HC Deb 15 March 1832 vol 11 cc245-51
Colonel Rochfort

had to present a Petition to the House, which he was sure deserved the serious attention of Government. The petition he had the honour to present was from the Lord Lieutenant and Magistrates of the county of Westmeath. It was signed by no less than fifty-one Magistrates, being all the Magistrates of the county except one, and he regretted to say, it gave a truly lamentable statement of the condition of that county. The petition was entitled to great respect; it had the signature of the noble Marquis, the Lord Lieutenant of the county, of three Peers, and of Magistrates, Catholics and Protestants, Reformers and Anti-Reformers, who were unanimous on this subject, that the state of the county called for the serious attention of his Majesty's Ministers and that House. The petition stated, that the dominion of the law was subverted, and the peace and security of society not only endangered, but actually overturned; that the law did not afford protection to the peaceably-inclined; that peaceable men must make their calculation, as the law now stood, whether they would wholly abandon their pursuits to save themselves from being murdered, or give an unwilling consent to receive the dictation of even daily and nightly marauders; that the certain penalty of death awaited any man who presumed to give information or testimony on trial against the insurgents, and certain destruction of property ensued to whoever ventured to act or speak in opposition to the dictates of secret and insurrectionary committees; that the increase of crime within the county, from the 31st of December to the 31st of January—st, was from sixty-two to 115 outrages thirty-three against the person, forty-eight against property, and the rest of no ordinary kind. In the month of February there were twelve assaults on the person connected with Ribbonism; twenty-five offences against property, chiefly attacks on houses to obtain arms; and twenty-eight illegal notices against tithes; but there were no outrages arising from opposition to tithes, or any peculiar political cause, or from party spirit; but they seemed to spring from a total disorganization of society, arising from various combinations. The petition referred to the case of persons of the name of Delmere, who, it appeared, had rendered themselves most obnoxious to the insurgents from their brave defence of their property against an armed band that attacked their house by night, for which his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant rewarded them. They could not now stir out even in the broad day without an escort, from a well-grounded apprehension of being attacked and murdered. Also the case of Mr. Magan, a large landed proprietor of the county, who, in open day, on the 6th of February last, was stopped in his carriage with his agent, a respectable gentleman, by a gang of persons armed and disguised, in the highway, and directions given to him and his agent as to the future management of his estate. It further stated, that, on the 5th of January, last, a bailiff employed by the Duke of Buckingham's law agent was obliged by a large mob to destroy the law process he had to serve, and with difficulty escaped with his life. The petitioners also referred to the case of Thomas Groalty, who was found in. the county with money and a large quantity of placards and printed papers, headed "The confusion of Britain strengthens our Union," in his possession, swearing in and organizing the people, and yet, in consequence of the ineffective state of the law, could not be tried, and was, under the opinion of the Attorney General, discharged from custody. Also that, on the 27th of February last, a large party of insurgents attacked and fought with a small party of police doing duty at Ballymore, in the county. These were a few of the facts to which the petitioners referred; but he (Colonel Rochfort) thought he had stated enough to show the House the truly deplorable state of the county, and sufficient to satisfy the House and the Government that some measures should be immediately adopted by which those acts might be put down, and person and property rendered secure. The petitioners submitted those facts to the House; they prayed the House to take the matter into consideration; they prayed for laws to be enacted and put in force by the Executive to restrain insurgency, to preserve property uninjured, and to protect the lives of the King's subjects. As this petition would be in the hands of hon. Members, he would not dwell further on this subject, but move that the petition be brought up.

Mr. Chapman

said, he must express his great surprise at the presentation of such a petition. He considered that a few instances of outrage ought not to be made a ground of stating, that Westmeath was in gross insubordination or contempt of the law. Nothing that had come within his knowledge could justify this proceeding on the part of the Magistrates. No doubt a bad feeling existed between the people and the police since the case of Castlepollard, but Westmeath had not joined in the combination. He believed, however, that certain local functionaries of Government had been wanting in their duty, and he trusted ere long to see them dismissed from their situations.

Mr. Handcock

said, he had been present at the meeting of gentlemen from whom this petition had emanated, and he could declare it was the most respectable and unanimous one he had ever attended. He could not but be surprised to hear that the hon. Member (Mr. Chapman) differed in opinion with so unanimous a meeting of every Magistrate (with one ex-caption) in the county, many of them his own relations and friends. He (Mr. Handcock) differed from the hon. Member with respect to the condition of Westmeath, which he knew to be in such a state of insubordination that the laws, as now constituted, were not strong enough to meet the evil. He had promised to support the prayer of the petition, and hoped the Government would adopt some measures to stop the progress of crime which, he was sorry to say was going on most rapidly, and had got to a great extent in that county.

Mr. Stanley

was far from denying the unanimity which prevailed at the meeting of Mullingar, convened for the purpose of petitioning for the adoption of stronger enactments than those which now existed; in Ireland; and, on that account, he felt the greater regret in stating, that his Majesty's Government did not feel themselves justified in acceding to the request which had been thus made. It was one of the most mischievous courses that could be pursued, for the Magistrates, upon every, occasion where particular disturbances might exist, instead of looking to the general execution of the laws, and relying firmly upon the authority with which they were invested—to ask Government for the passing of a measure so strong and harsh as that which was meant to be suggested, in this petition, the renewal of the Insurrection Act. If, indeed, any such measure was to be the chief instrument in putting down disturbances, the mischief attendant upon its adoption would be greater than the evil which it was intended to remedy. The disturbance, it was said, must be put down; but in such a case as this, it was put down at the expense of a great constitutional principle—at the expense of engendering a bad feeling between the Magistrates and the people. It was put down at the expense of encouraging the Magistrates and the people to look upon the ordinary course of the law as inefficient for the purposes for which it was framed. When Ministers were called upon to proclaim the Insurrection Act, the reason given was, that the gentry and occupiers of land were paralysed, and compelled to remain neutral. Upon that ground alone the adoption of harsh measures ought riot to be thought of; and, in his opinion, their applications were made with the view of taking from the parties making them the responsibility which ought to attach to them in their magisterial capacity: therefore, he must repeat, that this was not a course which he was disposed to recommend towards the people of Ireland. On a former occasion on which application was made to the Government to proclaim the Insurrection Act, the demand was resisted, and what was the consequence of that refusal? When the Magistrates and gentry of the county of Clare found that they could not look to the adoption of additional severe laws, and to the being invested with extraordinary powers, they applied themselves vigilantly to the discharge of their duties, and suppressed the disturbances which had induced them to apply for the proclamation of the Insurrection Act. They pointed out the specific baronies in which disturbances had taken place; and, in consequence of this, an additional military force and additional means were furnished at the expense of that part of the county. In that case the remedies applied succeeded, and, indeed, the existing remedies would succeed in all similar cases, were it not held out that the authority of the law was inefficient. It was true that, in the county of Westmeath, as the petition stated, there was an increase of crime within the month previous to the period to which it referred; but in the month before there had been a decrease of crime. He did not, however, mean to say that, on the whole, there had not been an increase of crime; but the cases pointed out in this petition were the most extraordinary that he had ever heard of; and there were only four of these, after all, to justify this extraordinary application to the Legislature, to adopt a still more extraordinary measure. Of these four cases, then, one was that in which two men successfully defended themselves and their property from a body of men, whom he could only designate midnight plunderers. And what was the ground upon which this case was cited? Because these parties were apprehensive that they might be attacked and murdered; and, therefore, the petition called upon his Majesty's Ministers to proclaim the Insurrection Act. The petitioners then gave another instance, in which an individual, named Thomas Groalty, was found in the county with money and a large quantity of placards and printed papers, headed—"The confusion of Britain strengthens our Union." He was obliged to be released, as it appeared, because it was the opinion of the Attorney General that there was not evidence sufficient to convict him of an offence against the existing law. Was it to be said, then, that the law was to be made more severe in Westmeath than in any other part of the kingdom? Then, with respect to the case of the process-servers of the Duke of Buckingham: two, out of the three parties charged, were convicted at the last Mullingar Assizes, and were now paying the penalty of their offence. The fourth instance brought forward was that of the assault perpetrated, in open day, on a respectable gentleman of the county, in a barony admitted to be in a state of disturbance. But what had the Magistrates done in that barony to restore peace in it? Had they put it in a state of proclamation? Had they asked for additional stipendiary Magistrates, or had they taken any of the other steps which they had it in their power to take, and which they ought to have taken, before calling upon the Government for extraordinary powers. As they had not so done, whatever might be his respect for the number and nature of the signatures attached to the petition, he could not recommend to the House the adoption of an Insurrection Act to put down these local disturbances.

Mr. Henry Grattan

stated, that he had received letters, in contradiction to the statement of the hon. Member who had presented the petition (Colonel Rochfort). The petition had come from what was commonly called "a hole-and-corner meeting," and it had originated with a noble Lord who was very unpopular. It could by no means justify the Government in inflicting the Insurrection Act upon the people for a few instances of local outrage.

Mr. O'Ferrell

approved of the course adopted by his Majesty's Government on this occasion. If the people of Westmeath were dissatisfied, their dissatisfaction had, in a great degree, arisen from their being ill-treated by the gentry of that county.

Colonel Conolly

expressed his astonishment at the few observations made by the hon. Member (Mr. Chapman). Fifty-one Magistrates had signed this petition, and such a petition was, at least, as much entitled to consideration, as the mere opinion of that hon. Member, who had set up his authority against the Magistrates of Westmeath.

Mr. Blackney

attributed a great portion of the disquiet in Westmeath to the misconduct of the police and the distribution of religious tracts.

Mr. Shaw

wished to know if in no case was the Insurrection Act to be applied in Ireland? He alluded particularly to the present state of Kilkenny, where the law was openly violated? As to the case of Westmeath, he thought the written declaration of fifty-one Magistrates ought to command the attention of his Majesty's Government.

Mr. Stanley

said, he applied his observations to the case of Westmeath; but generally he would say that, until every other measure failed he would not resort to the Insurrection Act.

Colonel Rochfort,

in moving that the petition be printed, could not avoid saying, in answer to the statement made by the right hon. Secretary for Ireland, that he made no attack on his Majesty's Go- vernment. The right hon. Gentleman had attacked the Magistrates of the county; but there were not in Ireland more active Magistrates than in Westmeath; and, if the right hon. the member for Tamworth was then in the House, he would bear him out in that opinion. He (Colonel Rochfort) heard much of governments de jure and de facto; but there was no Government de facto in Ireland—the laws were not obeyed—and, when too late to remedy the evil, then the Government would apply for measures now called for; but prevention could alone effect any benefit for the country. Had the right hon. Gentleman read the charge of Baron Smith at the late Assizes, who considered that a small calendar and empty dock was no proof of the peace of the comity? The outrages were numerous, but people were afraid to prosecute. With respect to his hon. colleague, he had been so well answered by the hon. member for Donegal that he would leave it to the hon. Gentleman to reconcile the contradiction between himself and the Magistrates of the county. The hon. member for Kildare had favoured the House with a story of a dead cow; but he (Colonel Rochfort) did not think that the whole gentry of the county should be judged by the act of his friend.

Petition to be printed.