HC Deb 04 December 1826 vol 16 cc221-4
The Speaker

said, he hoped the House would permit him to draw its attention to the petition which had been received last week from the borough of Athlone. On Saturday last, he had told the House that such a petition had been presented, and had requested its assistance in deciding whether it came within the restrictions which were requisite to constitute it an election petition. The restrictions, as the House well knew, rendered it necessary that the petitioners should be persons who claimed to be either candidates or voters. Now, this petition did not describe the petitioners, directly or indirectly, as persons who claimed to be either candidates or voters. A question might be raised upon it; namely, had the petitioners a right to vote? which question they wished to raise by their petition. If the House should be of opinion, that their petition was an election petition, they had nothing to do but to leave it to the usual course of such petitions; but if they should be of a contrary opinion, the House ought to have the petition entered as read, and then some member could move to discharge the order made upon it, and treat it as a mere ordinary petition.

The petition of certain inhabitants of the borough of Athlone was then delivered in and read, setting forth,

"That, notwithstanding that by the constitution of the charters of Athlone, by law and by the express rules of justice, by law and by the sound principles of the constitution, there should have been present at the election of a member of parliament for the borough of Athlone, the whole and every of the burgesses, unless proof made in open borough court of indisposition, or other necessary cause of absence, yet the same has not only been studiously avoided at the late borough court for electing a member to represent the petitioners and fellow townsmen in parliament, but the commonalty have been excluded, and the necessary notices not posted, nor the rules or regulations required by law complied with, but on the contrary, the election was held by subterfuge, and under the most peculiar and unconstitutional degree of injustice: that, therefore, petitioners humbly submit to the House, for the reasons aforesaid and herein stated, that Richard Handcock, esq., has been unduly and unfairly returned, in direct violation of the constitution and of the established law of the realm, and, in particular, of the laws, rules, and regulations for regulating borough elections in Ireland, inasmuch as four days' notice should have been given, in the most public manner, signed by the returning officer upon the receipt of two precepts from the sheriffs of the counties of Westmeath and Roscommon, to each of which counties the precincts of the borough extends; whereas the election was held upon one precept, and without any returning officer legally appointed, and without the necessary number of burgesses required by law having been present at such elections; and, above all, petitioners humbly submit to the House, that as the corporation of Athlone has been long in part defunct, and the corporate body having died a natural death, and ought to be dissolved, as will appear by the corporation books when laid before a committee of the House, with other substantial incontrovertible proofs, and also by the returns signed and filed in the Hanaper-office, Dublin, of Mr. Kerr's return the election before last, and of Mr. Handcock's return at the late assumed election; that the House will not permit a member returned not only unconstitutionally but unfairly, and in direct violation of the laws, to sit in the House as representative for Athlone, and whose vote might perhaps be calculated to form a majority on an important question upon which the salvation of Great Britain might depend; wherefore petitioners humbly implore the House to try and inquire, by the production of the corporation books, of copies of the returns in the Hanaper-office, Dublin, and by the examination of witnesses, whether the said Richard Handcock is constitutionally, fairly, or legally, returned or not; and if it appears that he is not, the petitioners humbly expect that the House will order new writs to issue to the sheriffs of the counties of Westmeath and Roscommon, and that petitioners may be entitled to their valuable privileges, the right of freedom of election."

Mr. Wynn

said, that he had before stated the rule of the House, and the law of the country on all cases, like the present. Such petitions by law could only be received from those who were candidates at the election, or from those who claimed a right to vote for them. That was the rule of parliament, and indeed the law of the land, until the time of the Grenville act. The right of petitioning was thrown open by that act to all persons. Considerable inconvenience, however, being found to arise from the practice, the former rule was revived. In all points relating to the reception of petitions, it was the duty of the House to lean to the side of the petitioners; but, in cases like the present, the words of the act were imperative, and the House was bound to abide by them. There was one point to which he wished to call the attention of the House; and that was, that any decision to which they might that night come was not final, and that the election committee to which it might be referred would have the power of deciding whether it came under the head of an election petition or not. He needed only to refer to the decision in the Nottingham case; where, in the middle of the trial, it was discovered that the petitioners who had described themselves as freeholders of the town and county of Nottingham were not such, and therefore were not entitled to vote for the election of members for the said borough. If the House were to send to an election committee the present petition, not being such as an election committee could take cognizance of, it would be making a heavy infliction on both parties, owing to the expenses which they would have to incur in bringing their witnesses to England. He mentioned that circumstance, in order to show that the course which it ought to follow was chalked out by the act of parliament, and that there was nothing in the particular features of the case to induce it to transgress that course. Now, from the petition itself, it did not appear that the petitioners were electors. They did not say that they themselves bad a right to vote—all that they said was, "that at the election of a member of parliament for the borough of Athlone, the whole and every of the burgesses should be present." They did not even claim to vote at the late election, unless such an inference could be drawn, which he thought could not, from the concluding sentence of the petition: —" The petitioners humbly expect that the House will order new writs, to issue to the sheriffs of the counties of Westmeath and Roscommon, and that petitioners may be entitled to their valuable privileges, the right of freedom of election." He submitted to the House, that this petition could not be considered as an election petition. If the House thought that, under particular circumstances of the case, some indulgence ought to be extended to the petitioners, it could extend the time for receiving their petition beyond the usual term of fourteen days; and could give them, but them only, the right of presenting another petition against the return, within a certain limited time.

Mr. Goulburn

contended, that it was evident, from a former petition presented by the individuals whose names were subscribed to this petition, that they did not claim a right to vote at the last election. He therefore thought that the order made on the petition ought to be discharged.

Mr. Hume

thought it only fair that time should be allowed to the petitioners to amend their petition.

The order was then discharged; and Mr. Wynn gave notice, that he would tomorrow move for an extension of time, in order that the petitioners might have an opportunity to amend their petition, by stating in what capacity they came before the House.