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The Duke of Wellington's speeches on Catholic Emancipation (7)

February 19, 1829.

These documents are taken from: The Speeches of the Duke of Wellington in Parliament, collected and arranged by the late Colonel Gurwood, C.B., K.C.T.S., (London,John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1854)

February 19, 1829.


THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON spoke in the following terms:

My Lords, It now becomes my duty to move the second reading of the Bill upon your Table for the suppression of illegal and dangerous Associations; and it is my intention in the performance of this duty to refer as little as possible to the question which for the last two or three hours has been discussed, I must say (with my noble friend on the woolsack) very irregularly. In adverting to the 'Catholic Association,' against which this measure is directed, it is neither my purpose nor my wish to exaggerate its power, or to aggravate the evils arising out of it. Its description is, in my judgment, accurately given in the speech delivered on the first day of this Session, by His Majesty's Commissioners. It is there said that 'His Majesty laments that in that part of the United Kingdom an association should still exist which is dangerous to the public peace, and inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution, which keeps alive discord and ill will among His Majesty's subjects, and which must, if permitted to continue, effectually obstruct every effort permanently to improve the condition of Ireland.' This sentence, my Lords, is followed by the expression on the part of His Majesty of a well-grounded confidence in the wisdom of the two Houses of Parliament 'to commit to him such powers as may enable His Majesty to sustain his just authority.' I feel that I am warranted in stating, that in the original constitution and form of this Society there was nothing illegal; its illegality arises from its acts, and from the language of its members. Its acts consist principally of the levy of a revenue upon His Majesty's subjects, called 'a Rent,' procured, I am afraid, in some instances, by extreme violence, and occasioning many heart-burnings and jealousies among the people. Other acts of the same character are — appointing persons to collect that revenue or 'rent;' nominating others to be treasurers of the sums thus procured; organizing the people, certainly for no good purpose; selecting individuals to superintend such organization; and virtually assuming, in many cases, the government of the country, and, what is more, affecting so to assume that government. I contend that the Association has, besides, expended the rent in a manner inconsistent with obedience to the law, with the preservation of good order, and with the existence of the Constitution. Part of the money collected is appropriated to election purposes; and here I beg leave to draw the attention of some of my noble friends, and particularly of my noble friend heretofore on the wool sack (the Earl of Eldon), to the fact established by the proceedings of this body, of the existence in Parliament of a Roman Catholic influence, and even of the influence of the Association.

I do not mean to discuss the subject further at present, but I beg noble Lords not to forget that fact when they come to the consideration of the measures I shall propose hereafter, and when they are called upon to arrive at a decision on those measures. Besides the money spent, as I have mentioned, for election purposes, to produce the return of particular Members to the Commons' House of Parliament, other sums are laid out in endeavours to control the administration of justice in Ireland. I fully admit the right, and not only the right, but the duty, of every man to watch closely and vigilantly the administration of law and justice; but that right and that duty cannot be conveniently or properly performed by a self-elected, self-erected Association, having large sums at its command, and employing those sums for the purpose of exciting litigation; for the purpose of defending some, of prosecuting others; for the purpose of introducing agents among coroners' juries, and influencing and corrupting the first inquiries into criminal proceedings when information is laid before magistrates. It is quite obvious that proceedings of this description must tend to the tainting of the very fountain of justice itself. The proceedings of such a body, so constituted and so organized, might have the effect of mixing party spirit in every judicial proceeding, of introducing faction among juries, and shaking the public confidence in that tribunal which is the foundation of private rights, and the safeguard of personal liberty. I will not now detain your Lordships by explaining to you the effects which the existence and operations of this Association have had upon Ireland: in my opinion these effects belong more properly to a future discussion, when I shall be required to detail the measures the Government will have to propose after the Bill now on your Table shall have passed. This, however, I must say, that, from all I have seen and read of Ireland for the last two years, I do not believe there is on the face of the globe a country, claiming the character of civilization, in so perilous a condition.

In the discussions that have already taken place on the subject of this Association several of your Lordships have expressed an opinion that the Bill, the second reading of which I am about to propose, is not necessary, because the announcement of ulterior measures in the Speech from the Throne is calculated of itself to put an end to the Catholic Association. That opinion, my Lords, must be founded upon this notion, that the Association speaks the language and entertains the sentiments of the great body of the Roman Catholics of Ireland. Now, my Lords, I am afraid, from the numbers that have attended the meetings of the Association; from the nature of the speeches there delivered, and to which no objection was elsewhere made; from the patient submission of those who have contributed the rent, that the notion to which I have alluded is well founded. That any noble Lord should attempt to justify such conduct seems to me very extraordinary; and that justification can rest upon one ground only, namely, that the claim of the Roman Catholics to the repeal of the disabilities of which they complain is founded upon right. I cannot but recollect the many discussions upon this great question in this and in the other House of Parliament, and I will venture to assert that no instance can of late years be produced in which what is required by the Roman Catholics has been rested on the ground of abstract right. It has been invariably argued as a question solely of political expediency, and never as a matter of right ; and, as a question of political expediency, I submit to your Lordships that the Roman Catholics are not justified in having established this Association, in being parties to the proceedings of the Association, and in submitting to the payment of rent, in order to create a revenue to be employed by the Association. Under these circumstances, therefore, I think your Lordships will be fully justified in carrying into effect that part of His Majesty's Speech which recommends the suppression of the Catholic Association, before you proceed to the consideration of the ulterior measures also referred to in the Address from the Throne.

While I am upon this subject I must make an observation upon what just now fell from my noble and learned friend (Lord Eldon) as to the supposed bargain that is to be made upon this subject. I can assure him that, when I came to the consideration of the whole question, it appeared to me absolutely impossible either for the Government or for the Parliament to take it under its observation, with a view to the repeal of the disabilities (on which my opinion was formed on the state of the case itself), without, in the first instance, and as the first step, putting an end to the existence of this Association. I have not only made no bargain, but I have not even held a conversation with any man in which it was contemplated to purchase concession of the claims by the suppression of of the Association. Hereafter the fitness of concession will be discussed, when you have adopted this Bill, which I propose to you, not indeed strictly as standing by itself, but as a measure necessarily preliminary to any debate on the propriety of granting the claims. In fact, in my opinion, any other mode of proceeding would be inconsistent with the dignity of the Crown, and with the honour and character of Parliament. Moreover, I conceive this mode of proceeding absolutely requisite in order to reconcile the subsequent measure I shall have to propose to many good men in this country, who have viewed, not only with distrust, but with dismay, the violence of the proceedings of the Catholic Association. I also entreat your Lordships to reflect that we have the eyes of all Europe upon us, and that we must do nothing that can give any man the slightest ground to believe that we are making any sacrifice, except on the ground of policy and expediency.

Before I proceed to detail to your Lordships, as far as lies in my power, the nature of the measure I propose for your adoption for the suppression of the Catholic Association, I will call your attention for a few moments to what has been hitherto done in order to effect the same object both with respect to this and to other bodies. I believe as far back as the year 1787, it was usual for what was called a Catholic Committee to be in existence in Ireland; but the practice seems to have fallen so much into disuse, that, in 1791, there is reason to believe, from an historical document recently discovered, the names of the members of this Committee were not known. It seldom consisted of more than six individuals, and, as I have said, in 1791 their names were not known either to the Government or to other persons. This Committee has certainly grown to a size of much more importance since that date, and various attempts, at different periods, have been made, both by prosecutions at common law, and by incidental Acts of Parliament, to prevent the meeting of what is now called the Catholic Association. In 1794, as well as in 1824, it was the opinion of the best authorities that the Association was not illegal, either in its form or in its constitution. The Government, how ever, was fully sensible of the inconvenience of its existence, and, in 1825, a law was passed by Parliament for its suppression. This Act, I believe, was drawn by some of the ablest men and most eminent lawyers that had appeared for a great number of years, two of whom have now seats in this House : my noble friend on the cross bench (the Earl of` Eldon) was also then on the woolsack. It proved, my Lords, totally inefficient for any purpose for which it was designed; and, looking at the law as an unlearned individual, it seems to me extraordinary how it ever could have been expected to be effectual. It permitted fourteen meetings of the Association; and, besides these fourteen meetings, there were six subjects which they might discuss:— 1. Religious Worship; 2. Education; 3. Science; 4. Manufactures; 5. Commerce; and, 6. Agriculture. Upon these topics a meeting might at any time be held without a violation of the provisions of the statute. Under these circumstances, as it appears to me, it would have been impossible to carry the law into execution in any one instance, notwithstanding the persons intended to be dispersed repeatedly and openly declared their determination to evade it. I do not blame the Administration existing at that time, or the Government of Ireland, for not carrying this Act into execution. I know there were other reasons than those I have already stated why they could not do so; and those reasons arose out of the divided state of the Government at that moment, a division which had pervaded their deliberations on every question that arose with respect to Ireland. If your Lordships will look at the progress of this question for some time past you will see the effect of that division. If your Lordships will look back on what has taken place with respect to the Roman Catholic question, for a period of some years, up to the present day; if you will look at and examine the records of Parliament itself, you will find there has been a growing opinion in favour of that question from the time when the discussions on it were begun by the Right honourable gentleman under whose auspices it was first brought forward, to the present moment. The question was then put in the form of a proposition submitted to the two Houses, calling on them to declare that they would take the subject into consideration, with a view to removing the disabilities of the Catholics. If noble Lords will consider the opinions of all those members of both Houses who have declared themselves in favour of such consideration of the question, notwithstanding they might differ from the Right Honourable gentleman as to the conclusion to which they might arrive on the question itself; if you will consider these things, and, at the same time, remember that from that time forward nearly every gentleman who has come into Parliament from that part of the kingdom has taken up the question favourably for the Catholics, and that a great Catholic influence has been growing up in Ireland, you will see some reason for the difficulties in which the Government has been placed. For many years, for reasons which it is not necessary now to enter upon, — for many years, I say, this question never failed to be touched upon whenever an opportunity was offered. From the year 1811 to the present time that has been the case ; and from 1811 a divided Government has existed; and since then this question has been gaining ground. I will not stay now to enter into a detail of the mode in which that divided Government has hitherto acted upon this question; but I will, my Lords, state, that no discussion, whether the question regarded legislation generally, or the amendment of the criminal law, or the tithes, was ever suffered to pass without the introduction of this great question. It did not signify what was the subject of discussion: this question always came under consideration in the course of it; this great question, the close of which I hope we are now approaching. I say, therefore, that I should be highly to blame if I were to cast any imputation on any of the Lords Lieutenant of Ireland, or the officers of the Government, for not carrying into complete execution the law of 1825. It was not their fault, but it was owing to circumstances which attended the existence of a divided Government.

With respect to the Association, and the law by which it was endeavoured to put down and suppress that Association, that law failed under the circumstances I have alluded to. I will not state the projects which were proposed to effect that object; but I will say of the measures now before the House, that we do not pretend that these measures are ordinary measures that ought to be adopted on every occasion. On the contrary, we say that they are extraordinary measures, to execute which extraordinary means have been devised, and that we have great reason to hope they will never occur again. We do not propose them as precedents to be adopted, but as precedents to be avoided in future; and we hope that they will only be applied under those particular circumstances which now call them into existence.

I will now state something of the Bill itself. By the first clause, the Catholic Association is declared for ever abolished; by the subsequent clauses the Lord Lieutenant has the power of declaring any association or assembly illegal, and of appointing magistrates to proceed to disperse that association or assembly. These magistrates may consist of any number, but there must not be less than two. These magistrates have the power to order the assembly to disperse; and if they do not disperse within a quarter of an hour, the persons not dispersing are liable to be brought before two magistrates, and, on conviction, to be imprisoned for a time specified. There are further provisions which go to deprive any association of the power of collecting money. Such are the provisions of this Bill; and I trust it will not be liable to the observation which has been made with respect to the Act of 1825, namely, that there is a road open through it, wide enough to admit a coach and four. I hope that if there be any inadvertencies in its preparation they may be remedied; for my noble friend who made that observation has admitted, that if this bill be passed, it is desirable it should be passed in such a manner as to render it effectual. I shall not trouble your Lordships with any further observations, but shall simply move that this bill be now read a second time.

Bill read a second time.

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See also Gleig's Life of Wellington (1862)
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