« PreviousContinue »
to wish to undermine. The bitterness of expression, which, in some instances, accompanied that grant, cannot exasperate them against the state, but should be rather a subject of additional thanks to the wiser part of government, who have forced the angry bigot to vote against his speech, with the humiliating privilege of babbling against his vote.
It may be to the catholics further consolation to find, that if they are calumniated, so have been the protestants; they who acted for the liberties of this country; they who since 1782 struggled for bills, which, in part, government has meritoriously acceded to, are, for that very conduct, by the same false witness, vituperated expressly as men endeavouring to foment jealousies and disunion between Great Britaiirand Ireland. Satisfied with the success of some of their great measures, these men have learned to despise that political jury, whose testimony against public character is now exploded as his principles.
Sir, this bill not only reflects on numbers of his Majesty's subjects as guilty of a misdemeanor, but it involves them in the penalty; it is an ex post facto law of pains and penalties: if this bill be law, every man who composed the catholic convention is now liable to be prosecuted for a misdemeanor; it might so happen, that some of the gentlemen who vote for the bill, might be their jury or their judges; how would they act? Would they on oath, or as on the bench, pronounce those men guilty of a misdemeanor, and which they are now ready to assert as members of parliament? Those gentlemen may not only happen to try such offenders, but are liable to be tried themselves for such offences; for they were certainly those criminal and illegal deputies described in the act. I do not suppose government will ever think of prosecuting them, but if it should, it will, after the passing this act, have against the legality of their conduct the authority of the legislature and their own. I have objected to this bill as an innovation on the constitution; I object to it also as an innovation on the system of criminal jurisprudence: it puts the peace-officer in the place of the court of justice, in cases where there is neither tumult, nor danger of tumult; it is true, the common law makes him the judge of the imminent danger to which society is exposed, from a numerous body armed and proceeding to execute an illegal purpose, or a legal purpose in an illegal, tumultuous manner; but it is the force, or imminent danger of force, that brings the subject under the cognizance of the subordinate magistrate; the illegality alone would only bring him under the cognizance of the courts of justice. Where there are circumstances of force and horror accompanying an illegal act, then grows the power of the peaceofficer; for be is not the guardian of the law, but the conservator of the peace. But this bill gives that officer, as in the instance of a peaceful meeting assembled to do a legal act, or to frame a petition for those who have deputed them so to do, this bill, I say, gives the peace-officer the power to judge of the fact of the deputation; of the manner of exercising that trust; and of the public nature of the object of it, with right of entry, and a power to call in the military: here is the principle of the act, applied to the peaceful communication of sentiment, and is an innovation of the principles of the criminal law of these countries. The objects of this bill are, to stigmatise the catholic convention, and prevent the reform of parliament; but the pretences for this bill, I think, are three; the Defenders, the United Irishmen, and an imaginary Convention at Athlone: the last is not take place; and, on the two first, the bill will have no operation. Gentlemen must surely know, that either this convention is not to take place, or, taking place, would be feeble and frivolous. Such a convention as I have seen described, would be, indeed, unseasonable; and, I will add, wholly inadmissible. But such a bill as this, is not the way to defeat it. You remember a much more formidable convention than this supposed one of Athlone; a convention of armed men, representing the volunteer army, sitting at the Rotunda with a guard, and preparing plans for parliament: some of the friends of this bill, members of this house, were deputies of that convention; accepted delegation, sat and voted, and whatever evil was incurred, bad a full share in it. But how did the then attorney-general act? Did he alter the constitution under pretence of defending it? Did he make use of popular excesses to abridge the liberty of the subject? Did be give an opinion contrary to law, and then get parliament to give an influenced judgment in support of it, and invade the constitution under pretence of declaring the law? No; when the convention attempted to act, he framed a resolution, which purported the defence of the constitution against all encroachment: the consequence was, the convention dispersed, and the constitution stood unaltered and unimpaired; unimpaired either by the encroachment of a convention, or of a convention-bill. In the present case, the prorogation of parliament cannot interfere, unless government prefers a long prorogation; and sure I am, that if such a thing as the described convention is to take place, it were much better to meet it with the precedent I have mentioned, than with this bill; but it is evident no such thing is now apprehended: the spirit of the people does not beat high, and because the spirit is not high, this bill is brought forward. The friends of the bill have seized the opportunityof public panic, which certain excesses have excited. I condemn both, the excesses and the remedy; instead of either I am for the constitution of England.
On the second reading of the bill, he dives still deeper into its nature and tendency. He was aware that one object was, to shut out for the future catholic claims, and gratify spleen at their past acquisitions. Another, to perpetuate lucrative abuses, and render any application on the part of the people for redress, ineffectual. He saw the violence and excess to which the Irish and English parties were alternately impelled and exasperated against each other. Whether he saw, at that time, the hand behind the curtain, that communicated those hostile impulses, and inflamed with rancorous animosity the friends and enemies of Ireland, proceeding with cool and cruel policy, until matured into civil and religious warfare, that disgraced, fleeced, and extintinguished Ireland from the map of Europe, is more than I can say.
I put a question to the learned gentlemen, said Mr. Grattan: are the two circumstances of delegation and public concernment, sufficient to constitute an unlawful assembly, except that assembly be the house of commons? or in other words, must any delegation of any description of his Majesty's subjects, other than this house, for the purpose of promoting any redress of any grievance in church or state, be considered as an unlawful assembly? They have given me no answer: but they have stated a case which is another case, and which is a quibble, and not an answer. They have said, that a representation of the people, other than the house of commons, is an unlawful assembly: it may be so; yet a delegation for promoting redress in matter of public concernment may not be so, because that delegation may not be, nor assume to be, a representative of the people, but of a certain description thereof—and yet the bill, both in its preamble and declaration, makes such assembly illegal. The case, therefore, stated by the gentlemen, is no more a defence of the bill than it is an answer to my question.
The bill states, that any representation of any
vOL. tv. 3 N