HL Deb 05 July 1831 vol 4 cc720-3
The Marquis of Westmeath

presented a Petition, from certain landholders of the county of Tipperary and another from the inhabitants of Navan, in the county of Meath, against the Grand Jury Laws of Ireland, and praying for their repeal. He trusted, their Lordships would permit him to make a few observations on the matter of these petitions, and the subject to which they related. Their Lordships could not be ignorant, that on the late elections in Ireland, a demand had been made on the candidates, to claim from Parliament a general revision, and in most cases a general repeal, of the Grand Jury Laws. He had to state to their Lordships, that he had looked with the most anxious attention into the evidence which had been given before various Committees of both Houses of Parliament on this most important subject; and he had not met with the testimony of a single witness who had not condemned some part of the machinery of the Grand Jury Laws in Ireland; so that in every part it was actually impeached. If, then, it was impeached in every part, he was bound to assume that the whole system was unsound, and incapable of working out any good for the country. The whole system was in general bad odour with the Irish people, and, if it was only for this reason, it merited the serious investigation of their Lordships; which, if it was bestowed upon the subject, would be at once considered an unworthy infliction upon any people. It was a prominent evil, proved by all the evidence adduced, that the criminal duties of Grand Juries were absorbed, and made secondary to the jobbing propensities connected with their levies of the public money. He had to call their Lordships' particular attention to some anecdotes, which he could relate respecting the manner in which this system worked, odious as it was, and deservedly so to the people of Ireland. He would begin with one occurring in the county of Roscommon—with which he was connected. In the year 1817, a presentment was made with his knowledge from the parish of Kilglass, for a road to connect it with the river Shannon, which washes its shores. The population of that parish was immense, and it contained upwards of 5,000 Irish acres. It bad no road whereupon any farmer could convey a loaded cart; and the case then was, as it now remains, that, though in a county groaning under crops of oats, the produce was brought out piecemeal, to be consigned to the river Shannon as it might; and, although within twelve miles of the great market of Longford, no loaded conveyance could travel into or out of it, nor could then, or can now, any fanner transport manure, or any other load, in that county, except upon horses' backs. Their Lordships would learn, with astonishment, that this county was all heavily taxed by the Grand Jury, to the amount of from 2s. to 3s. annually per acre; concurrently, indeed, with those parts of the county where the Gen- tlemen who compose the Grand Jury disport themselves and reside; but, while one part of the county had not a single passable carriage road, its wealth was extracted to form easy communications and gravel-walks in another part of the county with which it had neither sympathy nor interest. Was it to be supposed that such a system could be endured? He himself, in 1817, had been examined before that Grand Jury, as to the oppressed and neglected state of this part of the county; and from that hour to this, it had remained precisely in the same state. He would relate to their Lordships, the workings of the Grand Jury system in the county of Cavan, with which he was somewhat connected; for the particulars of which, although he would not personally vouch, yet they must have had some foundation in fact; and no matter how much or how little of the history was true, if it was believed in whole or in part by the people, it was equally worthy the attention of their Lordships as a picture of the impressions which the Irish peasantry have of a system, concerning the existence of which they could have no doubt, for it taxed them punctually every six months. Two gentlemen, supposed to have some interest on the Grand Jury, in the year 1813or 1814, wanted 200l. They incited a wretch to burn his house and his corn-stacks, and to present on the county for the sum, promising him their interest, provided the sum should be lent to them. The proceeding took place, but the wretch never got one farthing of the money; but, the story goes, that he got a patent, or indulgence from these two gentlemen who were Magistrates, for stealing cows, to stop his month. Now, he could assure their Lordships, such proceedings were perfectly consistent with what he had himself known of the results of Grand Jury presentments. In the county of Westmeath, he had once been witness to a proceeding, where some gentlemen had assembled to dispose of the pending Grand Jury presentments. One was for a private road, of little or no utility; another for an adjoining public road, of much traffic. The public road was left in a state of comparative dilapidation, and the private road presentment forwarded, on the ground that the gentleman presenting should receive a compliment to encourage him to reside. He would conclude with adverting to the known and crying abuses respecting dispensaries, for which, their Lordships might be aware, Grand Juries in Ireland were bound ministerially to provide. A sum equal to the private subscription for any particular Dispensary, actually sworn to, it was imperative on the Grand Jury to present. Some years ago, a presentment was made, before the Grand Jury of the county of Westmeath, for a dispensary at Kilbeggan. Some individuals on the Grand Jury had grounds to suspect a fraud, and they called the Treasurer before them. He was pressed as to whether he had received a sum equivalent from private individuals to warrant the present tax upon the county. He prevaricated, but at length acknowledged he had not. He denied having taken the affidavit sworn to and signed by him. The Magistrate, whose name was signed to the Jurat, was called before the Grand Jury and examined. He confuted the statement of the Treasurer, and said that he never in his life had affixed a Jurat without tendering the oath, and that the averment of the Treasurer was false. The parties were both living, and with this instance of the working of the Grand Jury Laws, he dismissed the subject, thanking their Lordships for the indulgence with which they had heard him, but assuring their Lordships that no consideration should ever induce him to consent to the power of levying taxes on the people of Ireland remaining with Grand Juries.— Petitions laid on Table.

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