HC Deb 26 February 1869 vol 194 cc357-66

, in rising to call attention to the present system of Irish Representation and to put Questions to Her Majesty's Government thereon, said, he was conscious that the House must feel as fully as he did the desirability of such a question as this being taken up by abler and more experienced hands than his, but as no Member better qualified seemed disposed to deal with it he hoped the House would not refuse him the kind indulgence which it usually accorded to those who addressed it for the first time. In the first place, it would be necessary for him to review some of the principal incidents of the Reform legislation of the last few years, but he hoped to do so without any superfluous reference to those controversies which took place at the time. It would be in the recollection of the House that in the course of last Session the Government introduced Reform Bills for Ireland and Scotland; and that, whilst that for Scotland had the good fortune to emerge from the Legislature a complete and perfect measure, such a fate did not befall that for Ireland, for at a very early period of its career those most important clauses which had reference to the redistribution of seats were withdrawn, and only those relating to the franchise became law, the Government believing that it would be impossible for them to carry at that time any measure on which any serious difference of opinion existed. He would ask the House to go back a little earlier in the history of Reform. In 1866, a measure was introduced by the Government of Lord Russell, which contemplated treating the question of Reform in two separate parts, and a Franchise Bill was introduced without having any reference to the re-distribution of seats, but that course did not obtain general approval; and his noble Friend the Member for Chester (Earl Grosvenor) proposed an Amendment by which he sought to obtain from the House a declaration that it was desirable that the question of the franchise and that of the re-distribution of seats should go together. Her Majesty's Government, after some resistance, assented to that principle, and brought in a mea- sure for the re-distribution of seats for England and Wales, even though they were compelled to do so without that mature deliberation and careful inquiry which they might have wished to bestow on the subject. Since then it had been generally recognized by both sides of the House that the question of Reform ought to be treated as a whole, and that the franchise and re-distribution of seats should be dealt with in one measure. That policy had been pursued with regard to England and Scotland, but not with regard to Ireland. One of the principal objections offered to such a course as that of separating the two measures from each other was the possibility that a dissolution might possibly intervene between the passing of the Franchise Bill and the introduction of a measure for the re-distribution of seats. Now that was precisely what had occurred with regard to Ireland—and at what a crisis in her history. That Her Majesty should be advised to dissolve Parliament and appeal to a constituency but half reformed, a mere apology for an electoral body, and rather the ghost of the old constituency than the germ of the new, had been hitherto regarded as little short of a mockery of representative institutions. Yet that was precisely what had occurred in dealing with Ireland; nor did the anomalous state of her representation end there. By the Acts of 1866–7 England had one representative for every 41,000 of population, Wales had one for every 38,000, and Scotland one for every 52,000, or thereabouts. Ireland had one for every 56,000, and although that state of things might be viewed with calmness by those who always expected Ireland to occupy an inferior position, he doubted whether the House would be content to allow her to be worse treated in this matter than the sister kingdoms. The anomaly was even more striking if the representation of the counties alone was compared. The English counties had one Member to every 58,000 of population, the Welsh one to every 49,000, the Scotch one to every 56,000, but Ireland one only to every 78,194. Considering so much had been said about Reform, he was somewhat surprised that not even professed grievance-mongers had discovered and published this very gross electoral anomaly. He would put it in another way. The 5,000,000 of Ireland had, through their counties, sixty-four Members in Parliament; if those 5,000,000 had the good fortune to be situated between the Thames and the Tweed they would have eighty-six Members; if their lot had fallen in the still more fortunate country north of the Tweed they would have ninety, and if they had occupied that political paradise, the district lying between the Severn and Cardigan Bay they would have 102—only one less than the Members returned by all the boroughs and counties of Ireland. Again, if the representation of the English and Scotch counties had been framed on the estimate for Ireland, the House would number some fifty or sixty less than at present. It was resolved in the course of the Reform discussion to increase the representation of English counties exceeding 300,000 in population from four Members to six. Exclusive of the two large counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, no less than ten English counties obtained this measure of justice, and there were fifteen counties in England containing a population between 150,000 and 300,000, which returned at the present time no less than four Members. Now, the population of the great county of Cork was, exclusive of boroughs, 419,000, and yet that great county returned only two Members to the British Parliament. The counties of Antrim, Down, Mayo, Galway, Donegal, Tyrone, and Tipperary, each of them containing between 200,000 and 300,000 inhabitants, and each of which, if situated on this side of St. George's Channel, would return four Members, only returned two. There were at least a dozen more—he would not weary the House with their names—which, if situated in England, would be placed on the same footing as Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Hertfordshire. He confessed, in days when they heard so much about the great things they were going to do for Ireland, it appeared singular that no one should have taken up this question. If the mantle of O'Connell, who had always been alive to national rather than to party grievances, had descended on any Irish Member, this subject would have been brought forward before, and they would have obtained a far more just and satisfactory measure for Ireland than they had done. It might be supposed that he had taken up something of a forlorn hope in pressing this subject on a Ministry who had shown themselves so indifferent as not to think it worthy of a place in the Speech from the Throne. But there were two circumstances on which he built his hopes. The first was that there was among Her Majesty's present advisers one who had promised to drag his Colleagues to the bar of public opinion whenever he found them wanting in their duty to the public. Well, he would call upon that right hon. Gentleman now to perform that patriotic though somewhat painful operation in a case which must move his sympathies so strongly. In common with those who had watched that right hon. Gentleman's career he knew his implacable animosity to little boroughs, and his sympathies with large populations that were not fairly represented. He did not see why the Irish counties should not have the same sympathy from the right hon. Gentleman, and he trusted that the right hon. Gentleman might yet find an opportunity for one of those confidential communications—which some said were more frequently tendered than accepted—recommending this act of justice to the Irish people. The other ground on which he relied was that this Parliament had been specially elected and the Ministry had come into power on the simple, broad, and equitable platform of justice to Ireland. This was no sentimental grievance. In a very few days they would be all engaged in a wild-goose chase, they would be pursuing every ignis fatuus that a disordered fancy could conjure up. Before setting out on that Quixotic enterprize he hoped they would receive a promise that a real grievance such as that he had set forth would receive due attention from Her Majesty's Government. They were told that the Irish people were dissatisfied, and that they distrusted the good intentions of the British Parliament. Why should they not distrust a Parliament in which they had only a mockery of representation? He was not at present going to ask the Chief Secretary for Ireland or the House to entertain a question that might lead to a distribution of seats throughout England and Scotland as well as Ireland. The remedy was close at hand. He had said that the electoral unit in the Irish counties was 78,000, in the Irish boroughs 21,000, and taking this basis of population as their guide they found that the Irish boroughs were as much favoured as the counties were injured. The boroughs in Ireland might be fairly divided into three classes. First, there were four great cities—Dublin, Belfast, Cork, and Limerick—which counted for a population of 500,000 out of 800,000 who inhabited Parliamentary boroughs. Next to them in importance was another set of boroughs, the most populous of which was Waterford, and the least populous Lisburn, and which contained about 224,000 inhabitants. They returned eighteen Members. Below that limit were thirteen boroughs, containing about 72,000 inhabitants, and returning thirteen Members, their average population being 5,529, while, as he had said, the average population to each Member in the great counties was 78,194. Was a state of things of that kind to be allowed to continue? They had now got in the House a Ministry which could command a great majority, and who could employ their majority to do that which a weak Ministry could not attempt. He would ask them to sweep from the face of the earth these thirteen little boroughs, and to give their Members to the great populous counties which he had named, and even when they had done that they would find that, in the counties, the average population represented by one Member would be 64,000, while in the boroughs it would be 25,000 or 26,000; so that the boroughs of Ireland would be nearly three times as well represented as the counties, instead of four times, as they were now. From the thirteen seats thus obtained they might give two to Cork county—he did not see why it should not return six Members—two additional to Antrim and Down, and one additional Member to each of the counties he had before enumerated. Suppose such a course was taken he should be probably told it would do no good. There were two bugbears to Members of that House. Hon. Gentlemen opposite would say there was no use in giving more Members to Irish counties because they would in that case give more power to the landlord. Thus, the Irish landlord was the bugbear of hon. Members opposite. On the other hand, hon. Gentlemen on that (the Opposition) side would be inclined to say—"You are giving too much power to the priests." Thus, the priest was a bug- bear to hon. Members on that side. But when they were doing an act of simple justice they ought not to look to results. If they owed a man £50, they should not inquire before paying it how he meant to spend it. If they adopted the plan which he had recommended, they might find an opportunity of giving a representative to the minority in each county, and thus diminish the bitterness to which election contests in Ireland gave rise. They would tranquillize the enmities, and at the same time recognize the just aspirations of the Irish people to have a fit representation. He would say, in conclusion, that they were invited at the present time to pay particular attention to the mote which might be observed in the eye of the Bishops and clergy of Ireland. Where, he would ask, was the beam which had obscured the vision of our English Reformers? Their conscience was so tender that they strained at the gnat of the Church Establishment in Ireland, and yet they expected the Irish people to swallow such a camel as to be represented in that House by persons—excellent and worthy persons no doubt—but sent to Parliament by constituencies unworthy of the name of towns. He wished to ask the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to introduce, during the present Session, a measure for the Redistribution of Seats in Ireland, and, if so, when; and further, whether it is not, in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, somewhat premature to enter upon legislation materially affecting the welfare of Ireland before such a measure has been considered?


said, that what the hon. Gentleman wished was to have the Irish people represented through counties; but as the representative of one of the small boroughs which the hon. Gentleman wished to abolish (New Ross), he must deny that the proposal would afford any satisfaction. What the Irish people themselves complained of was that the counties had a far larger representation than the counties in England, and very much larger than the boroughs. What the Irish people wanted was to be put in the same position as the people of England—that the counties should not have a larger proportion, and that the boroughs should have the same proportion of representatives as the boroughs of England. That Irish matters were brought before the House so often was all owing to the undue predominance of the landlord interest in Ireland. There were 105 Members returned from Ireland; two by the University of Dublin, sixty-four by the counties, and thirty-nine by the boroughs. Substantially there were sixty-six county Members to thirty-nine borough Members in Ireland. But in England, how stood the proportion? Up to the passing of the last Reform Act there were about three borough Members to one county Member. It was true some alteration was made by the late Act. In England, under the present law, the boroughs had 112 more Members than the counties; but the hon. Member for Chester (Earl Grosvenor) wanted to increase the representation of the Irish counties. Formerly there were 236 borough and sixty-four county members in Ireland; but at the Union, while the counties kept all their representatives, 200 borough seats were abolished. When the Irish Church was abolished he hoped the Government would bring in a Reform Bill for Ireland; and he hoped they would do so next year, or even, perhaps, towards the end of the present Session, if no needless opposition were offered to the passing of their measures relating to the Established Church. But what the people of Ireland desired in the matter of Parliamentary Reform was that their representation should be put upon exactly the same footing as that of England, and that the proportion of seats now given respectively to the counties and boroughs of Ireland should be reversed.


said, that the hon. Member for Chester (Mr. Raikes), in his zeal for the interests of Ireland and his kind intentions towards her people, had devoted a considerable part of his speech to advocating the claims of that country as a whole to a largely increased number of representatives. But, as he proceeded, he was good enough to withdraw that proposal from their present consideration, and did not ask them to involve themselves in a debate which he knew well would be one of no little difficulty and no small dimensions, if the question of a general re-distribution of seats were to be once more re-opened as between the three kingdoms in the first Session of the Reformed Parliament. He, therefore, understood the hon. Gentleman to limit his Question to the subject which appeared on the Notice Paper—namely, the re-distribution of seats in Ireland. Well, the circumstances in which that part of the Bill of the late Government fell out of sight in the course of its progress were familiar to most of them, and had, he thought, been correctly stated by the hon. Gentleman. As to that he would only say he believed the re-distribution clauses of that Bill were dropped by a sort of general consent on both sides, mainly for two reasons—first of all, because they were deemed by most of them extremely unsatisfactory, and certainly did not meet with favour from the Irish Members on that (the Ministerial) side, nor, he thought, with much favour from Irish Members on the other side. In the second place, the question of the re-distribution of seats in Ireland could not, after all, be one of very great magnitude. Important, indeed, as every such question was, still in the nature of things in the case of Ireland it must be confined within pretty narrow limits. It seemed to him that the greatest reform which could be made in the representation of Ireland would be one which he was afraid was not in the competence of that House, and that was the creation of a considerable number of large and important towns in that country. They might trust to her future progress in wealth, prosperity, and population to remedy that defect; but the truth was that if they were to have boroughs at all in Ireland, they must, for the most part, be boroughs of a small class. And when he heard the proposal of the hon. Member for Chester, made on the plea of justice to Ireland, he felt convinced that it would be met, as it had already been met by the hon. Member for New Ross (Mr. M'Mahon), with very great disfavour. The hon. Gentleman's proposal was that there should be a very considerable transfer of seats from the boroughs to the counties of Ireland. Now, that was not a process which he was prepared to adopt. He did not believe that any considerable increase—he would not say none—of the county representation at the expense of the boroughs would be acceptable to the public opinion of Ireland, or would put the representation of that country on a proper footing. It was true there were in Ireland several important counties, large in size and numerous in population, with only two Members. But at the same time every county in Ireland possessed two Members, which was not the case in all parts of the United Kingdom; and, moreover, many of the Irish counties were small. Again, in the Irish counties there was a great degree of uniformity in the character of their population, which might be said to be divided almost entirely between landlords and tenants; whereas the population of the English and Scotch counties contained much more varied elements. Those facts afforded an additional reason to his mind why they should take care not, to any considerable extent, to impair or diminish the amount of the borough representation which Ireland now enjoyed, small as, he regretted to say, many of the boroughs were. But he was asked whether it was the intention of the Government to introduce in the present Session a measure for the re-distribution of seats in Ireland. Well, that subject had not formed a part of the programme of Her Majesty's Government. He could not admit that it was a subject which urgently required to be dealt with, and he must say he thought that of all times the first Session of a New and Reformed Parliament was about the time least fitted for dealing with it. But events were happening at this moment which might possibly make some difference in the course to be taken on that matter, because, without prejudging what might occur, it was impossible to shut their eyes to the fact that proceedings were now going on before the Election Judges in Ireland which might impose on the House and the Government the necessity, in some limited degree, of considering that very question of the transfer of representation from one community to another. But the hon. Member for Chester asked another question on a point on which, however, he had not dealt at much length in his speech—namely, whether, in the opinion of the Government, it was not premature to enter upon legislation affecting the welfare of Ireland until they had carried a measure for the redistribution of seats? Now he had no hesitation in giving a positive answer to that part of the hon. Gentleman's inquiry. He was decidedly of opinion that it was by no means premature to introduce the measures of which the Government had given Notice; and that the defects, such as they were, which he did not deny to exist in the Irish sys- tem of representation, formed no reason whatever for any delay in carrying out that policy which Her Majesty's Government had announced. On the contrary, speaking with some knowledge of Ireland, he would venture to say to the hon. Member for Chester that while that policy had received the adhesion of a great majority of the Irish people, as expressed through their present representatives, the only effect of substituting for the present system of representation in Ireland one still more perfect and more capable of expressing the views of its people would, he believed, be largely to increase the support accorded to the policy announced by Her Majesty's Ministers.