The strength of the repeal movement in the summer of 1843 caused growing alarm among its opponents. Opposition was also building in England to Peel’s inactive Irish policy. In May, a deputation of Protestant peers urged on Peel and Graham a proclamation against demonstrations in Ireland. By early June, The Times was convinced that Ireland was ‘on the verge of rebellion’ and by July harshly condemned the government ‘whose wits seem fairly to have departed in this crisis’.
These criticisms may have been somewhat unfair but Ireland was becoming a matter of deep anxiety, as cabinet papers indicate. Peel was especially concerned that the largely Catholic repeal meetings would result in a violent response from the Protestant Orange Society, banned in the 1830s that might bring Ireland to the brink of civil war. Peel’s government found itself in a difficult position in dealing with the repealers for two main reasons. First, no laws had been broken. O’Connell warned his followers at virtually every meeting against violence of any kind. The suppression of peaceful meetings might alienate moderate Irishmen on which the government placed its hopes. Peel believed that nothing could be done without clear evidence of illegality. A second difficulty for Peel was divisions in the Irish administration. The Lord Lieutenant, Earl de Grey was unsympathetic to Irish aspirations and ultra-Protestant in his religion. Most of the other senior Irish officials were also partisan Protestants: for example, Edward Lucas, the Under-Secretary was an Irish Protestant landowner and Edward Sugden, the Lord Chancellor had advocated the exclusion of O’Connell from the House of Commons in 1828. By contrast, the Chief Secretary, Lord Eliot had a different outlook and believed that government policy towards Ireland should be more conciliatory. It is not entirely clear why Peel appointed men of different views to such sensitive posts unless he saw it as a means of establishing some balance between coercion and conciliation. The effect on the Irish administration was to give it a Protestant enough flavour to be distasteful to Catholics, yet Catholic enough in the person of Lord Eliot to alienate the most fervent Protestants.
It was Protestant fears of the repeal movement that led Peel to harden his attitude in 1843. If it could not act against the repeal meetings, it was still possible to send a warning to the repealers. In late May 1843, an Arms Act imposing tighter controls on the traffic in Irish weapons was introduced. Also, to the delight of the duke of Wellington, the cabinet resumed recruiting for the army. The belief that civil war was imminent in Ireland resulted in the total military establishment being reinforced to its highest level since 1829. By October 1843, there were some 34,000 troops there. These coercive measures did not stop the repeal meetings but did provide O’Connell with an attractive topic for his speeches.
Other actions, however, played directly into O’Connell’s hands. A minor civil servant was dismissed in late May for attending a repeal meeting and soon after Lord Ffrench, a Galway magistrate was relieved of his commission for announcing his intention to attend a meeting. By the end of May, fourteen magistrates had been dismissed and eventually the number rose to twenty-four, including several MPs. The Lord Chancellor, Edward Sugden was responsible and he had acted without official approval. The dismissals were universally condemned even by the anti-repeal Dublin Evening Mail and, although ministers supported Sugden in public, it was unhappy about his actions in private. The whole episode was undoubtedly damaging to the government and may well have driven some moderate men into the ranks of the repealers.
It was the growing militancy of the language of the repealers that gave the government the opportunity to act. O’Connell did not abandon the constitutionalist approach as the peaceful way of achieving repeal but increasingly his speeches contained military and separatist references. The last straw for the government was the announcement of a mass meeting at Clontarf for 8th October and it decided to act firmly. Since Lord de Grey, the Lord Lieutenant was in England, it was an easy matter for Peel and Graham to confer with him and this occurred on 3rd and 4th October. It was decided that the meeting at Clontarf should be suppressed, by force if necessary and that O’Connell and the Repeal Association leaders should be arrested and charged with treasonable conspiracy. The proclamation against Clontarf was announced on 7th October and O’Connell immediately acquiesced urging his followers to continue with the legal and peaceful means of achieving repeal. Within a week, he and several others were arrested but the trial was postponed until February 1844. Initially found guilty, O’Connell was released in 1844 on appeal to the House of Lords on the grounds that the jury had been packed with Protestants. But the damage had been done and the repeal movement, without its leader, was significantly weakened. It never again reached the heights of 1843 and finally collapsed in 1848, a year after O’Connell’s death.