Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

representation of the people in parliament, whilst two-thirds of them were to be excluded from any share in it, was mischievous and absurd. “ Our efforts for reform," said Neilson to his friends, “have hitherto been ineffectual, and they deserve to be so, for they have been selfish and unjust, as not including the rights of the Catholics in the claims we put forward for ourselves."

The result was, that they set about the formation of a society which should be neither sectarian nor exclusive, but whose objects should be the political amelioration of all the people of this country. Attributing present evils to two causes—the want of a liberal system of popular representation and the existence of Catholic disability—they adopted as the ends of their institution two remedial measures which have since become parts of the British constitution. In the liberality of their views towards their Catholic fellow-countrymen, they were beyond their age in Ireland, but they went no farther in either of their objects than did many of the enlightened and liberal politicians, and some of the ablest statesmen in England. The Report of the Commons' Committee of Secrecy in 1798 has given a version of the foundation and original objects of the United Irishmen. There are few state papers which, assuming a tone of philosophic candor, contains more misrepresentation and direct falsehood than this Report. Speaking of the institution of the society it says :-" The society, under the name of United Irishmen, it appears, was established in 1791; its founders held forth what they termed Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform as the ostensible objects of their union; but it clearly appeared from the letter of Theobald Wolfe Tone, accompanying their original constitution as transmitted to Belfast for adoption, that from its commencement the real purposes of those who were at the head of the institution was to separate Ireland from Great Britain, and to subvert the established constitution of this kingdom; in corroboration of which your committee have annexed to this Report several of their early publications, particularly a prospectus of the society which appeared in 1791, as also the plan of reform which they recommended to the people.”* Tone

Report, p. 4.

was from the commencement of his career a republican. He conceived that parliamentary reform was unattainable as long as a connection with England existed, and from the earliest period of his political career he struggled, either covertly or openly, to effect a separation between the countries. But at the period of the establishment of the Society of United Irishmen he was nearly alone in these opinions; and it is worthy of remark, that long after the institution of the United Irishmen, he, who was one of its most active founders, continued in the confidence and service of the Catholics. They were not republicans, their principles were monarchical, and it was not until loyalty refused and repelled them, that they unwillingly—and never effectively—joined the republican party. Had Tone made his opinions public, the timid and the servile amongst that body would have shunned him, they would have withdrawn their confidence from him, and avoided his dangerous talents. But he continued one of their most confidential agents and warmest partizans to the very last, and until the pressure of circumstances had made their views identical with his own. The letter which the Report would seem to represent as a public document was a private communication. Its contents could not bind the society, and it is clear they did not, for the principles which he announces to be his were not adopted by them till a much later period. With regard to the prospectus, it has all the appearance of a vulgar artifice, an invention containing what the committee might wish to find in the original constitution of the society, but certainly not containing the open and avowed doctrines on which it acted, up to the dispersion by force of the Dublin branch of the Union in May, 1794. If it be not an invention, yet, no more than Tone's letter, could it bind the United Irishmen. It was not adopted in their meetings, it formed no part of their constitution, it lays down propositions which were far in advance of the acknowledged principles of the first society. Neither does the plan of Reform mentioned in the Report of the Secret Committee, and proposed to the Union, contain any republicanism, nor manifest any desire of effecting a separation from England. Its doctrines have since been recognized as fundamental doctrines of radical reform, have been discussed in the English House of Commons, and, judging from the progressing strength of popular opinions, are likely to become, at no very distant period, as much a portion of our constitution as the other obnoxious measures proposed by the original society of United Irishmen. But there is clearer proof of the intentions of that body to be found in the declaration of sentiment made at a meeting convened by the leaders of the United Irishinen, and held in Belfast in December, 1792, when the Union had been some time in operation. At this meeting Samuel Neilson was secretary, and Charles Rankin chairman. A declaration of their political sentiments was made, in which they declare, “ that a radical reform in the representation of the people had long been and still is the great object to which all our wishes, all our endeavours tend— the object which we have pursued and which we shall never cease to pursue until it is attained that to attain it we shall think no sacrifice or risk too great; and that no reform can ever be adequate or useful, satisfactory or just, unless all Irishmen of every description shall be equally and fairly represented.” | Out of this meeting grew the assembly of northern delegates at Dungannon, who declared the sense of the people in resolutions expressive of their attachment to the form and original principles of the British Constitution, and of their disapproval of republican forms of government as applied to this country. They proceeded, however, to insist upon a complete parliamentary reform and upon the immediate and entire emancipation of the Roman Catholics, as a measure indispensably necessary to the safety of the country. These were the original views of the United Irishmen—views adopted by the wisdom of our own day, and carried out by the exertions of our ablest statesmen. The history of the times will fully explain how principles like these were relinquished for the republicanism of a later period. In the Memoir delivered to the government in 1798, by Messrs. Emmet, Macnevin, and O'Connor, the following statement of the views of the Union is given :—“ The disunion that had long existed between the Catholics and Protestants of Ireland, particularly those of the Presbyterian religion, was found by experience to be so great an obstacle to the obtaining a reform in parliament

• The Duke of Richmond's plan of Reform embraced annual parliaments and universal s uffrage. 1 Madd, 1st series, p. 102.

† Madden's United Irishmen, 1 vol., 2d series, p. 82.

on anything of just and popular principles, that some persons, equally friendly to that measure and to religious toleration, conceived the idea of joining both sects in pursuance of the same object—a repeal of the penal laws, and a reform including in itself an extension of the right of suffrage to the Catholic. From this originated the societies of United Irishmen in the end of the year 1791; even then it was clearly perceived, that the chief support of the borough interest in Ireland was the weight of English influence; but as yet that obvious remark had not led the minds of the reformers towards a separation from England. Some individuals had convinced themselves that benefit would result to this country from such a measure; but during the whole existence of the Society of United Irishmen we may safely aver, that to the best of our knowledge and recollection no such object was ever agitated by its members either in public debate or private conversation; nor until the society had lasted a considerable time were any traces of republicanism to be met with there; its views were purely and in good faith what the test of the society avows. And such they continued to be until the hopes raised by the King's Message to the House of Commons recommending the consideration of the subject of reform, and by the limited eoncessions to Catholics, in 1793, were dissipated by the policy of coercion, which was resumed in 1794, and which, with the slight intermission of Lord Fitzwilliam's administration, continued to increase in vigour until the rebellion exploded.

It would seem that despotism, frightened by the concessions to the Catholics, in 1793, required the soothing stimulants of strong measures to restore it to its propriety. These concessions were followed hot foot by the Convention bill. It was much to

*

Macnevin's Pieces of Irish History, p. 174. The test of the United Irishmen adopted at the first meeting of the Dublin Society, held in the Eagle Tavern, Eustace-street, 9th Nov., 1791, at which meeting ihe Hon. Simon Butler was chairman, and James Napper Tandy was secretary, was as follows :

“ I. A. B., in the presence of God, do pledge myself to my country, that I will use all my abilities and influence in the attainment of an impartial and adequate representation of the Irish nation in parliament; and as a means of absolute and immediate necessity in the establishment of this chief good of Ireland, I will endeavour as much as in my ability to forward a brotherhood of affection, an identity of interests, a communion of rights, and an union of power among Irishmen of all religious persuasions, without which every reform in parliament must be partial, not national, inadequate to the wants, delusive to the wishes, and insufficient for the freedom and happiness of this country.”

have acknowledged the social existence of the Catholics. They had, according to Grattan, paid two millions of taxes, without a share in the representation or the expenditure; they had discharged the active and laborious offices of life, manufacture, husbandry, and commerce, without those franchises which are annexed to the fruits of industry; and they had replenished the armies and navies of Great Britain without commission, rank, or reward; it was going far then to concede to them the right to elect but not to be elected—it was going far to tender to them the rank of the officer, and the gown of the lawyer. These were partial concessions, and required, to appease the offended spirit of ascendancy, a commensurate quantity of general restriction, and the Convention Act, which, under the pretence of preventing unlawful assemblies, virtually took away the right of meeting altogether, was the palinode composed by parliament to soothe the ruffled spirits of the state. This act aimed directly at the system of delegation which had rendered the name of Dungannon formidable to the ears of power—it destroyed that right of meeting by delegates which ensured security to the liberties of the people against the encroachments of a king or the corruption of a parliament; and it was the subsequent operation of this act against the meetings of the United Irishmen that changed their tactics, and exacted secrecy in their proceedings. The year 1794 was pregnant with coercion. Archibald Hamilton Rowan was convicted of publishing the address of the Union to the Volunteers, and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and a fine of £500. Mr. Ponsonby's bill for reform was rejected by a considerable majority, and on the debate of that question Grattan went out of his way to attack the United Irishmen. He found no epithet too strong with which to stigmatize the “ seditious bunglers"—many of whom afterwards sealed with their lives the sincerity of their political faith. And yet the plan of reform which the society proposed, and which Grattan denounced as levelling and subversive, was one applauded by the English Whigs, and recommended by the high authority of the Duke of Richmond.

Fortified by the rejection of Mr. Ponsonby's bill, and no doubt encouraged by the tone taken on the Whig side of the house with regard to the United Irishmen, the enemies of reform took the active step of dispersing the Dublin society of the Union.

« ForrigeFortsæt »