HC Deb 09 March 1826 vol 14 cc1247-53
Sir John Newport

rose, to move for leave to bring in a bill to repeal the act of 21 Geo. 2nd, chap. 10, sec. 8 (Irish statutes), commonly called the Newtown act. In that act there was a clause for regulating the election of members of parliament in Ireland, in which it was provided, that in any borough or town corporate, not being a city, in which a number of resident Protestants, sufficient for the purposes of that act, did not exist, the right of voting should be extended to, and exercised by Protestants non-resident therein. In the year 1780, by a most beneficial statute, one of the clauses of this act was utterly done away with. By a-strange misconception the Test act was still supposed to be in force in Ireland; and he remembered, in the year 1810, that one of the cabinet ministers had told him, that his principal objection to Catholic emancipation was the Test act, although that act bad been done away with in the year 1793, just seventeen years before. In the year 1793, the legislature, acting on a more liberal scale of policy with respect to the interests of Ireland than had been formerly adopted, repealed many of the laws that shackled the energies of the country, and, among others, the law was repealed by which Catholics were prevented from voting, at elections for the return of members to serve in parliament. By this measure the Catholic freeholders of Ireland were allowed to participate in the privileges enjoyed by their Protestant fellow-subjects. Much had certainly been done for Ireland by the repeal of obnoxious statutes; but much remained to do before the Statute-book could be freed from nanny existing laws (the remnants of former oppression and misrule) by which the energies of Ireland were still crippled. All acts subsequent to the reign of Geo. 2nd should be swept from the Statute-book, and not a trace should be left to remind that unhappy country of her former degradation. With respect to the measure which he was about to submit to the House, it was notorious that in a great number of cases the majority of persons in Ireland who voted for members to serve in parliament, were non-residents of those particular places for which members were returned. In the large and populous town of Belfast a considerable portion of those who were entitled to vote were not residing in the town. The same might be said of Dundalk and Newry. Now, the ostensible cause of this was the act of Geo. 2nd, commonly called the Newtown act, which gave the power to non-residents to vote for the return of members to serve in parliament. He would not occupy the House with any further observations at present, but would move, as considerable difficulty at present existed in consequence of the privilege enjoyed by nonresident freeholders in Ireland of voting at elections, for leave to bring in a bill to repeal the act 21 Geo. 2nd, chap. 10, section 8, commonly called the Newtown act. Before he sat down, he begged to disclaim any motive of a personal or interested nature in proposing this motion. He had no ulterior object to accomplish. His only wish was to benefit his country; and should he have the good fortune to succeed in this instance, he should feel that he had accomplished a practical good. He knew that much inconvenience arose in Ireland in consequence of non-residents being allowed to vote; and it was on those grounds that he wished for their exclusion.

Mr. Goulburn

said, he was sure that it was quite unnecessary for the right hon. baronet to disclaim interested motives, in bringing forward the present motion. He of all other men would be the last on whom an imputation of the kind would fairly rest. Yet, while he fully acquitted him of interested motives, ho could not concur with him in the views which he had taken on the subject under consideration. He did not conceive that the measure proposed would be attended with the benefits which were anticipated. On the contrary, he foresaw considerable inconvenience in it. The proposition of the right hon. baronet rested on one single ground; namely, that the statute sought to be repealed having passed eighty years ago, was unnecessary now, inasmuch as the reasons which were stated in the preamble had ceased to exist, and the act was no longer applicable. This was the ground on which the right hon. baronet took his stand in proposing the present motion; but might it not occur, that although the causes which led to an enactment might have ceased, the provisions of that enactment being wise and wholesome, should still continue? It was clearly no argument in favour of the abolition of a law, that its application was not immediately felt. The simple question for consideration was, whether non-resident voters who had for eighty 3'ears exercised the right of voting in boroughs and corporate towns, should cease to enjoy that privilege. Now this was a question which involved a great deal; for it did not relate solely to Ireland, but the effects of the proposed measure would also extend to England. And, was the House prepared to adopt such a change in the elective franchise of this country? The House was called upon to take measures for excluding non-residents from voting at elections, both here and in Ireland; but, looking to the circumstances on all sides, and the difficulties by which the measure was surrounded, the statute should not, he thought, be repealed. At the time of the passing of this law, persons of the first respectability resided in those places in which the elective franchise was exercised; but in time, from the change inseparable from the condition of man, it naturally occurred, that persons wishing to reside elsewhere, betook themselves to distant provinces. It was therefore that the act of Geo. 2nd was passed, and its effects were found to answer every object which the legislature had in view. With this impression of its practical results, it would be wrong to repeal this law. But there were still stronger reasons for opposing the motion. The House should look to the consequences that would follow if this law were repealed. The act declared, that all non-resident electors should have a vote. Now, if the majority of persons entitled to vote should happen to be nonresidents, what would be the effect of the right hon. baronet's proposition? It would be this—that there would scarcely be a single person to vote for the return of members to serve in the next parliament. Under these circumstances, could there be a more unwise step than to deprive the present non-residents of the privilege which they had heretofore enjoyed? The question was one of great importance. It was not one that involved but little. It involved a great deal, and it required the gravest deliberation of the House. Under all the circumstances, he was forced to oppose the motion.

Mr. Spring Rice

supported the motion of his right hon. friend. He thought the right hon. secretary for Ireland had misstated both the fact and the law.

Mr. Plunkett

said, he should not discharge his duty by giving a silent vote upon the present occasion; the more especially as he felt himself bound to oppose the motion. He did not believe that his right hon. friend had been guilty of any mis-statement, either in point of fact or of law. The question here was not between the charters, which required residence, and the 21st Geo. 2nd, which dispensed with residence, but it was a question between the act of Henry 7th, and the act of the 21st of Geo. 2nd. The act of Henry 7th required, that all freemen of cities and great towns should be residents; and the charters applied the provisions of that act to all boroughs; but the inconvenience was so great, that the legislature felt it necessary to do away with a restriction which, in their opinion at least, was unconstitutional; for the provision in the charters which, by the measure now proposed, it was intended to confirms was not an extension, but a restriction of the elective franchise. He did not hesitate to say, that many of the charters of James 1st were not, to say the least of them, favourable to the principles of the constitution; for in several of them the principle of restriction was applied to the elected as well as to the elector, and, in more cases than one, such restriction had been held to be unconstitutional. He did not mean now to discuss that principle, but it was sufficient for his purpose, that the legislature, in the time of George 2nd, had thought fit to repeal that restriction, as it applied to boroughs and corporate towns, and that that act had remained in force now nearly seventy years. The measure now proposed was not prospective, but, on the contrary, would have a retrospective operation, and would bear upon individuals who had for years been in possession of the elective franchise. The act of George 2nd declared that no person elected, to, or voting for, a candidate for any office in any borough or town corporate in Ireland, should be impeached for non-residence, and therefore the consequence of repealing that act would be to impeach persons who were not non-resident. It might be said, that persons who had enjoyed the franchise for a certain number of years could not be impeached. That was true; but it was equally true, that persons who had not enjoyed the franchise for that number of years would not be protected. He was not prepared to state what number of persons had been in possession of the elective franchise for six years, and were therefore impeachable; but the House would pause, now that they were approaching to the period of the natural dissolution of that House, before they agreed to the passing of such a measure as that now contemplated, without having first ascertained the number of persons who would fall within its operation. As those persons had been admitted to enjoy this privilege for seventy years, there could be no objection to allowing them to enjoy it for seventy-one years. He thought the right hon. baronet ought, under the present circumstances, to wait for a new session of parliament for the introduction of such a measure. The consequence of this repeal might, for aught the House knew, be the disfranchisement of whole corporations. The motion of the right hon. gentleman went to repeal an act passed forty years previous to the Union of Ireland with this country. Now, at the time of the Union, in 1800, when a selection was made of the boroughs which ought to continue to send members to the united parliament, that selection was calculated upon the principle of the number of electors entitled to vote, compared with the state and condition of the numbers in those towns. He should, therefore, oppose this motion; first, as a measure of general policy, which went to narrow the elective franchise; and, secondly, because he thought it would be an act of injustice to open again an arrangement made at the period of the Union. It had been said, that a similar bill had been brought in upon a former occasion, and thrown out upon the second reading. That circumstance was, in his opinion, an argument against, rather than in favour of the motion; and he should, instead of waiting to vote against the bill, upon the second reading, take the preliminary step of opposing the introduction of it.

Mr. R. Martin

ventured to remind the right hon. secretary for Ireland of the his- tory of the act of George 2nd, which waft the most disgraceful that ever took place in the Irish parliament. That act was procured by a person possessed of great influence in the Irish parliament, who was generally known by the name of Jack Promise, who exchanged a borough in the west, for a borough in the north, of Ireland. In the borough of Newtown Limavady, which Jack Promise got in swap for the other borough, he found that he could not conveniently manage the resident Protestant voters, and that it would be better if he could extend the franchise to his own servants and followers; and he therefore procured the sanction of the Irish parliament to the 21st Geo. 2nd; but in order to screen his object from the eyes of the public, he made the words of the act general. The right hon. baronet was entitled to the thanks of the House and the country. He ought not to be told that he did wrong to introduce it, because of its retrospective effects. But might not that difficulty be got over by the insertion of a clause to save existing rights? If the bill were allowed to go into a committee, a clause to that effect might be inserted. "Let us wait," said the attorney-general for Ireland, "until the general election." The act should be repealed now, and the new bill need not come into operation until the election would be over. This course would surely satisfy the right hon. and learned gentleman. As interested motives had been hinted at, he begged distinctly to state, that he was not actuated by such motives. It was sixty or seventy years since the Galway case came before the courts of law. In the erroneous court, or rather the court of error—perhaps one term was as applicable as the other—it was determined, that that act had nothing whatever to do with Galway. He gave the motion his hearty concurrence. The only reasonable argument advanced against it was, that it interfered with existing rights; but that might be guarded against by a proviso of the nature to which he had alluded. This might be called "petty legislation." Some gentlemen seemed partial to that phrase. It had been applied to himself in advocating some of the measures which he had lately had the honour to introduce. But he, for one, did not think it petty legislation to prevent the recurrence of the cutting out of the tongue of a poor dumb beast, and sending it round on a plate, while it was yet quivering and reeking. Gentlemen might laugh and sneer, but he could not consider that a law to prevent such barbarities could fairly be called petty legislation.

Mr. Hutchinson

said, he would not offer any objection to the introduction of the bill, and to have it printed, in order to give an opportunity to those persons whose interests might be affected by it of seeing what were its provisions. At the same time that he did this out of respect to his right hon. friend, he would not conceal his opinion that the principle upon which the bill proceeded was highly objectionable. He thought that no existing interests ought to be interfered with, without giving to all the parties concerned the fullest opportunity of being heard on the subject.

Sir J. Newport

said, he had heard no arguments which could induce him to withdraw his motion, and as he was convinced of the utility of the measure, he would take the sense of the House on it.

The House then divided: Ayes 38; Noes 76.