HC Deb 13 July 1835 vol 29 cc449-58
Mr. O'Connell

presented a Petition from A. C. O'Dwyer, Esq., late Member for the town of Drogheda, complaining of the present state of the Election Law, under which his election for the town of Drogheda had recently been declared void. The petitioner, after setting forth the grounds upon which he thought a general legislative measure necessary, earnestly prayed the House not to allow the present Session to pass away without the adoption of some measure calculated to prevent the recurrence of those instances of injustice, of one of which he conceived that he had now a right to complain. The hon. and learned Gentleman expressed his full concurrence with the petitioner, that he had much reason to complain, and he was sure of this, at least, that no lawyer in Ireland would consider that the qualification of Mr. O'Dwyer, against which the Committee had decided, was otherwise than good and sufficient. The point upon which the Committee decided against the election of the petitioner was this—could a person holding a lease for three lives, with a clause of perpetual renewal, grant a qualification to a fourth person for his life? Now the Committee, contrary to the opinion of some lawyers who were members of it, and clearly against the opinion of what the petitioner was pleased to call some of the highest legal opinions in Ireland, decided that the grant to Mr. O'Dwyer did not constitute a sufficient estate to form the qualification for the representative of a borough in that House. Let it be recollected that the Act did not require a strictly legal estate, but expressly declared that an estate in equity was equally good; and Lord Redesdale had decided that a lessee holding such a lease was dispunishable of waste; in fact, he treated him, and so had he always been treated in Ireland, as the inheritor. The petitioner, therefore, conceived that the decision of the Committee was illegal; at the same time that nothing was further from his wish than to impeach the honour or integrity of the Committee. The petitioner then called the attention of the House to the fact that he had 320 votes, while his opponent, the hon. Gentleman opposite, had only 131, giving him a majority of 189; that, therefore, the hon. Member who had been declared duly elected, did, in point of fact, represent the minority, and not the majority. For these reasons the petitioner prayed the House that it would pass an Act regulating the election of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Williams Wynn

considered the present petition in the nature of an appeal from the decision of the Committee. ["No, no."] It brought charges against the Committee. That Committee, as all hon. Members must know, exercised its powers under the authority of an Act of Parliament; it exercised a power which the House did not possess, and if every party against whose claim a Committee were to decide possessed the privilege of coming before that House, and protesting against the decision as erroneous, he wished to know what the members of the Committee were to do? Were they, in every instance, to get up in their places in Parliament and say they were right, and defend their decision? If the House were to sanction that, it would amount to a denial and repudiation of the principle which took the power of decision from the great body of the House, and placed it in the hands of a Committee. In his opinion, it was not competent to any petitioner, addressing that House, to question the decision of an Election Committee.

Mr. O'Connell

—The right hon. Member could not have understood what he said, or else he could not have made those objections. If the right hon. Member did understand what he (Mr. O'Connell) had said, his objections would lead to the most monstrous mischief. This petition prayed for legislative relief prospectively, and had no connection whatever with the recent election. It did not impeach, in the slightest degree, the seat of the present hon. Member for Drogheda, nor did it impeach the integrity of the Committee. On the contrary, it set up a point of law, and complained that the Committee had decided on that point, taking it for granted that the Committee had decided rightly. But the petitioner further prayed legislative relief from this law. There was no appeal from this Committee, and the law so laid down would be taken as a precedent by other Committees; and, under these circumstances, the only remedy was to come to that House for legislative relief. This decision was unexpected, and was contrary to the opinion of the legal men most conversant with those matters; but this petition did not impeach the legality of the decision, or integrity of the Committee, but merely prayed that the House would legislate on the subject.

Mr. Wynn

said, the petition distinctly questioned the legality of the judgment. The House had no authority to pronounce whether the Committee had or had not decided rightly. They could only legislate for the future. The petitioner alleged that he was prepared to prove that the decision which had removed him from his seat, and which had deprived his constituents of their representative, was illegal." Now, he would ask, was not this a direct impeachment of the legality of the decision? They might as well say, that all election petitions should be decided by a majority of the House, as in the time of Sir Robert Walpole, who said that, in his eyes, the merit of the petitioner established the validity of the petition.

Mr. Warburton

observed that the House were not much in the habit of considering the language of petitions with such extreme strictness as there appeared a disposition to practise on the present occasion. It appeared to him that the petitioner said this—"the Committee having decided in favour of the hon. Gentleman who now represents Drogheda, their decision makes him legally the Member." But the Committee were mistaken in the law of the case. Committees so constituted were particularly liable to such mistakes; and, he, therefore, prayed the House to provide a legislative remedy for the future. If they rejected the present petition, they would shut the door to a class of complaints, to which, in his opinion, they were bound to give attentive consideration; and they would go further—they would, in effect, declare that the law which governed Election Committees was quite perfect, although, in private, hon. Members did not scruple to pronounce upon them unqualified condemnation. The House could not have forgotten the case of Mr. Halcomb, who, having given an imperfect description of his qualification, applied for, and obtained leave, to correct that description. Yet here was a decision directly opposite. The complaints against Election Committees were universal; it was, therefore, high time that election petitions should be referred to some other tribunal. There might, he thought, be three or four standing Committees appointed, perhaps by the Speaker, with an eminent lawyer to preside at their sittings, and inform them what the law really was; and moreover, they should not deliberate in any case with closed doors; the public should not only know their decision, but the grounds upon which it was made.

Colonel Wood

said, that as the only Member of the Committee who happened to be in the House, he thought it incumbent on him to say a few words. He would not, however, enter at all on the abstract merits of the case, as it was not his wish to cause any extended discussion; but he would say, that never did a Committee sit more fully impressed with a sense of the extreme difficulty of the case brought before them, and who were more anxious to do justice to it to the full extent of the oath which they had taken. The question which the Committee had had to decide was this, whether a person having a lease for the lives of two other persons, could grant to a third person an estate for his life, such as would constitute the qualification required by the Act. Had this been an English case, there would not have been a moment's doubt about it in the Committee; but there had been an Irish Act passed, giving teases held in perpetuity the character of a freehold; and the Committee had decided that, in the present case, although the qualification did approach in its nature to a freehold, it was not exactly of that kind which the Act required.

Mr. Sheil

supported the prayer of the petition. What it said was, that although the decision of the Committee was incontrovertible, its judgment was not infallible. It had nothing to do with the sitting Member; its object was simply an amendment of the law, to be applied to future elections. It was a singular feature in the case, that the only lawyer in the Committee, the person who might naturally be supposed to possess the soundest judgment in points of law coming under its decision, was clearly of opinion that Mr. O'Dwyer's qualification was a perfect one. In Ireland, leases renewable for ever had ever been considered as a good qualification. There was no attempt in the petition to impugn the integrity of the gentlemen composing the Committee; and if it were not received, it would be almost tantamount to saying that the Grenville Act, with all its deficiencies, was never to be interfered with.

Colonel Perceval

agreed with the hon. Member who had just spoken, that some alteration should be made in the mode of deciding election petitions. He could not go the length of the hon. Member for Tipperary, who asserted that a lease of lives, renewable for ever, was equivalent to a perpetuity. He was no lawyer, however, and would not dispute the point. With regard to the introduction by the hon. and learned Member for Dublin of the account of the majority and minority for the candidates, he thought it highly improper. Although he had stated the number voting for the unseated candidate, he had omitted to state, that between two and three hundred had been deterred by intimidation from coming to vote for his hon. Friend, and that 116 who voted against him were coerced so to vote, contrary to their better judgment. Elections in Ireland should be regulated differently from what they were, for there existed at present in that country an influence which it was impossible to contend with, which it was difficult to come at, but which most effectually coerced those opposed to it in opinion. It was incumbent on the Parliament to do something to remedy this evil. As the law stood, a man might go to the hustings with a consciousness of success, which, notwithstanding, would be defeated by the operation of that unseen influence, and the effect of the underhand dealing resorted to further its ends. The Legislature should also amend the defect of qualification, and correct the evils which flowed from it. In his opinion, a qualification should be made available for the debts and expenses of a Member, even while in Parliament, otherwise there would be a perpetual recurrence of the humbug exercised every day. He thought the House far too liberal in fixing the amount of qualification; at all events, far too liberal in the practice which existed respecting it. With respect to the petition before the House, he should only say, that, as in his opinion, it implied an imputation on the Committee, he should vote against its reception.

Mr. Henry Grattan

denied, that there had been any intimidation practised towards the opposite party by the electors who voted for the petitioner. It was true, that a great number of electors did not vote, but it was because they saw the overwhelming amount of votes to counterbalance them, not because they were prevented from doing it. He admitted, that here was, as the hon. Member for Sligo remarked, an influence at work in Ireland; but it was an influence solely arising from the universal feeling of the people. The hon. Member had charged the party who supported the late Member for Drogheda with practising intimidation; but he (Mr. Grattan) could charge the other party in the late election for Meath with parading about with weapons in their hands, headed by a Protestant clergyman armed with pistols. It was the general opinion of Irish lawyers, that a tenure for life in Ireland was equivalent, as far as regarded the validity of Parliamentary qualification, to a fee-simple in England. With respect to the last assertion of the hon. and gallant Member for Sligo, that the petition should be rejected on the grounds that it impeached the decision of the Committee who tried the former petition, he had only to observe, that if his doctrine were to be adopted, no petition against the decision of a Committee could ever be presented to that House. He trusted the House would take into consideration the mode of appointing Committees, and secure the rights of individuals as well as the rights of Parliament.

Mr. Randall Plunkett

begged to give the most unqualified contradiction to the assertion of the hon. Member for Meath, that he had exerted the influence of force in the late Meath election, or that he had attempted on that occasion to overpower the exercise of the franchise by violence and intimidation. He also begged to state, that he need never have expended the money, and time, and trouble he had, to obtain a seat for that county, if he chose to have recourse to equal violence with that manifested by the hon. Member's supporters. There was another allegation of the hon. Member to which he was happy to have it in his power to give a distinct and unqualified denial also; it was that which charged a Protestant clergyman with heading an armed mob, himself armed with pistols. No such thing ever occurred, or could occur, among the respectable Protestant clergy of that county; besides which, the Magistrates were on the spot, and no body of men could be more active and more determined to do their duty. With respect to the majority of the late Member for Drogheda, he should only say, that in a constituency of 596 voters, 145 were prevented from coming in to vote by the system of intimidation which had been practised towards them.

Mr. Henry Grattan

wished to know whether it was not the fact, that the High-sheriff of the county, Sir Marcus Somerville, had disarmed an Orangeman in the County Court-house on the day of the election; and whether swords had not been taken from them?

Mr. Robinson

deprecated discussion on these subjects. He should vote for the reception of the petition, because it would have the effect of bringing the subject of Election-law under the notice of the House. It was objected to Election Committees that the Members composing them were generally ignorant of the law, and the objection was in most cases a good one. But there was a still stronger objection to them in the fact that they were improper judges, as it was universally admitted that party spirit influenced them. When he reminded hon. Members, that in the phraseology of the House, a Committee was termed "a good one," or "a bad one," according as the political opinion of the majority of its Members were in accordance with or contrary to those of the individuals petitioned against, he believed he need hardly mention any stronger circumstance to condemn them. In the course of the present Session, he (Mr. Robinson) had received a printed circular, calling on him, on the supposition of his entertaining certain political opinions, to attend the House when Election Committees were to be ballotted for; to the end, he presumed, that he might in that, as in other respects, give his aid to the party calling on him. He trusted that whatever might be the immediate result of the petition before the House, it would have the effect of inducing some improvement in the constitution of Parliamentary Committees. As it existed at present they were a disgrace to the House and an injustice to the country.

Mr. Lechmere Charlton

should vote for the reception of the petition, if it were only to place Committees of the House on a more respectable footing than they were at present; and to put a stop to the scandalous practices which avowedly existed. He would be understood, however, to cast no imputation on the Committee alluded to in the petition, for the reason that he knew nothing whatever of them, or of the proceedings which gave rise to it.

Mr. Charles Butter

begged to remind the House, that he had a Motion for the alteration of Election Committees on the paper of the House; and he hoped that he should have the advantage of their votes as an additional proof of the indignation which they manifested in their speeches.

Mr. Ronayne

regretted, that no allowance had been made for the ignorance manifested by the people of Drogheda of a law which the Members of the Committee professed they did not know themselves. With respect to the statement of his hon. Friend, the Member for Meath, that the Orangemen had been armed at the election for that county, he should, in corroboration of it, only refer the House and hon. Members who doubted it, to the evidence of Mr. Despard, taken before a Committee.

Mr. Maurice O'Connell

corroborated the statements made by his hon. Colleague in reference to the armed intervention of the Orangemen at the Meath election. A sword-cane had been taken on that occasion from a person in the gallery of the Court-house, on the day of nomination, by the High-sheriff, which person appeared to belong to the party of the hon. Member for Drogheda.

Mr. O'Connell

should not have spoken in the debate, but that the hon. Member for Sligo had introduced the irrelevant topic of intimidation into his observations on the subject of it. What was the fact? Sixteen or seventeen petitions had been forwarded from Ireland, in all of which intimidation had been stated; but in all of them not a single case had been proved, and in a majority of them no evidence had been gone into to support it, though the question was open to the petitioners to do so. It was too bad; but that was the way in which the people of Ireland were always calumniated. The hon. Member for Sligo had said, that he was no lawyer, which was the fact. But the hon. Member had not stated the fact because of his ignorance of law, when he said that qualifications were not liable to the debts of the party possessing them. They were so. But that was not the object of the Question before the House. The great advantage of the discussion which had arisen on the petition of his hon. Friend was, that no one had attempted to justify the constitution or proceedings of Parliamentary Committees. Though composed of the first Gentlemen in the country, Members of that House, their decisions were universally complained of—complained of, too, to an extent really frightful. The hon. Member opposite had taken his law of qualification from the case of Bateman in the House of Lords, but he could assure the hon. Member that his argument was not tenable. Much had been said on the subject of intimidation at the Drogheda election. He (Mr. O'Connell) had directions from Mr. O'Dwyer to state that, if the allegations on that subject were persisted in, he had the fullest evidence to prove their falsity. The Committee was still open, and why not try them? With respect to the statement made by the hon. Member for Meath, of the conduct of the Orangemen, and their being headed by a Protestant clergyman, he could say nothing of his own knowledge, but he had heard that it was so. He bad, however, seen large bodies of Orangemen enter and leave the town of Trim on the first day of the election, but he had seen only two bludgeons with them. He had subsequently learned that a life was lost in Navan. To the peaceful demeanour of the townspeople—40,000 of whom, at least, were there collected—he could bear the highest testimony. He trusted the discussion would lead to some amendment in Election Committees, and the law of elections. If the hon. Member for Middlesex did not bring forward a Motion to that effect, in the measure he had before the House, when in Committee, he (Mr. O'Connell) meant to move as an Amendment to one of the Clauses that property to a certain amount in the public funds should confer a qualification, and also an instruction that no Parliamentary Committee for the future should have power to try whether a lease of lives be equivalent to a fee-simple; but that that branch of the subject should be left to the Legislature a large.

Colonel Perceval

explained. He mean that the qualification should be liable for the debts and expenses of a Member while in or out of Parliament. With respect to he statement of armed Orange intervention at the Meath election, he was glad to see it reduced to a sword-cane.

Petition to lie on the Table.

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