HC Deb 04 March 1830 vol 22 cc1260-3
Mr. Spring Rice

presented a Petition from the inhabitants of Galway, the only town in the United Kingdom where, since the act of last Session, any civil disabilities on account of religious opinions existed. The nature of the petition he would state in a very few words. By an Act passed in the reign of George 1st, any Protestant merchant resident for a certain time in Galway might claim his freedom of the town as a matter of right. The object of that Act was, in the spirit of that day, to support what was called the Protestant interest. The principle of the Catholic Relief bill, passed last Session, rendered it expedient that any statute creating civil disabilities on account of religious differences of opinion between Christians, should be expunged from the Statute-book; and in the spirit of that Act he thought the Catholic merchants and traders of Galway should be placed on an equal footing with their Protestant fellow-townsmen. Galway was an improving town, the Roman Catholic inhabitants of which had, as the petitioners very properly stated in their petition, ever been distinguished by their loyalty; and now that religious disqualifications were abolished all over the kingdom except that town, he thought they should be got rid of there also. He would not go further on the subject at that moment, but would give notice, that on Wednesday next he would move for leave to bring in a bill to remove the disqualification, by placing Catholics and Protestants on an equal footing.

Petition brought up and read.

Mr. Protheroe

supported the prayer of the petition, and said, that from an assenting smile of the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Peel) at some of the remarks of his hon. friend, he had reason to hope that the bill for which the hon. Member intended to move would receive the support of Government.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, the hon. Gentleman had interpreted his smile rightly. He thought that, consistently with the principle of the measure on which Parliament had acted in the bill of last Session, Roman Catholics ought not to be allowed to remain under disqualifications on account of religious opinions. So far he admitted the principle of the hon. Member's measure. On the manner in which that principle might be carried into effect, he would now offer no opinion, but, without pledging himself further than the principle he had stated, would wait till he saw the bill.

Lord F. L. Gower

said, that he also would abstain from any pledge on the subject. He fully admitted the principle stated by his right hon. friend, and was prepared to act on it. If the measure were to be introduced as a private bill, he could not give it his support; though, as a public measure, the principle which the hon. Member for Limerick had stated had his sanction.

Sir R. Inglis

said, that the question was not so much one of a public principle, as of the rights of a corporate body, He did not think the House could interfere without violating the charter of the town of Galway.

Mr. Peel

said, the right which the Protestant might claim of being admitted a freeman, was not one depending on the corporation; the Protestant could insist on it, as one conferred on him by act of Parliament. Now, in the spirit of the bill of last Session, Protestant and Catholic ought to be put on an equal footing in this respect. This might be done either by giving the right to the Catholic, or by depriving the Protestant of it; but the application of the general principle did not at all affect corporate rights.

Mr. C. Wynn

hoped, that an equalization of the rights of the two classes would not be effected by depriving the Protestant of any right he already possessed; but rather, by conferring a similar one on the Catholic. If the corporation had no power to refuse the Protestant, it was not a corporate right, but one created by Parliament, with respect to which both parties should now be equal.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he would not enter into the question then, farther than to re-state his opinion, that on the matter in question, Catholics and Protestants should be placed on equal footing, according to the principle of last year's bill.

Mr. O'Connell

concurred with the right hon. Gentleman that that bill made Catholics and Protestants equal in all parts of the kingdom except Galway; and that, to follow up that principle, they should be put on equal footing there also.

Mr. Spring Rice

asserted that no unjust interference with corporate regulations was contemplated or required. The policy which originated the grievance alluded to was henceforward to be considered obso- lete, and, therefore, all partial traces of its existence ought immediately to be removed.

Mr. Daly

contended, that the innovation proposed would in effect abrogate the rights of the corporation altogether.

Sir C. Wetherell

observed, that it did not follow as a necessary consequence of the late Relief bill, that they should infringe upon local privileges, and interfere with long-established customs and regulations of a partial operation.

Mr. North

vouched for Galway being a very Catholic place, where the great mass of the population had always been of that persuasion. By the law of the corporation, any Protestant tradesman who resided amongst them for the space of seven years, might claim his freedom; and this was held forth by way of inducement to others of the same church to come and settle with their families in the town. Those days, however, had now gone by, and a more liberal policy had been introduced, in accordance with which he maintained that the members of both churches should be placed on a perfect equality. There was in fact no longer any reason for continuing the law. The House, by making both parties equal, would only withdraw from the present Protestant generation an unfair privilege, which ought never to have been granted. The principle on which it was originally established was now no longer recognized as part or parcel of the Constitution, and consistency demanded that the legislature should in this instance, as in every other, raise their Catholic fellow subjects to a level with themselves.

Mr. Lambert

bore testimony to the respectability of the meeting which was convened for the purpose of getting-up this petition. There was no desire whatever on the part of the petitioners to put down the Protestants, or attack their legitimate interests. They merely sought to remove an invidious regulation, which only produced mutual jealousies, and kept alive the recollections of caste, and prevented the animosities of party from subsiding, as in due course they must necessarily otherwise have done. There was no peace at elections, in consequence of this unpopular enactment, as the native respectable inhabitants were naturally disgusted at the number of non-residents and strangers who were, on such occasions, brought up to vote. So odious was this system to the people in general, that he had actually seen the steward of the hon. Member opposite, conducted to the hustings under the protecting escort of a file of soldiers. By the last census it was ascertained that the number of inhabitants amounted to 40,000, of which only 1,000 were admitted to the freedom of the corporation.

Mr. O'Hara

said, he should be always ready to vote for any measure which would contribute to promote union in society.

Petition ordered to be printed.