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How Did They Pass the Union?

 How Did they Pass the Union?           Gerry OShea

How did they pass the Union?

By perjury and fraud;

By slaves who sold their land for gold

As Judas sold his God.

And thus was passed the Union

By Pitt and Castlereagh;

Could Satan send for such an end

More worthy tools than they?

Grattan’s Parliament, an Irish deliberative assembly, met in College Green in Dublin from 1782 until 1800. It had limited legislative powers and its members, drawn exclusively from the Protestant Ascendancy, were certainly not representative of the Irish people. Catholics were excluded from serving in parliament due to the Penal Laws which marked them as ineligible for any public office.

 The Pitt mentioned so damningly in John OHagan’s poem was known as William the Younger who served as British Prime Minister when the abolition bill passed parliament and, in fact, he became the first prime minister to assume the title of PM of Great Britain and Ireland in January, 1801.

 The success of the struggle for independence in America as well as the defeat of the aristocracy during the French Revolution a few years later frightened the Establishment in Westminster. These two revolutions inspired the major United Irishmen rebellion of 1798 led by Wolfe Tone, which was mercilessly suppressed using the full force of English military power.

Fearing more revolts, Pitt decided to end the local parliament in Dublin and to draw all political power and control to London. He appointed Lord Castlereagh as Chief Secretary for Ireland and between them they cajoled and arm-twisted the members of Grattan’s Parliament to vote itself out of existence, using patronage and generous emoluments as inducements.

This was the last and only all-Ireland parliament, right up to the present time. For this reason, the abolition in 1801 of the Dublin legislative body was a pivotal event in Irish history. The remainder of the 19th century can be seen in terms of unsuccessful efforts by Irish leaders in Westminster to reverse that decision.

After he achieved Catholic Emancipation, Daniel O’Connell, set as his main political goal the repeal of the 1801 Act. His organization involved strong local support committees, mostly built around the burgeoning Catholic population throughout the country. He was a charismatic leader who inspired a downtrodden people to feel that they had real power when they pulled together.

O’Connell, known by the adulatory title of Liberator, was idolized by the people all over Ireland and indeed beyond because of his fame as an orator and his detestation of slavery, a litmus test issue in those times for men aspiring to leadership.

He announced a monster meeting in support of Repeal for October 8th, 1843. The location of Clontarf was deliberately chosen because it was in that place in 1014 that Brian Boru defeated the Danes and expelled the Vikings from Ireland. O’Connell saw this as the culmination of his agitation for repeal, and tens of thousands of people started walking towards Dublin for what was widely billed as a “monster rally.”

On the day before, October 7th, the British authorities banned the event and dispatched their soldiers and naval forces to prevent the gathering. The Liberator backed down and sent messengers in all directions to turn back the crowds.

O’Connell had observed the violence that was central to the French Revolution and was determined never to be part of any program for change that involved bloodshed. The other great Irish constitutional nationalist leaders that followed him – Parnell and Redmond – also ruled out using violence in their plans for repeal.

O’Connell’s agitation for change died in Clontarf. Some later historians  complained that he should have disregarded the British edict and forced the Westminster leaders to deal with the huge unarmed numbers that were assembling in support of a legitimate political goal.

The British authorities arrested O’Connell for alleged sedition and, despite his professions of loyalty to the Crown, they sentenced him to a year in prison. The ignominy of prison life as well as the spreading hunger throughout the country broke the great man, and he died a year after his release from jail on his way to Rome. A fine portrait of the Liberator can be seen in the Kerry Hall in Yonkers.

In the 1880’s Charles Stewart Parnell assumed leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and he had two main items on his agenda to advance the Irish cause. First, he argued for land reform that would greatly limit the landlords’ power, moving ownership rights to the people who were working the land. The IPP was successful in promoting a series of Land Acts, culminating in the Wyndham Act in 1903 which finally affirmed the right of farmers to full ownership of the land they worked.

Their second goal, more complicated, related to O’Connell’s issue of repeal of the Act of Union or what was then called Home Rule. The Liberal government led by William Gladstone introduced the First Home Rule Bill in 1886, but it failed to get the full support of his party and was defeated.

After Parnell’s death Gladstone proposed a Second Home Rule bill in 1893. This passed the House of Commons but was defeated in the House of Lords. A Third Home Rule Bill passed the Commons in 1912. It was again turned down by the Lords, but the Parliament Act of 1911 limited their veto to two years. The prize was in sight,

John Redmond, the leader of the IPP in those years, was acclaimed as a national hero when more than 100,000 applauded his achievement at a massive celebratory event in Dublin.

 However, the situation in Belfast was radically different. The Loyalist community rejected any Home Rule settlement. They felt strongly that a parliament in Dublin would amount to the Catholic Church calling the tune in all legislation.

100,000 armed Ulster Volunteers, led by Edward Carson, proclaimed that they would die rather than accept the Home Rule Bill that passed in Westminster. Nobody doubted their serious resolve and the British government caved in to their demands, conceding a parliament in Belfast. That controversial parliament in Stormont, which lacked legitimacy in the nationalist community, celebrated its centenary a few months ago.

 O’Connell disregarded the valor of the United Irishmen who rose in 1798, despite their outstanding bravery and noble goals. Later, he dismissed the Young Ireland movement which also promoted the idea of a physical force insurrection to achieve freedom.

 No leader in Westminster could veer away from the constitutional path in dealing with the Irish problem. However, many members of the IIP played important roles in the centenary celebrations of the 1798 Rebellion. Nationalism, the sense of a separate nation not defined by England, resonated much stronger with the Irish people at the end of the century than in Daniel O’Connell’s time.

Speaking at the celebrations in Dublin following the successful passage of the Third Home Rule Bill, Patrick Pearse, the leader of the later Easter Rebellion in 1916, welcomed the success in Westminster, but he warned that if the British reneged on their promise there would be hell to pay.

Unfortunately, the leaders in London failed to insist on implementing a bill that would have established a parliament for the whole country and, even after the Irish War of Independence, Dominion Status and a parliament for 26 counties was all that could be achieved – no room it seems for an all-Ireland Grattan-type unitary settlement.

This debate that started more than 200 years ago is still central to political life in Ireland. The Border Poll allowed in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 involves a referendum that will determine whether Westminster will continue to legislate for part of Ireland

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