The Peel Web
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Since taking his seat in parliament in 1809, Peel had never made a secret of the fact that he was totally against making any political or constitutional concessions to Catholics. From 1812 to 1818 Peel was Chief Secretary for Ireland in Lord Liverpool's government. Peel's period as Irish Secretary saw him supporting the constitutional status quo. He was committed to the Act of Union and opposed Catholic Emancipation. He defended the Church of Ireland's rights and privileges -- hence Daniel O'Connell dubbed him "Orange Peel".
Peel held the post of Chief Secretary for longer than any of his predecessors but developed an antipathy towards Irish demands for reform. In 1816-7 there was a potato famine and Peel produced contingency plans for the alleviation of distress should that prove necessary. By 1818 there was no-one in government who knew more than Peel about Ireland and conditions there. However, in all the debates on Catholic Emancipation, Peel could be relied upon to speak against the measure and he resigned from office when George Canning became Prime Minister in 1827 because Canning proposed to put a Bill for Catholic Emancipation to parliament.
Support for the Anglican Church was the life-blood of Toryism. The Tories believed that there could be no yielding over the central rights of the Established Church. This therefore implied opposition to Catholic Emancipation on principle because it would destroy the constitutional supremacy of the Anglican Church. Canning supported Catholic Emancipation and wanted it to be passed before the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts was granted. The Cabinet was divided on this however, so it was left as an open question and a settlement was deliberately postponed until the crisis of 1828-9.
Peel's Anglican convictions led to his refusal to join Canning's government in 1827 and Wellington refused to serve for the same reason, although he seemed to be in favour of Catholic Emancipation as early as 1793, when he took his seat in the Irish Parliament as Member for Trim, in Co. Meath. Two of his speeches early that year deal with the subject of Catholics and their rights. The first was in January, soon after he had taken his seat. He had been moving towards Catholic Emancipation since 1825 and personally had decided for it by the 1826 Irish General Election, which demonstrated the electoral strength of the Irish Catholics. Wellington considered Catholic Emancipation to be a political, not a religious question. By 1828 he felt that resistance was impractical and dangerous because of the result of the County Clare election.
Wellington probed anti-Catholic opinion before forming his Cabinet in 1828: anti-Catholic hard-liners were excluded, and pro-Emancipation men were pursued to take up posts. Wellington then adopted many of Canning's policies, with a 'mixed' government containing Ultras, liberals and some ex-Whigs. In February 1828 Wellington repealed the Test and Corporation Acts, instigated by the Whig, Lord John Russell, and backed by a strong Dissenting campaign. Russell said:
'It is really a gratifying thing to force the enemy to give up his first line, that none but Churchmen are worthy to serve the State, and I trust we shall soon make him give up the second, that none but Protestants are.'
Between 1828 and 1830 Peel, almost single-handed, sustained Wellington's government in Commons' debates, suffering a savage campaign of ridicule and abuse in the press for his betrayal of Protestantism. As Home Secretary in Wellington's government Peel was the most important man in the House of Commons.
In August 1828 after the County Clare election, Peel accepted the necessity for, but not the desirability of Catholic Emancipation. He tendered his resignation but Wellington persuaded him that the legislation would never pass without Peel's support. By January 1829 Peel's high-principled stand was weakening. He told Wellington that he would continue in office 'if my retirement should prove ... 'an insuperable obstacle' to the passing of Catholic Emancipation. Wellington's response was:
'I tell you frankly that I do not see the smallest chance of getting the better of these difficulties if you should not continue in office'.
Peel agreed to put Catholic Emancipation to the Commons. Only the king, Peel and the Lord Chancellor were fully in Wellington's confidence over Catholic Emancipation. Peel put duty before principle and in February 1829 proposed the Bill to an astounded House of Commons. After all, for the past twenty years, Peel had been the one man who had consistently opposed the measure.
The Catholic Emancipation Act, which became law in April 1829, finally fragmented the Tories into the Ultras, liberal Tories and Wellingtonians, but was the result of Tory weakness which had existed under Liverpool, and led to further weaknesses and concessions. It broke up the old Tory party, and was therefore (perhaps) more significant than the Reform Act for the Conservatives. Catholic Emancipation was the first step on the road to reform.
The Duchess of Richmond invited all Wellington's cabinet to her home at Goodwood for dinner following the passing of the Act. When they arrived, they discovered the dining room 'decorated' with two hundred strategically-placed stuffed rats - an expression of the duchess' opinion of the government. Arguably, Peel spent the rest of his political life attempting to live down this "ratting" on the constitution.
Peel was denounced as a traitor by the Ultras and had to resign his Oxford seat as a result of his support for Catholic Emancipation. He asked his constituents for a vote of confidence, and was beaten in an exciting by-election during which his opponents taunted him with the couplet, reprinted in the Birmingham Argus in January 1829: the rhyme which haunted Peel for many years:
Oh Member of Oxford, you shuffle and wheel
You have altered your name from R. Peel to Repeal.
In November 1830 Wellington resigned as Prime Minister and Peel moved onto the Opposition Front Bench in parliament. However, his dealings with Ireland were not over. When he became Prime Minister for the second time (1841-6) he had to deal with O'Connell's attempt to repeal the Act of Union and the events of the Famine.