HC Deb 06 February 1828 vol 18 cc114-24

King, in rising to present a petition from the Roman Catholics of a parish in the county of Sligo, said:—Although I differ totally from the petitioners as to their prayer, which is for the removal of; the civil disabilities imposed on them, I feel it to be my duty to state that the petition is properly worded and respectably signed. In moving that it be brought up, as I am one of those members who have been denounced by an illegal association, acting in the name of the Roman Catholics of Ireland, as an enemy to my country, because we give our support to the present government, I am desirous most clearly to state, that I will never be intimidated by any menace from any body of men belonging to any party, from following the line of duty my conscience may point out to me. In the present head of the government I place the utmost confidence. I am convinced the noble duke will be as tenacious of the rights and liberties of his country in the cabinet, as he was of its safety and honour in the field. I feel a degree of pride in recollecting that I was a witness of his exertions in that theatre of glory. It is with gratification I refer to the brilliant period when I was serving under him, and saw with admiration, the zeal and ability which he displayed. I feel convinced that, in the situation in which he is now placed, he will show an equal degree of attention to all the duties which, in peace and tranquillity, are required from him, as the first minister of the country, as he did in carrying into effect the energetic measures by which he insured its safety and independence. I cannot accede to the opinion I have heard stated in this House, that, the distress which exists in Ireland ought to be attributed to the exclusion of the Catholics from political power. I think that to very different causes it should be assigned. It is absurd to suppose that the violation of the Treaty of Limerick, admitting all that the petitioners say on this head to be correct, could have any effect, at the end of a hundred and forty years, in producing the aggravated distresses which afflict that country. Nor do I believe that the admission of the Catholics to political power would have the least tendency to ameliorate the condition of the Irish, or ad- vance their civilization. I by no means deny the natural powers of that country, if they were rightly directed: but I must give my decided negative to the assertions that are continually made as to the increase of population at the astounding rate at which it is estimated by some gentlemen. We hear of millions added, almost every session, to that population. We have heard, that the places of worship are not sufficient to contain the Catholics of Ireland; but last night we were told, that no less than four millions assembled simultaneously in those places of worship, to prepare petitions to the legislature. If, then, there be accommodation to that extent, can there be any foundation for the complaint, that the Catholics are in want of chapels wherein to perform their religious duties? I have also heard a statement still more extraordinary, and which seemed to me only calculated, to influence the votes of members through fear; namely, that one million out of the four are capable of bearing arms. I leave that question to be decided by others; but why, I ask, was the allusion made? Was it not to gain by intimidation and menace, what there was no chance of obtaining by fair argument? I am as much disposed as any man to acknowledge the right of every person to judge for himself in matters of religion. I am as earnestly as any man the advocate of civil and religious liberty. Man has a right to judge for himself, but no man has a right to dictate to others. That is my creed. What I ask for myself, I am ready to concede to others. I am surprised, I confess, at the arrogant manner in which some honourable gentlemen deny to those who differ from them on this question, almost the right of expressing their opinions. I see them rise "Fire in their eyes, and papers in their hands," and denounce all who dare to question their authority. As to the menaces that are thrown out against those who are opposed to the Catholic claims, I am not one who can be induced to give my vote contrary to my conscience, from any interested views. I will adhere to the course I have pursued for upwards of half a century. I will support the Protestant constitution which has been the preservative of our liberties and rights. Every artifice is used to influence the votes of members. I have heard insinuations, that unless I became a convert to the Catholic question, I should never again sit for the county I have the honour to represent. But I will not sacrifice one item of my principles. If not only the representation but the fee-simple of the whole county depended on my vote, I would not desert my principles. Whatever may befal me, at least, I will not deprive myself of the consolation of having, under all circumstances, done what I conceived to be my duty to my king, and my country.

Sir John Brydges

said, he was desirous of taking that opportunity of making a few observations. He would, in the first place, state, that he was as much opposed to the measure of Catholic emancipation, as ever. Nay, his opposition was strengthened by all that he had lately witnessed. He alluded particularly to the declaration of the Catholic Association, that every member of parliament Should be considered an enemy to Ireland who supported the present administration. He agreed with the hon. member for Colchester, that emancipation, as it was called, would not tend to the establishment of tranquillity in Ireland. Let the population have employment, and that would have a tendency to fill their pockets and make them satisfied. He was at a loss to divine why all these petitions were presented at this time. He could only account for it by supposing, either that since last session some new circumstances of importance had occurred in Ireland, or that those who advocated the cause of the Catholics derived their principles from the position of the seats they possessed. Last year, after they had obtained office, they made no effort for the Catholics. Now they were out of office, they were beyond measure anxious for the immediate success of the measure. With regard to the present administration, he was glad that the duke of Wellington was at the head of it, and he would give it his utmost support, thoroughly believing that it would uphold the best interests of the country.

Mr. Leycester

expressed his regret, that the command of the army and the situation of First Lord of the Treasury should be united in the same individual. He could not very well imagine how the duke of Wellington could wean himself from his long-acquired military habits and avocations. He did not think that a military life was the best school for rearing up a constitutional minister. What was, or ought to be, the attributes of a constitutional minister? He ought to have a deep knowledge of the art of government; he ought to be able impartially to investigate arguments on questions of state policy; he ought to be always ready to enter into a candid consideration of passing circumstances; and, above all, he ought to feel an anxious desire to promote the liberties of the country. Whether the duke of Wellington possessed these qualities, time would determine. But it was said, that the noble duke was sure to bring decision into the cabinet. Now, he believed that military decision and political decision were two very different things. That the duke of Wellington had displayed military decision could not be doubted, otherwise he could not have covered himself and his country with glory, as he had done. But, where was his political decision? What was his conduct on the corn-bill last year? In the first instance, he supported it; and he afterwards defeated it, by throwing out the principal clause. Let the House look to the treaty of Petersburgh. A more puerile, weak, and indecisive document than the noble duke's protocol never existed. Again, let the House look at the king's Speech. Was that, he asked, a specimen of decision? Some persons thought that that Speech indicated a desire of adhesion to the treaty of July last; but others were of opinion, that it was framed with a cautious design to back out of that treaty. Then the epithet "untoward," which occurred in that Speech, and which had been so much talked of, appeared to him to be extremely equivocal. It "hints a fault, and hesitates dislike." It was any thing but decisive. Not only was that epithet an awkward, but an unjust one. So far from the battle of Navarino being an "untoward" event, he considered it as a most toward event. If pacification should be established, it, would be very much owing to the victory of Navarino. It might be supposed, after what he had said, that, he looked upon the duke of Wellington's military education, and his military life, as not fitting him for the situation of prime minister. But he had another powerful objection. The noble duke was an anti-Catholic, and would use his influence to prevent Catholic emancipation. By so doing, he would prevent capital from flowing into Ireland —by so doing, he would prevent the employment of its active and industrious population—by so doing, he would deprive them of the food which they were anxious to earn by the sweat of their brow. By thus preventing the exertions of industry, he would bring down on this country the dreadful visitation of Irish poverty. Every steam-boat brought over ragged regiments of starving Irishmen. Paupers innumerable were thrown on the different parishes, ruining the comforts and morals of the population of England. Thus it was, that Ireland was hourly aggravating the burthen of the poor-rates of this country—thus it was that she was waging war against England. The rags of Ireland were her resources—the poverty of Ireland was her sharp sword—:her pauper multitudes formed her avenging army:— —" Nos sævior armis " Pauperies urget miseramque ulciscitur." Erin. Let gentlemen go to the parishes of St. Giles's, St. Mary-la-bonne, and St. George, Hanover-square, and they would find the poor-rates doubled since last year, by the necessity of granting occasional relief to the starving Irish. He wished the people of England to know this. He wished his voice could reach throughout the land, that all might be taught to feel, that unless Catholic emancipation was granted, the population of this country would be ruined, that the poor-rates would be doubled, and that no diminution of taxation could possibly take place.

Sir J. Newport

said, that as the gallant general had gone through, and commented upon, the whole of the petition, he deemed it necessary to offer a few words. He did not quarrel with the panegyric which the gallant general had pronounced on the duke of Wellington: he himself admired, as much as any man, the great military talents of that distinguished personage. But he would ask, did the duke of Wellington's naval renown entitle him to general confidence as a civil minister? Military and political abilities were distinct things, and were very seldom united. An hon. baronet had asked, whether any thing had occurred since last year to make this show of petitions necessary? The fact was, that they grew out of the circumstance of that House not having done that act of justice, without which they would constantly be receiving petitions from Ireland. And God forbid that it should be otherwise! for if the people did not, by petitioning, show that they had confidence in that House, it would be the most fatal day that was ever known for this country. It was said, that the misery of Ireland arose, not from the refusal of Catholic emancipation, but from other causes. He, however, thought it might all be traced to that source—the prevailing system of exclusion: and he was perfectly sure, that, until equal rights were extended to all the people of Ireland, tranquillity would not be established in that country, nor could there be safety and security for the British empire. This measure could not immediately remove all those evils which had been the growth of centuries; but he would say, that if they were to be removed, the measure to effect that object must be founded on this basis, or the relief would be inefficient. From day to day, the people of Ireland were making war—in the only way in which they could make war—on this country, by throwing an immense burthen upon its finances. During a long course of years, he had attentively considered this subject, and he was more and more convinced, that there would be no tranquillity for Ireland, or safety for the British empire, until this act of strict justice was done.

Sir T. Lethbridge

said, that his gallant friend who had introduced the petition, had stated, in a plain and manly manner, the reason why he dissented from the prayer of it. The House ought to thank him for the course which he had taken, especially as he was one of the persons denounced by a self-elected and unconstitutional body. That body had gone to such a length as had never been pursued by any other set of persons. The Catholic Association had assumed, contrary to law, all the power and authority of a legislative body. It not only commanded the population of every parish in Ireland, but it also commanded the pockets of that population. The Association had long been in the habit of receiving a weekly sum, called "the Rent." For what that money was collected, and who had the authority of disposing of it, did not clearly appear. But the time, he believed, was not far distant, when those sums of money would be appropriated in a way which that House and the country would not readily submit to. Those who supported the claims of the Catholics in that House, if they had any love for consistency, and for the constitution, ought to take their stand now, and declare, that until this illegal body was put down, and prevented from bullying the empire, they would not press the claims of the Catholics. If such a system of intimidation was continued, he feared there would be few members, who, like his gallant friend, would come forward and give an unbiassed vote on this question. The friends of the Catholics ought therefore to tell this unconstitutional body, that they were taking steps destructive to their cause. These frightful denunciations, it should be observed, did not come from a powerless body, but from those who might be said to have the rule of Ireland. They had denounced all those who should support an administration, at the head of which was the duke of Wellington; or any administration formed on similar principles. This was highly unconstitutional, and he trusted that parliament would not legislate on this question, until these denunciations were withdrawn. Having named the duke of Wellington, he thought he could not do better than say, that he entertained the highest confidence that his administration would be fraught with signal advantages to his country. Whatever the tone of his majesty's Speech might have been—and he did not approve of the whole of it—he felt confident that the honour, dignity, and fair fame of the British character would be better preserved by the policy which the duke of Wellington would pursue, than by that which had been adopted by the late short-lived administration, which had been described by the hon. baronet, the member for Westminster (sir F. Burdett), as having tumbled to pieces in consequence of its own diffidence; but which, he thought, had tumbled to pieces from its own weakness and imbecility. That administration had not lived long enough to do much mischief; but he certainly never recollected one so inefficient and imbecile. The great statesman now no more could not, as I then predicted, with all his foresight and tact, have kept together, for two years, such a mass of heterogeneous materials. If his great talents could not effect that object, where was there any one in the late administration capable of achieving it? The result had proved the truth of the prophecies uttered in that House during the last session.

Mr. Spring Rice

observed, that the hon. member for Somersetshire was undoubtedly one of the most downright, straightforward opponents of Catholic emancipation; so much so, that he would consider the hon. baronet as the embodied spirit of the whole of those who were hostile to the Catholic claims, and, thanking him for his candour, he would deal with him and his opinions with the utmost possible respect. He could not, however, carry his notion of respect for him and for the gallant general so far, as to give them credit for being very profound judges of the law; and yet great part of the speeches of the gallant general and of the hon. member had gone to that point—that a certain association in Ireland was an illegal association, and that so long as it existed, the House ought to refuse the claims of the Roman Catholics. There were, however, stronger opinions on the case, than either that of the gallant general or of the hon. baronet—opinions which had been given within the last two years. The first witness he would call to prove the legality of this Association was the present Secretary of State for the Home Department. He had been in that situation for two years, and during that time, he was in constant connexion with Ireland; and assuredly, if that Association was illegal, it was the duty of that right hon. gentleman to put it down, and to punish the violators of the law. His next witness was the late lord chancellor Manners. Would that learned lord, living in Dublin, and reading the reports of the proceedings of the Association daily— would he, if it had been illegal, have sanctioned it by his tacit acquiescence? The argument, then, of the gallant general and of the hon. baronet was not sustained either by law or facts. He must say this, in support of what was called the Protestant government, who had suffered the Association to exist; and he must give his distinct and decided negative to what was advanced on the other side. In what was it illegal? In giving instructions to their representatives? Was that illegal? Was it maintained that the Catholics could not meet to discuss their grievances without a breach of the law? The hon. baronet, when the Corn-laws and agricultural distress were the topics of the day, brought up innumerable petitions, formed committees, and disseminated documents, on that subject. The difference between the two proceedings consisted merely in the nature of the object of each party. The hon. baronet had his committee sitting in Palace-yard; the Roman Catholics had theirs sitting in Dublin. On the one hand there was Mr. O'Connell and Mr. Shiel; on the other, the hon. baronet and Mr. Webb Hall. In point of law, he could not see the difference between the two meetings.—He hoped that neither of the hon. members would suppose that he was the advocate of the Association. He deprecated it from the bottom of his heart. It was pregnant with danger; it tended to the separation of the countries; it produced disturbance, and was calculated to do mischief, in every possible way. This was no new language of his. He had held the same language when that absurd act was in progress, which, from the nature of their observations, the gallant general and the hon. baronet seem to wish to have renewed. But, if the government attempted to re-enact it, he believed they would find it difficult to carry their purpose into effect. He wished to put down the Association; he wished to put down agitators; he wished to put down demagogues, whether agricultural in Palace-yard, or Roman Catholic in Dublin. But, could the Association be put down by legal enactments? The experiment was tried, and it had failed. Two of the wisest lawyers had framed an act, which it was hoped would throw a net over the Association, and hold it in its iron grasp for ever. That engine, however, proved useless; and, if another were forged, it would also be broken to shatters. They could not effect their object, unless by the prohibition of reading, writing, meeting, speaking, and thinking. But, if they went ever so far, there would still be that left which their power could not reach—they could not prohibit thinking; and if they left the feeling deep and sore; if they left the heart ulcerated; he must be a man of little judgment, he could little know the human mind, he could have reflected or felt little himself, who did not perceive, that such a state of things was full of danger to the state.—It had been suggested, that there had been a disinclination on the part of the friends of the Catholic question to press it during the present session. This charge was, as regarded himself and his friends, entirely void of foundation; and they would be unworthy of their seats in that House, if it were not so. He would appeal to the whole House, whether the conduct of the party with which he acted had not been uniformly the same, whether in office or out of it? His feeling upon the petition presented to the House would have been exactly the same, had he sat on the opposite benches when it appeared, as it was at present. The question, indeed, of Catholic emancipation was too large, and too pressing a one, to be made a question of party. God forbid that there should be a man in that House, far less a member connected with Ireland, who could make any question in which the peace of that country was concerned, the means of annoying an administration, or acquiring for himself a transient popularity! It had been urged by those who opposed emancipation, that the remedy for the evils of Ireland was employment. But, as long as this grievance remained in issue, employment would produce fresh opposition, and fresh resistance, rather than peace. The Catholics might be silent, who were now oppressed and bound down by poverty; but, the instant they gained ease or riches, they would only swell the cry that clamoured for a restitution of their rights. Reports were abroad, that the present ministers were to be neutral upon the Catholic question—that the administration had been formed upon the understanding that they were to be so. The question would shortly come before the House; which would then have an opportunity of judging whether this neutrality was real or affected. For himself, he stood there disposed to serve the country as far as he could. He would support the new administration in any measures which he believed likely to tend to the common advantage; and after this declaration, his voice, perhaps, would have more weight in resisting those of a contrary character, than if it were supposed that he had fixed himself in downright, uncompromising opposition. He was ready to acquiesce in the convenience of making as few observations as possible on the presenting of petitions; but if observations were made on such occasions hostile to the interests of the petitioners, their friends would be negligent of their duty if they were not always prepared to meet them.

Mr. Fergusson

said, he had been hitherto silent on the question of Catholic emancipation, and would not now have addressed the House had not a scene been exhibited, which, though he had not much experience as a member of that House, he believed to be rare in the discussion of any question. The House had heard the gallant officer, in presenting the petition, repel the attacks which he conceived directed against him by the Catholic Asso- ciation, and then detail his reasons for thinking that the prayer of the petition ought to be rejected. He was not so much surprised at the gallant officer, as at the sentiments expressed by the hon. baronet; who had said, that gentlemen on presenting petitions, on that side of the House, ought to abstain from any observations upon their merits. The hon. baronet's principle would go to the extent, that no gentleman ought to present a petition, unless he was an enemy to the question; for he recommended gentlemen to imitate the example of the gallant officer, which was neither more nor less than telling the House, that the prayer of the petitions which they presented ought not to be granted. For himself, he was as satisfied as he was of his own existence, that there was no other means of restoring tranquillity to Ireland, than by granting the relief sought for. He hoped that measures would soon be taken to tranquillize that country, and that things would not be suffered to go the length of furnishing an additional proof, that nothing would be granted but in times of panic and dismay. He was quite certain, that the prayer of the petition must ultimately be granted; and his wish, hope, and advice, were, that such concessions might be granted while it could be done with honour, and that the government would not wait for the day of terror and humiliation.

Ordered to lie on the table.