Belfast was enfranchised in 1613 as a corporation borough, with the return of MPs vested in the sovereign and 12 burgesses. Originally there were also freemen, as in 1713 it was reported that 'This evening the Tories carried the election at Belfast, 117 against 109.' In 1707 there had been a disputed election when Sir Alexander Cairnes (0334) petitioned against the return of Samuel Ogle (1574). Exactly when the franchise became restricted to the corporation is unclear, but it must have been after 1715. The Presbyterian merchants were excluded from the corporation under the 1704 Act, and in 1707 the House of Commons actually resolved that the burgesses of Belfast must take the test under the Act and the places of those who did not were to be declared vacant. In the disputed election of that year it transpired that only four of the 13 burgesses were actually or deemed to be present at the election, the rest not having taken the test.31
At the beginning of the century Belfast was a small town but towards the end of the century it was growing rapidly and by 1784 its population was estimated at 15,000, but by then the electors consisted of the sovereign and 12 burgesses, only five of which were resident. In fact in this year the citizens were so alienated that they petitioned the Lord Lieutenant, declaring that 'The Commons House is distrusted by the Nation, and generally at variance with it having degenerated into a fixed Body so little connected with the People that it ceases to be a guardian of their Property and Rights and hath become the Representative of an overbearing Aristocracy.'32 The virtual disfranchisement of its citizens inevitably encouraged other forms of political activity. It was a centre of Volunteering and the birthplace of the United Irishmen.
Belfast did develop a separate municipal life. By the end of the century it had an infirmary, a charitable society, various urban amenities and a well-patronised lending library, the still extant Linen Hall Library. It was also famous for its schools: in 1740 the Bordeaux merchant, John Black, wrote to his brother, Samuel, a merchant in Portugal, that he had sent 'Joseph, Alexander and Samuel, my three boys to the schools at Belfast ... and ordered my son John from thence hither'.33 Growing prosperity, a flourishing intellectual life and disfranchisement were a recipe for political trouble. Belfast retained a seat after the Union but the franchise was unaltered and the borough remained 'close' and impervious to any influence except that of its patron, the Marquess of Donegall.