Front Page Titles (by Subject) Subsection II.: Influence of the same principle on the institutions of the county. - Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious, vol. 1
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Subsection II.: Influence of the same principle on the institutions of the county. - 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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Influence of the same principle on the institutions of the county.
In Ireland, as in England, the state is divided into counties. As in both countries, the central power neither directly nor by agents occupies itself with the details of government; it is naturally in the county, which is the principal division of the state, that the administration of public affairs, properly so called, is made. Though the state cannot properly be said to administer the affairs of the county over which it is in principle the sovereign administrator, the state nevertheless has its own officers in the county, the chief of which are the sheriff, the lord lieutenant, and the justices of the peace.
These officers of the central government discharge in the county two sets of functions; the first may be called general, as they interest the entire country, the most important of which, the administration of justice, has been explained in the preceding chapter; the second may be named local, because they are specially directed to the affairs of the county in which they reside.
There are many things connected with the administration of an Irish county which in England belong to other bodies. For instance, it is the county that in Ireland undertakes most of the public labours undertaken in England by parliamentary boards of trust and commissioners, such as canals, &c. The county also regulates all the roads small and great, which in England are either turnpike trusts, or managed by the parish.1 There was little public charity in Ireland previous to the introduction of the New Poor Law; but the few charitable institutions, infirmaries, and dispensaries belonged to the counties, whiilst in England all public charity belongs to the parish.
In England, the special interests of the county are regulated at the quarter sessions; in Ireland, the magistrates at quarter sessions are limited to the administration of justice. At special sessions and road sessions they discuss county interests: but their examination of them is merely preparatory: they recommend rather than decide. The final decision must be controlled and sanctioned by the grand jury, a body which in Ireland plays the chief part in the administration of the county.
The grand jury in Ireland is at once a judicial and administrative body; it assembles twice a year, and then administers those affairs which in England are managed at the quarter sessions. The body that regulates the affairs of an English county deliberates, decides, and acts in perfect independence; whilst the administrative functions of an Irish grand jury are to a certain extent under the control of the judge, whose fiat is necessary to the execution of their presentments.2
Though the grand jury ceases to exist with the assizes, yet the same persons are generally summoned by the sheriff at the ensuing assizes. The judge might certainly oppose obstacles to an Irish grand jury which are not encountered by the English court of quarter sessions; but the central power has been so closely connected with the aristocracy, that few sheriffs or judges have been chosen in opposition to its will; practically, therefore, the Irish grand jury may be deemed as free in its actions as the English court of quarter sessions.
A moment’s reflection will sufficiently show that the same moral causes, which render the same judicial institution beneficial in one country and pernicious in the other, are, for much stronger reasons, capable of exercising the same influence over the administrative functions.
The rich Protestant, who, as a justice of peace, acts in the capacity of judge, is doubtless subject to passions that bias his judgment; but still in his sympathies for the Protestant, and in his enmity to the Catholic, he is fettered by judicial forms, and obliged to cover his most iniquitous proceedings by a mantle of equity, which sometimes fails him, and from want of which he must either stop short, or compromise his character. His administrative functions are not thus embarrassed; he has no need to prove the same equity in his acts, and he is more easily unjust, because his injustice is less subject to publicity. Thus the arbitrary decisions arising from favour or hatred, and the oppression resulting from selfishness, are more easily practised by the administrator than by the judge: consequently we must not be astonished if the great landlords of Ireland, who as justices of the peace give such sad specimens of justices, should exhibit in general the most barefaced selfishness in their administration, and if it be difficult to find in their acts any views of public interest, or any trace of generous sentiment.
Invested with the exorbitant right of taxing the county, they bear heavily on the poor, and lightly on the rich. When these rates are levied, to what purpose are they applied? They are spent to promote the interests of the rich, and they are never applied to the profit of the poor. If they have any assistance to bestow, it is given to the Protestant, and not to the Catholic, though the former be rich and the latter poor. Does any one suppose that, when they create an office, it is for the general interest? Not at all; it is instituted to provide for some favourite. Authority is, in their hands, only a means of advancing their own affairs. If a road is to be made, they consider their own personal convenience, not the wants of the country; and the county will pay a heavy tax, not to join some important centres of population, but to make an easy and agreeable communication between the houses of two rich proprietors. But at least, in this country of misery and ignorance, will they not found schools and hospitals? No. What then will they do for the people? They will provide barracks and prisons, almost the only splendid buildings in Ireland. Finally, they will commit such enormous abuses, such gross frauds, and such monstrous excesses, as to reader “Irish grand jury jobs” proverbial in England.
The rich in Ireland, masters of the entire administration, hold in their hands all the powers of society. How then shall they set bounds to their own authority? “It is,” said Montesquieu, “proved by invariable experience, that every man invested with power is tempted to abuse it; even virtue itself has need of limits.” If limits be wanting to virtue itself, how far will that selfishness advance which has none?
If the best aristocracy is not exempt from faults, it may be fairly said that a bad aristocracy is the worst of governments; and nowhere are its vices more clearly displayed than in the daily administration of the laws. If an aristocracy feels sympathy with the population, its members, dispersed among the people, will be more inclined to protect the weak and succour the poor, as they will be continually witnesses of the weakness of the one and the indigence of the other; and the more powerful and rich they are, the more capable will they be, while maintaining their own privileges, of defending the rights of their inferiors. But when this aristocracy is the natural enemy of the people, its power no longer affords tutelary aid; should it be sufficiently strong and clever to preserve its own prerogatives, it will not extend the benefits of its strength; all its members will keep their privileges, but those beneath them will not have their rights. In such a state, there will be all the subjection of inequality, with all the evils of servitude.
Nowhere will the oppression of the people be so easy and certain as in such a society, for nowhere will the oppressed be so much within reach of the oppressor. In a country where every landlord is at once an enemy of the people and a public functionary, it may be said that tyranny is everywhere.
If all things unite to render pernicious an aristocracy whose principle is vicious, it must be added that they equally tend to render it odious. When an aristocracy is not rejected by the national and religious sentiments, it has, in the eyes of the people it governs, one singular merit, exaggerated perhaps, but still a great glory and a great power,—that of exercising its functions gratuitously. It doubtless finds in the social state by which it is supported, advantages and privileges which amply indemnify it for its labours; but then its members do not positively receive a salary; and there is in this apparent disinterestedness a something that singularly affects the mind of the multitude, and induces the many to honour the character of those whose generosity they admire, at the same time that they recognise the superiority of their intelligence. But this merit of an aristocracy is changed into a grievance, when, instead of being popular, it is odious to the nation.
In fact, it seems as if oppression were more readily pardoned to a salaried magistrate or judge, who, in practising it, seems only to perform the task by which he gains his livelihood. It may be supposed that this functionary is only a passive agent, who in his heart laments the evil that his hand produces; but when he is an unpaid agent, it is naturally supposed that he takes a pleasure in oppression, and that he practises with all his heart the tyranny of which society does not defray the expenses.
[1.]The country has also the care of public canals, bridges, &c.
[2.]This fiat is often refused.