The Conservative victory in 1841 brought the conflict between Peel and O’Connell that had festered for twenty-years centre stage. Peel was not prepared to compromise on Repeal of the Act of Union. However, he recognised the need to build confidence in the benefits of the Union. Peel’s Irish policy was therefore a combination of strong opposition to O’Connell and the Repeal movement combined with legislation that addressed some of Ireland’s problems.
Calls for Repeal
The creation of the Repeal Association in 1840 and the reduction of his MPs to 18 in the 1841 Election led O’Connell to concentrate on extra-parliamentary agitation. There is a problem with what Repeal meant to O’Connell. He never came down firmly on the side of repeal or reform. O’Connell wanted the restoration of an Irish Parliament but with a more representative structure. This Parliament would then be able to legislate to improve conditions for the Irish people. O’Connell was vague and inconsistent in his statements on Repeal. Some historians have suggested that he was not seriously committed to Repeal and that the whole campaign was a ploy to get the British government to introduce further reforms within the framework of the Union.
The Repeal campaign was closely based on the Emancipation movement of the 1820s though on a much larger scale. It was financed by the ‘Repeal Rent’ and used ‘monster meetings’ to get its message across and put pressure on the British government. Support came from the Catholic peasantry, for whom Repeal appeared to offer the loosening of landlord control, and the Catholic Church. He also had the support of ‘Young Ireland’, a small group of more radical nationalists. The Catholic middle-classes were less committed than in the 1820s. They were far more concerned with retaining the gains they had achieved because of Union and were suspicious of the suggested advantages of Repeal. There was, however, an important difference between the Repeal campaign in the 1840s and the successful Emancipation campaign. In 1828-1829 Wellington led a divided and, to some degree demoralised party. Peel, by contrast, had the support, especially between 1841 and 1844 of a strong and united Conservative Party with a large majority in the House of Commons. Peel was prepared to tolerate the Repeal campaign as long as it remained within the law. The ‘monster meetings’ and O’Connell’s claim that 1843 would be the ‘Year of Repeal’ worried Peel’s administration. A mass meeting at Clontarf on 7 October was banned. O’Connell accepted the decision, though many of his supporters were disappointed and was arrested, tried, imprisoned and then released.
Clontarf marked the end of an effective Repeal campaign. O’Connell did not have the united support he had in 1828-1829. The Catholic middle-classes were ambivalent in their attitudes. ‘Young Ireland’ differed sharply with O’Connell over long-term aims and tactics. In 1846, its leaders came out in favour of the possible use of force and seceded from the Repeal Association. Peel’s reforms and then the Famine took the sting out of the campaign. O’Connell could do little to alleviate conditions during the Famine and his parliamentary party was eclipsed after his death in 1847. O’Connell’s enduring achievement was to make clear that the grievances and claims of Ireland were now an intrinsic part of British domestic politics.
Peel had considerable first-hand experience of Ireland and recognised that there were two main obstacles to good government there: poor relations between tenant and landlord, and bad relations between the British government and the Catholic middle-class and moderate clergy. Responsibility for the first problem was delegated to a Royal Commission headed by the Earl of Devon set up in 1843. Peel’s solutions for the other half of his programme were put forward in a series of cabinet memoranda in the spring of 1844. Only if, Peel argued, the moderate Catholic clergy could be detached from the Repeal movement would the Church of Ireland be able to retain its privileges. But a policy of religious concessions had difficulties. Irish Conservatives were unwilling to give offices to Roman Catholics. Some members of his cabinet, especially Stanley and Gladstone, were implacably hostile to concessions. The changed state of British public opinion towards Catholicism was equally important. Anti-Catholic feeling had hardened since 1829 because of the violence of O’Connell’s movement and increasing numbers of Irish Catholics on mainland Britain.
Peel identified charitable endowments as an area of reform that would benefit Irish Catholics and the 1844 Charitable Bequests Act aimed to remove obstacles to endowments to the Catholic Church. Without directly recognising the Roman Catholic hierarchy, a supervisory Charitable Trusts Board was created with Catholic members to facilitate endowment of chapels and benefices. Many Catholic bishops and clergy did not immediately welcome the Act but it was soon recognised as a useful working solution and as the first gesture of conciliation.
In 1845 Peel turned to Irish education, both to the better training of Catholic priests at Maynooth College, near Dublin, and to the creation of improved higher educational facilities. Each proposal ran into strong opposition. The principle of state support for Maynooth went back to 1795 but the annual grant of less than £9,000 was inadequate. Peel wanted it increased to £26,000 plus a special building grant of £30,000 and aimed to raise the social and intellectual level of the priesthood, hoping this would make priests more moderate. In late 1844, he had pulled back from this proposal in the face of opposition from Stanley and from William Gladstone, who left the cabinet in January 1845. Peel introduced his Maynooth Bill in April 1845 without fully appreciating the nationwide hostility to the proposal. Anglicans saw it as implicit official recognition of the Catholic Church and as a challenge to the position of the Church of Ireland. Nonconformists opposed the payments because they disliked any link between Church and state. A joint central Anti-Maynooth Committee was set up and over 10,000 petitions poured into Parliament between February and May.
Peel pressed ahead with his plan. For opponents Maynooth was yet another example of Peel’s ‘flexibility’. They pointed to 1829 when he had argued that Maynooth’s charter should be revoked and Irish priests brought under government control. Despite widespread extra-parliamentary opposition from the Anti-Maynooth Committee the bill went through, as Emancipation had in 1829, with large cross-bench majorities. The debate on Maynooth is important less for the discussion of the principles of the bill than for the vehemence of attacks on Peel’s ‘betrayal’. The Conservative Party split 159 to 147 in favour of the bill on the second reading but 149 to 148 against it on the third.
Peel’s third proposal, the Academic Institutions (Ireland) Act intended to improve the education of the Irish middle-classes by establishing non-denominational university colleges at Belfast, Cork and Galway. The hope was that this would make it more resistant to political extremism or clerical influence. Anglicans were damning in their criticism of the idea of the non-denominational ‘Godless colleges’. Irish Catholic attitudes were split and in July 1846 the Vatican decided that such institutions would be harmful to the Catholic faith.
Peel’s policies for Ireland in 1844 and 1845 attempted to kill repeal and detach moderate Catholic clergy and middle-class from the repeal movement. Of his three reforms, only two proved successful. The price of concessions to Ireland was the break-up of Peel’s own party. It never recovered from the shock administered by the Maynooth grant. The Famine administered the coup de grace. Famine with its deep social, economic and psychological effects changed Ireland’s political agenda. Under O’Connell Ireland had been generally loyal and pacifist. That loyalty and pacifism perished in the Famine. Whether English rule was in fact to blame for the Famine mattered less than the widespread belief that it was. John Mitchel was not alone in believing that ‘the Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine’.
Peel, the Corn Laws and the Famine
The impact of Ireland on British politics was at its starkest in Peel’s response to the Great Famine. By the summer of 1845 the press and many politicians were predicting the ending of the Corn Laws and that Peel would attempt further revision in the 1846 session. The news of the potato blight in September 1845 and imminent and widespread famine merely brought matters to a head. Peel had no illusions about the effects of blight. As Irish Secretary, he had lived through the famine of 1817. A scheme of national relief at the taxpayers’ expense would have to be organised before the full effects of famine were felt the following spring. Could the taxpayer be asked to contribute to the feeding of Ireland and still tolerate the existence of the Corn Laws? Peel had three alternatives open to him. He could leave the law intact, suspend it until the Irish problem was resolved or abolish it. Leaving the law intact while the Irish starved was a non-starter. Suspension posed political problems. The length of suspension was unpredictable but was likely to be for more than a year. This meant that an unpopular resumption of the law would occur in 1847 when a General Election was due. Peel already intended to prepare the country gradually for a change of policy and fight the elections due in 1847-1848 on a platform of free trade. This would deprive the Whigs of the electoral advantage from cries of ‘cheap bread’. The problem with abolition was that the Conservatives were wedded to Protection. Peel also recognised that repeal in itself would not alleviate the problems facing Ireland, as the Irish affected by the famine would not be able to afford to buy the cheap grain from Europe. In that respect, the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 had little to do with the situation in Ireland. The Famine was the event that precipitated repeal; it was not its cause.