State of Ireland during the Eighteenth Century: Legislative Independence

Edgar Sanderson
The British Empire in the Nineteenth Century
Chapter V

The political position of the country was that, under the laws procured by Lord-deputy Poynings in 1495, the Irish parliament was subject to the privy-council in England, and, by later legislation, to the British parliament at Westminster.

By the middle of the eighteenth century much relaxation had arisen in applying the laws against religion, but the faith of the great majority of the Irish people was illegal, and there was no repeal of the persecuting statutes.

In the early part of George the Third's reign, the Irish parliament began to show some signs of an independent spirit.

In 1768 the Commons rejected a money bill “because it did not take its rise in that House”, and parliaments in Ireland became octennial, instead of the Commons being chosen for the duration of each reign.

Henry Grattan succeeded Flood as the advocate of legislative independence, and England's difficulty of war with her American colonies and with European powers gave Ireland her opportunity.

In 1778, the British parliament, on Irish demands, gave some relief to Irish trade, and changes were made in the penal code against the Catholics.

They could now hold their property on the same terms as Protestants, and in 1782 they were enabled to acquire freeholds for lives or by inheritance, to open schools, and to educate their youth in literature and religion.

In 1779 the British government, in dread of invasion, had desired to raise a Protestant militia in Ireland, but there were no funds for their payment, and volunteer corps arose, for part of whom the ruling powers provided arms.

Eighty thousand men, all Protestants, were soon enrolled, the Catholics being permitted only to subscribe towards the expenses.

It was this volunteer movement which led to the brief legislative independence of Ireland that existed from 1782 till 1800.

Early in the former year the famous Convention of Dungannon was held. This was a meeting of the Protestant leaders of the Ulster volunteers, and after long debate they passed a resolution that “The claim of any body of men, other than the King, Lords, and Commons of Ireland, to make laws to bind that kingdom is unconstitutional, illegal, and a grievance”.

A second resolution was that “We hold the right of private judgment in matters of religion to be equally sacred in others as in ourselves. We rejoice in the relaxation of the penal laws against our Roman Catholic fellow-subjects, and we conceive this measure to be fraught with the happiest consequences to the union and prosperity of the inhabitants of Ireland”.

The men who passed these resolutions had arms in their hands, and were not to be trifled with.

In April, 1782, the Irish parliament carried a Declaration of Rights, demanding legislative independence, and Great Britain was forced to come to terms.

The legislative and judicial authority of the British parliament was renounced: the right of the privy-council to alter bills transmitted from Ireland was abandoned, and Ireland, for eighteen years, had an independent legislature, and occupied a constitutional position like that of Scotland before the Union of 1707.

This Irish Parliament was, however, from the first a foredoomed failure. Not merely was it purely Protestant, while four-fifths of the Irish people were Catholics, but it did not properly represent even the Protestant minority.

Of the 300 members of this Irish House of Commons only 72 were really returned by the Protestant voters, while 123 sat for nomination boroughs, and represented only their patrons. Fifty-three peers directly appointed these “legislators”, and could also ensure, by their influence, the election of ten others.

Fifty commoners also nominated ninety-one members, and controlled the election of four others.

As a representative assembly it was, therefore, a farce more ridiculous even than the British House of Commons prior to 1832.

It was, in other ways, a grossly corrupt body, and the government in England influenced its debates and votes by wholesale and unblushing bribery.

The changes needed, in order to turn it into a really representative and useful body, were a thorough franchise reform and Catholic emancipation.

For these changes, in those days, it was hopeless to strive, and the last state of the Irish parliament was worse than the first.

Pitt, an enlightened statesman placed in a very difficult position between the promptings of his own judgment and the prejudices of his chief supporters, including those of a monarch now half insane, strove to give more freedom to Irish trade. His efforts failed in both Parliaments, and matters drifted on towards the legislative union of the two countries.

In 1793, the Irish Catholics obtained the right of voting for Protestant members, but they could not sit in parliament, and George the Third, from scruples which he supposed to affect his coronation oath, declined to grant full political emancipation.