Lord Townshend and Ireland
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
When Charles Townshend became Chancellor of the Exchequer his brother, Lord Townshend, was sent to Ireland as Viceroy. It was intended that this viceroyalty should inaugurate a new departure. Hitherto the viceroy had resided in Ireland only for six months in two years of office; for the other eighteen months "Lord Justices" - in other words the Undertakers - had effective control of the administration, The Undertakers stood to George in Ireland in something of the same relation as the Whig connection in England.
The king wanted to break up their power as a combination while appropriating some of it to his own uses. This end was to be achieved partly by the continuous residence of the viceroy and partly by corruption. In the next place, however, George was determined to obtain an augmentation of the standing army in Ireland at the expense of that country. The assent of Ireland to such a proposal could not be obtained unless some kind of a bargain, a quid pro quo, should be offered.
The Octennial Bill
The concession first put forward was that the judges should be made removable on an address presented by both Houses of the Irish parliament on the English analogy; but the plan broke down on the demand of the British Privy Council that such an address should require endorsement by the Irish Privy Council. Then Townshend introduced an Octennial instead of a Septennial Bill, because the Irish parliament only sat in alternate years. The bill became law, the Government gained ground in a general election, and the augmentation scheme was passed, though the persistency of friction was demonstrated by another British refusal of the Habeas Corpus Act and another Irish rejection of a money bill sent from England. Townshend, however, judged himself strong enough to join battle with the Undertakers. Parliament was prorogued at the end of 1769, and when it met again in 1771 he had secured his majority by a lavish employment of every means of corruption at his disposal. The scandal, however, was too conspicuous, and next year Lord Harcourt took his place.
The problem of absentee landlords
The Irish demand was now concentrating upon the question whether the control of taxation was to lie in effect with the Irish or the British Legislature. The burden pressed very heavily upon Ireland; and the Irish parliament proposed to meet the financial strain by taxing absentee landowners. Absenteeism inflicted grave injury on Ireland, because, among other reasons, the great rents drawn were expended not in Ireland but in England. Many of the greatest estates in Ireland were the property of Whigs who had still larger estates in England, and not unnaturally complained that they were to be penalised for residing on their English instead of on their Irish estates.
The Rockingham group, who were hard hit by the proposed legislation, found themselves disapproving of Irish control of Irish taxation, while they were committing themselves to the strenuous advocacy of American control of American taxation, though Chatham and his followers refused to allow the personal consideration any weight against a constitutional principle. Thus it was a matter of course that Irish public opinion was completely in sympathy with the Americans, and when the American War broke out the British government had no little ground for fearing that Ireland would follow the American example.
This fear was responsible for an inclination on the part of North's ministry to placate Irish sentiment in order that their own anxieties might be relieved. Hence North proposed a relaxation of the commercial restrictions on Ireland; but the determined refusal of the British commercial community to suffer Irish competition was too strong for the Government, and as in the case of the resistance of the English landlords to the absentee tax, British interests carried the day against those of Ireland, The concessions were reduced to little more than the admission of Ireland to the benefits of the Navigation Acts (1778).
More effective was the measure of Catholic relief extended to Ireland, where the penal laws were still more stringent and more flagrantly unjust than in England. The worst features of the laws affecting the purchase and inheritance of land by Roman Catholics were done away with. Though a Catholic was still unable to purchase a freehold, he could take what came to practically the same thing, a lease for nine hundred and ninety-nine years; and at the same time the laws which divided inherited land among all the sons, and the more iniquitous law which conferred the entire inheritance upon a Protestant brother, were abolished.
The close resemblance of the case for Ireland to the case for the colonies, the correspondence between their constitutional and commercial grievances, and the aggravation of the Irish case by the racial, agrarian, and religious questions, were sufficient warrant for alarm lest the Irish should take example by the colonists. The French intervention in 1778 gave the Irish an opportunity for a remarkable demonstration of their loyalty to the Empire in despite of grievances. The Government required every soldier it could muster to face its new foes.
It had to withdraw the troops from Ireland and to take the immensely increased risk of an Irish insurrection and of the descent of French troops upon the island, as in the time of the Revolution of 1688; for, as we have seen, the British fleet at this stage was very far from holding an effective controf of the seas. But instead of using England's peril as Ireland's opportunity for extorting concessions, the Protestants all over the country formed associations for imperial defence, arming and drilling enthusiastic companies of volunteers; and they were aided by liberal subscriptions from the Catholics, who were themselves forbidden by the law to carry arms. The great volunteer movement was emphatically imperial and loyalist, not insurrectionary.
Nevertheless, it was undeniable that the development of the volunteer movement involved a material change in the situation. The volunteers were there to fight for the country; like the army of the parliament in the great Civil War, mutatis mutandis, they stood for the national cause, and the nation could not afford to disband them while threatened by foreign invasion, But they were men with grievances which they meant to have remedied; they might combine insistence on the remedies with their loyal enthusiasm; and if the remedies were not conceded they might postpone loyalty to insistence on redress.
Certainly the leaders would not urge their demands for redress less energetically when they and the Government both knew that the appeal to force had become practicable. When parliament met in the autumn of 1779 the foreign menace had become more marked because Spain also had declared war. The loyalty of the address to the Crown was unqualified; but it was coupled with a strongly expressed demand urged by all the leaders, of whom the most notable were Flood and Grattan, for the abolition of commercial restrictions. Supply was granted for six months only, and a bill for the relief of dissenters from the religious test, which had been rejected in England, was again introduced and passed. The argument was too convincing to be resisted.
The British parliament opened the foreign trade to Ireland on the same terms as the foreign trade of Great Britain. Specific grievances might be remedied by consent of Great Britain under pressure; but there was nothing to prevent their reimposition when the pressure was removed. So long as the parliament at Westminster asserted its right to legislate for Ireland, so long as the English Privy Council could dictate legislation in the Irish parliament, Ireland was in the position not of a partner in the Empire but of a subject province.
By every principle of English liberty asserted when William of Orange was called to the throne of England, king, lords, and commons in Ireland should be the sovereign body there as they were the sovereign body in England, and the Privy Council had no better right to authority in one country than in the other. In effect, the Irish leaders claimed at this stage that the union of Great Britain with Ireland was by rights no more intimate than the union of England and Scotland under one crown before 1707. They claimed for Ireland the independence which had always belonged to Scotland until she voluntarily accepted the incorporation with England.
The theory was one which could not possibly be accepted without self stultification by the North ministry, which was irrevocably committed to the doctrine that the British parliament was supreme over all parts of the Empire; even the Rockinghams had asserted that the supremacy could not be abrogated, though it ought only to be exercised in the very last resort. In April 1780 a resolution embodying the principle of independence was moved by Grattan but was not put to the vote. The next practical step was the introduction in the Irish parliament of an Irish Mutiny Bill. The point was this. The authority of the British parliament to legislate for Ireland had now been openly challenged. On Grattan's hypothesis, therefore, the English Mutiny Act had no validity in Ireland. Its effective administration depended on the magistrates; and the magistrates held with Grattan.
Therefore, for the control of the army in Ireland there was need of a Mutiny Act passed by the Irish parliament itself. The Irish Mutiny Act, if it were annual, would give the same security to the Irish parliament which had been given to the English parliament by the annual Mutiny Act in England. The North ministry evaded the trap.
The Mutiny Bill sent from Ireland was accepted, but it was made perpetual instead of annual; and when it was returned to Ireland in this shape, the government influence was sufficient to procure a majority which passed it. But theparliamentary majority was like Newcastle's in 1766; it was representative not of public opinion, not even of the opinion of the classes which monopolised political liberty, but only of the .power of corruption. Outside parliament the demand for independence was as unanimous as the demand had been in England for Pitt to supersede Newcastle at the helm of the state in 1756.
Nevertheless, the volunteers were not to be shaken from their principle of associating the demand for political liberty with an unswerving loyalty. The surrender of Yorktown only confirmed them in this attitude. It was not government influence but the principle of loyah'sm that made them refuse an amendment to the address which would have added to it a demand for independence. Altogether the proceedings in the winter of 1781-82 showed great fluctuations of voting. There were stalwarts who, without fear of being called disloyal, voted steadily for the demands of Grattan and Flood. There was a less uncompromising group -which voted with them, except when it felt that the Government in its present straits ought not to be pressed too hard. There were the solid supporters of the Government. And there were still those who generally took their orders from the Government, but occasionally ventured to vote with the Opposition.
It was not difficult to infer the real trend of opinion, but at any moment the voting in parliament might run directly counter to the real general feeling. But in February 1782 an assembly of delegates of the volunteers was summoned to meet at Dungannon. There was no doubt at all that this body was genuinely representative; they made it equally clear that public opinion endorsed the demands of Flood and Grattan; and, at Grattan's own instance, they added demands for the further relaxation of the penal code against the Catholics. In March the North ministry resigned, and the second Rockingham ministry accepted in the main the three Irish demands.
The Mutiny Act was limited to two years, the control exercised by the Irish and English Privy Councils was abolished, and the obnoxious Declaratory Act was repealed. Grattan's parliament, the independent parliament of Ireland, had come into being. The repeal of the Declaratory Act was confirmed and secured against misinterpretation in the following year by the Renunciatory Act, which expressly declared that the British parliament had not the power of legislating for Ireland. A new but brief chapter in the history of Ireland was opened, to be ended by the Incorporating Union of 1800.