The Double-Headed Government, a caricature of the alliance of Pitt and fox, from Jaime\'s \'Musee de la Caricature\'
The Double-Headed Government, a caricature of the alliance of Pitt and fox, from Jaime's 'Musee de la Caricature'

The conclusion forced upon Cornwallis in Ireland and upon Pitt in England [following the 1797 Rising in Ireland] was that the sister island would never have a healthy government except through an incorporating union with Great Britain. The complete absorption of power by the Irish oligarchy, their provocative oppression before the rebellion, and their tyrannous abuse of their position when it was over, were condemned by Cornwallis in the strongest terms, though perhaps his condemnation was more inclusive and more sweeping than the circumstances altogether warranted. But the outstanding fact remained that government by the oligarchy was intolerable, and would inevitably keep the country in a state of seething sedition. 

On the other hand, if the very much larger subject population were admitted to political equality, they in their turn would be overwhelmingly predominant, and would show very little mercy in penalising their former rulers for all the misdeeds of the past. An incorporating union would give the control to the parliament at Westminster, which could deal out even-handed justice, since it would be dominated by neither of the Irish parties; and at the same time there would be no Nationalist grievance, because Ireland would stand on the same footing in the Imperial parliament as England and Scotland - a very different thing from the state of affairs before 1782, when a British parliament in which Ireland was unrepresented actively controlled the govern­ment of Ireland. An incorporating union therefore was the condition without which it was vain to hope for a loyal and peaceful Ireland.

Royal Refusal of Pitt's Reforms
But neither Pitt nor Cornwallis imagined that a union would of itself suffice to make Ireland peaceful and loyal. There was in any case the initial difficulty that the Irish Nationalist sentiment was as strong as; it had been in Scotland at the beginning of the century. The majority of Irishmen from Grattan himself down believed that the country could work out its own salvation under a reformed government; that is, the leaders of Irish opinion believed that if the grievances of the Catholic population were removed and the parliament were made truly representative, the vengeful spirit would fade, animosities would die down, and Ireland would justify the confidence that had been reposed in her. The mere fact that these leaders resented the loss of independence made it all the more imperative, if Irish loyalty was to be attained, that a union should be accompanied by the decisive removal of grievances.

The flaw
The fatal defect of the Union was that Pitt, aware of this necessity, allowed it to be understood in Ireland that the Act of Union would be accompanied by the removal of the acknowledged grievances, without himself taking steps to make the reforms an integral part of the Union. And when the Union had been carried, the English minister found himself brought up against the blank wall of the king's absolute refusal to remedy the grievances of the Catholics. Pitt and others salved their consciences by resignation, but that was the end. Pitt gave the king his promise not to raise the question again, and he returned to office when his presence was again imperatively needed at the helm, without making the fulfilment of his pledges a condition.

The proposal for an incorporating union was approved by large majorities at Westminster, but was virtually defeated - that is, it was passed by a majority of only one - in the Irish House of Commons when introduced in 1799 by Lord Castlereagh, who was chief secretary to Cornwallis. But Pitt, bent on the measure, decided that the assent of the Irish parliament must be obtained at whatever cost. Cornwallis, the most straightforward of statesmen, certainly believed that he had authority to obtain the support of Catholic opinion by at least implying that the religious grievance would be removed. But the vital matter was to procure a majority in parliament. Pitt and his most effective agent, Castlereagh, were entirely opposed to testing public opinion by a general election. The simpler plan was followed of applying a vigorous and unqualified corruption to convert opponents of the measure into friends. Peerages, places, and pensions were lavishly promised or scattered; there may not have been bribery in the most literal sense, but every man who had his price obtained it. In the year 1800 the Acts of Union were passed both by the British and Irish parliaments, and in 1801 the first parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland met at Westminster.

The new legislature
The Act united the legislatures, giving Ireland one hundred representatives; the Irish peers elected twenty-eight representatives of their number to sit in the House of Lords, while those who were excluded from that chamber were eligible to the House of Commons for any English or Scottish constituencies; and Ireland was to contribute two-seventeenths to the imperial revenue. But she still remained with a separate administration and a separate judicial system, with her effective government controlled by the viceroy, who himself continued to be in­fluenced mainly by the ascendency party; and if she was at last and decisively freed from all commercial restrictions and placed on the same footing as the sister island, the pledges to the Catholics were ignored, and their, grievances, with those of the Protestant dissenters, remained unremedied. As for the reform of representation, that could hardly have been carried out without corresponding reforms in England, where the fear of the French Revolution, of Jacobinism and anarchy, deferred any such measure for a generation.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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