With the receding threat of repeal from late 1843, there were now opportunities for a new approach to Irish matters. The government recognised that coercion could not be maintained indefinitely. However, the options available to Peel were limited. Economic grievances were thought to be beyond the scope of government action. Peel was opposed to state aid for Irish railway construction. Nor was the government willing to introduce any major alteration to the Irish land system especially if that meant interfering with property rights. A settlement of the religious question was also largely beyond the government’s powers. The Conservative party could not alter the Church of Ireland without serious electoral consequences. Former Whigs like Stanley and Graham had originally joined the Conservatives partly because of the Whig attack on the Irish Church in the 1830s and it was unlikely that they would reverse this position.
Despite these limitations, the government was determined to pursue a policy of conciliation. Graham described the necessity of this approach in grim terms: ‘If Ireland be not reconciled to Great Britain, she will destroy us and open a break in our defences through which our enemies will ultimately triumph.’ The Union could only be assured by winning the good will of the majority of Catholic Irishmen. Conciliation of Catholic Ireland proceeded on several lines: appointing Irish Catholics to posts in the Irish administration; improving clerical and secular education facilities; and, attempting a reform of the Irish franchise and revision of the laws regarding land occupation
The government offered more positions of political responsibility to Irish Catholics. Irishmen and especially Catholics were often excluded from official circles in Dublin. In 1843, W. Smith O’Brien argued that Catholic Emancipation could never be fully realised as long as religion remained a bar to office. Of the major posts in the Irish administration at this time, twenty-three were held by Protestants and three by Catholics. Peel recognised the justice of this criticism and in the summer of 1843, in a series of letters to de Grey, urged that Catholics be appointed to vacant positions. However, de Grey was jealous of the patronage power in his hands and resentful of any interference. Irish Protestants would be unlikely to support a policy that favoured Catholics, while there was no guarantee that Catholics would accept the government’s belated generosity. When Peel persisted in the appointment of John Howley, a Catholic barrister to a judicial position, it was clear that religion had been the reason for his appointment. Protestant opinion was outraged that more qualified Protestant Tories were ignored while Catholic opinion denounced it as a ‘shallow artifice’ that was ‘insulting’ to Ireland. This was not a promising beginning to conciliation.
For Peel, the key to conciliation lay with the Catholic clergy. It had been prominent in the repeal agitation and Peel was determined to win their loyalty to the Union. By late 1843, Peel, Graham and Stanley were agreed that the state must bear a greater responsibility for the education and maintenance of the clergy. This meant a review of ministerial policy towards the Maynooth seminary. It had been established in 1795 by the Irish parliament for training Catholic priests as a means of luring them away from their traditional training in French or Spanish seminaries, a potentially subversive education. After the Union, the practice of supporting Maynooth from public funds continued but by the 1840s the amount allocated was clearly inadequate. Fixed in 1808 at £9,250 annually, it had not been raised since. Successive governments had neglected the facilities and educational standards at Maynooth and this alienated the clergy who studied there. The decision to review Maynooth was a reversal of opinion. In 1842, Lord Eliot had urged an inquiry into Maynooth but the cabinet had turned down his suggestion with Peel expressing reluctance to disturb the ‘existing tranquillity’. O’Connell’s repeal meetings had ruffled the religious calm and Peel’s initial argument could no longer be advanced. However, the whole issue required a delicate balancing act.
Peel’s most immediate concern was ministerial divisions over Maynooth. In cabinet meetings in early 1844, Goulburn and Graham expressed some reservations while Gladstone was wholly opposed to any increase in the Maynooth grant. His problem was that in 1838 he had written The State in its Relations with the Church in which he established the principle that the state was bound to support the established church and no other and Maynooth violated that principle. Gladstone feared that his reliability would be impugned if he agreed to a change in the grant and he threatened resignation if the government persisted. Unable to resolve its differences, the cabinet postponed the decision. With action on Maynooth stalled, Peel began to send Ireland what Disraeli termed ‘messages of peace’. The Charitable Bequests and Donations bill was introduced in 1844 placing Catholic clergy in Ireland on a more equitable financial footing with Anglican clergy. While the Church of Ireland was well endowed, Roman Catholic clergy were dependent on a voluntary system of customary offerings and dues given by their often impoverish parishioners. Existing law and practice hindered private endowment of Catholic chapels by ensuring that the Board of Charitable Donations and Bequests were Protestants. The proposed bill guaranteed an equal voice on the Board and encouraged private endowments to Catholic institutions. The bill had an easy passage in Parliament with the Whig leader Lord John Russell supporting it.
However, in Ireland the legislation encountered opposition from the repeal leaders who feared that it would detract from repeal by removing genuine grievances. Campaigning among the clergy, they argued for non-cooperation with the new Board. To deflect the campaign, the Irish executive entered into direct negotiations with the Catholic hierarchy. Earl de Grey had resigned in May 1844 on grounds of health and was replaced by Lord Heytesbury, a career diplomat who had no interest in promoting either side in the sectarian dispute. He won the confidence of the Catholic hierarchy largely because it had petitioned the previous Whig government for just those concessions contained in the Act. It could scarcely refuse what it had so recently sought. After protracted discussions, a majority of the hierarchy agreed to cooperate in the execution of the legislation. It was an important victory for the government’s policy of conciliation.
The government fared less well in two other attempts at conciliation. It attempted to reform the Irish franchise in April 1844 by enfranchising the £5 freeholder and remedying defects of the legal machinery. This proved highly contentious. Conservatives thought the bill would promote democratic tendencies by lowering the county franchise. Irish liberals and repealers, on the other hand, feared it would place the newly enfranchised rural poor at the disposal of their landlords on election day. This combined assault doomed the bill to failure and it was withdrawn in June 1844. A second failure related to land occupation. In November 1843, the government appointed a commission to consider the law and practice of land occupation in Ireland. Known as the Devon Commission after its chairman, it worked through the 1844 session conducting interviews and collecting evidence in Ireland. It published its findings in 1845 in four massive volumes. Though the Commission revealed little that was new, it drew together much information. Based on its report, the Compensation of Tenants (Ireland) Bill was introduced by the House of Lords by Lord Stanley in June 1845. It required landlords to compensate tenants for their improvements in building, fencing and drainage should they be ejected before they had gathered the fruits of that improvement. A salaried Commissioner of Improvements, resident in Dublin, would supervise tenant applications. Reaction to the proposal was instantly unfavourable and in mid-July Peel withdrew the bill.
The Maynooth question could no longer be postponed and it dominated the 1845 session. The fiercest opposition was not to the proposed increase in grant but from it being established as a permanent endowment outside parliamentary control. To Anglicans, this implied a revision of existing relations between church and state. Dissenting ‘Voluntaries’ disliked the bill because they opposed all religious establishments. This laid the basis for cooperation between Anglicans and Nonconformists in the Central Anti-Maynooth Committee, a powerful and extensive extra-parliamentary pressure group that deluged parliament with 10,000 petitions signed by over 1¼ million people condemning the Maynooth plan. Also opposed to Maynooth were those Conservatives within the party who were exasperated by Peel’s continued betrayal of implicit party pledges. Charles Greville reported that ‘The Carlton Club was in a state of insurrection…The disgust of the Conservatives and their hatred of Peel keep swelling every day’. He had already tampered with the Corns Laws and now threatened the dominance of the Church of Ireland. Gladstone tendered his resignation In January 1845. In the early weeks of the session, petitions and public meetings hostile to the government increased in number. Peel, however, remained firm and was determined to ‘risk the fate of the Government’ on Maynooth.
Peel introduced the details of the Maynooth Bill on 3rd April 1845. It proposed a special grant of £30,000 for new buildings, putting of cost of repairs and maintenance under the Board of Works. He proposed raising the grant to £26,000 and confirmed that the new grant would be a permanent endowment. The response was immediate and the anticipated opposition became vociferous inside Parliament and in the country. For Sir Robert Inglis, MP for Oxford the proposal represented ‘the endowment of the Church of Rome’. Others objected to the removal of the Maynooth grant from annual parliamentary scrutiny. Peel especially took a beating, not least from his own back-benchers with Disraeli, who emerged as a dangerous critic of Peel’s style of leadership, calling him a ‘Conservative dictator’, accusing him of ‘cunning’ and ‘habitual perfidy’ and denouncing him as an unscrupulous middleman whose shameless borrowing of his opponents’ policies demonstrated his total lack of commitment to fixed political principles. Peel relied on the support of a combination of liberal Conservatives, Whigs and Catholic Irish MPs to carry the bill and it passed its third reading with a comfortable majority. Without opposition support, the bill would not have passed since the Conservatives divided 149-148 against on the third reading. Peel recognised that the proposals would probably be fatal for the government but argued that they were right. Characteristically he would not compromise with Protestant Tories and, because he had Whig support, had no need to. The more conservative agricultural wing of the party was especially angered by the bill. C. Goring, MP for Shoreham declared that the agricultural interest viewed the Maynooth grant with ‘regret and alarm’ and feared that the government would soon sacrifice the agriculturalists by repealing the Corn Laws just as they had sacrificed the Protestant church in Ireland. Goring was voicing the sentiments of a large section of the Conservative party whose loyalty towards their leadership was now at breaking point. Graham was not alone in believing that, though the Maynooth Bill passed through Parliament, the Conservative party would be ‘destroyed’ by its passage.
Peel encountered less opposition to his remaining conciliatory measure, the improvement of Irish education. Since 1833, Ireland had a system of national education involving the payment of state grants to any school provided it did not promote sectarianism. The number of national schools increased from 789 in 1844 to 2,637 in 1846. Both Anglicans and Presbyterians, as minority religions in Ireland, felt more threatened by this than did Catholics and expanded their own separate schools outside the national system. Opposition to the national system was extensive enough in 1841 to raise doubts among some of Peel’s colleagues as to the wisdom of its continuance. Both Stanley and de Grey thought it had failed but Peel disagreed. It was Peel’s affirmation of national education that assured its continuance. In May 1845, Graham introduced the Academical Institutions Bill to establish three colleges in Cork, Galway and Belfast to extend a university education to the Irish middle classes. Opposition to their non-sectarian nature was muted in England and there was little parliamentary opposition to the bill. There was far more opposition in Ireland with O’Connell and some Catholics wanting separate sectarian colleges. Peel recognised that the northern college at Belfast would effectively become a Presbyterian college and the two southern colleges Catholic, but he was unwilling to make them wholly sectarian. A compromise was reached with the Catholic hierarchy and it agreed to cooperate with the government in establishing the colleges. The bill received the Royal Assent on 31st July 1845.
It is clear that Irish policy shifted decisively during Peel’s ministry. Neglected at first, Ireland increasingly became the government’s most absorbing concern. Peel’s somewhat belated attempt at conciliation involved him in an ever-deepening commitment to satisfy Irish grievances. His remedy to the threat posed to the Union by O’Connell involved constructing an alliance between the British State and the Catholic gentry and middle classes of Ireland. To this end, he strove to ensure that Catholics obtained a fairer share of Crown patronage, improved opportunities in secular higher education and sought to inculcate business attitudes among tenant farmers. Whatever qualities these policies had, they were simply denied the time they needed to work on Irish social and cultural attitudes. Peel’s party was already in an ill humour before the potato harvest failed in the wet summer of 1845 and Peel and his ministers met in the autumn to consider what to do about the Corn Laws. Gladstone foretold with considerable accuracy the fatal importance of Ireland to the government when he wrote in 1845: ‘Ireland, Ireland! That cloud in the west, that coming storm, the minister of God’s retribution upon cruel and inveterate and but half-atoned injustice!’