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Shifting the ground on Catholic Emancipation

Ever since the passing of the Act of Union in 1801, the leaders of the Irish Catholics had been campaigning for its repeal. One approach was to ask for Catholic Emancipation, which would allow Catholics to take up seats in the Westminster parliament. In 1823 Catholic Emancipation was taken to the people by Daniel O'Connell as their concern and as a popular campaign when he established the Catholic Association.

The Tory party was totally opposed to the granting of Catholic Emancipation: maintaining the supremacy of the Church of England was one of the main planks of Toryism. However, the Duke of Wellington had spoken in favour of Catholic Emancipation when he was an MP in the Dublin parliament and did not seem to be dogmatically opposed to the measure, unlike Peel.

In 1828, the County Clare election precipitated a crisis in Ireland. Daniel O'Connell was elected as the MP for the constituency but could not take his seat because he was a Catholic. The event caused the Tories to shift their ground on the issue. These extracts document that change of mind.

Among the distinguished visitors [at a dinner given by Protestants in Derry] was Mr. G. Dawson, brother-in-law of Mr. Peel, member for the county of Londonderry, and Under Secretary of State. This gentleman [Dawson] has long been considered one of the ablest and most determined opponents to the Catholic Claims

On the above occasion, however, in returning thanks when his health had been drunk, he avowed a change of sentiment amounting, in fact, to an abandonment of his former principles which called forth the disapprobation of the company. The Hon. Gentleman observed: ‘The state of Ireland is an anomaly in the history of civilised nations it has no parallel in antient or modern history, and being contrary to the character of all civil institutions, it must terminate in general anarchy and confusion. The peace of Ireland depends not upon the Government, but upon the dictation of the Catholic Association. (Cries of more’s the shame! shame! why not put it down!) It has defied the Government, and trampled upon the law of the land. There never was a time when the whole Catholic body was so completely roused and engrossed by political passions as at present.

There is but one alternative, either to crush the Catholic Association (Cheers for several minutes) there is but one alternative, either to crush the Catholic Association, or to look at the question with an intention to settle it.’

Gentleman’s Magazine, August, 1828.


Though Mr. Peel’s brother-in-law had announced, at a public dinner, his change of opinion, Mr. Peel himself accepted, during the autumn, the public banquets of the gentry and manufacturers of Lancashire, as the champion of the Protestant cause, without allowing a syllable to escape from him, which could raise any suspicion that he was more inclined to surrender the Protestant constitution than he had been three months before.

While the country was thus reposing in secure confidence that the leading members of the government were still faithful to their trust, these very men had determined to go over to the Catholics, and, in secresy and silence, were arranging their plans to overwhelm every attempt at resistance by the power of ministerial influence. The consent of the king was the first thing to be obtained, and it was likewise the most difficult. His majesty’s opinions against the justice and expediency of concession were deeply rooted ...

Had the people, instead of being lulled into the confidence that those whom they had trusted before, would be trustworthy still, been made aware of the counsels which these very men were pouring into the royal ear, the public voice would have been heard at the foot of the throne, strengthening the deep-rooted convictions of the monarch himself, and the reluctant consent, which was ultimately wrung from him, in all probability, would never have been obtained. When his consent was once obtained, the public voice might be allowed to raise itself without danger; for he then stood pledged to his ministers, if these ministers, by whatever means, could only command a majority in parliament.

The Annual Register, London, 1829.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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