Wellington and Ireland
Sir, – Martin Mansergh is right to record that the Duke of Wellington forced through the Catholic emancipation legislation of 1829 and that his efforts on behalf of his native Ireland are not fully appreciated here (Letters, June 8th). By quoting the flowery expression of gratitude issued by the Catholic bishops at the time, I fear he runs the risk of overstating the case. Wellington researched the issue of the “Catholic question’” in the early months of 1825 and read a memorandum detailing his findings to his close friends Charles and Harriet Arbuthnot in April of that year. In it he outlined how the younger and newer MPs were in favour of emancipation and he foresaw that this pattern was likely to increase in the years ahead. At the same time the majority against change in the House of Lords would remain and so ongoing conflict between the two Houses would ensue, leading to political instability. The memorandum never saw the light of day but it is clear that, from then on, he accepted that change was inevitable and timing and tactics were the only concern. His return to office in 1828 meant that he had to face up to the issue. The first person he had to persuade that change was inevitable was Robert Peel, the dominant figure among his colleagues in government. Unlike Wellington, Peel had consistently opposed Catholic emancipation in principle. When the idea of introducing reforming legislation was first mooted he offered his resignation but this was declined by Wellington.
However, in May 1828, a motion favouring Catholic emancipation, in the name of Sir Francis Burdett, was passed in the House of Commons. Defeat for Burdett’s proposal followed in the House of Lords, as expected, but Wellington’s speech opposing the proposal was fairly vague, a fact that was largely unnoticed. However, the political diarist Charles Greville was alert to the possibilities. In his entry for the June 18th, 1828, he comments: “I do not think he means to do anything until he is compelled to do it. The success of the Catholic question depends neither on the Whigs or Tories, the former of whom have not the power and the latter not the inclination to carry it. The march of time and the state of Ireland will affect it in spite of everything, and its slow but continued advances can neither be retarded by its enemies nor accelerated by its friends.”
Time proved this to be a perceptive analysis.
This changing attitude of many in the House of Commons was due in no small part to a succession of brilliant performances by Bishop James Doyle of Kildare and Leighlin before number of parliamentary committees in London during the 1820s, much of which is forgotten now, together with the more widely acknowledged political activities of Daniel O’Connell, most particularly his victory in the Clare by-election of July 1828. Later that month Wellington’s close confidant Harriet Arbuthnot records that he “was racking his brains to find a safe means . . . of settling the [Catholic] question upon safe and fair grounds . . . and putting down the rebellion that seems to be hanging over our heads”. Indeed he did come up with a plan and managed to force it on an unwilling establishment in London, including the monarch. At the time he, with Peel’s support, was almost certainly the only one who could have done so as it involved facing down trenchant opposition from the right wing of his own party (sound familiar?).
However, it was more a case of meeting the strategic political needs of the United Kingdom rather than evidence of concern on the part of Wellington as to the welfare and wishes of his fellow Irish men and women. – Yours, etc,