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THE IRISH PARLIAMENT BEFORE THE UNION.
BEFORE entering on the discussion of the questions stated in the last chapter it will not be without its use to take a brief view of the constitution and powers of the Irish Parliament before the Union.
It is of some importance that we should have a clear conception of the powers which the Irish Parliament exercised in the days of its independence after 1782. It is of importance not only in guiding us as to the position which we may fairly claim for our country under a Federal Constitution, but also in enabling us to judge between the advantages of a Federal arrangement and a simple repeal of the Act of Union, sending us back to the state of things which existed immediately before its passing. Certain it is that in some of the discussions which have appeared in the public journals on this subject, there seems to be a very great misapprehension, even in the minds of able and well-informed persons, of the place which Ireland occupied in the old imperial confederacyfor confederacy it was. The relation between England and Ireland before the Union is indeed noticed by Lord Brougham as one of the instances of the improper or imperfect Federal Union.
It need scarcely be said that the Parliament of Ireland consisted of the Sovereign, a House of Lords, and a House of Commons. The House of Lords, at the time of the Union, consisted of twenty-two spiritual peers, the Protestant prelates of Ireland—and 228 temporal peers. Of these latter, many were wholly unconnected with Ireland by birth, connexion, property, or residence. The King very frequently bestowed an Irish peerage, for naval or military services, when he desired to confer rank and title without giving the political privilege of a seat in the British House of Lords. Clive, on his first return from India, had his services recognized by an Irish peerage. To the same source may be traced the peerages represented by the titles of Hotham and Hood. Other Irish peerages were given for less creditable services. History does not record the name of the English gentleman on whom George III. conferred such a peerage as a compromise of his request for a private key of St. James's Park. It is certain, however, that a large number of Irish peerages had been created for reasons just as remote from any connexion with Ireland. It may well be believed that Irish peers who owed their creation to a wish to confer on them an honorary title, took but little interest in the political privileges which that title brought with it. There were many Irish peers who had never taken their seat in the Irish House of Lords. Even of the peers connected with Ireland, the general attendance was not large, and the assemblage in the “ Hereditary Chamber” often consisted, in its larger proportion, of the bishops, and the judges who had been elevated to the peerage.
The House of Commons consisted of 300 members, 64 of whom were returned by the counties, two by the University, and 62 by the cities and towns possessing an open franchise and an election more or less popular in its form. No less than 172 members were returned by close boroughs in which the nomination rested with a patron or the Crown. Only 128 out of the 300 owed their return to the semblance of popular choice.
Looking to this constitution of the Irish House of Commons, the real cause of wonder is that it so often and so successfully asserted the principles of liberty against the power of the English Crown.
In estimating the Parliamentary history of Ireland it must be remembered that it is to the revolution of 1688 that we must look for the establishment in England of many of the great principles of Parliamentary government which really give the House of Commons its controlling power in the administration of the State. The invitation to William and his wife to assume the Crown was accompanied or followed by an assertion of these principles, and public liberty was protected by statutes intended to guard the public freedom against any possible abuse of the prerogative, indeed to make it impossible for any exercise of the prerogative to carry on the government against the wishes of Parliament and the people. When we bear in mind the difference in the circumstances which surrounded that revolution in England and Ireland, we cannot be surprised that in this country it was attended by no similar assertion of popular right. None of those revolution statutes, which were considered bulwarks of public liberty, are to be found copied into the Irish statute book. None of the practices on the recognition of which the English House of Commons insisted were established in the conduct of Irish business. Ireland never had her bill of rights. It is only in our own day that the law of high treason has been assimilated in the two countries by an extension to Ireland of the statutes of William and Mary. The Parliamentary business of Ireland continued for nearly a century to be conducted according to the principles and precedents of the Stuarts. At the period of the revolution the duration of English Parliament terminated only by a dissolution or by the demise of the Crown. One of the first acts of the revolution was to limit its duration to three years. No corresponding statute was passed in Ireland until 1767, when the country party in the Irish Parliament succeeded in limiting it to eight years.* The Mutiny Bill was an invention of the early years of William III., and with it arose the annual assertion of the principle that it is unlawful to maintain a standing army in time of peace without the consent of Parliament.f In Ireland matters went on as they had done in England in the days of the Stuarts, without either Mutiny Bill or assent of
* In the interim a statute of Anne had extended the duration of the English Parliament to seven years. The bill as sent over by the Irish Parliament adopted the same limit. The English Privy Council changed the period to eight years, in the belief that the Irish Parliament would reject it in the assertion of a claim of privilege which denied to the English Privy Council the power of altering any bill, contending that their only power was that of assent or rejection. The Irish Parliament waived the question of privilege, and accepted the amended bill.
† It is a common mistake, but it is a mistake, to suppose that the Mutiny Act is essential to the embodiment of an army. In time of peace the assent of Parliament is so. But so far as the House of Commons is concerned, that assent is given by resolution before the Mutiny Act is brought in. The object of the Mutiny Act is to establish a code of military discipline, and authorize courts-martial to try and punish offences against that code. The first Mutiny Act was passed in 1689, in order to supply prompt means of suppressing a mutiny which broke out at Ipswich, in some regiments of William's army, on their way to Holland. It was literally a Coercion Act for the army, and was at first enacted only for six months. It was found such a convenient instrument for the maintenance of discipline that it has ever since been kept alive by continual re-enactment with the exception of two or three years of William's reign in which no Mutiny Act was in force. It is now passed every year, whether in times of peace or war. It asserts every year the principle, which was affirmed in the bill of rights, that a standing army in time of peace cannot be maintained without the assent of Parliament, and it recites the assent of Parliament to the maintenance of the force.
Parliament to the existence of a standing army in time of peace.* It was only after the accession of William that, even in England, the present system of voting the supplies upon estimates, and appropriating the grants to particular purposes began really to be in force. It was several years later that it was perfectly established.
These and many other constitutional principles and practices established in England when public liberty had been vindicated by the expulsion of James, were never thought of in Ireland where that revolution assumed the form of conquest, until a greater revolution awoke the spirit of public liberty in the Irish mind. Their introduction, however, was gradual and slow, and many of them had not assumed their perfect form, or received their complete development at the disastrous period when the independence of Ireland was stricken down. But apart from these considerations which account for many supposed deficiencies in the Irish Parliamentary system—in estimating the powers which were vested in the Irish Parliament there are other real and substantial causes of inferiority to be borne in mind.
At no period of its connexion with England was Ireland * Up to 1779 the interference of the Irish Parliament with the army had been limited to acts regulating the billeting of soldiers and imposing penalties on any of them who did mischief while they were on march. No question appears to have been raised as to the legality of punishing them by courts-martial. It may have been done under the assumed authority of the English Mutiny Act, or of a statute passed by the English Parliament providing an Irish military establishment in the reign of William III., or very probably, as was attempted in England before the Revolution, under a prerogative taken for granted in the Crown. In 1779 an Act was passed by the Irish Parliament which was a Mutiny Act enacting a code of army discipline, and authorizing courts-martial. It was a perpetual one, and contained no assertion of the necessity of the assent of Parliament to the maintenance of an army in the time of peace. It was almost immediately repealed, and from 1782 to the Union an Irish Mutiny Act was annually passed with the same provisions and the same recitals as the English.