HC Deb 11 March 1828 vol 18 cc1119-24
Mr. Spring Rice

rose to make the motion of which he had given notice. He hoped that, if any discussion arose upon it, all asperity would be avoided and no topic touched upon that was likely to create angry feeling. Let them argue the principles of the question temperately, and strive to produce the happy result of agreeing upon some plan for the education of Ireland. All that he intended to do was, to make out a case which would warrant the appointment of a committee. For this purpose he would merely refer to the proceedings which had already taken place, and to the state in which the subject now stood. In the year 1806, education in Ireland was for the first time since the Union brought under the consideration of parliament. In that year a commission was appointed under the government of the duke of Bedford. The commissioners had presented fourteen reports between the years 1806 and 1813, and had cost the country from 17,000l. to 20,000l. Another commission had presented nine reports, and had cost the country 40,000l. He merely mentioned these facts, as illustrative of what commissions for the most part were. There was nothing more common in parliamentary tactics, than to get rid of a troublesome question by moving for a commission. He thought this plan objectionable, and seldom productive of any other result than the getting rid of the question. As for the committee for which he was about to move, he did not wish that it should be invested with any extensive powers. He did not think it necessary that they should send for witnesses. All he wished was, that preceding inquiries might be referred to the committee, in order that they might see if any good scheme of education could be extracted from them. He believed that if a few gentlemen of sincere intentions would execute this task without attending to either of the contending parties, without looking to the right hand or to the left, but acting merely as arbiters and judges between the two, the result of their labours would be extremely beneficial. Let them consider the question as a new one. He hoped it would not be thought that he wished to add to the burthens of the country. He was as strongly convinced that economy was necessary, as that the duty was imperative; and he was certain that much less money than had already been wasted upon the subject, would have effected the establishment of an efficient system of national education. There was one establishment in Ireland which he rejoiced to find that no one defended. The establishment he referred to was that of charter schools in Ireland, and yet they had cost the country one million pounds sterling. Now if that sum had been bestowed upon good, instead of mischievous, purposes, it would have accomplished the whole matter. He was quite sure, that to make any plan of education beneficial to Ireland, it must be, in part, supplied by local contributions—either in the way of tax or contribution—because then the inhabitants themselves would be the sureties to the public that the money was properly bestowed. He would now add a word or two upon the constitution of this committee. He wished it to consist merely of twenty one members, and to be as much as possible of an impartial nature. He thought much good might be done by the inquiry he proposed. He did not propose to attack any one institution, or to do any act that might give a triumph to either party. He wished only to select a number of gentlemen who should inquire how a great moral duty could be best performed, and how the public money could be most beneficially applied in the performance of that duty. He concluded by moving, "that the Reports on the subject of Education in Ireland be referred to a Select Committee of twenty-one members, with power to Report their Observations and Opinions thereon to the House."

Mr. W. Lamb

said, that perfectly concurring with his hon. friend in the advantages that would attend the diffusion of education in Ireland, he nevertheless wished his hon. friend had postponed his proposition to a more favourable opportunity. At present he confessed he was unable to see how it could be advantageously carried into effect. Still he could not refuse the means of eliciting all the information that could be obtained upon the subject. He confessed, however, that he was much less sanguine in his expectations of a beneficial result than was his hon. friend; and, standing in the situation in which he stood, he must be distinctly understood as declining to pledge himself to carry into effect any recommendation of the committee; although he should be most happy to do so, as far as was compatible with an abstinence from incurring any additional public expense, and with the principle of not extinguishing private benevolence.

Mr. Brownlow

was glad that the motion was not to be opposed, as they were now totally without any efficient plan of national education in Ireland. All the schools were under the superintendence of the established church, and were therefore not places of resort to the Catholic. The charter schools of Ireland were certainly looked upon with great jealousy; and, as every society which had education for its object taught the doctrines of the church of England, or actually professed their wish to make converts from the errors of popery, there could be no common feeling between them and the Catholics. Out of the Protestants in Ireland one third were educated at the public expense: of the Catholics not one fourteenth. This made it necessary, that if education in Ireland was to be national, some active steps ought to be taken immediately. The subject had remained in this state ever since 1806, and when commissioners were appointed in 1824, to seek out some neutral ground on which the belligerent parties (for so he must call them) might meet and be educated, notwithstanding the difference between their religions, the commissioners declared that they had failed in their endeavours to discover such ground. He thought therefore that he might say, that though his hon. friend might devise a plan of national education which would meet with the approval of the House of Commons, yet, considering the state of parties in Ireland, he doubted if he could devise a plan that would be acceptable to all parties, and obtain the concurrence of the heads of those parties, without which his hon. friend could not stir one step. One of the plans proposed, was to take the Catholics and the Protestants together, and, choosing the propitious season of youth, before prejudice had yet been imbibed, to endeavour to inculcate a reciprocity of good feeling. They were thus to be educated together. The plans laid down for elementary education gave rise to no difference of opinion. They were to be taught writing, the first rules of arithmetic, and so forth. These contained no combustible matter. But then came religion, with which his majesty's commissioners said they would not meddle; and he thought they were right. Their religious education was to be left to their respective pastors. But the commissioners wished to select those parts of the gospels which involved no doctrinal points, and on which both Catholic and Protestant were agreed. In this they failed. It was objected, that the whole were taken from the authorized version of the scriptures of the one church. The hon. member here stated several other differences of a similar nature, in which the objections were not to points of doctrine, but which were nevertheless fatal to beneficial proposals. All these things made him think that they would not succeed in devising a good plan of national education in which all parties would concur. For his own part, he would leave the plan of elementary education as it stood, and not interfere with religion at all. He knew that this declaration would be taken as undervaluing religious education; but he begged leave to say, that he thought no education which was not a religious education worth any thing. He thought that all knowledge was valueless, when compared with the sacred knowledge which was to be found in the Bible. The Bible was good for time, as well as for eternity. For, if a man wished to make a fortune and keep it, what could be more calculated for both those purposes than Christian prudence and Christian honesty? If a man wished to raise himself to places of honour and of trust, what could be a better recommendation than Christian integrity? Whatever wise and proper end men might have in view in this life, he would ask the House to match him, if they could, any better rule of conduct than was contained in that matchless sentence—"Be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."

Sir J. Newport

thought it better not to enter at present into an examination of subjects which they would have to decide upon after the committee had made their report. Whatever might be the result of the labours of the committee, he was quite sure that much mischief might be done by a previous discussion of the topics which were to engage the attention of that committee. Several reports had been presented to the House, in consequence of a commission which he had had the honour to propose, and he could have wished that the recommendations contained in the last of those reports had been acted upon. As all the reports, however, were to be referred to this committee, whose business it would be, carefully to examine and compare them, he was not without hope that much good might result from their labours.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, that as his right hon. friend had signified his intention of acquiescing in the proposition, he thought there could be but one opinion as to the propriety of abstaining from all discussion which might have a tendency to provoke the irritable feeling which already existed in Ireland upon this subject, and which, if awakened, was calculated to defeat the great object which all parties had in view. To him the best ground for preferring a parliamentary committee to a commission was, that 40,000l. had already been laid out upon commissions, not one of which had yet suggested any practicable plan to the consideration of the House. At the same time, while he deprecated an extended discussion, it seemed to him most fit that, the legislature should declare the principles on which it was disposed to extend the public grant: the first of these was, that the fund should be applied strictly without reference to party; and the second, that it should be distributed, not for independent purposes or efforts, but in aid of local and private subscription. The inevitable result of an avowal that government was ready to find money for any charitable purpose, unless some restrictions were laid upon the issue of that money, was to paralyze all private exertion; and, independently of the mere pecuniary question, the vigilance which was used over their own funds, by the subscribers to a local charity, was the best security that the public grant in aid of f that charity would be well applied. The attention which the resident gentry of Ireland would bestow upon institutions, established, and partly paid for, by themselves, would do more for the interests of those charities than could be expected from the most vigorous system of public inspection: and as to those proprietors who were not resident, he thought there could be little question that they would be found first in the list of pecuniary contributors. In conclusion, he agreed, that it would be advisable for the committee, in the first instance, to apply their attention to the reports of the preceding commissions, in preference to examining oral evidence: but as it was possible that, in the course of their labours, they might find the examination of witnesses desirable, he hoped the House would either at once grant that power in the appointment of the committee, or not refuse it, if, when the necessity arose, it should be hereafter applied for.

Mr. S. Rice

said, he should be ready to give the committee the power of examining witnesses, if, at a future time, that course should be found necessary; but he was anxious, in the first instance, to confine their attention to the reports of the commissions, in order, if possible, to avoid a mass of fresh evidence, which the desire to affirm contending opinions might multiply without end.

The motion was agreed to, and a committee appointed.