Front Page Titles (by Subject) Sect. VII.—: Corruption of the Irish Parliament. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1
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Sect. VII.—: Corruption of the Irish Parliament. - Gustave de Beaumont, Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1 
Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, ed. W.C. Taylor (London: Richard Bentley, 1839). Vol. 1.
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Corruption of the Irish Parliament.
Parliamentary reform was rejected, and yet the corruption of parliament was extreme. The Commons were composed of three hundred members; it would have been a difficult and troublesome task to bribe three hundred independent deputies; but of this number the greater part were mere creatures of the aristocracy; more than two hundred were members for rotten boroughs,* belonging either to peers or rich proprietors, who were also members of the House of Commons; so that it was only necessary to purchase a few in order to have nearly the entire; sometimes a single person could dispose of twenty boroughs, or forty votes.
There were two modes of purchasing members of the House of Commons, by places and pensions. The first was the honourable mode of sale; government had a multitude of places at its disposal. When there was not a sufficient number, new places were created; when existing salaries were not sufficient for remuneration, they were augmented.* With regard to the petty offices of judicature and administration, unsuited to the dignity of national representatives, they were publicly sold, and the money thus raised was employed to purchase votes. When places were exhausted, pensions were given out of the Irish revenue;† the money thus employed was that of poor Ireland, who thus paid those that sold her while they sold themselves. Those pensions, which in 1756 were 44,000l., rose in 1793 to 120,000l. Finally, when places and the fund for pensions were exhausted, the government took what it wanted from the treasury. A viceroy rarely quitted Ireland without leaving an arrear of 200,000l., and sometimes 300,000l.
This corruption was practised with incredible openness. Grattan‡ challenged its denial in the of the corrupt parliament, and no voice dared to contradict it. Sometimes, after a strong opposition had been remarked in parliament, people were surprised to see it suddenly vanish; this happened in 1765, on the bill relating to the exportation of grain. But corruption was actually and openly avowed by the officers of the crown.* During the debate on giving the regency of Ireland to the Prince of Wales, the Irish attorney-general, Mr. Fitzgibbon, afterwards Earl of Clare, said to an astonished house and an indignant nation,—“You have set up a little king of your own; half a million, or more, was expended some years ago to break an opposition, the same or a greater sum may be necessary now.”
Their original parliaments were annual; by corruption they became rare, and were gradually protracted during the life of the king. Hence it followed, that if government purchased a majority in the first year, it remained its master, and disposed of it at its pleasure until the accession of a new king. To avoid the evil chance of too short a reign, it was once proposed to vote the supplies for twenty-one years; this was proceeding direct to the object, but the motion failed.*
In the reign of George III. a different system was established; the parliament became octennial, and was obliged to assemble once every two years at the least. The consequence was, that there was a new parliament to purchase every eight years; the members who sold themselves generally disappeared, and were not returned at the new elections; but others, equally venal, came in their stead, and what was regarded as a guarantee of independence, appeared to several a mere increase of expense to the English government, or rather to Ireland, which had to supply the funds for corruption.
The House of Lords was still more easy to gain. The crown exercised over it that ascendency which a superior necessarily possesses over those who derive from him all they have. Besides, they were almost all a new nobility, and consequently had no root in the country. Occupied with their pleasures in London, or attending on the King of England, they were more eager to pass for English lords than to be courageous defenders of the interests of their country. The session of the Irish House of Lords was only marked by some interchanges of courtesy with the viceroy;* and every time that these took place, the Irish lords displayed fresh meanness. “Never,” says the biographer of Lord Charlemont, “did any nobility equal that of Ireland in varying the forms of obsequiousness and servility.”
In truth, the Irish House of Lords neither was nor could be a source of embarrassment to the English government. It was too feeble, as a national institution, to render its support valuable; but it offered the British government a resource of another nature which had its value. It sometimes happened that the pension fund was exhausted when money for corruption was wanting; in such a case, peerages were sold to persons who had no claim to nobility, and who were, therefore, eager to become purchasers, and the sums of money derived from this traffic served to purchase the consciences which still remained free. The great merit of the peerage in the eyes of the government consequently was, that the sale of its honours supplied money for bribing the Commons. “Thus,” said Grattan, in the Irish parliament, (Feb. 8th, 1791,) “The ministers have sold the prerogatives of the crown to buy the privileges of the people.”
The legal agent between England and the two Irish houses of parliament was the viceroy of Ireland. For a long time, this high functionary attended to no part of his office but the emoluments. The charge of viceroy was regarded as a sinecure which the English government bestowed to arrange some political exigency. When a great lord or borough proprietor demanded some ministerial employment in spite of his absolute incapacity, he was named Lord Lieutenant of Ireland; it was also occasionally a means for some great person, poor or ruined, to make or repair his fortune. The viceroy possessed two magnificent palaces, one in Dublin, the other in the suburbs, but he did not reside in either. Dublin could not compensate him for London, where he was detained by his habits and his pleasures. There were some viceroys who never appeared in Ireland, such as Lord Weymouth, who was nominated to the office in 1765. They generally went over only for a few months to attend the opening of parliament, after which they returned to England. Although his sojourn in Ireland was so brief, the viceroy derived large profits from his office. Lord Wharton, in two years, is said to have netted 45,000l. So unusual in Ireland was a resident viceroy, that when Lord Townshend established himself as such in Dublin (1768) people looked upon the event with amazement, and seemed almost to doubt such a phenomenon.
During the absence of the viceroy, the government was entrusted to three lords justices, selected either from the privy council, the judges of the four courts, or the dignitaries of the Anglican church. These were employed by the English government to negociate the majority in parliament.
“There were always three or four influential persons in the Irish parliament,” says Dr. Campbell, “whose coalition necessarily produced a majority on any question whatever. These were the individuals whom it was important to gain, and with whom the lords justices treated; the most immoral and scandalous transactions followed. The lords justices leased out the Irish administration; they gave up to those influential members of parliament the disposal of all the employments and dignities dependent on the executive power, the revenue of Ireland, and the funds for pensions; bargaining that those persons in their turn should carry through parliament all laws desired by the English government. The vile agents thus employed by the English ministers were usually called “undertakers.”
In virtue of the powers thus delegated to them, the undertakers appointed to all offices, selecting governors of counties, sheriffs, justices of peace, crown lawyers, collectors of excise and customs, &c.: they could even bestow peerages, or rather, as they never did anything gratuitously, they sold all that was given them. Parliament—justice—administration—everything was venal in Ireland.
The undertakers had every sort of advantage over the viceroy; as they were always on the spot, they knew better than he did the actual state of affairs, and the course of intrigues. Besides, they lent themselves more pliantly than the viceroy to all the base manœuvres in which they were required to act as instruments. The office of viceroyalty was become so degraded, that no viceroy would execute it. All the power being placed in the hands of the undertakers, the viceroyalty was but a nominal dignity; and if a Lord Lieutenant had employed his right to dispose of places and honours, the undertakers would have complained of a breach of contract. In general, the recommendations of the viceroys were utterly disregarded.
Out of twenty viceroys, who, in the course of a century, succeeded each other in Ireland, Lord Townshend was the first who, in 1767, formed the project of administering the government himself. His intentions were pure and honourable; he wished to remove the dominant cabal, and govern Ireland directly, without the intervention of the undertakers.
But though the corruptors were removed, all those whom corruption had tainted remained, with the wants and habits they had acquired. Henceforth there were several members of the Irish parliament in both houses, accustomed to live on the pension of England, and whose hostility was to be expected if payment was suspended. Lord Townshend who, above all things, wished to be responsible for Ireland to his own country, had recourse to the only means of success then known. He governed alone, but he governed by bribery, like those whom he had supplanted; but with this difference, that, being a novice in corruption, he submitted to exorbitant conditions from the consciences he purchased; though he reserved no personal gains for himself, he spent more than the undertakers, who never made a bargain without reserving something for their own share. On the whole, it cost Ireland more to be governed by a man of honour than by a set of political intriguers.* He was honourable, and the system was not. There is not a more ludicrous exhibition in the world than an honest man practising corruption; he understands nothing of the roguery with which he has to deal; vile intrigues should be left to mean minds; in such they are sure to be superior.
[*]Some were members for still more rotten corporations, the leaders of which combined to exclude the inhabitants of the towns, whether Protestant or Catholic, from the franchise, so as to enable themselves to sell the representation to some peer who trafficked in boroughs, receiving in return places in the customs or excise for themselves and their children.—Tr.
[*]M. de Beaumont deems that his account of the venality and profligacy of the Irish parliament will be scarcely credited; but every one acquainted with the history of the country must be aware that the systematic corruption both of the Irish Lords and Commons is understated. Everybody has heard the story of Mr. Hutchinson, founder of the Donoughmore family, whose vote, on a particular occasion, was purchased by giving his daughter a cornetcy of dragoons.—Tr.
[†]“Infamous pensions to infamous men.”—Grattan’s Speeches, vol. i. p. 23.
[‡]Mr. Grattan, in the name of the little minority that opposed the destructive and disgraceful system pursued by the Irish administration, used the following pointed and powerful words:—“We charge them publicly, in the face of the country, with making corrupt agreements for the sale of peerages; for doing which, we say they are impeachable. We charge them with corrupt agreements for the disposal of the money arising from the sale to purchase for the servants of the Castle seats in the assembly of the people; for doing which we say that they are impeachable. We charge them with committing these offences, not in one, nor in two, but in many instances; for which complication of offences we say that they are impeachable—guilty of a systematic endeavour to undermine the constitution, in violation of the laws of the land. We pledge ourselves to convict them; we dare them to go into an inquiry; we do not affect to treat them as any other than public malefactors; we speak to them in a style of the most mortifying and humiliating defiance. We pronounce them to be public criminals. Will they dare to deny the charge? I call upon and dare the ostensible member to rise in his place, and say, on his honour, that he does not believe such corrupt agreements have taken place. I wait for a specific answer.”
[*]“The threat was proceeded on, the peerage was sold, the caitiffs of corruption were everywhere—in the lobby, in the street, on the steps, and at the door of every parliamentary leader, whose thresholds were worn by the members of the then administration, offering titles to some, amnesty to others, and corruption to all.”—Grattan’s Letter to Lord Clare. Miscellaneous Works, p. 107.
[*]It was lost by a majority of one. The casting vote was given by Col. C. Tottenham, who rode up from the country, and arrived barely in time to turn the contest; hence, “Tottenham in boots” became a popular toast.—Tr.
[*]For several successive days the journals of the Irish House of Lords present the same record. “Met—heard prayers—ordered the judges to be covered—adjourned.”—Tr.
[*]When Lord Townshend left Ireland, the treasury was in an arrear of 265,000l.