Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics

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Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics

Although the allocation of four thousand Irish troops to fight against the Americans in their war for independence and the imposition of an embargo on trade were the subject of heated debate in the Irish parliament, the full implications of the war on Irish domestic politics were not manifest until 1778. The entry of the French into the war on the side of the Americans generated alarm that the French might attempt to use Ireland as a back door to attack Britain, reinforced fears about the loyalties of the Catholic population, and prompted thousands of Protestants to band together in civilian Volunteer corps in order to supplement the depleted military. To encourage Catholic goodwill while the war was in progress, the Irish parliament was persuaded to ratify a bill that removed a number of burdensome restrictions on the rights of Catholics to lease land. Meanwhile, the Westminster legislature refused to implement a proposal in the summer of 1778 to allow Irish merchants to trade on the same terms as their British counterparts. A number of radical activists, with James Napper Tandy to the fore, responded with a campaign for nonimportation and nonconsumption of British goods in 1778 to 1779. Animated by Volunteer support, Henry Grattan and other Patriot leaders brought sufficient pressure upon ministers of the Crown that agreement was reached to concede Ireland free trade in the winter of 1779 to 1780.

The successful achievement of free trade inevitably prompted demands for constitutional reform, though there was less unanimity within the Patriot coalition on this issue. Some, such as the duke of Leinster objected in principle to the involvement of a paramilitary body like the Volunteers. Others were not convinced that the repeal of the Declaratory Act (1720) and the modification of Poynings' Law in a manner that deprived the British and Irish privy councils of the right to initiate, amend, and lay aside Irish legislation was in the best interest of a secure Anglo-Irish nexus. When the Irish parliament reconvened in the autumn of 1781, the Patriots made little headway until the Ulster Volunteers took up the cause. Their public pronouncement in support of legislative independence at a delegate meeting at Dungannon in February 1782 galvanized the faltering campaign and provided the Patriot leadership of Henry Grattan and Lord Charlemont with the authority, following a change of government in England, to secure the desired concessions at Westminster and College Green in the summer of 1782.

The ratification of legislative independence, which brought about what is conventionally but misleadingly known as "Grattan's parliament," increased the powers of the Irish parliament to make law. But it did not address the relationship of the Irish parliament to the Irish executive based at the Dublin Castle. The ratification, also in 1782, of a further measure of Catholic relief seemed to mark a new dawn politically, but the Patriots were increasingly weakened by internal differences. Grattan and Henry Flood disagreed over the advisability of requiring the British parliament formally to renounce its right to make law for Ireland. Flood enjoyed the support of most rank-and-file Volunteers, and when the Ulster Volunteers took up the issue of parliamentary reform in 1783, his readiness to support a plan that did not include the enfranchisement of Catholics was received with little enthusiasm by many erstwhile advocates of free trade and legislative independence. Encouraged by evidence of the fragmentation of the once powerful Patriot coalition, Prime Minister William Pitt boldly proposed a commercial union between Britain and Ireland. Irish suspicion of the proposal as a surreptitious attack on legislative independence prevented it from reaching the statute book—an outcome that left the Anglo-Irish connection dangerously unregulated in British eyes.

The political mood changed in the late 1780s, and the initiative in domestic Irish affairs shifted from the Patriots, with whom it had largely rested since 1779. Indeed, the emergence of a more ideologically conservative viewpoint, encouraged by the fears generated by the agrarian movement, the Rightboys, acted as a disincentive to reform for a number of years. The Anglo-Irish relationship briefly returned to the political agenda in the winter of 1788 to 1789 with the incapacitation of George III, but of greater consequence was the formation (from the ranks of the Irish opposition) of the Whig Club and the radicalizing effects of the French Revolution. The failure of the parliamentary opposition to achieve significant further reform disillusioned radicals, who were attracted to the newly formed United Irish Society from the early winter of 1791. In practice, the radical strategy, which was to recreate the conditions that had wrought reform in the early 1780s, wanted for originality, and in the absence of overwhelming public support it never seemed likely to prevail. Catholic enfranchisement was approved in 1793, but it was in response to the independent activity of the Catholic Committee. Indeed, though some steps were taken to respond to the Whigs' eagerness to curb the pensions list, the formal replacement of the Volunteers with a state-controlled militia, the proscription of representative conventions, and the rejection of bills for parliamentary reform in 1793 and 1794 signaled that the political initiative remained firmly with the administration and its largely conservative supporters in the Irish parliament. This was underlined by the arrest and prosecution of the leadership of the Dublin United Irish Society, which caused several key figures in the movement either to withdraw from radical politics or to go into exile. The unexpected appointment of the liberal Whig, 2d Earl Fitzwilliam, as lord lieutenant in 1794 provided the proponents of reform with one more opportunity to reverse the tide. Guided by Grattan and his Whig colleagues, Fitzwilliam seemed intent on governing in accord with moderate reform principles. But by his sweeping changes of personnel and his promotion of Catholic emancipation, he exceeded his instructions. His recall not only destroyed the prospects of reform but also facilitated the adoption of a revolutionary strategy by those who had lost confidence in parliamentary government.

SEE ALSO Burke, Edmund; Catholic Committee from 1756 to 1809; Catholic Merchants and Gentry from 1690 to 1800; Defenderism; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1690 to 1714—Revolution Settlement; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Fitzgerald, Lord Edward; Flood, Henry; Government from 1690 to 1800; Grattan, Henry; Keogh, John; Military Forces from 1690 to 1800; Neilson, Samuel; Orange Order: Origins, 1784 to 1800; Penal Laws; Politics: 1690 to 1800—A Protestant Kingdom; Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800; Tandy, James Napper; Tone, Theobald Wolfe; Trade and Trade Policy from 1691 to 1800; United Irish Societies from 1791 to 1803; Primary Documents: The Catholic Relief Act (1778); The Catholic Relief Act (1782); The Catholic Relief Act (1793)


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James Kelly

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