The Union

Eleanor Hull
The Union

It was while Ireland was distracted by these events that the project of Union with Great Britain began seriously to be discussed. Forty thousand British troops held the country, the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended and all right of assembly and discussion denied; trials by courts martial were in progress and the loyalists were fatigued and worn by the exertions they had made to put down rebellion. This was the moment chosen for proposing a radical change in the constitution of the country.

While the rebellion was still running its course hints of a proposed union between the two countries had been industriously spread abroad. Pamphlets for and against it had occasionally appeared during the preceding years[1] and it runs like an undertone through the official correspondence between London and Dublin from 1793 onward.

Valentine Lawless, afterwards Lord Cloncurry, when a young student in the Middle Temple, heard it mentioned at a dinner at which Pitt was present in 1795 and hastened to publish a pamphlet against the project.[2]

But Pitt had made up his mind, and Cornwallis had been sent over to carry through the policy that had been resolved upon. He was warned that the time was one of too much danger to agitate such a contentious question, but Cornwallis found “the principal people so frightened” that he believed they would consent to a Union, provided that it were a Protestant Union.

Even Plunket, who hated the idea and held that it was beyond the competence of the Irish Parliament to extinguish its own existence, thought that if it were brought forward at once the Act would be carried; “animosity and want of time to consider coolly its consequences and forty thousand British troops in Ireland” would suffice to carry the measure. “But in a little time,” he added, “the people will wake as from a dream, and what consequences will follow I tremble to think.” His convinced view was that it would accelerate a total separation between the two countries.

There had been times when the idea of a Union with Britain had been looked upon with favour. Molyneux, in his pamphlet on the Union, thought that for Ireland to have representatives in the Parliament of England “would be a state of things to be willingly embraced; but this,” he adds, “is a happiness we can hardly hope for.”

But with the hard-won fight for the independence of the Irish Parliament, partial and limited as that independence was, another spirit had arisen, and there was no disposition to part with newly acquired rights and privileges.

In regard to the country at large, it cannot be said that the Irish Parliament had fulfilled the hopes with which it was established. It had neither been able to avert rebellion or to mitigate the cruelty with which it was being put down. Yet neither Cornwallis nor Plunket was prepared for the strength of the opposition shown towards the proposed measure.

Elliot, a Member of the Lower House, felt that no part of it could be carried “without the enforcement of severe Parliamentary discipline.”[3] But Lord Castlereagh, to whom the business of securing its adoption was confided, took the cynical view that there was no man, whether in the House of Lords or Commons, who had not his price, and in the most systematic manner he undertook to sound each Member as to what his price would be.

Men of position, like the Speaker Foster, or the Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, Sir John Parnell, or Lord Ely, were to be purchased or cajoled, or, if they proved obstinate, removed from office and disgraced;[4] men who supported were to receive due rewards.

It is clear, from Castlereagh’s correspondence on the subject, that many members made very cool bargains before promising their votes. The motives that moved them were, in the large majority of instances, purely personal: borough proprietors feared a loss of their influence and authority; officials dreaded a change that might bring to an end the corrupt system to which they were accustomed and out of which they reaped large profits; and every individual was calculating what personal advantage he could derive from the change.[5]

The effect of the Act on the country was, as Cornwallis contemptuously observes, the last thing that seemed to be in their thoughts. For Parnell, who “disliked the measure, but if it could be made palatable to him personally” would give it his support, Pitt thought an English peerage and a provision for life might suffice.

To Lord Ely, who considered the Union “a mad scheme” and who “had not heard a single argument in its favour,” but who intimated that he “kept his mind free,” it was explained that “he would not be allowed to shuffle” but that “his objects would be attended to.”

There were, however, a considerable number of men, like Foster, La Touche, Bushe, Jebb, and Ponsonby, in the Lower House and the Duke of Leinster and Lords Moira, Downshire, and Powerscourt in the Upper House who preserved their integrity and refused to be bought, though large offers were made for their acquiescence. Yet the corruption in the Upper House was far more pronounced than in the Lower, £128,000 being expended in the purchase of four peers only, besides other douceurs.

The twenty-five Members bought over by Castlereagh between the first and second discussion of the Bill secured him fifty additional votes and sufficed to carry the measure. Some of the Members made their public recantation in the course of the debate. Such was the patriotism of the private Members.[6]

In the country opinion was divided. The most determined opponents to the idea of Union were the city of Dublin and the Irish Bar. The Dublin bankers and merchants offered a serious opposition. They believed that the existing prosperity of the city would be sacrificed, that absenteeism would increase and their manufactures be ruined.

The Corporation was reported to be furious; and the bankers and merchants, headed by William Digges La Touche, and supported by J. C. Beresford, drew up, at a meeting at the Mansion House, a series of strong resolutions against the measure. They attested that since the establishment of an independent Parliament “the commerce and prosperity of this kingdom have eminently increased,” which they ascribed to the wisdom of the Irish Parliament.[7]

Next to the city the lawyers took up an attitude of resistance. They assembled in a body, as a yeomanry corps, and threatened to set an example to the yeomanry of the country to revolt or to lay down their arms. This danger was averted by the exertions of Cornwallis, but at a full meeting of their body led by Saurun, who, like La Touche, was of Huguenot descent, a resolution was passed by a majority of 134 stating “that a Legislative Union of this kingdom and Great Britain was an innovation which would be highly dangerous at the present juncture to this country.”

It was little wonder that the discussions on the subject had put new life into the “almost annihilated” body of the United Irishmen and that the Association began “to rise like a phœnix from its ashes.”[8]

But lawyers, like senators, had their price, and the list of their rewards shows that thirty-four of their body accepted compensation in money, positions, or titles, rather than risk dismissal by offending the Government.[9]

The North was, in general, friendly. The Orangemen decided to adopt, as a body, no fixed attitude, but to leave their members free to vote as they wished, “it being not the habit of that part of the kingdom to take a very lively interest in any measure proposed by Government.”[10]

The Catholics were in a more difficult position. The admission of Catholics into Parliament was represented as dependent on the passing of this measure, and Pitt, while not actually pledging himself, held out what appeared to be distinct hopes of their complete emancipation in bringing in the Bill.[11]

Fitzwilliam had been instructed “to give it a handsome support on the part of the Government” if the Catholics seemed determined on it. Cornwallis had declared his unqualified approval of the admission of Catholics into Parliament. On September 30 he wrote that he would never consent to the insertion of any clause (in the Act) that shall make the exclusion of the Catholics a fundamental part of the Union, “as I am fully convinced that until the Catholics are admitted into a general participation of rights … there will be no peace or safety in Ireland.”[12] “I certainly wish,” he wrote again, “that England could now make a Union with the Irish nation, instead of making it with a party in Ireland.”

When he begins to doubt of his views being accepted he feels “great doubts of the efficacy” of the measure, and “does not believe that it would have been much more difficult to have included the Catholics.” But, as on previous critical occasions, the Catholics themselves failed to speak with any decided voice, and showed a fatal complacency with any arrangements that Ministers chose to make. They seem to have regarded the question with a supine lethargy and to have left all efforts to the Protestants.[13]

A representative meeting held at Lord Fingall’s at an early stage in the negotiations came to no decision. Lord Kenmare and Lord Fingall were decidedly in favour of Union. Dr. Troy, Archbishop of Dublin, was of the same opinion; all that was wished for was some provision for their clergy,[14] to render them less dependent on the lower orders.

The letter of Dr. Moylan, Bishop of Cork, on September 14, 1799, to Sir J. Hippisley is most remarkable. He praised “the present humane and enlightened administration” whose measures had contributed to the tranquillity of the country; “except where the Orange influence prevails, peace and good order appear,” he says, “to be re-established.” He believes that nothing will more effectually tend to lay disgraceful party feuds and restore peace and harmony “than the great measure in contemplation of the legislative Union and incorporation of this kingdom with Great Britain,” which he was happy to say was working its way daily and daily gaining ground in public opinion. He adds: “The Roman Catholics in general are avowedly for the measure.”[15]

From Pitt’s point of view the urgent necessity of some change in the relations between the two countries was daily becoming clearer. The war with France and the growing power of Buonaparte filled the nation with a dread that had been unknown in England since the days of the Armada.

In 1797, at the same time that Napoleon was planning the conquest of Syria and Egypt, the Directory had sent to the coast of Wales two thousand desperadoes taken from the gaols, “the greatest reprobates in the French army,” known as the Légion Noire. “Sad blackguards they are,” says Tone, who saw them reviewed at Brest.[16]

Their purpose was to burn Bristol to the ground and to buccaneer in England. Even Tone pitied the probable fate of Bristol. This was at the same moment that revolutionary doctrines were running through Ireland, and Tone was urging the Directory for fleets and money to invade the country and obtain separation from England.

Pitt was uncertain what the views of the Irish Parliament might prove to be if a critical moment arose. Subservient as it had usually shown itself, it had on rare occasions asserted itself and taken a course not approved in England.

The Members had not always acted in harmony or with good judgment. In one instance, the question of the Regency, they might fairly be accused of hasty action and want of discretion. The Regency matter was constantly in Pitt’s mind and takes a large place in his speech introducing his measure in the English Parliament. Might they not, he urged, on some critical occasion in which the defence and safety of Great Britain was involved again take an independent attitude?

Pitt’s view came simply to this: a Parliament in Ireland was safe only so long as it was subservient. As soon as it became effectual it became dangerous. This was the main line of argument advanced by him in his speech on the message of His Majesty on the question of the Union on January 23, 1799, which was moved by Dundas and replied to by Sheridan, who fought the measure step by step in the English Parliament. Pitt said:

“We have all in our mouths a sentence, that every good Englishman and every good Irishman feels—we must stand and fall together—we should live and die together; and yet without such a measure as that which is about to be proposed to you, there can be no security for the continuance of that sentiment; … as it now stands it is liable to a thousand accidents. … What security is there that they (the two Parliaments) will agree on all questions hereafter, in which the general interest of the British Empire is involved? … Is it a difficult thing to suppose a case in which the two Parliaments may clash and become perhaps as hostile to one another as any two independent bodies politic in Europe?”[17]

Had the Parliament of Ireland in any way really represented the proletariat, such arguments would have had great weight. The examination of the leaders of the United Irishmen had revealed to the Government the existence of a widespread conspiracy to sever the connexion with Britain with the armed aid of France, Britain’s bitterest enemy.

The spread of republican sentiments in the North and the rebellion in the South proved the unrest and disaffection felt through large parts of the country. To the English public Pitt’s arguments presented an unanswerable position. His speech was pronounced “the most impressive and one of the most judicious the Under-Secretary had ever heard.”

But even supposing that the rebellion had been a real expression of popular opinion instead of a movement largely worked up for political purposes, as in fact it was, neither republicanism or rebellion found any sympathisers in the Irish House of Commons.

Any efforts made by the House in the direction of independence, reform, or Catholic freedom had been accompanied with assurances of the most devoted support of the Throne and of England in her prosecution of the war.

So far as the Parliament was concerned, Pitt could not bring any accusation against it; he could only presuppose a possible change of sentiment if ever the Parliament should really express the sentiments of the people it was supposed to represent.

Yet, at last, even the venal oligarchy who constituted the majority of the House was proving restive. On January 26, three days after this speech, Pitt was writing to the Lord Lieutenant that he “was certainly much disappointed and grieved to find that a measure so essential is frustrated for the time by the effect of prejudice and cabal,” and he takes practical steps to guard against a repetition of inconvenient conduct by recommending it “as very desirable, if the Government is strong enough to do it without too much immediate hazard, to mark by dismissal the sense entertained of the conduct of those persons in office who opposed.”

The way being thus prepared, Pitt, on January 31, brought in his resolutions affirming the principles of the Union in a long and closely reasoned speech, in which he calls upon the Parliaments of both kingdoms “to provide in the manner which they shall judge most expedient for settling such a complete and final adjustment as may best tend to improve and perpetuate a connection essential for their common security, and to augment and consolidate the strength, power, and resources of the British Empire.”[18]

In this speech Pitt, while he fully admitted the entire competence of the Parliament of Ireland to accept or reject a proposition of this nature and had no hope of its immediate adoption by the Irish legislature, challenged the finality of the settlement of 1782 and pointed to the fresh dangers of total separation arising from the separation of the legislatures. He argued that the commercial regulations of 1785 led directly to legislative union; and that only by making the countries one could commercial jealousies be obviated and commercial compacts kept.

He then passed on to consider the special dangers arising from the present war with France and the efforts she was making to effect a landing in England through Ireland; and he argued that only by making the interests of the two countries identical could the safety of both be attained.

Pitt, with an all-absorbing and critical war upon his hands, may well be excused if he saw the question only from the Imperial point of view. He had always been of the same opinion and had never condescended to play a double game, as Portland was accused of having done. He also honestly thought that certain measures, Catholic emancipation in particular, which he believed to be fraught with peril in the present circumstances, might be carried with safety in a United Parliament.

The Catholics, now a large majority in a separated Ireland, would be a minority under a union of the two countries, and thus unable to carry the revolutionary measures they were constantly supposed to have in view.

A re-arrangement with regard to tithes and a provision for the Catholic clergy were also held out as inducements to accept the Bill.

Pitt, after enumerating the advantages that he believed would accrue to Ireland in trade, defence, and prosperity, by the acceptance of his proposals, ended with a vigorous challenge to the new doctrines of Jacobinism which placed the final sovereignty in the people themselves, a principle which he characterised as “striking at the foundation of all Governments and obviously incompatible with all civil society; one of the favourite impostures to mislead the understanding and to flatter and inflame the passions of mankind.”[19]

Sheridan and Grey opposed the arguments with great eloquence, but Pitt carried the resolutions, Sheridan’s amendment being lost by 140 to 25. When transmitted to the Upper House the Bill was agreed to without a division, Lord Lansdowne and Lord Moira speaking against the measure and Grenville and Auckland in support.