The Union with Ireland, 1800

The 1798 rebellion in Ireland brought to a head British government concerns over the state of constitutional relations between the two countries. After negotiations and parliamentary proceedings at Westminster and in Dublin, where considerable bribery and corruption were deployed, a legislative union was agreed. Under the ensuing legislation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland came into force on 1 January 1801, with the Irish MPs and peers joining the 1796 Parliament, in what now became the first UK Parliament. The expected measure of Catholic emancipation foundered on the rock of royal opposition and William Pitt the younger soon resigned as prime minister.

The granting of legislative independence to Ireland in 1782 marked the start of what later generations would refer to as ‘Grattan’s Parliament’. In theory, the Irish Parliament no longer had to submit draft legislation (‘heads of bills’) to the Irish and British privy councils before being given permission to proceed with passing acts; in practice, it was still a secondary legislature and had to defer to the combined wishes of the ministry in London and its executive head in Ireland, the lord lieutenant. This meant that political tension continued to exist between the two countries, and Pitt had already given some thought to the idea of a union.

The rebellion that broke out in May 1798 and took some time to quell caused great instability in Ireland. At a time of international war against revolutionary France, it also awakened geopolitical fears of the potential weakness of British western defences. Since the loss or independence of Ireland was unthinkable, attention turned instead to how a union might be made to work, since it would have to cover not just parliamentary union, but the immediate or eventual amalgamation of different financial, commercial and judicial systems.

British ministers also had to overcome formidable opposition from within the influential elite of Irish politicians, notably the last Speaker of the Irish Commons, John Foster. Others, like the Irish lord chancellor, Lord Clare, were more enthusiastic and gave considerable support to the lord lieutenant, Lord Cornwallis. The passage of the union bill through the Irish Commons was largely managed by the chief secretary Lord Castlereagh, who sat for county Down. After the initial proposals had received heavy opposition in the Irish Commons in early 1799, Castlereagh delayed the bill to the following session.

 What followed amounted to an enormous programme of persuasion, particularly through the holding out of honours and financial inducements. Numerous Irish and British peerages were forthcoming, often as a reward for boroughmongers to replace their Members with pawns who would vote themselves out of existence. Financial compensation of £15,000 was paid for each disfranchised borough (at a total cost of over £1m), and the home office’s secret service accounts from the period indicate that over £30,000 was distributed in the form of electioneering sweeteners or illegal bribes. The Irish Act went through by the summer of 1800, but it took years for the Irish administration to complete its promises or ‘union engagements’, including of offices or annuities.

The eventual scheme for parliamentary union was embodied in a separate piece of Irish legislation in 1800 (40 Geo. III, c. 29 [I]), which could be called Ireland’s ‘first reform act’. The 32 counties continued to return two Members to the Parliament at Westminster, but 83 Irish boroughs were disfranchised altogether and the remaining 33 were reduced to one Member seats, except for the most populous and prosperous of the county-boroughs, Cork and Dublin, which were allowed to retain two seats. The representation of Dublin University (Trinity College) was also reduced to one Member. These 100 MPs were joined at Westminster by 28 Irish representative peers (elected from among their own number, for life) and four Irish bishops (who sat on a rotating basis).

 Crucial Irish support for the Union had also been gained by the holding out to the majority Catholic population an intended quid pro quo in the form of Catholic emancipation. Catholics already had the right to vote in elections in Ireland, but this would also have enabled them to stand for Parliament, subject to the existing property qualifications. Pitt clearly hoped that he could steer through emancipation, viewing it as an essential element of his policy of uniting Ireland with Britain on an harmonious and sustainable basis. George III, who apparently had no inkling of his plan, vetoed any such attempt. Pitt, with his health failing and his premiership in disarray, took the opportunity to resign in march 1801.

Further reading:

Patrick M. Geoghegan, The Irish Act of Union: A Study in High Politics, 1798-1801 (New York, 1999)

David Wilkinson, ‘“How Did They Pass the Union?” Secret Service Expenditure in Ireland, 1799-1804’, History, lxxxii (1997), 223-51