HC Deb 27 February 1833 vol 15 cc1199-210
Mr. Roe

said, before the measure was brought forward which stood for this evening, he begged leave to submit a Motion to the House for the production of official papers relative to the disturbances in Ireland. He could not see how it would be possible for his Majesty's Ministers to resist the production of the papers referred to in his Motion. He had been a Magistrate of the county of Tipperary for the last seventeen years, and he could, without fear of contradiction, assert that many of the statements respecting outrages in Ireland had been grossly exaggerated. He could also say, that correct information on the subject of the state of that country could easily be obtained, and that there were many gentlemen ready, in all parts of Ireland, who, to his knowledge, would not have the least hesitation to appear at the bar of that House and give their evidence. It was idle, therefore, to say that persons were deterred from speaking the truth from fear: and he must charge the Ministers of the Crown with having entered into a conspiracy, a deep-laid and cruel conspiracy, to avail themselves of the pretext of the disturbed state of Ireland for the purpose of gagging the expression of public sentiment, and depriving the people of their rights and privileges. The measure might ostensibly be directed against the Irish people, but the people of England would ultimately find, that there was another and a more destructive object in view—that the same means by which the public voice was stopped in Ireland might by-and-by be used for a like purpose in England. Could it have been forgotten that every effort that could be tried had been made by the members of the Government to render the Repeal question unpopular in this country? The repealers had been held up to public odium as revolutionists, and for many days no speech had emanated from the Treasury Benches without containing some invective against the Repeal question, or against those by whom it was advocated. But, why should the Irish Members be thus treated for doing that which they conscientiously regarded as their duty? Had not their exertions in favour of English Reform deserved better; and ought it to be forgotten that they were even now ready to join with the people of this country in obtaining the advantage of the ballot, in forcing the Repeal of the Assessed-taxes, in effecting a reduction of the army and navy, and in applying the principles of economy and retrenchment to the public expenditure? By this it must be apparent that they consulted only the good of the united empire, and that, instead of being a movement party, as they had been described, their sole and single object was the good of the people, and the preservation of their rights and privileges as citizens. The Irish Members had given up a number of pressing subjects in order to ensure the success of the Reform Bill; and was it just that the first act of a Reformed House of Commons should be directed against the liberties of the people of Ireland [Question]? He must be heard: and he was ready to contend that if the documents for which he meant to move were produced, or that if proper evidence of the real state of Ireland was obtained, it would be seen that the contemplated inroad upon the Constitution was without justification or precedent. They had been frequently told, that the polar star of the present Government was public opinion [Question.] He should persist, notwithstanding these interruptions, which he must say were not very kind nor very courteous; but for that he cared nothing. He must declare, that he should much rather support a harpy that had been always genuine and consistent in its action, than a reptile that fawned only to destroy. The enemies of the people would, no doubt, be delighted at the manner in which his Majesty's Ministers had fled from every protestation in favour of popular liberty they had ever made, for the purpose of joining the ranks of despotism. But he called upon the House and the people of England not to consider this merely as a question affecting Ireland, but to treat it as a British question; for it was a question that affected England as deeply as it did Ireland [Question.] They might perhaps succeed—but he hoped not—in stifling the expression of public opinion; but he could assure them that he must be heard to a conclusion, or else he would go back to his constituents and tell them that it was useless for them to send a Representative to an English Parliament. All he could say was, that if the documents for which he purposed moving were refused, Ireland might be considered as out of the pale of the Constitution. The measure of coercion proposed to be introduced that night was mainly, and he might add entirely, directed to the re-establishment of the tithe system, and of this he begged to warn the people of this country. The resistance to the tithe system might be suppressed in Ireland by means of soldiers and bayonets, but the English people should maturely consider before they sanctioned this proceeding, whether, when it should become their turn to refuse paying tithes, similar means might not be employed to force them to continue to maintain that most unjust burthen. He would conclude by moving, that there should be laid before the House copies of all communications received by his Majesty's Government relating to the disturbances existing in Ireland, from the 25th of February, 1830, to the 25th of February, 1833.

Mr. Stanley

said, that he was at a loss to understand what purpose could be answered by the hon. Gentleman's Motion. He must confess, that he had listened to the hon. Gentleman with surprise, and even then he had his doubts as to whether the hon. Gentleman was really serious. At all events, if he were serious, surely he must know what the papers were that he particularly desired to have produced. But, what was the hon. Gentleman's proposition? Why, not that any given papers relating to any particular transaction should be produced, but, in fact, that the whole of the official documents of the last three years should be laid on the Table. Could anything be more absurd? If the hon. Gentleman had even confined himself to the production of the papers of the last year, he might have had something like reason on his side; but, when he asked, in detail, for the whole of the official communications received during upwards of three years, he furnished evidence to refute himself. It would be impossible within the space of four, ay, of six months, to produce even the communications of the last year; and even if they were produced, he would defy any three men to wade through their contents within any reasonable space of time, or, in short, to derive any useful or practical information from them. It was undoubtedly true that his Majesty's Government felt themselves under the painful necessity of bringing forward that night an arbitrary and coercive measure. He did not deny, that the measure was both arbitrary and coercive, but he meant to contend that it was imperiously called for, and that the Ministers of the Crown would not have performed their duty if they had failed to bring it before Parliament. He would rest the justification of the Government for the introduction of the measure upon the confidence reposed in them by the people of England; ay, he might also add, upon the confidence reposed in them by the true and sincere lovers of order in Ireland. He repeated, that nothing but the most imperious necessity could warrant recourse to such a measure. But his noble friend would state the case, recurring to the facts which he had before him, and then it would be for the House to say whether they would sanction the enactment of such a law, or call for the production of further information before they proceeded to the length Ministers intended to go. It was, he admitted, incumbent on their part to make out a sufficient case to bear out and justify that which they demanded of the House; and if they failed in showing the necessity for the arbitrary and coercive measures for which they called, the House would, of course, be justified in refusing them the powers for which they sought. But, to return to the subject of the hon. Gentleman's Motion, he must say, that, besides the utter impossibility of the thing, there were divers other reasons why the documents asked for should not be produced, and why the details of every outrage committed in Ireland should not be disclosed to public inspection. It should be borne in mind that these details contained the names of criminals who had not yet been tried, or who might escape from justice if such an exposé were to take place. Other names and circumstances were contained in these documents which it would be highly improper to disclose; but he was willing to rest his opposition to the hon. Gentleman's Motion, on the grounds that their production could lead to no beneficial results, and that it would require months before any three Members of that House could hope to read them through. Much had been said, about the Government having lost the confidence of Parliament and of the public in consequence of their having proposed this particular measure, but he could assure the House that his Majesty's Ministers were most anxious to come to their trial on the bill which his noble friend had introduced, and which was to be read a first time that night. They were ready to stake their responsibility as a Government, and their continuance in the offices which they had the honour to fulfil—they were ready to stake their political characters as Members of the Legislature, and their honour as gentlemen, on this measure; and if they did not vindicate the positive and absolute necessity of it he was willing to acknowledge that they would be undeserving of the public confidence, whether they were regarded as men or as Ministers—[loud cheering]. He hailed those cheers, and he accepted the challenge which they conveyed—[renewed cheers]. He repeated the words he had used, and again declared that not only did they stake their characters as men and as Ministers, and the situations which they held as servants of the Crown, but he would go further still, and say that they also staked the safety and destiny of the country upon the case which they should make out for the application of the remedy which they proposed for the suppression of the disturbauces ex- isting in Ireland, and restoring peace and tranquillity to that distracted country. On them the responsibility of making out such a case would devolve, but they were prepared to vindicate the course they were so painfully compelled to adopt, and to show, that they had resorted to coercion only from a necessity which was beyond their control, and which called for larger powers than they possessed to meet the exigency of the case. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by saying that he should rest his resistance to the hon. Gentleman's Motion on the simple ground that it would not be practicable to lay such a mass of papers before the House.

Mr. Thomas Attwood

thought, that the right hon. Gentleman was bound to produce evidence to justify his arbitrary and coercive measure before a bill of this description was brought forward; for, in his humble opinion, inquiry should precede severity. This had been the practice of former Parliaments, and hoped so desirable a precedent would be followed in this, a Reformed Parliament, before the liberties of any of his Majesty's subjects were infringed upon. He thought that before they proceeded to pass a Bill of so rigorous a character they ought to have a Report of a Committee before them. A temporary suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act was not a matter either trifling or unimportant, and therefore, before they committed themselves by taking such a step, they were bound to consider well whether it was really called for by existing circumstances or not. This was a discretion which should not be intrusted to any Government but as a last resort; and for his part he could not help thinking that the House would be called on, when they were asked to pass this Bill, to sanction a measure of precaution that was as wild and vehement as it was unconstitutional. He held in his hand proof on proof, that on all former occasions, when extraordinary measures were contemplated, a Select Committee had been appointed to consider deliberately, calmly, and fairly, of their expediency. At the present time, Ministers did not evince any discretion or prudence of this kind. He held in his hand an extract from the speech of a great and learned Individual—the right hon. Gentleman who filled the Woolsack in the other House. He trusted they would have the kindness to recollect, that he was sitting on the Irish side of the House—an ex- tract, he repealed, from the speech delivered by Lord Brougham in March, 1817, on the subject of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus, in which that noble Lord said, "A more flagitious and indecent proceeding never took place within those walls than the attempt to hurry such a measure as the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act through that House, on grounds such as those stated in the Report of the Committee of Secresy."* These were the sentiments of Mr. Henry Brougham in 1817, but how different were they from the principles upon which the same individual had since acted? He (Mr. Attwood) submitted, that the wiser course to be pursued was to move that the Order of the Day for the first reading of the Bill should be read, in order that it might be deferred until that day se'nnight, when the House could be again called over. If the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act was objectionable in 1817, when danger appeared in all quarters, when the Tower was threatened, and when the utmost fears were entertained for the peace of the country generally, it was now doubly objectionable. At a time such as he had described Mr. Henry Brougham recommended that the Order of the Day for the suspension of this law should be discharged, although a Secret Committee had sat upon the subject; and, if caution were necessary when the tranquillity of England itself was threatened, how much more necessary was caution now when a terrible measure such as that intended for Ireland was brought forward without any corresponding danger? For he could not believe that the disturbances in Ireland were anything like so great as had been represented, neither did he think that they were greater at the present moment than they were two years ago. He would even go a step further, and deny that Ireland was now as much afflicted by disturbance as it was eighteen months ago. They should recollect that they were now assembled in a Reformed Parliament; that they were met to protect the rights and liberties of the people, and afford them relief for the insupportable distress under which they laboured; but, if they consented to pass a Bill like that now on the Table, all that he had to say was, that, instead of restoring the people their liberties, such a step would *Hansard, xxxv. p. 699. infallibly strangle them, and that, too, in the sanctuary in which they ought to find security and refuge when they were the object of attack. He felt the proposed measure to be so serious, and the responsibility it must entail so great, that he for one would not participate in the guilt of sanctioning it without previous inquiry. The hon. Gentleman had moved for the production of papers, which might, perhaps, exhibit the true state of Ireland, but they had been refused. There were, no doubt, disturbances in Ireland—there always had been for the last 300 years, but the way to cure them was not by random censure or wanton abuse. Unless there was misery there was never guilt, and all the coercive measures they could devise would fail, while want prevailed. He had been at the trouble of looking into the evidence given before the Committee of the last Parliament on the state of Ireland, and he begged to call the attention of the House particularly to the testimony of Mr. Barrington, the Solicitor for the Crown for the province of Munster, Mr. Barrington was asked, "Do you conceive that the giving the people employment would be the best remedy for these disturbances?" And his reply was, "There is no doubt; if there was sufficient employment there would be no inclination to disturbance." Was it not monstrous, then, when the people wanted common sustenance when they asked for bread—when that alone would content them—that they should be answered by bayonets, by sabres, by halters, gaols, and a suspension of the Constitution. Again the same witness was asked, "Do you consider that these disturbances have any origin whatever, or are at all connected with the political feeling of the country?" And he answered, "I have never found them to have had any." He was further interrogated by the Committee as to "whether he considered them to be simply Agrarian?" And his reply was, "Certainly," In these opinions he fully concurred, and he had no doubt whatever, that if sufficient employment were provided for the labouring classes the disturbances would on the instant cease. The same witness was also asked whether the Irish people were attached to the ordinary laws, and he answered the question most satisfactorily by declaring that, as far as he knew, they had never manifested the least hostility to Jurors. This answer, it appeared, occasioned considerable doubt, for the same question was put no fewer than three times, but without producing any qualification of the original reply. Here, then, was the evidence of a man of experience to prove, that the laws were respected in Ireland; and if the people of Ireland—the ill-used, goaded, exasperated people of Ireland, still esteemed the law, and respected the persons of Jurors—where was the rhyme or reason of giving them a serpent instead of bread, and gaols in lieu of that which they had a right to demand and have? And was the Legislature, under such circumstances, to be called upon, instead of redressing wrongs, to proceed to further acts of tyranny, to fill the gaols of a country, and punish the people for the misgovernment of the Ministers? He hoped that the simple manner in which the production of the papers had been moved for would have its effect on the House, for it was his opinion that the arguments of the right hon. Secretary, however eloquently delivered, were then not founded upon solid and sound reason. On all hands it must be acknowledged that before the House granted the additional powers required, they should clearly understand and be fully convinced that measures of great seventy were justifiable. If the late House of Commons had proceeded in this course—if Castlereagh, the lamented Castlereagh, had been sitting on the Bench opposite, he should not have been much surprised; but that a Reformed Parliament, sent there specially to restore, confirm, and extend the laws and liberties of the people, should thus proceed—that their first act should be destructive of the inherent rights of a portion of the nation, was to him a matter equally of astonishment and of regret. If he were bad enough to sanction so unjust a proceeding he should never cease to regret it; but he trusted that his mind would be relieved of any such guilt, and that the House would reject the measure. Did they not owe a deep debt of gratitude to the people of Ireland for their persevering exertions in favour of English Reform? It should not be forgotten, that the hon. and learned member for Dublin had more than two years ago commenced his advocacy of the Repeal question. He (Mr. Attwood) had urged the hon. and learned Gentleman to suspend that question until the common liberty of all had been established; until the Reform Bills had been carried, and the hon. and learned Gentle- man, at his solicitation, had abstained from pressing not only that but any other question relating to the wrongs of his country, until that great measure had been accomplished. The Irish generously gave up the consideration of private wrongs to assist in redressing the common wrongs of all—they generously abandoned local feelings for the general interest of the whole Empire. The nation carried, by this means, the Reform Bill peacefully and legally, which, without such disinterestedness—without such noble aid they could not have carried for years, or without shedding oceans of blood. He asked whether they were to repay such immense services by the blackest ingratitude—whether they were to prepare dungeons and halters for those men whose support in the hour of need they had so gladly availed themselves of? Was it befitting the conduct of gentlemen and men of honour to turn the weapon against the breasts of those who had shielded and fought for them? But if they permitted such a measure as this to pass, would they be deserving of the seats which they occupied in that House? They should also bear in mind, that the measures now directed against the people of Ireland might by-and-by be levelled at the breasts of the English people; but, at all events, he should not contaminate himself by giving the least countenance to such a measure. These were his sentiments, and he, therefore, anxiously urged the noble Lord, if he valued the great and glorious reputation which he had earned for himself, to pause a little before he leaped into a gulph, the depth of which no human eye could reach. A little pause, and this deep and mighty gulph might yet be avoided—some measure of a more palliating character might be introduced, and so all feelings and all interests be consulted. He had no doubt that in six months from that time, without resorting to any measures of blood, without infringing on the glorious legacies their fathers had left them, the whole people of Ireland might be rendered happy, contented, and peaceful. If the Irish gentry had existed so long, why might they not be allowed to live in the same way, at all events for the next six months? Why not, instead of sending a mission of coercion into that country, send a mission of peace—a mission not to drink the blood of the unfortunate peasantry, but to inquire into their sufferings, and the cause of them? Let the wrongs of Ireland and the sufferings of the people be inquired into and redressed, and he would pledge himself that no more discontent should be heard of. The true condition of the Irish people ought to be illustrated before that House. He hoped they were not going to degrade themselves by sinking to the level of a boroughmongering Parliament. He had stated his reasons for supporting further inquiry, and if that was not allowed he most certainly should resist the measure, by all the means in his power; and, to use the expression of the right hon. Secretary, "even unto the death."

Mr. O'Connell

entreated his hon. friend the member for Cashel to withdraw his Motion, as they would have ample time for discussing the details of the bill in constitutional form by the rules and orders of the House. It was much better that they should go at once to the measure, rather than waste their time in desultory conversation, and more especially as his hon. friend's Motion had in fact been refused. The grounds of that refusal must have appeared very unsatisfactory to the House. It had been said, that his hon. friend had made no selection of the papers he wished to have laid on the Table. This was undoubtedly the case, but how easily might that defect be rectified. The right hon. Secretary, instead of making particular instances an exception, had in fact made an exception the general rule on the present occasion. The right hon. Gentleman had showed them a box filled with papers, but by whom were those papers stuffed into that box? And were they not placed there in the absence of those to whom they related and the friends of Ireland! The question of further information had been brought forward and was rejected. He would not, however, utter a complaint on the subject, but atonce go into the discussion of the merits of the Bill, in order to show the right hon. Secretary that freemen would not shrink from accepting the challenge which he had given to the friends of Ireland, and with such an air of presumption, even though he threw into the scale as a make-weight that the continuance of the present Government in office depended on the success of this measure. That the present Government did not deserve the confidence of the Irish people he would assert, and that they were equally undeserving of that of the people of England would before long appear. The measures of the right hon. Secretary on the subject of tithes had contributed largely to the disturbances in Ireland, and the right hon. Gentleman had taken every opportunity that had come within his reach to demonstrate to the world his desire to abrogate the liberties of the many for the offences of the few whom his own measures had goaded into desperation. The hon. and learned Gentleman again pressed his hon. friend to withdraw his Motion.

Mr. Roe

consented to withdraw his Motion. He hoped that people from the other side of the water would not be considered as Arabs in the sight of those who were here. He threw back the defiance that had been uttered by the right hon. Secretary. As a man whose wife and family and property were all now in the country that was to be the subject of these measures—as one having everything that he held dear in that country—he wished for the information that the papers he had moved for contained. He had no improper motives in asking for these papers, and only wished to obtain the best information on this important subject. He trusted, that the House would do justice to his country, and not only to his country but to themselves, for it was only through the side of his country that they could be struck at.