HC Deb 06 December 1826 vol 16 cc284-91
Mr. Moore

said, he held in his hand a petition from Mr. Emanuel Hutchinson Orpen, of Dublin, on a most important subject. The petitioner complained of the power exer- cised by the Roman Catholic priesthood in Ireland to denounce by way of excommunication, persons of their own faith, who refused to concur with them in their political objects. The dangerous character of a control of this description must be too obvious to render it necessary for him to insist upon it; and it was not his intention to enter into any details at that moment, as, in the course of the session, various occasions would arise when it might be more advantageously discussed. The House would, however, permit him to make one observation. The power against which Mr. Orpen petitioned was a power not quiescent. It was a power which was not only capable of being exercised, but which had been actually and extensively exercised, for the purpose of inflicting some of the most serious grievances to which any member of a community could be subjected. It was a power, the bare possession of which, even if it were never exercised was calculated to give to the Roman Catholic priesthood a most dangerous influence over the laity. One of the most striking characteristics of this power was its creation of that mixed system of religion and politics which had placed his majesty's Roman Catholic subjects in Ireland in that position with respect to the state, which put it totally out of their power to give security for the due exercise of whatever political rights might be conceded to them. He confessed that this consideration, with many others, impressed him most strongly with the conviction, that the Roman Catholics could give no security which would render it safe to make any further concession to them.

Mr. Spring Rice

did not rise to oppose the bringing up of the petition. On the contrary, it was his opinion that every man was entitled to complain to that House of any grievances under which he laboured. He rejoiced, therefore, that Mr. Orpen had come to that House; and he trusted, that if petitions from other individuals of a different nature should come to the House hereafter, the hon. member would be disposed to receive them with equal readiness. The hon. gentleman had stated what was known to all; namely, that the Roman Catholic priesthood possessed the power of excommunication. The question was, whether or not that power had been carried beyond its proper exercise. That was a question which would be tried upon the evidence of witnesses on oath; when the various election petitions from Ireland came to be considered. If those petitions should be abandoned, then he would be entitled to say that no such impropriety had occurred. The hon. member regretted the combination of religion and politics. He regretted it also. Every good man regretted it. It defiled religion, and perverted politics: The error, however, was in those institutions which persevered in connecting them. In the laws which withheld their civil rights from the Catholics, might be traced the origin of the evil complained of.

Mr. James Grattan

said, he could not hear the allegations of the petition without declaring in his conscience, that he did not believe that the power possessed by the Catholic priesthood had been exercised to the extent alleged. He knew it was utterly impossible to disconnect the subjects of religion and politics in Ireland; but he believed that the opposite party was liable to a similar imputation. If the Roman Catholic priesthood exercised their influence with the Catholic laity, for political purposes, there could be little doubt that our own clergy exercised their influence for similar objects. He regretted that the hon. member should have indulged in a tirade against the Catholics, on grounds which, in his opinion, were wholly untenable.

Colonel Torrens

observed, that the hon. member who had presented the petition had uttered one sentiment, which he would never hear in silence. That sentiment was, that the Catholics could give no security which would render it safe to make any further concession to them. What security was required? If the legislature gave them political power, would not their love of that power induce them to retain it by their conduct? If the sentiment of the hon. member were largely acted upon, it would tend directly to the dismemberment of the empire.

The Petition was then brought up and read. It stated the outrages and atrocities which had, at various times, been committed in Ireland, and which it imputed principally to the influence of the Roman Catholic priesthood; and it prayed, that henceforward, any person denouncing an individual by way of excommunication, or pronouncing an anathema upon him, should be subject to a penalty of 20l., recoverable by civil bill before the assistant Barrister; and that any individual so ag- grieved, might sue besides for special damages. On the motion that the petition be printed,

Mr. Spring Rice

put it to the hon. member, whether any good could arise from printing and circulating such a petition. It might produce much heat and irritation; and he trusted, therefore, that the hon. member would withdraw his motion.

Mr. Moore

maintained, that the statements in the petition were incontrovertible. He wished them to be fairly placed before every hon. gentleman. He was not conscious of having pronounced the tirade which one hon. gentleman had imputed to him. He had merely asserted that which was as notorious as the sun at noon-day, that the Roman Catholic priesthood possessed the power described in the petition. He did not blame them for exercising that power. They had a spiritual duty to perform, and he gave them credit for performing it conscientiously. But that was the very state of things he complained of. The performance of such a supposed duty was calculated to occasion extensive mischief. He was surprised at the warmth with which the hon. colonel had made almost reproachful observations on what he had stated respecting securities; and he was satisfied that what he had advanced on that subject could not be controverted. If it were established that the Catholics could not give any securities for the proper exercise of whatever civil rights might be conceded to them, that he presumed, would immediately determine the question. The necessity of securities had been maintained by all our wisest and greatest statesmen. He repeated his opinion that, situated as the Catholics were, a further concession of political power to them was dangerous to the state.

Mr. S. Rice

observed, that many of the burnings and massacres adverted to in the petition were as unconnected with religious considerations, as if they had taken place in this country. The petitioner charged the Roman Catholic clergy with the most enormous vices; and prayed for the establishment of a new code of laws against them. The House had the authority of the Attorney-general for Ireland, that the clergy had not contributed to the excesses which had taken place in that country. What ground, therefore, could there be for the allegations of the petitioner? He deprecated the revival of old animosities in Ireland. If that book were opened, let not the House believe that all the guilt would be found on one side. That those dreadful scenes of atrocity and bloodshed, to which the petitioner had referred, were deeply to be deplored, no one would deny; but every judicious man was anxious that, they should, as much as possible, be forgotten. If, however, they were referred to, let it be for the purpose of taking such steps as might prevent their recurrence; and not for the purpose of giving a new stimulus to ancient animosities. The present petition was a firebrand; and he entreated the hon. member, as he valued the peace of his native country—as he valued his own estimation in that House, not to press his motion.

Mr. Goulburn

thought the hon. gentleman who had just spoken, had taken a tone far beyond what the nature of the cast required. Every one was aware that petitions were frequently presented, stating ' the opinions of individuals. In the propriety of which opinions, it was by no means necessary that the House should concur, before they allowed the petitions to be printed. Undoubtedly, he concurred with the hon. gentleman in thinking, that it would be much better, if the statements, on both sides, were calmly and dispassionately made and that all parties would consult their true interest by such conduct. But, to select one petition for reprehension, on this ground, while petitions, equally objectionable, on the other side, were allowed to pass without observation, would not be much to the credit of those by whom it was done, nor make a very favourable impression on the public mind of the justice of their cause.

Mr. Abercromby

said, that the right hon. gentleman had mistaken his hon. friend, who had merely urged the good sense and good feeling, under the circumstances of the case, of not giving circulation to the allegations of the petition, by ordering it to be printed. His hon. friend's first statement was, that the petition referred to a subject which was about to undergo the investigation of committees, before whom witnesses would be examined upon oath. That being the case, and the matter being one with which the House at large could be but very little acquainted, it was surely not too much to ask the House to withhold printing a petition, not from a body, but from an individual, containing statements calculated to make a strong and premature impression. Let it be recollected, that the question about to be considered and determined was a novel, untouched, untried, question; and, therefore, that all possible pains should be taken to avert from it every thing tending to the creation of an undue and injurious prejudice. In the appeal, therefore, which his hon. friend had made to the hon. member by whom the petition had been introduced, he most sincerely concurred. He would venture to say, that no person in that House contemplated the approaching discussion on the state of Ireland with a more intense feeling of anxiety than he did. To him it appeared to be most expedient, that this new parliament should come to the discussion of that great question with minds free from prejudice; and, above all, that they should be fully sensible of its immense and vital importance. For twenty years, he had attended every discussion in that House on the Catholic question, and had, on every occasion, voted in favour of Catholic emancipation. During that period, he had frequently been in Ireland. He had also been in Ireland since the last agitation of the question; and he declared that he had never returned from that country so deeply impressed with the urgency of carrying that measure. He was convinced that it was their most serious duty to take every means, if it was not yet too late, to save the integrity of the empire. So feeling, he asked the House if the subject was not one which required the calmest consideration? He trusted that others would be of the same opinion; and he intreated the House to enter upon the consideration of this great question, whenever it should be brought forward, with reference only to what was the existing state of Ireland in the year 1827, and to what was the mildest and best course which an honest parliament could adopt. Nothing which had recently occurred in Ireland had altered his view of the great merits of the case, or had shaken his opinion in favour of Catholic emancipation—a measure which he had always thought desirable, and which he now thought absolutely necessary. He implored the hon. member for Dublin, not to be instrumental in any act calculated to excite prejudice and animosity. For himself, no person had ever more uniformly set his face against violence and intemperance on either side of the question.

Mr. Secretary Peel

would not say a word on the great question alluded to. Whenever the subject came regularly before the House, he should be prepared to discuss it to the best of his ability; but until then he would avoid all allusion to it. This, however, he would say, that he most sincerely believed that the parties on both sides would consult their best interests, by abstaining from all exhibitions of violence and intemperance. Confining himself to the simple question before the House, he could assure the House, that the advice which he should give on the occasion would be given on principle, and without considering from which side of the House, or from what party, the petition emanated. On looking at the petition, he found that it was the petition of a single individual. Now, every individual had an undoubted right to communicate his sentiments to the House in the form of a petition; but the House had also an undoubted right to abstain, if they thought proper, from giving those sentiments publicity. He found, in this petition, that a certain class of persons were said to be "notorious for their avarice, drunkenness, and debauchery." Now, he certainly did not think it fair, that, under the pretence of petitioning that House, any individual should be enabled to give circulation to statements affecting the personal character of others. He therefore joined with the hon. gentleman opposite in. expressing his hope that his hon. friend would not press the printing of the petition. When an individual abused the privilege of approaching that House by petition so far as to indulge in calumnies on the private character and conduct of others, and to introduce treatises on political questions, while the House allowed him the right of presenting his petition, they ought to exercise their own right of refusing to give circulation to that petition at the public expense.

Mr. Moore

observed, that he conceived he should not have performed his duty if he had refused to present the petition, and indeed, with the exception of the single sentence which had been animadverted upon by the right hon. gentleman, it appeared to him to be unobjectionable. It was far from his wish to be instrumental in placing any statement on the records of the House which might have the effect of creating any unfair prejudice on the minds of any of its members when this most important question should be brought under their consideration. He would not there fore press his motion for the printing of the petition.

The motion was accordingly withdrawn,