§ Mr. Hume,
in presenting a petition from the Catholics of Ireland against this act, observed, that it had affixed to it the names of peers, merchants, and the leading private Catholic gentlemen of Ireland; and although it had no more than five thousand signatures, he had no doubt that it contained the sentiments of the whole Catholic population of that country upon this subject. He complained of the injustice of the Vestry acts, and recommended the House to take advantage of the example held out to them by the Hungarians, to whom the petition referred. The prayer of the petition was to beg the attention of that House to this—that where those of the Catholic persuasion formed seven eighths of the whole population, as regarded the church, and ninety-nine in a hundred of the actual population in many parts of the country, they were justified in entreating the legislature to re-consider the laws which authorized such oppressions and exactions as those enforced against them; they expressed their hope that the House would relieve them from the heavy charges to which they were obliged, by the existing laws, to submit; and they recommended to the con- 1224 sideration of that House the example of the Hungarian Diet in 1791; a body which, like the parliament of England, was composed of men of different orders in the community to the extent of five hundred or six hundred persons; and who, at the time referred to, had passed a resolution, that the Protestants of that state should not contribute to the Catholic churches money or labour; nor, on the other hand, should the Catholics contribute money or labour to the Protestants, nor towards the establishment of their churches.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer
condemned, as highly inconvenient, the custom of discussing questions of great importance on the presentation of a petition. He defended the existing measure as being a great improvement on that which had preceded it. If persons were aggrieved by assessments under the act, a remedy was provided for them, since they had the power to appeal. When he found that those who complained, chose rather to put their petition into the hands of the hon. gentleman than to seek for relief from the proper tribunal, he was inclined to doubt the correctness of their representation.
§ Sir John Newport
said, he was convinced that the bill afforded the Catholics no protection, and gave, as a proof of the correctness of his opinion, an instance in which, on a rate having been imposed by a Protestant bishop on the Catholic inhabitants of a parish for the supply of some articles to a church, the Catholics appealed to the Quarter Sessions, and the magistrates decided, that the act gave them no power to interfere with a rate so imposed. In some parts of Ireland, the Catholics were actually in such poverty, that they could not afford to repair their own chapels, and worshipped God almost in the open air. In one parish in the north, the Catholic chapel had been four times burnt down within twenty, years; the last time only five years ago; and while the Catholics were unable at present to rebuild that chapel, they were heavily taxed for the erection of a Protestant church. The injustice of the present state of the law was therefore manifest. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had objected to this discussion, because it put a stop to what he considered more important business. Now, he knew of no business that could be more important than listen- 1225 ing to the complaints of five or six millions of people, of taxation without representation. True it was, that the Secretary of State for the Home Department had promised, with reference to the canons of the church, that a notification should he sent round to the different parishes of Ireland; but he would take upon himself to assert, that even since, and in more than one instance, taxation had been enforced for articles not included in the canons of the church. In fact, the law, as it stood, was no sufficient remedy; and the same species of taxation which took place before the act, had been persevered in since it had passed. The whole was conducted in the most vague manner; and, besides the articles specified, in some instances 18l. and 20l. were charged under the head of contingencies; in fact, unexplained contingencies formed one-fifth of the whole tax. He sincerely hoped, therefore, that the act would be amended, and that the bishops would be deprived of the power of taxing parishes to any extent, and without any control. In his opinion, some person should be made answerable for the observance of due limits in taxation of this kind, and that person ought to be the incumbent of the parish.
§ Sir R. Inglis
admitted that there had been irregularities and infractions of the law under the old system, but contended that they were not enough, either in kind or degree, to warrant an enactment which would have been attended with greater evils than those it proposed to remedy. He complained that on occasions like the present, the right hon. baronet, and others who thought with him, brought forward a certain number of stock-stories, ready cut and dried, for the purpose of making out their case, and that the Catholic Association had done its utmost by its quackery to aggravate and inflame a wound at first of little importance. He then read a passage from a letter from Mr. O'Connell, and an extract from one of his speeches, in the latter of which that gentleman insisted that "the grievance of church rates was a grievance exceeded by no other that was felt in Ireland." The hon. baronet went on to examine, in some detail, the extent of this grievance, and adverted to several distinct cases, as made out by the petitions and returns upon the table. The first was that of Drogheda, which he argued was inapplicable; and the next was that of Thurles, where 32l. had been charged for 1226 hangings in the church. This sum, he contended, was not unreasonable, recollecting that Thurles was the residence of a great ecclesiastic, and that the church was the largest in the diocese. He also adverted to the situation of the parish of Clonolly, and contended, that in all these cases the evil complained of had been greatly exaggerated. If the fact were as Mr. O'Connell stated, that this was the greatest practical grievance in Ireland, he congratulated that country on the little that it had to endure. He also contended that much of the money raised, as appeared by the returns, was devoted to benevolent purposes; in some cases the Catholic schools were supported, the Catholic chapels repaired, and the Catholic priests paid out of the rates. On the whole, it amounted in most instances to about 1½d. per Irish acre, which was the sum of Mr. O'Connell's practical grievance. Were it not invidious, he would ask, what proportion this rate bore to the rent of the land in Ireland, for which twelve guineas, six guineas, and three guineas, per acre were paid? In the north of Ireland the amount of the rate was so small that, it could only be stated in decimals. He regretted that much of what had recently passed upon this subject had destroyed the harmony and good feeling formerly prevailing between the Protestant and Catholic clergy. The result of the whole of his inquiries was, that a state of irritation had been produced which parliament might find it difficult to allay.
§ Mr. J. Grattan
denied that any stock-stories had been brought forward, or that the Catholic Association had been guilty of quackery. The former collection and disposition of the rates were most discreditable to all parties concerned, and it was highly important that the legislature should interfere to remedy the evil. The great objection was against the unwarrantable charges under the heads of "Sundries and Contingencies," in some parishes amounting to 20l. or 30l., without the specification of any particulars. In his opinion, the evil could only effectually be remedied by throwing open the vestries, and admitting Roman Catholics into them. He hoped the right hon. gentleman would take the subject into his consideration; but if he would not, he trusted the hon. member for Aberdeen would bring in a bill to amend the existing act.
Mr. Spriny Rice
supported the prayer of the petition. The cases of complaint under this act were not imaginary, as the hon. baronet had supposed. No church could be built in this country without the consent of parliament; but in Ireland the question was settled by a select vestry, consisting exclusively of members of the Established: Church, and they were generally parties interested in the disposal of the rate to be levied on the Dissenters and Catholics. The worst enemies of the Established Church were those who wished to prolong these abuses, by which the feelings of the people were excited against it.
§ Mr. A. Dawson
urged the necessity of an amendment of this act; otherwise he feared the abuses already committed would be aggravated, and spread throughout all the parishes in Ireland.
§ Ordered to lie on the table.