HC Deb 05 June 1828 vol 19 cc1036-49
Mr. Brownlow

rose, in pursuance of notice, to lay before the House a petition from Dublin relative to the unemployed poor of Ireland. He began by expressing his regret and surprise, that not a single minister of the Crown was present, although he had some time since intimated his intention of bringing under the consideration of the House this evening a subject of so much importance to Ireland. He was bound to presume, however, that matters of greater interest kept them away. Many public-spirited and intelligent persons in Ireland felt the deepest concern at the present state of their unemployed countrymen; and although his majesty's servants did not seem to think it necessary to attend, he was satisfied that the wants of the poor Irish need only be stated, to excite, not merely unavailing sympathy, but immediate and practical relief. This document had been well considered, and drawn up by a number of public-spirited individuals, consisting of noblemen, members of parliament, gentlemen, merchants and traders in Ireland, who had thought it their duty to come to parliament with the statement of the evil, and the suggestion of such remedies as they thought applicable. He was a member of that society, and was, therefore, cognizant of its motives; it was not unaptly stated to be a body co-operating for the improvement of Ireland. The petitioners asserted, that they had no party object in view: they had, therefore, not said one word about the Catholic claims, or church property, which were sure to excite strong feelings whenever they were mentioned. They came before the House with an intelligible statement of plain facts: they set out with remarking, that the House was in possession of documents to shew, that one-fourth of the houses in Dublin were in a state of insolvency. Dublin, once the abode of the wealthy, the titled, and the intelligent, affording employment and plenty for its poor, was now to be looked upon as an insolvent metropolis, the sink of indigence and misery. Many of her most respectable citizens had appeared in the Gazette as bankrupts, and many others had retired from trade after compounding with their creditors. In spite of the unexampled cheapness of provisions, the different mendicant asylums were infinitely more crowded this year than in the year preceding. The population was increasing, the demand for labour decreasing: much capital found its way out of Ireland, and very little into it: the unemployed population had, therefore, no refuge from disease and death, but in these mendicant asylums, Such was the short statement of the petitioners, themselves resident in Dublin, and personally cognizant of the state of the population in that once flourishing capital, now in a state of rapidly progressive decay. The circle of this distress was not, however, confined around the capital: it extended north, west, east, and south, and enclosed a frightful degree of suffering among the labouring poor. No part of England, the continent, or the world, could exhibit similar distress. The petitioners adverted to the various reports which had been made by committees on the state of Ireland, and the few, if any, attempts to give them efficacy. The report of 1819 admitted the growing excess of population above the demand for labour, and the accession of wretchedness which was visible on the face of the country. The committee of 1825, stated one-third of the labouring population to be destitute of employment,—a fact known in England and Scotland, as well as in Ireland; for the shores of these countries were beset, from the facility of steam navigation, by poor Irish emigrants, seeking employment to the exclusion of the native labouring classes, and the great augmentation of their local poor-rates. This pauper emigration from Ireland spoke for itself: he blamed not the English people for wishing to check it; for he knew it must severely injure them. The petitioners, after referring to the distress of the population of Dublin, adverted to the general agricultural depression. They complained, with reason, of the absentee owners of the soil, who were, in general, the prime curse of Ireland; for surely it was dishonourable to draw the means of wealth and affluence from a wretched and starving people, and then leave them to pine and perish. The petitioners, after complaining of this evil, suggested the better cultivation of the Irish fisheries: they likewise alluded to the benefits derived by Scotland from the appointment of commissioners to invest money in public improvements. In that country, through such means, of late years, one thousand miles of road had been made, and one thousand five hundred bridges erected. The petitioners stated, that in Ireland four million acres of land were uncultivated, the greater part of which was capable of being reclaimed; yet not one shilling of public money was laid out upon these bogs or mountains. He was aware of the difficulties, in some cases, from the titles of conflicting proprietaries; but these were not insuperable, and he hoped the drainage bill, of which he had given notice, would effect some good. The hon. member next alluded to the butter bill, which was under the consideration of the Board of Trade, and which he hoped the late unfortunate change in the direc- tion of that department would not set aside; for it was time to get rid of the odious and vexatious regulations, which harassed that part of the productive industry of Ireland. The petitioners went at large into these topics, and he conjured the House to deliberate promptly upon the bitter grievances they set forth.

Mr. James Grattan

corroborated every word which had been uttered by his hon. friend, respecting the wide-spreading wretchedness of the Irish population. He had himself endeavoured, some time ago, to apply a modified system of poor-laws to this evil; but he was traduced and misrepresented, and compelled to abandon his intention. Nothing had been done to mitigate the afflictions of Ireland; and he blamed not the English and Scotch members, who were only doing their duty in endeavouring to meet the evil of the sojourn amongst them of these miserable Irish paupers. It was proved, so far back as the committee of 1819, that a large portion of these wretched beings were endeavouring to live upon boiled nettles; arid, in 1816, nearly sixty-five thousand were suffering under fever and famine. The committee of 1823 proved, that, there were two million five hundred out of employment in a surface of five million of acres; which was nearly half the land of Ireland. He gratefully acknowledged the assistance which this country had generously bestowed upon Ireland, in remitting, at the crisis of her sufferings, so large a sum as 300,000l.; but those experiments could not be repeated, though there were daily probabilities of their recurring; food was now so cheap in Ireland, that two-pence a day was enough to sustain n family; but if the potatoe harvest failed in any season, misery, in all its aggravations, must ensue. He cordially concurred in the beneficial effects of the advance of money by the Scottish commissioners, and wished a similar attempt were made for improving and cultivating the waste lands of Ireland. A system of that kind had been put into operation in Scotland, and had been productive of immense benefit there. Large portions of waste lands had been brought under cultivation, and all the paupers and idle people in the country had been successfully colonized upon them. By bringing the bogs and waste lands of Ireland under cultivation, the means of livelihood and of useful industry would be afforded to the unemployed population of that country. It would be well for the hon. member for Newcastle to turn his attention to that subject, and before he recommended emigration to the Canadas, to see whether the system which had been productive of such benefit in Scotland, might not be introduced into Ireland.

Mr. G. Dawson

said, as an Irish member of parliament he would say, that the statements contained in the speech of the two hon. members, and in the petition, were, to say the least of them, greatly exaggerated. It was certainly true, that there was a great quantity of distress in Ireland; but this arose chiefly from politics; to which, unfortunately, the people of that country were so devoted as to have become forgetful of their domestic interests and concerns. But, the actual condition of the country at large was very different from what it had been represented. The fact was, that, at that moment, no country was making more rapid progress towards wealth and prosperity than Ireland. Her trade had rapidly increased, and the facilities which steam-navigation afforded, had promoted in a most important degree the progress of improvement in Ireland. The condition of the greater part of the population was daily and hourly advancing towards improvement. The petition ended by calling on the government to advance a large sum of money to employ the population, and proposed the enactment of a general enclosure act, and a drainage bill. Both these means of redress were impracticable. The uncultivated lands were the property of private individuals, who would retain them as eagerly, as they would do the best lands in the country. As to a general drainage, the report of the commissioners on bogs, had certainly recommended such a measure: but even were the bogs of Ireland drained, and the waste land reclaimed, it would not be worth the trouble and expense. He himself possessed some hundreds of acres of land of that description; and having reclaimed a few of them, he was by no means inclined to repeat the experiment. The fact was, that such land would not repay the one-tenth of the money expended on its reclamation. He would not have the people of Ireland look forward to such a wild speculation as a means of improving their condition. It could be proved beyond all doubt, that Ireland was rapidly improving, and he was confident that, ere long, she would become a source of wealth and strength to this country. He dissented from those who said, that the immigration of Irish labourers into England increased the burthens of this country. In the first place, these poor creatures afforded their labour at a cheaper rate than the English labourers, and increased the wealth of the country, by enabling the manufacturers and farmers here to produce their goods and sell them at a lower rate than they otherwise could do: in the next place, he believed that as many returned to Ireland at other periods of the year, as came over here to seek for work during the harvest. The average number of Irish passengers who had landed at the port of Liverpool, during the last three years, amounted to twenty-five thousand, and the average number who had returned to Ireland from that port, during the same period, amounted to thirty-thousand. He could not regard these honest and industrious men in the light of mendicants, as they had been represented. They came here to earn the wages of labour, and did not deserve to be stigmatized as beggars. He was opposed to the plan of advances of the public money, with a view to encourage the people of Ireland to employ the resources of that country. Such a project would end in the destruction of the industry of Ireland, and would be converted into a mere matter of jobbing. The improvement of harbours, the promotion of fisheries, &c, he would leave to private and individual enterprise; and he was sure that sufficient resources existed in Ireland to encourage and promote such objects, without any assistance from the government.

Sir J. Newport

said, what had just fallen from the hon. gentleman recalled to his recollection a speech which he had heard from a member in the Irish parliament, and the facetious reply which it provoked. An hon. gentleman got up in the Irish House of Commons, and like the hon. gentleman opposite, gave a most glowing description of the resources of Ireland; when he had concluded another hon. member started up, and said—"I really imagined, while listening to the hon. member's description of the wealth of this country, that all the half-pence in Ireland had been converted into guineas; but, on putting my hand in my pocket and taking out a few, I found, to my disappointment, that they still continued to be half-pence." The hon. member had given them a fan- ciful picture of the state of Ireland, and not that which was borne out by facts. If wealth existed in Ireland, and the people there had sufficient employment, why should they come over for employment? The hon. gentleman doubted the good effects which would follow from drainage. The Bedford Level act had enabled a large district to be brought into cultivation, which must otherwise have remained waste. It was the duty of government to shew some attention to the state of Ireland. He did not deny that there had been some improvement in Ireland since 1800, and in particular a great increase of produce. But, he fearlessly said, that of a considerable portion of that improvement he was himself the author. Within a month after he had come into office in 1806, he had brought in a bill to open the corn intercourse between the two islands, and to that bill, in a great measure, was the increase of the produce of Ireland attributable. But he had seen no measure since introduced to follow his example. He contended that Ireland had a claim on this country, at least to an advance of money for public works, as a large proportion of the wealth of Ireland was brought over to this country and expended here. The people of Ireland would not need this assistance if the rental of that country was left there; but England drew from it the landholders, who gave to the people of this country the benefits which they should confer on the people from whom they derived their revenue. He was far from denying that Ireland had improved within the last few years; but her progress would have been much greater had all her resources been rendered available. The right hon. baronet proceeded to advocate the project for bringing into cultivation the bogs and waste lands of Ireland. It was absolutely necessary that something should be done to remedy the evils of Ireland. He hoped they would take the situation of that country into their serious consideration, before the remedy would come too late. He had no desire to mingle politics with this discussion, but he could not refrain from saying, that until peace and tranquillity were established upon a solid basis in Ireland, it would be idle to expect that capital would flow into that country, or that the means of employment would be afforded to a large proportion of its population.

Mr. Leslie Foster

said, he agreed with his hon. friend, the member for Derry, as to the general impolicy and utter hopelessness of the attempt, on the part of any government, to employ the population by advances of public money, and was convinced that any such attempt would ultimately occasion far more misery than it would prevent. He could not, however, assent to the proposition, that in no case it was expedient that the government should, by a moderate expenditure of public money, encourage individuals to invest their capital in enterprises of public utility. That was the object of this petition. Nobody could doubt that it was desirable to repress the vain hope, that it was possible to employ one or two millions of Irishmen. He did not go further than to contend, that within moderate limits it might be expedient for the sake of occasional employment, to advance small sums in order to encourage the investment of great capitals by individuals. But, in this case, the petitioners only asked the House to remove those impediments which the state of the law and the circumstances of Ireland interposed in the way of the cultivation of the country, and which required not the expenditure of a pound of the public money, but simply an act of parliament. The petitioners in the first instance, recommended, that roads should be opened to those tracts in the western and southern coasts of Ireland, which would give access to the fisheries; and he could speak from his personal observation, as well as on the authority of the reports of the engineers, that never was money expended which had returned such great interest. Tracts of mountain, formerly waste, were now in a high state of tillage; and parts of the coast where fish were never caught, had become scenes of active and animated industry. As he had been one of the commissioners who had inquired into the state of Ireland, the impression was the stronger upon his mind. He would state, for the information of the House, that no fact was better established, than that no serious impediment, cither financial or agricultural, prevented the reclamation of the bogs. The commissioners had employed ten engineers for four or five years; who during that time were engaged in surveying the waste lands of Ireland. They were employed, in different parts of the country, and at a distance from each other, but in the end, without any communication between one another, these engineers, with a single exception, agreed that those waste acres, where they cost in their reclamation, from 1l. to 20l. would make a return of from 15 to 20 per cent upon the capital expended. The hon. member, after adverting to the impediments, from individual interests and rights, in the way of reclaiming the bogs and waste lands, said he agreed that the removal of such impediments, by a legislative enactment, would be highly advantageous.

Mr. V. Fitzgerald

was satisfied, that the reclaiming of the bogs and waste lands of Ireland, while it would afford, in its progress, employment to a considerable portion of the population, would finally be attended with the most beneficial results. As a sincere friend to Ireland, his most anxious wish was, that means should be devised for effecting the object contemplated by the petition.

Colonel Trench

advocated the propriety of giving employment to the people of Ireland. He felt himself compelled to differ from a part of the statement made by his hon. friend the member for Londonderry; for he could point out to his hon. friend, a population in Ireland, the state of which would be disgraceful to a waste in Africa. He knew that hundreds of families in that country even in the neighbourhood of county towns—the tenants of individuals who were as remarkable for their attention to their English, as they were for their disregard of their Irish tenants,—were plunged in the deepest distress. It had been argued, that no assistance of the description asked for should be granted to Ireland, because the capital thrown into that country would be wasted on jobs. Now, however good, as a general principle, it might be, not to advance the public money for such purposes, still he would say, that Ireland was a country to which that general principle was not applicable. He asked no more for Ireland, than that the same assistance which had been granted to Scotland should be extended to the sister country. The present was the moment when that assistance would produce infinite advantage. Let the House place what guards on the public bounty that to them might seem proper: but he called on them to give that assistance to Ireland which would be the means of rescuing her population from the utmost misery.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he could assure the hon. member for Armagh, that his absence when the hon. member presented this petition did not arise from any indifference as to the object to which it related. In an interview which he recently had with the hon. member, he had stated that he was much interested in the situation of Ireland, and he thought he had said sufficient to remove a contrary impression. In his opinion, any advance of the public money, for the improvement of Ireland, ought to be directed with great caution; because he thought when the public money was granted with lavish hand, and without due circumspection, it encouraged habits in that country that produced the worst consequences. It taught individuals to consider themselves as freed from any responsibility, as to the amelioration of the country; it led those who had money, and who did not make any personal exertions for the improvement of the state of the people, to withhold that aid which, if the public money were not advanced, they would perhaps be inclined to afford. In another point of view, the lending the public money ought to be looked at with extreme caution; because it might lead to great peculation in the appropriation of the sum advanced, and thus eventually produce more mischief than good. But all these doctrines must be received with qualifications. It could not be laid down as a general maxim, that the public money should never be advanced for the furtherance of such objects as were mentioned in the petition. Not a few instances might be adduced where the appropriation of the public money to such purposes had been beneficial to this country, even admitting that the whole burthen of the advance had fallen upon her. It appeared to him that public money might, in a variety of instances, be usefully appropriated in the improvement of Ireland; particularly in opening channels of communication between remote parts of the country, and forming roads in mountainous districts,—improvements on which the money of private individuals would never be laid out. He recollected a part of the west coast of Ireland in which there were a number of places almost inaccessible, on account of the extreme badness of the roads. The grand jury had the power to assess the county, for the purpose of raising a fund to remedy this evil; but they declined to exert that power, feeling, perhaps that they would not be justified in ap- plying the money of the county, which it was their duty to watch over, to a purpose more of a local than of a general nature. But that House, at the instance of government, did apply a portion of the public money to that work, and he believed it had repaid the outlay many per cent, by calling forth a degree of industry and energy, which never would have existed but for the employment that was thus afforded; and above all, by inducing those habits of persevering labour which never could be inculcated in the absence of active occupation. In addressing themselves to this subject, they ought to recollect, that the best way of preserving peace and tranquillity, was by encouraging industry. If, by pursuing that course, they prevented riot and disturbance, they benefited themselves in a pecuniary point of view, because they were thus relieved from the expense which would otherwise be incurred in maintaining tranquillity. In many parts of Ireland, the government was put to a greater expense in maintaining a military force to preserve tranquillity, than would have been incurred if the same end had been sought to be attained by opening lines of communication between different places, and thus promoting active industry. This was a subject to which the attention of the lord-lieutenant had been directed, and he had that morning received a letter from the noble lord, offering his personal assistance in superintending the appropriation of any money that might be devoted to the improvement of Ireland, with a view to its proper expenditure. He admitted that extreme caution ought to be adopted in the application of the public money to projects of this nature, not only with a view to economy in the expenditure, but to prevent persons from falling into the too prevalent error of not relying on their own energies; but he thought that the proposition of his hon. friend, the member for Louth, in the principle of which he agreed, would tend very much to obviate any difficulty connected with the appropriation of a portion of the public money. With respect to the general plan stated in the petition the first thing to consider was, how they could best remove any impediments which might appear to be opposed to its progress. It was proper that the private rights of individuals should be respected, and an opportunity given to every one interested to protect his peculiar rights. Care should be taken, that productive lands on the banks of rivers through which the necessary drains were carried, should not be injured. But looking to the course adopted in the great drainages in this country, he could not conceive, although local difficulties might present themselves, that by perseverance and caution, and not expecting too much at first, considerable good might be effected. That the plan would be attended with difficulty, he admitted. The greatest would unquestionably be, to guard against the invasion of private rights. That, however, with proper care might be overcome: and, considering the great importance of a general drainage throughout the country, he conceived that any gentleman who undertook such a project would be entitled to the public thanks. With respect to the enclosure of bogs, it presented greater difficulties than to a general drainage act, on account of the necessity of guarding the interests of the lower class of tenants who resided near those bogs. But he conceived that a tenant on the margin of a bog, who had the privilege of driving twenty or thirty head of cattle upon it, to procure such scanty pasture as it afforded, possessed a right that was worth very little, and which could easily be settled by arbitration or mutual compromise. He thought it would fully satisfy the tenant if he received 4l. or 5l. a year for his interest. The boundaries to which such rights extended should be clearly pointed out. The utmost facility ought to be given for determining those boundaries precisely. The greatest difficulty would arise, if such rights were left unsettled until after the improvement had been made. As the country improved, the difficulty of arriving at a satisfactory settlement would be increased; and by and by it would be almost impossible to do that which might now be easily effected. If the boundaries were now determined, it would form the foundation of a permanent settlement hereafter. Nothing could give so much stability to a project for an enclosure of land, as a proper settlement in the first instance. Whether that settlement should be made under the direction of arbitrators, of commissioners, or in what other way, were points of great nicety. Those difficulties ought not, however, to prevent them from looking the subject fairly in the face; because it was a matter of very great importance to get into cultivation two or three millions of acres of land, naturally fertile, but which had become almost useless. He understood that that species of soil, of manure, which was most applicable to the reclamation of lands of this description was found on the borders of the bogs in very great abundance. In conclusion, he begged to repeat, that nothing could be more fortunate for Ireland than that, in discussing a question of this sort, they should throw aside all political differences, and unite in promoting the prosperity of that country.

Mr. H. Grattan

said, that so far from the country having increased in prosperity since the Union, it had been ruined, and was miserable to a degree, almost beyond credibility. The decline of the revenue proved the state of Ireland. Mr. Foster, when chancellor of the Exchequer for that country, had stated the revenue to be seven millions; last year it was only 3,400,000l. In 1815, Ireland broke down under her burthens; she became bankrupt, and took the benefit of an Insolvent act from that House. No Irish gentleman could deny the benefit of reclaiming the bogs. It was proved, that bog not worth two-pence per acre, would, when reclaimed, produce two guineas an acre. He denied that Ireland was in a prosperous state. The contrary was the fact. Numbers of the people were dying of starvation, or of fever occasioned by want of proper nutriment. If the country was in such a prosperous state, why did they vote in 1828, 15,000l., and in 1826, 19,600l. for the support of fever hospitals? In 1827, when he and a deputation went up to congratulate the marquis of Anglesea on his arrival in Ireland, there were supported by the Mendicity Society of Dublin, no less than seven hundred and eighty-eight individuals, mostly tradesmen; and the other charitable establishments were equally burthened.

Mr. Moore

said, that the fact, he believed, was undisputed, that Ireland presented the frightful calamity of an excessive unemployed population. Various suggestions had, from time to time, been made, with a view of improving the condition of the people. He agreed in many of the observations which had fallen from the hon. member for Louth, and the right hon. Secretary, that it would be unwise in all cases to grant public money to Ireland, but that it might be advantageous on some occasions so to do. Money, he thought might be advanced to individuals for the cultivation of waste lands. One observation he wished to impress on the mind of every member. A great deal of money had been advanced in Ireland out of the consolidated fund, to individuals on good security, on works of public utility, though undertaken for private benefit. He would recommend that, in like manner, the commissioners by whom these advances were made should be impowered to advance money to the proprietors of bogs and waste lands, for the purpose of reclaiming and improving them. Two facts were incontestibly proved, namely, that Ireland had a population pressing for employment which it could not obtain; and that the country had natural resources capable of giving employment to the population, if they could be made available. Last session he had reminded the House, that, considering the facilities of intercourse between the two countries, the condition of the peasantry could not long remain dissimilar. The question was, whether they would raise the peasantry of Ireland to the condition of the peasantry of England, or reduce the peasantry of England to the level of the peasantry of Ireland?

Mr. O'Brien

complained of the duty levied upon coals, imported into Ireland, being doubled since the time of the Union.

Ordered to lie on the table.