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The Duke of Wellington's speeches on Catholic Emancipation (19)

6 April 1829

These documents are taken from: The Speeches of the Duke of Wellington in Parliament, collected and arranged by the late Colonel Gurwood, C.B., K.C.T.S., (London,John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1854)


IRISH 40-SHILLING FREEHOLDERS

THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON spoke in the following terms:

My Lords, It is now my duty to state to your Lordships the nature of the other measure which it is the duty of Government to propose to Parliament, in conformity with the recommendation in the Speech from the Throne, namely, the Bill to regulate the franchise of persons to vote in elections of members of Parliament for counties in Ireland.

The Irish Act of 1793 gave to Roman Catholics the power of voting for members of Parliament; and very shortly after that date it appears that the evil commenced which grew to such magnitude that five years ago it drew the attention of Parliament to it, and it was then thought necessary to apply a remedy. My Lords, I believe that, shortly after the passing of the Act of 1793, certain persons in possession of leases for one or more lives, under grants from some of the great proprietors in Ireland, commenced the system of granting freeholds by virtue of their leases. This was done for the purpose of creating for themselves political and parliamentary influence; and I am afraid that their practice laid the ground for the example being followed by others, their superiors in station, their superiors in fortune, and their superiors in intelligence. No doubt the system has been extended, my Lords, to an enormous degree. In Ireland there are many more freeholders than are necessary for the freedom of election upon any well-regulated principle, and many of the attendants upon the system have been such as to have become the general subject of complaint throughout the country. The persons who have been entitled by the abuse of the power of making freeholders to vote for members of Parliament are, as appears by the proceedings of a Committee of your Lordships' House and of the House of Commons, of the very lowest class of society. In making out their right to vote, in possessing themselves of their freeholds, and in all the circumstances attending the transaction, perjury is committed the people, my Lords, are demoralised in every stage of the proceeding; and on that account alone, if on no other, the subject well deserves the most serious attention of your Lordships.

But, my Lords, it appears besides, from the reports of the same Committees, that these people are not at all sensible of the advantages attending the freeholds they possess, but which they cannot be said to enjoy. The law requires that they should register their freeholds twelve months before they vote. If they were sensible of the advantage of the right of voting, your Lordships might suppose that they would willingly attend for the purpose of registration, and pay the expense, which, I believe, amounts to one shilling. It is well known that they will not pay even that charge; that it is paid by the landlord, by the candidate, or by some club interested in procuring votes for a particular individual. It appears also by the evidence taken before the same Committees, that they are forced — absolutely driven — to give their votes at elections; that they are reckoned, in fact, part of the live stock of the estates, and that they are hardly treated like human beings. On these grounds also, if no others could be stated, it must be obvious that some change is necessary.

As I have said before, these freeholds were originally formed for the purpose of giving political and parliamentary influence to certain individuals; but latterly, and more particularly since those Committees made their reports, it appears that the influence resulting from the system I have been describing has fallen into the hands of persons in whose possession there can be no doubt the Legislature never intended that any political power or parliamentary influence should be found — I mean the priests. The continuance of such influence in such hands would be highly detrimental to the public interest, under whatever system we should continue to govern that part of the United Kingdom. But when we consider the measure that was adopted the other night, there can be no doubt that this evil ought not to be allowed to continue. After the vote of Saturday night I may safely say in this House that, if a Roman Catholic gentleman possesses property and talents to enable him to serve his country, and entitle him to a seat in Parliament, it is desirable that he should have one. But I am sure there is not one of your Lordships who will not agree with me that it is not desirable that he should obtain that seat by the exertion of Popish influence on those who have the power to grant it. I say, therefore, that on this ground it is fit that the Bill I now propose should be passed into a law. I would likewise beg your Lordships to observe that one of the objects which I particularly held out some nights ago, when I recommended another measure to your notice, was the desire I felt to put an end to combinations — illegal combinations — in Ireland. Those illegal combinations are founded upon religious opinions. I beg your Lordships to advert to the advantages and to the inducements held out for the formation of such combinations, if we are to continue that policy of law which now exists in that country. Therefore I proceed with confidence to entreat your Lordships to consider this system, and, in order to change it, to adopt the measure the second reading of which I am about to propose. I know it may be asked, ' If you take away from the 40s. freeholders their right of voting, why do you not adopt the same course with regard to the same class of electors in England?' But I beg of you to look at the difference in the situation of freeholders in England, and of those who are called by the same name in Ireland.

In England I am aware that leaseholders for life come to the poll to vote as in Ireland; but in general the voters in Ireland are only persons nominally possessing land to the value of 40s. a year, while in England they are the real landowners, or at least landholders, and are rated to and pay the land-tax. They are able to show from whom and for what amount they purchased their property, and moreover they do not receive assistance from the poor's rates, unless engaged in actual service in the Militia. I beg your Lordships to compare the sort of persons composing the Militia, and forming the body of small freeholders in England, with those persons in Ireland, and to mark the difference between them; and in order to enable you to do so I will read a statement respecting those who have been recently registered in Ireland, and from that statement you may convince yourselves of the truth of what I say. In the county of Antrim, in the north of Ireland, there have been registered, since 1822, 6126 40s. freeholders, of whom 1798 could not write their names. In the county of Armagh, since the same period, there have been registered 8813 40s. freeholders, and of these 3590 could not write their names. In the following counties the proportion of freeholders registered since 1822 who could not write their names has somewhat varied from those in the counties I have already mentioned. In the county of Clare the numbers registered were 10,753, of whom 3853 could not write their names. In the county of Limerick 4632 have been registered, and those who could not write their names amounted to 3336. In the county of Mayo 21,672 freeholders have been registered, and of that number 19,205 could not write their names; and in Waterford 5335 have been registered, and 3420 of that number could not write their names. Now, my Lords, I think I can confidently say that that is not the case with the small freeholders of England.

I come now to another objection which has been raised against this Bill, and that is, the number of freeholders in fee who will, by the operation of the proposed Bill, be deprived of the same rights as the others. From the return laid on the Table of this House in 1825 your Lordships will be able to see that the number of those freeholders is very small. In some counties there are none at all; in others there are but a few; and the truth of the matter is, that, in general, in Ireland there are none of that description. It happened that two years before that return was made a clause was inserted in the Act of Parliament which enabled persons to register freeholds; and these were often registered without the persons claiming to register them being called on to produce their titles, or to show whether they held on leases for lives, or in fee, or without showing any title whatever, except that the person was in the possession of the land. Neither did he show that he tilled it or grazed it, or for what other purpose he held it, but merely that he was liable to pay a quit-rent for it. Among those persons who showed no right whatever to the freeholds were those who came to vote, and whose votes could not legally be refused. But, my Lords, besides these evils resulting from these tenures, there are other abuses connected with this particular description of freeholders which well deserve your Lordships' attention. I have been in formed that there are more instances than one of persons interested in the elections of Ireland, who, having thus created a large number of freeholders under leases for lives, were doomed to disappointment in certain expectations, when, having found reason to believe that the elections would occur earlier than they expected, they have been compelled to transfer the freeholds in such a manner as to convert them from freeholds on lives into freeholds in fee, by which the fictitious freeholders, taking advantage of the registry required by the Act of Parliament, have obtained freeholds in fee, instead of their fictitious freeholds, and thus the Act has operated as a bounty on fraud. Now really, my Lords, after a statement such as this, there can be no doubt that the exclusion of such persons from the elective franchise is a measure that ought to be adopted. I know one or two other circumstances which warrant me in expecting your Lordships' support to this measure, but with the mention of which I will not trouble your Lordships at this moment. Besides, my Lords, this measure comes recommended, not only as a remedy for evils that are now in existence, but it is beneficial, as providing the means of ascertaining the right of those persons who claim to vote in respect of their freeholds.

It provides that freeholders shall prove what is the value of the freehold in respect of which they claim to vote. It gives the mode of appealing to a jury, and it affords guards such as we hope will satisfy your Lordships that we really mean only to provide a fair mode of discovering the rights of persons claiming to vote at elections, and of persons interested in their result. I can assure your Lordships that it is not our wish or intention, nor would your Lordships consent if it were, to give an influence over elections into the hands of any particular class of persons. Our wish is, that the possessor of land should have as fair an influence under this system as under any other; but we wish also not only that the possessor of land should enjoy this advantage, but that all other persons whose talents are such as to qualify them to serve the public, and who wish to exercise those talents by obtaining a seat in Parliament, should have an equal chance of finding their way thither.

I now move, my Lords, that this Bill be read a second time.

The Duke of RICHMOND felt bound to give to the Bill his decided opposition, and moved, as an amendment, that it should be read a second time that day six months.

Lord FARNHAM thought that the registration of freeholds contemplated by this Bill could be properly entrusted only to the magistracy. By employing in this manner assistant barristers, who were the paid servants of the Crown, the registration was in fact placed in the hands of the Government, a course to which he must most strongly object.

The Earl of MOUNTCASHELL did not expect any improvement in Irish electioneering practices from the provisions of this Bill. The Irish priesthood would still be able to control the constituencies, whether they consisted of 40s. or £10 freeholders.

THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON spoke in the following terms:

I have very few observations to make in reply to what has fallen from noble Lords in the course of this debate. I am not at all surprised that much difference of sentiment should exist, even amongst the friends of the measures, and that some noble Lords should object that this Bill of Disfranchisement is connected with the measure of relief; but, at the same time, I beg to recall your Lordships' recollection to the fact that some years ago a Bill, in its provisions nearly similar to that I proposed last week for the removal of Catholic Disabilities, was brought into the other House of Parliament. I am perfectly aware that there is some distinction between the two measures; but I say that I would not have been a party to the Bill proposed some years ago, for this reason, because it was not complete for the purpose it proposed to accomplish. With regard to the plan now suggested, I think I should have deceived those whom I wish to conciliate, if I had not brought it down to Parliament so complete as to attain all the objects it is intended to accomplish. I was perfectly aware of the objections to be made to the change in the franchise; but I found in the state of Ireland, under the Act of 1793, sufficient, as I thought, to answer all those objections. The noble Lord (Farnham) has resisted the employment of assistant barristers instead of magistrates, in the inquiry regarding the registration of freeholds in Ireland: but I request him to recollect the objections that exist in Ireland to engaging magistrates in this duty. Magistrates have been employed in the registration of freeholds in Ireland, and that system entirely failed; it did not effect any one purpose for which inquiry and registration were instituted. Under these circumstances we have called in the aid of the assistant barrister. But, says the noble Earl, he is a servant of the Crown, and cannot be trusted. An assistant barrister is, however, a professional gentleman, of education and of independent character, who could not be influenced, even if the Government were base enough to try to warp his judgment. A noble Earl, also on the cross-bench (Mountcashell), asserted that the priest will have as much influence over the £10 freeholder as over the 40s. freeholder. I entreat that noble Earl to reflect that persons of one description have power over those of another description in proportion as the first are educated and the last ignorant. When I moved the second reading of this Bill, in the beginning of the evening, I read from a document the proportion which the ignorant freeholders who could not write their names bore to those who could write their names, at a particular period. There can be no doubt that the assistant barrister will find that the men who hold freeholds of £10 a year are, for the most part, farmers who have land under cultivation, besides their freeholds, and who must be better instructed and more independent of the priest than the beggarman who swears that he has a freehold of 40s. a year. I contend that, by this Bill, you will relieve the country from that objectionable influence; and I entreat your Lordships to allow it to go into the Committee, where the particular provisions may be considered, and noble Lords may propose such amendments as they may think required. I beseech your Lordships, at the same time, not to amend the measure unnecessarily and, above all, not to endeavour to render it inefficient for its purpose.

The House divided : Contents, 139; Non-contents, 17. Majority in favour of the second reading, 122. Bill read a second time.

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See also Gleig's Life of Wellington (1862)
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