A Narrow Sea - Episode 45
‘Negotiating and jobbing’: the Union
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
On the 22nd of August 1798, 1,099 French soldiers, commanded by General Jean Humbert, stepped ashore at Killala Bay in north County Mayo.
Just five days later they routed a much larger government force at Castlebar. But without reinforcements and substantial local support, Humbert could not succeed.
On the 8th of September, defeated at Ballinamuck in County Longford, he surrendered.
Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France since 1793 – she had suffered a catalogue of defeats. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, as soon as he got news of the outbreak of the 1798 rebellion, made up his mind to press forward with a Bill to unite the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland under one legislature at Westminster. For Pitt the last straw was the inability of the ‘Ascendancy’ – the Protestant gentry and nobility of Ireland – to maintain law and order at a time when the Empire was in peril. The embarrassing news of Humbert’s dazzling military success with a tiny force at Castlebar only served to reinforce Pitt’s fears – a more substantial French invasion, joined by thousands of disaffected Irish, was a prospect he just could not contemplate.
Since 1782, when Ireland had won legislative independence, Westminster could not legislate for the island. This proposed union would have to be like the one forged between Scotland and England in 1707 - that is, a treaty between both countries, ratified by both parliaments. Pitt’s hope that his Bill for Ireland would get through more easily than the Scottish Union Bill was soon dashed. But The Prime Minister Pitt was disturbed to read a note from an official in Dublin Castle. It warned that a Union Bill might well be lost in the Irish Parliament. It would be necessary, the official added, to have the Union written-up, spoken-up, intrigued-up, drunk-up, sung-up and bribed-up.
He was right. Feelings ran high in Dublin’s College Green on the 22nd of January 1799. This was the first opportunity the Irish Parliament had to express its opinion on the proposed Union. The debate lasted for twenty-one uninterrupted hours. Tempers flared. One government supporter reported to London:
You would have thought you were in a Polish diet. Direct treason spoken, resistance to law declared, encouraged and recommended.
When it came to a division at dawn on the 23rd of January, the government defeated the Opposition to the Union by just one vote. This was not enough to ensure the enactment of such a momentous measure. Lord Cornwallis, the viceroy, knew that exceptional effort would have to be put in to win a comfortable parliamentary majority in the final vote. The task of persuading MPs to change their minds fell to the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh. Castlereagh, whose family had been Scots planters in Donegal and now possessed much of the Ards peninsula, was the first Irishman for many years to be appointed to such an exalted post. He would have to flatter and cajole some MPs; but others would seek more solid rewards such as promotion to the peerage, annual pensions from the state coffers or the appointment of relatives to senior positions – in short, they would have to be bribed. Cornwallis, who had to approve Castlereagh’s behind-closed- door inducements, wrote in despair:
My occupation is now of the most unpleasant nature, negotiating and jobbing with the most corrupt people under Heaven…I despise and hate myself every hour for engaging in such dirty work.
The Irish Parliament was in fact utterly unrepresentative of the Irish people; it was the voice only of the charmed Protestant elite of the country. Some attention would have to be given to general public opinion on the Union – although across the island, most people were simply relieved that they had survived a rebellion which had claimed at least 30,000 lives. Cornwallis was surely right to observe: The mass of the people do not care one farthing about the Union.
Catholics could not be MPs but they could vote in elections. Educated and propertied Catholics – with the notable exception of the lawyer Daniel O’Connell – tended to support the Union. They hoped it would be accompanied by Catholic Emancipation, that is, the right to be elected to Parliament. Protestants in Antrim and Down – many of whom had so recently been in arms against the Crown – also welcomed the Union. They were certain they would be more fairly governed by London than by a selfish clique in Dublin. Businessmen in Belfast were given the assurance that protective duties on the cotton they manufactured would remain in place.
Most rank-and-file Orangemen hated the Union Bill. They were certain it would be accompanied by legislation allowing Catholics to become MPs.
Though the Grand Lodge of Ireland, with headquarters in Dublin, tried to be neutral on the issue, no fewer than thirty-six lodges from the counties of Armagh and Louth sent in petitions against the Union.
A full year passed before Cornwallis and Castlereagh had rustled up sufficient support to ensure the safe passage of the Union in the Irish parliament.