This post from our research fellow Dr. Stephen Ball looks at a proposal in 1848 to hold sittings of Parliament away from Westminster.
The year 1848 witnessed revolutions in Europe and the climax of the Chartist agitation in England. Ireland remained in the throes of famine, and a campaign was launched to make Parliament more accountable to the Irish people and more amenable to the country’s needs. Although it was unsuccessful, it did generate debate about the nature of the mid-nineteenth century political system.
The idea was that each year Parliament would meet in Dublin for a session devoted entirely to Irish business. This had been suggested in June 1835 by the Leominster MP Thomas Bish, who moved to address the king on the subject, although his initiative attracted so little interest that the Commons was counted out before it could proceed further. By mid-1848, however, Ireland had suffered an unprecedented famine and witnessed an abortive rising by the Young Ireland movement. In the wake of these events ways were sought to make Parliament more responsive to Ireland’s plight.
In February 1848 it was suggested at a meeting of Dublin’s corporation that Parliament might sit in Dublin once every three years, and in April the Longford MP, Samuel Wensley Blackall (1809-71), sought to amend John O’Connell’s parliamentary resolution in favour of the repeal of the Union by calling for an annual session to be held in Dublin ‘to dispose of Irish business’. The suggestion was taken up by a Liberal candidate at the Sligo by-election in July 1848, and the following month the idea was more fully developed by Lord William Fitzgerald (1793-1864). The younger brother of the duke of Leinster, Fitzgerald had sat for County Kildare from 1814 to 1831 as a supporter of Catholic rights and parliamentary reform, and in 1846 he had published Some Suggestions for the Better Government of Ireland. A preliminary meeting to discuss the idea took place in Dublin on 14 August, and a week later the first meeting of the Society for the Promotion of Periodical Sittings of the Imperial Parliament in Dublin was held in Abbey Street. A circular explaining the plan was soon issued and on 24 August the Home Office confirmed that the society’s petition had been laid before the Queen.
The Society argued that holding an annual parliamentary session in Dublin would encourage the capital investment required to develop the country’s natural resources and stimulate trade, and might also coax the ‘wealthy and educated’ back to Dublin, which was then regarded as a ‘city of desolate palaces … without an aristocracy, and tenanted by struggling shopkeepers and half-famished artizans’. On the other hand, the city still boasted a Parliament House that was ‘a proud monument of choicest architecture’. Situated on College Green, where it replaced an earlier building which had been adapted for parliamentary use, this had been the home of the Irish Parliament for most of the eighteenth century before it was abolished by the Act of Union in 1800. The building had, however, been purchased by the Bank of Ireland for £40,000 in 1803 and after being adapted for its new purpose, opened to the public as a bank in 1808.
It was also hoped that the scheme would put an end to ‘distant and ignorant legislation’ by allowing MPs to judge from personal observation which measures best suited the country. By paying ‘careful and undivided attention’ to Irish business, they would become more ‘accessible to the people’ and placed within ‘daily reach’ of the public bodies responsible for administering the country. It was also argued that ‘party considerations’ would operate less powerfully in a ‘localized’ parliament and thus facilitate better tempered discussions of Irish issues. The Drogheda Journal went so far as to predict that introducing English MPs ‘to the favourable notice of the Irish’ would ‘cement in bonds of affection the Union, by removing not only Irish, but also English prejudices’. However, the country’s repeal press countered that opponents of Irish reform would still be ‘the same men – with the same antipathies, prejudices, bigotries [and] hates’.
It was generally acknowledged that supporters of the scheme were men ‘whose patriotism, probity [and] loyalty’ placed their motives ‘above all suspicion’. They included Viscount Massereene and the one-time United Irishman, Baron Cloncurry, along with the former MPs Sir Montague Chapman, Sir David Roche, Hugh Morgan Tuite and Charles Arthur Walker, and a handful of sitting MPs like Viscount Miltown and Samuel Blackall, who believed that ‘bad legislation’ had been forced upon Ireland not from malice but out of ‘ignorance’. These men aimed to stimulate ‘an unequivocal demonstration of national opinion’ without creating ‘a nucleus for party strife’. They expected their proposal to appeal to Unionists because ‘an Imperial Parliament’ was being advocated, to Repealers because it was ‘a Parliament held in Ireland’, and to Englishmen because it tended towards ‘the real amalgamation of the empire’ and removed the main obstruction to their own ‘internal government’.
Although the association eschewed public demonstrations, simply requesting that supporters submit their names along with a nominal donation, some public figures, including Fitzgerald’s own brother, feared the campaign was just another destabilising ‘agitation’. The proposal stimulated a good deal of discussion in the press. The scheme was most warmly welcomed by moderate Conservative newspapers like the Ulster Gazette, which agreed that it was ‘idle to say that the Imperial Parliament treats Ireland as it treats Yorkshire, or legislates for our country as an integral portion of the empire’, and hoped that the scheme would check the ‘centralising tendency of imperial rule’.
One of the association’s understated objectives was to supplant the campaign to repeal the Union, and it received a poor reception in the O’Connellite press. Dismissed as a poor substitute for self-government, the scheme was criticised for offering little that would revive the Irish economy, the Freeman’s Journal asserting that ‘legislatures never created industry, never manufactured capital, never made wealth’. Many Unionists were also uneasy, the Dublin Evening Post dismissing the scheme as ‘at once impracticable … and mischievous’ because it required either the wholesale transfer of the machinery of government to Dublin, or the severance of departments of state from the immediate control of Parliament. Perhaps the harshest critic of the scheme was the Glasgow Herald which, like The Times, doubted whether enough British MPs could be persuaded to attend the sittings in Dublin to prevent them from being dominated by ‘a Rump of Irish demagogues raving under the influence of a Dublin mob’.
The society continued to meet weekly until the end of November 1848, when a sub-committee began to administer its affairs, a sure sign that the campaign was running out of steam. When the body held its only public meeting in December it was already clear that the scheme had made little headway with the general public, and the society suspended its activities in January 1849, hopeful that the campaign would be taken up at Westminster by sympathetic Irish MPs. Here the matter ended, however, although it was subsequently noted that during the first week of the new parliamentary session at Westminster the House of Commons had ‘done nothing else but talk of Ireland and the Irish’.