HL Deb 09 July 1847 vol 94 cc88-102

rose, in pursuance of notice, to call the attention of the House to the Third Report of the Commissioners appointed under the Act 10 Victoria, cap. 7, for the relief of distress in Ireland, it having been stated therein— That in some cases the very chairmen of the relief committees, being magistrates, have sanctioned the issue of rations to tenants of their own, of considerable holdings, possessed of live stock, and who, it was found, had paid up their last half year's rent; and that intimidation, a very common cause of abuse, has in some places been openly encouraged by members of the committees: And to move a resolution— That copies of all informations connected with these transactions which have been made to the Commissioners, together with the names of the chairmen of committees and justices of the peace referred to in the report, be laid upon the Table of this House. He should feel that he was acting with ingratitude and impropriety towards those to whom he owed so much, his fellow-countrymen, the resident landlords of Ireland, from whom he had so frequently received testimonials of friendship and regard, were he to permit a public paper, in which their fair fame was assailed, and their honour impugned, to be unnoticed upon the Table of the House. That paper was signed by six gentlemen who had been appointed Commissioners by the Crown for the purpose of administering relief under the present difficulties of Ireland; and it contained charges of a most serious, and, if they were true, of a most dishonouring nature, against gentlemen holding high and important stations in Ireland—against gentlemen, some of whom held the commission of the peace under Her Majesty, and others of whom acted in the capacity of chairmen of relief committees. Such were the class of men against whom the charges were directed; but they were not named specifically, nor was any information given in the report which could lead to their identification. He had to solicit their Lordships, in the name of justice and of fair play, to agree to the Motion which he was now about to submit, the object of which was, that copies of all the informations on which the charges of the Commissioners were founded should be laid upon the Table of the House, and with them a list of the names of such chairmen of committees and justices of the peace as were referred to in that document. As long as the charges against the resident landlords of Ireland emanated merely from anonymous writers, or were simply put forth in the columns of newspapers to serve the political ends which the editors had in view, so long he did not feel it to be his duty to take any notice whatever of the calumnies which from day to day were published by the press; but when Commissioners appointed by the Crown took up the same charges, and even went so far as to embody them in the official report which they made to Parliament, he felt that it was wholly out of the question that he should any longer maintain silence. It was to that unjust, unfair, and one-sided report of the Commissioners that he now felt it to be his duty to direct, in a few words, the attention of their Lordships. He did not stand there to deny, for one moment, the facts alleged in the report, so far as they concerned certain individuals to whom those Commissioners referred. He did not mean to deny that there were unhappily in Ireland certain persons who had been guilty of the shameful and most discreditable practices described in the report; but he stood there to implore of their Lordships to do justice to the landlords of Ireland as a class, by acceding to his Motion, and requiring that there should be laid upon the Table of their House a statement of the names of the magistrates and chairmen of committees who had disgraced themselves by such proceedings. The resident gentry and landlords of Ireland had a right to expect ample justice from that House, which was the highest court of justice in the empire; and he, as their representative, respectfully demanded that justice in their name. After the splendid evidences they had given of their sympathy and generosity towards the Irish people, it was unnecessary that he should attempt any detailed description of the unexampled emergency which had befallen Ireland, or of the measures which were taken by the Legislature to mitigate its pressure. The only redeeming or gratifying circumstance in the calamity was the union of purpose and of action to which it gave rise amongst all classes of the gentry. He spoke from personal observation, when he asserted that many amongst the aristocracy and resident gentry of Ireland not only denied themselves the luxuries to which from their position they were entitled, but risked their lives to alleviate the extreme distress of the poor around them, and to administer to their wants. This was true even in the case of the female members of their families. He might also refer to another class of persons who had been equally, and, if possible, more ardent in their zeal and devotedness—he alluded to the Protestant clergy of Ireland, who, in many localities, were the only resident gentry to whom the poor of all denominations, as well Roman Catholics as Protestants, could apply. That class had discharged their duty in a manner which transcended all praise. Whatever they had, they disposed of for the good of the poor, thereby depriving thomselves, in many instances, of the common necessaries of life, and reducing themselves and their families to the extremity of becoming partakers of the very provisions which they had intended for distribution. With respect to the Roman Catholic clergy, he could say that he was himself acquainted with one Roman Ca- tholic clergyman who lived near him on his own estate—the Rev. Mr. Hanna—who gave essential assistance, and acted in the most zealous and straightforward manner in his efforts to give effect to the benevolent intentions of the Government. To those who had acted in this disinterested spirit during the season of deepest calamity, the report of the Commissioners was calculated to occasion the greatest pain and distress. The effect of the report had been most painful in Ireland, and had produced what in that country was a truly deplorable calamity, namely, a feeling of distrust and suspicion amongst men who were theretofore living together on terms of amity and union. With a view to show that it had tended to this lamentable result, he would take the liberty of reading some extracts from letters which he had received from gentlemen of the highest station and character in Ireland. [The noble Earl read extracts from letters written by correspondents in the counties of Down, Mayo, and Carlow.] It would be no answer to say that the case of abuse and ill-conduct alluded to in the report were only exceptional cases. He took the whole tone, tenor, and spirit of the report; and contended that the charge was brought against the resident gentry as a class, and that the impression which the document was calculated to produce on an unbiassed mind was, that the cases of good conduct were the exceptional ones. The noble Lord having read certain extracts from the report in support of this position, proceeded to observe on the necessity of Government taking some steps with respect to those who were magistrates or chairmen of committees, and who, notwithstanding, had acted in the disgraceful manner described in the report. Was it to be borne that men who held Her Majesty's commission of the peace, and who were appointed to the responsible office of chairmen of committees—men, moreover, who called themselves gentlemen—was it to be endured that, if they were indeed guilty of the discreditable proceedings attributed to them, no notice should be taken of their conduct, but that it was still to remain a blot upon the country, and a stigma on the name of Irishmen? The Commissioners contended that they were compelled in justice to themselves to make the charges contained in the report; but they ought also to have considered what was due in justice to others, and they ought to have perceived the absolute propriety of giving the particulars, so that the country and the Government might know who it was that they were referring to. He trusted that Her Majesty's Ministers would at least acknowledge the propriety of interfering in the case of the magistrates; for surely the idea was not to be brooked that men who had so tarnished their honour should be entrusted any longer with the administration of justice. He did not mean to cast any blame upon the course which had been taken by Her Majesty's Government. He knew that they had had, throughout the whole of these transactions, a most difficult and painful duty to discharge. These difficulties must undoubtedly have been greatly aggravated by the removal of the nobleman who had been so happily placed at the head of the Government of Ireland. If that nobleman were now alive, he believed the report to which he had drawn their Lordships' attention would never have been seen in that House. In that noble Lord (the Earl of Besborough) they had lost a man attentive to the best interests of Ireland, who knew the character, who knew the objects of the Irish people, and whose affectionate sympathy with all that was connected with the interests of that country endeared him to every one. In bringing forward this Motion, he had been influenced alone by a desire to do what he believed was justice to his country; and he now left it to their Lordships to deal with as they thought best.


said, he should trespass but a few moments on their Lordships' attention whilst he stated the grounds on which he thought it impossible for him to concur in the Motion made by the noble Earl; and thought also that, in resisting it, he should do no injustice to any individual whatever. That that noble Earl, connected as he was by birth, ancestry, residence, and character with that part of the United Kingdom to which this Motion referred, should feel deeply sensitive at the imputations which he supposed to be cast upon a class of his fellow-countrymen, was not surprising; and particularly that he should be sensitive upon any subject involving the discharge in that part of the United Kingdom of those magisterial duties which the noble Earl had himself long, most honourably, usefully, and disinterestedly discharged, and had seen faithfully discharged by others. It was least of all surprising that the noble Earl should be anxious to vindicate the purity of that important branch of local administration. But admitting that anxiety as natural on the noble Earl's part, he must say that upon the most attentive consideration he had been able to give to this report, he did not think that it required, at all events at present, any Motion of the nature of that with which the noble Earl had concluded. He would go further, and say, that if any persona had made the inquiries imposed upon them by the unfortunate state of Ireland an opportunity of indulging in reflections upon particular individuals, he should be the last to say that those individuals should not have an opportunity of showing that the charges were unfounded. He perceived what he thought was a merit in this report—an anxious desire to avoid not only the mention of any names, but the pointing out of any local circumstances or parts of the country which might lead to the discovery of the names of the persons to whom they referred. All that the Commissioners had done, without attaching importance to particular expressions employed by them, was to discharge the substantial duty which he considered devolved upon all Commissions entrusted with the business of inquiry. What was the duty to be performed, or the advantage attending these Commissions? They were appointed to carry into effect an important measure, recently passed under circumstances of great difficulty by Parliament. They were called upon, in carrying that measure into effect, and pending the course of those transactions in which they were engaged with that view, to report from time to time to Her Majesty's Government and Parliament what were the difficulties they had met with, what was the progress they had made, what, in short, was the amount of success or failure attending such measure, and to point out to what causes that failure, if any there had been, was owing. This was precisely what those Commissioners had done; they had not, as the noble Earl and his Colleagues had been incorrectly informed, thrown any general stigma or pronounced any general censure on the conduct of any portion of the gentry or middle classes of that country. They stated that although the relief-work undertakings might, if carried into effect with perfect honesty of purpose to the public, have completely answered the object for which they were intended, yet that in very many districts, not in all, abuses, considerable in degree and character, had arisen. He (the Marquess of Lansdowne) should fairly state that he should have expected those difficulties to arise, not merely in Ireland alone, but in England or any other country in which circumstances arose requiring the application of a measure entirely new, and which was not provided with sufficient machinery to carry it into effect universally and efficaciously. Under these circumstances it was to be expected that, partially at least, that degree of effectual co-operation would have been found wanting which was necessary to give due effect to this measure. The Commissioners declared that in other respects this measure had had wonderful success where it had ensured the requisite co-operation. In the very paragraph next to that which had been quoted by the noble Earl, they stated that the finance commissioners, who were composed of two or three gentlemen of each union, had, with very rare exceptions, acted with zeal and discretion. Was not this a ready and willing admission on the part of the Commissioners of Inquiry, that the most important trust which could be confided to any one—that of the pecuniary funds—had been satisfactorily discharged? The noble Earl had read a statement to the effect that in the electoral districts which were small, it was impossible to provide a trustworthy local administration. This was a fact not to be wondered at, least of all to be made the ground of any general imputations against a country, that in those small districts such a system could not be organized. He thought the Commissioners were bound to state this. He did not understand the noble Earl to say that they ought not to have made this matter of observation; but he understood the noble Earl to say, that he thought it would be desirable to annex to that statement the names of the parties concerned. Now he thought that, in withholding the names of the parties, the Commissioners had exercised a sound discretion. He thought that when a Commission was called generally to report upon the working of any important measure, they were not called upon, because they had not received from individuals the co-operation they had desired, to state the cases in which it had been refused. He would suppose a Commission issued to inquire into the smuggling carried on upon the coast, be need not say where, but it might be of Kent or Sussex, which had formerly been liable to such imputations. Could the Commissioners be called upon to name the squire's daughter or the parson's wife, who, in order to pro- cure a better dress from abroad, were suspected of underhand dealings against the law with the smugglers? The Commissioners had done rightly in stating the obstructions they met with; but they were not entitled on that account to hold up individuals to obloquy, which could have been attended with no possible benefit. He was bound to state that, speaking generally of the gently of Ireland, and also of the clergy of Ireland, not only in reference to this particular measure, but to their general conduct, and to the great calamity which the Almighty had permitted to visit that land, they had acted—he would not say in very many instances, but he believed he might say in most instances—with a degree of disinterestedness and self-devotion, the opportunity of which occurred from the very nature of that distress, in districts which were unfortunately the most deprived of the means of exerting charity. He knew that there had been persons who out of their diminished incomes had devoted large portions to the poor, and devoted—what was still more valuable—their personal exertions and industry—and, above all, as the noble Lord well knew, the hazard of their lives themselves, which in many instances had fallen the sacrifice. They should be ready, therefore, in Parliament or out of it, to recognise the great debt of gratitude which not only Ireland but England owed to those numerous and meritorious classes of individuals, whose names he trusted would remain when this scene of distress was closed, as those of persons devoted to the relief of suffering. No doubt there had been exceptions; for this was a new system, imposed upon the country by the necessity of circumstances: those circumstances had made of that country a school of exertion for individuals, and his noble Friend knew that in every school there were some who would behave properly, and others improperly. He, therefore, did not feel that it would be possible with justice now to lay on the Table the names of the persons whose conduct was alluded to in the report, or that any public advantage would result from instituting any inquiry into the particular cases. He might state, if it were any satisfaction to the noble Earl, that instructions had been sent to the Government of Ireland, in all cases where magistrates or persons holding responsible situations had been implicated by these supposed charges, to make them acquainted with the fact of the charges having been brought, that they might have an opportunity, without their names being held up to observation, of communicating with the Government as they might deem advisable. There was every prospect that the ends of truth would be more effectually forwarded by that proceeding than by any other; and, believing that to institute inquiries with no prospect of being able to bring them to a satisfactory conclusion would be attended with no advantage, he must oppose the Motion, whilst he did the fullest justice to the motives which had induced the noble Lord to bring it forward. He was convinced that the jealousy evinced by the noble Lord on this subject, was only a proof of the soundness and goodness of his zeal on subjects concerning that part of the United Kingdom with which he was connected.


said, that he thanked his noble Friend for having brought forward the subject, but at the same time thought it would not be judicious to act upon the Motion. His opinion was that this report should not have been laid before Parliament at all in the shape it at present assumed. It would have been better to have given the report in the first instance with the names, but not to have made it public. He wished to ask his noble Friend opposite (the Marquess of Lansdowne) whether the magistrates who were said to be implicated in these charges would not be asked to account fully for their conduct; whether those persons who, in page 4 of the report, were stated to have acted with fraudulent intention—it was clearly nothing short of that—whether those persons who had been guilty of so scandalous a breach of duty as putting their own servants, and labourers, and other tenants possessed of property, and who had paid up their rent to the last quarter, on the relief list; whether those magistrates should be left for a single hour in the commission of the peace for Ireland? He did not ask for their names; he had rather not know them. Such knowledge would only give him the pain of despising his fellow-creatures, which was at all times a disagreeable feeling, though sometimes inevitable. But surely those men should not remain in the commission of the peace if they were not able most thoroughly to vindicate themselves. It would not do for them—as two Members of Parliament had done—solemnly to deny the charge. That would not do. If they could furnish no better evidence than that, he would remove them at once. Members of those Committees, who were not only magistrates, but, in some instances at least, Members of Parliament, were charged with intimidation, with acts of violence, and with stirring up riot against the Government officer for discharging his duty. This had been denied by them in the other House; and Government having inquired, were not satisfied with the denial. Surely such matters should be inquired thoroughly into, that the commission of the peace in Ireland might not be degraded and disgraced.


agreed with his noble and learned Friend, that, if it had been possible, it would have been better that this report should not have seen the light; but as it had been published, he thought that the feeling of the House would be in favour of the withdrawal of the present Motion. He could not help fearing that one of the evils which might arise from the publication of the report would be, that it would excite in the minds of persons in this country an indisposition to take a just view of the calamities to which Ireland had been exposed, and to continue the assistance which had been afforded to the Irish people. There were in the report some expressions which he thought it would have been better to suppress; but there was one paragraph which, in a condensed form, contained the pith of those objections which were made by many Members of that House against the introduction and passing of the Irish Poor Law Bill—he referred to the passage in which the Commissioners described the utter incapacity of many parts of Ireland to bear the operation of such a law. During the present Session they had passed the Irish Poor Law; they had empowered a loan of 1,500,000l. to the landed proprietors of Ireland for the improvement of their lands; and they had passed through that House, by acclamation, a Bill empowering the sale of encumbered estates. He understood, however, that some little hitch had occurred in the other House with regard to the further progress of the last measure.


It is withdrawn.


Withdrawn! Why, all the measures of the Government were withdrawn. The Railways Bill had been withdrawn; the Health of Towns Bill had been postponed to another Session; and now he understood the Bill which was considered the great lion of the Session was also withdrawn. Why had this mea- sure been withdrawn? It had not been withdrawn in consequence of any remonstrances from the gentry of Ireland against the Bill. It was true the Irish landlords had remonstrated against the measure, because the English mortgagees made a previous remonstrance; and they felt that, entangled as they were with the English mortgagees, it was their duty to pray that the Bill might not pass. This opposition did not arise, however, from any indisposition of the Irish landlords to consent to the Bill, but from the opposition of the English mortgagees. Although he entirely approved of the measure, he must say that he did not think any great benefit would have resulted from it. It was impossible to avoid indulging some little curiosity as to what might be the designs of Her Majesty's Ministers with regard to Ireland, and as to the mode in which they intended to follow out the measures which had been resorted to during the present Session. He (Earl Fitzwilliam) wished to ask the Government whether they were contented with those measures? He was convinced that only one answer could be given to that question by his noble Friend (the Marquess of Lansdowne). What was the present condition of Ireland? It appeared, from the official returns, that on the 5th of June there were 2,622,263 persons receiving gratuitous relief in Ireland; and that, on that day, 1,900,000 rations were issued. He (Earl Fitzwilliam) would ask, whether Her Majesty's Ministers, whether that House, or whether the people of England intended that such a state of things should be allowed to continue? The cost of the rations was 2½d. each, and, therefore, the daily value of the rations supplied at this time was 20,035l., amounting to a sum of 7,313,775l. a year. Now, he would ask Her Majesty's Ministers if they meant to continue this system, and whether they believed that the continuance of such a system was consistent with the existence of social order in Ireland? At least one-third of the population of Ireland was maintained by gratuitous charity, at a cost amounting to more than half the rental of the country. He would ask their Lordships what they thought would be the condition of any English county, if the maintenance of the poor cost half the rental of the county? What would be the state of Northamptonshire, a county with which he (Earl Fitzwilliam) was connected, if the poor-rate amounted to upwards of half a million a year? The utmost pres- sure of the poor-rate in Sussex—a county in which the poor-law had been worse administered than in any other English county; and in which, consequently, the pressure of poor-rates had been most severe—had never exceeded between 300,000l. and 400,000l. in any one year; and this was much less than the present expenditure for any county in Ireland. He thought this was a subject which deserved the serious consideration of Her Majesty's Ministers. Unless the Government took some of the people of Ireland from the poor-rates, the country would fall into a state of complete social disorganization: 70,000 persons could not immigrate into England without bringing down the rate of wages in this country; and England would find that if she did not pull Ireland up, Ireland would pull her down. He approved of the measure brought forward by a noble Lord in the other House (Lord G. Bentinck) with respect to advances to Irish railways, although he did not approve of the Bill by which the noble Lord proposed to effect that object. Ireland wanted capital; but if English capital went to Ireland, it must be through the medium of the Government, and she required, too, a large outlay. He had no doubt that the money, if judiciously expended, would be profitable to England. In his opinion the approaching harvest would do very little to diminish the misery of Ireland. From the accounts he had received, he believed that not more than one-fifth of the ordinary breadth of potatoes had been planted this year, and he would add, that he was exceedingly glad to hear it. But, although he should be glad to see the people consuming a more generous diet, he must remind their Lordships, that if the growth of the potato were restricted in Ireland, the means of feeding the people would also be very much restricted. He very much doubted whether the produce of the next harvest would feed more than two-thirds of the population. The rest of the people must be maintained; but what had Ireland to give in return for the food which she must import? If the people were to be kept alive, they must be maintained by some one—and by whom? He would say, that if the resources of Ireland were not sufficient, the resources of England must be devoted to that purpose, unless the Government wished the people to die by hundreds of thousands. Well, if, as he hoped, the Government intended to maintain the people of Ireland, if necessary, no doubt they would acknowledge their intention. He hoped they would not conceal their intentions from the people of England at the hustings, and then come down to Parliament after the elections, and say that the people of Ireland must be fed out of the resources of England. A Bill for the recovery of the public money advanced to Ireland was before their Lordships; but when they came to open it they found that it was a Bill to abandon half of this money; and whether the other half would ever be recovered was a matter of some little doubt. England must be told fairly that she must hear the burden of this great calamity. She had never been told that fairly. She had not understood the extent of the calamity, and its results and remote consequences. It was a calamity so unheard of in the history of the world, that people could not raise up their minds to the contemplation of it. He would tell the Government that a small and niggardly outlay would do no good. Ireland had not herself the means of borrowing the capital she required. He expressed no opinion respecting the question of an independent Legislature for that country; but if Ireland had an independent Parliament, she would have had the means of borrowing money after such a calamity as had recently befallen her. England had deprived Ireland of the power of acting as a community, and she would not act as a community for her. There was a great opening for public works in Ireland, but not for such public works as had been entered upon lately. Public works of a more useful character might be begun, which, combined with a judicious system of emigration, would counteract the effect of that tendency to surplus population which would be more felt as the means of subsistence derived from the potato failed. But, to carry out such public works or system of emigration effectually, there must be a co-operation on the part of the landed proprietors of Ireland, as it was not fair to expect the Imperial Legislature to find the whole of the funds. In any system of emigration, no half measures would be of use; and he was quite satisfied, that if Ministers, in the next Parliament, did not take a course very different from what they had hitherto taken towards Ireland, they would not earn honour in their administration. It was true, the last year had presented a great emergency; but great emergencies were great opportunities, and he hoped Her Majesty's Government in their future legislation for Ireland would profit by those opportunities.


contended, that the public ought to know who the parties were who ought to be charged with the offences detailed in this report; because they belonged to the class to whom the administration of the Poor Law was about to be entrusted. He feared that the very principle of the system rendered such abuses as were complained of inevitable: and he had prophesied the result when by the Bill 2,000 districts were created in Ireland of different sizes and rentals, and the same system was applied to the whole. But, further, in the Bill which their Lordships passed, there was introduced a provision regulating the parties by whom the functions were to be administered, and specifying certain classes by name. Their Lordships were told that the parties specified by their class would not give an adequate machinery for carrying the measure into operation; and so it had turned out. In one electoral division in Connaught, persons were placed on the committee who could neither read nor write. He would ask, whether such persons were likely to exercise the powers with which they were entrusted, discreetly? The abuses referred to wore no more chargeable upon the landed gentry of Ireland, than upon their Lordships' House. He must say, that while he admitted there had been a lavish expenditure—he did not say on the part of England; for he denied that it was so—it was the expenditure of the United Empire, to which Ireland had contributed her share, even under the present calamity, without any diminution of her public revenue—he must say, that while he did not complain of the niggardliness of the expenditure, he did complain of the wisdom which had been exercised in dispensing it. He thought that a much less sum given with a more kindly feeling, and in a more confiding spirit, would have done more good than all they had given; which, having been expended with reluctance, with regret, and with more than unconcern, had proved a source of bitter feeling, where it ought to have yielded only satisfaction. He maintained, that if any magistrate could be proved to have been directly or indirectly guilty of the offences which had been charged against their class in the report of the Commissioners, he ought not to be allowed to remain for a single hour in the commission of the peace. The Legislature had added these men as ex-officio members of the board of guardians; and it behoved them, if they wished to have the Poor Law properly administered, to take care that every one of these ex-officio guardians to whom the delinquencies in question should be brought home, was dismissed from the bench of justices. He concluded by thanking the noble Lord for bringing forward this Motion.


believed that great benefit would arise from what had been stated in the House that night. He felt thankful to the noble Lord the President of the Council for the course he had taken, and to the other noble Lords who had spoken on the present occasion; and he should therefore feel it to be his duty to follow the suggestion which had been made to him, and ask the permission of the House to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned,

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