholic writer, or a man ignorant of state affairs. His authority was that of the friend, the companion, and the historian of king William. He alluded to bishop Burnet, who states expressly, "That when the Irish came to capitulate, they insisted on very high demands, set on by the French, who hoped they would be rejected. But the king had given Ginckle directions that he should grant all the demands they could make, that would put an end to the war. So every thing was granted, to the great grief of the French, and the no small disappointment of some of the English, who hoped this war would have ended in the total ruin of the Irish interest. Those of Limerick treated not for themselves only, but for all the rest of their countrymen. They were indemnified and restored to all they had enjoyed in king Charles's time." Here the Bishop evidently alluded to the first article; but he then proceeded to comment upon the ninth, and added "They were also admitted to all the privileges of subjects upon their taking the oath of allegiance, without their being bound to take the oath of supremacy." Here, then, on the evidence of a contemporary historian and statesman, was the complete and unanswerable support of his argument, or rather what he would venture to call his demonstration. "All the privileges of subjects," were the expressions of Burnet—words so large and comprehensive, that no person could deny the right of Catholics to sit in parliament under the Treaty, unless he were prepared to show, that to sit in parliament was not among the privileges of a subject. The petitioners, in stating that parliament, in continuing their exclusion, participated in the original guilt of the violation of the Treaty, had certainly not meant to allude to the majority of that House, which had repeatedly attended to their prayers. The language of the petition was forcible, as became men, and still respectable to the House. He had felt no wish to agitate the question, but, having been driven into the discussion, he had endeavoured to do justice to the truth and argument of the case [hear].—The hon. member, in conclusion, strongly enforced the arguments which were founded upon these undeniable historical facts, and endeavoured, as he said, to demonstrate on every principle, legal and historical, the correct view taken by the petitioners of the effect of the Treaty of Limerick, which had been entirely misrepresented by his hon. friend.

Sir John Newport

said, that little remained for him to offer, after the triumphant answer given by his hon. friend to the speech of the hon. gentleman opposite. Indeed, attacks from that hon. gentleman upon the Irish Catholics for intemperance came with the worst possible grace; for, both in that house and out of it, he had been himself remarkable for heaping vituperation upon them. To follow up that practice on the present occasion, was very ill-advised, considering the official station which the hon. gentleman filled. Equally singular was it, that the hon. member, of all men, should have revived the worn-out attempt to bind Ireland by resolutions of a British House of Commons, when his constituents had eminently signalized themselves, at the time of the establishment of Irish independence, in resisting that usurpation, and had sent forth their volunteers to assert the cause of their country. He had, however, lived to see a member for Derry re-assert and venture to justify that gross and nefarious usurpation, long after the resistance made to it by Ireland, and after the formal abandonment of the principle by England herself.

Mr. Dawson

explained, that he only alluded to the acts of the English parliament, as illustrations of the mode in which the matter had been understood by the parties concerned. When confident assertions were made, unless something was said against them, it might be supposed that the House acquiesced in the accuracy of such assertions. The Catholics could not expect that they should, as in their own Association, have all the debate on their own side.

The Solicitor General

said, that whatever discussion had arisen, was provoked by the hon. member opposite, who had certainly taken a wrong view of the effect of the Treaty of Limerick. Indeed, until lately, this sort of argument in favour of the Catholic claims had not been thought of. The Treaty of Limerick was certainly not dwelt upon by the ablest advocates of the Catholics. He should, on the present occasion, confine himself to the record of his protest against the use of any arguments in behalf of the Catholic claims, founded upon a violation of the Treaty of Limerick.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that, not having been present at the beginning of this discussion, he would refrain from entering into the general argument, and confine himself simply to saying, that he by no means acquiesced in the view, that the privileges now withheld from the Catholics were so withheld in violation of the Treaty of Limerick. It would be time enough when that argument was formally urged, to combat it, which he should be certainly prepared to do; retaining as he did his original opinion respecting that Treaty, and not concurring in the assertion, that the admissibility of the Catholics to political power had been withheld in consequence of its operation. The petitioners themselves seemed doubtful of the extent to which they meant to press their argument founded upon the Treaty of Limerick, or on that particular article of it which was framed to secure them in the exercise of their religion, as far as was consistent with the laws of Ireland. Now, did they mean that by this provision they were to be free from molestation in the exercise of their religion, or did they construe it into an admission of their claim to equal eligibility to civil office? He rather; thought that they confounded both senses in their construction; for they asserted their right to sit in both Houses of parliament, by virtue of this Treaty. If that were the true construction, there was an end at once to the question; but believing it not to be so, he must dissent from the view taken by the petitioners.

Mr. S. Rice,

in reply, said, that this construction had been put on the Treaty of Limerick by some of the most eminent crown lawyers in Ireland. He should be most willing to argue the question on this ground with the right hon. gentleman.

Ordered to lie on the table.