Sunday, 20 September 2015

Daniel O'Connell and Catholic Emancipation

Daniel O'Connell
'the Liberator'

The ending of the Anglican monopoly

The government’s reforms highlighted the anomalies remaining in the system. The two major anomalies were the unreformed political system and religious discrimination. Since the Test and Corporation Acts of the reign of Charles II, only Anglicans had been permitted to hold public office. 

In 1824 these Acts were repealed, allowing Protestant Dissenters the same civil rights as Anglicans. The Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington, opposed the repeal, but the ease with which the act was passed shows how society had changed. Few were prepared to defend a total Anglican monopoly. 

The Catholic Association

It was far more controversial to end the discrimination against Catholics. Anti-Catholic feeling was deep-rooted, and bills brought to allow Catholics to take their seats in Parliament were regularly defeated. In 1793 Catholic Irish 40 shilling freeholders had been given the vote. But they could only vote for Protestants.

In 1823, the Catholic barrister, Daniel O’Connell, set up the Catholic Association. The association campaigned for Catholic emancipation and also for reform of the Church of Ireland, tenants' rights, and economic development. The Association was funded by ‘the Catholic rent’, membership dues of one penny per month. The subscription was highly successful, and the Association raised a large sum of money in its first year.

The County Clare by-election

In the summer of 1828 the government faced a by-election in County Clare. The sitting candidate, Vesey Fitzgerald, ironically a firm believer in Catholic emancipation, was challenged by O’Connell. In July , in a carnival atmosphere, O’Connell won the election by an overwhelming majority (2,057/982). But as a Catholic he could not take his seat in Parliament because this would require him to take an oath abjuring the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation

The government faced a dilemma: either they faced insurrection in Ireland or the wrath of a mainland British electorate that was strongly anti-Catholic. It was a lose-lose situation.

Peel's Rubicon

Peel’s dilemma was intense. In 1817 as chief secretary for Ireland he had argued eloquently against Catholic emancipation.
O’Connell had dubbed him ‘Orange Peel’.

Wellington, reluctantly accepted that O’Connell had to be allowed to take his seat. In January 1829 Peel told the Prime Minister that he would be prepared to stay in office even if Catholic emancipation became law. His biographer, Norman Gash, has written: 
‘He had crossed his personal Rubicon’
In February Peel resigned his seat at Oxford University and offered himself for re-election. He was defeated (755/609) in the by-election by Sir Robert Inglis and was only allowed to return to Parliament when the wealthy Spanish Jew, Sir Manasseh Massey Lopes, gifted him his pocket borough of Westbury (Wiltshire). It was a great personal humiliation for him. It branded him as a turncoat, and he never fully regained the trust of the Tories. The damage to his reputation was  permanent.

The bill passed

The bill passed the Lords on 10 April and received the reluctant royal assent on 13 April. The Act admitted Catholics to all offices except those of Lord Lieutenant and Lord Chancellor. As an anti-democratic safeguard, the Irish freehold qualification was raised from 40s to £10.

It was a great shock to many Protestant Tories that the ‘iron duke’ should ‘betray’ the country in this way. One paradoxical consequence was to convert some Ultra-Tories to the cause of parliamentary reform. They argued (correctly) that a more representative House of Commons would never have passed the bill.