Government from 1690 to 1800

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Government from 1690 to 1800

Throughout the long eighteenth century (1690–1800) Ireland was governed by an executive in Dublin Castle answerable to the king's government in London and a legislature answerable to the Irish Protestant landed class, which came to be known as "the Ascendancy." This division of power was reflected in the judicial system, whose judges served at the Crown's pleasure but whose grand juries (responsible also for important aspects of local governance) were composed of leading members of the Ascendancy in each county. The government enjoyed military support from a garrison composed of British regiments paid for from Irish revenue and spiritual support from an established church, many of whose bishops were Englishmen.

The relationship between the executive and the legislature as marked by three distinct phases during this period. The first (1690–1769) followed the victory of King William III at the Battle of the Boyne and the reemergence of a more assertive Protestant nationalism. The executive consisted of a lord lieutenant (or "viceroy") and his staff (including a chief secretary) based at Dublin Castle, and the legislature consisted of the two houses of parliament—the House of Commons and House of Lords. The Irish parliament met regularly at roughly two-year intervals, having not met previously since the 1660s. The legislature, however, was severely constrained by the terms of Poynings' Law (1494), which allowed the king and his ministers to amend or reject bills proposed from Ireland. The Declaratory Act of 1720 further weakened the position of Parliament. This act asserted the right of the British parliament to pass legislation binding on Ireland, and it provided the terms of reference for political debate in the country for the next sixty years. The executive in this period was notoriously weak, as the lord lieutenant did not reside in the country. Instead he only visited for the parliamentary session, and thus control of patronage and much of the power devolved to others. These power brokers came to be known as the "undertakers," men who undertook to manage the business of government in return for being consulted about policy; they also had a large share of the government's patronage at their disposal. Thus, for long periods the success of an administration often depended on the whims of the most powerful political families, and the ability of the Crown to secure results depended on its ability to cajole as much as to negotiate.

This all changed in 1767 with the appointment of Lord Townshend as viceroy. Townshend decided to reside permanently in Ireland, creating a precedent that all future lord lieutenants followed. His decision resulted in the overthrow of the undertaker system, and control over patronage and policy returned to the executive. Helped by an efficient chief secretary, George Macartney, Townshend established a new system of management which involved supporting a"Castle party" in Parliament that could be relied upon to be loyal to the Crown. The cost, however, was high: Townshend was forced to resort to a system of parliamentary corruption and was eventually recalled in 1772. Dublin Castle became increasingly important in this second phase in the government of Ireland (1767–1782), and the holder of the office of chief secretary, the key administrative assistant to the viceroy who controlled most of the business, was central to its success.

Demands for a change in the constitutional relationship between Great Britain and Ireland grew increasingly loud in the 1770s. A new spirit of patriot nationalism emerged, with its advocates unhappy about the subservient position of the Irish parliament. These demands reached their peak in 1782 with the granting of legislative independence, which was conceded reluctantly by the British government after it was forced through in the Irish parliament. The Declaratory Act was repealed, but there was no substantive change in the running of the government. The key political figure in the country remained the lord lieutenant, who dealt directly with the British cabinet on all questions of policy. Irish acts could still be vetoed by the English privy council, but this only occurred four times in the period from 1782 to 1800. The Catholic relief acts of the period (1778, 1782, and 1793) were all introduced at the instigation of the British cabinet and passed in Ireland despite much unwillingness in Parliament.

The ambiguous nature of the government of Ireland in this third phase (1782–1800) led to fears in London that Ireland would break away like the American colonies. This prompted the British prime minister William Pitt in 1784 to put forward his commercial propositions to link the countries economically so that they would be to all intents and purposes united. However, this was rejected by the Irish House of Commons, which viewed the proposals as an attack on their recently won independence. The Regency Crisis (1788–1789) only exacerbated these tensions. At a time of major constitutional turmoil created by the madness of the king, it seemed that the Irish parliament could not be relied upon to remain loyal. The French Revolution increased these fears and prompted Pitt and his ministers to consider introducing a legislative union with a view to ruling Ireland directly from London. War with France in 1793 made any attempts to alter the government of Ireland unpalatable, but the increasing political radicalism of the 1790s made change inevitable. The 1798 rebellion forced the British government to act. A new lord lieutenant, Charles Cornwallis, was sent to Ireland to quell the rebellion and introduce a legislative union. This was rejected in the Irish House of Commons in 1799, but every resource of the Crown was applied—including the use of bribery—and the union passed in 1800. It came into effect on 1 January 1801, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Irish parliament was abolished, and 100 Irish MPs took their seats at Westminster as the government of Ireland entered a radically different phase at the start of the nineteenth century.

SEE ALSO Act of Union; Church of Ireland: Since 1690; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1690 to 1714—Revolution Settlement; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1714 to 1778—Interest Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1778 to 1795—Parliamentary and Popular Politics; Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Grattan, Henry; Military Forces from 1690 to 1800; Penal Laws; Politics: 1690 to 1800—A Protestant Kingdom; Protestant Ascendancy: 1690 to 1800; Trade and Trade Policy from 1691 to 1800; Primary Documents: Yelverton's Act (1782)


Dickson, David. New foundations: Ireland, 1660–1800. 2d edition, 2002.

Johnston, E. M. Great Britain and Ireland, 1760–1800. 1963.

Moody, T. W., and W. E. Vaughan, eds. A New History of Ireland. Vol. 4, Eighteenth-Century Ireland, 1691–1800. 1986.

P. M. Geoghegan

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Government from 1690 to 1800

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Government from 1690 to 1800