HC Deb 23 March 1836 vol 32 cc533-44
Mr. William S. O'Brien,

in pursuance of his notice on the paper, rose to move for a Committee to inquire into the administration of the Royal Dublin Society, with a view to the wider extension of the advantage of the annual parliamentary grant to that institution, without reference to the distinctions of party or religion. The society was instituted more than a century ago, having for its object the promotion of literature and science, and the encouragement of agriculture, manufactures, and the arts. It has connected with it a botanic garden, a library, a museum, schools of design, architecture, and drawing, and professorships filled by gentlemen who deliver lectures in the different branches of experimental and mathematical science. He was not disposed to deny, that this society had been advantageous; but he would say, there had been an impression for some time prevalent, that it had not been so advantageous as it might have been made, and that, therefore, an inquiry should take place on the part of this House, with the view of rectifying this defect. This had been his opinion for several years. It was generally thought the society had too much the character of a club, that it was not sufficiently accessible to the public at large, and that, according to its present constitution, a power existed in a certain party of excluding gentlemen, however respectable they might he, if their views were not in harmony with the feelings of that party. He (Mr. O'Brien) felt this so strongly to be objectionable in the constitution of the society last year, that he took the liberty of calling the attention of his Majesty's Government to the subject. He did so upon general principles, not expecting that this evil would be so strongly illustrated as it had been within the last few months, by the expulsion of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Dublin—a man who was respected by all who could appreciate piety and learning—a man so cautious of giving offence to persons of opinions opposite to his own, that he has abstained from taking any part in the great political movements of his day; yet this man, whose conduct was every way so consistent with the true character of the Christian Bishop, had been selected as an object for the exercise of that exclusive power to which he adverted, and had been refused admittance into the society. He was excluded by the exercise of an arbitrary power on the part of a few members of that society, and it was for this House to say whether these persons should be any longer at liberty to apply the grant made to them by Parliament, to such bigotted and party purposes. The opinion he (Mr. O'Brien) entertained was in accordance with that of the Committee which sat in 1829, whose recommendation he would take the liberty of stating to the House. They were of opinion, "that admission to the society by ballot was objectionable and should be discontinued, and that the subscription being fixed at such an amount as might be deemed expedient, any person contributing the same should be considered as entitled to all the advantages the society is calculated to afford." By the authority of his Majesty's Government, Lord Francis Egerton wrote to the society, calling their attention to this recommendation of the Committee, but their answer was, that their mode of proceeding was strictly in accordance with the terms of the charter by which they were incorporated. He (Mr. O'Brien) knew not whether any inquiry had been made by preceding Governments, but the late operations of the society were of so peculiar a nature, that they had naturally attracted the notice of the present Government in Ireland, who having appointed a Committee to inquire into the constitution of it, they submitted to the society a series of propositions, which he would not trouble the House by reading, but simply state what the effect of them was. They proposed, that all elections in future shall be made by the majority of the members of the society, that the terms of admission shall be lowered, that the administration of its affairs shall be vested in the hands of a council, subjected to an audit of their accounts, and that the newspapers shall no longer form one of the accessaries of the institution. These propositions the council have thought fit to reject, he would not say contumeliously, but with the utmost determination not to give any reason for their rejection—it was for the House then to say, when they find a society composed of members whose subscriptions were trifling, compared with the amount of the parliamentary grant, thus setting at nought alike the recommendations of the House and of the Irish Government, whether it was not at least time they should consider of the propriety or impropriety of annexing some conditions to the next advance made to them out of the national purse? it was with this view, and for the other reasons he had stated, he now proposed the appointment of the Committee, a proposition which he considered to be strengthened by the fact, that they were at this moment engaged in a similar inquiry into an institution analogous to the Dublin Society—he alluded to the British Museum. He was happy to find that there was no disposition on the part of his Majesty's Government to oppose the motion. He did not wish to anticipate objections, but he could imagine that possibly there might be some on the part of hon. Members as to the latter part of his motion; if so, and he found them to be urged as important, to avoid collision he should feel inclined to leave out the part which was found to be offensive.

Mr. Shaw

said, that as no member of the Government seemed inclined to rise for the purpose of stating to the House the course which they intended to pursue with reference to the present motion, he felt bound to say a few words on behalf of the society to which the attention of the House had been drawn, and which he considered to have been very unjustly as sailed. The Dublin Society was, he believed, the only public institution in Ireland supported by any grant pf the public money, which had for its object the diffusion of scientific knowledge, the encouragement of the arts, and the cultivation of the native talent, energies, and industry of the people of that country. The society had existed for above a century; it was incorporated in the year 1749, expressly "for promoting husbandry, and the other useful arts in Ireland." It had enjoyed the bounty of the Irish Parliament before the Union, and since had received comparatively small annual grants from the Imperial Legislature. He (Mr. Shaw) did not believe that it was even alleged that there had been a misapplication of the public money intrusted to its charge—as for the newspapers which had been mentioned, the society declared that the expenses of the news-room were defrayed by private contribution, of which a very large proportion went to the support of public objects—but the accusation which the society had to meet was, that it was a bigotted and intolerant political body. It was not, he apprehended, denied that the schools, the lectures, the library, the museum, the exhibitions, and all the public departments of the institution, were accessible, and to the utmost extent rendered useful, to all classes of society in Ireland, without distinction of party, politics, or religion. The charge, in short, resolved itself into one having reference to the admission of members, and amounted in fact to this—that although within the last thirty years eight hundred members had been admitted indiscriminately as regarded religious and political opinions—five only having been rejected during that entire period—yet that of those five the hon. and learned Gentleman, the member for Dublin (Mr. O'Connell), was one—and Dr. Murray, the Roman Catholic Archbishop, another—thereby hung (without meaning a pun upon the word) the tale of the present opposition—and it meant neither more nor less than that the society was to be sacrificed, because these gentlemen were black-beaned. An excellent letter had been addressed on the subject to the Lord-Lieutenant, by a gentleman much more competent than he (Mr. Shaw) was to speak to the merits of the society, and [who would be much freer from the suspicion of political partiality—he meant Dr. Meyler, and he would beg to read the following extracts. The letter was in answer to the charge that the Dublin Society was "an intolerant political club." Upon this point Dr. Meyler observed— This is so much the country of reckless and unfounded assertion in the absence of all knowledge or inquiry, that perhaps it may not be improper of me, in the first instance, to state to your Excellency my sources of information on the subject that I now take leave to have the honour of addressing you. I have been for the last twenty-five years, an active member of the Dublin Society, I have constantly attended its meetings, sat on its committees—I have been practically conversant with all its internal and external arrangements—I am neither an Orangeman nor Conservative, but on principle strongly adverse both to the views and measures of both these associations, I think, therefore, I may claim for myself being a competent as well as an impartial evidence. The Dublin Society, like similar associations, necessarily consists of individuals of all creeds and of all shades of political opinion. If the society, had, as a body, identified itself, by passing resolutions or otherwise, with any of the religious or political opinions of its members, it would then be liable to the charges that have been made against it. In the first place and in the most explicit terms, I deny that it has ever done so. Let those who say otherwise, and thus calumniate the society, substantiate the charge. I have looked over the printed proceedings of the society, and I have not been able to find in them the expression of any religious or political opinion whatsoever. During the period that I have had the honour of being a member of the society, I can distinctly aver I never knew of a religious or political opinion placed before the society for their discussion. I never in the Board-room heard even the most remote allusion to those unhappy questions of national disunion. Nay more, I am in the habit of frequenting the library and conversation-room, where the members of the society may be said to meet only in their individual capacity; such perfect good-breeding prevails in this so called intolerant society, that I can declare that these subjects are more unpleasantly alluded to, and I never heard an observation that the most sensitive Roman Catholic could be offended at. The letter continued— I regret that Dr. Murray was not, on the late occasion, admitted a member of the Dublin Society; not because he happened to be a Roman Catholic bishop, but because he is an amiable individual, whose manners qualify him to move in any station—whose fine and well-cultivated intellect would render him a valuable acquisition to any literary or scientific society in whose proceedings he would interest himself; in fact, Dr. Murray ought to rejoice in the vote of those gentlemen, when even the representative of majesty thought it a becoming occasion to take the unusual step of descending from the vice-regal pedestal to reprove the society in his behalf. It would appear also from the uncalled for" [he (Mr. Shaw) hoped the noble Lord opposite (Lord Morpeth) would excuse him for quoting the following passage]—"and exceedingly ill-judged letter of Lord Morpeth—that your Excellency had contemplated to offer up to him the society itself as a propitiation and a sacrifice. The country is to be deprived of the society's professors—the museum is to be closed—the drawing and modelling schools are to be shut on the mechanics—the valuable light afforded to the arts is to be extinguished—the plough-share is to be driven through the botanic garden—the Dublin Society itself is to be extinguished—its members, its objects, its labours are as nothing—because it blackbeaned Dr. Murray. He believed, as was stated in another part of the same letter, that at the period at which Dr. Murray offered himself to the society was very unfortunate for his prospects of success. He had connected himself with the publication of a work which had justly caused much public excitement and disgust in the minds of the Protestant population in Ireland, and he had stepped from his former comparative retirement to become the political partizan of the hon. and learned Member for Dublin, by subscribing to what was termed his tribute; but, at all events, was it fitting that a mere personal matter of that nature between the society and an individual should have been made the ground of attack by the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland upon a useful public institution? He must say, for one, that he considered the course taken by the Lord-Lieutenant in this instance unbecoming his station, derogatory to the dignity of his office, and much more suited to the atmosphere of that noble Lord's former government, than to the free spirit of a body of independent Irish gentlemen. As regarded the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland personally, he made these observations with regret, as both personally and officially he (Mr. S.) had experienced courtesy from the noble Lord—but, both as a Member of that House and as an Irishman, he considered it his duty plainly to speak his sentiments of the conduct that had been pursued by the Irish Government in respect of the transaction then under consideration. He would ask the noble Lord opposite, (Lord Morpeth) would such an interference have been used in the affairs of the Dublin Society had it been a Protestant instead of a Roman Catholic Bishop who had been rejected? He (Mr. Shaw) was persuaded, that had any propositions been submitted to the Dublin Society by the Irish Government in a spirit of candour and fair dealing and with a bonâ fide view of improving its regulations, or to a wider extension of its advantages, they would have been enter- tained with the utmost respect, and received the fullest consideration; but he must say, that considering the trifling and vexatious nature, and the unworthy object of the recent interference on the part of the Government, and their obvious attempt at arbitrary dictation to the independent gentlemen composing that society, they were, in his opinion, perfectly justified in acting as they had done. He (Mr. Shaw) would not have objected to the present motion, if he believed that the object was inquiry; but he certainly would object and divide the House upon it, because he was satisfied that censure and not inquiry was the real object intended.

Viscount Morpeth

did not wish to put himself forward in the present discussion, the more particularly as it might be said the Government was in a state of collision with the society. He considered that the Committee proposed by the hon. Member for Limerick, would be the proper tribunal to mediate between the two parties; and, therefore, it was that he regretted that from the turn the debate had taken, he was forced to take a more prominent part in it than under the circumstances he could have wished. It was his opinion, that if certain objections to the society could be removed, it might be continued so as to be most advantageous to Ireland; but he did not believe that the society was conducted at present so as to insure in the most satisfactory manner results so desirable. The right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Shaw) had read several extracts from a letter published in the newspapers by Dr. Meyler. It was Dot his intention to enter into the lists with Dr. Meyler; but he must be permitted to say, that he did not think Dr. Meyler was accurately informed when he denied that the society had devoted some portion of its funds in supplying the reading-room with newspapers. In 1829 a Committee of the House of Commons sat to inquire into the Irish Estimates generally; and it appeared in evidence before that Committee, that the newspapers and reviews furnished to the reading-room were paid for out of the private subscriptions; but since that period he was informed that the expense was defrayed out of the public fund. Now, the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Shaw) asserted, that this attack upon the society had proceeded from the Government solely on political grounds. He must deny the justice of the statement; for independently and antecedently to the rejection of Dr. Murray, when, in fact, he (Viscount Morpeth) had first arrived in Ireland, his attention had been called to various improvements which it was considered were capable of being effected in the society, and which, if successful, might have induced Parliament to increase the grant. With this view the Irish Government proceeded to consider what the nature of the proposed improvements were, and a correspondence was opened with the society, with a view of carrying these improvements into effect. But he (Viscount Morpeth) would not deny the fact, he had no wish to conceal it, that his desire to bring the consideration of the grant before Parliament was accelerated by the exclusion of Dr. Murray. He (Viscount Morpeth) would repeat, that the exclusion of such a man, from a society endowed by a grant of public money—that the exclusion of a man so gifted by nature and acquirements, and filling the high station which he did, could not be otherwise considered by the great body of the people than an insult—but, above all, the exclusion of a person so distinguished by his own personal qualifications—by unaffected piety—and by Christian virtue, before whose venerable person even strife itself stood abashed, he would repeat, that the exclusion of such a man, from the society, could only be intended as an insult to the majority of the people. He had been asked by the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Shaw) whether, if a Protestant Prelate had been rejected by the society, the Government would have taken umbrage at such an act? In reply, he could only say, that if such a Protestant Bishop as Dr. Brinkley was, and Dr. Whately is, had been excluded from the society, he should have thought it a ground of just complaint, and should have felt himself bound to ask Parliament whether or no a grant ought to be continued to a literary society that excluded men on the score either of religious or party feeling. In giving his consent to the appointment of the Committee, he did go in the hope that the advantages the society was calculated to confer on Ireland, so far from being checked, would be continued and perpetuated.

Mr. Lefroy (D. U.)

said, if the motion for a Committee to inquire into the state of the Dublin Society were really proposed with a view to extend the usefulness of the society, as it professed to be in the introductory part of it; if it were intended to achieve such objects by granting the Committee, he, for one, so far from objecting to such an inquiry, would give the motion his most cordial support. But when he looked to the concluding terms of the notice, he could not but feel bound to resist it. The terms in which the notice was couched were extremely offensive, and too plainly indicated its real object. The terms were—"To inquire into the administration of the Royal Dublin Society, with a view to the wider extension of the advantages of the annual parliamentary grant, without reference to the distinction of party or religion." It appeared to him (Mr. Lefroy) that a direct imputation was cast upon the society, of having misapplied its funds under the influence of party spirit or religious bigotry; there was no foundation for such a charge; the real offence was, that the society had exercised a right of rejection in an instance not quite palatable to certain persons in that House. This, which is the real charge against the society, had been scarcely concealed by the hon. Member who submitted the motion, and had been reiterated by the noble Viscount who had just sat down. What was the ground of charge preferred against the society, which was the front of their offending? It was this—that they had rejected an individual who happened to be thought well of by the noble Viscount (Viscount Morpeth), and by the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. The Dublin Society had admitted from time to time upwards of 800 members; it had no exclusive rules—and in practice so far from being an exclusive society, they had admitted men of all religions, and of every hue of politics. And was he (Mr. Lefroy) to be told, that such a body were not competent to make rules for the regulation of the society—and that because agreeably to those rules, they had thought fit to exclude a certain individual, that, therefore, they were to be stigmatised by a vote of that House? Was he to be told, that the opinion of the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland—high in station as he was—that his Excellency's opinion was to be put in competition with that of the whole of this most respectable body? The Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, by adopting the course he had done, claimed not merely the right of a veto, but the actual nomination of all the persons who were to belong to the society. Was it, he would ask, just or fair, because the society exercised the right of private judgment, that they were to be dealt with in the manner now proposed? Was it just to subject them to pains and penalties, because in the exercise of that judgment, they rejected an individual whom they considered not desirable to admit into their society? When he considered the usefulness of the society—its long continuance, and that now, for the first time, the exercise of its judgment was questioned, he must say, that the course adopted by the Irish Government savoured of tyranny and oppression. What sort of liberality was this from those who claimed, exclusively, the title of liberals, to make their own judgment the only standard for others? It was impossible any man could imagine that the object of the proposed inquiry was to extend the usefulness of the society the silly and trifling details into which the hon. Mover had gone with respect to the newspapers—the admission of members for pounds instead of guineas, and other equally trivial suggestions, showed that he had no real grounds on the score of misapplication of the funds to sustain the motion. The object, therefore, was manifestly with a view of dragooning the society, and of telling them that if they did not bow down before the dictation of the Irish Government, and make the amende to the Lord-Lieutenant, they were to be deprived of the national grant. If such were not the object, why were the topics introduced into the motion which had been, and why was it supported by the noble Lord? In his opinion it would be much more manly, at once, on the part of the Government to say, we will not give you this grant because you refused to admit Dr. Murray. The right hon. Gentleman concluded by stating his determination to oppose the motion.

Mr. Sergeant O'Loghlen

said, the rejection of Dr. Murray did not speak the sentiments of the whole society; for, by the rules of the society, a power of rejection was vested in the minority which ruled the decisions of the society. He should certainly, when the question was brought on, vote against granting a sum of 5,000l. a-year to an institution of which the minority (and he knew that Dr. Murray was rejected by the minority) could direct the proceedings for party purposes.

Sir Edward Knatchbull

said, it appeared to him that no case whatever had been made out for inquiry. The right hon. and learned Gentleman who had just sat down could not surely have considered the subject, when he said that the minority of the society controlled the majority. It was true that, according to the by-law, a certain number of black-balls excluded, but it was competent for the society to call a general meeting, and rescind that by-law, that is, if the majority considered it advisable so to do. Therefore, according to the argument of the Attorney-General for Ireland, all that was necessary to do was to convene a general meeting of the Society, and the majority of the Society being (as the right hon. Gentleman, Mr. O'Loghlen, said) favourable to the admission of Dr. Murray, the by-law must of course be rescinded, and the reverend gentleman at once become a member. It was impossible to conceal it—indeed the noble Lord scarcely attempted to do so—that this inquiry was sought solely on the ground of the exclusion of Dr. Murray, notwithstanding that for thirty years only five persons had altogether been refused admission. As to the newspapers being paid for out of the public funds, he was sure that the slightest intimation from the Castle would put a stop to the practice. It was, therefore, idle to suppose that a Parliamentary inquiry was necessary for such a subject, and if his right hon. Friends should press the matter to a division, he (Sir E. K.) should certainly support them.

Colonel Perceval

said, before an inquiry were instituted, it was necessary that a case should be made out against the society; but the only complaint preferred by the noble Lord regarded the payment of a few newspapers. The society had existed for upwards of 100 years, and had conferred great benefits on Ireland, For the last thirty years five persons only had been rejected. The learned Member opposite (Mr. O'Connell) was one of those rejected, but surely that was no reason why the despotic interference of the Government should be interposed in the way it had been attempted. It was the privilege of every society to choose their own associates, and no person could surely accuse the society of bigotry, when it was an ascertained fact, that in that period eight hundred members were admitted, and only five rejected. It was not the fact, as stated by the Attorney-General for Ireland, that Dr. Murray was excluded by a minority. The by-law was framed by the majority—a bare majority was capable of making it, and a bare majority could rescind it. It was manifest that the object was to give the Lord-Lieutenant the power of nomination of members of the society in the same way as he is to appoint constables. If the society submitted to the dictation of the Irish Government, and that they afterwards elected him, he should consider himself disgraced rather than honoured by the election. The noble Lord said, that if such a Protestant as Dr. Whateley had been rejected, he would have taken equal umbrage at it. He believed Dr. Whately was Archbishop of Dublin; if so, he (Col. Perceval) was not surprised at it, as Dr. Whateley was known to hold opinions in unison with those professed by Dr. Murray and the noble Lord opposite.

Mr. Duncombe

said, that an English Member (Sir E. Knatchbull) having spoken, he felt no delicacy in giving his opinion, which was, that a sufficient case had been made out for inquiry, on the sole grounds of misapplication of its funds. It was his (Mr. Duncombe's) opinion that the House had nothing to do with the rejection of Dr. Murray, and his vote would be given, if the question were pressed to a division, on totally distinct grounds from that rejection.

Mr. Fitzstephen French

said, he should support the proposition of his hon. Friend for inquiry. As it appeared to him, the ballot ought not to be retained in a society obtaining grants of public money. He regretted the mention that had been made of Dr. Murray. If the principle of the ballot were admitted, it was not the province of that House to interfere with its exercise; nor was it a matter of much moment to the House whether Dr. Murray, Dr. Whately, or Lord John Beresford were members of the Society. In his opinion, it would have been more consistent with the dignity of the House, and more in accordance with the feelings of the respected individual, if his name were not introduced.

Viscount Morpeth

was bound to admit that the circumstance of Dr. Murray's rejection alone would not have been sufficient grounds for Parliamentary inquiry. The strong case was this, that the Government had proposed a series of regulations to the society which they had rejected; and, therefore, when the Government had to propose a grant for a society with which they were in collision, he thought the House was bound to step in and arbitrate between them.

The House divided:—Ayes 49; Noes 13; Majority 36. The Committee was appointed.

List of the AYES.
Aglionby, H. A. Barry, G. S.
Attwood, T. Berkeley, Hon. C.
Bagshaw, J. Blake, M. J.
Baines, E. Bodkin, J. J.
Baldwin, Dr. Brabazon, Sir W.
Barron, H. W. Bridgeman, H.
Brocklehurst, J. Musgrave, Sir R.
Brodie, W. B. O'Brien, W. S.
Callaghan, D. O'Connell, J.
Chalmers, P. O'Connell, M. J.
Dillwynn, L. W. O'Connell, M.
Duncombe, T. O'Loghlen, Sergeant
Ewart, W. Pendarves, E. W. W.
Fergusson, Hon. R. Potter, R.
Fielden, J. Rooper, J. B.
French, F. Scholefield, J.
Grattan, J. Sheldon, E. R. C.
Hallyburton, D. G. Thompson, Colonel
Heathcoat, J. Thorneley, T.
Hector, C. J. Trelawney, Sir W.
Hodges, T. L. Vivian, J. H.
Lennox, Lord G. Wakley, T.
Lennox, Lord A. Wallace, R.
Lynch, A. H. TELLERS.
Marshland, H. Baring, F.
Morpeth, Lord Visc. Smith, V.
List of the NOES.
Bruen, F. Plunkett, Hon. R. E.
Dunbar, G. Shaw, Rt. Hon. F.
Estcourt, T. Spry, Sir S. T.
Estcourt, T. Tennent, J. E.
Forbes, W. Vesey, Hon. T.
Gaskell, J. Milnes TELLERS.
Knatchbull, Sir E. Lefroy rt. hon. T.
O'Neil, Hon. J. B. R. Perceval, Colonel.