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Speech in the Irish House of Commons, in reply to Lord Castlereagh, January 23, 1799.
Sir, I shall make no apology for troubling you at this late hour, exhausted though I am in mind and body, and suffering though you must be under a similar pressure. This is a subject which must arouse the slumbering, and might almost reanimate the dead. It is a question whether Ireland shall cease to be free. It is a question involving our dearest interests and for ever.
Sir, I congratulate the house on the manly temper with which this measure has been discussed; I congratulate them on the victory which I already see they have obtained -a victory which I anticipate from the bold and generous sentiments which have been expressed on this side of the house, and which I see confirmed in the doleful and discomfited visages of the miserable group whom I see before me. Sir, I congratulate you on the candid avowal of the noble lord who has just sat down. He has exposed this project in its naked hideousness and deformity. He has told us that the necessity of sacrificing our independence flows from the nature of our connection. It is now avowed that this measure does not flow from any temporary cause; that it is not produced in consequence of any late rebellion, or accidental disturbance in the country; that its necessity does not arise from the danger of modern political innovations, or from recent attempts of wicked men to separate this country from Great Britain. No, we are now informed by the noble lord that the condition of our slavery is engrafted on the principle of our connection, and that by the decrees of fate Ireland has been doomed a dependent colony from her cradle.
I trust that after this barefaced avowal there can be little difference of opinion. I trust that every honest man who regards the freedom of Ireland, or who regards the connection with England, will, by his vote on this night, refute this unfounded and seditious doctrine. Good God, sir, have I borne arms to crush the wretches who propagated the false and wicked creed, "that British connection was hostile to Irish freedom," and am I now bound to com
bat it, coming from the lips of the noble lord who is at the head of our administration?
But, sir, in answer to the assertion of the noble lord I will quote the authority of the Duke of Portland in his speech from the throne at the end of the session 1782, "that the two kingdoms are now one, indissoluble, connected by unity of constitution and unity of interest; that the danger and security, the prosperity and calamity of the one must mutually affect the other; that they stand and fall together." I will quote the authority of the king, lords, and commons of Ireland, who asserted and established the constitution of our independent parliament founded on that connection; and the authority of the king, lords, and commons of Great Britain, who adopted and confirmed it. With as little prospect of persuasion has the noble lord cited to us the example of Scotland, and as little am I tempted to purchase, at the expense of two bloody rebellions, a state of poverty and vassalage at which Ireland at her worst state, before she attained a free trade or a free constitution, would have spurned.
But, sir, the noble lord does not seem to repose very implicit confidence in his own arguments, and he amuses you by saying that in adopting this address you do not pledge yourselves to a support of the measure in any future stage. Beware of this delusion. If you adopt this address you sacrifice your constitution. You concede the principle, and any future inquiries can only be as to the terms. For them you need entertain no solicitude, on the terms you can never disagree. Give up your independence, and Great Britain will grant you whatever terms you desire. Give her the key, and she will confide everything to its protection. There are no advantages you can ask which she will not grant, exactly for the same reason that the unprincipled spendthrift will subscribe, without reading it, the bond which he has no intention of ever discharging. I say, therefore, that if you ever mean to make a stand for the liberties of Ireland, now, and now only, is the moment for doing it.
But, sir, the freedom of discussion which has taken place on this side of the house has, it seems, given great offense to the gentlemen on the treasury bench. They are men of nice and punctilious honor, and they will not en
dure that anything should be said which implies a reflection on their untainted and virgin integrity. They threatened to take down the words of an honorable gentleman who spoke before me, because they conveyed an insinuation; and I promised them on that occasion that if the fancy for taking down words continued I would indulge them in it to the top of their bent. Sir, I am determined to keep my word with them, and I now will not insinuate, but I will directly assert, that base and wicked as is the object proposed, the means used to effect it have been more flagitious and abominable.
Do you choose to take down my words? Do you dare me to the proof?
Sir, I have been induced to think that we had at the head of the executive government of this country a plain, honest soldier, unaccustomed to, and disdaining the intrigues of politics, and who, as an additional evidence of the directness and purity of his views, had chosen for his secretary a simple and modest youth, puer ingenui vultus ingenuique pudoris, whose inexperience was the voucher of his innocence; and yet I will be bold to say, that during the viceroyalty of this unspotted veteran, and during the administration of this unassuming stripling, within these last six weeks, a system of black corruption has been carried on within the walls of the castle which would disgrace the annals of the worst period of the history of either country.
Do you choose to take down my words?
I need call no witness to your bar to prove them. I see two right honorable gentlemen sitting within your walls, who had long and faithfully served the crown, and who have been dismissed because they dared to express a sentiment in favor of the freedom of their country. I see another honorable gentleman who has been forced to resign his place as commissioner of the revenue because he refused to co-operate in this dirty job of a dirty administration. Do you dare to deny this?
I say that at this moment the threat of dismissal from office is suspended over the heads of the members who now sit around me, in order to influence their votes on the question of this night, involving everything that can be sacred or dear to man.
Do you desire to take down my words? Utter the desire, and I will prove the truth of them at your bar.
Sir, I would warn you against the consequences of carrying this measure by such means as this, but that I see the necessary defeat of it in the honest and universal indignation which the adoption of such means excites. I see the protection against the wickedness of the plan in the imbecility of its execution, and I congratulate my country that when a design was formed against her liberties, the prosecution of it was intrusted to such hands as it is now placed in.
The example of the prime minister of England, imitable in its vices, may deceive the noble lord. The minister of England has his faults. He abandoned in his latter years the principle of reform, by professing which he had attained the early confidence of the people of England, and in the whole of his political conduct he has shown himself haughty and intractable; but it must be admitted that he is endowed by nature with a towering and transcendent intellect, and that the vastness of his resources keeps pace with the magnificence and unboundedness of his projects. I thank God that it is much more easy for him to transfer his apostasy and his insolence than his comprehension and his sagacity; and I feel the safety of my country in the wretched feebleness of her enemy. I cannot fear that the constitution which has been founded by the wisdom of sages, and cemented by the blood of patriots and of heroes, is to be smitten to its center by such a green and sapless twig as this.
Sir, the noble lord has shown much surprise that he should hear a doubt expressed concerning the competence of parliament to do this act. I am sorry that I also must contribute to increase the surprise of the noble lord. If I mistake not his surprise will be much augmented before this question shall be disposed of; he shall see and hear what he has never before seen or heard, and be made acquainted with sentiments to which, probably, his heart has been a stranger.
Sir, I, in the most express terms, deny the competency of parliament to do this act. I warn you, do not dare to lay your hands on the constitution. I tell you that if, circumstanced as you are, you pass this act, it will be a nullity,
and that no man in Ireland will be bound to obey it. I make the assertion deliberately-I repeat it, and I call on any man who hears me to take down my words. You have not been elected for this purpose. You are appointed to make laws, and not legislatures. You are appointed to act under the constitution, not to alter it. You are appointed to exercise the functions of legislators, and not to transfer them. And if you do so your act is a dissolution of the government. You resolve society into its original elements, and no man in the land is bound to obey you.
Sir, I state doctrines which are not merely founded in the immutable laws of justice and of truth. I state not merely the opinions of the ablest men who have written on the science of government, but I state the practice of our constitution as settled at the era of the revolution, and I state the doctrine under which the house of Hanover derives its title to the throne. Has the king a right to transfer his crown? Is he competent to annex it to the crown of Spain or any other country? No-but he may abdicate it, and every man who knows the constitution knows the consequence, the right reverts to the next in succession-if they all abdicate it reverts to the people. The man who questions this doctrine, in the same breath must arraign the sovereign on the throne as an usurper. Are you competent to transfer your legislative rights to the French Council of Five Hundred? Are you competent to transfer them to the British Parliament? I answer, No. When you transfer you abdicate, and the great original trust reverts to the people from whom it issued. Yourselves you may extinguish, but parliament you cannot extinguish. It is enthroned in the hearts of the people. It is enshrined in the sanctuary of the constitution. It is immortal as the island which it protects. As well might the frantic suicide hope that the act which destroys his miserable body should extinguish his eternal soul. Again I therefore warn you, do not dare to lay your hands on the constitution; it is above your power.
Sir, I do not say that the parliament and the people, by mutual consent and co-operation, may not change the form of the constitution. Whenever such a case arises it must be decided on its own merits-but that is not this If government considers this a season peculiarly