Veto Controversy

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Veto Controversy

A key ingredient in securing Catholic support for passage of the Act of Union was the promise that it would be followed by legislation that would grant Emancipation, or the right of Catholics to take seats in Parliament. In the years immediately following the union, a powerful conservative lobby organized to prevent the passage of such an act, on the grounds that complete political freedom for Catholics was incompatible with the Protestant constitution and that Catholicism was a subversive force inimical to the future safety of Protestantism in Ireland. This sentiment was greatly assisted by propaganda linking the Catholic Church and its clergy to the atrocities of 1798, and it breathed new life into the doctrine of Protestant Ascendancy first enshrined by Bishop Richard Woodward of Cloyne in the 1780s. The strength of the anti-Catholic sentiment ensured the defeat of the first relief bill in 1807, after which the prime minister resigned and the government fell. Following this setback, in an attempt to appease Protestant fears of an accommodation granting political equality to Catholics, liberal supporters of Emancipation proposed that certain "securities" be attached to the legislation that would allow the government a measure of control over the workings of the Catholic Church. Chief among these was a government veto on the appointment of Catholic bishops, which was seen as a measure that would curtail the influence of Rome. Additional proposals included state payment of the clergy and the right of inspectors to scrutinize correspondence with the papacy.

It was a common feature of European political life at this time for the state to have a role in the appointment of bishops, and the Catholic hierarchy was initially willing to acquiesce in these demands. As opposition to Emancipation heightened with each passing year, however, a powerful group of lay Catholics led by Daniel O'Connell began to question openly the implications of the veto. For O'Connell and his followers the issue of who should have the final decision in the filling of vacant episcopal sees was directly related to the independence of the clergy and the amount of autonomy that Catholics could exercise in the regulation of their own affairs. The matter was especially tense because of the unique position of power and influence that bishops and priests held at all levels of Catholic society in Ireland. At a time when the demand for education and the spread of the English language indicated that ordinary Catholics were going through a process of "modernization," with all that this implied for their future role in politics, the role of the clergy as arbiters of public morality (and consequently political behavior) could hardly be denied. O'Connell perceived a hierarchy appointed at the will of Westminster as an agency of corruption, one that would hold the clergy, and consequently the entire Catholic population, in line with the demands of an imperial parliament and the forces of Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland. In opposing the veto, O'Connell cast his lot with the popular anti-establishment opinion and against the more traditional upper-class elements of the Irish Catholic world, including several peers and members of the hierarchy.

The showdown between the populist anti-veto elements led by O'Connell and the pro-veto campaigners came with a second attempt at securing passage of a relief bill in 1814. This new bill, which included a veto, was prepared by Henry Grattan in 1813 and was introduced by Canning in the following year. The bill was passed by the House of Commons and agreed upon by the Catholic Board. It also won the approval of the aristocratic elite of the Catholic Committee in Ireland, but it was rejected outright by O'Connell and his followers. In an attempt to thwart O'Connell's domination of Irish opinion on the matter, the English Catholic Board submitted the matter to Rome. Because of the threat from Napoleon the papacy was still beholden to the British government, and a conciliatory response was anticipated. The outcome was predictable. A famous rescript was delivered by the secretary of the Propaganda Fidei, Dr. Quarantotti, with a definitive recommendation that it be adopted. The Quarantotti rescript caused turmoil in Ireland. When it was rumored that the more conservative members of the hierarchy and the Catholic Committee were willing to accept the rescript, O'Connell threatened to take his campaign to the streets, warning the clergy that if they accepted the state veto, they would risk desertion by their congregations. This was the first occasion on which O'Connell showed his skill as a politician. His manipulation of the popular press to educate his followers about the veto and his fearless playing to the gallery of public opinion was the first indication of what such methods might achieve. As a result of O'Connell's imposing opposition, the controversial rescript was withdrawn for further consideration by the pope. Its successor, however, which appeared in May 1815, was still supportive of the original demand for a veto and state payment of the clergy. This time O'Connell was joined in his rejection by the hierarchy, whose members had now publicly embraced the popular position.

The rejection of the 1815 bill produced a paralyzing impasse between the pro-veto and anti-veto forces and led to the temporary collapse of the Catholic-led Emancipation movement. The consequences of this were twofold. First, the failure of Quarantotti to impose the demands of Rome on the Irish Catholic body meant that O'Connell's leadership was now authoritative, and little progress could be made without his support. Second, the demise of the Catholic-led effort opened the door for Protestant liberals to step into the breach and assume leadership of the movement. The future looked particularly bright when, following the death of Henry Grattan in 1820, the young and dynamic William Conyngham Plunket took his place as leader of the campaign. High hopes were attached to the bill that Plunket was preparing to introduce in 1822, particularly because prominent leaders of public opinion in England were willing to support the measure with the securities attached, and many in Ireland (especially among the hierarchy) would have accepted the veto as a last resort.

But the very prospect of Plunket's bill being successful had a galvanizing effect on the conservatives, who put their anti-Catholic campaign into high gear once again. Preparations for the submission of Plunket's bill in 1822 were marked by a rising tide of sectarianism in Ireland, intensified by the agrarian crisis, the Rockite movement, and verbal saber-rattling in public debate. Had Plunket's bill passed, it would undoubtedly have been accepted along with the securities. After the Commons approved the measure, however, it was ignominiously defeated by the House of Lords. This persuaded the Catholic body that they would never make any progress with the Emancipation question if they remained disunited. They were also convinced that the House of Lords would have no more respect for the bill with the veto than for one without it, and that they might just as well seek "complete emancipation."

The failure of Plunket's bill of 1823 was the last time that the veto was an issue in the Emancipation campaign. Following the events of 1821–22, the movement entered a new phase with the founding of the Catholic Association in January 1823. The aim of the association was not immediately to pursue Emancipation but to build a popular movement on the twin pillars of Catholic grievances and a powerful organization featuring mass participation in the political process. In the pursuit of both objectives O'Connell's success was phenomenal. By 1828 he had fashioned a movement that had succeeded in breaking the hold of the landlords on the electoral process and cleared the way for his own election as MP for Clare in 1828. O'Connell's tactics for securing these victories were first tested during the veto controversy of 1813–1814, which may in retrospect be seen as a trial run for the political revolution of the 1820s that ended with passage of the Catholic Relief Act in 1829.

SEE ALSO Catholic Emancipation Campaign; O'Connell, Daniel; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union


Bartlett, Thomas. The Fall and Rise of the Irish Nation: The Catholic Question, 1690–1830. 1992.

MacDonagh, Oliver. O'Connell: The Life of Daniel O'Connell, 1775–1847. 1991.

O'Ferrall, Fergus. Catholic Emancipation: Daniel O'Connell and the Birth of Irish Democracy, 1820–30. 1986.

Irene Whelan