HC Deb 22 September 1831 vol 7 cc487-90
Mr. Stanley

moved for leave to bring in a Bill to amend the 15th and 16th of Geo. 3rd, commonly called the White-Boy Acts, which inflicted the penalty of death for a class of offences of frequent recurrence in Ireland, and which the Special Commissions in Clare and Limerick were sent forth to repress. These offences consisted of malicious injuries to property, sending threatening letters, procuring arms by threats, and others, which were now punishable with death. He proposed to substitute transportation in lieu of this, as being both more humane and more efficacious, for experience had proved that the people were more terrified by instant transportation, on conviction than by the fear of capital punishment. Another anomaly in the law he proposed to remedy—namely, that at present turning-up of land, breaking out-houses, &c. were punishable by the present law with death, if committed at night; whereas, if the same offence were committed by day, it could only be punished as a misdemeanor. Now he wished to put both on the same footing, and have the punishment transportation for life. Another anomaly was, that a man who incited to these crimes was punishable with death, while he who committed them was only a misdemeanant; and this distinction should also be taken away. Another object he had was, to repeal some clauses of the old Act, empowering Magistrates to seize the arms of suspected persons—that is, Papists; and he thought it too hard now to have any distinction on account of sects remaining. He wished, at the same time, to give notice, that it was not his intention, considering the present state of the session, to bring forward the Bill for consolidating the laws relative to the importation and possession of arms in Ireland, of which he had previously given notice. He meant to move, however, to revive for the year the Act as to keeping arms, which had just expired, and next year to bring forward the bill to consolidate all these laws.

Mr. O'Connell

concurred in the necessity of amending the White-Boy code, and making it less sanguinary. Late circumstances, particularly in Clare, had proved that a milder system was better and more efficacious than the former severe one. There was one question, however, he wished fully considered; it was the right of challenge. Under the present severe law, the person accused could challenge twenty Jurors, but under a milder law this right would be taken away, and he wished it to be continued.

Sir John Newport

expressed his satis- faction at the proposed amelioration of the laws, which, he was sure, would have a most beneficial effect in the prevention of crime. He would avail himself of that opportunity, to offer one or two remarks on that class of offences which related to the turning-up of land. He had no wish that the Legislature should interfere between landlord and tenant, but public opinion could do much, and he trusted that the decided manifestation of it, both in and out of the House, would prevent the exacting such exorbitant rents, sometimes amounting to 8l., 9l., or 10l. an acre from a poor creature, for an acre of potatoe land.

Mr. North

said, he should be most happy to give his humble endeavours in the Committee, to render the proposed improvement of the laws as perfect as possible. He concurred with the hon. and learned member for Kerry, in the desire to retain the peremptory challenges; he had often witnessed the pleasure which the exercise of this power afforded to the friends of accused parties.

Mr. Henry Grattan

rejoiced at the right hon. Gentleman having brought in a Bill of this description, for never had any country such a list of sanguinary statutes as Ireland. The White-boy Act involved this gross absurdity, that if a house were burned or destroyed, it would be necessary to prove that the country was in a state of disturbance before a man could get compensation; the consequence of which was, that at the Assizes there was a most extravagant quantity of hard swearing. The next was the Arms Act; and the people's feelings were exasperated, when they saw one man allowed to carry arms merely because he was a Protestant, and the Catholic not allowed to possess any. Then there was the Insurrection Act, which had given rise to the most dreadful oppression. He knew a case in which a man was transported for having had gunpowder, to the amount of one pound, in his possession, and which had actually been found by a child. The Algerine Act was intended to put down all meetings of the people, and deprived them of the right of petitioning for the redress of their grievances; hopes were entertained that it would stop the expression of the sentiments of the Irish nation; but, thank God, it concentrated public opinion, and induced the people to demand a complete change in the mode of government. Ireland, for the last three centuries, had been governed by Acts like these; and was it to be wondered at that the people were dissatisfied? The proceedings proposed with respect to the Arms Bill were most unconstitutional, and he could tell his Majesty's Government, that, if they had endeavoured to have brought the Registration of Arms Bill into operation in Ireland, such was the feeling of indignation throughout the country, that they would have excited an insurrection. The gentlemen of Ireland would as soon have submitted to have had their backs branded, as to have suffered the indignity of being deprived of their arms, unless they were stamped. The truth was, that such had been the treatment of the people by the Government, that no body of men had any security in the administration of justice. Whether Whigs or Tories were in place, Ireland was never governed in a satisfactory manner. As for the turning-up of land that had recently taken place in the west of Ireland, he was not surprised at it. Men worked for ten hours a day, and were only able to earn 8d. a day, and the landlord demanded 10l. an acre for his ground. They had also to pay tithes to the Protestant clergymen, whose religion they considered as little better than idolatry. He was happy to perceive that a spirit of union was rising in Ireland, which would make itself heard in the remotest parts of the empire, and would command the attention of Government.

Mr. Shaw

observed, nothing could be so impolitic as to have such severe punishments, that they could not be enforced without exciting the sympathy of all classes. It was advisable that punishments should be moderate, but certain.

Motion agreed to, and Bill ordered to be brought in.