Irish Abstention from the House of Commons, 1844-6

Continuing his theme of blogs which examine levels of attendance and absenteeism among MPs at Westminster, our research fellow Dr Stephen Ball considers the Irish Repeal party’s policy of abstaining from attendance at Westminster in the mid-1840s.

Following the 1918 general election Sinn Fein MPs adopted the practice of abstaining from attending the House of Commons, an idea originated by the party’s founder Arthur Griffith in 1904 and one to which the party adheres to this day. This scheme this was not a novel one, however, but had been previously attempted in 1845 by the Irish Repeal party under Daniel O’Connell. That experiment met with little success and was quickly abandoned, after which the participation of Irish nationalist MPs at Westminster continued unabated for another seventy years.

Three years of bitter conflict between the Repeal party and Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative government culminated in May 1844 with the state trial and brief imprisonment of Daniel O’Connell. By then many of his parliamentary followers had come to doubt whether their attendance at the Commons was worthwhile. By the end of the parliamentary session the Repeal Association had concluded that while in principle MPs were duty bound to attend the Commons and aid the good government of the country, efforts to influence Parliament by Members who favoured ‘domestic legislation’ for Ireland had ‘been so fruitless’ that they ‘should secede from the imperial parliament, and control the agitation, instruction, and organization of the people at home’. The idea that Repealers should transfer their labours from London to Dublin was restated that December by the County Meath MP, Henry Grattan, who told the association that attendance at Parliament had become ‘a farce’, the Irish Members being required to spend half the year in England ‘to do the business of the British minister’ , while any Irish measures were ‘left to the end of the session, when all was hurry and bustle’.

A portrait of a tall man wearing a black cloak with a green lining. He is standing next to a tree and holding a scroll. There are some rocks behind him and a church further away in the background.
Daniel O’Connell, poster published in Philadelphia, 1847 (Library of Congress via Wikipedia)

When the Repeal Association reconsidered the issue in January 1845 it recommended a policy of abstention from the forthcoming parliamentary session. Thereupon O’Connell took the advice of MPs such as William Smith O’Brien, who had already stopped attending the Commons, and resolved to adopt the policy. Telling the association that ‘the hopelessness of obtaining redress for the wrongs of Ireland from the Imperial Parliament’ absolved Irish members from further attendance at Westminster, he called upon them to attend the deliberations of the Repeal Association in Dublin instead. The decision was welcomed in some quarters of the Irish press, the Cork Examiner accepting that Irish MPs were now powerless to oppose Peel’s ministry and would do more good by remaining in Ireland to compile reports on the condition of the country, and by supervising efforts to get their party’s supporters on the electoral registers in the hopes of winning more seats at future elections.

English Liberal opinion was, however, much less enthusiastic about what it regarded as ‘a despairing policy’. In London the Globe insisted that whether or not there was ‘anything worth doing for Ireland’, its representatives should ‘come and try’ and trust in ‘the goodwill and hearty co-operation of a large and influential party in England’. Sterner words were forthcoming from the York Herald, which condemned the new policy as ‘ungrateful, base, and selfish in the extreme’, and accused the Repeal party of forgetting that there were other public interests at stake besides those of Ireland to which it was ‘their imperative duty to attend’. Indeed, Irish absenteeism from the Commons had long been noted in Liberal circles. In April 1838 Irish newspapers had reported that its Liberal representatives were not doing enough to shore up the Whig ministry as its majority shrank, the Morning Post observing that ‘as usual, upon English questions’, the Irish absentees were ‘very numerous’. In August 1840 the Rochdale MP, William Sharman Crawford, castigated his Irish colleagues for deserting their posts during ‘a great public emergency with regard to Irish interests’, and in May 1843 O’Connell’s nephew, Morgan John O’Connell, lamented that ‘some of the most strenuous friends of Ireland’ had been absent during the debates on the Peel ministry’s controversial Irish arms bill. However, he readily acknowledged that their absence was occasioned by a belief in ‘the utter hopelessness’ of giving ‘effectual opposition to any measure of oppression’ or ‘obtaining any good for Ireland’.

Such attitudes were reflected in the Repeal Association’s return of Irish attendance during the 1844 session, which showed that the 22 MPs who had joined the body had voted on average in only 15 of the 165 divisions, this figure having been considerably boosted by the much more regular attendance of Morgan John O’Connell and the Kilkenny MP, Pierce Somerset Butler. The absence of Repeal MPs from the early part of the 1845 session prompted the veteran Montrose MP, Joseph Hume, to move for a call of the House to enforce their attendance. However, his proposal was defeated by a government which was reluctant to provoke another confrontation with O’Connell and his followers. Nevertheless, by April the overwhelming burden of business led the House to take stronger steps to enforce attendance on railway committees. In late June the matter was largely resolved when O’Connell decided to return to Westminster to oppose Peel’s Irish colleges bill, although resistance to attending committees other than those directly relating to Ireland continued to be mounted by O’Connell’s son, John, and by William Smith O’Brien, who in April 1846 would be briefly imprisoned by the House for ignoring a summons to attend a railway committee.

A head and shoulders portrait of a man. He has dark hair and long sideburns. He is wearing a white shirt, a brown jacket and a black cloak.
William Smith O’Brien by George Francis Mulvaney (via NGI under CC licence)

At the opening of Parliament in February 1846 it was announced that the Repeal MPs who had remained in Dublin would return as a body to the Commons to oppose Peel’s Irish coercion bill. Nevertheless, the average attendance of the Repeal Members barely rose over the course of the session. Complaints about Irish absenteeism from Westminster would continue for some years after O’Connell’s death in 1847, as apathy and internal division further blunted the effectiveness of the Repeal party during Ireland’s famine years.

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