HC Deb 26 March 1879 vol 244 cc1772-821

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said: Sir, the Act, which we seek to repeal by the present Bill, was passed by the Irish Parliament in 1793. It is entitled "An Act to prevent the Election or Appointment of Unlawful Assemblies under Pretence of Presenting Public Petitions or other Addresses to His Majesty and the Parliament." There could scarcely be a more deceptive title. Those who read the Act will see that it was a law to render unlawful and penal, save in the cases of Parliament and the established Corporations, all expression of opinion on any subject, if such opinion were expressed by means of a nominee or delegate. The only excuse for the passing of such an Act, the only palliation of the conduct of the Law Officers of a Government introducing such a Bill is one which suggests itself from the date of the enactment. It is the still surviving offspring of the panic of the great revolutionary year of 1793. Most laws passed in time of panic are unwise, but this was singularly and preeminently so. It tended to produce the very evils which its framers designed that it should avert. Within five years from its passing there was matured a rebellious conspiracy amongst the Protestants of the North of Ireland, which subsequently extended to the South, and spread desolation on all sides, amongst Protestants and Catholics alike. It is a reasonable inference that this Act, which fomented discontent, contributed to the outbreak, for it made the ordinary means of collecting opinion, whether with a view to redress of grievances or not, a statutable offence. It shut down the safety-valve, which we all now know is best kept in operation by giving the widest range for the expression on all lawful subjects of the opinions and aspirations of the people. We also know that such expression can be best given vicariously, and by comparatively a few, rather than by monster meetings, which are more liable to tumult under ordinary circumstances. The Preamble of the Bill purported to declare the reasons for passing the measure; it was in these words— Whereas, the election or appointment of assemblies purporting to represent the people, or any number of them, may, under pretence of preparing petitions, be made use of for factious purposes and sedition, to the violating of the public peace, and so on, be it enacted. What? But, before I explain what it enacted, let me dwell for a moment on the grounds relied on in the Preamble for passing the Bill. I do so, in order to show the inconsistency of the Act with the Preamble. The Preamble says, in effect—whereas the election or appointment of assemblies with unlawful objects in view, but on ostensibly legal pretexts, may be made to serve factious ends, and so on—let something be done. One would expect that the enactment which was to follow would be something to prevent the meeting of unlawful assemblies under pretence of delegation for legal purposes; and if that were so, and if the enactment were suited to the emergency, there could be very little urged against the Preamble, for it merely asserts in the abstract what, in fact, no one questions. We must all admit it is quite true. It would be true at present in England or in Scotland. But no one for that reason suggests that, because some people may make a bad use of a natural right, in this last quarter of the 19th century the exercise of a natural right should be made unlawful for those who have never abused it. But someone suggests that because we find this wretched, groundless, unhappy piece of legislation on the Statute Book, we ought to permit it to remain—no matter how useless it has proved, no matter how degrading and offensive it must be considered by the people of Ireland, and by the Representatives of her people in this House. I pass from the Preamble. Now, let us examine what is enacted by the measure. It enacts— That all assemblies, committees, or other bodies of persons elected, or in any manner appointed, to represent the people of this realm, or any number or description of the people of the same, or the people of any province, county, city, town, or other district within the same, under pretence of petitioning for, or in any other manner procuring, an alteration of matters established by law in Church or State, save and except the knights, citizens, and burgesses elected to serve in the Parliament thereof, and save and except the Houses of Convention duly summoned by the King's writ, are unlawful assemblies, and it shall and may be lawful for any sheriff, justice of the peace, or other peace officer, and they are hereby respectively authorised and required, within his and their respective jurisdictions, to disperse all such unlawful assemblies, and if resisted, to enter into the same, and to apprehend all persons offending in that behalf. The 2nd section makes it a high misdemeanour to take part in the election of a representative or delegate; the 3rd section simply provides that the law shall not effect bodies corporate; and the 4th, that it shall not impede the right of the subject to petition His Majesty, or both, or either Houses of Parliament for redress of any public or private grievance. The Bill originated in the House of Lords. It was brought down to the House of Commons, where only verbal Amendments were made. It received the Royal Assent on the 16th of August, 1793, and it has disgraced the Statute Book from that day to this. I have explained already how useless the Act was to prevent rebellion and conspiracies against the State—nay, that it tended to provoke them, for it drove men to do in private what was made criminal, if done in public; and we well know, when the limits of legality are once passed, it becomes almost a matter of indifference to the trespassers whether they proceed further in the same direction. The case which I submit to the House for the repeal of the Act of 1793 is three-fold—first, that it was introduced by surprise and carried in panic; second, that it is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution—a fact even more glaringly manifest since the Legislative Union between the Islands, seeing that no such law of pains and penalties applied to the people of Great Britain—and, thirdly, that to keep it in force for Ireland is a grievance and degradation. I do not lightly assert that this Act of 1793 was introduced by surprise and carried in panic. I will prove it. I will show how Governmental and Legislative business was carried on in Ireland during that year, and I will prove that the measures of repression, Executive and Legislative, which were pressed on Parliament by the Government in that year were attributable, and expressly attributed, to extraordinary causes which no longer exist. The Irish Parliament met for the Session on the 10th of January, 1793. The Lord Lieutenant (the Earl of Westmorland), in the Speech from the Throne, made these statements— His Majesty commands me to meet you. His Majesty feels the utmost concern that various attempts have been made to excite a spirit of discontent. It is an additional ground of uneasiness to his Majesty that views of conquest and dominion should have incited France to interfere with the government of other countries, & c, & c. Under these circumstances, I have, by His Majesty's commands, ordered an augmentation of the Forces upon this Establishment. And the Viceroy goes on to say— By the advice of the Privy J. Council, measures have been taken to prevent the exportation of corn, provisions, naval stores, arms, and ammunition. I now ask the attention of the House to the next passage in the Speech, which bears on all that went before, and which justifies me in claiming that this House is bound to regard the repressive measures of 1793 as exceptional, and should not hesitate for a single Session to sweep this last and most objectionable of them from the Statute Book. The Viceroy continues— The circumstances which render these measures necessary will, I trust, justify any temporary infringement of the laws, and will induce you to give them a Parliamentary sanction. Now, Sir, I ask the House to consider these words of the Viceroy, in the Speech from the Throne, as conclusive of the extraordinary and exceptional circumstances under which, and of the year in which, the Irish Parliament passed this repressive law, and sanctioned certain Executive Acts of the Government in 1793. I do not read, nor ask the House to read, 1793 by the light of 1879, nor do I ask the House to agree with my views as to the character of the legislation. I make a much stronger case than even that. I ask the House to look upon the repressive legislation of 1793 in the same light as that in which it was presented to the Irish Parliament in the Speech from the Throne, and, even on that view, to reverse it. I do not wish to cast obloquy on the Law Officers of the Irish Government of 1793. I daresay the then Lord Chancellor and the Attorneys General felt themselves justified in the course which they took; nor do I desire to pass over without recognition a passage in the speech of Lord Westmor- land, which, perhaps, as much as any other, indicated the serious view which the Government took of the situation. The Lord Lieutenant further said that he had A command from His Majesty to recommend to their consideration such measures as might be most likely to strengthen and cement a general union of sentiment among all classes and descriptions of His Majesty's subjects in support of the established Constitution. With this view, His Majesty trusts that the situation of His Majesty's Catholic subjects will engage your serious attention. The Commons made a suitable Address—dutiful and loyal—and said, amongst other things— We are sensible of His Majesty's goodness in relying upon our wisdom and liberality, and we shall obey His Majesty's commands in giving full consideration to the situation of our Roman Catholic brethren. I have cited these passages to indicate the precise temper and views of the Government of the Earl of Westmorland in 1793, and if I extenuate nothing, I will keep equally clear of setting down anything unfairly. But, now, I must examine the character of the legislation of 1793, apart from the Convention Act which we seek to repeal. It is by such an examination that I hope to bring home to the minds of hon. Members that is a reproach to us if we retain this so-called Convention Act any longer on the Statute Book. The first Act passed by the Irish Parliament in 1793 was one to make regulations in respect to aliens dwelling in, or arriving in, the Kingdom. The spirit of apprehension which we find in the first Act of Parliament betrays itself to the end. They lived in perilous times, so the Preamble says— Much danger, under present circumstances, might arise from the resort and residence of aliens. Of course, there might. After which come 43 enacting clauses to counteract the danger. The next Public Bill which passed was an Act To prevent the importation of Arms, Gunpowder, and Ammunition, and the keeping of Gunpowder without licence. Next followed an Act To indemnify those Officers of the King who had been engaged in carrying certain proclamations of the Lord Lieutenant into effect. These measures indicate the sense of danger under which the Public Business was carried on. It was not, however, until July, and the expiring days of the Session, that the Convention Act was sprung upon both Houses of Parliament. I will now state, for the information of the House, the circumstances which led up to the introduction of the Bill. There was nothing to indicate it in the Speech from the Throne; and I feel convinced that the Earl of Westmorland was free from all complicity with the design of it. There is scarcely any need to remind hon. Members that the year 1793 was, from its opening to its close, the most troubled epoch in the last century. The year opened in France with the beheading of Louis the Sixteenth; it was the year of the Reign of Terror and the worship of the Goddess of Reason in that country; it was in England a year of intense popular excitement, and of the wildest political theories. It could not be expected that, under such circumstances, all would have been tranquil in Ireland. Accordingly, we find that in the Irish House of Lords, on February 11, 1793, there was an important debate on the subject of the state of the country on the Motion of the Earl of Aldborough for a Committee of Inquiry. The Earl of Bellamont spoke strongly in favour of the appointment of the Committee. He made use of these words in the course of his speech— The Roman Catholic clergy have been supposed to have had influence in this insurrection. I rather attribute it to their want of influence. No; it is a description of secondary politicians who have usurped the spiritual functions—such are now the teachers of the mob. In the result, a Secret Committee of the Lords was appointed with full powers. On the 7th March, 1793, they made their Report. It referred to several isolated acts of crime and disturbance, and thus concludes— The result of their inquiries is that, in their opinion, it is incompatible with the public safety and tranquillity of this Kingdom to permit bodies of men in arms to assemble when they please, without any legal authority; and that the existence of a self-created body of any description of the King's subjects, taking upon itself the government of them, and levying taxes or subscriptions to be applied at the discretion of such representative body, or of persons deputed by them, is also incompatible with the public safety and tranquillity. Now, here is a general principle laid down, which no one in England or Ireland will dispute. What I say, however, is that the Act now under discussion affirms something wholly different from that which the Irish Lords' Committee of 1793 ventured to state as a matter of opinion. Observe, that Report was presented to Parliament on the 7th of March; but nothing was done or stated in Parliament about this Convention Bill until a period of the Session when most of the Lords had gone to the country. On the 8th July the Bill was introduced in the Lords, and read a first time. It was in the charge of Lord Chancellor Fitzgibbon (afterwards Earl of Clare). It was, as I will show, a genuine surprise to Parliament, and it was hurried through its stages with unusual, and I may say, with indecent haste. The Lord Chancellor, who had already in Parliament confessed himself personally opposed to the measure of Catholic relief introduced by command of the King, determined to carry this Bill. These are the dates. It was introduced by the Lord Chancellor, and read a first time in the Lords on the 8th of July. It must not be supposed that this Bill, which we are here to-day discussing with a view to its repeal, even in the panic year of 1793 passed even the Irish House of Lords unchallenged. It was read a second time in the House of Lords on the 10th of July, 1793, and a debate arose on the Motion, "That the said Bill be committed to a Committee of the Whole House." The Motion was carried; but it led to a remarkable Protest, which we find on the Journals of the House, from the Duke of Leinster and the Earls of Arran and of Charlemont. There were but 23 Lords present on that occasion, out of a House of about 170 Members. I ask the attention of the House to the Protest of the noble Lords whom I have named. They were dissentient— 1st—Because we are clearly of opinion that the laws as they now stand are amply sufficient to curb licentiousness of every sort, and to prevent or punish all such crimes as may be injurious to the State or subversive of public tranquillity. 2nd—Because, even though it were true that any evil existed such as might seem to require a new law to counteract its effects, we conceive that laws made on particular emergencies, and enacted on the spur of the occasion, are at all times dangerous to constitutional liberty, inasmuch as they are usually framed in haste, and perhaps under the influence of passion or to arbitrary principle, and are apt, therefore, to entail upon the State a real and permanent evil, instead of the evanescent and temporary inconvenience they assume to obviate. 3rd—Because that as this Bill assumes to itself the style and character of a declaration, as well as of an enacting law, we cannot enough testify our disapprobation of the dangerous practice of grounding a declaration of law upon the foundation of old and obsolete statutes enacted in arbitrary times, falling into disuse, unrepealed, and esteemed by all sound and constitutional lawyers as the lumber and disgrace of the Statute Book. 4th—Because we conceive it to be not only improper, but highly indecent, that a law of such delicate importance should be brought forward at a season when from various causes this House is so ill attended, and deprived of so many of its wisest and best Members. We therefore solemnly protest against the committal of this Bill, at the same time declaring our utter disapprobation of all such meetings or conventions as it purposes to prevent, and firmly trusting that our fellow-citizens, warned and instructed by the sad experience of neighbouring countries, will cautiously abstain from every proceeding which can in any degree tend to public disorder.—(Signed) LEINSTER, ARRAN, CHARLEMONT. There were only present on this occasion, as I have already remarked, 23 Peers out of 170. The Bill was taken in Committee on the 11th July, and reported to the House on the 12th. On the 13th, it was read a third time in the Lords, and taken down to the House of Commons, where it was read a first time on same day. That was on Saturday, after which the House of Commons adjourned till the 16th (Tuesday). We find the Bill at its second reading in the House of Commons on the 17th. It went to a Division, and was carried by 128 to 27 votes. One of the Tellers of the Ayes on that occasion was a certain Major Wellesley, then 24 years of age, and Member for the borough of Trim. Thirty-six years after that Division, and just 50 years ago, it fell to the lot of that hon. Member, as Duke of Wellington and Premier of England, to carry through the Imperial Parliament the Act of Catholic Emancipation—a victory for right as memorable and more lasting in its effects than that of Waterloo, which deposed the dynasty of Napoleon. The Convention Bill was stoutly opposed by Mr. Grattan. Some of my hon. Friends who are to follow me will probably refer to his speeches; but I fear I have already spoken, or may have to speak, at too great length, and I have rather to deal with those who favoured this measure than with those who, to their eternal honour, opposed it. I must refer to the then Attorney General's speech in reply to Mr. Grattan, and I incorporate his words as a portion of the case I make here to-day for the repeal of this Act. The hon. and learned Attorney General said— I will tell the right hon. Gentleman the object of this Bill; it is not the Catholic Convention, nor any meeting heretofore holden, but it is that Congress or Convention of which he has spoken, and which is intended to meet at Athlone as soon as the Parliament shall be prorogued. This Convention takes its rise from a society in this City which has distinguished itself for great activity in exciting discontent and promoting disturbance. In the last winter this society projected the late Dungannon meeting, and that meeting has ordered and directed the Convention at Athlone. Now, granting for one moment that what the Attorney General said in the Irish House of Commons was quite true, must it not appear to anyone familiar with the principles of British law a very insufficient reason for passing a permanent Act to suppress or render unlawful for all time all delegations, however innocent or useful in themselves? To me it appears that the admissions of the hon. and learned Attorney General in 1793 are, at this day, as conclusive against the Bill as were the Protests of the Duke of Leinster and those other noble Lords, or as were the eloquent denunciations of Mr. Grattan. I have not, however, done with the Attorney General of 1793. On the 18th of July, on the Order of the Day for going into Committee being read, Mr. Grattan said that he intended to move— That it be an instruction to the Committee to receive a clause to limit the duration of this Act. I particularly wish the House to consider the nature of the objection then taken by the Attorney General. He said— He could by no means agree to the introduction of such a clause consistently with his arguments of yesterday—namely, that the Bill was only declaratory of what was already the law of the land. Sir, bearing this in mind, I say there never was an Act passed under graver misstatements as to the existing law. The Attorney General all through, in the House and in Committee, misstated the law. Hon. Members may not take my word on that point; but I will do this— I will prove that he so mis-stated it, or else that the law was mis-stated to this House in 1869 by Her Majesty's then Attorney General. I beg the House to listen to this—Major Doyle, one of the Members of the Irish House of Commons, on 18th of July, while the Bill was in Committee, suggested the necessity of quieting The fears of the Quakers, by making some exception in favour of them, as they very often delegated members of their body for considering matters in Church and State. He knew their fears were unfounded, but it was right they should be removed. To this the Attorney General replied— Nothing could be more remote from the intentions of gentlemen than that the Bill should affect any such delegations. Can anything be plainer? Was this or was it not a misleading of the House of Commons? Let me now call attention to what took place at the time of passing the Act in 1869 to permit the formation of the Irish Church Body. The then Attorney General for Ireland (Mr. Sullivan) is reported in Hansard, vol. 195, page 1019, to have spoken these words in reference to the Bill then before Parliament— The Bill merely left the Church to agree to a form of constitution for itself, and it took away disabilities imposed by the statute law in Ireland. By a peculiar law of old standing in that country, and framed for a particular purpose, no person or body could meet by delegation, and that prohibition would extend to the meeting of the Church in Convocation. It was therefore necessary to wipe that Act from the Statute Book in order to enable the Church to meet in Synod; and so it could by the common law. All this is plain, and quite true; but, if so, let me ask how can what the Attorney General told Parliament in 1793 be also true, that the Bill was not to interfere with the delegations of the Quakers? I say, it is now plainly in evidence that the Attorney General in 1793 gravely misstated the fact and misrepresented the law by the answer he gave Major Doyle. The Bill was read a third time in the Commons on the 19th of July—that is to say, that it finally passed both Houses on the 11th day from the day of its introduction by the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords. It received the Royal Assent on the last day of the Session (the 16th August) with several other Bills. It has disgraced the Statute Book ever since. I have already said that it was introduced by surprise and carried in panic. I add now, that it was carried by misrepresentation in the last few days of an expiring Session. In order to show that they were the last days of the Session, I will give this House the dates of the sitting of the Irish House of Commons. The Bill passed finally, as I have already stated, on the 19th of July—the next day, the 20th, the House met and adjourned till the 26th, and on the 26th it adjourned till the 16th August, when the Session closed—thus it sat three days, and only three, after passing this wretched piece of legislation. And now, Sir, I have brought my melancholy history of this indecent and discreditable contrivance nearly to an end. I have, however, yet to deal with the arguments which have been heretofore offered in the present Parliament for its retention. There never yet was a penal law, I believe, which has not had its advocates and its votaries. This Act is almost an exception, however, of late years, for those who have made formal combat for it, as it appears to me, were half-hearted and doubtful of their cause; nevertheless, I may not pass over what they said without rejoinder on this occasion. The noble Marquess who now leads the Opposition (the Marquess of Hartington), when objecting in 1872 to its repeal, admitted that it was not an Act which should remain permanently on the Statute Book. He, however, said that— In the time of Mr. O'Connell, it was proposed to hold a National Convention, which was announced as furnishing a correct representation of the Irish people; and it was only by means of this Act that that Convention was prevented from being held. He also said, explaining the uses to which the Act had been put, that— In 1848 the Irish Confederation announced its intention of summoning a National Council, to be elected by the various local national councils in that country, and, of course, such a Council would equally have purported to be the national representative of Ireland."—[3 Hansard, ccxi. 144.] Sir, I answer these objections by saying that such proceedings as are here described are illegal and punishable, irrespective of this Act. There is surely no need of the Irish Convention Act to repress seditious meetings, if it be requisite to do so. But, let me ask, is it not one of the clumsiest, as well as one of the most unjust, of policies to abridge the freedom of the well-disposed—to make a lawful act unlawful for ever—that you may throw some impediment—which, for the most part, they despise—in the way of the seditious and the unruly? But to all arguments for retaining this Act in force there is also this answer—that such arguments were equally cogent and equally availed of in their day for the retention of each one of the penal laws repealed during the present century. I hope, Sir, that the hon. and learned Member for the University of Dublin (Mr. Plunket)—the Colleague of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland—will not imagine I undervalue the observations which he made in 1875, pleading that the Bill should be allowed still to remain in force. The hon. and learned Gentleman said, in opposing the Motion to repeal the Bill— The Motion had been before the House on several occasions, and had been resisted by the Representatives of the Irish Government of both political Parties. The speech of the hon. Member"—[the Member for Westmeath (Mr. P. J. Smyth]—"tended to create a misapprehension as to the character of the measure. The Convention Act did not in any degree interfere with the right of public meeting in Ireland, nor did it interfere with the right of petitioning. That Act provided that meetings of a representative character, or in the nature of a delegated assembly, drawn together for the purpose of procuring a change in matters established by law in Church or State, should not be allowed. It would not be denied, he apprehended, that were the Act repealed, a Convention would be immediately called together in Ireland. Would not such an institution necessarily act as a rival to the House of Commons, and keep alive and exasperate those unhappy divisions that had already existed there? "—[Ibid, ccxxii. 1959–60.] It is melancholy to think that such an utterance as that could pass for fair commentary on the Act of 1793, or on the Bill to repeal it? But the hon. and learned Gentleman had nothing better to say, for, if he had, so accomplished a debater would not have allowed the occasion to pass without saying it. It is not, Sir, I maintain, a true rendering of the Act of 1793, to describe its provisions as if they only interfered with delegated assemblies drawn together for the purpose of procuring a change in matters established by law in Church and State, and it is the merest playing on the fears of the ignorant and imagi- native to say that if the Act were repealed a Convention would be called together in Ireland as a rival to the House of Commons, and that the hon. and learned Gentleman did not anticipate that such an intention would be denied. Sir, the idea is simply ridiculous. I deny that such folly is in the minds of the Irish people who desire the repeal of this Bill, and I think it little short of lamentable that such an assumption should pass for argument. The people of Ireland have no idea of seeking redress of their grievances by any but Constitutional means, and nothing could be more unconstitutional or more illegal than any attempt to set up a sham Parliament in the face of another de jure and de facto existent. Sir, I will not trespass on the attention of the House much longer; but, before I sit down, let me entreat Her Majesty's Government and the House to cast aside for ever the policy of distrusting the Irish people. No people on the earth are more loyal by nature than the Irish, none have a keener sense of justice, nor any a readier appreciation of Governmental and Legislative acts. Treat Ireland, not in a spirit of jealousy and distrust, but in the spirit of the Constitution as an integral realm of this great Empire, from which I hope she may never desire to be severed or estranged. I beg, Sir, to move the second reading of the Bill.


in seconding the Motion, said, he did not intend to ask the House to consider all the details of the debate upon the occasion of the passing of the Convention Act. But he desired briefly to refer to some of the more important matters connected with that debate, and to some of the main arguments used against the Act which the present Bill sought to repeal. When the Act was passed, it was passed as a declaratory Act, declaring that certain things were, at the time of its passing, illegal, and had been so by the common law of the land; but, since the passing of the Bill, other transactions and other modes of meeting which were never intended to be touched by the Bill, had been brought within its range. Thus, though passed as a declaratory Bill, it made illegal acts which before were not illegal, and curtailed the privileges of meeting and of delegation in Ireland. So that, apart from the considerations which had been brought forward as to the policy of preventing delegated meetings of the character against which the Bill was really aimed, the Bill had gone beyond the point at which it was really aimed by its framers, and, therefore, ought to be repealed. The main ground of Mr. Grattan's opposition to the Bill was that the Preamble set forth as law that which he denied to be law. What the learned Gentleman said was this—that, if the Bill contained any of the legislation which was imputed to it, the Attorney General would be the last man to rise for the purpose of supporting it. The main evil of the Bill which was passed in those days was that it declared to be illegal and unlawful that which was now considered to be lawful. A Convention had taken place some short time before, consisting of Catholics elected by Catholics all over Ireland. The meeting was held in Dublin for the purpose of petitioning Parliament upon the Catholic claims, a subject which then attracted great attention; and the Attorney General of the day, in order to back up his previous assertion that the Bill did not make unlawful that which was lawful, proceeded expressly to tell the House of Commons it would not make the Convention now alluded to illegal. He (the Attorney General) went even further, and said— I declare that such an idea never entered into any of our minds as to allude to the Catholic Convention, nor do I think, after the King and both Houses have acceded to their wishes, that any man who is not mad would offer them a deliberate affront by a Bill in Parliament. The Attorney General then went on to say it was not the Catholic Convention that it was intended to suppress, but the Congress or Convention of which he had previously spoken—referring, of course, to the Convention at Athlone. Turning to the words of the Act, he went on to say that they, too, showed that the Act was never originally directed against assemblies elected or called together for any Constitutional purpose, or for the purpose of petitioning Parliament with a Constitutional object. The assemblies pointed to in the Act were assemblies which were elected nominally under the pretence of petitioning Parliament, but whose real object was representation; and it had never been attempted to indict persons in Ireland who had assembled really and bonâ fide for the purpose of drawing up Petitions to Parliament, or for any Constitutional purpose, and not for the purpose of doing what the people intended to meet at Athlone meant to do—namely, to take and usurp the privileges and powers and duties of Parliament. It was not merely the Preamble of the Act which pointed entirely to assemblies aiming at representation, gathered together under the pretence of petitioning; it was not merely by the wording of the Act that one was to arrive at what the intentions of the framers of the Act were. What were the words of the Act? It recited that whereas the election of assemblies purporting to represent the people with a view to petitioning Parliament might be used for factious and seditious ends to the violation of public order, and so on. But it declared, therefore, that all assemblies of persons elected, or in any other manner constituted or appointed to represent, or claiming an authority to represent, the people in any province, town, or city, or other district, were unlawful assemblies, and should and might be dispersed. Evidently the object of that delegation which were elected nominally to petition Parliament really had exercised their powers for other purposes, and that it should never be attempted to apply that rule to any assembly elected really for a bonâ fide and Constitutional purpose. In fact, these assemblies had never attempted to do that which the Athlone Convention attempted—that was to say, they had never thought of usurping the power or the privileges of Parliament. It was directly stated in the Preamble of the Act; but it was clear that it pointed to assemblies gathered together for one object, and which had really met for the purpose of carrying out another. With regard to the opinion of the Law Officers of the Crown, he wished to remark that the Attorney General, in answer to Mr. Grattan, used the expression which he (Mr. O'Shaughnessy) had previously pointed out—namely, that it was not intended to make unlawful anything which was now lawful; but that, in fact, the real end of the Act was to prevent the Convention of Athlone. The Attorney General said— Mr. Grattan himself agrees with me that that Convention should be prevented. And then he went on to say— Many things are unlawful against which there is no positive statute or judicial process, and yet they are against tie first principles of the law"— thereby showing that what was in his mind was that this was a declaratory Statute, merely declaring the state of the law as it then existed. The Solicitor General, at a later period of the debate, following the line laid down by his superior officer, said— The Bill in question created no new crime—that is to say, the legal Convention held by the Roman Catholics a short time ago did not become illegal. It was only illegal Conventions that it was intended to suppress—Conventions that were called together for the purpose of usurping the rights and duties of Parliament. He (Mr. O'Shaughnessy) thought he had shown that the Bill was intended simply as a declaratory Act, and he would not deny that there might at the time have been some necessity for making a declaration of the common law upon the subject, for Mr. Grattan himself said the Convention at Athlone should be stopped; but what he complained of was that it had been made to cover Conventions held for a perfectly legal purpose. Well, the Attorney General invited Mr. Grattan to go into Committee with him on the Bill, and said that if it was found that there were any provisions in the Bill which interfered with the right to meeting by delegation at common law, they would strike out such clauses, providing the assent of His Majesty's Government had been previously obtained. He (Mr. O'Shaughnessy) had looked into the Journals of the Irish House of Commons, and he found that the House went into Committee the next day. The Journals said that the Committee spent some short time over the Bill; but they reported it to the House without Amendment. The work of the Committee was done in a very short time, and it appeared that, although Mr. Grattan made an excellent speech on the second reading of the Bill, he did not take the trouble to go into Committee and insist upon the Amendments being inserted, confining the operation of the measure to unlawful assemblies only. He (Mr. O'Shaughnessy) regretted very much that Mr. Grattan did not do that; because, if he had, they would have been spared the trouble of sitting there to-day endeavouring to impress upon the House of Commons the desirability of repealing the Act. The case he had attempted to make out was this—that, whatever were the intentions of the framers of the Bill, it had been assumed in Ireland and in this House to be beyond the limits of a declaratory Act, and to make illegal delegated meetings and Conventions which were purely legal at common law, and which were not only the rights of the inhabitants of the Realm, but some of the best instruments provided by the Constitution to enable the community to assist this and the other House of Parliament in their deliberations for the public good; and the provision had been exercised in such a manner as to prevent the Commonalty from stating to the House many subjects. Notwithstanding all that had been said at the time by the Attorney and Solicitor General, the Act did create a new crime, and it curtailed in some degree the liberties of the people. The general opinion in Ireland now was that it was illegal to elect men to consider even Constitutional questions. If that were only a floating opinion, perhaps it would not be of any great weight; but, as his hon. Friend the Member for Youghal (Sir Joseph M'Kenna) had said, when the Irish Church Bill was before the House, the present Master of the Rolls in Ireland (then Mr. Sullivan) stated, on the second reading of it, and in Committee on the Bill he also laid it down distinctly, that the Act which was then under discussion prevented the Protestants of Ireland, when their Church became disestablished, and when they ceased to hold the right of Convocation, from sending delegates to hold Conventions with the view of considering the future constitution and management of their Church. The consequence was that it became necessary to introduce the 19th clause in the Irish Church Act, which repealed the Act now under consideration, and all other Acts affecting the subject, so far as the newly-disestablished Irish Church was concerned, and gave power to hold assemblies. The very same reason applied to any other assembly that might take place for Constitutional purposes. The intention of the framers of the Act was that the people should not meet under a pretence; but it was clear, from what had been said, that the wording of the Statute applied to places where men had assembled as delegates by election to discuss crucial and Constitutional questions. It certainly was not the intention of the framers of the Bill that if the people were to send delegates to consider the Land Question, or the Franchise Question, or if the people attempted to form a Convention upon the Education Question, or any other practical topic where an expression of public opinion was desirable, that the Law Officers of the Crown should say such meetings were illegal. He thought there was very plain evidence that the Act of 1793 went beyond its intended scope, and inflicted on the liberties of the people of Ireland a curtailment which was not contemplated by the people who passed that Act; and although it might be said the law was ambiguous, he thought it was as clear as Acts of Parliament usually were. There had been very troublesome times in Ireland, and perhaps the power of the Executive and the power of the Crown had been increased from time to time in consequence; and therefore it was not unnatural that an extreme construction, which resulted in a curtailment of the ordinary Constitutional right of the people of Ireland, should have been adopted; but the time had now arrived when all those curtailments should be removed. The real object of the Act was to prevent the growth in Ireland of such assemblies as at the moment when the Act was passed were ruling France, and the growth of such clubs as the Jacobin Club. The aim of the Act was that assemblies should not be allowed to grow up in Ireland, which were at the time being held, and which were attempting to usurp the powers, the rights, and the prestige of Parliament. It was alleged and admitted on all hands that such assemblies would be illegal at common law, and that nobody would object to a statutory declaration that they were illegal, if those rights were still in peril. Mr. Grattan himself did not object to such a Statute being placed on the Statute Book; but what Mr. Grattan and he (Mr. O'Shaughnessy) did object to was that the enactment declaring acts illegal had ever afterwards been directed and construed to apply to perfectly legal assemblies. It appeared to him that the Act as it stood was perfectly unnecessary, even for the purpose of preventing illegal Conventions. The only assembly in Irish history which did effect a change in the Constitution of the country was the Convention of 1782, which was the delegation of armed bodies of men. In the present day he ventured to say that, unless the people of Ireland had arms in their hands for the purpose of sustaining such an assembly against the authority of Parliament, it would be utterly futile to attempt to set it up against the Parliament in which they now sat. It would be an attempt to set up a deliberative assembly without any Executive and without any arms to sustain it, against an Assembly which had an Executive, which had arms, and which had authority. And if such an attempt was made, every man who valued the peace of his country would absent himself and withhold all encouragement from such an assembly. It therefore appeared to him that the Act of 1793 was entirely unnecessary at the present time; and if that was the case, and the Government desired to be consistent, it should be repealed. The Government had, then, three courses open to them. They might repeal the Act, because it was unnecessary; they might confine it within the limits which the framers of it intended; or they might come forward and say that it did not apply to Conventions honestly and constitutionally called together for the purpose of discussing Constitutional subjects. There had never been a judicial decision showing that the Act applied to assemblies called together for purely Constitutional purposes, and he thought there ought to be a full and honest declaration from the Government that it did not apply to such assemblies. He thought it ought to be acknowledged by the Law Officer of the Government that the people of Ireland had a right to meet in delegation and to be represented for the purpose of discussing any questions which might arise, provided they did not assemble, as the Act said, under the pretence of petitioning, but really for other and ulterior purposes.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Sir Joseph M'Kenna.)


in moving that the Bill be read a second time time that day six months, said, the question was one not new to the House, for it had been debated and considered on several occasions, and the House had determined, by large majorities, that it was a question which it was advisable should not be re-opened. That was the opinion of the noble Lord opposite (the Marquess of Hartington), when Chief Secretary for Ireland, and of Mr. Gladstone, when Prime Minister, in 1872, when the repeal of the Act was proposed. Upon that occasion it was rejected on the second reading by 145 to 27, the rejection of the Bill being moved by the noble Marquess himself, and supported by Mr. Gladstone. And yet that Government specially took upon itself the redress of Irish grievances, and came into power as being specially charged by the constituencies with the task of bringing in a message of peace to Ireland. In 1875, during the existence of the present Parliament, the Bill was again brought forward and rejected on the second reading by 110 to 38. The numbers voting for the Bill showed that there was not any very great amount of feeling on the subject among the Irish Members, for, while they numbered 103, only 27 in one case and 38 in the other felt it necessary to give their votes in its favour. Neither had the Bill made any progress ill succeeding Sessions, for, in 1876, it never reached a second reading, and in 1878 it was a dropped measure. Prom these facts, it appeared to his mind that the subject was not one of urgency, and that it was one in which the Irish people took very little interest. Beyond that, he would say that he heard with astonishment the statement made by the lion. Member for Youghal (Sir Joseph M'Kenna) that the Act was introduced and carried by surprise, whereas it had received the fullest consideration, although it passed its final stages at the end of a Session when many Peers and Members had ceased to attend the Irish Parliament, as was the case now with the Imperial Parliament. There were extant reports of elaborate speeches and long discussions on the provisions of the Bill, and, after a debate of two days, in which Mr. Grattan took part, the second reading was carried by a large majority. The struggle was renewed in Committee, with similar results. The existing Act did not in any way interfere with ordinary meetings, or with the right of petitioning. What it did prevent was, a number of persons presuming to set themselves up as an elected body and assuming power which really belonged only to Parliament. He could not suppose that hon. Members would support the Bill without some motive. They all knew that Home Rule was advocated in the sense that there should be an Irish Parliament—that there should be a House established in Ireland to deal mainly with local affairs, and that their Friends should still have the privilege of appearing at Westminster in connection with Imperial questions. He should be sorry to lose the pleasure of the presence of hon. Gentlemen from Ireland; but there could be no doubt that if the Act now under consideration were repealed, something of that kind might be started. Why interfere with a Statute when it operated beneficially, and did not hinder that which ordinarily would be legal? There was an old proverb to the effect that in vain was the net spread in presence of any bird, and a proposal more likely, if adopted, to lead his hon. Friends into diffiulty could not be imagined. Were it to be approved of, the Chief Secretary and the Attorney General for Ireland must undertake beforehand to lay down all the cases to which the Act would not apply, either by amending it, or by making a statement to the House. It had been said that the Act had prevented perfectly legal and harmless assemblies. If it had done so, the facts ought to have been stated to the House. But no single case had been cited—and he challenged hon. Members opposite to produce one—in which it had been used oppressively, or for other purposes other than those it was avowedly designed to meet. The hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. O'Shaughnessy) had said that bodies of persons in Ireland being without arms would not be of political importance; but although they might not have arms they would have influence, and that influence might be exercised by means of terrorism and force, which it would be very difficult indeed to counteract, and in a manner which would be most dangerous to the commonwealth of the United Kingdom. Entertaining these views, he should move the rejeciion of the Bill.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. Marten.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."


thought the hon. and learned Member opposite (Mr. Marten) had made use of an argument very much of a Party character, and in his speech seemed anxious that his own Party should not have the whole responsibility of rejecting the Bill. Feeling, perhaps, that its rejection would be an act of injustice, he seemed to be anxious to attach much of the responsibility for the act to the Liberal Party. He had referred to the noble Lord who led the Opposition (the Marquess of Hartington) and to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Gladstone) as persons who, having done so much for Ireland, had not taken up the question. The most illustrious living Irishman had spoken of the right hon. Member for Greenwich as having written his name upon the history of Ireland with a pencil of light; and he (Major Nolan) thought there could be no doubt that the late Ministry had done more for Ireland than any Ministry which had ever sat in that House. A Land Bill had been introduced, and although the measure was insufficient, it was still a step in the right direction. The Church had been disestablished and the Ballot had been given to the electors. In fact, so much had been done that the complaint of want of time to do more might be fairly urged; but such could not be said of the Government to whom the Irish Members now appealed to do something in the same direction. They had undertaken the settlement of very few Irish questions. With the exception of the Coercion Act, and a small measure on Education, they seemed unwilling to entertain them. To the debate of 1872 he (Major Nolan) did not attach much importance; but with reference to the support which this measure for repeal had hitherto received, the hon. and learned Member was quite right in saying that, in 1875, there was not a sufficient number of Members on that side of the House voting for the proposition now made by the hon. Member for Youghal (Sir Joseph M'Kenna); but still, if his memory served him rightly, at least two or three times the number voted for repeal as compared with those that voted against it, and it was only fair to conclude that when there was a largo majority of Irish Representatives supporting any particular measure or question, the voice of the country was fairly expressed. It should also be remembered that many hon. Members on the occasion referred to were absent, for there was a grand review at Woolwich at the time. Beyond that, it might be noticed that the Bill did not stand first on the Orders of the Day. But if the hon. and learned Member really attached such importance to figures and numbers as he seemed to do, he (Major Nolan) would ask him to look at the appearance of the House on the present occasion. On the Conservative Benches opposite, he had seen three Irish Members, one of them an official who appeared to take an interest in the Bill; whereas the Benches on that side of the House from which he spoke had been throughout well filled. The hon. and learned Member opposite had supported the existing Act, because it was declared to be right in Ireland in 1793. The Act which the Bill proposed to repeal was the outcome of the exaggerated notions and fears of 1793. The French Convention had put 500,000 armed men in the field and bid defiance to all Europe. The Monarchs of Europe were frightened at the success of the Legislative Assembly, and it was believed that something wonderful and fearful would result if a Parliament thoroughly free assembled in Ireland. The example of France led to exaggerated notions of the armed force a free people would employ; but when they all knew that larger forces had been put in the field by absolute Monarchies, they could not attach that extreme importance to the meetings of men for the discussion of national questions. In 1793 there was a very exclusive and aristocratic party in Ireland, and it was difficult for a man not of that party to secure a seat in the Parliament, and it could not be assumed there was any resemblance between 1793 and 1879. He would ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to reflect upon the circumstances of that period, and to say whether it followed for one moment that a measure passed for 1793 was necessarily good and proper in 1879? So far from that being the case, it would be found that one of the most distinguished Irishmen (Mr. Grattan) had eloquently denounced the Statute against which they were now protesting. The hon. and learned Member opposite had also said that the Act had not been put oppressively in force; but what did he mean by the word oppressively? That, practically, meant that the Act had operated so successfully that Irishmen had not dared to meet in opposition to it. He (Major Nolan) attended a short time since a meeting held in London of the delegates from the agricultural labourers in favour of household suffrage, and he would have gladly called a similar meeting to support the same object in Ireland could he have done so; but the state of the law prevented Ireland joining in that Constitutional movement. Had he done so, he would have been amenable to punishment. Why should the people of Ireland not have an opportunity of expressing their opinions in the same manner as the people of England, and of endeavouring to give effect, by perfectly legitimate means, to their views on the Land Question, the Education Question, the Franchise Question, and other important subjects? It had often been said that meetings of delegates were required in Ireland, and that it was sufficient for hon. Members to come to the House and express their grievances. They had done so over and over again. They had repeatedly brought forward their grievances. They had taken Divisions. No one could complain that they had not brought forward their complaints often enough. But they had been met with various arguments in opposition to their proposals, and amongst these arguments was the statement that they did not represent the Irish people. They were told that there was no agitation and no clamour in Ireland, and that there were no Petitions from that country. How could there be, when the Government prevented the inhabitants of Ireland from meeting in a perfectly natural and legitimate manner in Dublin or elsewhere, in order to confer together on some particular and important question? The meeting might be permitted on sufferance; but that was putting public opinion under the thumb of the Government, who would take credit for not instituting a prosecution. Take a particular instance—not more than two years since, Irish Members were anxious to gather the opinions of people from different parts of the country on their Parliamentary policy, and they were anxious also to have at the conference representatives of Irishmen living in England. The senior Member for Limerick (Mr. Butt) was asked could such a meeting be legally held?—and it was only by the greatest precaution that a meeting could be held in Dublin. The meeting was held, and, under the skilful pilotage of that able lawyer, illegality was avoided; but still it had not been free from anxiety, and had been somewhat cramped. The people simply came forward, but not as elected representatives. It was a representative meeting, but not such a meeting as it would have been had the Act not been in force. Delegates met in England, and often with the best results; and if such meetings could be held in Ireland, attended by elected representatives of the interests of the big farmers and of the little farmers, they would go far to find a settlement of the Land Question, and the Irish views would find expression in the House even more definitely than they now did. He thought the Government, in not supporting the Bill, or at least mitigating grievances, would be guilty of an act of the greatest unfairness. It would increase the authority of hon. Members in that House; and he could not help thinking that if there were such an increase of authority, the Government would find Irish Representatives more ready to come forward and support them when they asked Votes for the many wars in which they were engaged.


said, he should endeavour to supply the omission of the hon. and learned Member for Cambridge (Mr. Marten), and deal with this question on broad Constitutional principles. For that purpose, he should ask the House to go back to a certain Wednesday afternoon, 86 years ago, when the debate took place which had been alluded to more than once in the course of the present discussion. On the 17th of July, 1793, when the second reading of the Convention Bill was proposed, the rejection of the measure was moved by Mr. Grattan, who pointed out—and the declaration was eminently worth recalling—that If this Bill had been the law of the land, four great events could never have taken place—the independence of the Irish Parliament, the Emancipation of the Irish Catholics, the Revolution in Great Britain, and the great event that followed from it—the succession of the Hanoverian Dynasty. The glorious and immortal Assembly purporting to represent the people of England, that placed the Crown on the head of William and Mary, comes under every clause of this Bill descriptive of illegal assembly. Had such a Bill been the law of England, and been executed, Lord Somers and the Leaders of the Devolution must have been apprehended. Mr. Grattan also said— I have objected to this Bill as an innovation on the Constitution. I object to it also as an innovation on the system of criminal jurisprudence. It puts the peace officer in the place of the Court of Justice in cases where there is neither tumult nor danger of tumult. It is true the common law makes him the judge of the imminent danger to which society is exposed from a numerous body armed and proceeding to execute an illegal purpose, or a legal purpose in an illegal and tumultuous manner; but it is the force, or imminent danger of force, that brings the subject under the cognizance of the subordinate magistrate. The illegality clause would only bring him under the cognizance of the Courts of Justice. This Bill gives the peace officer, in the instance of a peaceful meeting assembled to do a legal act—such as to frame a Petition for those who have deputed them to do so—to judge of the fact of the deputation, of the manner of exercising that trust, and of the public nature of the object of it, with right of entry, and power to call in the military. Here is the principle of the Riot Act applied to the peaceful communication of sentiment. Mr. Grattan spoke on that occasion as a liberal and enlightened statesman, as well as an Irish patriot; and he concluded by saying— The friends of the Bill have seized the opportunity of public panic which certain excesses have excited. I condemn both the excesses and the remedy. Instead of either, I am for the Constitution of England. Mr. Grattan was replied to by the then Attorney General, who, however, took up an attitude which had been entirely unsupported by subsequent facts. The next speaker on the occasion to which he referred was Mr. Hardy, who entered into a short review of the different Conventions that have met in Ireland within a few years, and observed that where they attempted to dictate to Parliament, Parliament was enabled to disperse them with ease, as was the case in 1783; but that, when their propositions were founded in reason, and Parliament made reasonable concessions, then they dispersed themselves, as the late Roman Catholic Convention did. Then there was the speech of Dr. Brown, who declared— For God's sake, if you must sacrifice on the altar of peace, do not immolate liberty as the victim. Following Dr. Brown came no less a person than Mr. Curran, with some observations which ought to be a warning to the present Attorney General for Ireland. Mr. Curran confessed himself Struck with horror at hearing the first Legal Officer of the Crown appealing to the uninformed judgments of the country gentlemen for justification in subverting one of the principal pillars of the British Constitution. Mr. Curran showed that the constituent, when he elected a Representative, did not part with all his powers; but retained a right, above all, to watch the conduct of Parliament. He also showed that the right of the people to petition by delegation was confirmed by the British Law, which prevented more than 20 people from presenting a Petition, and, of course, those 20 must be delegates of the rest; and that that very principle had been discussed in the British Parliament in 1780, and confirmed to the people. The second reading of the Bill was carried by a large majority; but on the very next day—Thursday, June 18, 1793—on the Motion for going into Committee, Mr. Grattan pointed out that the principle of the measure was that any representation, not of the people only, but of any description whatever thereof, for a public purpose, save only the House, was an unlawful assembly. Mr. Grattan then said— Gentlemen say that a national Confederation at Athlone was intended. If that is the object of the Bill, direct the Bill to that object. Do not extend the Bill to every delegation from any county, city, town, or district, from any description of any number of His Majesty's subjects appointed to procure redress in any abuse relating to Church or State. My objection to your Bill is that it is a trick, making a supposed National Convention at Athlone in 1793 a pretext for the prevention of delegation for ever. Does it follow, because the supposed National Convention at Athlone should be prevented, that all committees of correspondence on the subject of redress should be put down for ever? No county, no city, no description of men can delegate a few individuals to concert the most legal and effectual method of procuring for an acknowledged abuse a temperate remedy. The Bill avails itself of the present panic to abridge popular rights; and it finds support in sanguine, but weak minds, who know there is a disease, but have not sense to discover the remedy, and think that a Convention Bill is to restore us all to peace—who think that in time of local disturbance the remedy is a Bill, not against the particular disturbance, but against the liberty of the people. Those were the words of Mr. Grattan, and it was a significant comment upon his language that, five years after they were used, the Irish Rebellion of 1798 took place. Another speaker in the debate to which he was still referring was Major Doyle, a man who might be unknown to fame, but who was still a very sensible man, and a man who could express his thoughts in a clear and common-sense fashion. Major Doyle said— Whilst popular misconception has a tongue it gives you warning; but if you constrain discontent to be in secret, discussion will become conspiracy, and attempts at redress will degenerate into hostile projects, sanguinary in proportion to the danger hazarded in their formation. The hon. and learned Member opposite (Mr. Marten) had alluded to the violence, tumult, and terrorism which, he said, might take place if the Act were repealed. But the arguments of the hon. and learned Gentleman had been anticipated by Mr. Curran, who said— If the people had a right to petition, as was allowed on all hands, they must also have a right to do so in the most convenient manner, which was evidently delegation. Why was the House of Commons elected? Why did not the people themselves assemble and exercise their rights as a Third Estate? Because such proceedings must be attended with a violation of good order, and must be productive of tumult. If, on a matter of general concern, the people, exercising their undoubted right, should meet at large in their respective towns and counties to petition, would not the same inconvenience follow? Could it be convenient, then, for the people to govern themselves in this instance by the same principle as in exercising their legislative functions. Certainly not. Another speaker, Sir Boyle Roche, who might be called the "Jingo" of the Irish Parliament of that day, described the country as being over head and ears in sedition. Some echoes to a similar effect still lingered on the Benches opposite. Sir Boyle added— That there were a great many 'Jacks the painter' in the land. The House, however, had one good stake in the hedge—the exertions of a patriotic Army. The effusion of anarchy and confusion had done much mischief, and if any Convention should presume to assume authority, he hoped Parliament would not be so chicken-hearted as to suffer it. On the next day, Friday, July 19, 1793, the Report on the Bill was brought up, and one of the most distinguished Members of the Irish Parliament (Mr. George Ponsonby) then declared that he conceived the measure to be a direct attack upon the vital principles of the Constitution. Well, the Bill was successfully passed into law; but the illustrious names which had made the Irish Parliament live in history were found voting against it. The only name of any note on the other side was that of Sir John Parnell. Grattan, Curran, and Ponsonby were powerless in a corrupt Assembly not representing Irish people, and free from the healthy influence of popular control. The eloquent voices of those great men were raised for a time in vain; but, being dead, they yet spoke to them. He did not apologize for having asked the House to listen, after the lapse of many years, to the words of famous men whose "distant footsteps echo through the corridors of time." Their arguments were founded on great Constitutional principles, and were as fresh, as vigorous, and unanswerable now, as they were on that far-off Wednesday in the old Irish House of Commons. How weak, how frivolous, how feeble, were the official pleadings with which they had been met, and how completely had the position taken up by the supporters of that Statute been falsified by events! The arguments against the existing Act had never been answered. Would they be answered on this occasion? Hon. Members opposite could not complain that in this matter they had not found foemen worthy of their steel; but he did not think the arguments to which he referred would or could be answered. He hoped that truth and justice would at least be allowed to prevail; they must prevail in the end. Let not the House think that the maintenance of this Act was a mere slight and sentimental grievance. No Act which violated the principles of the Constitution and imposed penalties upon the free expression of public opinion could be slight or trifling. If that Act existed in England, the great measures of the century to which Englishmen owed so much of their freedom and prosperity might never have been carried. The Corn Law League would have been illegal, and the great movement for Parliamentary Reform might have been crushed by prosecutions. An unconstitutional and coercive measure was not needed in order to prevent and to vindicate the violation of the law. The common law of the land was amply sufficient for that. Against any real peril and conspiracy the Act now sought to be repealed was impotent and useless; it could not be enforced without tyranny; and a law which could not be enforced without tyranny should not be allowed to disgrace the pages of the Statute Book for a single day.


said, as an English Member, he could not allow the opportunity to pass without rising upon the Liberal side of the House to repudiate the position which had been taken up by the hon. and learned Gentleman opposite (Mr. Marten). He had listened with astonishment—he might almost say with distress—to the speech of the hon. and learned Member. The hon. and learned Gentleman had avoided the Constitutional question as to the right of public meeting, and his contention that because the measure was good for the period when it was passed it was proper for the present time, would militate against the repeal of any law to which exception might be taken. The hon. and learned Gentleman had also said that this Act had not been passed in a hurry or in a panic; but he (Mr. Serjeant Simon) declared advisedly that there never was a Statute which received the sanction of the Irish Legislature, or of any other Legislature, that was passed under circumstances of greater panic than the enactment which was now the subject of discussion. What were the circumstances of the period in question? The Catholics had been struggling for emancipation. They had obtained, to some extent, a release from their disabilities; they had procured the franchise such as it was—that was to say, the right of sending their Protestant masters to rule over them in an Irish Parliament. At that time Europe was in the midst of a great warlike movement; and the Irish, chafing under English rule, had been led to expect help from France, and, in order to suppress disaffection, it was attempted to call out the Militia. But the peasantry rose in every part of Ireland to prevent the Militia being called out, and there were sanguinary contests all over the country. In short, Ireland was then in a state of complete insurrection. A Parliament was sitting in Dublin; it had given the Catholics the franchise, and the Civil Lists were being discussed, when, in the month of July, 1793, the Convention Bill was brought in. How could his hon. and learned Friend say, under these circumstances, that the measure was not passed when there was a panic? No doubt, a Convention had been summoned to meet at Athlone; but it had not been called in order to supersede the Government, but for the purpose of obtaining a reform of the Irish Parliament. Would his hon. and learned Friend opposite resist the repeal of such a measure as this if it were in operation in England? Why, then, resist its repeal because it was in operation in Ireland? Meetings of delegates in England had been held for various purposes. They had congresses of trades unions every year to regulate their interests, with a view to legislation; gatherings of representatives from the Associated Chambers of Commerce to consider commercial affairs; and that very Session a Bill emanating from that body had been brought forward to alter the law of bankruptcy. The Nonconformists sent their delegates to the great towns to assist in the work of disestablishing the English Church. Would his hon. and learned Friend opposite say that the law ought to step in and prevent such gatherings as those? If there was any part of their history which Englishmen ought to deplore, it was the history of their relations to Ireland. He never read the history of those relations without feeling that if he were an Irishman he should not be content until he had removed every legislative trace in connection with them. It appeared to him that it would be sound wisdom for hon. Gentlemen to meet their Irish fellow-subjects, not in a spirit of resistance, but in a spirit of conciliation; and no part of his Parliamentary life had given him greater satisfaction than that in which he had been enabled to assist in promoting some of the Irish measures which had been passed by the late Administration. The Act which was being now debated was simply a remnant of that system of penal legislation which ought ever to be a subject to be lamented; and if there were no other cause for its repeal than that of its manifest injustice and inequality, he thought that of itself was sufficient ground. He should much more gladly support measures introduced by Her Majesty's Government to benefit Ireland, than see the Government going in the teeth of Irish opinion and Irish feeling. Why should the Irish people not have the Parliamentary franchise as it existed in England? Why should they not have the same municipal representation? Why should they not have the same right of public meeting? The right of public meeting was a precious liberty; and while there was any restrictive legislation which prevented the exercise of that right, hon. Members could not proclaim that perfect equality existed between England and their Irish fellow-countrymen.


trusted the Government would be able to see their way to consent to the repeal of this obsolete, but exasperating Statute. It was a remnant of the odious penal laws once levelled against their Catholic fellow-countrymen, which no liberal-minded Englishman could now think of without regret, or speak of without humiliation. It offered neither indemnity for the past, nor security for the future. It only fostered a spirit of resentment by maintaining a recollection of an evil and unhappy era in our national history. It was powerless to prevent any outburst of popular wrath, and yet it was sufficient to keep running an angry and irritating social sore. The Act did not interfere with the common right of holding public meetings. That was enjoyed by Ireland and England equally and alike. The Irish people could muster in menacing numbers on the classic hill of Tara, or at Trim, or at Mullaghmast. Indignant and animated Celtic orators could declaim through all the scales on the gamut of political invective against the sad fate that linked the fortunes of their race with that of the Saxon. They could evoke Party feeling, or rouse religious animosities against the Union as an Act that had been conceived in corruption, carried by craft, and enforced by violence. They might attempt, if they were so minded, to overawe the Government of the day by threats. The Act of 1793 would not prevent them. But if, instead of holding threatening assemblies 500,000 strong, such as gathered round O'Connell 30 years ago, a deliberative council of representative men, sent from different counties in Ireland, met quietly in a room in Dublin, and strove, not by force, but by persuasion—not by noise, but by argument—not amidst clamour, but calmly to put their case for the repeal of a specified law, or the reform of a social usage, the law would step in and prevent them. To summarize the scope in a sentence, it might be said to have offered a premium to passion and violence, and to have put a penalty upon representation and reason. The Act did not concern itself so much about the aim of a meeting, as about the mode in which it was summoned. It might be held for a political or philosophical, for a social, scientific, or theological object. That was matter-less. The purpose of the promoters of the Act was palpable enough. They levelled it at the Catholics and the Nationalists; but it was drawn so loosely as to bring within its meshes all manner of representative bodies, however wide their operations, or however harmless their designs. A meeting, in itself not only legal but commendable, was made by this antiquated and obnoxious Act illegal. It prevented representative gatherings of mechanics, merchants, medical men, or farmers, equally with political conventions. Its unlimited and unqualified application was its strongest condemnation. He asked for the repeal of the Act, because it was out of harmony with the spirit as well as with the letter of all modern legislation. The time was, and that, unfortunately, not long since, when a Catholic was an outcast in Ireland. He was in the country, but not of it. Every avenue to political influence, social distinction, or civil authority, was barred against him. He was denied admission to the Bank, the Bench, and the Bar—to the University, the Exchange, and the medical schools. By an iniquitous enactment he was prevented accumulating property, and then was upbraided with being poverty-stricken. The raw material of knowledge was not only heavily taxed, but the most rudimentary machinery of education was impeded by legal fetters, and then it was made an offence that he was ignorant. This harsh and outrageous code of pains and penalties had now been abandoned, never more, he trusted, to be restored. A juster spirit pervaded their legislation, a more generous and genial sentiment was entertained for those who differed from the common faith of Englishmen. Catholics now could become not only electors, but Representatives—not only jurors, but Judges, which they were not permitted to be when this Act was passed. The country had been bettered, the institutions had been strengthened, and the breath of our national life had been sweetened by this more enlightened course of rule. But in the midst of a chorus of conciliation one inharmonious chord was heard. Among these self-gratulatory cries a disturbing element obtruded itself. The Act sought to be repealed unpleasantly forced itself upon them as a legacy of darker days. Since Parliament was last in Session the handful of unfortunate men who had been charged with complicity in the political rising of 1866–7 had been set at liberty. It was now the proud and happy boast of Englishmen that there was not within the compass of the British Isles one man who languished behind bolts and bars for his political opinions. He gave all honour to the Government for having—tardily, perhaps—but still for having freed the last of the Fenians. He invited them to secure added encomiums, by destroying the last vestige of the penal code that a relentless persecution once fastened upon the followers of the Catholic faith. The circumstances under which that Act was passed threw a lurid light over its history. Ireland at that period, as it had been too frequently since, was England's difficulty. The Government strove to maintain their authority by playing off the prejudices and the jealousies of one section of the people against the other. But, in 1793, their hold on Ireland was exceptionally precarious, as they had opponents in the North and South alike. What were popularly termed French principles had at that time taken firm root in Ulster. Wolfe Tone, and his United Irishmen, under the cover of seeking Parliamentary Reform, were engaged in an active and successful Republican propaganda. The English Government was about to commit itself to the European crusade against regenerated France. It became, therefore, specially necessary for the authorities to establish better relations with the Irish Catholics. With this view, the shabby Act of Sir Hercules Langrish—which permitted Catholics to marry Protestants, to practise at the Bar, and made other trifling concessions—was allowed to pass the Irish Legislature. It did not, and could not, satisfy the Catholic population. They held a Convention in Dublin, drew up a Petition to the King, praying for a redress of grievances, and sent delegates with it to London. The Petition was received courteously, and the delegation was sent home with no end of fine phrases. There was no evidence, however, that these phrases would resolve themselves into substantial deeds, and the Catholics drifted more closely into union with the Radical Protestants of the North. With a view of putting their claims more pointedly before the Legislature, another Catholic Convention was arranged to be held at Athlone, and the Act they were now asked to repeal was passed to prevent the gathering. It was introduced to the Irish Parliament by Lord Clare, the then Chancellor. This Irish statesman was a sort of small Bismarck. He believed it was possible to stamp out political conviction by force. He dreamt that he could cut the Catholic creed to pieces as easily as his soldiers could slaughter the Catholic advocates. This was the common mistake of all despots. They imagined that by destroying the clay receptacle from which thought springs they could annihilate thought itself. It was a miserable mistake. Thought would never die. It would float like thistledown on the stormy stream of time— Bearing a germ beneath its tiny car— A germ predestined to become a tree, To fall on fruitful soil, and on its boughs Bear seed enough to stock the universe. Lord Clare painfully realized the correctness of this poetic truth. The Irish Nationalists and Catholics, being deprived of the right to meet and deliberate openly in the presence of the world, betook themselves to plot and rebellion. The passing of the Convention Act was followed by a widespread conspiracy, which culminated in the melancholy but memorable Rising of 1798–9. The lives of 150,000 Irishmen and 20,000 Englishmen were sacrificed. Triangles, tortures, flogging, pitchcaps, and hanging reigned for a time supreme. That was the blackest chapter in the modern history of Britain. He did not say—he did not think—that the passing of the Convention Act alone caused the insurrection of 1798; but he did contend that it was a potent factor in promoting that outburst of national indignation. A like result sprung from like causes in England. Lord Castlereagh strove to strangle thought as he strangled political opponents, by force, in this country. The passage of his famous, or rather infamous, six Acts, which for the time annihilated liberty of speech, and established a reign of terror, was succeeded by extensive plots which culminated in. the Cato Street Conspiracy. As the Convention Act had helped to precipitate the Rebellion of 1798, so the six Acts of Castlereagh provoked Thistlewood's plot. Let them contrast the policy of those days with the more liberal mode of dealing with political opponents in later times. In 1838–9–40, the working classes of this country were stirred more strongly than they ever were before, or ever had been since. All their hopes for political and social betterance centred round the People's Charter, and faith in that document was with them a religion. The Chartists hold a Convention in London. It sat conterminous with the Parliament of the day. The delegates made speeches, passed resolutions, and adopted petitions. If the law of this country had been strictly enforced, such a gathering at that time could not have been legally composed of more than 39 persons; but nearly double that number took part in its proceedings. Yet no attempt was made to interfere with them. The Government of Lord Melbourne refused to yield to the pressure that was put upon them in that House to disperse the Convention. And what was the result? When a medical man wished to deal with an internal irritation, he strove to bring the inflammatory matter to the surface. If he saw it upon the skin, he could prescribe with more success than he could if it was buried beneath bones and flesh. The same rule applied to the body politic as to the material frame. If political discontent had always had an opportunity of showing itself openly before the world, its complaints could have been redressed, and the fallacy of its doctrines could have been exposed. If the Chartist Convention had been dealt with as the Irish Conventions were, they would in all likelihood have had a rising in England. As it was, the people were satisfied with the opportunity they had had of ventilating their grievances. By peaceful agitation, the main principles of that historic document had become, or were becoming, incorporated in the Constitution of the country. He asked the House to contrast the results that had flowed from the arbitrary and despotic course pursued in Ireland—and in England under Castlereagh—with the more conciliatory course taken in the time of the Chartists, and mark the consequences that had followed the opposite lines of action. With a view of consigning to oblivion a Statute of bad eminence, as well as for removing a source of irritation, he trusted the Government would consent to the repeal of the objectionable measure that the Irish Parliament, at the instance of Lord Clare, had made law.


said, he had listened with much attention to the eloquent speech of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle (Mr. Cowen), and he could not help thinking that the hon. Gentleman had somewhat misconceived the history and character of this measure; because, if he had not done so, he (the Attorney General for Ireland) did not believe he would have described it as an exasperating measure which owed its origin to corruption. It must be borne in mind that this Act was levelled at no particular class, and at no particular religion; because the Conventions which had existed in Ireland, and against whom it was intended, had been largely supported and upheld both by Protestants and Roman Catholics. It was, therefore, not a Party measure, nor did he think it could be traced to corruption. It was passed by the Irish Parliament, he must remind the House, as an immediate object, to prevent the holding of a Convention which was to take place at Athlone. He gathered from the speeches of some hon. Gentlemen opposite that they thought the Executive of that day would have done well to allow that Convention to take place; but that was not the opinion given at the time the Bill was passed by Mr. Grattan, a most distinguished Irishman, of whom all on both sides of the House were proud, and who was one of the principal opponents of the Act now under discussion. When speaking of the Convention of Athlone, Mr. Grattan said that such a meeting should be "withstood"—that was, if necessary, by force—as strong a word as could be suggested—for, he said, such an assembly would not be a meeting to petition Parliament, but an assembly which would attempt to "put itself in the place of Parliament." That was a very short and clear statement, and one which he (the Attorney General for Ireland) thought showed the necessity at that time of putting upon the Statute Book the Convention Act. It was the object of those who passed the Statute to obtain under its provisions what Mr. Grattan thought might be attained in a different manner. As had been admitted by the Mover and Seconder of this Bill, this Act did not interfere with the right of public meeting. It did not in any way interfere with the fullest and freest discussion of public questions, or with the right of petitioning the Sovereign or Parliament. But what it did do—to take the words of Mr. Grattan, who was a good authority upon this subject—was to forbid or put difficulties in the way of the meeting of an illegal assembly which sought to put itself in the place of Parliament. He asked whether such an object was not common sense, and reasonable and fair? Was it not fair and reasonable for the Legislature to say that it was not right that there should be a Convention of delegates who purported to be the representatives of the people? Parliament was the National Council. Now, what was this Act? "What was its title? Its title was— An Act to prevent the election or appointment of Unlawful Assemblies, under the pretence of preparing or presenting Petitions or other Addresses to His Majesty or Parliament. He asked whether that was not a most reasonable title? Then came the Preamble—and what was that? It recited that— The election or appointment of Assemblies purporting to represent the people under the pretence of preparing Petitions might he made to serve the ends of factious or seditious persons. If that were so, would it not be right to have an Act of Parliament to prevent it? Would it not be reasonable and fair, to use the words of the Act of Parliament, that such unlawful assemblies directed to factious ends should be suppressed, provided that no extravagant penalties were imposed, and no such penalties were imposed in the present case? Then, as to the enacting part of the Statute. It enacted that— All Assemblies shall he unlawful which shall assume to he, or he construed to represent, the people of this Realm. That was very carefully and cautiously expressed. The meaning of the Act was very much that of the passage he had already quoted from Mr. Grattan, and its object he thought it desirable and even necessary to attain. Then the Act went on to certain provisions which made the object of the Act clear, and it then made exceptions in favour of the knights, citizens, and burgesses of Parliament, showing that it was not intended to prevent the assembling of Members of Parliament out of Session, or otherwise than in Parliament. Assuming that this Act of Parliament was moderately administered in the future—and everybody admitted that it had been moderately administered in the past—he thought it not an unreasonable Act, and one which no special grievance could be urged against. He gathered, both from the hon. Member for Youghal (Sir Joseph M'Kenna), and the hon. and learned Member for Limerick (Mr. O'Shaughnessy), that no complaint could be made of the way in which the Act had been carried out in the past; and the only case which had been raised to-day in the argument against the Act by Irish Members was that the words of the Act of Parliament—the object of which was admitted to be reasonable on all hands—were so wide, that it might be used to prevent proper and legal meetings not assuming to represent the people. That was to say, it was possible that an extravagant interpretation might be placed upon its provisions; but he thought they must look at the matter in a spirit of common sense; and he must point out that, from 1793, when the Act was passed, to 1879, which was not far from a century, there had not been a single particle of evidence adduced to show a single evil consequence had resulted from this Act. Since the Act was passed a great number of men had been responsible for the Executive of Ireland; but not a single inconvenience or a single unjust use of this Act had been made. He saw some hon. Gentlemen apparently preparing to speak, and, of course, he would not attempt to prophesy what they might say; but he would say that this debate commenced at 12 o'clock, and it was then half-past 4, and during that time not a single statement had been made that the Act had ever been enforced to interfere with a legitimate expression of public opinion. In previous debates upon this subject it had been said that the Act had been put in force, and that was quite true. The first occasion was when Mr. O'Connell, whose political life they were all acquainted with, summoned what was intended to be 'a rival in influence and authority to the House of Parliament. Mr. O'Connell summoned what he avowedly called a National Convention. He (the Attorney General for Ireland) asked whether it was not reasonable for the Executive of the day to say—"There is an Imperial Parliament that is the Convention of the Nation, and that must be regarded as the grand inquest of the nation, and we will avail ourselves of the powers of the Act of Parliament which has been passed, and forbid this meeting to be summoned." The next case was nearer our own times, only 30 years ago, when Mr. Smith O'Brien summoned not what he called a Convention, but what was practically the same thing, a National Council. There was simply the substitution of the word Council for Convention. He asked whether it was reasonable to say that that assembly, which professed to be a rival to Parliament, should have been allowed to be held? Was it not right that the Executive should, as they did, warn the people that this would be an illegal meeting? They did so warn the people, and that meeting was not held. But for 31 years, from that time to this, the Act had never, he believed, been again applied. It had been said that there was no such Act in force in England; but he must point out that there was some difference in the condition and circumstances of the two countries which made it necessary to deal differently with them. It must be borne in mind that England had not been disturbed by any difference of opinion as to the Constitution of the Government of the country for a great number of years, as had been the case in Ireland, and, therefore, it was somewhat difficult to apply exactly the same ideas to the two countries. But neither in England nor Ireland was national delegation assuming to represent Parliament, permitted by the common law. Therefore, the prohibition was a part of the common law of the country. Whenever the circumstances of the country rendered it possible that such attempts at national delegation might be made, it would be better that the matter should not be left to the common law, which might culminate in a great trial, but that there should be a short and clear remedy with a definition about which there could be no mistake. The Act only made the offence under it punishable as a misdemeanour which did not involve any extreme punishment. It was a mistake to say that the English people had no law analagous to this. In the reign of Charles II. an Act was passed directed against unlawful and tumultuous petitioning, calculated to overawe that House, the language of which was very similar to that of the one under discussion, and there were possibly other Acts of a similar kind showing that each country dealt in the manner most appropriate to its circumstances with any attempts to supersede or overawe Parliament. In England the danger was from the tumultuous presentation of Petitions; whereas in Ireland the danger was from the meeting of delegates arrogating to themselves the position, character, and authority of Parliament, and in both cases Acts had been passed to prevent such occurrences. This subject was very fully debated in 1872, when a similar Bill to the one now before the House was rejected by a majority of 118; and on that occasion the noble Lord opposite (the Marquess of Hartington), who was then Chief Secretary for Ireland, went very fully into the question, and Mr. Baron Dowse, who was then Attorney General for Ireland, in a most witty and. amusing speech, opposed the repeal of this Act, and was supported by Mr. Gladstone, who was then Prime Minister, on the ground that it strongly tended to prevent the assembly of bodies professing to rival or assume the place of Parliament. The history of the Act showed that the Act had never been put into operation, except in pursuance of the policy on which it was based. It had never been applied to the prevention of legal meetings. Under these circumstances, he could not very well understand the argument of hon. Gentlemen opposite. He could understand their course, if they had proposed to pass an Act preventing the application of the Convention Act to meetings other than those to which it was intended to apply; but that was not the operation of the Bill before them, which simply repealed the Act of 1793—that was to say, hon. Gentlemen were proposing to repeal an Act which was directed to a purpose with which they sympathized and to- wards an object which they approved, and which there was no reason to suppose ever had been or ever was likely to be applied to any other purpose. The Bill now before the House did not propose any qualifications, but sought to repeal the Act absolutely in the most unqualified way. He was not prepared to say that no such qualifications should be suggested, and he was quite sure that the Chief Secretary for Ireland and himself would be happy to consider closely and with attention any suggestions made; but it was another thing when they were not asked to give attention to such qualifications, but to repeal an Act of Parliament. It was when they were asked to do that, they must say that they did not think a case had been made out for it; and that, under the circumstances of the case, they thought it desirable the Act should remain on the Statute Book, trusting that it would be administered in the future as cautiously and as prudently, and with as much moderation, as in the past.


said, he should give his cordial support to the Bill. He had heard with great regret the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland say that he intended to oppose it, for he thought that the Government would have done more wisely to allow the second reading of the Bill, and to make any Amendments they might think advisable in Committee. The Act of 1793 was passed when only Protestants were represented in Parliament, and the opinions of the Catholics, therefore, could not be represented. The consequence of this Act went far beyond what had been represented by the right hon. and learned Gentleman as its object, for under it meetings of delegates of trades unions and other bodies which were perfectly legal in England were illegal in Ireland. He could come to no other conclusion than that the Act of 1793 extended largely beyond what the framers of the Act intended it to go. Under those circumstances, he felt that it would be wise to consider the Act and to amend it, even if the Government were not prepared to repeal it. It was extremely unlikely, if it were repealed, that any meetings should now be held in Ireland in rivalry to Parliament; for in these modern days most persons would be convinced that to attend such assem- blies, if convened, would simply be waste of time. Besides, such meetings were illegal under the common law. If, however, the Government desired to retain so much of the Act as related to such meetings, its provisions should be made applicable to England and Scotland as well as to Ireland, as he did not consider it wise to maintain this distinction between the legislation for Ireland and the legislation for this country. He believed that those who objected to Home Rule, and those who, like himself, wished to maintain the integrity of the Empire, would do well to remove all those differences which now existed between their legislation towards the two countries. Under those circumstances, he should support the second reading of the Bill, and it would be a wise step if the Government would allow it to go into Committee, when it could be amended.


said, he rose to say a few words in reply to the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland. He (Mr. Parnell) had always been one of those who thought that the best way to deal with the Act was not to bring in Bills to repeal it, but to consider it, as he had always considered it, to be an obsolete Act. The speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, however, showed him that it was not necessary to treat the Act as obsolete. The right hon. and learned Gentleman had explained to the House at considerable length what his opinions were with respect to the Act. He had adopted the definition of Grattan with regard to the Athlone Convention, and he had explained that, in his opinion, as the responsible Law Officer of the Crown for Ireland, the real construction of the Act was the purview of the Preamble and Title. Now, the purview of the Preamble and Title simply amounted to this—a declaration against Conventions and assemblies arrogating to themselves the functions of Parliament. The common law of the land already provided for dealing with such illegal assemblies. Nobody on the Opposition side of the House would attempt to deny that an assembly arrogating to itself the functions of Parliament would be illegal. But it had not been generally known in Ireland that that was the construction the Law Officers of the Crown placed upon this Act. The fact that an Act of the last Government specially exempted the delegates under the Irish Church Act from the operation of the Act under discussion showed that the opinion of the last Government did not coincide with the opinion of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland. The decision of the right hon. and learned Gentleman would, however, clear up matters very considerably in Ireland. They had always been desirous of holding a Convention, not for the purpose of arrogating to themselves the functions of Parliament, but for the purpose of eliciting public opinion; but because of their view of the Act they had felt themselves debarred from any such course. Now, however, they had it from the highest authority that such assemblies could not be illegal. Under these circumstances, he thought the Government might very fairly adopt a modification of the Bill, and he believed that the hon. Member who proposed the second reading (Sir Joseph M'Kenna) would agree to such a modification—namely, that the Preamble, or the spirit of the Preamble, of the Act of 1793 should be embodied in a Bill, and that the Bill should be an amending Act of the 1793 measure. In that way, every possible difficulty or doubt would be removed as to the legality of holding a Convention next year in Dublin for the purpose of collecting certain political information. He thought the right hon. and learned Attorney General for Ireland would do well to consider whether he would allow the present Bill to go into Committee, in order that modifications might be made in its provisions to give effect to the interpretation of the Act of 1793.


said, he was anxious for a Division on the Bill, and did not desire to detain the House at length. He rose principally for the purpose of replying to a few of the points put forward, by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland in the very able argument, very moderately worded, that he had made, and he thought he would convince the House that there was no foundation for his argument. The right hon. and learned Gentleman had said that the Act of 1793 was intended to hit at the Convention of Athlone. It was intended to strike at that meeting, and all similar meetings. What was the state of Ireland at the time [that Bill was brought in? There were two associations in Ireland—a Reform Association and a Catholic Association. All Ireland was in commotion; and the Act was intended both for the Reform Association and for the Catholic Association, and the Government succeeded so well by the threat of the Bill that they prevented the Reform Association from proceeding in a Constitutional way, and drove that Reform Association into the United Irishmen Society and the country into the Rebellion of 1798. They prevented the Catholic Association from stating or making any further demands and the Act was used, not for the purpose of preventing illegal meetings, but for the purpose of preventing Constitutional agitation as well. The right hon. and learned Gentleman had challenged them to produce instances in which the Act was put into force against a Constitutional Convention. He would give him one instance. It was put in force in 1812 against the Catholic Convention in Dublin, when that Convention was suppressed. Lord Fingall prosecuted, and Mr. Kirnian convicted. The Act also drove O'Connell into abandoning meetings by delegates, and holding large popular gatherings. They did not want a Convention for the purpose of setting up a rival Parliament, but for the purposes of free debate, and for such purposes a Convention of delegates was better than a tumultuous assemblage. It was, therefore, the interest of the Government to allow this to be done legally. The Bill did not propose to do anything illegal. The common law of the land provided against illegal meetings; but when the right hon. and learned Gentleman told him that there were similar Acts in England he was drawing upon his imagination. There was no analogy between the Acts of Charles II. and the Convention Act. The former were passed to prevent the presentation of Petitions to the Crown or to Parliament, in such a manner as might overawe them. In fact, they were the converse of each other; the Convention Act led to tumultuous meetings; the Acts of Charles prevented them. If they could depend on the good intention of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland being always carried out, even beyond his own lifetime, perhaps there would be no need for passing the Bill; but such a matter could not be left in that position. If the Government objected to the enacting clauses of the Bill, let them allow it to go into Committee, and then propose any alteration which they thought desirable. The right hon. and learned Gentleman said the Act was a short way of defining the common law. Then, if the definition was wanted only for a Constitutional purpose, why did they not extend it to England? He maintained that it was not safe to leave the liberties of the people at the mercy of any Attorney or Solicitor General, however well meaning. He could not consent to the continuance of that state of things, and, therefore, he appealed to the House to allow the Bill to pass a second reading.


said, that the question was not whether it was right and proper to pass the Act under the exceptional circumstances which existed in 1793, and he would assume, for the purposes of his argument, that such legislation was then necessary; but the real question was, whether there were sufficient reasons for maintaining the Act at the present time? That such an Act might have been at one time necessary was no argument in favour of continuing its restrictions. The Irish Statute Book contained many Statutes, the maintenance of which, at the present day, would be admitted by everyone to be simply ridiculous. Any exceptional interference with the liberties of the Irish people was primâ facie wrong, and the burden of proof rested upon those who advocated such exceptional interference. That no inconvenience had ever been felt from the absence of such a law in England was a strong reason to show that it was not required in Ireland. The laws of both countries should be the same, so far as circumstances would permit. Now, what reason had been given for the continuance of this law? No valid reason had been given. The right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland had in effect admitted that it was no longer necessary, seeing that he grounded his objection to its repeal upon the fact that it had not, in recent times, been enforced. That was, however, no reason for maintaining it. On the contrary, it was a strong reason for its repeal. No Government had a right to say that the Irish people should only do on sufferance what was lawful in England. The Attorney General for Ireland had also contended that the Act was limited in its operation to "assemblies assuming or exercising a right or authority to represent the people," and he referred to the Title and the Preamble of the Act in proof of that statement. They must, however, look to the enacting part, which was most general in its terms, and extended to all meetings of delegates with the object of obtaining any alteration in the existing law, however innocent. The only restriction was contained in the Proviso in the 3rd section— That nothing herein contained shall extend or he construed to extend to or affect elections to be made by bodies corporate, according to the charters and usages of such bodies corporate respectively. He trusted the Government would see their way to support this Bill, so far, at least, as to limit its provisions to meetings professing to execute legislative functions. The Statute was an obsolete piece of legislation which ought to be at once repealed.


Sir, I had hoped that, after the clear and comprehensive statement of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General for Ireland, it would have been unnecessary for me to address the House; but one or two observations have been made since upon which I would like to say a few words. I would first call the attention of the House to the somewhat remarkable speech of the hon. Member for Beading (Mr. Shaw Lefevre), from which anyone who listened to him would have inferred that he had always been a firm and consistent supporter of this Bill; but I think I am correct in stating that a few years ago he recorded his vote in favour of an Amendment to the second reading, which was moved by the noble Lord who now leads the Opposition (the Marquess of Hartington), and who made some strong observations in favour of the rejection of the Bill. After those speeches and votes, I think it is a little exceeding the usual limits of Party licence, when we find the present Advisers of Her Majesty charged with desiring to maintain oppressive legislation for Ireland. I fancy the administration of the law in Ireland by the present Government cannot have been exceptionally oppressive, or we should not have had the testimony given us just now—that if my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General could be made eternal, there would be no necessity for this Bill. But my special object in rising was to say this—that if the idea which has lately been thrown out were realized, and if some Bill were produced which, while dealing with the obsolete portions of this Act, would at the same time insure a prohibition of those illegal and objectionable assemblies against which the original Act was framed, I should be quite prepared to support such a Bill. I refer to those provisions in the original Act which were intended to prevent the convention of assemblies which arrogated to themselves the attributes or functions of Parliament. That was the object of the Act. And, entertaining these opinions, my first impression would be to assent to this stage of the Bill now before the House; but on looking through the Bill, I find—and I think any hon. Gentleman, looking at it from a candid point of view, will be disposed to agree with me—that it does not afford us the means of carrying out the compromise which I have proposed my willingness to adhere to. If the Bill were so amended in Committee as to bring it within these dimensions, it would rival the celebrated knife belonging to the hon. Gentleman's fellow-countrymen, for nothing would be left of it. There would have to be a new short Title, a new Preamble, and nothing of the original would remain. I think the present Bill, therefore, is not calculated to arrive at that general understanding which I believe is desired by both sides of the House; and I therefore suggest that the hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir Joseph M'Kenna) should withdraw his Bill and introduce another measure which should contain a strict prohibition of those illegal assemblies against which the Act was originally framed, and which would then not be open to any misconception. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to take advantage of the present opportunity for obtaining the decision of the House, and complains that he may have to wait a long time before he is again placed in an equally favourable position, I would point out to him, in the first place, that the Session is still young, and secondly, that in event of the new Bill being of an unobjectionable character, and one to which the House generally could assent, no time would really be lost; because, even supposing the present Bill were read a second time to-day, an interval would have to take place before it could go into Committee, and the further progress of the Bill would be opposed, and probably brought to a conclusion, unless the Amendments which were proposed to be inserted met with the general approval of the House. Therefore, if he takes the course I advise, he will be in no worse a position with regard to time. I venture to throw out this suggestion. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman and his supporters adopt it, we shall be glad to accept any reasonable measure, by way of showing that nothing is farther from our desire than to stand in the way of anything that is for the benefit of Ireland. Amongst the details of the Preamble of this Bill there is one which we could not assent to, which demands an assimilation of the law of Ireland to that of England. I therefore hope the hon. Gentleman may be disposed to accept my suggestion, and withdraw this Bill and introduce another.


in reply, said, he thought he should be doing wrong and accepting an undue responsibility, if he rejected the advances which had been made by the right hon. Gentleman. The way in which the subject had been discussed gave him great hope for the future. He was quite willing that a Bill should be brought in which would remove difficulty on the points to which objection had been taken; but what occurred to him was this—that a clause might be inserted in the present Bill to this effect— Provided, nevertheless, That nothing herein contained shall be considered to legalize any meeting in Ireland which has taken upon itself or has been put forward as having a Parliamentary or legislative function, and the same shall be, and is hereby declared, a misdemeanour in as full a manner as if this present Act had not passed. Well, now, the right hon. Gentleman thought it would be better to have a new Bill. He accepted that suggestion in the spirit in which he was sure it was made—namely, with a desire for conciliation, and a desire to remove unnecessary asperities in the legislation for Ireland. But he thought it would be better if the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney General for Ireland would take upon himself to introduce such a Bill, The right hon. and learned Gentleman would have more command over the attention of Parliament, and he would be able to do it in a shorter time and in a more efficient manner. He (Sir Joseph M'Kenna) should be happy to give the right hon. and learned Gentleman all the attention he desired at his hands, and if he would accept the duty, he (Sir Joseph M'Kenna) would ask leave of the House to withdraw this Bill.


was understood to intimate his disinclination to bring in the Bill.


understood that the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not accept the duty, but left him to the chances of the Session. He was afraid he must accept those chances, and, therefore, he would now ask leave to withdraw the Bill.

Amendment and Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.