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Peel's speech on Catholic Emancipation, 5 February 1829

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. This document is taken from Peel's speech, defending his change of mind on the issue.

Mr. Secretary Peel ... said... that nearly the most painful circumstance that could be imposed on a public man, in the performance of a public duty must be when, after long acting with a number of individuals, after proceeding in concurrence with them to the utmost of his power in a particular course of policy, he finds himself called upon, by peculiar circumstances, to separate from them. To separate, he repeated, from men for whose integrity, ability, and conscientious feelings, he entertained, and always should entertain, the profoundest respect, must certainly be counted amongst the severest sacrifices of a public man. But he trusted that his hon. friends would admit this; namely, that his Majesty’s ministers stood in a situation different from that in which they were placed: that, in that situation, they had access to information which his hon. friends had not; and above all, that they stood in a peculiar relation to his Majesty, by which they had contracted an obligation, as responsible servants of the Crown, from which they could not relieve themselves by any reference to past declarations or past circumstances, from that duty of giving the best advice which they could form, as to any measure, under the then existing situation of affairs. That was their duty; and whatever might have been the understanding on which governments had been formed, with respect to the Catholic question, and whatever might have been the reservations which individuals had made when entering into the service of the Crown, such understandings and such reservations did not absolve them from the paramount duty of offering the best advice to his Majesty, upon any important conjuncture, and of being responsible for the consequences of that advice...

The opinions which he had heretofore expressed on the Catholic question he still retained but he must say, that, looking to the position of the government of the country, - looking to the position of the legislature, - looking to the disunion which had prevailed on this subject in his Majesty’s councils, looking to the disunion which for several years had marked the proceedings of the two branches of the legislature, - and looking to the effect which all these causes had produced on the state of Ireland; considering all these things, he must say, that there appeared to him to be sufficient reasons to induce him to accept of almost any alternative.

His Majesty’s ministers were not, and had not been, afraid of the Catholic Association. That intimidation had been resorted to, he readily admitted. But how had it been met? It was put down by the Protestant spirit of the country; and, if it had been continued, his Majesty’s ministers were prepared to suppress by the physical force of the country, those offences against the laws which the moral strength of the people should prove unable to subdue... He was not a man to yield to intimidation, or to be deterred by threats of commotions; but he could not understand the constitution of that man’s mind, who, looking upon Ireland in its present state, could be free from apprehensions of consequences which might arise from allowing such a condition of affairs to continue.

But, the point which weighed most with him in respect to Ireland was this : - he conscientiously believed, that while this disunion existed between the legislative bodies and the government, a proper administration of the law by juries in Ireland was impossible...

The conclusion to which he, in conjunction with his friends had arrived, had not been influenced by the recent proceedings of the Catholic Association, nor by the difficulties which might present themselves in once more meeting the parliament. The opinions which he now expressed were formed more than six months ago, almost immediately after the conclusion of the last session. At that time he communicated with his noble friend [the Duke of Wellington] at the head of his Majesty’s government , and after an attentive consideration of the state of Ireland, they were of opinion, that it was not for the king’s service, for the dignity of the Crown, nor for the welfare of the country, that hostility to concessions to the Roman Catholics should still be persisted in. He and his noble friend were of opinion that the time was come for a serious consideration of the question, and that there would be less evil in conceding the question, than in persevering in opposition to it. Placed in this situation, he felt it his first duty to give the best advice to his Majesty; yet, in doing so, he did not forget the peculiar situation in which he stood: he did not forget, that he had for many years past offered, he hoped not a violent nor intemperate, though certainly a steady and unqualified opposition to the claims of the Roman Catholics... His opposition had been complete and entire. That opposition, however, had always been confined to that House. He had never exercised it elsewhere.

Speeches of the late Right Hon. Sir Robert Peel, Bart. (London, 1853).

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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