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Wellington and Catholic Emancipation 

This page was written by Nick F. Lynch.  My thanks to him for adding to my knowledge and to the web site.

Wellington 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 no doubt of the loyalty of the Catholics in this country, and he trusted that when the question would be brought forward, respecting that description of man, that we would lay aside all animosities, and act with moderation and dignity, and not with the fury and violence of partisans. [Parliamentary Register (Ireland) 1793, XIII, 5.]
However, it could be argued that the context of that speech might suggest that he was giving lip service to a movement towards an European alliance against the 'godless excesses in Paris', an alliance that would include Catholic countries. In this climate, the Catholic Relief Act was passed. In February, 1793, his tone was still reasonable, but unsympathetic to the full Catholic claims, for, having voted for the Catholic franchise, he "...had no objection to giving Catholics the full benefits of the constitution", but there were limits, and he asked ,

Have not Roman Catholics, like Protestants, various interests and various passions by which they are swayed? The influence of their landlords - their good or bad opinion of their candidates - their own interests - and a thousand other motives? It appeared to him that they would not vote in a body, or as had been supposed; if the bill should pass in its present form, but if the motion of the honourable gentleman should be adopted indeed they would undoubtedly unite in support of Roman Catholic Candidates.

He feared a 'Parliament of Papists' and urged a more gradual measure. He did not wish to "agitate a question which may disturb both. (Ibid, XIII, 313).  His moderate tone might have done well for Ireland in the years that followed. He was in India from 1796 to 1805 and so missed the turbulent years between 1798 and 1803, but was well informed on the subject. On his return as Chief Secretary in 1806, Wellington found Ireland much changed in the aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion and the Act of Union, and he shows a harder opinion.

No political measure which you could adopt would alter the temper of the people of this country. They are disaffected to the British Government; they do not feel the benefits of their situation; attempts to render it better do not reach their minds or they are represented to them as additional injuries; and in fact we have no strength here but our army." (Supplementary Dispatches V, 33.)

He was later to write that

Ireland has been kept connected with Great Britain by distinction between Protestants and Catholics since the Act of Settlement. The Protestants were the English garrison. Abolish the distinction, and all will be Irishmen alike, with similar Irish feelings. Shew me an Irishman and I'll show you a man whose anxious wish it is to see his country independent of Great Britain........ I was astonished to find the degree to which the opinion had grown that Ireland could stand alone as an independent country among gentlemen of property, persons in office and connected with government. The connection with Great Britain has decreased in popularity since the union, the abolition of jobs, the curtailment of patronage of the Crown. (Ibid XIII, 353.)

Here we see how deeply Republican or, at least, Home Rule, sentiment has taken hold. While in Portugal, he proclaimed,

Independence is what the Irish really aim at, and he is therefore for giving no more, but proceeding upon King William's (of Orange) plan to keep them down by main force, for the thinks they have too much power already, and will only use more to obtain more, and at length separation." (Larpent F.S. Private Journal, 1854, 75)

Later in his time as Chief Secretary, Wellington wrote that "Ireland, in a view to military operations, must be considered enemy's country." (Supplementary Dispatches V, 28-36.).  However, he shows great moderation in his opposition Orange triumphalism in refusing to allow the Yeomanry to celebrate the victory over Republican rebels at Vinegar Hill, near Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in during the '98 Rising. 

... it appears impossible to celebrate the victory at Vinegar Hill without recalling ... the persons over whom that victory was gained, and all the unfortunate circumstances of the times which concurred to bring about that state of affairs which rendered the battle and the victory necessary. His Grace cannot believe that those who wish to commemorate their military achievement are desirous to hurt the feelings of others, however blamable and guilty they may have been; and he does not suppose that they can with to perpetuate the memory of the unfortunate circumstances which led to the contest in question." (Ibid V, 71.)

If he had wanted the Republican Irish to forget Vinegar Hill, he was misguided. However, perhaps it was the very triumphalism of the Orange marches that helped to perpetuate Republican sentiment and the memory of Vinegar Hill, and eventually to fulfill Wellington's own prophesy that Ireland would move towards total separation. It was the same even-handedness he had displayed in India, when, after defeating Tipoo, he repudiated the demands of local Christian missionaries to discriminate in favour of Christian women in the late Sultan's zanana. (Supplementary Dispatches I, 403.)

Among his six volumes of standing orders for the Peninsular Campaign, all drafted by him, is a code of behaviour for the British Army while operating in Catholic Countries. His orders include:

It is probably true to say that any leanings Wellington had during the early 90s towards complete Catholic Emancipation, were checked by the events of 1798 and the years that followed. In addition, if Bonaparte could invade Spain and Portugal, why not Ireland, which clearly  was the Achilles Heel of Great Britain? The French landing at Killala in '98 in support for the Rising was evidence that such an invasion was possible, and, with the right amount of force, could strike a devastating blow. In addition, the aftermath of Revolution in France was soon to raise the spectre of social discontent and revolution in England, and the established order, already reeling from the Revolution and the regicide in France, was clearly very frightened by the prospect. Change in Ireland was out of the question.

It might be possible to say that Wellington at the very least retreated behind a conservative if not reactionary facade until the genie of revolution was, as he thought, stuffed back into the bottle, and that, though he entertained positive opinions for the Catholic movement and wished to be moderate and evenhanded in all things, he could not support any change that would, as he saw it, threaten the stability of the United Kingdom. Therefore, his conversion to Catholic Emancipation in 1825 might simply have been a reconversion, or that he felt the time was now right to look again at the subject. 

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