Since the grant of Ireland to Henry II in 1155/6 by Pope Adrian IV and Henry’s visit to Ireland in 1171/2, Ireland was a lordship attached to the English Crown, a jurisdiction separate from that of England. It remained so until 1541. Throughout the middle ages, Ireland had its own parliament, though its powers were limited, especially by Poyning’s Law (1494) which required that all legislation proposed by the Irish parliament should first be submitted to the king and his English Council and the Irish parliament might only be summoned if they approved of the proposed legislation. In 1541 the Act of 33 Henry VIII declared the king of England to be king of Ireland. This made Ireland a sister kingdom of England, sharing the same monarch. Constitutionally, this was the position of Ireland until the passing of the Act of Union in 1800.
The idea of a legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland had been considered many times in the eighteenth century. In 1707 England and Scotland were united by Act of Parliament. In 1709, the Irish House of Lords presented an address to the Lord Lieutenant expressing the hope that Irish Union with Britain would follow the Scottish one. This was rejected in England. When the idea of Union was suggested on the English side after the 1750s it was fiercely resisted in Ireland. The grant of legislative independence to the Irish Parliament in 1782 gave the impression that the idea had been dropped. However, the situation changed with the war with France and even more so with the 1798 Rebellion. A French expedition landed at Killala on 22 August 1798, and this showed that Ireland could be used as a base for an attack on Britain. Had there been peace at home and abroad, and no threat of a French attack, it is very unlikely that the Irish Parliament would have voted itself out of existence.
The British prime minister, Pitt, decided on union of the two kingdoms and in 1798 the Viceroy, Lord Cornwallis, was charged with the task of getting it through. Pitt’s plan was that Union and Catholic Emancipation should go together. The Government’s main argument was security: the Union was essential to preserve the Protestant ascendancy. Public feeling ran strongly against the Union and there were impassioned debates in the Irish Parliament. But these were concerns of the Irish Establishment, mostly the nobility, the gentry and office holders. Cornwallis said truly: ‘The mass of the people of Ireland do not care one farthing about the Union’. It mattered very little to them whether the laws (which in any case they saw as unjust) were made in Dublin or London.
Pitt believed that it was crucial that the Union be carried by a large majority and that it should have public support, Catholic as well as Protestant. He sought the endorsement of the Catholic hierarchy which was led by the Archbishop of Dublin, John Thomas Troy. The hierarchy (who hated revolution as much as did the Protestant landlords) and the Catholic middle classes were willing to accept the Union if Catholic Emancipation followed. Lord Cornwallis and Viscount Castlereagh, the Chief Secretary, were authorised to assure them that indeed Emancipation would follow the Union, but the Government would not allow Catholic Emancipation by the Irish Parliament. The only Catholic opposition came from Daniel O’Connell and a group of Catholic barristers.
The Government was determined on Union and Castlereagh set ably to work, using every possible means to create a majority for it in the Irish Parliament. Peerages, jobs, and pensions were liberally promised. In Ireland, members of Parliament were returned by boroughs which were mostly corrupt and by counties where results were almost always determined by the landlords. Castlereagh did a deal with the borough owners: the going rate was £15,000 per seat, paid equally to those who supported and opposed the Union. In all, over £1,250,000 was spent in buying the boroughs. In the case of the counties, Castlereagh set out to win every possible vote by promises, threats, and bribes. Support for the Union was made a pre-condition for any Government office or favour. As Castlereagh put it, his job was ‘to buy out, and secure to the Crown forever, the fee simple of Irish corruption’.
Parliament met in January 1800 and its debates were lengthy and very heated. However, the Unionist majority cobbled together by Castlereagh could not be shaken and the Government remained determined. The opposition’s campaign came to nothing. As J. C. Beckett puts it:
‘The barristers, the Orangemen, the country gentry, protested and threatened. But what could they do? The national spirit of 1782 was dead; the revolutionaries of 1798 were either cowed, or indifferent to the fate of the ascendancy parliament; and the country was full of British troops’.On 28 March 1800 the terms of the Union were agreed by both houses of the Irish Parliament. An identical Bill was laid before the British and Irish Parliaments. The British Act of Union became law on 2 July 1800; the royal assent was given to Irish Act of Union on 1 August 1800; and the Irish Parliament met for the last time on 2 August. The Act of Union came into force on 1 January 1801.
The terms of the Union were set out in eight articles: the first four dealt with political matters, the fifth with the church, the sixth with trade, the seventh with finance, and the eighth with law. The political articles created the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland’. The Parliament of the United Kingdom was to have Irish representatives: four lords spiritual and 28 lords temporal, elected by the peers of Ireland were to sit in the House of Lords; there were to be 100 Irish members of the House of Commons, two for each county, two for Dublin and Cork, and one for 31 towns and boroughs; and not more than twenty Irish MPs might hold gainful office under the Crown in Ireland at any one time. By the fifth article, the Church of Ireland and the Church of England were united. The sixth article established free trade between Ireland and Britain but duties on certain goods, notably textiles, were to remain for twenty years. The seventh article provided that the financial systems of the two countries should remain separate, though it was envisaged that under certain circumstances they should be united. Ireland was to contribute two seventeenths to the expenditure of the United Kingdom. The eighth article provided that all laws and the jurisdiction of all courts at the time of the passing of the Act of Union should continue as they were before.
Under the Union Ireland had an administration separate from that of the United Kingdom, directed by a Lord Lieutenant and Chief Secretary, and real integration of the two countries did not take place. The power to make laws had moved from Dublin to London, but the same Protestant ascendany remained in control of central and local government in Ireland. Those who had so eloquently opposed the Union soon took office in the Dublin Government. As J. C. Beckett says,
‘Within two decades, the Irish Protestants, as a body, had become ardent supporters of the Union, which they regarded as their only protection against the Roman Catholic majority. They were convinced that this support, self-interested as it was, gave them a special claim on Government favour; and they tended to judge every Government’s Irish policy by its effect on their own position and influence’.The Roman Catholics, whose leaders had supported the Union, turned against it, especially when the promise of Catholic Emancipation was not kept. The Act of Union was the context of all subsequent political activity in the nineteeth century, and in the early twentieth. In the words of Oliver MacDonagh,
‘… the Act of Union possessed for many the solemnity of fundamental law, far beyond the pretensions of ordinary legislation. With the finality of a vast constitutional rearrangement, it fenced in the range of the politically possible in the nineteenth century …’.Nationalists of all colours saw the Act of Union as illegal; moderates sought the restoration of the Irish Parliament, radicals sought an independent Irish Republic.
Bibliography. Sir Jonah Barrington, Historic memoirs of Ireland: comprising secret records of the national convention, the rebellion, and the union; with delineations of the principal characters (2 vols, London 1835). Sir Jonah Barrington, The rise and fall of the Irish nation (Dublin 1833). J. C. Beckett, The making of modern Ireland, 1603–1923 (London 1966) 268–91. G. C. Bolton, The passing of the Irish act of union: a study in parliamentary politics (London 1966). Oliver MacDonagh, Ireland (Englewood Cliffs NJ 1968) 1–21.
Donnchadh Ó Corráin