Irish Disputes at Westminster

To launch our new James I to Restoration blog, and also mark St Patrick’s Day, Dr Patrick Little of the Commons 1640-1660 Section discusses the controversial presence of Irish MPs at Westminster in the 1650s…

With Irish political and constitutional issues routinely hitting the headlines – not least because of implications of Brexit for the border and the fact that the Democratic Unionists hold the balance of power at Westminster – it is interesting to consider that similar problems faced the third protectorate Parliament nearly 360 years ago.

In March 1659, during Richard Cromwell’s only Parliament, the right of both Scottish and Irish MPs to sit at Westminster was challenged. Both nations had returned MPs to the previous two protectorate Parliaments, but a new constitution adopted in 1657, known as the Humble Petition and Advice, had thrown everything into doubt. Amongst other things the new constitution returned England and Wales to their ‘ancient constitution’ when it came to voting arrangements and constituencies, but it did not specify what arrangements would be in place in Ireland and Scotland. That was left to attendant legislation but, as it turned out, no further measures were passed before the session ended, and the matter was left hanging. This was an issue of more than local importance: in theory at least, the 30 Irish and 30 Scottish MPs could form the quorum for the House of Commons; furthermore, the Irish and Scottish MPs were mostly loyal supporters of the protectorate, and could use their combined weight to swing votes in the government’s favour. The influence of these non-English MPs was controversial. Perhaps their most vociferous opponent was the republican Slingsby Bethell, who denounced them in print as ‘usurpers in making laws for England’ and little better than placemen ‘chosen by the pretender’s interest’.

After a long debate the right of the Scottish MPs to sit was finally voted through on 22 March 1659. Their position was fairly straightforward, as the original ordinance of union of 1654 had been upgraded to an act in 1657; but the Irish were far more vulnerable, as they were not covered by similar legislation. The arguments put forward in the intense debate on 23 March were more about natural justice than legal rights. Sir Thomas Stanley, MP for Tipperary and Waterford, emphasised that Ireland was ‘more naturally united’ with England in ‘language, habits, laws, interest, in every respect the same in kind’. William Aston, MP for Kildare and Wicklow, went further, ‘if we should withdraw, what representation should we have here?’, and made the connection between representation and taxation: ‘you will either refund us our money to us, or give us a parliament of our own?’ This was a rhetorical flourish, but it was immediately taken up by English MPs opposed to the protectorate, who claimed in a series of jeering speeches, that they were more than willing to resurrect the Irish Parliament and wave goodbye to the troublesome representatives from that island.

Unexpectedly, the chorus was joined by an influential Irish voice: that of Arthur Annesley, MP for the city of Dublin, who had been born and brought up in Ireland, the son of Lord Mountnorris. The power of Annesley’s speech shines through the staccato notes scribbled down by the diarist, Thomas Burton:

It is much fitter for them to have Parliaments of their own. That was the old constitution. It will be difficult to change it, and dangerous to Ireland. They are under an impossibility of redress … No taxes can be abated, impose what you will! … Ireland must have the disadvantage every way. As you are reducing yourselves to your ancient constitution, why has not Ireland the same? Why not Lord and Commons there? … Nothing hinders their restitution but the 30 Members coming hither.

Annesley’s speech caused uproar, with enemies of the regime calling for an adjournment, but the government’s supporters insisted on an immediate vote, in which the right of the Irish MPs to sit at Westminster was confirmed by a comfortable majority. In a sign of his sincerity, Annesley was one of the tellers against the motion.

Arthur Annesley (John Michael Wright)

One of the reasons why Annesley’s speech caused such consternation was that it challenged contemporary assumptions that the Irish MPs were all government stooges. Why had he broken ranks? As so often in Irish politics, the reasons were not entirely straightforward. Although in this and other points of debate he sided with republican opponents of the protectorate, Annesley was in fact working for the exiled Charles II as one of a group of ‘crypto-royalists’ in the Commons. Creating confusion at Westminster and undermining the protectorate would, it was hoped, create the conditions that would allow the king to return.

When making a genuine case for the Irish Parliament it seems that Annesley was in a minority of one. For, as Slingsby Bethell and other English critics had suspected, the vast majority of Irish MPs were indeed supporters of the protectorate, and of the union of the nations and their parliaments – they had consistently supported union legislation earlier in the decade, and were soon lobbying for a new act of union. Such an act would not only confirm rights to representation, it would also address economic issues, including the lifting of unfair customs duties imposed on Irish imports. Conversely, those English MPs who joined Annesley in calling for the dissolution of the union and the resurrection of an Irish Parliament had no real interest in the island of Ireland. For them, Irish affairs were just another way of undermining a weak and controversial government, and of forcing through radical change. Then as now, it seems that when it comes to Ireland things are rarely straightforward.


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