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Introduction

The History of the Irish Parliament considers three broad topics: who went to parliament, how they got there, and what they did.MPs in Dublin is its companion volume. It considers the MPs personal concerns and has been prepared to be both a free–standing reference book and for use with the internet – giving basic bibliographical information about the MPs, lists of the constituencies which returned them and indicates the substance of the statutes which reflect the interests, business and achievements of parliament. This short introduction attempts to place the Irish parliament in its context. It considers the underlying attitudes and major concerns of the MPs during the period 1692–1800 – the only period when the Irish parliament, although it existed for over five hundred years, met consistently.

Consistently meeting and participating parliaments were a new phenomenon following the Revolution, and the early eighteenth–century was a period of experiment and adjustment in the role of parliaments at home and throughout the emerging empire. The English, Scottish or Irish parliaments had not met on a regular basis before 1688 and their meeting place could vary – for instance, famous parliaments were held in Drogheda, Oxford and St Andrews. After 1688 the Irish parliament invariably met in Dublin, the English and later the British parliament at Westminster, and the Scottish parliament until the Union of 1707 in Edinburgh.

Of all of England's eighteenth–century dependencies the status of Ireland had the most clearly defined legal guidelines, set out in a number of statutes enacted by both the English and Irish parliaments, most notably affecting legislation and the Crown – the 1494 Poynings' Law (10 Hen. VII, c. 4), which stated that all legislation was to be certified before parliament met, and its amendment in 1557 (3 & 4 Philip & Mary, c. 4), which allowed bills to be certified after parliament met and thereby opened the way for the development of the practice of putting forward heads of bills. Prior to 1541 the King of England was Lord of Ireland, but 33 Hen. VIII, c. 1, declared that not only was Ireland a kingdom but 'this land of Ireland is depending and belonging justly and rightfully to the imperial crown of England.' In 1692 the Irish parliament confirmed this in 4 Will. & Mary, c. 1 (0001). Thus, in 1702, the English Act of Settlement, 12 and 13 Will. III, c. 2, automatically bound Ireland. Before the 1688–9 Revolution most of the statutes restricting the powers of the Irish parliament were actually enacted by that body, usually in response to emergency conditions. Normally English law bound Ireland only when Ireland was expressly included in a particular statute.

The Irish MPs were exceedingly resentful of any implication that their parliament was an inferior parliament. Ireland, they maintained, could not be bound by any legislation that did not originate in its parliament or had not the consent of that parliament. They held the doctrine, expressed by Molyneux (1425), that they were entitled to 'the like freedoms with the natural born subjects of England, as being descended from them'. Immediately they met in 1692 there was a contretemps between the Lord Lieutenant and the newly elected parliament over finance and whether or not the Irish parliament had the 'sole right' to initiate money bills; this argument surfaced in various forms until 1782.

From the accession of the Hanoverians in 1715 until 1783, parliament met only every second year, usually for about six to eight months, depending on the time it took to complete the legislative business of the session. Between 1692 and 1715 it met more variably, and after 1783 it met annually. Before 1782 the legislative powers of parliament were restricted under the terms of Poynings' Law and its subsequent amendment; this, combined with infrequent meetings, ensured that anything approaching party in a modern sense was unknown. The unusual pressures of the reign of Queen Anne were a possible exception, but fear of a reversal of the seventeenth–century redistribution of land ensured the peaceful accession of George I.

Nevertheless, parliament from time to time felt strongly, for example over the 1753 Money Bill, but, these political standoffs tended to be short, sharp incidents and did not provide the long–term cohesion necessary for party development, and neither did the underlying resentment that flared from time over the growing pension list. Even in 1791 a political statement of the interests in the House of Commons tended to link them to the various political factions in England, rather than giving them an indigenous existence for the party which emerged in the 1790s was largely a collection of middle of the way groups some of whom were far from clear about exactly what they were representing. Irish politics were dominated by family groups whose relation to the current administration and to each other fluctuated, usually in accordance with the views of the head of the family. In these circumstances terms such as 'patriot' and 'colonial nationalist' had an overlapping rather than an exclusive meaning. The Irish patriot was neither a republican nor a revolutionary instead he considered himself a loyal opposition: his view was that 'patriotism forces us to say', and colonial nationalism as achieved in 1783 was therefore his final objective.

The eighteenth–century saw one of the longest cycles of peace and development in Ireland's troubled history. Unfortunately, the potential was not fulfilled. Both governors and governed failed to resolve a complex inheritance of disruption from the seventeenth century, while simultaneously confronted with the rapidly changing conditions and revolutionary mentality of the eighteenth–century. As Irish social divisions were sharpened by political and economic dependency, a mirage of promise was transformed into a major disaster with consequences that not only extended far beyond the shores of Ireland, but are still felt more than two centuries later.

Ireland had both added to and participated in the seventeenth–century turmoil that beset England, and the confiscations and settlements of that century left an indelible mark on Irish society. At the same time England's internal conflicts had ensured an unusual degree of independence for her transatlantic colonies, but in the eighteenth–century, England emerged as a major imperial power. Consequently, imperial defence, particularly after 1763, necessitated an increasingly centralised administration. At the same time, her established dependencies, of which Ireland was the oldest, were not only reluctant to accept the enlarged and centripetal demands of the mother country but also wanted a greater degree of centrifugal independence. Thus Irish parliamentary development was marked by a growing sense of regional identity and a corresponding desire for a greater degree of autonomy.

This desire for self–management was not unique to Ireland. It also occurred in the West Indies, and the North American colonies provided the most extreme example. These were influenced by two Irish traditions: the classical one of William Molyneux (1425), to which the Irish parliamentarians adhered throughout this period, and the revolutionary one of the Ulster–born philosopher Francis Hutcheson, which the Irish MPs deplored and feared. At the end of the seventeenth century Locke's belief in the sanctity of property was the dominant political philosophy in both England and Ireland, and as Ireland did not develop an influential industrial base, it remained the basis of political ideology for many Irish, and indeed English, politicians – property could not or should not be taxed without consent.

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